‘What kind of people will we be?’ This question from the diary of Fella Scheps, a young Polish Jew who died in 1945 shortly after her liberation from the concentration camps, has been running through my head lately as, along with the rest of the world, I’ve watched Operation Protective Edge burn its way through Gaza and into our living rooms, poisoning further any chances of a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict that is short of apocalyptic. My social network feeds have, like yours, been full of the horrendous images and awful facts that are the stuff of life in Gaza. It is clear, as Jeremy Bowen writes in the New Statesman, that ‘from Gaza to Damascus, the Middle East is on fire – and no one knows how to put it out.’
I have no practical solution to the broader political problem, chiefly because there is no real need to present one again. As an article by Bronwen Maddox in July’s issue of Prospect suggests, there is broad understanding that the practical steps are what they have been and always will be until somebody (ideally everybody) steps up: an agreement by both sides to abjure violence; cessation of Israeli settlement building and an easing of the economic blockade of the Palestinian Authority; recognition on the part of the Palestinian leadership that whether or not they think Israel should exist it nevertheless does exist and will continue to do so in the event of any peaceful solution. And then we can get down to the substantive issues of Jerusalem, refugees and everything else. Assuming we’re interested in a peaceful solution, the steps are as well-worn as the streets in the city that both sides have claimed for as long as memory.
But to what extent is anyone interested in a peaceful solution? The government of Israel clearly isn’t, preferring to bring the temple down on their own heads, chipping away at the pillars of the international support it has more or less enjoyed for sixty-five years: one more shell, one more broken ceasefire, one more dead child at a time. As someone who has spent his adult life studying the Holocaust and its aftermath, I understand (I think) something of the case ‘for Israel’: on this occasion, the bloodshed seems so disproportionate, the consequences so predictable, that I cannot find the words to make it. I have just started Shani Boianjiu’s novel The People of Forever are Not Afraid and shudder inwardly at the title. Please, be afraid. Please, don’t bank on the memory of your sufferings to shield you from the realities of what you’re doing. Please, stop banking on forever. Please, ask what kind of people you have become. Please: stop.
To a much lesser degree, this can be applied to the Palestinian side of the equation. A two-state solution will require a recognition of the other state. The fact of being oppressed and threatened and attacked is no guarantee of exemption from the scale of moral values. If there is one thing to be learnt (indirectly) from the Israeli rhetoric of existential threat, it is surely that suffering does not automatically ennoble.
In many ways, the real burden of Fella Scheps’s question may – unfairly – fall on the citizens of Gaza. If there is to be a peace that lasts without even more bloodshed, it will come from you, the current victims, deciding on a magnanimity in defeat and despair that has eluded your oppressors. One aspect of the Israeli insanity is that, in the words of Avraham Burg’s impassioned The Holocaust is Over, We Must Rise from Its Ashes, ‘All is permitted because we have been through the Shoah and you will not tell us how to behave.’ If the bombing stops, if somehow a moment comes where you have the choice of what to do with your enemy, what kind of people will you be?
And for those of us watching, heartsick and angry, wondering if there is an end in sight worth seeing, Fella Scheps’s question holds lessons also. In this moment, the brutality with which Israeli forces are prosecuting this campaign deserves our condemnation and the resilience of the people of Gaza deserves our support. I have been struck, however, by the way in which the comment on the crisis on my newsfeed has at times been almost calculated to make the opposing view harden its position, has seemed to be intended to antagonise rather than persuade, has degenerated into personal abuse. Reinforcing the views of those who see themselves as friendless with no recourse but further violence (and they exist on both sides) will not make anything better.
Yes, everyone is entitled to a point of view and, yes, these events are extreme and horrifying. We should be outraged, we should be sad, we should be angry. But we also need to be humble. Because we all know, however impassioned we are, that we are fundamentally sitting on the sidelines. And from that position, any exhortation of either side to violence, any abuse of those who disagree, is irresponsible and simply not helping. If we insist that those who do not agree with us are wrong a priori, we leave them only submission or retaliation as responses. And the cycle continues, spinning around the globe: the swiftness of the digital ‘like’ and the cheapness of the half-formed comment becoming flywheels that lose control, spinning us all into nothing.
I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling helpless in the face of both the situation itself and the anger it generates. But if hatred and anger can be transmitted instantly across the globe so can anything else. Marianne Williamson recently promoted the idea of a wave of love across the world – all over the world, for a day, people simply saying ‘I love you’ to friends, family and especially to perfect strangers, especially to those whom we mistrust, especially to those whom we hate. This is of course a tall order: what, one might ask, does one do when there is no love to give? I have no answer but paradox. At the front of my copy of Yosl Rakover Talks to God, a classic statement of Jewish post-Holocaust theodicy, there is an inscription from a cellar in Cologne where a group of Jews remained hidden for the duration of the war:
I believe in the sun, even when it doesn’t shine.
I believe in love, even when I don’t feel it.
I believe in God, even when he is silent.
I am tempted to say that ‘even’ should probably read ‘especially’. At moments like these, the only route to long-term survival is crossing the boundary of otherness with nothing but tenderness: precisely because it is hard, precisely because it eludes us. Perhaps we should bring the day Williamson suggests forward: otherwise, what kind of people will we be?