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.

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