Sometimes in the construction of a better world, it is necessary to go into the heart of darkness, to quote Conrad. Sometimes it is only in exploring our heart of darkness that we can figure out where we are, so that we know how to get beyond our current fallen state. I am drunk with blood these days, thoughts of blood, fear of blood, the rage of boiling blood, and so is anyone for whom Palestine and Israel are a fixation.
This report of carnage in a Gaza hospital in all its horrifying details is typical of the innocents who are being cut to pieces. What stands out is the report of the impatient, smiling Islamic Jihad fighter who is just thrilled with the blood of his own people. New recruits to his cause. He sees around him a man with his brain spilling out, and his family wailing, other people cut to pieces, a girl screaming from shrapnel in her leg, a baby wounded and dazed. But this man is thrilled, and impatient to get a doctor to fix his minor leg wound so that he can go out and fight. He says, “They lost their loved ones as martyrs. They should be happy. I want to be a martyr, too.” I think of the ecstatic smile on his face, the eagerness for blood spilled, his people, his own, the Israelis, does not seem to matter, for the situation has created more recruits and that is all that matters, to continue the bloodfest.
I try to remember my spiritual discipline which calls upon me to sympathize with those who suffer, even with those who suffer due to their own sin. Mostly I fail to sympathize but I keep trying. Every day I am bombarded by propaganda from the anti-Palestinian side, from very clever PR firms and volunteers working for the so-called pro-Israel side, whose job it is to make me hate and fear the Arabs, with Hamas being a great pretext. They have recruited my own family to ensure that the peacemakers are completely isolated. It is so easy to look at this man in the hospital, bloodthirsty, so that I can ease my conscience and say to myself, “We had no choice but to attack. Such a man can only be killed. That is the only thing his family will understand.” This is a powerful way that millions of people, including major global leaders, East and West, are easing their conscience about the carnage in Gaza. Apparently Israel convinced even the Palestinian leadership that they could ‘take out’ Hamas with minimal loss of civilian life, and because Hamas has created a war against fellow Palestinians as well, it was easy for the Palestinian leaders to be duped into this. Now they regret it, dazed by the Israel Defense Forces’ capacity for mass violence.
They remind me of we, the American people, who were duped by the Neoconservatives and the White House into making the destruction of Saddam Hussein into the final battle with extremism, and meanwhile we had given the green light to destroy an entire civilization, and to torture its men to death. This is our responsibility, for we were duped by people who were duping themselves with a failed and mad ideology.
The folly of war, the bizarre psychology of child-like obedience to authority, was alive and well when I was in Israel, and I knew it well from the post-911 period in the U.S. Good people really believed that this war would be the final blow to Hamas, then Fatah would return and we would have a good two state solution in the offing again. Good people believed this, I know them. Good people who have not seen with their hearts any of the carnage of Gaza, any of the piles of corpses of children cut in pieces, live in a world of their own self-righteousness. More ominous, they are making bedfellows with even more damaged people such as the tens of thousands of followers of Avigdor Lieberman who wants to send a nuclear bomb on Gaza, on Iran, and expel all the Arabs from Israel. His is the political party that will benefit most from this thirst for blood. Blood thirst is addictive, it is never satisfied. The Jewish people, unused to this thirst, are learning this the hard way, and I am finding more and more refugees from the organized Jewish community who no longer recognize their fellow Jews. My sympathies to their state of mind, to their sickness right now.
Other good people, absolutely outraged by those same dead bodies of Palestinian children, want to strike back. They too have become attached to and drunk with violence. They try to find the most hateful ways to injure Jews that they can possibly find. They reframe all tragedy, all loss of life in Gaza, all crimes of Israel, as Nazi crimes, as a holocaust, in order to hurt Jews the most, in order to deprive them of the legitimacy of their history as victims. We all know the motivation for this in terms of a political process of making Israel more and more of a pariah state.
I understand the logic, but it is the logic of total war and demonization. These people cannot stop obsessing with sending as many pictures of the dead around the internet as possible. It would be like Jews referring to every act of war against them as a Naqbeh, the Naqbeh of 2006 where thousands of Jews had to flee their homes in the North from Lebanese bombs and the Naqbeh of 2009 where so many thousands of residents in the South have to run from the bombs, traumatized by three years of unpredictable explosions. So what would be accomplished by this rhetorical disrespect of the Palestinian tragedy of 1948?
And so one who is in the middle, like I have been my whole life thanks to loving parents, is in constant reception of hate mail from both sides, designed to make me hate with as much venom as possible, in order to justify murder. My sympathies to all of them, for they are drunk with the hysteria of war, an hysteria that never produces the long term results that we all seek, safety, security, justice, peace.
Then I think back to a bus ride a few days ago. I took a bus from Jerusalem going south towards Eilat. I was going to meet wonderful Jews and Arabs who work and study together at the Arava Institute. On the bus in front of me were two young men, and one wanted to know who I was. As usual my work makes everyone want to give me their opinion on the war. His friend pipes in. His friend has an infectious smile, insists in Hebrew on knowing what kind of beer I drink (I don’t), and then gives me his opinion. With a crazy smile he says in Hebrew, “We have to kill all the Arabs, that is the solution.” As if I did not understand, he gets up and demonstrates while the bus tears down the narrow Dead Sea highway at 60 miles an hour. In a year he enters the IDF. So he shoots with his hands, and makes the sound, ‘tat-tat-tat-tat’, aiming in a broad arc, smiling, showing me how he would shoot a whole village.
I maintain my composure, weary but persistent in doing my job. So I thought about it and asked earnestly, “Why do you like to kill peopIe so much?” He has no reply, just smiles. I ask him if he is religious and does he think it is right to kill. He says he is not Jewish. “What are you?” “Christian,” he says. My mouth drops a little. Where do you live, “Kiryat Arba”, a central enclave of radical settlers. Nothing surprises me here anymore. Not missing a beat, I ask him if he thinks Jesus would want him to kill a whole village. So he says, “Yes!” with a big smile. So I start quoting from the New Testament. I say in Hebrew, “What do you think of the verse in the Sermon on the Mount, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God'”, quoting from Mathew. So here I am, a rabbi, quoting Jesus, to a Christian, who is a settler, with murder on his mind and a twinkle in his eyes.
After the bus ride I managed to go to the Arava Institute in order to meet with wonderful peace seeking students, Jewish and Arab, all trying to cope with the madness around them. I went to my room that night, had a minor medical problem that made me bleed profusely. I could not get it to stop. I imagine I had to spill some blood in obedience to the world I was in. Two days later the blood was gone, but the stain remained.
It is the smile on the bus that will stay with me, and it reminds me of its exact parallel to the smile of the jihadi in the Gaza hospital. I am thinking today that the fundamental mistake of policy makers is to think that you can bully someone into peace, with sanctions, with bombs, with threats, with hate. What these acts of violence really generate is not obedience or negotiated agreements but young people sucked into the madness of war.
The inescapable reality is that people have to really want peace. They have to work for it really hard, and if they are not ready to work really hard for it then it never comes, and no policy makers and no third party can accomplish anything if they do not lead people toward that desire. Diplomacy without people is folly, something Washington still does not understand. Of course, these two young men, ecstatic over murder, are not the norm, they are just casualties of worlds gone mad, men who act out, however, what so many others are feeling. What is more ominous is that Israeli news is completely focused on Israeli pain, victims of the rockets, soldiers’ families. That’s it. While on the internet I am bombarded by Palestinian pain, and the world will want to hear nothing anymore from Israelis and their story. I get the sense that even my closest friends view me with greater suspicion as a Jew since the Gaza war, whereas other Jews who support this war speak to me less and less. And this is the predictable course of war since the dawn of humankind, for we recognize the humanity in each other less and less with every drop of blood spilled in our name.
Then I think of the extraordinary women peacemakers who I filmed in Israel, trying to help the sons survive war and its madness, with their souls intact. I meet these women everywhere. I think of the few sons they created who are my fellow peacemaking men. I think of sanity as something as rare as a desert flower. I think of how much in history, in religious history, that men, theologians, political philosophers, tough men, associated women with irrationality, a paucity of reasoned thinking. And I am amused, and comforted.© Marc Gopin