With a newly recommenced Middle Eastern conflict, and with Ariel Sharon's death, I thought I'd post my thoughts.
Israelis and Palestinians are blowing each other up again. This is hardly earth-shattering news on the surprise scale (although it’s completely earth-shattering news on the actual-shattered-earth scale). Just as predictably, the two camps as far as public opinion goes are coalescing. There is remarkably little give-and-take between these two groups. There is also an amazing lack of the ability to view this incredibly complex sociopolitical and religious and military and ethnic and ethical and historical issue in any sense other than in one of the two following ways, which I’ve handily distilled into a simulation of every conversation you’re going to hear at Easter this year that isn’t about where Miley Cyrus did or didn't smoke a joint:
CAMP 1 – “Israel has a right to defend itself, you liberal pussy faggot. Why don’t you fuck off and go suck that Muslim commie terrorist Obama’s dick for some food stamps.”
CAMP 2 – “But the Palestinians are an oppressed people and have every right to blow the shit out of some random dude as he’s taking his morning dump. Israel shouldn’t even be there, you right-wing fascist douchebag. 1948! 1948!”
If you believe these are caricatures or exaggerations, I suggest you google any news story anywhere about the current conflict and read the comment section.
Those of us with a quarter of a brain or more can obviously pick apart aspects of both of these arguments, while acknowledging that there is also some truth to each side. That there are nearly infinite shades of grey to the greater Israeli-Palestinian situation is evident to all but the most trollish of flamers or the most stubborn of halfwits. But I’m not here to weigh in on which side is more right or less wrong or whatever. What I would like to do is try to explain my own internal strife over how to react to the current flare-up and the conflict as a whole.
First, a little about myself. I’m a 34-year-old writer and musician, born and raised in Toronto, Canada. I’m an atheist, quite liberal in my political leanings (I’m a member of the quasi-socialist New Democratic Party) albeit with some libertarian inclinations on certain social issues, and intensely passionate about problems with free speech in Canada (freedom of expression isn’t as explicitly guaranteed in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms as it is in the US Bill of Rights).
I’m also a Jew.
This is a difficult contradiction for a lot of gentiles to understand (although every non-practicing, non-believing Jew reading this will know exactly what I’m talking about). We try to explain it as being cultural, rather than religious, but that doesn’t really adequately cover what it actually means. To a lot of non-Jews, they see Judaism as simply a religion. If you don’t believe in God, and you don’t believe in the Torah, you can’t possibly be Jewish. A lot of Orthodox and Conservative Jews feel the same way. Maybe that’s technically true, I don’t know. I’m no religious scholar or philosopher. What I do know is that after 5000 years of everybody trying to wipe us out, it’s hard not to feel a connection with the generations that went before me who faced intense persecution for being Jewish regardless of how strictly they adhered to the tenets of Judaism. I would guess that this in-but-not-in view might be more prevalent among the non-practicing children and grandchildren of eastern European Holocaust survivors, but I don’t have, like, studies or anything to back that up. Couple that with the fact that many of us grew up in Jewish neighbourhoods, went to Hebrew schools a few nights a week, socialized with other Jewish kids while our Jewish parents socialized with their Jewish parents, still celebrate Hanukkah instead of Christmas and Passover instead of Easter when we get together for family gatherings, had Bar or Bat Mitzvahs, et cetera, et cetera, and you can see how it becomes an ingrained part of our cultural identity even if the religious beliefs and the silly dietary rules seem ridiculous to us.
Which brings us to Israel. I don’t want to presume to speak for all lapsed Jews, but I know that for me several conflicting emotions surface when the situation in the so-called Holy Land takes a violent turn.
I like to think I’m a rational, logical, open-minded person, able to judge a situation strictly on its merits as I’m able to perceive them based on the information available to me (that I bother to look up or pay attention to). By that objective measure, it’s hard not to feel a vanload of sympathy for the Palestinians in the West Bank and particularly in Gaza. They’re dirt poor, unemployed, underfed, underhoused prisoners, almost two million of whom are crammed into a 140-square-mile strip of dirt. The few that do work have to wait for hours to go through demeaning checkpoints just so they can get to their jobs. The Palestinian people were basically forced there a little over 60 years ago when the land they considered their home was given to their bitterest enemy by foreign powers. They have no citizenship, no freedom of movement, no options. And every now and then a bunch of them are obliterated because they happened to be walking down the wrong street or live within a block of the wrong house. Their lives suck really, really hard.
“So get out the rockets, destroy the Jewish oppressors, free the Palestinian masses! Right?”
“Well, now, hold on a second,” my Jewish side pipes up. There were a hell of a lot of Jews living in Palestine in 1948 as well. And it was a British territory at the time. It was also a couple of generations ago. Even if Israel's creation was a terrible injustice to a large group of people (and you can certainly see how the Palestinian Arabs who were forced to leave their own homes so their Jewish neighbours could take them over might see it that way, even if you disagree), it’s no longer relevant. Generations of Jews who had nothing to do with what happened in the 1940s have now been born in Israel. It’s just as much their home as anyone else’s. Any non-Native North Americans who disagree with that statement should go find the nearest Indian and hand him or her the keys to their house.
So, if we now agree that Israel is the valid home of Israeli Jews by virtue of them having been born and raised there, regardless of the circumstances under which their forebears acquired that land, can we also agree that if someone shoots a rocket at them, they should probably do something about that? If you lived next to a reservation and some of the local tribe started launching RPGs at you and your family during your Fourth of July cookout, wouldn’t you expect your government to do something about it, even if a long time ago your backyard was a burial ground?
“Game, set, match, Heebs. No?”
“You’re forgetting something,” my rational brain chimes in. “What about those furshlugginer settlements in the West Bank?”
The settlements in the West Bank are very hard to defend if you’re not a really hardcore Zionist. Basically, with the Israeli government’s blessing and encouragement (sometimes passive, sometimes extremely active, depending on the makeup of the governing coalition of the day), really nice, comfortable, irrigated, suburban neighbourhoods are built in the heart of the territory, surrounded by walls and soldiers. It’s like taking Scarsdale, NY and dropping it right into the middle of Mogadishu. These settlements are then populated, somewhat by Orthodox Israeli Jews, but often by some Hasidic family from Brooklyn that just up and decided one day that it was their sacred religious duty to build a swimming pool smack dab in the centre of a horrendous humanitarian crisis. If you’ve ever seen these morons on television (and before you call me an anti-Semitic or self-hating Jew for describing them that way, understand that I believe anyone who moves his or her family into the middle of a war-torn, refugee-strewn nightmare and then relaxes on their back deck tossing the ball around with the kiddies is the very definition of an idiot, regardless of whether they’re Jewish or not) you can understand the awful true-believerism that just pours off their skin. If I spent the last thirty years eating dirt sandwiches while some assholes exploded one of my buddies’ falafel shops every six months or so, and then those assholes’ cousins built a tennis court 14 feet from the front door of my hovel, I’d want to buttfuck the shit out of them with a rocket or 20 as well.
“So there it is. Yeah the Israelis have some legitimate beefs maybe, but can you really blame the Palestinians for attacking them after what they’ve been through?”
“Well, yeah, you can,” opines my inner Jew. “The settlers may suck entire oceans worth of dicks, but Israel pulled all of its settlers out of Gaza. The rockets aren’t coming from the West Bank. Israel gave Gaza to the Palestinians and they upped and elected Hamas as their government. I get solidarity with their Palestinian brethren in the other territory, but they’re firing rockets at Israeli civilians.”
Here’s where things get a little confusing for people without a religious, cultural, political or historical interest in the conflict. Israelis and Jews are not the same thing. Israelis and Zionists are not the same thing. Orthodox Jews and Conservative Jews and Reform Jews are not the same thing. Religious Jews and Secular Jews are not the same thing. But there are people who don’t know any better who have a hard time sometimes making those distinctions. Some people assume that all Israelis want to kill Palestinians. This is akin to saying all white Americans want to lynch black people because the Ku Klux Klan is a thing that exists. Some people believe that the Israeli government speaks for all Jews worldwide. This is like believing that the Taliban speaks for all Muslims everywhere. Some people do believe that as well, and they’re dead wrong of course. Not to say that the Israeli government is equivalent to the Taliban other than that the Taliban was also the governing power of a country predominantly made up of a specific religious group, and they tend to be associated with all members of that religion by a certain segment of the population that likes to over-simplify its prejudices. As a result, some people, even really well-meaning ones who want to see the oppression of a put-upon people ended, start to think it’s justified to end that oppression by killing a member of those perceived oppressors' religion. The catch is that the majority of Israeli Jews would welcome a peaceful, two-state solution with open arms. Lots of them abhor the settlements and are disgusted by the treatment of the Palestinians. To many Israeli Jews, Israel is their country because it’s their country, not because it’s the Jewish State. If you’re a peace-loving American in Omaha, Nebraska or Boise, Idaho, or New York City, and you strongly opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, would you feel your Iraqi neighbour was justified in setting off a carbomb by your local Starbucks because a drone strike killed his family in Baghdad? Of course you wouldn’t. No American in his or her right mind would. Arguing that a Palestinian in Gaza is justified in firing a rocket at an apartment building in some random Israeli town just because it’s in Israel and the Israeli government treats him like shit is just as insane.
These internal debates can go on for hours:
“What about the civilians killed in the Israeli counter-attacks?”
“Well if you’re firing rockets from the middle of a residential neighbourhood, what do you expect to happen?”
“But the Israeli weapons are so much more powerful, the response is disproportionate!”
“Yeah but it’s not like the civilians in those neighbourhoods are just going to hand over the militants, Israeli has to do something to stop the attacks!”
“Well why can’t they just leave and let the Palestinian people peacefully live their lives and work toward an eventual sovereign Palestinian state?”
“Because the last time they pulled out of Gaza the Palestinian people elected a Hamas government that declared Israel should be wiped off the map!”
And on and on and on and on. And I’m left just as confused as I was before I tried to work the issue out for myself. I honestly have a very difficult time trying to figure out which side I’m on. I tend to take a fairly strong pro-Palestinian view, at least as far as recognizing and detesting their treatment by the Israeli government, when I’m debating the issue with other Jews. But as soon as a non-Jew brings it up, I find myself passionately defending Israel’s right to exist and protect its citizens. It’s not that I’m arguing opposing or contradictory points, it’s just that I find myself emphasizing certain aspects of the argument and glossing over others depending on whom I’m arguing with. Either way it feels disingenuous and I hate to be unsure of my beliefs on any subject, but on this topic I find it nearly impossible to be otherwise. However, I have come up with a few hard-set opinions that don’t fluctuate depending on my audience:
- The obvious: there needs to be a peace. There needs to be a two-state solution. This won’t come about without some significant compromises from both sides (over Jerusalem, over borders, over right-of-return for some Palestinians to Israel, etc.)
- The process for attaining that goal is forever going to be stymied by hard-line fanatics on both sides who absolutely refuse to give an inch.
- The Israeli government treats the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza like shit. Like absolute garbage. It’s undeniably horrifying and disgusting and I’m ashamed to be associated with that treatment even if it’s only tangentially by uninformed people who don’t know any better than that I, by virtue of being Jewish, don't equal a Zionist zealot.
- Palestinians who shoot rockets indiscriminately at Israeli civilians are total scum, as bad as any member of al-Qaeda, and deserve to be blown to pieces.
- The settlements need to go, immediately. They’re an affront to any idea of human decency. You’d be less of a dick to go to some famine-stricken African village and start chowing down on a big, juicy steak while giving the finger to the hungry villagers than to build a lush residential settlement in the West Bank.
- While democracy is important, electing Hamas as your government is a goddamn stupid way to go about improving your situation.
- No matter what, this shit’s going to go on for a long ass time.
Anyway, I suppose I’m destined to be conflicted. There are some Jews who will think me a coward or a fence-sitter for my views. A lot of Jews are adamantly opposed to Israeli policy and military action and any sort of response to Palestinian rocket attacks. A lot of other Jews think the Palestinians deserve everything they get and then some. But I know there are plenty of those out there like me, who don’t have the religious investment in or the historical connection to Israel or any skin in the conflict at all other than that we’re Jews and they’re Jews and so it’s hard sometimes to be objective or dispassionate about the fate of those we think of as our people, sometimes in spite of ourselves. To those people like me, to drop a super-obvious cliché: you’re not alone.