In the News

The New York Times
Aug. 9, 2014
Will the Voices of Conscience Be Heard? The Gaza War, and Israel’s Ethical Challenge
By ROGER COHEN

There are good people and bad leaders the world over, but perhaps nowhere more so than in the Middle East. Plenty of Israelis and Palestinians work to build bridges, but their voices are lost in the stampede of zealots schooled in hatred and cynics adept in the manipulation of fear for the consolidation of power.

I was reminded of this in recent weeks. An email from an Israeli woman, Ruth Harari, told me of how her parents arrived in what would become Israel from Ukraine and Poland in the 1920s, how they built a kibbutz, how she was educated there in “the values and principles of freedom, honoring human beings whoever they were.” Her forebears stayed in Europe, where they vanished in the Holocaust. Hardship in the Holy Land never diluted her parents’ commitment to Israel and justice, ideas indivisible to them.

“We still have values,” she wrote during the third and most deadly Gaza eruption in six years, with its almost 2,000 dead, most of them Palestinian civilians. “For that reason, I argue, it is more painful for me as an Israeli to hear and see the footage of the innocents, children especially, in Gaza, and to read about the suffering inflicted upon them not only by Israeli attacks, but by the ferocity of their leadership. We have to sit and talk. We have to live with one another.”

What do such words amount to? No more than confetti in a gale, perhaps, scattered by the force of Hamas, and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and the unblushing Jewish advocates of forcible removal of Palestinians from Gaza, the West Bank and even Israel itself.

The center, it seems, cannot hold. This little war has had about it something of the Salem witch trials, bookended by murky incidents of murder or disappearance generating mass hysteria. With each war, each tweet, even, vitriol grows.

Hannah Arendt warned of the dangers of nationalism in a Jewish state; she thought it might be redoubled by dependence on the United States. I find another thought of hers more important: “Under conditions of terror, most people will comply but some people will not. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.”

Conscience and individual courage do count, even if they appear powerless, especially if they appear powerless.

In a different context, the words of the father of Muhammad Abu Khdeir, the Palestinian boy killed in the buildup to the war, count: “Whether Jew or Arab, who would accept that his son or daughter would be kidnapped and killed?”

I talked to Andy Bachman, an American rabbi and friend. He is just back from two weeks in Israel. “I hear vile stuff,” he said. “My job is hope.” Never, he believes, has it been more critical for moderate Israelis and Palestinians to raise their voices in common cause. If Hamas is to be disarmed, as it must be, the only way in the end is to win the hearts and minds of other Palestinians through economic progress and justice.

Bachman, reflecting on the war’s moral dilemmas, cited the biblical story of Samuel. As Samuel ages, people see that his bribe-taking sons are not leadership material. They ask him to find them a king. Samuel consults God, who laments that “they have rejected Me, that I should not be King over them.” If the people only followed God’s law, they would not need a ruler. Samuel warns the people of the future predations of any king, but they will not be swayed. They insist “that we also may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles.” In the end, God acquiesces.

For Bachman, the tension between living in a divine world of perfect justice and the violent human realm of imperfect choices is captured here. Zionism was just that: the desire to be “like all the nations,” a normal people with a leader — but that also means, in Bachman’s words, “making pained and sometimes horrible choices.” He said, “As a parent, I mourn so greatly the loss of innocent life. And equal to that feeling is one of horror and shame that Hamas ran a campaign knowing that would happen, making it part of their strategy.”

In Israel, Bachman works with Rebecca Bardach on a project called Hand in Hand: Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel. It now runs five bilingual schools with 1,100 students, children learning Hebrew and Arabic and, above all, how coexistence works. The aim is to grow to as many as 15 integrated bilingual schools over the next decade.

Like individual voices of conscience, such undertakings seem flimsy beside walls, blockades, bullets, bombs, rockets and the relentless process of separation and division that pulls Jews and Palestinians apart. They are flimsy but no less important for that. They make the stranger human. They are interceptors of fear. The most useful commodity for the merchants of war and hatred is fear.

It will take immense courage now for Israelis who wrestle with their consciences to raise their voices for a two-state peace — and just as much for Palestinians to engage in open self-criticism of disastrous choices. The next time hundreds of thousands of Israelis take to the streets for cheap housing, they should draw a connection between that demand and the billions spent on the occupation. An Israeli zealot killed Yitzhak Rabin. He cannot be allowed to kill Rabin’s last endeavor.

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