Discover more from Contrarian's Notebook, by Dan Rottenberg
Vol. 39: Fixing blame in the Middle East
And the culprit is….
Back in the mid-’60s, when I was a freshly minted college graduate confronting the awesome economic challenges of young marriage and fatherhood, I conceived a sure-fire key to my long-term financial security. I would move to Israel and open a T-shirt factory, producing a single product: a jersey emblazoned with the words, “We’ll show them!”
My business plan was foolproof. That simple three-word slogan could be marketed to Jews and Palestinians alike for decades to come; the design and wording need never be changed; and I could monopolize the market into my old age, because no one else in that part of the world could imagine such a concept.
As you can see from the events of the past week, I seriously blew my best shot at becoming a billionaire when I chose instead to make my living as a journalist.
On October 7, Hamas operatives invaded Israel from the Gaza Strip and killed more than 900 Israelis in a series of rocket attacks and raids. The victims included helpless civilians— old people, women, children, even babies— some murdered in cold blood, others kidnapped as hostages. Hamas leaders characterized the attacks as retaliation for Israel’s continued expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the thousands of Palestinian prisoners held in Israel’s jails, and Israel’s continuing blockade of Gaza. “This is the day of the greatest battle to end the last occupation on earth,” declared Hamas military commander Mohammad Deif.
Deif, who hasn’t been seen publicly in years, conveniently overlooked the elephant in the room: Hamas itself has occupied the Gaza Strip since it seized power there in 2007, subjecting 2 million Gazans to both Hamas’s tyrannical rule and Israel’s subsequent retaliatory blockade by land, sea, and air.
Nor have leaders of Israel or Hamas mentioned a second elephant in the room: Hamas seized the Gaza Strip in 2007 with Israel’s support, in the belief that empowering Hamas in Gaza would undermine the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank.
How’s that working out for Israel? Just asking.
Netanyahu’s ‘mighty vengeance’
Abraham Lincoln, that 19th-Century wimp, once had the temerity to question the wisdom of keeping one’s enemies perpetually oppressed and resentful. “I destroy my enemy when I make him my friend,” Lincoln suggested. But what did he know?
Another notorious historical sissy, Mohandas Gandhi, believed non-violent protest was the most effective response to a military occupation. When Gandhi tested his idea in India, the British colonial rulers responded by packing their bags and tiptoeing away after ruling the entire subcontinent with an iron fist for 89 years. But why employ a sensible remedy like passive resistance when you can assert your manhood by shooting off rifles and murdering children?
We Jews, by contrast, fancy ourselves “The light unto the nations.” So, in customarily enlightened Jewish fashion, Israel responded to the October 7 attacks with (at this writing) six days of airstrikes in the Gaza Strip that killed more than 1,500 Palestinians and left more than 300,000 residents homeless and all of Gaza’s 2 million residents suffering critical shortages of food, water, and fuel.
“We will make it so that they will lack the motivation to hurt us again,” explained Tal Heinrich, a spokesman for Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu himself chimed in: “We will take mighty vengeance on this black day.”
Translation: We’ll show them! And how can we order more of Dan Rottenberg’s T-shirts?
You can’t really blame the Israelis and Palestinians for this endless cycle of revenge and retaliation. After all, those strategies have proven so successful in the past, right?
‘Evil’ or ‘righteous’?
The Hamas attacks triggered excessive uses of words like “evil” and “criminal” on both sides. “What we witnessed on Saturday was pure evil,” wrote Bret Stephens in the New York Times. Muhammad Deif of Hamas, meanwhile, declared: “Righteous fighters, this is your day to bury this criminal enemy.”
Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs at Agudath Israel of America (which represents Orthodox Jews), noted in a letter to the New York Times that West Bank Palestinians celebrated the October 7 attacks by dancing and singing in the streets. “Whatever one’s opinions about Israel’s policies,” Shafran argued, “those facts and what they say about the country’s enemies should be greatly enlightening.”
I haven’t had a chance to interview those Palestinians who danced in the streets, but I suspect their opinion of themselves differs from Rabbi Shafran’s.
Pennsylvania, then and now
My Israeli friends keep trying to pound some sense into my head. “The Middle East isn’t America, Dan,” they remind me. “Jews and Palestinians will never get along.
In a world where things seem to change every day, this is surely useful insight. I live in a country where the same thing was once said about Jews and Christians, not to mention Catholics and Protestants. I live in a city and state where Jews were once denied the right to vote, yet where today gentiles voluntarily and even routinely elect Jews to such offices as governor, U.S. Senator, mayor, and district attorney. The French and Germans hated each other’s guts for centuries; today they share the same currency and passports.
Some Jews may recall a time when the Litvaks and Galitzianers were Eastern Europe’s counterpart to the Montagues and the Capulets. These two groups detested each other, and for good reason: The rational Litvaks from Vilna were all head and mind, while the spiritual Galitzianers from Austria were all heart and soul. Yet in the 20th Century, when I (descended from Galitzianers) took myself a Litvak bride, nobody compared us to Romeo and Juliet or Tony and Maria. In fact, in 59 years of marriage neither my wife nor I gave our ancient cultural hatreds a thought until this very minute.
So it’s comforting to know that, in a world of constant change, somewhere on this planet there’s a place where Jews and Muslims can nurse their mutual resentments in perpetuity.
Hamas is an Islamist fundamentalist militant group, founded in 1987 (during the First Intifada) by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, a Palestinian refugee living in Gaza. Its charter, barely modified since it was first published in 1988, calls for the destruction of Israel and the establishment of an Islamic society in historic Palestine. You might call it a Muslim version of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, i.e., “I have a dream that some day, when the Jews are driven out, we Palestinians will enjoy our own theocratic dictatorship, where Sunnis and Shi’ites will at last be free to murder each other over who is the rightful successor to the Prophet Muhammad.”
Victor Hugo’s verdict
So, who is to blame for the current Israeli/Palestinian tragedy? I turn for the answer to the wisest man in the room, Victor Hugo: “If a soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.”
The Palestinians are souls who’ve been left in darkness. They’ve often behaved unwisely, but that’s not their fault. Most of their darkness was created by their leaders and Israel’s leaders. By the same token, the State of Israel was created and sustained by victims of an even more appalling darkness: the Holocaust. Consequently, Israelis too haven’t always behaved wisely. But that’s not necessarily their fault, either.
The flaw in Victor Hugo’s words of wisdom is that we’re all souls left in darkness, to some extent. According to my best research, just about everyone in the world (aside, apparently, from me and a half-dozen other folks) feels threatened. For that matter, just about everyone in the world is threatened. That’s the nature of human life, not to mention animal life and insect life. And that law of nature demands, at the very least, compassion from each of us toward our perceived enemies.
But don’t let me distract you from Hugo’s relevant question: If darkness afflicts certain parts of the world— say, Gaza, or Iran, or North Korea, or Russia— more than, say, London or Paris or New York or Philadelphia, who caused that darkness? For each of us, I humbly suggest, the search for an answer begins not by casting blame, but by looking in the mirror.
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Enjoy Dan Rottenberg’s new memoir, The Education of a Journalist: My Seventy Years on the Frontiers of Free Speech. You can also visit his website at www.danrottenberg.com
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