A story: Jerusalem Day, 2012. I am standing at the Damascus Gate, before the Israeli parade has made its way from West Jerusalem into the occupied parts of the city to celebrate “reunification.” I am watching two small demonstrations, separated by a police barrier. On one side, there is a group of young Israelis, mostly teenagers. They are waving Israeli flags, and their veins are bulging as they scream “Mavet LaAravim! Mavet LaAravim!” Death to Arabs! Death to Arabs! On the other side, there is a group of young Palestinian men, and they are also chanting and waving Palestinian flags, their fists clenched and their shouts filled with testosterone, “Khaybar Khaybar ya Yehud!” A reference to an incident in the 7th century in which Muslims forcibly expelled the Jews of Khaybar. And I think: they are so similar. We are so similar. We are all swept up in self-righteousness, we are all afraid and violent and capable of wishing expulsion and death on the other side.
And even as I am thinking this, a group of Israeli policemen ride up, on horseback, and begin hitting the Palestinian demonstrators with their riot sticks, other police join in and start kicking them, a number are arrested and dragged away, the rest run off, and then all that is left is the group of young Israeli men, halfheartedly continuing their chant in the center of Palestinian East Jerusalem with barely a Palestinian in sight. And then I remember: The question is not which side is more moral and interested in doing violence. The question is which is side is more powerful and capable of doing violence.
I have written, posted and shared a number of pieces over the past week that have been hard to read and even hurtful for people that I love, particularly the translation of Idan Landau’s piece in which he asserts -and I concur- that Israel is carrying out a massacre in Gaza. I not am writing this clarification to rescind what I’ve written, translated or posted, but rather to explain where I am coming from and to better spell out what it is that I believe.
If Hamas had the capability to kill or expel hundreds or thousands or hundreds of thousands of Israelis, I am often asked, wouldn’t they do so?
My answer is: Yes. I am confident that they would.
In that case, I am asked, why are you focusing primarily on what the Israeli government and military are doing?
My answer is: While the willingness to kill innocents on the other side is similar, the capability to do so is not. What I witnessed in Jerusalem a few years ago was a microcosm for so much: both sides may want to kill the other, but one side is immensely powerful, and the other side is not. This is not a conflict, and it is not war. If, God forbid, Hamas got a fleet of F-16s, and if, God willing, Gaza were protected by an Iron Dome, then this would be a two-sided war. But that is not the case, and so this is a massacre — “to kill unnecessarily and indiscriminately, especially a large number of persons” — and a massacre that is based on a context of occupation, lies and politics, and that has no discernible purpose.
At the same time, I am writing this clarification-post with two audiences in mind.
On one hand, I am addressing those friends and commenters who ask me to focus less on the Israeli government’s actions, or to wait until the fighting is over to speak out, or to equally criticize every party involved. I am seeking to explain why, at this point, I do not think I can do any of those things. Although, perhaps, if you all will pick up where so much of the media has failed, and speak out more fervently and boldly against what the Israeli government is doing, perhaps then I could.
On the other hand, I am addressing Western internationals who fantasize a correlation between being Oppressed and being Moral, or who are thrilled by the concept of Redemptive Third World Violence, or who see this situation as the Evil Israelis versus Good Palestinians.
We need not look far to recall that the experience of oppression does not make a community moral. We need to check our vicious instincts when we are gleeful about or thrilled by any violence: there is nothing glorious or admirable about ripping a whole in another human being’s body in general, and we cannot forget that Hamas has shown itself willing to take brutality to its fullest level, the slaughter of elderly Holocaust survivors at a Passover seder being just one particularly sick and vicious example among many. Seeking justice means seeking justice for everyone.
This is not a story of Cruel Israelis or Evil Jews versus Good Palestinians or Noble Arabs, and the answer will not come from simply reversing power structures. It is a story of mutual dehumanization and un-mutual power, and the answer has to come from creating power structures in which human beings’ violent, narrow instincts are checked and our capacity for decency is uplifted. And that is something no bomb, no burning, no rifle, no bullet can ever accomplish.