Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Can Violence bring Peace?

Israel and its US supporters defend Israel's recent attack on Gaza as self-defense. For a number of years, rockets have been regularly fired from Gaza into Southern Israel. There were not many casualties but the population of Israel was seriously frightened by the continued attacks.
During the Israeli incursion into the Gaza strip newspapers report less than fifteen Israeli and more than 1200 Palestinian casualties. Israeli bombing caused major property damage of more than $2 billion in the Gaza strip—already one of the most impoverished areas in the world.
Is all this violence, death and destruction justifiable as self-defense?
National self-defense is usually thought of as similar to that of individuals. Many people believe that if someone barges into your house and threatens the well-being of your family, you may, if necessary, kill him. But would you also be justified killing his entire family and burning down his house? Would it be an act of self-defense if you killed eighty people in response to one person invading your house? Surely that would be overreacting in a big way.
So it may well seem that the Israelis overreacted.
But that is not the end of the matter. Self-defense involves not only reactions to actual attacks but also looking toward the future and trying to prevent future threats. Individuals may build a fence around their house. They may move into a gated community where no one can enter without showing credentials to armed guards. They may even have an alarm installed in their house that summons the police of private security guards as soon as there is a sign of an unwanted intrusion. If even that does not seem to be sufficiently secure, they can hire armed security guards and surround themselves with burly men who would defend them when necessary.
Nations cannot look to an international police force—private or public—to keep them safe. They must make themselves secure for the future by making alliances with other nations or by neutralizing threats by their own military efforts. But even here, of course, nations may use excessive force. In 1983, for instance, President Reagan ordered an invasion of the Carribean island nation of Grenada—an island the size of Martha's Vineyard-- because of a coup by a hardline Communist group allied with the Soviet Union. One may doubt that any government of that tiny nation was a sufficient threat to the US to justify a military invasion. The seriousness of a threat determines what sorts of reactions are appropriate. A communist coup in Grenada could not justify a military invasion.
Nations that are strong and feel relatively secure in the world will be reluctant to use disproportionate violence against potential threats. Confident that they will be able to defend themselves they do not see every threat as potentially fatal to their nation's life. After centuries of cruel persecution of Jews culminating in the Holocaust, the Isrealis are inclined to see every threat as possibly fatal. A member of the Israeli peace movement put it as follows: “It is impossible to understand the viciousness of this war without taking into account the historical background: the feeling of victimhood after all that has been done to the Jews throughout the ages, and the conviction that after the Holocaust, we have the right to do anything, absolutely anything, to defend ourselves, without any inhibitions due to law or morality.” The victims of violence are likely to overreact to any new threat of violence. For centuries the Jews, not having had their own state, were unable to defend themselves. Now there is the Israeli state to offer protection and it will react viciously to any threat because Jews are victims of past violence.
That may explain the disproportionate response of Israel to the rockets from Gaza. But it also suggests that this excessive violence will be counterproductive. The Palestinians draw the same lesson from the violence wreaked on them that the State of Israel drew from the Holocaust: “we have the right to do anything, absolutely anything, to defend ourselves, without any inhibitions due to law or morality.”
Violence will only perpetuate itself. It is foolish to believe that wars will bring peace. The survivors of violence learn that anything is permitted in the cause of self-defense. Wherever possible they will use as much violence as they can. The Israelis do not use violence, moreover, against Germany that killed millions of Jews but against the Palestinians. Who will be their victim?

Monday, January 19, 2009

MLK's advice to President Obama

Since President Obama's inauguration follows closely on Martin Luther King Day, it is appropriate to listen to Dr. King set some goals for America and for our new President.

Here are excerpts from a speech Dr. King gave 41 years ago to the Southern Christian Leadership conference in 1967:

"I want to say to you as I move to my conclusion, as we talk about "Where do we go from here," that we honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, "Why are there forty million poor people in America?" And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalis­tic economy. And I'm simply saying that more and more, we've got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life's marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. You see, my friends, when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question, "Who owns the oil?" You begin to ask the question, "Who owns the iron ore?" You begin to ask the question, "Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two-thirds water?" These are questions that must be asked. . . . .

"[O]ur whole structure must be changed. A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years, will "thingify" them-make them things. Therefore they will exploit them, and poor people generally, economically. And a nation that will exploit economi­cally will have to have foreign investments and everything else, and will have to use its military might to protect them. All of these problems are tied together. What I am saying today is that we must go from this con­vention and say, "America, you must be born again!"

"So, I conclude by saying again today that we have a task and let us go out with a "divine dissatisfaction." Let us be dissatisfied until America will no longer have a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds. Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort and the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice. Let us be dissatisfied until those that live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security. Let us be dissatisfied until slums are cast into the junk heaps of history, and every family is living in a decent sanitary home. Let us be dissatisfied until the dark yesterdays of segregated schools will be transformed into bright tomorrows of qual­ity, integrated education. Let us be dissatisfied until integration is not seen as a problem but as an opportunity to participate in the beauty of diversity. Let us be dissatisfied until men and women, however black they may be, will be judged on the basis of the content of their character and not on the basis of the color of their skin. Let us be dissatisfied. Let us be dissatisfied until every state capitol houses a governor who will do justly, who will love mercy and who will walk humbly with his God. Let us be dissatisfied until from every city hall, justice will roll, down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. Let us be dissatisfied un­til that day when the lion and the lamb shall lie down together, and ev­ery man will sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid. Let us be dissatisfied. And men will recognize that out of one blood God made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth. Let us be dissatisfied until that day when nobody will shout "White Power!"-when nobody will shout "Black Power!"-but everybody will talk about God's power and human power."

Tuesday, January 6, 2009


The most common reaction to the warfare in Gaza is to blame one side or the other for the tremendous suffering imposed on the people of Gaza. The US government blames Hamas and thereby encourages Israel to continue bombing and killing. Others blame Israel and thereby encourage Hamas to continue sending rockets into Israel. Blaming one side or another makes no sense for those who want an end to this bloodshed.

All we can do is to urge the White House to stop fanning the flames of this conflict by blaming all the violence on Hamas as well as by giving $3 billion a year to Israel to refurbish its armed forces.

But for peacemakers, or those who want to reduce the casualties of war, this conflict teaches an important lesson.

Zionism sprang from the experience of Jews who were persecuted for hundreds of years. They were persecuted in different countries, by different governments, by the followers of different religions. No one was there to protect them. The thought that if only there existed a Jewish state, with its own government and, more importantly, its own armed forces, Jews would not be as helpless in the face of persecution. Hence the idea to return to Palestine where Jews had lived for thousands of years until being driven out by the Romans in the first century of the Christian era. If Jews could establish their own state in the biblical land of Israel they would be better protected. They could finally be safe. It would finally be safe to be a Jew.

That was a plausible thought. The plight of the Palestinians today illustrates its plausibility. No one protects the Palestinians. They do not have their own well armed state. They must protect themselves by throwing rocks or launching homemade rockets. In the meantime many of them, particularly the people in Gaza, live in appalling poverty that cannot help but be destructive to their culture and their traditions.

At the same time, Jews have paid a very high price for this military security. Being Jewish-- like any other identity -- is complex. There are many different kinds of Jews: some are religious, some are not. If they are religious, some are very orthodox, some are very lax in their observances. Some Jews are fanatical and aggressive against anyone who is different. Others quote the famous Rabbi Hillel as saying that the essence of Judaism was “that which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and learn." If you do not want to be oppressed, do not oppress others. If you do not want others to wage war against you, do not wage war against them.

With the foundation of the state of Israel, being Jewish became closely connected with the Jewish state and a Jewish state is very much a military state. Military Jewishness rejects the Judaism of Rabbi Hillel; it is devoted to superior power, not to the Golden rule. Having gained a state to protect them, Jews have become different kinds of people and many of their most valued traditions, like the teachings of Rabbi Hillel, have become the views of dissident minorities.

Nor is that true only in Israel. Being an American today is closely associated with a state that owns enough atomic warheads to wipe out human civilization on earth. For many Americans, the military has become the centerpiece of being American. The actions, the workings and planning of the military are notoriously secret. Thus large parts of the American state is now concealed from its citizens. The centrality of military power has put serious limits on American democracy simply because a large part of our budget is spent on matters that citizens are not supposed to know about. A militarized state is, almost by definition, not governed by its citizens. Democracy in a militarized state is very limited.

Being an American, in the 19th century, meant active participation in the affairs of one's community. For many, being an American today means being patriotic. That means worshiping the flag. It means revering the military power of our country and being passive for the rest of the time. It means encouraging young men and women to die far from home in wars they do not understand and did not choose to enter.

Identities are complex. There are Americans who are deeply religious; there are Americans who are atheists. Those that are religious but allow them to very many different religions. Some Americans are gay or lesbian; some are heterosexual. We speak many different languages. We live in very different geographies and are affected by that. People in New England are not like people in the Southwest or in Texas. We do very different kinds of work; we spend our leisure in very different ways. Some live in the country; many of us live in large cities. Some of us glory in American military power; others regard that as a perversion of American traditions at their best. They remember that our founders were opposed to permanent military establishments.

Both Israel and the Palestinians subscribe to the mythology that links ethnic identities to militarized states. The Palestinians, and to a lesser extent the Israelis, pay for this identification with continued losses in life and continued injuries and destruction of valuable property. In addition, the Israelis, and the Palestinians, and we Americans pay for this militarization of our identities with a narrowing of what it means to be a Jew, a Palestinian or an American.

The belief that all humans deserve to live decently has now become unpatriotic. Rabbi Hillel, were he to live in America today, might well have an FBI file as a potential subversive. He would probably not be wildly popular in today's Israel either. The protection of Jewish identity by a Jewish state has narrowed what a Jew can be. The militarization of America has made peaceful persons suspect and open to surveillance by the government.

The creation of the state of Israel has not been an unmixed blessing for Jews and being Jewish; the ascendancy of the military -- industrial complex has done serious damage to the American identity. The Palestinians are paying an excessive price for the belief that armed states bolster identities. Instead we see, that armed states destroy identities and persons.