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On War & Palestine

James Baldwin Awtt Portrait

“People who treat other people as less than human should not be surprised when the bread they have cast on the waters comes floating back to them, poisoned.” 

      –James Baldwin

Most of the world’s stockpiles of chemical, biological and nerve agent weapons have been destroyed in the past 30 years. This is a good thing. But for reasons that are not altogether clear to me, it’s thought more reprehensible to murder people with invisible diseases and toxic droplets than to dismember and shred them with bullets, fire, explosions and shrapnel. One thinks of phalanxes of WWI soldiers – British and German – ordered to charge each other, totally exposed, across no-man’s land into withering machine gun fire. Often no one survived the charge. Minutes later, the next battalion was ordered to follow, stumbling forward over the bodies of their comrades. Sometimes men ran into yellow clouds of mustard gas which killed or crippled them while they were also being shot. Are we to assume that a victim of gas gasped, “Foul!” whereas a man shot through the neck used his last gurgling breath to say, “That was fair. Hooray for the laws of war!” 

Now imagine millions of young men and women being a country’s reservoir for the future, and imagine leaders opening the gates of that reservoir so that they pour down the drain, and imagine that no one can tell you exactly why this has to be done.

War is abominable. The warmakers are abominable. The torturous moral logic that presumes one kind of killing ethically superior to another is also abominable. And what’s perhaps even more abominable is the moral justification that proceeds the actual killing – that one’s enemy is less human than yourself and deserves to suffer horrible death. To that end our scientists are put to work devising – at great profit to the manufacturers – horrendously efficient instruments of death so that we may indulge in an orgy of blood, fear, hatred, revenge, and utter madness. Because all wars careen into madness, we must ask, lamenting, like the great English soldier-poet Wilfred Owen, “Was it for this the clay grew tall?”  Owen was killed, November 4, 1918, a week before the Armistice. 

When wars begin, though, it’s important to ask, “What was the context?” That, not the question about why or how people kill, is the question whose answer may prevent another war. Immediately, when Hamas terrorists stormed across the fences in southern Israel and slaughtered 1300 Israelis, leaders in the Israeli government said that these terrorists hate Israel and want only to kill Jews with a blind, existential, genetic hatred. Such people, they say, must be eradicated. By any means necessary. This explanation was similar to George W. Bush’s after 9-11. The Arab terrorists in the airplanes hated our freedoms. We must kill them wherever they are and, for good measure, any civilians who happen to be in the vicinity. The more of their ilk killed, the better.

Pathologies of hatred, from either side, have a reason – an experiential, historical reason that is not ethnic or genetic. To explain the origin of a pathology is not to condone or justify it. To explain it is to humble ourselves before the blowback from atrocious acts and to offer ourselves an opportunity to do things differently in the future, to retrieve our humanity and the humanity of our enemy. Perhaps, too, understanding the pathology of homicidal hatred points toward healing. It’s there – not in battlefield strategy or new devious weaponry – that real peace can be won.

For seventy-five years Israel has oppressed the Palestinians with a violent military occupation.  The oppression began by the taking of the Palestinian land to make a Jewish state. The Jewish state was not the problem itself, but the manner of ethnic cleansing visited on the Palestinians to remove, marginalize and dehumanize them was the problem. The country the Israelis call the only democracy in the Middle East has been, for the Palestinians, a racist, totalitarian apartheid nightmare that strips them of their humanity, their dignity, and their hope while also taking more and more of their land, imprisoning and killing those who resist. 

Dr Alice Rothchild Awtt Portrait

The rage  with which the Israelis are now obliterating Gaza is the twisted mirror image of the rage of the Hamas terrorists. If there is any truth to the claim that Hamas has no purpose but to kill Jews, there is just as much truth to the claim that the Israelis are equally dedicated to killing Palestinians. The systematic oppression by one created the other. That is the context; that is the pathology. When Netanyahu looks in the mirror, what he would see, if he were honest, is a Hamas terrorist. People who criticize Israel’s actions  are often attacked as anti-semitic. The Jewish American activist for Palestinian rights Alice Rothchild said this:  “Surely history will teach us that Israel cannot claim a special moral dispensation because of past suffering, and then behave immorally. Misusing the term anti-Semitism to characterize criticism of Israeli behavior ultimately renders the term meaningless.”

Who am I to say these things? I’m neither Muslim nor Jew. I’m a white, agnostic American who has twice visited Israel and the West Bank. I’ve witnessed the mammoth separation wall, the barbed wire fences, the prosperous Israeli life flourishing at the expense of forced Palestinian poverty, the refugee camps of people exiled from their homes, the constantly encroaching Israeli settlements taking more and more Palestinian land, uprooting their olive groves, the hopelessness and despair of the oppressed. 

I paint portraits of Americans who have struggled on behalf of the underdog, people who believe that the ideals of this country should be available and true for everyone, people who have denounced hypocrisy and insisted on justice. I painted a portrait of Rachel Corrie, an American girl who was purposely run over, crushed, and murdered by an Israeli bulldozer in 2003 while she was trying to protect, nonviolently, a Palestinian home from being demolished. Israeli courts never admitted a crime was committed.

Rachel Corrie Awtt Portrait

Rachel Corrie understood that the United States government has taken sides in this struggle, supported Israel, called them a great ally who has our total support to protect themselves. Because the U.S. has done nothing to diminish the daily oppression of  the Palestinians, Rachel felt morally bound to stand with the victims. She was the beneficiary of their gratitude and generosity. She understood their rage. She understood that the US government was also protecting Israel from acknowledging and taking responsibility for its crimes.

Rachel Corrie said, “We can work with them [the Palestinians], and they know that we work with them, or we can leave them to do this work themselves and curse us for our complicity in killing them.” That suggests another quote from James Baldwin: “…anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.”

And, we should add, turns its victims into monsters, too.

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