SOME PLAIN TALK ON GAZA
A few days ago, on July 31, 2014, the news on the situation in the Middle East brought to us by Brasil de Fato (“A popular” – or common people's ? – “vision of Brazil and the World”) was both disconcerting and saddening. A day ago, the Israeli armed forces killed 119 Palestinians and wounded more than 500 human beings – children, old and young adults, men and women – in densely populated Gaza. Since the day when the attacks started, one thousand three hundred and forty-nine people were killed in Gaza and more than seven thousand five hundred were wounded.* Many of them very badly. Many of the wounded may still die. As in practically every war since World War II, the majority – today, the vast majority – of the dead and the wounded are civilians.
If we follow the news, we see the figures climb to new levels, day by day.
If we remember more than the last few weeks, we know that this is not the first bloody conflict in the area. Since 1948, many wars shook the country and brought suffering to human beings. Violence below the level of war was almost a continuous fact.
The Israeli armed forces suffered losses, too. The two sides engaged in conflict, the Israeli government and their armed forces on one side, the Hamas organization and a number of small, but militant Palestinian groups on the other side, give us different figures. The Israeli side tends to downplay its casualities, because every Israeli soldier who died is one human being too much for the public that must be fed so-called positive news by the media, about a sophisticated, technologically and morally superior army of gallant, dedicated soldiers who wage a blitzkrieg and who suffer hardly any casualties. It is the same with US forces and US media in the diverse wars that country engages in: US soldiers must not be returned home in coffins; their life is too valuable. It is true – even during the Vietnam war, army units risked a lot to pick up the wounded and to evacuate encircled comrades under fire by a superior adversary. To risk your life for a buddy is a virtue in every army that's not in a desolate state. The other side of the coin is that war planners in Washington gambled and lost the lives of a least 55,000 young Americans in Vietnam. In that sense, even American lives did not count. (Incidentally, and in fact, hardly by accident, the media in the West never told us how many lives were sacrificed in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia – both during the war, and as belated consequences, in the wake of it.)
The Israeli mainstream media and politicians copy the American strategy of giving the home public the image of a clean, good war – it's only the Others who suffer badly, and they are the bad ones.
If critics point out how many civilians die on the “other side” of the conflict, they retort that Hamas (and maybe it wasn't even Hamas in many cases, but the small militant groups not controlled by Hamas) killed Israeli civilians, too. How many? Five, since the fighting started? Ten? A dozen? It would be cynical perhaps to say that when dying they served Israeli war planners well, in “justifying” more than a thousand dead “Others” and between seven and eight thousand wounded who “do not count,” because – the Israeli government says – they are simply so unfortunate to live close to the evil-doers who continue (for so many years, it is implied) to attack Israel. These unfortunate people were given 10 or twenty minutes or even more time to get out of their neighborhood, as leaflets were dropped. Too bad if they did not do it. If I would be a Hamas leader fearful to be a prime target, I would get out after the leaflets were dropped. If the pinpointed Hamas leader in that apartment house in Gaza was really the target, would not a missile or bomb be on its way without prior notice? Probably. There are those attacks without prior warning. Those who die in them – always many more than one “targeted person” – are “unfortunate collateral damage.” We heard that before, when reports came in, about U.S. attacks in Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Philippines. I don't want to be cynical; I try to be fair. Are those who talk about “collateral damage” cynical? Is life so cheap? For whom? For the powerful.
Of course with the images of the wounded and dead coming in from Gaza, public opinion is not solidly pro-Israel, no matter how much Western governments and Western mainstream media try to influence us.
Human beings, at the core – most of us, at least – are humane. We are terrified when we see the naked legs and feet of a teenage girl sticking out of a heap of rubble, with a heavy concrete block on the invisible rest. We want to shut our eyes and look away when we see an image of a father holding in his raised hands the charred, coal-black body of his three or four-year-old child.
No, I don't hold this against “Israelis” – and I certainly don't hold this against “Jews,” against those taken to be Jews and those (or should I say, or those) who see themselves as Jews.
I hold it against war, and those who command soldiers to go to war, and against the soldiers who go. I also hold it against those who are seeing themselves – or who are seen – as fighters but not as soldiers. They, too, shoot. And they, too, kill.
Every war is like that. We have to probe deeper than the images in the news let us see – in order to understand what is happening.
The suffering is plainly visible.
The causes are not.
To put an end to the suffering, we must grasp the causes, and find peaceful solutions.
I'm concerned when I hear friendly people in the United States or Europe say that they don't like that Jew-bashing, the rampant anti-semitism that resurfaces again with the images of Gaza victims and anti-war sentiment.
Are they totally wrong?
On the other hand – Why are many of those who harbor such thoughts apparently so blind (or disconcerted) when they should be able to see what someone called “the disproportionate force” used by Israel to “deal with the Hamas threat.”
Is it a Hamas threat?, I even ask – not denying that rockets fired at Israeli settlements and towns do pose a threat to civilians and soldiers in Israel. Innocent, peace-loving people, maybe. People who may not concur with what the Israeli government does, maybe.
And yet I ask, pointedly, is it just a Hamas threat – to these people in Israel?
Is there no Israeli threat, and often more than a threat, but an actual wound, an actual death brought about, or a ruined livelihood, that threatens Palestinians? Casually? As a customary practice? Day by day, year by year?
You see, I try to comprehend how both threats are interconnected, related, how – perhaps – they reenforce each other.
The parties opposed appear as schematic abstractions, which they are.
What is “an Israeli”? “A Jew”? “A Palestinian”?
Don't we see the rich diversity of human beings any more when we classify them and count them as members of a group?
And yet, groups are real – they are a sociologically comprehensible fact. Do socio-cultural traits define them? Do these traits transcend class-specific characteristics? How are we “determined” – and to what extent do we (creatively perhaps) transcend what determines us?
Does the look of Others define us – the hetero-image he forms of us? Does our auto-image, the view we have of ourselves, define an “identity”? What makes us an “American,” a “Protestant New Englander,” a “Muslim,” a Sunnite” or “Shiite,” a “Catholic,” a “Socialist”, a “Believer”, an “atheist,” a “Jew,” a “Greek,” an “Israeli,” an “Arab,” a “Palestinian”? And so on. And do such “identities” or auto-images respectively hetero-images overlap each other, at times? Can they qualify each other mutually?
I admit that I'm doubly concerned, regarding the auto- and hetero-images that may circulate and play a significant role, in the context of the conflict in Israel/Palestine.
I fear (a) – but not necessarily firstly, perhaps secondly – that there exists in the discourses (and thus minds?) prevalent in what we have learned to call the Arab World, something that may be correctly diagnosed as an – at least implicit, and sometimes explicitly emerging – anti-semitism.
It is – if this perception is valid – a poisonous strain of thought (forgive the imprecise metaphor!) that was, so to speak, “exported” from the Western world (Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand etc.) to the Middle East. In all likelihood this happened around 1900 or 1920 (when, perhaps, the first Zionist settlers arrived). And it got a boost, I think, in the 1930s and '40s. And another, since the Suez Canal Crisis.
I fear (b) – and not necessarily secondly – that among a considerable portion of the population of Israel, in other words, among the immigrants and offspring of immigrants, there exists something that is very much like a superiority complex: We are cultured – they are primitive. We are intelligent – they are much less so. We are refined – they smell. I abbreviated the descriptive part here, I just want to indicate a broad tendency that I suspect to exist. I even suspect that if confronted with this analysis, somebody who fits this description might say, “But it's true. Just go out in the street and see how they behave. Go to a sukh, and see the chaos; smell everything. They are primitive. Just look how they treat their women.”
I may overdo things here in order to make clear what it is I sense. It is the typical attitude of Europeans and North Americans, versus “the natives.” Whether they are Taiwanese farmers in the South Taiwanese back country or Bengali construction workers, inhabitants of a Brazilean favela, Congolese miners, or Zapatista rebels, does not matter. If we meet a cultured gentlemen from Kolkata, we treat him (almost) as our peer, and the Spanish looking billionaire from Medellin is almost certainly so internationalized and speaks such perfect American English and such bad Spanish that he can join the club of our “Western elite” almost immediately. The Nazis had one or two Jewish bankers they considered “honorary Aryans.” Europeans and North Americans, regardless of their diverse ideological preferences, are often not much better. If old-fashioned “biologically” (or biologistically) “justified” racism is no longer tenable except in the so-called “lower class” (a precariate that is kept stupid on purpose and that is fed a daily portion of racism by the yellow press and perhaps Fox TV and its European equivalents), there still exists a cultural racism, a way of looking down on other socio-cultures and assessing them negatively, as medieval, violent, mysogynist, superstitious, lazy, and generally, in many other way, dumb, backward, offensive. As if all these qualities did not exist in our own socio-culture, and as if what is humane in our socio-culture, would not exist in other socio-cultures.
A binary logic that confronts “us” and “the Others” and that leads us to claim what is humane as inscribed in “our universal values” (which do not always lead us to humane action) propels a certain one-dimensionality of thought. “We” are only “this” – and “they” are only “that.” How stupid! And at the root of misunderstandings, or injuries, of strife.
Anti-semitism is of course no small thing either. Let me make quite plain what I mean by anti-semitism. Linguistically, both the diverse Arab dialects and Hebrew are classified as Semitic languages. To speak of Semites would normally mean to refer to groups of speakers of a Semitic language. In 19th and 20th century political or more generally, ideological discourses, however, the term anti-semitism simply implies a negative, prejudicial attitude (and often, also an animose praxis) vis-à-vis a constructed social group, “the Jews.”
It was Sartre who pointed out that the Others make, create and define “the Jew.” The Prussian bureaucracy, in the short-lived German empire of 1871-1918, had its files – it listed your religion: Catholic, Protestant, Mosaic faith. It was as easy as that. The common people, those who were seen as non-Jewish, had their own hetero-images, usually amounting to no more than a prejudice. The poor refugees from Ukraine or Eastern Poland who fled because of bloody pogroms were perceived as dirty. Well, refugees who arrive with next to nothing, often arrive in rags, regardless of background. The fact that media reporting gave prominence to bankers like the Rothschilds, the Oppenheims, and so on, gave rise to the hetero-image of the Jew as a very rich, very successful, very influental banker. Thus the image of the Jew in rags and the image of the Jew as banker coexisted. The fact that, since at least Marx and Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky, Jews could be socialist thinkers and activists gave rise to the hetero-image of the Jew as the source of “evil Bolshevism.” Intellectual achievements of Einstein or Freud gave rise to the hetero-image of the intelligent Jew. The young female workers in the textile factories and the engineers were disregarded though they thought of themselves as Jewish, perhaps. Their class status (worker) or their tight connection to the sphere of production did not fit the pattern of prejudiced expectations.
If Sartre says that the Others define “the Jew,” he makes a valid point. The Nazis had their files; the files said that your grandfather or your mother was registered by a Prussian bureaucrat as a “Jew.” It was easy for them to mechanically classify people as 100 percent Jewish, 50 percent Jewish, 25 percent Jewish. If you were 25 percent Jewish you had no problem anymore, unless you actively opposed them. If you were 100 percent Jewish according to their logic, which was the logic of the historical record preserved by the bureaucracy, you were practically dead (at least since about 1940 or '41 when they increase the efforts to feed their death machinery).
Quite apart from the fact that it is sick to murder a person for whatever reason, I ask myself of course, what substance can be attributed to the bureaucratic records and the method of classification that was applied.
Who is a Jew? What does it mean to be a Jew – apart from the racist attributions, the hetero-images that seek to impose an externally defined “identity” on the Other?
Quite clearly, in-group-defined as well as individually constructed auto-images play a role in forming identities while biologism (and with it, biological racism) is absurd.
If you look at Jews from Russia in Israel, how many are blond or red-haired and blue-eyed? The traditional definition that a Jew must have a Jewish mother never guaranteed a linkage to the people of pre-Roman and pre-Muslim Palestine (Judah and Israel). Much of this link, in genetic terms, is a myth. What is not a myth is the socio-cultural bond, the bond of the language and the religious tradition that kept an exiled group together, regardless of how much “genetic input” there was from outsiders. All those groups we call “a people” (peuple) today, whether they are Italians or Basques or Chinese, are defined by vague cultural bonds and, broadly speaking (in view of the different dialects within each such group), by linguistic bonds. Even more, they are defined by a shared history – often of suffering, of famines and wars endured, aggressions resisted, and so on.
If I discard the genetic factors, it does not mean of course that genes don't exist. But people mix. In Europe, for instance, there were waves of invading tribes and invading people who conquered, asserted themselves, and mixed. Elsewhere, it is probably similar. Unique genetic traits are best preserved in fairly isolated places, by people with little contact to outsiders. Peasants in traditional societies, unless faced with invasions and rape, remained more uniform genetically than urbanites. The Jews from Palestine were positioned in a corridor important for commercial exchange, like the Phoenicians. And when they were compelled, after their failed revolt against the Roman empire, to move to Asia minor, North Africa, Italy, Spain, Southern France, Dalmatia and the Bulgarian coast, I wonder whether they really did not intermarry. Even in the old scriptures, we find invectives against taking “foreign wives.” Not a particular Jewish trait, this warning: In Western European villages, young men can get into a brawl with guys from “the other village” if they try to date “their girls.” Catholic parents, a few decades ago, used to warn their kids not to marry a Protestant. In China, a girl who may consider to marry a foreigner, might hear from her father that this man “is not of the same blood.” Prejudice – but also rejection of prejudice – is widespread. You find that everywhere, I think.
So what does this lead to? If a Jew is not defined biologically (despite the rule that you should have a Jewish mother in order to be considered Jewish – a rule that constructs a very thin, very theoretical continuity of Jewishness) and if he (or she) sheds his (or her) Mosaic faith, what remains? A socio-cultural identity, despite all? Which one? A North American identity, that of a New Yorker for instance? A Central European identity? The socio-cultural identity of a woman or man who grew up in a family of people raised in a city of the Maghreb, with ancestors who all lived in the Maghreb? Obviously, all these socio-cultural influences exist. In countries like Egypt, popular Muslim socio-culture impregnates, to a large degree, Marxist atheists, Nasserists, Sunnite merchants, bureaucrats, workers, fellachs, and of course the Copts and the few remaining Jews. You can't easily separate yourself from everyday customs essential for good neighborhood and swim against the current in this way, even if you swim against the current as an atheist in Cairo or as a Jew, in terms of your loyal bonds that connext you to the Jews in Israel.
I think what makes contemporary Jewish identity (of orthodox and of liberal believers, of atheists, of the non-committed who don't even care to be atheists, of intellectuals and those kept stupid, of the economically clever and the economically naive or dumb or untalented or those unwilling to make a buck...) is the faint memory of ancestor being exposed to discrimination, Christian anti-judaism, the inquisition and its penchant to burn people alive, the ghettos, the pogroms. And then, the much more acute memory of the genocide committed by I don't what kind of people in Nazi Germany and Nazi-occupied territories.
I think that Palestinians who want to understand the situation of Jews in Israel should be aware of that. I can't say to what extent traumas are really passed on to more than just one generation, but I suspect it can very well be the case. Family history and in-group discourse shapes collective memory. Recent genetical research claims that the “physiological memory” of trauma is transmitted inter-generationally by DNA. If confirmed, this is not only interesting for offspring of American GIs who came back traumatized, from the war in Vietnam – or for children and grandchildren of Vietnamese who were subjected to an inhumane effort to “bomb their country back to the stone age.” It is vital knowledge for those traumatised due to the fact that their parents, or aunts, uncles, sisters, brothers perished in the Nazi death camps.
There is something else that I would wish Palestinians would understand a bit better. It is the fact that perhaps Jewish settlers arriving in Palestine in the 1920s and 30s were, in part, filled with the typical spirit of Europeans who would think of themselves as representatives of a superb, very advanced, very modern civilization, while encountering “primitive backwardness.”
But the people who arrived since 1933 were trying to save their skin. The United States practically closed the door, leaving only a narrow slit open for the privileged few. During the war, Switzerland extradited Jews when they crossed the Swiss border illegally. There was hardly a place that welcomed fleeing people persecuted by Hitler Germany as Jews.
Those who survived the death camps were kept behind barbed wire in Germany by the British occupation authorities. Supposedly in order to protect them. In fact in order to keep them from emigrating to Palestine.
In 1948 or '49 – I don't remember it accurately – Jewish survivors of the Nazi genocide still lived in Bergen-Belsen, for instance. They had wooden barracks. THEY SLEPT IN STORY-BEDS – almost the same kind of bunks they had in Auschwitz or in the Bergen-Belsen death camp before the arrival of the allies. They closed their door carefully at night.
The only difference was that now, three or four years after their liberation, they slept in the clean, sturdier barracks of the guards and torturers, in another part of the old death camp. Yugoslav volunteers of the British army who did not want to return to Yugoslavia, presumably because they were anti-communists, were supposed to guard their Jewish comrades. Parcels arrived for some, from relatives in the US or from Jewish organizations in that country. Typically, nylon stockings. They could be used for barter, on the black market, in order to buy food. Or save a little money, because almost everyone dreamed of leaving damn old Germany, that place of horrors, and go to Palestine.
The dream to return is an old dream of this widely dispersed group. For centuries it had a transcendental, spiritual significance – like the love for an unattainable woman that only gets stronger, or that lasts, at least, while you know you will never marry her.
I think that the Palastinian brothers and sisters of all the Jews who went to Palestine should know that.
In the end, we are all humans, with our insufficiencies, our faults, our lovable qualities. All of us are – : Palestinans and Jews and Greeks and Chinese, Native Americans and the sisters and brothers deported as slaves to the Americas, and their offspring, and their distant relatives who stayed behind in mother Africa.
I have said so much about some of the things I feel Palestinans should know about, to understand Jews in Israel.
Yes, they should understand their suffering. The traumas. The insecurities inside that some try to hide behind the mask of tough American warriors, I don't know out of which movie or computer game.
You find the same types among Palestinians, too. Rambos – who have a lot of pent-up, yet distorted emotion inside, and who were not encouraged enough, as children, to love, and to learn, and to be curious – also for others.
The Israelis, as occupiers, certainly did not encourage them. Or love them, for that matter. Did they ask how somebody feels when you drive him from his land?
Settlers from Europe almost always came as colonizers: In North America, in South and Central America including the Carribean, in Africa, in Oceania. Ask the Maoris or Australian aborigines how they felt, dear soldier serving in the Israeli Defense force. Ask the Guarani, in Brazil and Paraguay, or the Hopi in Arizona. Do you treat the Palestinians like that? Do you look at them like that? Did your folks take their land, very much in the same way? Ah, your grandparents bought vast plots with Rothschild money from some Aga, before they evicted the peasants? Would you like to be evicted? Can money buy everything, even your hometown, your street, the house you grew up in?
I HAVE SAID SO MUCH ABOUT WHO YOU MIGHT THINK YOU ARE OR FEEL YOU ARE. EVEN IF YOU DON'T REFLECT ON IT – BUT YOU SENSE IT, PRECONSCIOUSLY.
PERHAPS NOW IT IS TIME TO ATTEMPT TO UNDERSTAND THE PALESTINIANS – AND TO SEE THINGS FROM THEIR POINT OF VIEW, AND TO COMPREHEND THEIR BIG TRAUMA, THE NAQBA, AND THE FEARS THAT THEY FELT EVEN BEFORE THAT, AND HOW IT MADE THEM REJECT YOU WHEN YOU ARRIVED.
Frankly speaking, I think there are different attitudes that can color the relations between newly arriving persons and locals.
One attitude that I cherish is hospitality. It is an old virtue, and certainly was not foreign to Arabs, to Palestinians. Neither was it foreign to Greeks, or to native American peoples.
You shelter the refugee. You are hospitable to the visitor. You do not expect him to stay forever. This was a custom in societies for centuries. Scarcity of land was the rule, and scarcity of food. An invasion of thousands and thousands never was welcome.
Today, industrial dynamics and their effects, the global capitalist market logic and its effects, have wrought havoc in many parts of the world, setting loose considerable “waves” of refugees.
The rich countries today share a human responsibility to open their gates wide. The productivity of industry allows us to cope with the problems of scarcity. There is no longer any justification to reject those who need help; if we help we do not risk our own survival.
But, I say, if a Palestinian thinks it is normal that he can make a home in practically every part of the world, should he not grant the same right to his brother and sister who feels lost in lands that tolerated or that actively carried out genocide? DO BORDERS STILL HAVE THAT ABSOLUTE VALIDITY THAT THEY JUSTIFY KEEPING PEOPLE “OUT OF OUR LAND”?
On the other hand, it is now the Israelis who have taken possession of lands that they claim as their mythical “promised heritage.” As understandable and likable as such myth is, as long as you are DISPERSED IN THE WIDE WORLD, it ceases to be a humane and likable attitude if it makes you an egotist who pushes “the Others” out of HIS heritage, his home, his native land.
I know that in the 1930s, in Cairo, there were those who looked toward Hitler Germany as possible liberators from British colonial rule.
I am saddened when I think of the Nasserists in the 1950s, so-called socialists who did not regret a bit that Jewish-Egyptian founders of the Egyptian communist party were hanged, as untrustworthy potential members of Israels's Fifth Column.
I know there exists idealism, there exists realism, in people.
So-called realism can make us myopic, if not truly blind.
So-called idealism, if it is merely human kindness, can grasp realities much better at times.
Yes, I know that the refugees arriving from Europe were not welcome in Palestine, with few exceptions, during the bitter period of 1933 - 1949.
I know that Jewish-Israeli determination to create a Jewish rather than “multicultural” (I refuse to say multi-ethnic) state was not the only reason of the war that broke out.
Arab Palestinians were just as stubborn in their refusal to live together with the “Others.”
Two cultures, two eras almost, collided. But the civilization shock, if that is what it was, that arriving European Jews and native Arab Palestinans mutually produced in the “Other” CAN DWINDLE AND FADE AWAY. Both socio-cultures are cultures of the 21st century, by now. And we must learn to respect difference and enjoy cultural exchange and live together.
Today, there is no longer the genuine, widespread wish
to “throw Israelis into the sea” – there is a longing, in Palestinians,
for a normal, peaceful life, in dignity and without fear. I think, basically,
Jewish and Arab Israelis desire it, too. Learn, sisters – learn,
brothers, to live together in peace. And discard the borders, the wall,
the checkpoints. Meet, shake hands, get to know each other as human beings
with similar needs, with beautiful hopes.
Wounds, traumas, can install fear, and lead to pessimistic, so-called realist world views. It was true of Jews in Europe, and increasingly becomes true of bombed people in Gaza.
The experience of suffering injustice can lead to resentment. It was true of Palestinians forced to leave their homes and their land.
With every death that one inflicts on the other (and both sides have done it, though not in comparable quantity), thirst for revenge and hatred can be awakened.
Fear, overly pessimist views, resentment, thirst for revenge, hate are negative feelings. THEY WOUND THOSE WHO HARBOR THEM. And both fear and hate can lead them on a road of violence.
I know that there is also a geo-political frame of reference. And that economic interests play a role. This matters for the powerful, those who hold political office, those who run corporations and own stocks.
For the common people, these things are of the sort which they can overcome because they have, after all, no genuine, humane stake in them.
It is the wounds, the negative feelings that possess them.
There exists no “natural law” which determines that we cannot overcome such negativity, that we cannot overcome what separates us from “the Other” – who is, after all, not so very much different from us.
That she or he is a little different, is something we should love and respect, discovering its beauty.
July 5, 2014
– Alicia Zukofsky
* Source: Editorial staff, “Dia mais sangrento da ofensiva israelense
deixa 119 mortos e 500 feridos em Gaza” [The Bloodiest Day of the Israeli
Offensive Causes 119 Deaths and 500 Wounded in Gaza], in: Brasil de fato,
July 31, 2014 http://www.brasildefato.com.br/node/29381)
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