Truth in the Midst of a Lie
During his May 14th speech on the occasion of the dedication of the US Embassy in Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu uttered scandalous words followed by an ironic truth. News reports showed split-screens capturing the Hunger Games-like horror of the celebration and pageantry in Jerusalem on the one hand and the carnage and death just an hour away in Gaza on the other. With this surreal scene on the world-stage, Netanyahu infamously declared, “I believe it’s a great day for peace!” As the death toll in Gaza rose and thousands cried tears of pain for their own injuries or sorrow for the injury or loss of a loved one, the lie of the peace of that day was followed by paradoxically true words: “A peace that is built on lies will crash on the rocks of Middle Eastern realities. You can only build peace on truth.”
Indeed. You can only build peace on truth.
A peace built on lies is what René Girard calls “myth.” A myth, in this case, is not a symbolic story meant to tell a deeper truth, but a pretty shroud intended to cover the truth, a veneer of virtue obscuring the victims of violence. Girard posits that human civilization, in all societies, is built on violence against scapegoats within and enemies without, an identity built on being over and against others. Whether you believe that is the case for every society or not, it is the case of what is happening in Israel. Peace is being declared over the dead bodies of Palestinians seeking their right to return from the refugee camp of Gaza (nearly 70 percent of the population is descended from refugees) to their homes in what is now the state of Israel. And this peace, at the expense of the people of Gaza, cannot last. It must give way to the truth.
That said, here are five truths about Gaza, Israel, and peace.
1. Gaza Is Unlivable
The truth is that the people of Gaza are living in deplorable conditions. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 but retained control over its borders (except the Southern border with Egypt), the mobility of its people, its water, its electricity, and its resources. A blockade keeps the people of Gaza on a “diet” as foods, medicines, and materials are denied to the people. Over 95 percent of the water is contaminated, making the soil in which to grow food toxic. Only 4 hours of electricity are allotted per day. Areas hit by heavy bombing over the past decade take years to even partially rebuild since building materials are restricted. The UN predicted that Gaza would be unlivable by 2020, and one UN official has said that Gaza passed the threshold of unlivability a long time ago.
In fact, Gaza is worse than the open-air prison it to which it has been compared. Prisons, in theory, are obliged to care for inmates. But Gaza is a 141 square mile strip of land in which nearly 2 million people, half of whom are children, are trapped and slowly being poisoned. And when bombing campaigns and snipers not only kill hundreds but injure thousands, many are permanently wounded without the treatment they require, and many more are caring for family members. Without hope of freedom, cut off from necessities, these conditions become a drawn-out death sentence.
2. Anti-Semitism Has Fueled This Cycle of Violence
To understand where much of the violence in the region comes from, there is a truth that the whole world must acknowledge. Anti-Semitism fuels much of this violence, and the world, by and large, has abdicated its responsibility to atone for it.
The history leading up to the creation of Israel is long and complex, but there can be no denying that the violence of the Shoah both convinced many Jews around the world of the need for Israel and also made the world more sympathetic to the need for a Jewish state.
The Shoah was the bloody culmination of centuries of anti-Jewish sentiment both nationalistic and religious in nature. Though the conditions of post-World War I Germany were devastating and created a mimetic crisis ripe for scapegoating, it was deep-seated anti-Semitism that made the Jewish people such prominent targets. Jews had been maligned as Christ-killers and demonized within the church, and that led to anti-Semitic stereotyping that transcended religious boundaries as well. Before the violence of the Shoah, there were the Crusades from Europe to Palestine and pogroms in Russia as well as anti-Semitic policies through the world, including the United States. Jewish people had a history of being shunned and dehumanized. That sentiment had waxed and waned throughout the centuries, but it is very easy to see how such sentiment would lead to insecurity, and the desire for a place of protection.
The land of Palestine had religious appeal to Jews before and after the Shoah because of its designation as the “Promised Land” in scripture, and thus seemed the most natural place for a Jewish state to be built. But the land was already inhabited by Palestinian Arabs, who were discarded by the imperial powers who helped to form Israel. The popular phrase “A land without people for a people without land” is misleading, as it was common knowledge that there was an indigenous population of Palestinians, but they were regarded, in typical colonialist fashion, as an obstacle to be dealt with, not a people with whom to negotiate. Palestinians had been under Ottoman and British rule, but they were eager for their own state, and resisted being compelled to retreat from land they had inhabited for centuries to make room for a homeland for incoming Jewish people. The enmity that was born in a land where refugees from the dehumanization of the Shoah pushed out further refugees when Palestinians were expelled in the Nakba was entirely predictable. It was up to the whole world to repent of the crime of anti-Semitism and make reparations for the Shoah. Instead, one group of people who had experienced oppression was mobilized to displace another.
And here’s the point: the cycles of dehumanization and violence between Israelis and Palestinians can largely be traced to the anti-Semitism that led to the desire for a Jewish state. After the Shoah, the vow “never again” was made. “Never again” is a powerful vow of survival, and the whole world should honor it. But it can be interpreted in two ways. If it is interpreted in a particular sense, “Never again for us,” and used to justify any force to subdue any perceived threat to one’s own security, then “never again” will ensure that violence continues again and again forever. But if “Never again” refers to dehumanization, violence, and genocide for all people everywhere – if it is applied in a universal sense – then and only then can it truly be fulfilled.
The state of Israel, composed of people who have a history of violence against them, has, in policy, applied “never again” in a particular sense, over and against enemy others (even though there are citizens who believe “never again” must apply to everyone the world over). They are hardly the only nation to do so. Human beings almost invariably form identities against others, and nations base security policies over and against others. Israel is not unique in this regard, and their reasoning for regarding their own security over and against others is more warranted than that of many other nations. Nevertheless, it is not a logic that can ultimately lead to peace. But it is not up to Israel alone to make peace. It is up to the entire world to renounce enmity and violence, and atonement for anti-Semitism should be made to Jewish people worldwide, including in Israel, as Israel atones for its own violence.
3. Hamas Is Being Scapegoated
The truth that Hamas is being scapegoated in this instance is not a claim that Hamas is innocent of violence against Israel. In the Girardian sense, a scapegoat can be guilty of terrible crimes and still be a scapegoat if a community unites against it or puts all of the blame for a particular crisis on the scapegoat’s shoulders without acknowledging its own responsibility. Last Monday, Israeli sniper fire and tear gas killed over 60 people and injured over 2000, and that was simply the bloodiest day of an ongoing 6-week protest called the “Great March of Return” in which over 100 people were killed and over 10,000 injured. Israeli soldiers fired the shots. Israeli soldiers launched the tear gas. And yet, Israel and US officials blame Hamas. Though Hamas is not innocent, this is a classic case of scapegoating.
And in this case, it is especially cynical scapegoating. Israel knew the people of Gaza would be marching. The Great March of Return was designed to culminate on the 70th anniversary of the Nakba, or catastrophe, when over 700,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes when Israel was founded. It was a historic day and the people were motivated to march for liberation by the occupation itself.
Israel had already warned that anyone who approached the fence would be susceptible to being shot, and Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman has famously stated, “There are no innocent people in Gaza.” Thus Israeli soldiers were prepared to shoot for no other reason than the approach of the fence, despite the fact that there is a buffer zone between Gaza and the Israeli border, and those who were able to get close to, or even breach, the first barbed-wire fence were still far from Israel.
For the seven Fridays leading up to Monday’s massacre, protests led by grassroots organizations, not Hamas, were overwhelmingly peaceful. No guns or rockets were brought, though some people did throw stones or Molotov cocktails into the buffer zone (not being able to reach Israel itself). On Monday, burning kites were also guided over the border. But that does not change the fact that there was no imminent threat to the lives of Israeli citizens, that Israeli troops shot at people simply for approaching the fence, that clearly marked medics and journalists were shot, and that this all happened after seven weeks of a peaceful march – with activities like prayers and human reading chains – were met with tear gas and gun fire.
To blame Hamas for the deaths of protesters in Gaza is to deny the brutality of the occupation and the agency of the people and assume that people would not march for freedom of their own volition. Though members of Hamas did encourage people to approach the fence on Monday, the people were going anyway, because their lives have become unbearable. And to use the very presence of Hamas in Gaza to justify all levels of force and, furthermore, to justify a blockade, occupation, and obstruction of negotiations for a viable Palestinian state, is unacceptable. The presence of an enemy, and the refusal to acknowledge any of that enemy’s moves toward negotiation, is being used to mask the brutality of Israeli policy and obscure the fact that, in policy, Israel is taking more land (with settlements in the West Bank) and reducing the possibility of a viable two-state solution.
This is not to justify Hamas’s firing of rockets into civilian areas. But it is to acknowledge that Hamas has offered truces numerous times, has amended its charter to accept a Palestinian state within 1967 borders, has honored many (not all) ceasefire agreements, and has prevented rocket fire from others into Israel. And yet the fact of their existence is used as an excuse for a suffocating blockade that is slowly devastating and destroying a people, even when a majority of the people shun violent tactics in their struggle for freedom.
The hallmark of a scapegoat is not innocence but isolation. Calling out Hamas’s crimes is not scapegoating, but attributing all the blame for this crisis to them is. Hamas is not innocent, but they are being used in order to deflect all responsibility from a crisis in which Israel must recognize its participation. As long as Hamas is scapegoated, death may well come to Gaza before peace does, and Israel, which has total control over the lives of the people in the region, will bear the most responsibility.
4. Friends Help Make Peace, Not War. The United States Has Not Been A Friend to Israel, Let Alone Palestine.
A good friend may stand by a friend in trouble, but a good friend does not encourage the worst of a friend’s behavior.
The United States has never been a true partner for peace in the conflict between Israel and Palestine, because it consistently allows for the inhumane treatment of or disregard for the voice and concerns of Palestinians. The United States has vetoed resolutions designed to rein in Israel’s militarism against Palestinians and other Arab nations 43 times. Furthermore, the United States has recently signed an agreement to give $38 billion in military aid to Israel over the next decade.
Violence begets violence. By enabling Israeli violence against the Palestinians, the United States is exacerbating conditions under which Palestinians may also use violence. But it must be noted that in the Great March of Return, the violence on the part of a minority of protesters (the majority were peaceful) in Gaza did not threaten any Israeli citizen, and most protesters remained nonviolent. In fact, Palestine has a history of nonviolent resistance. The United States would be a better friend of Israel as well as Palestine if it acknowledged this history and used it to encourage a peaceful resolution to decades-long conflict, rather than continually support Israel in its ultimately self-defeating enmity over and against Palestinians. This does not mean that the United States should unconditionally side with Palestine. It just means that, were it a true friend, the United States would acknowledge that many Israeli actions against Palestinians are not conducive to peace or long-term reconciliation, and unconditional support for Israel against Palestine is not real friendship.
To be a true friend to Israel, the United States would also be a friend to Palestine, and would encourage empathy and embrace over enmity. But we can hardly be an honest broker for peace when our policies show that we ourselves do not recognize or apply these truths. With the current administration employing the same dehumanizing language against immigrants that Nazis applied to Jews, US policy is exacerbating violence and pain. The irony of a nation that refuses to admit refugees created in the wake of its own violence supporting another nation that refuses refugees their right of return is not lost on the world. Only when empathy opens all our hearts to repent and repair the damage of dehumanization – in the United States, Israel, Gaza and everywhere – will our full humanity be restored.
5. Peace is Possible
The final truth I want to share is the truth of enduring hope through all the heartache and pain. I believe with all my heart that peace is possible. I believe that love is stronger than hate. Enmity may stretch wide between lands and peoples, but empathy reaches deeper into the human heart. I believe that peace can prevail.
The truth is that the seeds of peace have already been planted in the “Promised Land” and scattered the world over. The conflict over the land has both secular and spiritual roots, but within these same roots lies the hope of reconciliation.
I am among those who believe that there is a chosen people blessed by God, and that the Promised Land is a blessing. But “chosen people” does not refer to a particular race, or to any people chosen over and against others. The founding story of the Jewish faith, the Exodus, is the story of God choosing to liberate and show solidarity not with an ethnic group, but with people from a multitude of nations who were excluded, marginalized, and oppressed. In his masterful Bible Study Seven Stories, theologian Anthony Bartlett explains how the term “Hebrew” comes from the Ancient Near Eastern people known as the Hapiru, “a loosely defined, inferior social class… without secure ties to settled communities… displaced persons, refugees, outlaws.” (Seven Stories 51-52).
What this means is that God chooses the oppressed, the marginalized, the displaced, the outcast, in order to bless the world by teaching us inclusion. The father of the three monotheistic faiths that comprise the holy land – Abraham – was blessed to be a blessing to the whole world. That blessing is God’s guidance of humanity away from ways of oppression and marginalization, away from the ways of exclusion and identity at the expense of others.
The Promised Land, as Dr. Bartlett goes on to explain, is the tangible blessing of a land in which a people liberated from oppression may become a community and learn the ways of love, mercy, and justice. The blessings of love and mercy and justice were always meant to reach beyond the land to the ends of the earth. The scriptural depiction of the land is what Dr. Bartlett coins a “shell story,” a tangible place containing the social conditions for a new story, a new humanity, to emerge. The land is the shell in which the pearl is formed, or the womb in which new life is born. It is important, but it is meant to nurture, not confine, the blessing of peace, love, and the truth of humanity’s interconnection to one another that bursts beyond the borders and permeates the world.
In all times and places, God blesses the marginalized and oppressed, which means God blesses the refugees of the Shoah and their descendants and the refugees of the Nakba and their descendants. The promise of the land is that God will make a home for the homeless, and just as that promise goes beyond a chosen race, so it goes beyond a chosen territory. The promise of the land was to be model of inclusive love to the world, which in its entirety is a blessing.
Failure to understand the all-inclusive love of God has turned the holy land, the cradle of a growing and developing nonviolent humanity, into a hotbed of violence, though the love of God and God’s beloved people still flows through it. But if a “Jewish state” is manifested as a state in which the oppressed and marginalized are included, restorative justice heals communities, and all people recognize their interconnection in love, then the best of Judaism works hand-in-hand with the best of Christianity, the best of Islam, and the best of humanity. Then the “promised land” could be a place in which people live out the best of their faith, and the best of their humanity, without labels that exclude others but within hearts opened to see the best of one-another.
Indeed, for those who do not believe in God, or those whose faith is not the reason for their connection to Israel or Palestine, the deep human connections between Israelis and Palestinians should provide a foundation of empathy on which to build community and peace. Both people have known oppression and marginalization, but also resilience and love. A land in which communities are defined over and against one another is unsustainable, but a land in which people know themselves by the love that connects them to others can flourish beyond what we now dare to imagine.
And of course, this is true not only of Israel and Palestine, but of this entire beautiful, battered and broken world. The enmity and brutality and defining of the self over-and-against others that is suffocating Gaza is also squeezing the life out of this fragile world in which we all must live with each other. The world has an obligation not only to help Palestinians and Israelis share the land on which they reside, but to share this planet that is large enough for our cooperation but far too small for our continued division. Imagine all the people sharing all the world. The truth is, in Love, this too is possible.
Images: Left: Screenshot from Youtube: “Israeli and Palestinian Friends Come On People Smile on Your Brother,” by Kathleen Helen Walker. Right: Screenshot from Youtube: “Israeli military shoot and kill Palestinian protesters in Gaza,” by CBC News: The National