My friend heard it from Wilbert Rideau, a writer she admires. He was commenting on the constraints that shape certain prison writers’ perspectives. “They can only see the world,” he said, “through the lens of their own pain.”
Some of us are imprisoned by iron and stone, some by cages erected in our own minds. When you are so identified with your own story that you can admit no other truth, pain owns your vision. The only antidote is awareness, which can sometimes be activated by glimpsing a wider lens (check out the wise writings I’ve linked at the end of this post).
I’ve put off writing about Israel and the Gaza flotilla, even though they are much in my mind, because I didn’t want to rattle people’s reactivity, unleashing the friend-or-foe perspective so often seen through the lens of pain. But then this statement was posted to a progressive Jewish e-list: “Maybe I live too much now in the 1930’s and am experiencing these times as 1938.”
Since Israeli troops landing on the Mavi Marmara at the end of May killed nine protestors, there has been a flood of such messages. When online exchanges reach a certain level of impassioned belligerence, I can’t help myself: I have to stop lurking and chime in. Last week, I posted twice to the aforementioned e-list. I’m going to include excerpts from my messages, so you can judge for yourself the character of my statements.
The day after the Mavi Marmara incident, I wrote in hope of short-circuiting an escalating competition, in which political disagreement had devolved to ad hominem challenges. One list member posed to another a set of questions mimicking his own draft board’s interrogation during the Vietnam era. In those days, draft boards asserted that one couldn’t support a claim for exemption from the draft on the grounds of conscientious objection unless absolute pacifism was proven. They commonly asked young men if they would rise in defense if their mothers or sisters were attacked by a rapist. A “Yes” would disqualify them for C.O. status. The aim was to authorize as few C.O.s as possible, so draft boards set the bar sky-high by focusing on purely personal questions, even though the issue was conscientious objection to war. My response included these paragraphs:
Now, the world faces an explosive international incident around the Israeli raid on the flotilla attempting to break the Gaza blockade, and part of this online dialogue seems to be turning on challenges to individuals very like the challenges draft boards issued to applicants for conscientious objector status 45 years ago. Why? My guess is that it is so much easier to focus on such detail than on the real and painful questions at hand. In such situations, what happens between individuals does seem to mirror the larger debate: loudly opposing opinions fill the air. Each side cites history in its defense. Accusations of bad faith and hypocrisy are flung. Everything seems to turn on details, while the big picture is lost.
As always, many things are true simultaneously. Israel has taken steps that now attract a flood of horrified criticism. (Personally, the best light I can put on this is as a grotesque miscalculation in the service of a counter-productive policy, but the details of my opinions don’t matter any more than any other individual’s.) There is no question that world opinion judges Israel more harshly than other nations, and people feel the unfairness of this. In the U.S., many people focus on Israel’s transgressions with a vigor and venom that far exceeds the attention they give to other nations’ misdeeds, including their own. Some people seem to think the remedy for this is to back off, granting Israel the same indifference that allows other nations to imprison, kill, or torture with impunity. To me, it seems quite clear the moral response is to hold all nations to the same high standards.
A few days later, I wrote again in response to a list member posting a Web page picturing market stalls in Gaza, heaped high with food and consumer goods. This elicited bitter sarcasm about the need for aid. I used a Web utility to translate the page from Arabic, learning that the photos had been taken in November 2009, during preparations for Eid ul-Fitr, the festival marking the end of Ramadan. My message pointed out that no picture tells the whole story (in most American cities, for instance, it is possible to take pictures of extreme abundance, then drive a short way and capture images of blocks that resemble the aftermath of bombing raids); and that if abundant market stalls are a reason to withhold aid, then it should be withdrawn from many relatively prosperous countries, including Israel. I continued:
Third, intimating that aid is conditioned entirely on economic need evades the underlying questions raised by a blockade, which have more to do with autonomy, access, and freedom of movement than with the availability of fresh fruit. Whether or not you think the evidence is there to support dire economic need is one question. Whether or not you support the boycott is another. Would you willingly submit to a blockade so long as you had enough consumer goods? Most of us value our freedom more than that.
Finally, if you think it is valid to question aid based on indicators of material need, then it is your obligation to consult agencies and indicators that offer fuller and more objective evidence. There are many international bodies, both secular and faith-based, that publish regular reports on poverty levels and other measurable indicators. If you want to challenge aid to Gaza (or Israel, or any nation) based on these, that is at least defensible. This is not.
After each message, I received quite a few private replies thanking me for offering a balanced perspective, while a couple of people replied to the whole list defending Israel against the attack they perceived in my words. I feel certain that the positive responses were private because their authors did not wish to open themselves to censure from those who view the world through pain-ground lenses, those who experience all divergent views as attacks.
The person who compared our own times to 1938 wasn’t responding to me, but to another contributor who’d posted a condemnation of a crude video parody of “We Are The World,” portraying anti-blockade protestors as con artists.
In Germany in 1938, a nearly unanimous popular referendum granted sole political power to the Nazi Party and approved the annexation of Austria. The terrible pogrom of Kristallnacht initialized the binge of killing, imprisonment, and confiscation that led to systematic genocide, with the SS, Gestapo, and Hitler Youth rounding up 30,000 Jews in a single night for shipment to concentration camps.
It takes my breath away to imagine viewing the world through the lens of inherited pain that distorts the present climate for Israel into something that can be compared to that defining moment, the last German election until the war’s end, in which a vast population consented to tyranny and gorged on blood.
But the legacy of inherited pain isn’t confined to Jews. This distorted vision is epidemic, virulent, and terrifyingly widespread around the globe, affecting Israelis, diaspora Jews, Palestinians, and their advocates along with so many others. It generates a chain-reaction, with each set of blind spots and reactivity triggering the other. Outside the Mideast, the war of words escalates; on the ground, the weapons are more damaging, but the pattern is the same.
The miracle and saving grace is that not everyone has succumbed. I want to commend you to three pieces of writing that shed light, by authors who perceive many shades of truth, not just black and white.
On June 1, the New York Times published an op-ed by Israeli writer Amos Oz, whose family emigrated to Israel from Eastern Europe in the mid-1930s, warning of the intoxication with force and its consequences. On the same day, U.S. journalist George Packer posted a New Yorker blog entitled, “Israel Takes the Bait.”
On June 5th, Israeli writer Uri Avnery, whose family fled to Israel from Nazi Germany, who founded the peace organization Gush Shalom, published a remarkable essay about the British blockade intended to prevent ships of Holocaust survivors from landing in Palestine, and how it backfired. That same day, the 86 year-old author was physically attacked as he attempted to make his way home from a large peace demonstration in Tel Aviv’s Museum Square.
Each piece’s perspective is its author’s, none identical, but they all make the point that certainty of one’s rightness (and of the other’s evil) is dangerous to both parties’ well-being, and indeed, to survival. The danger applies equally to those who see Israel as justified in any action they deem defensive (which too often includes all actions); to those who excuse suicide bombings; to those who ignore the damage done by our own nations’ definition of national and corporate interest. The Sermon on the Mount seems apt: “First cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.”
In any debate conducted in the polarized light of lenses ground by pain, one evergreen tactic is questioning people’s right to an opinion. If you don’t live here, each person says, pointing to a particular patch of ground or even to a particular shape of flesh and blood, you can’t know, you can’t say, so back off and shut up. It’s an all-purpose argument that can be deployed to any end. During the sixties civil rights movement in the American South, white supremacists said this to discredit freedom riders and other northerners who came down to Mississippi, Georgia, and Alabama to support the movement. Later on, Black nationalists said it to exclude white activists from a movement that they believed should be led exclusively by people subject to the oppressions it arose to defeat. Women said it to question anti-choice men’s right to have a say on abortion. Israelis say it to question others’ right to speak about their country’s policies.
So in addition to the words of Oz and Avnery, who have certainly earned their bona fides as Israelis, I want to end with a quotation from Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (commonly, Rav Kook), the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of the British-controlled Palestine. He died in 1935, but his vision of righteousness still seems futuristic when compared with the policies of virtually all existing nations. These are excerpts from a longer essay which, while written with specific reference to the Jewish state, seems well worth pondering for everyone, everywhere:
There is a certain convention that has become accepted by practically the entire human race, and that is the right of every nation to aggrandize itself at the expense of other nations. Even supposedly righteous rulers are guilty of having shed blood to bring enhanced material prosperity to their nation, without so much as a thought to the havoc wreaked on surrounding nations. Even though human decency dictates that the individual not pursue success through the destruction of fellow humans, on the national level—so according to conventional wisdom—there is free license to achieve success, come what may. Even those who shun military exploits, are incapable of desiring the success of other nations to the same degree they seek their own nation’s advancement. The most righteous of individuals would find strange the thought that all human beings be given the same advantage seeing as one God created us in His image. This chauvinist thinking is so ingrained in human nature, that even the great champions of justice defend this notion by saying that the scientific and material development of the world requires that nations compete against one another.
Now one might receive the mistaken impression that the Torah endorses this attitude, whereby we should assign a greater value to our own people’s good than to the welfare of others. After all, the Torah commands the Children of Israel to conquer the land from the indigenous nations. But this is clearly unacceptable! How could God, Whose mercy extends to all His creations, oppress His own handiwork?! How could the Most High command that we remove from our hearts the well being of the entire human race for our own selfish good?! Therefore, at the time the covenant was first established with our ancestor Abraham, a divine protest was lodged: The very thought of nationalism is despicable to God, for He equates all mankind. The goal is to seek the true success of all God’s creations. True justice means that one views with equal concern the advancement of the entire human race.
If we try to see Rav Kook’s words through the lens of our own pain, they are written in invisible ink. This is my prayer, that this message will be read and heeded in my own country, the United States, in Israel, in Palestine, in all the nations of the earth. I don’t imagine it is easy to enlarge even a single individual’s sight, let alone to shift entrenched ideas of national interest, only that there is no alternative if we wish to live in peace.