A Story Told a Hundred Thousand Times
More on the perils of justification
I just received a desperate note from a Palestinian friend.
He said, “I am turning every stone to try to figure out how to help my family in Gaza get out… they are now 3 weeks out of their home in Gaza and in the south. They have been living with 50 other people in a small house with no water or electricity. Just bottled water. They will run out of food by week end.”
My friend’s family members are all Christians. Not supporters of Hamas. They are the collateral damage of a very ugly war. It is a story told a hundred thousand times.
What has happened over the last month is appalling. Without knowing what I am about to say, everyone on any side of the Gaza issue is prepared to agree to that.
As to what, specifically, is appalling, different people have different opinions. It is appalling that pro-Palestinian student organizations celebrated the Hamas attacks that murdered, tortured, and kidnapped hundreds of innocent civilians, including babies in their cribs, and the univesities have done nothing to stem the rising tide of anti-Semitism. It is appalling that four or five thousand Gazan children have been killed in the bombing raids that have even targeted ambulances evacuating patients to south Gaza, while settlers murder innocent Palestinians in the West Bank every day as the army stands by and does nothing.
False equivalancy! How dare Eisenstein mention both of these in the same breath? Both-sidesism! Doesn’t he know that one is totally inexcusable while the other is quite understandable and even justified given the proper historical-political context?
Ah, but which is which?
Most of the arguments around this issue, which are tearing apart entire political movements and rendering vast areas of comments sections uninhabitable, center on who is justified, what is inexcusable, whom to condemn, which side is right, and which side is wrong. Despite a month of strenuous vituperation, the two sides seem not to have gotten any closer to agreement. In fact, as weeks go by the other side looms all the more monstrous for its utter intransigence, its moral blindness, its closure to any inconvenient facts. Peace is impossible when facing such monsters. We are battling evil itself.
Such is the rhetoric around this issue. I am not exaggerating it.
People have asked me why I have not condemned Hamas. And they have asked me why I have not condemned Israel. From the mentality of condemnation it is easy to construct a case why either or both should be condemned. To millions on either side, the case for their side seems incontrovertible. But I won’t condemn, because it is the assumptions and mentality of condemnation that keeps us forever on the grisly merry-go-round of carnage on this earth.
I have a more important goal than to see the good victorious and the wicked punished. I want the carnage to stop. That does not mean that I hold the Israelis and Palestinians as equal parties to the conflict. I understand the dynamics of oppressor and oppressed that are at play. But I will not say, “The Palestinians have a right to armed resistance,” nor will I say, “Israel has a right to root out the terrorists.” Nor am I saying they have no right. What I am doing is to shift outside of that conversation altogether. I leave the rights and wrongs and should’s and shouldn’ts to someone else. And no, I’m not saying those concepts are “wrong.” However, a conversation upon those grounds cannot reach the Promised Land.
I will forgive the reader for thinking that there is no room for fine philosophical distinctions at a moment when thousnds of children are being murdered. Won’t it more easily stop if I simply call it out as wrong? Well, I’m not so sure about that. I do think it is important that all aspects of the situation are made visible. We need to understand as much as possible in order to know how to change the conditions that have created it. Does adding a moral pronouncement atop the information do any good?
I think it actually does harm. That’s why I’m making an issue of it at a time when thousands of children are being murdered. There is a way out of this. I have written about it in previous essays. As long as we are in the business of justifying and condemning, we strengthen its corresponding field of consciousness and its basic axioms. We reinforce the impulse to commit violence so long as you think it is justified. Well guess what? In war, everyone always thinks the violence of their side is justified. Even Adolf Hitler believed the liquidation of the Jews was justified. The Nazis had all kinds of elaborate arguments, couched in the terms of science and reason, appealing to high ideals of patriotism and progress, for the necessity of the most heinous episode of human history.
George Orwell makes this point starkly in 1984. Here, O’Brien is recruiting Winston into the revolutinary Brotherhood to overthrow the Party.
'You are prepared to give your lives?'
'You are prepared to commit murder?'
'To commit acts of sabotage which may cause the death of hundreds of innocent people?'
'To betray your country to foreign powers?'
'You are prepared to cheat, to forge, to blackmail, to corrupt the minds of children, to distribute habit-forming drugs, to encourage prostitution, to disseminate venereal diseases -- to do anything which is likely to cause demoralization and weaken the power of the Party?'
'If, for example, it would somehow serve our interests to throw sulphuric acid in a child's face--are you prepared to do that?'
The Party is pure evil; therefore no act is evil if it is to overthrow the Party. Fervent belief in one’s own righteousness is all it takes for a person, or a nation, to commit atrocious acts.
There are a lot of people in Israel and Palestine who fervently believe in their own righteousness. If they are to follow the principle of justification that Orwell lays out, we are going to see a lot more atrociities.
How then, are we to decide what to do, if not guided by what is right and what is wrong? One way is to decide by what serves the goal we wish to achieve. Let’s say the goal is peace. Let’s say the goal is for the cycle of atrocity to end. Let’s say the goal is for people in the Holy Land to live without fear of each other. Then we no longer ask what is justified, but rather what serves that goal.
Now it could be that the actions that serve one’s idea of one’s own rightness also serve peace. But there will always come a point where one must choose. If everyone keeps choosing the violence they believe is justified, there will never be an end to it.
Letting go of justifications for violence and revenge, we can begin to pursue other goals, such as peace. They will not be easy to achieve. But we will achieve them if we try. We will find the path. We will recognize each step as it comes. If, indeed, that is what we are looking for.
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