Sunday, March 09, 2008

are you privileged?

I have experienced a trenchant definition of "privilege": it is a condition or circumstance that permits one to ignore the consequences of their worst and most selfish choices. To write this hurts me and it will gain me no friends. Here belatedly are my thoughts on a topic I have been afraid to touch and have quietly avoided in three years of blogging...

I have just seen a production of the play "My name is Rachel Corrie".
The production of that play was suppressed or postponed back in 2006 in Florida and New York...you will be able to guess why. It went on stage without delays in Britain. It was one of the more disturbing dramas I have ever attended...and it was nothing more than one woman on a stage providing just enough prop and action to set scene for the reading of a diary and some emails. It was not just a true story, it was the sort of truth that must be denied. I knew how it was to end before I went to the theater. Due to my own daughter's fledgling activism to find a just peace in Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I knew many of the facts that stick out of the play like so many spikes driven through flesh. And yet, it still left me somewhat stunned.

If nothing else, and whatever your biases, such tours through the "other side" of a conflict make you think. At dinner with the couple who invited us to see the play, they recounted the remarks of an HaAretz editor on Charlie Rose saying "US does not have a foreign policy on Israel: it has a domestic policy not to antagonize the Jewish vote". This I sadly admit is a well founded insight. And I am sad about it because my vote is presumed to be conditioned by my religious affiliation...I am not just taken for granted, I am mistaken for granted. As fellow protesters say: "Not in my name".

There were many lines in the play that wrenched and singed consciousness and belief about the nature of the Israeli state's occupation and the way it has betrayed the deepest hope and calling of any believing Jew: we were to have been a light unto the nations. Israel's cruel and sloppy overkill in uprooting families from the occupied territories has been so under-reported in the US that we Americans are understandably puzzled at our pariah status as the dominant financial and military support for the state of Israel.

You will have to settle for a paraphrase of the line that hit me hardest.
"Privilege protects us from the consequences of our poorest choices"
The exact wording I cannot recall but the meanings are abundant. That sentence is the most important because it applies not just to the character who said it and not just to Israelis but to all who cannot distinguish...because they do not know or want to know...between the feel-good [or at least feel-less-guilty] vagueness of "you must support a Jewish homeland" and the instances of institutionalized barbarity that are among the many tools to meet the oh-so-reasonable goal of "security". The person who is far from this fray and votes or sends money to "make sure that Israel does not perish", i.e. Americans of either Jewish or Christian faith, should look into how Israelis treat Palestinians who get in the way of expanding west bank settlements or whose homes or farms complicate efforts to pacify Gaza. It is we supporters and enablers who are the most privileged in this affair.

If you but scratch the topic you quickly hear there are more provocations for such atrocious takings of land, dwellings and livelihoods than most of you will know. For instance the thousands of Iraqi Jews scattered over the planet could tell you family histories of the death and humiliation used to displace their ancient community from Baghdad. Nothing the Baathists did to 200 thousand Jews who once lived and had lived since biblical times in Baghdad , nothing the Nazis did to the Jews constitute a defensible reason for the Jews to repay in kind. If you win by becoming as coldly destructive as your enemies, who won? There simply is not justice in the west bank settlement policies or the acts committed by Jews against Arabs in occupied territory.

Provocation is not justification. Being hurt by one party in one era and place and then milking that grievance to support striking back at another party in a different place and generation banishes any chance of peace. The weary majorities on both sides of the rising wall cannot out shout or out shoot the self righteous anger of the bellicose minorities among them. That would seem to be human nature at its worst, its typical and dominant worst. The main difference between the Ted Belman's of the world and ostensibly liberal people who try to support Israel without becoming informed about the range of actions taken by the Israelis is only this: the one is honest in saying "we seek annihilation or permanent war" and the other an ignorant assenter to the same policy.

Were it not for the fact that the bravest voices decrying the village by village ethnic cleansing of the west bank are those of Jews, many of them members or ex members of the Israeli military, I would turn my back on the whole stinking mess and support nothing except the cessation of the constant flow of dollars and arms to ANY country in the middle east.

As it is, we have a screaming example, the worst I know, of a failure to imagine what it is like for the other guy. [which failure I see as precisely the most critical difference between the liberal and the conservative mindset]. In one measure or another, that failure is at the root of most organized violence in human history. But claiming you are the good guy, and reading in your weekly Torah portion that "you shall not oppress the stranger" means that for a Jew the failure is far more culpable than a mere weakness of human nature. It seems almost willful or terribly cynical. If you pretend to be a light unto the nations because you have been given the rules by which to survive, surmount and stave off what is flawed in human nature but systematically destroy communities, histories and lives then either you or your rules are a crock. By betraying the hope and idealism that nursed Israel from an idea to shaky new nation, the fierce, reactionary country that has arisen has deeply angered not just its old enemies but many Jews who know the idealism is the more precious legacy than the dirt.

The reviews quoted in the Wikipedia article about the play write it off as propaganda. But to tell any story you must have a point of view. To insist that only one point of view of a multi-national and multi-cultural conflict is valid or tolerable or even publishable is ridiculous. Only holocaust deniers called Schindler's List "anti-German propaganda". When the subject of inhumane actions by Israel against Palestinian noncombatants is raised in even the most liberal Jewish circles the responses are mostly defensive and emotional. The commonest tactic I have seen is to immediately change the subject to atrocious things other Arab groups or nations have done to Jews. That is irrational. But I guess it is the nature of the beast. After all the millennia of learning the hard way what it is like to be on the wrong end of the gun, the Jews are the same as other people and
being on the right end of the gun has transformed many of them into the sort of creatures that have lost all the compassionate insights their own faith once gave the world.

It is possible to be emotionally wrought up and still think rationally...but damn uncommon. It is so uncommon that assuming an emotional tone that you detect in some speech belies any reason you may hear is understandable. But our obligation is to know that whomever we face is human and will not have been dealt with fairly until we have gotten past their and our own feelings by listening long enough and deliberately enough to pick up their facts and imagine ourselves in their shoes. That is how I will try to approach the damaging diatribes of Ted Belman or of Abbas. We have a bumper crop of psychically damaged people on both sides and unfortunately the dealings with the situation at the state level simply damage yet more as time goes on.

In confrontations with fellow Jews over the Israeli program of settlement in occupied territories, the conversation often ends with the rhetorical question: "So what is your solution, Mr Pacifist!?" How can I tell you? You can't frame solutions if you don't listen carefully enough to know what the problem is.

Such a strange term humanity: as a noun its encompassing collectiveness is comforting and enlightened. But as an adjective, so rarely deserved, it is the most distant of goals for us.

9 comments:

cul said...

What an incredibly beautiful post.

Its obvious to me that you are uncommon and put proof to your statement:

It is possible to be emotionally wrought up and still think rationally...but damn uncommon.

I became aware of the Rachel Corrie debacle a short while after it happened and was of course appalled by her particular story, but also at the bulldozing policy in general.

I don't see how Israel or the US is any less a terrorist state in some respects than those each accuses other states of being. But you are right that it is not something that is easily discussed rationally without invoking kneejerk violent reactions from the chauvinists of the world.

Thanks for putting yourself out there and inspiring me so.

GreenSmile said...

Thanks, Cul.
One of the things that lowers the threshold to testifying like that is knowing there are at least a few fair minded readers out there.

GreenSmile said...

It is probably symptomatic of the institutional willing ignorance about the ugly parts of the conflict that I , nominally a liberal Jew, did not know about the incident until this past fall, through some work my daughter has been up to.

I tried to think back and see how I might have missed such a story.
We were in the midst of schlock and awe that month in 2003. The media had bigger stories to cover. I almost think there is a made-for-[fox]-tv air about that whole stupid invasion.

cul said...

Yeah, that was the same period as the Shock-n-Awe insanity and I ran into the Rachel Corrie story as part of my effort to educate myself on the broader Middle East political landscape in order to understand the mindset of the people behind 9/11.

For sure, institutionally enforced ignorance blinds us all at some level or another. I guess our job as rational beings is to try to hack our way out of such jungles.

One of the things I was fortunate to acquire during my 30 year sojourn in Canada was a sense of just how poorly educated I was as an American about what was going on in the rest of the world.

Americans on the whole are a fairly self-sufficient minded lot, not particularly given to caring about or learning from goings-on outside of their borders.

As sad as it is, 9/11 was a wakeup call that's educated a lot of Americans in a hurry...hopefully, the next administration will act as a signal to the rest of the world that we are beginning to understand.

GreenSmile said...

a wake up call for some but it also seems like an excuse for many in government and enough voters to let their consciences go to sleep.

Gerry said...

The Rachel Corrie murder in snot an isoated "mistake" by the Israeli military.

They have long history of "mistakenly" committing attrocities.

There is an old buddhist saying: "That which you resist, you become"
The word "resist" is used in the context of an antonym to the word "forgive". Well, Israel is pretty much well doing the Palestinians what Nazi Germany did to the Jews.

Next time I hear a Jew give me the victimhood spiel, I think I'll throw up (perhaps even all over them). Not nice, I know, but I've had enough.

America propping up Israel? That's just one of the MANY foreign policy attrocities America has visited upon the world it so likes to
"liberate".

Will much change under the Democrats? I doubt it...

Susannity said...

The play "My Name is Rachel Corrie" produced by Alan Rickman came to Seattle last year but I was unable to attend. That play has been given lots of pressure to 'go away' - censorship abounds.

To me, neither side is 'right' and because of the core beliefs of the parties involved, there can be no resolution that I can see.

James Miller, a Brit making a documentary was killed by Israeli hired guns. If you search on his name, you can learn more about his story as well. The movie "Death in Gaza" is what he did film and includes his death.

Sherry said...

nice piece dad. I have two comments.

First I want to disagree with something.

"US does not have a foreign policy on Israel: it has a domestic policy not to antagonize the Jewish vote".

I too believed for years that US Israeli policy is to placate US Jews. My initial reaction was 'who knew we are so powerful?' Followed, in time, by 'maybe I can't be Jewish any more if that is the political stance that must follow'.

I no longer think that US Israel policy is because of US Jews. Many US Jews do support US Israel policy, and the Israel lobby (Christians and Jews) is powerful (thank you Mearsheimer and Walt for bravely raising the issue) and it has in the past and continues to be the case that in most Jewish communities questing support for Israel is frowned upon or worse. But Jews are 2% (check this, but I'm not far off) of the electorate. I think Greg Palast wrote about this more eloquently, but essentially, follow the money. the arms manufacturers by far have the most to gain. Israel is the number one recipient of US foreign aid and guess how most of that gets spent. on US war toys. I never read the Mearsheimer and Walt article or book, but I have found it very instructive to read all of the responses to it. for example Mitchell Plitnick has one (http://mitchellplitnick.com/2007/09/26/de-mystifying-american-middle-east-policy-a-response-to-steven-walt-and-john-mearsheimer/).

And my second comment is about what work follows from the work you are doing now (e.g. the processing and horror involved in writing this blog entry). My own struggle, and I've really not made any progress, is to now work on trying to really viscerally see the Israeli side. Funny really isn't it? But if we do not try to understand what is driving the oppressor, we can't hope to assuage/challenge/address the fears that drive the behavior. Which means that as long as the oppressor has access to lots of fancy guns, there is no hope of resolution. We can work to cut off the supply of guns. But I think there is also another approach which involves the very difficult work of not vilifying rather trying to compassionately figure out what drives the behaviour that horrifies us.

"Provocation is not justification." (see Tony Judt's recent piece in NYRB which touches on this http://www.nybooks.com/articles/21031)

Yes, you and I, and many reasoning outsiders can agree, but it is fears which cause people to act in unreasonable ways. I think to try and understand actions by Palestinians which are difficult to understand we should begin by thinking about pride and humiliation in the context of their culture. I think to understand actions by Israelis which are difficult to understand we should begin by thinking about the fear of annihilation.

Ultimately, I'm telling you to listen a bit to your own advice: "You can't frame solutions if you don't listen carefully enough to know what the problem is."

By the way, there was a nice interview with the founders of combatants for peace on fresh air this week:
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=88036198

GreenSmile said...

To any regular readers, all 3 of you, who wonder why I am trying to give it a rest for a while, I think the above comment provides a clue: it shows a mind working through an issue far more constructively than my overheated rhetorical inclinations seem to allow.

You can change a person's mind about as easily as you can direct them to walk through a stone wall. And it feels like that is what I have been about. Sherry has just pointed me to the stairs that go over the wall...and I think I will step up and see what is there.

Yes, I have managed to learn the lingo of the left and spot the bogus programs of the right instantly...I beat Dave Kurtz on calling the fear mongering of McCain's speech yesterday ...by three whole minutes. Finding one's political voice should be more beneficial than merely giving a person a seat in the bleachers of some colossal sporting event and the release of shouting with the crowd.