It has been painful these past months to watch events in the Middle East unfold. The elements of moral parody there today are gruesome:
Israel as a military juggernaut employing blitzkrieg tactics: making war and then dictating the terms of peace.
• Israeli leader Menachem Begin hyperbolizing the historical destiny of his people with a mystical chauvinism while his followers chant, “Begin, king of Israel” to an old melody that refers to the coming of the Messiah.
• The state, created to rescue Jews from racism and anti-Semitism, forging close ties with the racist government of South Africa (a high-level Israeli delegation visited right after the invasion of Lebanon) and the anti-Semitic junta of Argentina (Israel was a main arms supplier during the Falklands war).
• The army of the Jewish state sending bloodthirsty puppet forces into refugee camps with the expressed purpose of “cleansing” and “purifying” those communities.
• The Palestinian people as wandering Jews, persecuted, scorned, scattered in an ever widening Diaspora; a people yearning for a homeland many have never seen—just as Jews yearned so long.
These are not equations. Israel is not Nazi Germany, Begin is not Hitler. But the frightening point is that it becomes increasingly difficult to look on this state and its leader and not think of such images—even if one does not want to. They are not precise analogies; they are thoughts that trouble one’s sleep or send a shudder through you during the daytime. Someone, for instance, who knows the woeful heroic tale of the Warsaw ghetto, might have found it hard not to conjure up that image during the siege of West Beirut—food, water and electricity cut off, the defenders retreating from house to house, prepared to die rather than suffer further indignities to their people. These thoughts come, perhaps because Begin insists on invoking the Holocaust every time Israeli policy is questioned, perhaps simply because Jews are involved.
The fact that such thoughts are provoked by Israel, by Jews, does not alter their force. Former Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban, who, 15 years ago in the United Nations, said charges of Nazi tactics were obscene, now writes in The Jerusalem Post that “these weeks have been a dark age in the moral his-
tory of the Jewish people.” The terms Holocaust and genocide gained common usage because of the experience of European Jews under Hitler. They represent not just a Jewish but a human travesty. There is a special horror that, 40 years later, the words are evoked by what Jews are doing to others.
The behavior cannot be excused because Jews have suffered. There is nothing about suffering that inherently ennobles or justifies the victims. From their suffering people either learn or they do not learn; they become better or they become worse. Begin’s arrogant prattle about Jewish history, his transparent attempts to silence non-Jewish critics with guilt—these merely scandalize the Jewish victims of the past. It is truly obscene—from a religious viewpoint it is sacrilege—to use the deaths of Jewish martyrs to justify Israeli actions in Lebanon and the West Bank.
The Middle East conflict has been a
There is a special horror that the words Holo -caust and genocide are now evoked by what Jews are doing to others
charged moral question for decades now. It has perplexed people of goodwill more than any other political issue of our time. Many say that Israel is right, that its mere survival is threatened and its only desire is peace. Yet Israel has long been massively superior to all its potential military opponents, and it is Israel that has expanded at its neighbors’ expense, regularly, since 1949. Others, more subtly, say that the Middle East contains a tragic conflict between two rights. But it is hard to look at recent Israeli actions and deny that Israel, simply, is wrong. The clearest proof of this is the fact that for 9% months following the UN-arranged ceasefire of July 28, 1981, Palestinian forces fired not a single shot across the border into Israeli territory. There were no Israeli casualties, there was peace in Galilee. Israeli officials who codenamed their invasion Operation Peace in Galilee are among those who, in the biblical phrase, “cry Peace, peace—and there is no peace.”
To make such a judgment has nothing to do with denying Israel’s right to exist. Of course Israel has a right to exist.
The real question of existence in the Middle East today concerns not Israel, whose existence is a secure fact, but the Palestinian people, whose existence has been under constant attack. They are the ones who have actually lost homes and farms, who are being physically and institutionally destroyed and driven ever farther into exile. Certainly, each people must recognize the “right to exist” of the other, but the Israeli right to exist does not include the right to deny or destroy the right to exist of another people—especially the previous inhabitants of its own territory.
There are a few sources of comfort in this bleak moral landscape. As a Canadian I am inspired by Dr. Christopher Giannou, in the tradition of Norman Bethune, and by Ambassador Théodore Arcand, for his physical and moral courage.
As a Jew, I take heart from that minority of Israelis, some even within the army or on kibbutzim along the Lebanese border itself, who protest against their own government and society. They have been speaking out longer and more volubly than the rare voices of challenge within the Jewish community here. Perhaps they are strengthened by a sense of how firmly they stand within the tradition of the Hebrew prophets.
And as a human being, well, there are all those ordinary Palestinians in Lebanon, the West Bank and elsewheredispossessed, denied the same rights and dignity that are the justification for the Zionist project—who will not submit or be silent. Teenagers with rocks in their hands against one of the most mechanized armies in the world. They have unquestionably chosen the Palestine Liberation Organization as their voice, and even under intense Israeli pressure—West Bank artists cannot even use PLO colors on their canvasses—they will not renounce that voice. In respect for their choice, the PLO deserves our recognition.
The Canadian Jewish theologian Emil Fackenheim once formulated an 11th commandment for Jews living in the post-Auschwitz world: Thou shalt not hand Hitler another victory. The state of Israel and those who support its policies are doing just that. One can imagine the ghost of Hitler overlooking the mournful spectacle of Lebanon this summer with grim delight and laughing one last, harsh laugh.
Rick Salutin is an author and playwright living in Toronto.
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