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The Best Lack All Conviction

Laurie King-Irani  (June 2002)

Lately, we watch the news with one eye shut, the other wincing in anticipation of anguish. Although we mumble to ourselves "It can't possibly get worse" as the newscast reports that yet another dozen Israelis or Palestinians are dead, we dare not say it out loud, fearful of tempting fate by making such presumptuous statements. Things can, and probably will, get much worse - perhaps unimaginably so - in Israel and Palestine during this long, hot summer.

Acts that would have seemed unlikely only a year ago - population transfers, mass killings, illegal detentions, denial of water to entire cities, cruel sieges, prevention of medical intervention - all loom large as real possibilities now. The fact that silence reigns as dangers loom offers damning evidence of several failures - of decency, of nerve, of reason, of humanity, and of laws. And the blame is ample. There's a bumper crop of accusations to go around: Palestinians have failed, Israelis have failed, international laws have failed, the UN has failed, Arab governments have failed, and the US has failed.

Yet thanks to the unrelenting and skewed media focus on our New! Improved! global military and ideological project - the Holy War on Terror (aka "You're either with us or you're against us"), these serial failures are disguised as further adventures in the battle of Good vs Evil. On closer inspection, however, the global picture does not resemble a Hollywood blockbuster suffused with testosterone so much as it does a chilling poem composed nearly a century ago. William Butler Yeats' "The Second Coming" comments on dire political realities, but carries an ominous undertone of peril. The poem warns that something apocalyptic lurks in the background of our messy human affairs and political treacheries. One verse from that leaden poem comes back to haunt me again and again: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."

I defy anyone to describe the current situation on the ground in Israel / Palestine more succinctly than this. Yet despite countless clear signs of looming dangers, dire straits, sure suffering, and grave human rights violations, the main actors just keep on doing what they have always done, insanely digging deeper holes, irrationally adding more kerosene to leaping flames, blindly hunkering down in a hell of their own making.

Let's take the failures one at a time, although they are, of course, intertwined on many levels and thus only analytically separable: The Palestinians: You are not the Hizbullah. Martyrdom operations are not going to win for you what they won for the villagers of South Lebanon. Brush up on military history and take a good look at a map. You do not have strategic depth, you do not have strong allies, you do not have diplomatic cover or access to ports or roads through which to bring in back-up supplies, food, medicine, and weaponry. You are hemmed in from all sides - trapped, in fact, and hence you provide a very nice target for the IDF. Fish in a barrel, to be exact. Blowing up innocent civilians is ILLEGAL under international law. It is NOT part of a project of resistance. It is absolute stupidity.

But your bigger failure is your undeniable crisis of leadership, which offers Sharon a convenient "red herring" with which to distract the world from the real problem, which is, of course, Israel's continuting brutal occupation. Face it: Arafat is washed up. He is not a leader. He is not a president. He was merely a cheap subcontractor, under Oslo, for the Israeli occupation to continue by other means. His failure to be a good flunky and do what the IDF wanted him to do (ie to guarantee the personal, physical security of every single Israeli citizen and settler while Israel continued to take more and more land and water) is what really angered the Israeli political and military elite. Arafat can no more think a creative thought or take a brave decision or devise a bold plan than he can stop Hamas from blowing up buses.

Someone, please, take him aside, whisper in his ear that it's long past time to step down, and then bring in people of the calibre of the leadership of the First Intifada (1987-1993) to take over. It's time to break with the dead patriarchal past. The real, ultimate Intifada is the one all Palestinians have to make INSIDE themselves: the one that says "We can and must exercise power ourselves, not through feudal institutions, patron-client ties, village leagues, foreign assistance programs, or nice friends on the Israeli left." This is a "do it yourself job," and if you can't put forth a new, strong, brave, creative, and PRINCIPLED leadership capable of initiative, wisdom, courage, dignity, and stamina, then there really is no point in going on. Surrender and have done with it. If you can't do anything else, then at least save some of the lives that will, inevitably, be lost in the coming weeks. But it is no secret that there are many, many people in Palestine who meet the criteria for a new and needed leadership. They need to step forward. Now.

The Israelis: You are not God. You do not have an ancient and sacred right to all the land, the water, the air and the beasts and birds therein. The charter for your state is UN Resolution 181, not the Book of Genesis. You may have begun with the admirable aim of being a "light unto the nations," but you've ended up just another one of many boring ethnic-exclusivist nationalist movements trying to dress up its questionable aims in noble raiment. They might still buy your PR-spin and myths in the Bible belt, but then, they also don't believe in evolution in that part of the world, so it's no great feat to pull the wool over eyes that are already slammed shut. Among thinking people, there are growing doubts and qualms over the direction in which you are heading under Ariel Sharon. Building and expanding a state by means of murder, lies and theft is not what most reasonable people would consider good religious practice, let alone an assurance of future political security and economic prosperity. If having an ever-expanding, ethnically pure Jewish state is what you really want above all else, then please be really honest with yourselves and your backers in the US: such a project entails that, sooner or later, you will have to imitate Hitler to some extent or degree. Do you really want to go there? If so, I feel very sorry for your lack of vision and your narrowness of spirit. If so, please do not ask for my US tax dollars to commit the war crimes that will inevitably be committed as you pursue your perverted goals of ethnic exclusiveness (And let's not fool ourselves: 1948 was a year of many war crimes committed by you. No way around that. It's a fact. Your own historians could tell you as much, if you have not yet censored or fired them from their positions at university.)

Furthermore, please do not present your current "incursions," your "Operation: Let's kick some Arab ass and send George Bush Jr the bills," as part of a just war on terror, and please do not compare a guy blowing up a bus to the Nazi Holocaust, let alone to the atrocious and criminal acts that took nearly 4000 lives in the US last September.

If you want to occupy another people's land, rob them of hope, rights, freedom, dignity, water, finances, and a future worth living, expect a few of them to crack up every week and take extreme measures. What's remarkable to anyone who's spent time in the West Bank and Gaza is that more people have not been losing their minds and blowing themselves up a lot earlier. If you want this madness to stop, then turn all those tank around 180 degrees and get the hell out of the West Bank and Gaza. The UN has asked for this, International Humanitarian Law has asked for this, the EU has asked for this, the US has asked for this, the Arab League has asked for this, the Vatican has asked for this, hundreds of resolutions of trade unions and peace groups and church associations all over the planet have asked for this. So please spare us the histrionics and comply. For your own sake as well as that of the Palestinians.

And last but not least, please cut the crap about how ANY criticism of Israel or Ariel Sharon is ipso facto an act of anti-Semitism. It's ridiculous and dangerous to make such hysterical statements. It's a sign of some sort of narcissistic personality disorder writ large, and it's embarrasing, not to mention a denigration of those who have suffered actual anti-Semitism. Yes, there really is real anti-Semitism in the world, and it really is ugly and must be condemned. But if we redefine what that means such that anything that upsets Charles Krauthammer's delicate digestion qualifies, then we have descended into a realm of absurdity in which all sorts of really dangerous things can slide by unnoticed. Case in point: The Christian Right, whose minions in Congress make sure that money just keeps pouring in to Israel's coffers no matter what, is so very in love with Israel because, when Jesus comes back, just before he raptures all the good folks (ie NOT Democrats, homosexuals, Catholics, or Muslims) up to heaven, he's gonna convert ya'all to the true faith: Baptist Christianity and Sunday pork barbecues!! If that is not inherently anti-Semitic, then nothing is.

The UN: Grow a spine. Take calcium; it is supposed to help. War crimes are to be investigated, not swept under carpets while mumbling lame excuses. If you can't stand up to the US, then just close up shop and we can find something better to do with all that money.

The US: Wake up and take a reality pill. This is not a movie. This is not a computer game. Many, many lives hang in the balance - including American lives - as the situation in the Middle East spirals out of control. There is no "axis of evil," and you can indeed be with someone and against them at the same time. It's called maturity and responsible thinking. There is ambiguity and grey areas in the world, folks. A shock to a people raised on simplistic political pablum, but a reality that you cannot escape. You are not the pure, white Knight sitting exalted on a shining horse all the time, 24/7. You have done some very nasty things in the world. And guess what: a lot of people don't like it. They have memories longer than the six month memory span of the US public. There was indeed a political and historic context for the events of 9-11. That context still exists; if anything, it is more dangerous, volatile and well-defined now than it was a year ago. If you want to know why, look at some of the other items on this site, the diary postings from people in the West Bank and Gaza - Arabs and Jews; Americans, Israelis, Europeans and Palestinians - who have had to watch and experience amazing injustices, paid for by the US of A. Israel's Apache Attack helicopters don't grow on trees. You pay for them.

Just visit any refugee camp if you still have doubts about the context of the horrific attacks on the US and Israel. And yes, you'll have to actually get on a plane and go there, since CNN, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, NBC and all the other virtual reality portals that you mistake for reality will never take you deep into such a dehumanizing place. But you really ought to go, and you really ought to think critically about how and why your government (a government supposedly "by, of, and for the people") is implicated in perpetuating such human misery.

Israel's fight is not your fight, America. If, that is, you are still a country committed to the admirably noble values and principles immortalized in the US Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights. These are UNIVERSAL, not ethnic, principles. There's a big difference. The twin philosophical pillars of the founding documents of the United States of America are Equality and Justice. Both have historically, and structurally, been in very short supply in Israel - just ask Mizrahim (Jews from Arab countries and Iran) and Palestinian citizens of Israel if you have any doubts. (And lest we forget, if we ever knew in the first place, Israel is a country which does not have a constitution, though Ariel Sharon is now demanding that the Palestinians come up with one pronto before he'll agree to lifting curfews and removing his tanks. Chutzpah redefined.)

As the most powerful people on the earth, you have rights and privileges that are the envy of the world. But you also thereby have immense duties and obligations. First and foremost is the duty to ask, when looking at the US role in the entire Middle East: "Is this what I want to see done in my name and the name of my children?" If not, maybe it's time to do more than complain. Maybe it's time to question authority, assume nothing, and think critically.

The Arab Governments: You have no right whatsoever to condemn Israel for human rights abuses. Your own are, by and large, much darker and deeper. At least Israel is democratic in principle, if not in practice. At least it has a free press. At least abuses by the Israeli military and judiciary can be brought out in the open and discussed and critiqued in great detail. Clean up your own house before you run amok making amazingly stupid accusations about Jews using non-Jewish children's blood in religious ceremonies and who knows what else. You are a sad lot, an embarrassment, really.

The Arab People (including the Palestinians): You have so much more power and potential than you seem to realize. That's why your leaders fear, suffocate, and abuse you, with help of all kinds from the US. Real, participatory democracy in the Arab world scares America and Israel more than perverters of Islam like Osama bin Laden. Think hard about this. The future is, ultimately, in your hands. A huge percentage of you are not even 20 years old yet. You can and must make a difference. You can and must offer a new vision that breaks with the sterile and bloody past - Arab, Israeli, and American. You must claim your right to assert your own narrative. You've seen what does not work, so be creative and come up with something that does. Step up and take your role. It may be that the entire world - not just the Middle East - depends upon it.

- The Electronic Intifada - (23 June 2002)

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revised 18 November 2005