Moral and humanitarian disaster
Criticism of Israel (often deliberately conflated with anti-Semitism) remains of the most visible 'red lines' of American political discourse
July 20, 2005
I have spent all of my adult life and most of my childhood following current events in the Middle East. I remember my house growing quiet as Dan Rather recounted Iran-Contra, the day's events in the Iran-Iraq War, how many civilians had died, what Reagan and Gorbachev had to say about it. I remember as a young boy answering the phone and hearing my American friend tell me the Khomeini had died--these were the punctuation marks of my childhood.
As a teenager I felt both the hope and skepticism that accompanied the Oslo Peace Accords. I remember the Nobel Prize and subsequent assassination of Yitzhak Rabin as a high school senior, the death of Edward Said as a graduate student, and shook my head in disbelief as Yasser Arafat died pitifully sequestered in his own house. I remember always feeling slightly resigned by the timeless nature of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and perhaps selfishly, feeling very grateful that I was neither Arab nor Israeli.
In some ways, I believe we all have come to take that conflict for granted. It is as constant and predictable as a menstrual cycle, as self-evident as the signs of global warming. I wasn't surprised by Ariel Sharon inciting the Al-Aqsa Intifada, nor Israel's helicopter-borne assassinations of Hamas leaders, nor the retaliatory Hamas suicide bombers in Tel Aviv discos.
This is what they were supposed to be doing all along, remember? Jews hate Arabs, and Arabs hate Jews. Yet I was surprised when some form of that conflict came to my own doorstep, when I saw two buildings fall in New York on September 11th from a nearby rooftop. For the next year and a half, I marched, protested, and organized with all of my might to stop the impending war, and still America made its mission to democratize the Middle East and attack its 'terrorists' with impunity.
A tangent of sorts: Since September 11th, secular Middle Easterners (not just Iranians, all of us) were caught in a hard spot: were we with 'us' or 'them?' Secular Middle Easterners were a thorn in the side of many so-called 'experts' who were anxious to sanitize all complexities into a Samuel Huntington-style "Clash of Civilizations". For all intents and purposes, secular Middle Easterners do not exist in the debates (rather, they are considered Westernized). I even saw a poster on a professor's office door that declared the Middle East as a "post-secularist society", whatever the hell that nonsense means.
As expressed by many of these Western 'expert' analyses, the 'West' was the Enlightenment, democracy, human rights! The Middle East was authoritarian, barbaric, Muslim, comprised of the 'Arab street', and monolithic. Edward Said continues to roll in his grave. Since my interests were neither served by this infantile and dichotomized political discourse nor by the policies of America's dim-witted President and Iran's filthy mullahs, I opted to remain on my own team, that of the global citizen.
I did not become an apologist for militant Islam, nor could I call American military campaigns by any other name but imperialism; it's just a war for oil cloaked in some cockamamie pretense of democratization. I simply tried to stay abreast of all the developments in the region without going mad.
Only it seems as if the speed at which the news headlines are produced has increased in the Middle East. Day by day, Iraq is more of a mess. The faded luster of Operation Shock and Awe, the US threatening regime change in Iran, Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon, Rafik Hariri's body exploding in the Beirut night; the list goes on endlessly.
Still, what can you expect? Those people over there are crazy, according to Americans. 'They' are the total and absolute contrast to 'us', even to those of 'us' who started out over there.
Only not Israel. Israel is definitely not crazy because Israel is 'our' friend and ally in the region, 'our' proud knight of democracy surrounded by the twin blights of fundamentalist Islam and authoritarianism. 'Our' unwavering support for Israel is one of the greatest products of this country's media, educational system and entertainment industry. Also, any criticism of Israel (often deliberately conflated with anti-Semitism) remains of the most visible 'red lines' of American political discourse.
We have been fed a constant diet of Holocaust/Israel-sympathy building movies like The Pianist, Life Is Beautiful, Schindler's List, Munich, we all read the books The Diary of Ann Frank, Davita's Harp, and Night by Eli Weisel in middle school and high school, were told to write poems about the terror that the children in concentration camps must have felt, and made posters declaring our determination and commitment to the ideal of "Never Again."
I know for a fact that I did all of those things as a child, and did so dutifully and willingly though I am not Jewish. And during all of those educational activities, the implicit lesson was, not only have Jews been persecuted everywhere they have lived for thousands of years, Hitler tried to exterminate them. The Jews were awarded their own country because of that, and if you are opposed to the Jews having Israel, you might as well support Hitler and the Nazis.
Due to my education, I hated what had happened to the Jews, and felt a great deal of compassion for them. In a lot of ways, I still do. Only Israel, much like a Shakespearean character, suffers from a fatal flaw that I believe will be its undoing in the end; it seems determined to maintain its 'victim' status at any cost, even by victimizing others. This point was made elegantly by Leila Farjami as well.
I never was able to compartmentalize my empathy for the Jewish people and turn a blind eye to everything Israel has done in its brutal and dehumanizing 39-year occupation of Palestinian land. And it is precisely this track record, what appears to be an almost suicidal bent to Israeli actions that continues to erode the sympathy and understanding that I have had toward that country.
The Bush Administration's resolute avoidance of any criticism of Israel despite its disproportionate violence and its building of Nazi-style walls and ghettoes for Palestinians and the absolute lack of irony in American media coverage of such actions is reaching new absurd heights. How can one see the images of destruction in Lebanon and still put 'disproportionate force' in quotes, as if it's some subject of speculation?
I really can't claim to understand this any longer. Two Israeli soldiers are abducted into Lebanon, and the next thing that happens is Israel preparing a siege of Lebanon itself and dropping bombs indiscriminately on innocent people and destroying hundreds of millions of dollars of civil infrastructure recently rebuilt from decades of civil conflict.
America does nothing. Bush says (with his mouthful of bread no less) Israel has the right to defend itself and defends Israel's outrageous actions as 'a measured response.' Obviously, he is not footing the bill for reconstruction, and in two years, it won't be his problem anyway.
In my mind, we must immediately halt any pretense of democracy at work; too few people are making too many colossal mistakes and endangering lives all over the world. Too many people are dying for ideologies empty of meaning; innocent Palestinians, Afghans, Iraqis and now the Lebanese are the overwhelming victims of terrorism, not Americans or Israelis or even the 'terrorists' per se.
Much to the chagrin of the US and Israel, Hamas wins a fair and contested election and all of a sudden it's not 'democracy.' Apparently, it's only democracy when the side you root for ends up winning.
Even for all that I have seen and lived through, I simply cannot fathom what is happening right now, I cannot believe how stupidly simplistic the US and Israel are in formulating their engagements with other Middle Eastern countries. I believe countries have the right to defend themselves, but how are the indefinite preemptive attacks and ongoing occupations in the Middle East supposed to be successful and make people warm up to you?
How can relentless bombings of Lebanon, forced removals of Palestinians from their homes, indiscriminate raids in the middle of the night, preemptive attacks in the occupied territories/Syria/Lebanon, and the steadfast denial of human rights and dignity enhance Israeli safety?
How does this cold-blooded and ruthless image co-exist with that of that of the wronged and revered Holocaust victim?
How can the government of Israel expect anyone in the world to feel any compassion or come to its aid at all when all it does is seemingly make a deeper pile of shit for its own citizens and its neighbors to wallow in?
If Israel was founded on a moral argument and wants to maintain the legitimacy of that argument, then it must always demonstrate such a morality in order to remain legitimate in the eyes of the international community. Sadly, it has not, and has pursued a political course almost in the exact opposite direction to the detriment of itself and its neighbors.
It would be most disheartening if the magnitude of the moral arguments that helped found the state of Israel are matched only by the moral and humanitarian disasters it has left in its wake since its inception. With its (latest) senseless escalation of violence, the government of Israel seems determined to head its nation toward such an opprobrious legacy.