Thursday, January 29, 2009

Loving thy neighbour

I have been watching a slow change come over some of my friends. It has probably been happening over decades. and it's connected to the political evolution of the state of Israel.

I actually used to defend Israel, back in the 1980s before the politics of that country hardened into present-day policies that now seem to include genocide of Palestinians. While Israel was drifting towards extremism, my friends were drifting into the psychological equivalent of gated communities. Many now live behind their own version of the Wall that separates Israel from Palestine. For some, children of holocaust survivors, it's a well-earned state of peace.

Psychologically, it also can be a no man's land where if you squint, you can see barbed wire and heavy artillery. An arid landscape that does not lead to flourishing friendships. So these days few people I know ever bring up the subject of Israel.

When the war in Lebanon was raging in 2006, communication was often reduced to e-mails calling on me to "defend Israel" from rising anti-Semitism. My position by then was: Israel needs no help in destroying its image as a bastion of democracy in the Middle East. Shelling civilian populations in Lebanon and Gaza have pretty much accomplished that goal.

Some e-mails even suggested the bombing of Lebanon was really a "feminist" campaign against a medieval culture that mistreats women. Rather than inspiring me to join the clash of civilizations and defend western culture against radical Islam, these mass maiings were making me sick to my stomach, triggering unpleasant flashbacks as well as doubts about the moral IQ of the people sending them -- people I thought I had much in common with. Now I began to wonder.

Even back then, dialogue was almost extinct. When I replied to one woman, a kind and generous person (in the past), she was shocked and sent me an URL about the oppressed Jews of Iran. Nobody was bombing and shelling them at the time, none of their women and children were being buried under rubble. I had a friend who happened to be an Iraqi Jew. He also was no Zionist and told me the Iranian Jews e-mail was a propaganda hoax, discredited some months earlier. I asked my friend why she found that community's history worth sharing at a time when Israeli rockets were pounding civilian villages in the south of Lebanon?

She explained that all these dead children were nothing more than "human shields," and switched to an interrogative tack. "Do you or do you not think Israel has the right to exist?"

It was like talking to someone who is using a handbook. Were we in kindergarten? I spelled out my answer: The right to exist is not the right to wage war on innocent people. When did existence become synonymous with mass murder?

This woman was not Jewish. She was a Scottish Canadian, a former nurse and one of her great qualities is empathy. Put this woman in a Gaza hospital, and she would be racing around saving Palestinian lives. But her friends in Montreal were telling her Israel was being attacked, and that the horrific images on TV were manufactured in some Hezbollah PR office at the UN.

The discussion ended when she struck me from her "support Israel" e-mail list. The next time I saw her, she was as friendly as ever. We talked about everything but Israel. By then of course the Wall had been built. It has served a symbolic purpose in hiding unpleasant realities that don't jive with a self-image, built up since WW2, of the Jews as a suffering people with a deep sense of ethics.

This may still be true of many Jews, but it is definitely not true of the Israeli government. This disconnect between historical suffering and present-day criminal policies, really needs to be addressed for the sake of our sanity. But no one seems to know how to initiate an inquiry into how whole nations end up sleepwalking toward mass murder.

I have many Jewish friends and for the most part they are moral people, or they could not be my friends for very long. Lately, though, some of these friends have dropped me. Others have suggested I should be less vocal, mainly by quietly un-friending me on Facebook. Israel's human rights violations, which some are calling war crimes, are not a polite topic on the street where I live.

In a way, Jews are collateral victims of every new Israeli offensive, with its echoes of Second World War atrocities in European cities and villages. "Collective punishment" is something I take personally, especially when friends try to justify it by pretending it isn't happening.

It's as if they're saying: "Love thine enemy. OK, we tried that, and it doesn't work!"

Collective punishment on the other hand, works. I guess that makes it a desirable weapon when you are wishing for a world of peace. It silences resistance by destroying everyone in an area where one's enemies are thought to be operating. It makes no distinctions of gender, age or political affiliation. Anyone can become a human shield without volunteering, and be made to pay equally for the actions of a few, whose bodies need never even be identified.

A few years ago, my former neighbour told me that universal collective punishment for the holocaust is justified, even inevitable. He predicted a time was coming when all of humanity would end up paying for the crimes the Nazis committed against the Jews. It was, he said, part of a divine plan revealing the ultimate purpose of human history. God was angry about the continued suffering of his chosen people, and how world opinion was turning against Israel. So, when the time was right, He would commence revenge killings and destroy all life on the planet. In those days, there would be a great trouble, followed by victory for the chosen.

He seemed to be presenting me with a choice: you are with us or against us. Speechless, I went home to think this over. It could not be a joke, because it had the quality of religious conviction rooted in poisoned emotions. Later these kinds of statements were made by some evangelical Christians and neo-conservatives leaders. And certain Israeli politicians. And of course, extremists.

You don't debate such statements, and there is no answer for them. They come from a fenced-off zone of total negation, roamed by uniformed children with automatic weapons. They have the ring of fanatical racism, and lead to methods which have been shown to work when you are terrorizing a population and preparing the ground for mass murder.

To hear such a statement coming from a former friend is the kiss of death. If not retracted, it erodes all trust, and defeats every possibility of dialogue. Maybe some families can function without dialogue. But a friendship, no. Friendships are based on choice, unless they're friendships of convenience.

"Kill or be killed" is not a human choice but it's an increasingly popular worldview shared by the criminally insane. Like secret abuse, it punishes the innocent, turns supporters into hostages and collaborators. So almost overnight, I lost a friend. And I left town.

A criminal gang have made it clear they believe in collective punishment as the key to their own survival. No exodus is possible in this closed-in world. Inside this walled enclosure, genocide is simply a fact of life because humans by their nature are genocidal. Faced with encircling evil, what choice does a "democracy" like Israel have?

Kill or be killed.

The indiscriminate killing of Palestinians is not only inevitable, it's also insufficient. It evokes international rage and condemnation -- which only reinforces the lonely path of "self-defence" that Israel is following. And once on that path, there is no going back. You don't embark half-heartedly on war crimes. Just ask Hitler. Once unleashed, Blitzkrieg imposes the necessity of carrying on to a conclusion. So in the end, Germany was reduced to smoking rubble, along with the neighbourhood. Logically, inevitably.

The same thing could happen to Israel. If it does, it will be the working out of the same "collective punishment" doctrine that decrees we all must die for the crimes of a few.

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