Madness! Madness! Those were the words spoken by Major Clipton at the end of David Lean’s masterly 1957 film on the absurdity of war. What we’re witnessing today is quite different than the story he told in The Bridge on the River Kwai, but the absurdity of war, the madness of it, remains an ultimate truth. If madness prevailed in that World War II Japanese prisoner camp, it seems to have reached some kind of shocking pervasiveness in our own time. The notion that the fierce and costly conflict of 1914-18 was “the war to end all wars” was put to rest in the one in which Lean’s film is set, but seems all the more naïve today. While magnified by press coverage that is and has always been focused on what’s going wrong not right, it does appear that the world order is coming apart at its seams. Many, though not all, of the conflicts are rooted in either religious or ethnic differences (sometimes both), a tug of war over “your way” vs. “my way”. It is a no-win argument, one without end.
That brings me to the madness now playing out between Israel and Hamas. No one who reads these posts can have any doubt that I am a strong proponent of a two state solution and equally that I don’t hesitate to criticize the current and indeed past Israeli governments. The unresolved occupation of the West Bank, of what should be the Palestinian State, is unconscionable and, in my view, inconsistent with the basic mores of what I understand as Judaism. The withdrawal from Gaza by Ariel Sharon notwithstanding, to say that the life and freedom of movement of its residents is severely constrained would be a gross understatement. That the residents of both the occupied territories and Gaza are deeply frustrated and, yes, terribly angry is unsurprising.
The current hostilities began with the kidnapping a brutal murder of three innocent Israeli boys still in their teens. They were making their way home from school. The subsequent murder of a Palestinian youth was, if anything, even more horrific. He was burned alive. Tit-for-tat. From there things went badly down hill. As usual, much of the world’s press is focused on the “imbalance” of deaths in part a function of the IDF’s superior force and the always less than precise nature of bombing. But it’s also true that Hamas does use mosques, schools and even hospitals to store weapons or from which to fire rockets. They have also embedded themselves and armaments in residential neighborhoods, and are not the first to use such tactics. Again, the loss of innocent lives is horrendous, but it is as much a fact of war itself as of this particular conflict. Just consider the untold number of civilian lives taken in our most recent wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
The United States is standing by Israel and its right to self-defense. Some attribute that to the Israel lobby and politics on the Hill. Perhaps so, but it is also true that the Jewish people throughout their history have been short on friends and long on being victimized by history’s worst atrocities. Anti-Semitism lives still in Europe. NPR reported yesterday that Jews, fearing for their lives and future there, are leaving France in significant numbers. If Jews suffer a degree of paranoia, it can be attributed to sufficient cause. In 1968, the militant ultra right wing rabbi Meir Kahana founded a fringe group called the Jewish Defense League (JDL). Their slogan, referring to the Holocaust, was “Never Again”. Kahana in many ways was a precursor to today’s religious rightists in Israel and both his agenda and theirs are despicable. That said, the idea of “never again” runs through the veins of the Israeli psyche. Specifically an early intent of founders was not merely to reestablish a Jewish homeland but never again to allow Jews to be defenseless victims. It’s why early settlers prepared for battle and why they were able to survive the attack of virtually every Arab state when Israel was founded — and since. In looking at the current tragic situation, it is important to understand that mentality, that commitment to survival. We should also imagine, ideologies aside, what we would do in similar circumstances, how we might react if Canadians or Mexicans were shooting rockets into our neighborhoods.
While writing this post, my sister forwarded me an email (written in English) from our Israeli cousin Naama Perry. This first person account from a family member put a human “face” on the kind of statistical reports we get on the news. Like many in Israel, she and her community try to live a “normal” life. They decided to keep their kindergarten open. That makes it possible for the parents to carry on with their daily activities. Here is in part what Naama wrote:
…I can go to work though the driving is not nice (I work in Ashdod which gets bombed a lot). …I even went running yesterday and once had to hide in a tunnel and the second time barged into some family house which were outside when the siren went on so I invited myself in (complained they didn't offer any cake).
The general atmosphere is bad. There is some sense of despair not only because soldiers are dying and as you know as Israelis we see each one of them as our kid, brother, father, but also because it seems like this hate is going nowhere and this circle will never end.
…It’s so frustrating to learn that the world reacts in such ignorant way to what’s going on here, and I feel like I have the right to say so since I hold pretty left (some would say radical) opinions concerning the Middle East problems and yet I know the facts, I live here and I don't know what anyone else would do if they were bombed constantly, have tunnels of terrorists under their homes and their kids would feel unsafe at their own yards. I also know how our soldiers and pilots (which many of them are my friends) have the hard job of fighting when they need and want to be as moral as possible but are being shot by terrorists who hide in schools and ambulances. Even the fact that they choose to hide there can show they recognize the fact that our army has moral ideas...
Notice that she is not only trying to maintain a sense of normalcy, but also some sense of humor — “they didn’t offer cake”. A similar, albeit from a different vantage point and situation, email might have been sent from some Gaza resident to a cousin in America or elsewhere. Things look so different, so personal, from the ground. Without question there are bad people, with bad intentions, on both sides of this conflict. That’s always the case. But most ordinary people are caught in a crossfire they neither wanted nor precipitated. Again, it’s the nature of war and that convenient evasive metaphor we use, the “fog” of it. The death toll is rising and the real fog is that to most of us, much as we deplore the losses, these are just numbers, statistics. We don’t really picture Naama and her many counterparts, individual women, men and children. Nor do we, and especially they, dwell on the futility of the fighting; what will probably be a paltry return on investment of blood and treasure. The idea that the fight was in vein, without a real victory or even some small yield, is just too painful to contemplate.
And as to bad guys or good guys — rights and wrongs — there is an abundance of both on every side. Some time ago, I wrote about Ari Shavit’s excellent book My Promised Land. The bottom line of that post was that when it comes to Israel and Palestine, things are complicated. That Palestinians should remain a people in occupied or constricted land is wrong. That Israel should be obliterated as Iran’s former president suggested or not be recognized as legitimate is unacceptable. As a Jew with family there like Naama and with a sense of my people’s history, I admit to having special, even prejudiced, feelings in that regard. I also know that this particular war without end will yield nothing for either side. That only a status quo is likely to follow it is unacceptable. Moreover, it’s my view, that this is ultimately very dangerous for Israel’s future as a democratic or Jewish state.
President Obama sent John Kerry to negotiate a settlement of the long conflict. He made a valiant effort to bring about peace between two nations — Israel and Palestine. He was not the first diplomat to fail in that mission and Obama was not the first American president to initiate such an effort. But there have been some successes. How did that happen and why isn’t it happening today? There obviously is no single reason, but one thing is sure. It takes leadership. It takes courage to make peace and in the case of Israel the first step was taken by a rightist prime minister who himself had been a terrorist in the pre-state days. Begin made peace with Egypt and it has held. Both Rabin and Sharon, men on different sides of the political spectrum, had been warrior generals. Both understood the futility and the cost of war. They made strides toward peace. John Kerry didn’t fail. He had no committed partners for peace on the other side of the table. They failed.
I put the current hostilities at the doorstep of Bibi Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas. If we’re witnessing yet another war without end, we should ultimately blame a leadership vacuum. I also blame the cheer leaders on either side who sit in far off or nearby lands and think that friendship means a kneejerk approval of whatever their “side” says or does. Best of friends do just the opposite, they tell us when we are wrong, they use their distance to instill some objectivity. It doesn’t cost or risk much to egg on the fighters when you’re snug in bed on a quiet street in America rather than in the heat of a battle zone. Ultimately Israelis and Palestinians will have to hold up their collective hands and say, enough. Then their chosen leaders will have to engage with some real or perceived “bad” guys — engage with words not rockets or bombs. Perhaps that will have a real and hopefully lasting outcome — a peace without end.