Bagg: The only peace

Imagine you live in the Gaza strip. Your grandparents fled from their homes in 1948, and they have taught you all your life that this was a grave injustice — the only injustice. You live in downtrodden Gaza City with your extended family in a one-room apartment, getting food and water only when Israeli politics allow. One day, your crazy uncle shoots rockets into Israel, and Israel decides to respond. The IDF blankets your neighborhood with signs telling you to leave. Go to the UN building down the street, they say; you’ll be safe there. From the UN building, you watch your home and all of your belongings burn to the ground. The next morning at the market, you hear the sound of Israeli planes overhead and run back to the UN building — only to find today, it is the one being firebombed…

I can already hear the self-proclaimed “supporters of Israel” getting ready for a fight — but take a second, especially if you count yourself in that crowd, to ask yourself why that is. Not a word of that paragraph mentioned anything factually contentious; rather, it’s a description of the kind of humanitarian disaster that inevitably results when Israel retaliates to a rocket attack with strikes in civilian areas. It is as true as it is tragic — no matter what provoked it.

In this climate, merely stating the facts of Palestinian suffering implies in many minds a hatred for Israel or, worse, anti-Semitism.

Of course, the practice of splitting sympathies down the middle is not unique to the supporters of Israel. When Barack Obama made the simple, innocuous statement that “if somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I would do everything to stop that,” the Left went nuts. He was going to be Bush-lite, they screamed, a puppet of the Israeli military.

Not even close. He was saying something eminently reasonable, something that would be entirely uncontroversial in any other context. Yes, if rockets were being shot at my family, I would want to do something about it, too. Think about it: that shouldn’t be a point of contention, either — that’s basic humanity. Unfortunately, that is often what’s lost in the cacophony surrounding the Israel question, which seems to be dominated by voices on either side that care frighteningly little for the humanity of their opponents.

Contrary to most of those screeching voices, I’m no longer interested in where to place the ultimate blame, because I don’t think we can answer that question. Is it the Palestinians’ fault for allowing Hamas to thrive and for stalling the peace process and for breeding virulent hatred in their youth? Is it the Israelis’ fault for responding disproportionately or for ghettoizing an entire population or for the migrations of 1948? Each side can claim its actions are reactive to some transgression by the other, and the cycle of blame can spiral downward forever.

In a court system, it makes sense to resolve conflicts by determining fault and handing out settlements accordingly. Typically, there is one party that has clearly been the major transgressor, and punishing that party is the only appropriate response. But in this situation, where the cycle of violence and blame has no reasonable start or end point and certainly no sole transgressor, that model proves woefully inadequate.

To start, we can move past the place where describing the misery of a people invokes cynicism rather than sympathy; past the place where scoring points in a global PR war takes precedence over sober and balanced reflection on a complex topic. Dismissing the suffering of entire populations because it hurts your immediate image in the media is morally disastrous, and it doesn’t help anyone in the long run.

Pointing accusatory fingers here will never result in peace. Someone, at some point, has to turn the other cheek and reverse the escalation of violence. Time and again, it has been the nonviolent movements — and not those that simply ramp up more mutual hatred — that have healed divides like the one between Israelis and Palestinians. The Middle East needs a Martin Luther King, Jr., and a nonviolent movement to back him or her.

As citizens of the United States, we cannot start those movements ourselves; they have to come from within the parties torn by conflict. But we can do something: We can change the way we talk about Israel here, in hopes of inspiring a change in the mindset of those abroad.

Realistically, because of the close political and cultural ties between our nations, that mostly means inspiring changes in Israel, rather than in the West Bank and Gaza. It’s not that the conflict wouldn’t benefit from a Palestinian nonviolence movement or that the Palestinians are somehow incapable of forming one. Were I writing to a population of Arabs or Muslims, I would advise exactly the same approach toward the Palestinians. But since we have more influence with Israel, it is there where we must focus our gaze, and Israel whom we must encourage to move toward nonviolence.

Despite the fact that I recommend changes primarily for Israel, mine is a pro-Israel position. If we think there is a need for a Jewish state in some form or other, the solution we have now is laughably unsustainable. As long as contempt for the “other” continues to grow on both sides, it will only provide the groundwork for greater violence in the future. The only way to ensure Israel’s survival — in the very long run — is to eventually dissolve that hatred. Being prudently pro-Israel requires looking beyond the immediate political realities toward potential long-term solutions.

Really, though, it’s time we stopped counting which positions are pro-Israel and which are pro-Palestinian. No longer should pro-Israel positions be limited to those that dismiss Palestinian suffering; no longer should pro-Palestinian positions deny Israel’s basic right to defend its people. The two must cease to be mutually exclusive. Rather, any humane position must be both.

Sam Bagg is a senior in Silliman College.


  • Info

    Even though this is a good piece in general, with lots of good info, there is too much emphasis in there on symmetry between the actors: forget whose to blame and get on with it.

    This type of sentiment sounds very good, but by ignoring the asymmetry and trying to make the sides equally responsible, it removes the chance for any real change, by making non-actors who cannot change anything be as responsible as real actors.

    Hamas has a few sticks of dynamite and some kitchen made explosives. Israel is a nuclear power and fully supported by the world's super power. There is a difference here. But there is absolutely no symmetry.

    Tens of thousands of Israeli residents do feel a fear of being harmed by Hamas rockets that have killed about 9 people in the last several years. That's terrible.

    Five million Palestinians live as refugees, 3 million live under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, and 1.5 Million live as 4th class citizens inside of Israel (after European Jewry, Eastern Jewry, and African Jewry). And many thousands of Palestinian civilians have been murdered by Israel. That is the reality of the Palestinian people.

    Yes it is terrible to fear being hit by a rocket, but it is not the same as ten million people living horrible lives and being at the mercy of Israel and Arab leaders.

    The ball is squarely in the court of Israel and the U.S. Hamas is a non-actor. It has practically nothing and the harm it has been able to cause is miniscule if compared to suspending the rights of ten million people.

    For those who care about this type of thing, today is the 61 commeoration of the massacre at Deir Yassin. Read what Albert Einstein and a6 other Jewish intellectuals wrote about it in 1948:

    (check NYT on proquest for original letter).

  • Dennna werner

    There were massacres on both sides.we need to work together.imagine what the jews and the arabs could do if they work together and live side by side.after all we are cousins.I pray for peace.They should start with the schools and the children and raise them to be tolerant of one another.Dennna Werner

  • Lynna

    I agree with the first comment about not ignoring the asymmetry of the conflict. There is really no way to approach this conflict from a balanced perspective--I tried, and then I went and worked in the West Bank for five months and my intellectual objectivity went out the window in a week. I think that the heart of the matter lies in cycles of victimization--and I see what the article's author is getting at when examining the human cost of Gaza.
    The Jews were victimized by the Nazis and by all the world's powers that would not help them from mass slaughter. While the Palestinians had never had quarrel with the European Jewish population prior to their resettlement on traditionally Arab lands in Palestine, the Palestinians became the victims of misplaced Jewish aggression. To heal, Israel needs to acknowledge the part it played in dispossessing almost 800,000 people within a few weeks of all they had ever known of home, business and land and forcing them to become refugees, with no reparations or ability to reclaim their land. This acknowledgment is a good starting place for discussion between Israelis and Palestinians. Without acknowledgment of past injustices the rift will never be bridged. Germany has acknowledged the crimes of its government and German companies have paid reparations to the descendants of Jewish Holocaust victims, why do the Palestinians deserve any less?

  • Yale'08

    Info (Post #1) is right about the lack of symmetry. Sort of.

    One side uses suicide bombs that are laced with rat poison so that if the Jew isn't killed outright by the piercing nails and shards, maybe he'll be killed by the poison.

    And the other side puts up with it.

  • lack of symmetry?

    One side is the attacker, and the other is the defender.
    That's the real lack of symmetry which is so deftly ignored here.

  • Yale '09

    @ #4 Thanks for adding to the conversation. NOT.

  • roflcopter

    So Mr. Bagg hates Judaism more than Islam on the scale of Which Religion is More Religious?