After Jews and Arabs: Finding Our Common Humanity under the Rubble of Violence
by David Shasha
I’m walking down the line
That divides me somewhere in my mind.
On the borderline of the edge
And where I walk alone.
Read between the lines of what’s
F**ked up and everything’s alright
Check my vital signs to know I’m still alive
And I walk alone.
Green Day, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” (2004)
The great French philosopher Jacques Derrida has written a good deal about the concepts of DIFFERENCE and SAMENESS. According to Derrida, the Western philosophical tradition, as we have seen in the Christian synthesis of Augustine, has sought to level the differences between human beings by trying to force all human beings into a single mold – a mold that would make all of us into White male Christians. Anyone not fitting into the stereotype is seen as an OUTSIDER, as someone who is less than human.
Thus, how we see each other as human beings can sometimes serve to define issues of life and death, of peace and war. Tolerance and respect are duly predicated on whether we seek the values of DIFFERENCE; the acceptance of the OTHER as our brother rather than our enemy.
At the end of CNN’s documentary “Impact of Terror,” Arthur Cohen, an Western-born Israeli father of a young victim of a suicide bombing, looks into the camera and tells the audience that the debilitating effects of terror and violence never fade; the trauma of the terrorist act is one that becomes a central part of the life of the victim – something those involved will never forget.
In the recent HBO documentary “Death in Gaza,” we see the inhuman and degrading conditions of the Arabs in Gaza that have been created by the brutal Israeli occupation; those very Arabs that Ariel Sharon seeks to get off his back by ceding the territory to the Palestinian Authority, a move that has sparked the frenzy and the violent ire of the Jewish messianists; a group that has, like its radical Arab counterpart, reduced the human condition to sloganeering and jingoism of the most brutal variety.
I recently had an extremely debilitating and acrimonious conversation with a cousin of mine regarding the proper ways in which to see terrorism and the overall Israel/Palestine conflict. While I was trying to work through a series of logical arguments which would characterize the pain and suffering – the HUMANITY – of the Arabs, my cousin banged his fist on the table with great ferocity and told me I was full of s**t and that I was simply trying to justify – via a quid pro quo argument – the brutal and insane actions of the suicide JIHADISTS.
The question that underlay this brutal exchange was whether or not ALL parties to the conflict could be seen as human beings and whether or not each side could see the tragedies and the debilitations of the OTHER.
On the Arab side as we see it presented in “Death in Gaza” the sense of loss and desperation has been transformed into a kind-of Nintendo version of machismo and revolution. The rational and humanistic qualities of the Islamic faith have been morphed into a pure form of religio-nationalist fundamentalism that honors and elevates the SHAHIDS who go out to kill JEWS – JEWS, not just Israelis – because those JEWS are the ones who have STOLEN Palestine and destroyed the lives of those Palestinians who have remained in their homeland.
This perverse transformation of the Palestinian mind is a product of the abandonment of civilized behavior. The tradition of science and rationality in Arab civilization – and this has become an across-the-board phenomenon in a desperately repressed Arab world – has for all intents and purposes been exiled and criminalized by an Arab status quo that has become as anti-intellectual and as reductively uncivilized as its Western counterpart – the difference here being that the West OWNS EVERYTHING and can DISSIMULATE its barbarity in a maelstrom of flash and “bling-bling.” But we know well that the foundations of Western civilization are crumbling and that a deep-seated decadence has set in.
This is why the young Arabs shown in “Death in Gaza” seek to turn the barbarity of the Israeli occupation into a video-game. These Palestinian Arabs have adopted the mindset of the West – a mindset that is anti-humanist and anti-enlightened – while filling their Western-style cowboy fantasies with the current realities of the Arab condition in its most debased and primitive forms.
“Death in Gaza” is a film about Palestinian children and the way that they deal not only with the occupation, but with their own mor(t)ality. Young girls walk around with a false sense of modesty, an affected piety that will eventually consign them to lives of degradation and ignorance, while young boys walk with the sort of swagger that leads them to foolishly throw rocks at Israeli Merkava tanks – actions that will serve to get them killed.
The corruption of the PA and the brutality of the Israeli forces have symbiotically conspired to destroy the rational balance that might make these children think that their nightmare existence might be healed in a reasoned and reasonable manner. The brute force of politics and religion – and it should be understood that the Judaism of the Israeli occupiers mirrors the Islam of the occupied – has served to leave those who value human life above the meaningless chimeras of religious prejudice in the dust. The children of Gaza learn to valorize the SHAHID rather than the university professor because the SHAHID bases his life on ACTIONS rather than WORDS.
WORDS are something that we as Jews know a good deal about.
Classical Zionism was a visceral revolt against the primacy of WORDS in the Jewish tradition.
“Impact of Terror” presents to the viewer the insular and hermetic world of Israeli society, a world where only JEWS are visible and where the implicit idea of a state exclusively for JEWS is never questioned. Just as the Jews presented in “Death in Gaza” are occupiers and inhuman figures lacking the rudiments of decency, so too the absence of humanized Arab figures in “Impact of Terror” shows the Israeli Jews in the grip of a Kafka-esque terror that is primal and omnipresent; a nightmare world with no causes and only effects.
“Impact of Terror” seeks to tell the story of Jewish suffering in a manner which decontextualizes that story in the same way my cousin was at great pains to do during the unpleasant conversation I had with him a few weeks ago.
This decontextualization is a very important rhetorical strategy on BOTH sides of the discourse: The Jews maintain that NOTHING can justify the suicide attacks and the Arabs say that NOTHING can rationalize the Jewish brutality towards them. While both sides are busy creating and then erasing their own side’s quid pro quos, the realities we see in “Impact of Terror” and “Death in Gaza” continue to unfold. Rather than accepting that both Jews and Arabs will fight in any way they see fit to protect what they both see as their interests, the two sides jaw on about the justice of their own cause and the absolute injustice of the other side – thus serving to dehumanize the OTHER and looking to reinforce the reductive ideas of DIFFERENCE and SAMENESS that we had spoken of earlier.
“Impact of Terror” is a brutal look at the devastating internal and psychological impact on the victims of a suicide attack. All the victims are the same insofar as they have experienced the same attack in its naked aggression and psychotic denouement. But all the victims are different people and look at the world through their own lenses; the lenses of the personal, the religious, the nationalist, the psychological, the emotional.
The Israel of the Sbarro Pizzeria – the place of the attack – is a prosperous and fast-paced Western metropolis. It is rich in the trappings of modern technology – cell phones, well-ordered hospitals and offices – in contrast to the poverty and sadly pathetic primitivism of the Gaza region. The parents of the dead children in “Impact of Terror” are all relatively well-to-do middle class professionals – there is never any question of poverty or of any sense of desperation in the lives of the Israelis – many of whom are Western immigrants – those very immigrants who have made Israel into a locus of their own romantic ideals of the HOMELAND – at the expense of those who were the original inhabitants of the land.
These Israelis come from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds – there are Westerners and Easterners – Sephardim and Ashkenazim – who are all blended into ONE IDENTICAL MOLD – the mold of JEWISH VICTIM. Just as we are not led to carefully understand the corrosive and debilitating primitive Islam of the Gazan Hamasniks in “Death in Gaza” so too do we not enter into the AIPAC world of Israelis who have built their comfort and their ease on the backs of Arabs and due to a canny exploitation of pan-Arab weakness and the political manipulation of America. Israeli has become an American protectorate – taking billions of dollars in US aid while defying the most basic principles of pluralism in our post-Apartheid world.
The homogenized unity of the Israelis has recently been shattered by the very important and troubling story of Tali Fahima: Fahima is a young Israeli Sephardi who, pace our recent analysis of Avi Picard, lives in a Sephardi working-class community that had become Zionised and Ashkenazified. Abandoning the classic Sephardic humanism of our religious past, Tali Fahima grew up in a world harboring the primitive barbarism of Likud supporters and mindless Sephardi persecutors and haters of Arabs – of which many of these people are a part by ethnicity.
Tali was once a “normal” member of this racist Sephardic culture which is a ubiquitous part of the Israeli landscape – Sephardim are seen as THE Arab haters par excellence in Israel. The very idea that a young Arab Jew might go over to the “other side” is one that is incomprehensible; the idea that Tali Fahima, a member of the Arab-hating strata of Israeli society, could befriend a Palestinian TERRORIST and understand his cause was one that shocked the Sephardi class in Israel.
What these same Sephardim did not see was the very basic truth that Tali was saying as well as acting out in her own naive manner: The Sephardi experience in Israel has been one that has resembled that of the Palestinians. As Ella Shohat has eloquently argued in her classic article “Zionism from the Standpoint of its Jewish Victims,” the Sephardim have been socially denatured and culturally impoverished by their Ashkenazi MASTERS. This psychological torment comes on top of the material impoverishment that has been visited upon our people in the land of our forefathers.
Material hardship can be fought and triumphed over. But there is always a cost in success: What are we doing to earn this success and what have we had to sacrifice to get that success? In Israel, Sephardim have been brutally demeaned and have lost their own values, values that once spoke to the most noble and the best of what we are as human beings. In order to succeed Sephardim have become MORE ASHKENAZI THAN THE ASHKENAZIM and have abandoned their humanistic values as they have abandoned their religious traditions.
So what then does this mean in the face of the primal terror that Jews and Arabs feel that they are living with?
The Israeli world of “Impact of Terror” is a world of Ashkenazi martyrdom; a world where the Jewish victims of Arab aggression feel that they must redouble their defenses to ensure that the terrorists do not win. This situation creates a Jewish entrenchment in violence: As we see throughout the documentary, the Israel of the current millennium is an ARMED FORTRESS – each and every crevice of Israeli society is layered with guns and security personnel. It is a form of extreme reaction to the KAFKA-ESQUE: The Israelis do not wish to use reason and words to settle their differences with the Arab OTHER who has been exclusively identified as SUB-HUMAN and as an existential MISCREANT. It is as if Josef K. in Kafka’s The Trial were to get out an UZI and shoot all the members of the court who have sought to destroy his life rather than continue to try and rationally persuade them.
But what is interesting about all this is that the very same mechanisms apply as well to the Arab side: The idea that we can solve ALL of our problems using guns and violence is one that has been adopted in a reciprocal fashion by the JIHADISTS. The propagandists on both the Jewish and Arab sides have sought to exclusively lay blame on the OTHER – the immorality and the brutality of the actions of the OTHER.
In my own life I have had to live with the rhetorical mechanisms of this very brutality.
By taking a Sephardi stand against Ashkenazi-Zionist feelings of superiority and elitism, I have seen my own resources – material and spiritual – ebb away. I have seen the ways in which the institutional Jewish community – in the non-profit as well as the commercial sectors – behaves, and it is not a pretty sight. The very personal brutality that I have experienced should have led to its own quid pro quo – one of the things that I have been baited with is why I myself have not taken to the sort of violence that the Arabs have adopted.
This is quite a stark and difficult question to answer. By remaining rational and peaceful, what is it that I have accomplished? Is there some guarantee that my strategies of non-violence in promoting and protecting the Sephardic voice will ever be successful?
It is logical to accept that the Palestinian people were not willing to abandon their homes and their legacy to the Jewish usurpers. Some Palestinians in order to maintain their dignity and self-respect left their homeland and forgot about the local and immediate struggle – their real struggle was to survive and to promote their culture and civilization in a less violent context. They decided to stand on the side of JUSTICE and not on the side of inhuman violence and brutality.
But all those of us on the margins who have chosen peace and non-violent struggle have been raped by the Zionists and the JIHADISTS. Those brutal criminals have TERRORIZED US while continuing to perpetuate the incoherent status quo that now animates Israel/Palestine and that has been all-too-graphically portrayed in these two films. We hear about little babies flying through windows in Jerusalem at the same time that houses, human lives and family histories crumble to dust in the vile and violent streets of Gaza – streets that have been unnaturally cut off before they can reach the Mediterranean so that the Arab residents of the Strip can never take a trip to the beach to forget the misery of their pathetic lives.
Degradation is a crucial political element in what Jose Faur has examined in his book The Horizontal Society relating the concept “Might Makes Right.” It is most certainly true that Judaism and Islam have both contributed to the violence that religion can affect, just as those religions have both tried to set limits to such violence. The written traditions of Judaism and Islam, the Torah and the Koran, contain significant passages extolling the need for religious violence. Yet the Sages of Judaism and Islam have examined these texts and have often sought to neutralize their impact. They have not always succeeded in doing so and we are often left with the corrosive brutality that comes to fruition when piety and cruelty intersect.
In the conversation with my cousin that I mentioned earlier, there was a great concern on his part to eliminate any possibility of a quid pro quo situation relative to Arab terrorism; this conveniently exonerated any and all Jewish actions against the Palestinians. Similarly, the Arabs are loath to focus their attention on the JIHADISTS as many Arab apologists seek to exonerate the brutality of the suicide bombers with a unilateral focus on the IDF and Sharon.
What was very interesting in the course of the conversation was that when I tried to present my own personal experiences as a defeated Sephardi as proof that the discourse on the Jewish side was morally equal to the false and misleading rhetoric of the Arab side, those who had corroded the Jewish discourse in my community were magically exonerated: The discussion I was told was not about what is being promoted and taught in the community’s schools and Synagogues, but only about what those damned Arabs are doing!
I have been personally demonized by Jews who have “helped” me sink into a maelstrom of anarchy and tragedy. Jews have lit the fire that has made my life burn to a cinder and then blamed me for the arson. These same people who rant about justice and peace when it comes to Arab terror have no issue with presenting those same Arabs – and Jews that they disagree with – as sub-human and as people having no right to live decent and civilized lives.
I traced a portion of this Ashkenazification process in my previous discussion of Matloub Abadi and Ezekiel Albeg. These men tried to stave off the brutal kulturkampf of the pathological Ashkenazifiers that took hold of the Sephardic community in the 1950’s – against those men whose own personal ethics came from the exclusionary Orthodoxy of Yeshiva University and Torah Umesorah. Like those arch-Zionists whose tragedies have been clearly shown in “Impact of Terror,” the psychological evolution of the Jews who took charge of the Brooklyn Sephardic community sought to completely change and disrupt the MINDSET of the Jewish community; by adopting the Ashkenazi cult of death and martyrdom that was so alien to the Sephardic world, these leaders subjected their minions to lives of incoherent groupthink and pathetic conformity.
The Brooklyn Sephardic community has at present no intellectual models and figures who can properly lead it. Our young people like their cousins in Israel lead lives of superficiality and impiety. The nexus of money and ignorance has led us into forms of materialism and cruelty that I have written about previously. I sadly continue to learn of the great depths of such degradation when I hear the harrowing stories about the pathetic lives of our young people and their travails in a world of civilizational barbarity.
The idea that we are between a rock and a hard place is one that does not frustrate me. I do not fear the violence and I do not fear those who commit it. What I do fear are those who seek to squash WORDS and our ability to productively communicate with one another. My work in this newsletter and in the lectures and books that we promote through it has been accomplished at an extraordinarily high price; what has defeated me is the fact that the intellectual and cultural work that I do is seen not as work at all but as a diversion from the real work of making a living – such is the most effective mechanism serving to silence activism and dissent from the status quo.
At the very same time that it has become quite clear that I have taken on the job of protecting the values and traditions of my own community – values and traditions that I believe have an important role to play in the development of a humanistic religious culture that will, if empowered, play a decisive role in the resolution of the insanity of suicide bombs and occupation and racism – I have been forcibly turned into a “deadbeat”; a man who is little better than a vagrant.
And here the penultimate portion of the conversation I had with my cousin comes to the fore: My deeply tragic personal situation was so very easily elided from the course of the talk. While the need for Arabs to take personal responsibility was seen by my cousin as paramount in his own mind, the need for Jews to take responsibility for their own actions was not seen as equally necessary. The sick and demented forms of Ashkenazi-based Jewish self-identification that have become a key part of our community’s present status quo – both Haredi and Zionist alike – are not seen as relevant targets for reform and yet the Arabs who have been degraded and disenfranchised by these very same Jewish ideas are expected to put down their own extremists.
The way to put this to the test is to empower ONE SINGLE DISSIDENT Jewish group that speaks truth to power. Not a group that has adopted the Ashkenazi pathology of martyrdom, but a group that has put forward a positive and wholesome vision of Religious Humanism. The very resources and largesse of the Jewish community have been freely given to those who promote the hate of the status quo. Even peace groups on the Jewish Left have constructed their arguments from within an Ashkenazi exclusionary consensus which leaves the culture and the values of Religious Humanism in a black hole.
While acknowledging the fact that I am impoverished and demonized, my cousin was much less circumspect about the current status quo. Like many in the community he is more concerned with his fear of the unknown which in the end only serves to empower the reactionaries – with his moral support and with his money.
In essence this is the same strategy that Karl Rove has used in the current election: Rather than permit any critical examination of the Bush record, Rove consistently spins the debate into a moratorium on Kerry and who HE is. What is then accomplished is to misrepresent the OTHER while protecting the perquisites of the oppressor – Bush 43. In this sense, my own life, a life that has led me to do battle with the evil and corrupt forces that surround me – the very thing being asked of the Arabs on the other side – has led me into a blind alley and vulnerable prey to the forces of evil and corruption, who thus remain free to conduct business as usual.
The films “Death in Gaza” and “Impact of Terror” speak of the evil in men’s hearts. The films show the destructiveness of human violence but neglect to tell us why it is that men do violence. By continuing to fixate on the violence and its corrosive impact on human lives at the expense of examining the root causes of violence and promoting the transformation of the rhetorical mechanisms of our discourse that might allow us as human beings to transcend and triumph over our own barbaric impulses, the two documentaries only serve to confirm the prejudices on either side of the discursive divide.
Those of us who have sought to bridge the divide and break the walls of partisanship have been left on the losing end; impoverished and demonized, we have preached moderation and tolerance and respect for one another and been left to be eaten by wolves.
Last year at around this time I had Hakham Jose Faur come to my home to teach a class on Religious Humanism. One of the young members of the audience continued to harass the rabbi by continually repeating his obnoxious but normative Orthodox contention that God loves the Jews better than the GOYIM. The rabbi continued to persevere with his theme and teach the young man that God created ALL MEN in His image and that none of us are better than the rest. It need not be said that both the personal figure and innovative ideas of Rabbi Faur have been effectively removed from the mainstream of the Brooklyn Sephardic community and his character successfully impugned. Such is the sickening reality we live in.
The malignant impulse to terrorist violence is one that was first adopted by the Zionists in the face of Jewish territorial exile for two millennia. That Zionism has engendered reciprocal violence from its enemies should therefore come as little surprise. We are all very familiar with the famous story from the Bible involving King Solomon and the two mothers fighting over a baby that each claim as their own. The mother who will abandon the child and allow that child to LIVE rather than DIE has become the paradigm of traditional Jewish thinking about what in our day we call the GAME OF CHICKEN. In a game of chicken we see a test of wills – who will give in FIRST.
Zionism has shown us that the Land of ISRAEL has become like the famous Solomonic BABY.
As neither Jew or Arab seeks to let go and has quite literally been letting not just ONE BABY die, but MANY BABIES die means, at least if I am reading the Biblical text correctly, that NEITHER side deserves this HOLY LAND.
Each side has more than what to say, but both sides have so diminished the value of WORDS at the expense of ACTIONS and of VIOLENCE that WORDS now have NO MEANING anymore.
The question remains whether the promotion of The Levantine Option is something that will find its support among people who are sickened by death and by martyrdom and are truly prepared to do something about it.