I really don’t want to write about this.
I’ve been procrastinating all week, waiting for another blog idea to pop onto my mindscreen, but the only topic that comes up is the aching, bleeding, pulsating Middle East. Or more accurately, the shadowy simulacrum of the Middle East that swirls through cyberspace, swamping everything.
My thoughts and feelings about this are so complicated, I find myself wishing for Alexander’s sword to cut through them, just as he severed the Gordian knot. Evidently, I’m not the only one, as rhetorical swords are being brandished everywhere I look. My hope is that picking at my own knotted feelings might help a few others unknot too.
None of us can know what it feels like to be on the ground in a war zone unless we are there. But when any spot becomes a huge festering boil of a war zone like the Middle East, the energies radiate to every corner of the planet. I hate to see this blood-in-the-teeth intensity of objectification, vilification and zealotry that has normally intelligent, compassionate and kind people in its grip, but I see it every day, right here in my email inbox.
This past week, I received two messages that formed a perfect partnership in venom. Each one spoke of an entire people–Jews on the one hand, Arabs on the other–in terms I feel fairly sure the good people who sent them would never have applied to any other group under any other circumstance. In fact, I’m not going to quote a single word here, because I don’t want to add to the freight of damaging speech clogging the Internet right now. Each message used the same rhetorical strategies to assert the superiority of its viewpoint:
- One email came from a friend who is not Jewish, but is a steady consumer of alternative news and commentary from the left. It condemned Israeli leaders, comparing them to Nazis. It even used a photograph of a rabbi taking part in a sacred ceremony to suggest there must be some basis for the ancient blood-libel which has proven a perennial best-seller in Arab bookstores, effectively portraying Jews as vampires. In the introductory material (it originated at a Palestinian Web site), the message was trumpeted as especially valid and important because it had been written by a Jew.
- The other email came from a Jewish friend closely tied to Israel. It condemned Palestinians as useless, bloodthirsty and lazy (among other things). It dredged up the old charge that there was not a people called “Palestinian” before Israel was created, as if the meaning of displacement and oppression were contingent on correct nomenclature. In the introductory material (it originated at an Israeli Web site), the message was trumpeted as especially valid and important because it was written by a non-Jew.
What does it mean when people lob these rhetorical grenades at each other? See? Even someone whose blood contradicts his message is on my side! To me, it speaks first and foremost of the exhaustion of thought. While reptile brains are in control, nothing good can come of it.
Following the news only confirms this impression. I listen to analysts speak of “strategic aims”–the statement Israel has written in blood, how Hezbollah has countered in fire, what each hopes to gain by it. Hearing about half a million displaced in Lebanon, I try to imagine how it must feel to have just begun to recover a sense of possibility in that suffering country and to see the rockets fly again. I see images of Israelis, Jews and Arabs both, huddling in shelters or standing open-mouthed and frozen in the streets as destruction rains, and try to imagine myself in their place. I read in this morning’s New York Times how Kofi Annan wants a cease-fire: “Both the deliberate targeting by Hezbollah of Israeli population centers with hundreds of indiscriminate weapons and Israel’s disproportionate use of force and collective punishment of the Lebanese people must stop,” acknowledging that it will be difficult, but necessary and possible with international support.
I read how our ambassador to the UN countered with a string of words I can hardly decipher: “It is just not appropriate to talk about a cease-fire that is the alpha and omega of the situation, and in fact the secretary general himself said that you want to have a fundamental transformation. The last thing you want to do is fall back on business as usual.” This is a putative world leader saying it’s better to keep bombing and shooting than even try to stop? While reptile brains are in control, nothing good can come of it.
I have exhausted my capacity and willingness to take part in the rhetorical analog to this parody of diplomacy. My heart is tied in a knot, and it is being squeezed to the breaking-point.
The knot began to take shape as I grew up Jewish in the generation following the Holocaust. From earliest childhood, I was imprinted with a litany of dead relatives and the persistence of the dangers to which they succumbed: what it is to be hated as an Other, how the hatred lurks, how you never know. My sensors are highly developed, but the truth is that most of the hate speech about Jews I have heard doesn’t require much sensitivity to decode. Usually, the hurtful words have come through plain and clear.
I have been told by people living in remote hollers that Jews carry the mark of the beast. I have been asked by people in the rural south to explain why everyone hates the Jews, and when I had finished delivering my capsule analysis, been told, “Well, I see their point.” I have been told by a sophisticated activist that “there must be a material basis for anti-Semitism because it has persisted so long.” Some of these people were poor white, some middle-class African Americans, some first-generation immigrants from Eastern Europe. And I would have no trouble adding enough to this list to fill an entire essay and touch on every ethnic group and condition of life.
Yet it is also true that the vast majority of people I have met don’t feel contempt. They might not know much about Judaism, they might misspeak or inadvertently ask painful questions, but they are not driven by baseless hatred. Having learned to keep my guard up can obscure that truth: it’s easy for me to feel the pinch and imagine it was intended to hurt.
When something dreadful happens between Israel and its neighbors–especially when Israel’s excesses are as undeniable as the excesses of its opponents, as in its recent actions–I am used to hearing things that pinch, or at least come through at a volume that is hard on my ears. One knotty problem for me is to explain that volume. Why is it that I receive so many messages from people who want to persuade me to feel precisely as they do about the situation in the Middle East, while our own government’s actions have led to killings in Iraq that each month exceed the terrible death toll in Israel, Palestine and Lebanon and most of my correspondents say little or nothing?
I think there is a bitter lump of undigested distaste for Jews’ Otherness revealed in the frequent character and intensity of outrage against Israel in comparison to all the other nations of the earth; and a bitter lump of undigested distaste for Palestinians’ and Arabs’ Otherness in the permission supporters of Israel frequently give themselves to vent their hatred. When someone tries to feed it to me, I hope I continue to spit it out. I hope I will continue to put myself on the side of peace, to avoid being held captive by my own sensitivities and to speak out where I think my words might help.
But really, I am on the side of the neocortex, the higher-functioning, conscious brain. Unless it gets into the game, it’s hard to forsee an ending other than a heap of broken bodies. When we are tied in knots and swamped in confusion, when we feel the fever of righteousness rising through our bodies, in truth, that is probably a good time to do nothing at all. (How I wished we had paused before taking action after 9/11!) It is not a good time to get people’s blood up with hate speech and polarizing rhetoric. One small thing I’m determined to do is read emails before I forward them, performing that old reliable test, transposing labels, substituting something near to myself for the object of the writer’s animosity. If I wouldn’t forward a message if it said the identical thing about Jews (or for you, dear reader, Asians, Latinos, Arabs or any other group, depending on your own sensitivities) my plan is to hit “delete” and at least feel that I haven’t poured another shot of adrenalin into the lethal mix.