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Conflict and Consciousness

I was standing at the counter of Northeastern Fine Jewelry trading in my diamond ring when I saw the Israeli forces bombing Yasir Arafat’s compound.

There was a flat-screen TV hung high above the meticulous cases of jewelry, and the volume was on just loud enough to hear machine-gun fire over the quiet conversation of shoppers and salespeople.

Shopping for consolation-prize jewelry while gunfire lit the screen like a strobe light seemed beyond surreal.

I started whispering to Madeleine things about Yasir Arafat. About how he was too moderate for some Palestinians, but vilified by Israelis. We seemed to be the only people taking note of the television or talking about anything other than jewelry. Besides, Maddie wasn’t listening. Maybe she was embarrassed to have a mother so obviously distracted by something as mundane as a television.

So we did what we had come to do and then left.

Where do Americans stand on the frightening escalation in the Middle East? Well, we stand in many different places. But mostly, we stand silently.

For one thing, most people don’t know much or care about the Middle East. It’s easiest to see the situation in terms of crazed Palestinians and victimized Israelis.

Certainly that is our government’s tack. And in the media, especially the television, the destruction and heartache created by suicide bombings always overshadows any serious consideration of what kind of desperation would mobilize an army of suicides.

And there is really no kind of analysis in the popular media that addresses itself to the question of whose claims to what lands are most valid.

If, as citizens, we default our personal positions to that of our government, then we are pro-Israeli, pro-Zionist and largely anti-Palestinian—that is, unless Palestinians can create a viable economy and democratic form of governance out of whole cloth.

(Which is what occasioned George Bush’s gentle chiding of the Israeli demolition of Arafat’s compound: It’s not good for the potential of the Palestinian infrastructure. This from a man whose stance toward Iraq has been to press for the further demolition of any infrastructure there.)

On the other hand, if we don’t support U.S. policies toward Israel, if we do question what seems an Israeli version of manifest destiny, it is hard to speak out. Misunderstanding and accusations of anti- Semitism hamstring the free exchange of ideas. That leads to this double bind:

Must the rejection of anti-Semitism also include an uncritically pro-Zionist political stance? The question is not rhetorical and the answer is not clear.

For some Jewish and Christian theologians, the answer is clear: To be anti-Zionist is to reject the core of Jewishness.

Certainly this is true of conservative evangelical Christians whose fierce support for Israel serves their own ends: According to some, expanded Israeli statehood is the precursor to the end times, when they believe Jesus will return. That’s why Jerry Falwell can declare that every evangelical “Christian must continue their undying support for the state of Israel.”

For some post-Holocaust Jewish theologians, support for the state of Israel and committing oneself to Jewish survival are one and the same thing. Emil Fackenheim writes, “The heart of every authentic response to the Holocaust—religious and secularist, Jewish and non-Jewish—is a commitment to the autonomy and security of the state of Israel.”

This pro-Zionist point of view, defended either because it is believed the state of Israel will herald the reign of God or because it will symbolize the renewal of the Jewish people, implicitly endorses an uncritical stance toward Israeli aggression and U.S. support of it.

But there is a problem: Ideological versus humanitarian concerns.

Since the six-day war of 1967, more than 850,000 Palestinians have been expelled from the Occupied Territories of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, while Israeli settlers have moved in and are governed by Israeli law. Most of the water supply and almost all of the electrical grid in the West Bank is controlled by Israel. New roads built linking large cities and Jewish settlements are not open to Palestinians.

Those Palestinians remaining in these areas are governed by military law, must carry an identification card, must have special license plates on their cars, and must not spend the night in Israel. ID cards are the property of Israel and can be confiscated at any time, making any movement illegal. And anyone arrested in these Occupied Territories can be held—and mistreated—without legal representation for 18 days.

And since Sept. 11, 2001, the branding of Palestinians as terrorists akin to those who bombed the World Trade Center and the Pentagon has given weight to Israel’s objections to Arafat as a negotiating partner—making it more and more difficult to raise hard questions about Israel’s actions.

But they must be raised.

Because neither all Jews nor all Christians can support either the Israeli treatment of Palestinians nor the U.S. policy of unwavering support for Israel’s actions.

Michael Lerner, rabbi and editor of Tikkun, writes, “We do not mean merely a demographically Jewish state, but a state that lives up to the highest Jewish values of ‘love thy neighbor,’ ‘love the stranger,’ and ‘justice, justice thou shalt pursue.’ ”

For Lerner, and for many others, this has come increasingly to mean two states, with Palestinian sovereignty over pre-1967 borders.

But for this solution, or any just solution, to come about will require more than political sleight of hand.

Herman and Rosemary Radford Reuther, in The Wrath of Jonah, their book on religious nationalism in the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, describe the change as one more of consciousness than politics.

“The deep ethnicity of Jewish-Israeli identity means that this change of consciousness can perhaps come about only when as many Israeli and diaspora Jews also come to recognize Palestinians as extended family, as ‘cousins’ and not just ‘generic’ fellow humans, much less as subhumans, as they are presently viewed by many Israelis.”

That change of consciousness also depends on our willingness to engage the hard questions that risk misunderstanding as we question the absolute right-to-power of any nation. That change of consciousness depends on our willingness to watch a war with eyes of horror rather simply as the backdrop to business as usual.

—Jo Page

You can contact Jo Page at jopage@graceniska.org.


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