Horrific Choices

This is not a political blog.

If you've read much of it, you can be excused for calling bullshit on that statement, because, frustrated pundit that I am, I frequently use this space to comment on political issues. It's my soapbox, after all, and I can use it any way I please. Still, the primary reason this blog exists is that, at midlife, I find myself with much to think about, and writing has always been a good way for me to gather my thoughts. Having an audience is a side benefit, because it's a good feeling to know I'm not alone in my thoughts, whether they're spiritual, artistic, pedagogical, interpersonal, developmental or, as today, political in nature.

One of the main reasons I'm not a pundit is the TLDR issue. I'm well aware that many of my posts are just too damn long for people to finish, and that they click away before they get to the end. In some ways, that's a good thing--I've never been good at endings, and tend to spin my wheels as I go on and on and on--but in at least one sense, it highlights the central problem with popular punditry: most political issues are just too complex to do justice in a short form piece. This is especially true of international politics, and nowhere is it more apparent than in the conflict between Israel and Gaza.

The first issue faced by a commentator addressing this conflict is moral authority. Who among us can speak out on this issue? Any American holding forth has to acknowledge, from the start, that our nation has only very limited experience with attacks on our territory, and honestly, only one of those attacks rises to the level of severity that the nation of Israel has endured as a constant since its founding. To me, this means anyone venturing to comment on Israel's response to Hamas, an organization dedicated to Israel's destruction that has honeycombed its border with tunnels for the purposes of infiltration and bombing, and that regularly launches missiles into Israeli neighborhoods, must first acknowledge that he or she has no idea what it's like to live under such conditions.

Now let's add another layer to the moral authority conundrum: Israel is a nation of survivors of genocide. For thirteen years, hawkish Americans have had a single answer to critiques of our nation's assertive foreign policy: "9/11." As I noted above, that one incident hardly compares to the constant sense of living under siege that is part of living in modern Israel; far more significant, though, is their much better answer to criticisms of their policy toward organizations and states they perceive to be terrorist: "The Holocaust." Rabbi Irving Greenberg was talking about God's Covenant with Israel when he wrote, "No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children." While this was not intended to be a political statement, it sums up well the reason no Gentile commentator can claim moral authority when critiquing Israel's extreme vigilance with respect to terrorism. With the exception of African-Americans, few of us have anything in our ethnic memories as immediate and extreme as the Holocaust to lend moral weight to our criticism of Israel's refusal to be dovish on matters of foreign policy. In response to the rhetorical question "What's the worst that could happen if you sue for peace?" their legitimate answer is "our extermination as a people."

Taking the last two paragraphs into account, I hope you can see why I cede authority to Jewish commentators on all matters Israeli. And yet, even they struggle with the question. Slate's Emily Bazelon writes eloquently about why it is so hard for Jews to judge the current crisis between Israel and Gaza. Her piece is an at-times excruciating example of the "on the other hand..." approach any honest pundit has to take to the issue, ticking off points justifying a variety of positions. One can find merit in any argument either side might choose to make.

I've read that some Israeli opposition politicians have argued that Israel's current policy is fundamentally anti-democratic, that it flies in the face of Israel's claims to be a moral nation, founded on liberal principles. I've also read that, living as they do under the shadow of constant missile attacks, the vast majority of Israeli citizens are strongly in favor of this same policy. I've read that most Palestinians oppose Hamas's cynical placement of missile batteries in proximity to schools and other civilian facilities. I've heard that, despite this placement, it is patently offensive to suggest that Hamas does so intentionally for the purposes of exploiting civilian deaths to gain international approval.

So where do I stand? I would like Israel to back off on its aggressive response to missile attacks. I would like Hamas to stop firing missiles. I would like both Israel and Palestine to elect governments that can be relied upon to enter into sincere peace talks. I'm aware that only a genuine ceasefire can bring this about, and that neither side is willing to put such a ceasefire in place. And still I haven't answered the question.

Instead, I choose to reframe it: "With whom do I stand?" I stand with the children, both Palestinian and Israeli, who live in constant fear of bombs, missiles, and artillery fire. I stand with their parents, who would rather be doing anything other than fighting a war. I empathize with those who cannot banish the thought of burning children from their minds and decisions, and ask only that they consider that it is the burning of any child, not just a Jewish child, that must be present in every policy discussion.

I put off writing this piece for two weeks, during which time the conflict never let up. I kept juggling the complexities of the matter, weighing each perspective, until I concluded it was time for me to put my struggle in writing. I knew I would have no answers, that what I would write would be just a lengthy acknowledgment of what a tangled knot this crisis is. I also knew that expressing this paradox is the essence of what this blog is about.

This is what comes at midlife: the simple, easy answers of youth are discarded as inadequate, false, useless. In their place is the balancing act of Fiddler on the Roof: "On the other hand..." Tevye says again and again, as he rationalizes his way to permitting one daughter after another to break from tradition and marry the man she loves, rather than someone chosen for her by her parents.

We live in a world of problems that have many other hands. Before we rush to judgment on any of them, it behooves us to work our way through every one of them.

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