Oct/Nov 2023  •   Salon

A Word on Israel-Palestine

by Thomas J. Hubschman

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If I don't start these comments by "condemning" the raid by Hamas and its affiliates that killed 1,400 Israelis, mostly civilians, I risk being called an anti-Semite. It's a bit like being asked when you stopped beating your wife. Any answer will incriminate you. If you refuse to preface a discussion of the present situation in Israel-Palestine with a condemnation of the Hamas raid, you become "anti-Israel," which is seen more and more as being the same thing as a Jew-hater.

The question itself is an insult. It demands I establish my bono fides as a caring person before I get to speak. I will not cooperate with that insult by answering it. If I have to assure someone I do not find the killing of human beings ("innocent" or otherwise) abhorrent, I prefer not to dialogue with them. What does "condemn" mean anyway? I'm not the Pope. I can't send anyone to hell. I don't need to prove my humanity. If it doesn't exist, what difference does it make if I protest otherwise?

In any case, better-informed people than me are making the case about what has been going on in Israel-Palestine for the past 75 years and especially since the 1967 war Israel fought with its Arab neighbors. The Israeli scholar Ilan Pappe has been doing so for decades, as has American Norman Finkelstein (both of whom lost all or most of their relatives in the Nazi genocide). So have Amira Haas and Gideon Levy, Israeli journalists who witness the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip firsthand and took a stance against Israeli retaliation in the first hours after the Hamas raid. In Israel a mainstream journalist can point out the outrage of Israeli oppression without being silenced; freedom of the press is alive and well in Israel (for some) to an extent it does not exist in the US or France.

Who could look without horror on the brutal killings of women, children, old folk as well as white masters that Nat Turner carried out in what our history books celebrate as the "greatest slave rebellion"? In the old South, though, no one would dare not to condemn such a slaughter. No doubt they looked upon Yankees who cheered it on as co-conspirators. (Terrified Northerners did consider the raid a cautionary tale, though. Because of what Nat Turner did, the one-drop rule of African ancestry was adopted first in the North and later exported into the South.)

And who dares to call John Brown, a white man, a mass-murderer for what he brutally did to civilians during his campaign against the pro-slavery forces in Kansas? On the contrary, his name is enshrined in the Battle Hymn of the Republic, the anthem Union soldiers sang going into battle against the Confederate army. "John Brown's body lies a-moldering in the grave... His truth goes marching on. Glory, glory, hallelujah..."

Can anyone any longer justify the fire-bombing of Tokyo, London, Coventry, Dresden or the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (the latter being a Christian stronghold, not that that should make any difference) and hundreds of other population centers during the second world war? Those bombings served no military purpose, as was pointed out at the time by military analysts who found aerial bombardment only stiffened resolve and actually increased the enemy's (or an ally's) industrial production.

Can we speak of the present state of African Americans or Indigenous peoples without including a history of genocide and oppression? Yet that's what we do, in our newscasts as well as in our history books, which omit the deliberate government policies of discrimination mandated throughout most of the 20th century, from the Oval Office on down to local zoning committees. That's what "systemic racism" is—official, top-down, legal discrimination which accounts for why 12 percent of our population was denied government-backed housing loans (the bedrock of middle-class wealth) from the '30s to the '70s, and why American Indians live in squalor on arid patches of land we allow them to occupy until we find something valuable in the ground beneath them.

But this isn't an essay of what-about. No nation is in a moral position to cast the first stone, and no one should protest for or against any event who doesn't know the context, i.e., history, no matter how horrific it may be. The killing currently being rained down on Gaza is less visible than the images of slain women and children we saw after the Hamas attack. Almost 3,000 Palestinian children have been ripped apart and crushed so far by 500- and 1000-pound bombs. I have yet to see any images of the remains of those children in mainstream media. Nor do I recall seeing images of the victims of Hiroshima and Dresden—or Hanoi and Cambodia, for that matter. One photo of a slain or wounded Israeli woman or child has greater effect than dozens of videos of Palestinian high-rises collapsing under a plume of gray smoke.

And since when is "retaliation" a right? Retaliation is not the same thing as self-defense, even if that defense requires going on the offensive. Retaliation is vengeance. It's what you do to someone's brother who killed your own brother, even accidentally. In lawful societies an-eye-for-an-eye does not mean getting to poke the eye out of someone who caused the loss of your own eye. In its original use in the Hammurabi code, it meant paying a price in goods or money fixed as just compensation for the loss of a body part or even a homicide. Only modern savages like us interpret that law to mean you have the right, even the obligation, to do unto others what they have done to you, only in spades.

This is how we ended up killing civilians by the hundreds of thousands during the second world war. It started with the bombing of a small town. The enemy retaliated by bombing an Allied town. And so forth, until entire cities were being obliterated and no distinction was any longer made between combatant and non-combatant. Wasn't the Jewish Holocaust itself seen as retaliation by the Nazi perpetrator (and lots who weren't Nazis) for crimes they believed "the Jews" had committed against them?

For how long can you expect human beings to suffer real crimes before some of them react violently, even indiscriminately, against their oppressor population? If you imprison, torture, humiliate, kill and otherwise abuse human beings day in and day out for three generations, can you expect them to always play by the so-called rules of war like medieval knights? Even Gandhi told the people he sent out on demonstrations against the British in India if they didn't come home with cracked heads they weren't doing their job. And it was only because of television and footage of dogs being set on peaceful protesters that Martin Luther King, Jr., could use non-violent tactics so successfully. Show me the face of one starving child in Ethiopia, and I write a check. Tell me a million are starving without that image, and I change the channel.

Zionism, the bedrock ideology of the Israeli nation-state, is 19th century racism. It's settler colonialism in the same mold as the American or Australian version. The Zionists, unfortunately, did not get the message an ideology like theirs had been discredited after the world's horror at the way Jews themselves had been treated by the Nazis. But they were not restrained from practicing their own mass expulsion and killing of indigenous Palestinians in 1947-48 by the Western democracies. The victim people became perpetrators of the same racist thinking that had branded them as Ausländer. Ethnocracies are passé. Defending them is collusion with injustice at best and at worst supporters of genocide.

After the killings in the kibbutzim, a rabbi tried to say Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, for both Jewish and Palestinian victims. He was silenced. But a gross disruption of a Palestinian funeral by Israeli soldiers passed without anyone being held accountable. Compassion for human suffering and justice for all is at the heart of the best Jewish tradition. God did not give the land of Palestine to the Zionists anymore than he gave the American continent to Christian imperialists. Zionism has been a disaster for Palestinians, but it's also an ideology dangerous for the state of Israel and for all Jews in the world when they are held accountable for actions most of them want no part of. "Never again!" should be a cry of Jew and gentile alike. "Never again!" for anyone.