“Danger In Conflation: Separating Islam From Acts Of Terror.” That’s the headline from an NPR piece tonight in which the host interviews Omid Safi, a Professor of Islamic Studies at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (fuller bio here) about reactions to the Boston Marathon bombings and accused bombers, and their apparent identification with Islam.
It is worth a listen. It is a clear-headed defense of Islam, yes. More importantly, Safi provides a very coherent rebuttal of racial, ethnic, or religious profiling.
The Onion, ever brilliant, published an item last week titled: “Study: Majority Of Americans Not Informed Enough To Stereotype Chechens“. Sadly, this is probably true. But while it points to a specific weakness (our “exceptionalism” tends to lead to an exceptionally weak understanding of geography) it also highlights rather clearly the problems with trying to profile people and make assumptions about behaviors based on stereotypes and only the weakest understanding of world geography and other cultures.
Between Safi and The Onion, we can learn a lot. And that’s no joke.
In the last 24 hours, my Facebook and Twitter feeds have been rich with posts on three separate historical events. The first is the tragic bombing at the Boston marathon yesterday. The second is the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” And the third is the anniversary of Israel’s declaration of independence.
While I am not normally prone to tears, all three made me cry today.
The first chink in my armor came from the myriad postings about the 65th anniversary of Israel’s independence. I find this a difficult moment to “celebrate” because 46 of those 65 years have been overshadowed by the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the domination and destruction of Palestinian lives and livelihoods. Alas, too few Americans (Jewish or otherwise) really seem to care. Worse, the American Jewish community has suffered a terrible kind of gaslighting, wherein our identity has been confused and conflated with that of the Jews of Israel, our co-religionists but not for the most part our co-citizens. All of this made me sad.
Then, hearing the amazing recording of King reading his “letter” from 1963, I found myself even more mournful: at the loss of King, but also at the seeming loss of moral courage in our society. Who among us today has the combined strengths of conviction, poetics, and oratory? In a nation where political considerations override human lives in debates about everything from guns to healthcare, where a president who has the poetics and oratory seems to lack the conviction to stare down a government program of assassination or to push firmly for the rights and freedoms of the oppressed around the world (c.f., Palestinians), what is there to do but cry?
Run, of course. The answer is to run in a marathon, an experience that I can only imagine must be fundamentally life-affirming. Except that this year, it was anything but that. And so I cried, several times today, as I listened to and read news reports of the young boy who was killed, and the young wounded woman seeking out the man who helped her, and the many others hurt, and the many more searching for ways to help. That the tragedy of the Boston marathon also has such a life-affirming feeling to it should not be lost. But it is also hard to ignore the broader context of terrorism in America, from Oklahoma City to New York City, while recalling too how fortunate we are in comparison to some (e.g., Iraq, Syria). And hard to ignore the broader context of all the ways in which we inflict harm on ourselves and our moral standing by failing to promote peace and freedom, failing to stick up for the poor and oppressed both at home and abroad, and the very poor ways in which we handle the grievances we stir up around the world.
For anyone following the news, it’s been a long day. So let’s end this day, and try to work harder for peace tomorrow.
“The question, which I am asking here today, is how we relate to each other as human beings.” That is definitely an excellent question, and its source is none other than Daniel Birnbaum, the CEO of SodaStream. [Full disclosure: I own a SodaStream machine. I bought it with the knowledge that the company was Israeli, but without knowing that it was manufactured in the West Bank.]
Or perhaps I should say: the Israeli CEO of the Israeli company SodaStream, which has a factory in Occupied Palestine. And his question was posed to Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, after seeing the degrading treatment some of Birnbaum’s Palestinian employees were forced to endure as a security measure when they accompanied Birnbaum to Peres’ house.
The entirety of the interview and related story are worth reading (here), as is making the effort to digest these comments and others of Birnbaum’s, such as: “Our factories are apolitical. We don’t take sides in this conflict.” or “…we provide our Palestinian employees with respectable employment opportunities and an appropriate salary and benefits. We ‘even’ purchase medical insurance for them from a private company, because I am not confident that the money we pay to the Palestinian Authority for such social benefits will actually be used for medical insurance.” I’m not sure it’s possible to be something in between the problem and the solution, especially in a situation where clarity may be hard to come by but articulating an overarching humane and moral response is not. Sidestepping bigger questions of moral impact by paying for health insurance–which certainly has its own (positive) moral impact–feels instinctively wrong, once the initial good feelings wear off.
In fact, it reminds me of the old arguments for “separate but equal” citizenship rights for white versus “colored” Americans.
As does this “news analysis” of the New York Times, by Leo Rennert over on the American Thinker blog. In a nutshell, Rennert is unhappy that as a result of “selective interviews with disaffected Arabs, Rudoren, the Times‘ Jerusalem bureau chief, tells her readers that Israel’s treatment of its Arab citizens raises ‘real concerns over the health of Israeli democracy.’“
More from Rennert: “But is this ultra-gloomy assessment accurate? Far from it. Arabs in Israel are on an equal plane when it comes to legal, civil and political rights. Yes, there are remaining gaps on the economic and social scene, but these gaps have steadily narrowed. In fact, Israel’s Arabs enjoy far better lives and better living standards than their counterparts in neighboring countries.” He then goes on to cite a range of statistics about living standards, educational attainment, and consumerist acquisitions of cell phones and refrigerators.
Here’s the thing: the statistics–while heartening, if true–do not disprove the assertion by some of those interviewed that Israeli Arabs suffer from persistent discrimination. Moreover, it is all too easy to be denied equal rights as a matter of practice, even if those rights exist as a matter of law. These numbers represent communal improvements and are not insignificant, but in this context they validate the separate-but-equal view that held sway in the US for decades: oh, well, blacks are getting an education and their health is improving, and that’s what matters, not that we force them to sit elsewhere on the bus, use different public bathrooms, or in some cases prohibit their presence near ours altogether.
At the end of his post, Rennert also takes a swipe at Arab Israeli political parties, and suggests that it is somehow “better” for Israeli Arabs to focus on “bread-and-butter issues,” as if there’s something wrong with Israeli Arabs who decide that they are concerned about Palestinian treatment by Israel AND decide that this is a valid political issue around which to organize as Israeli citizens. That also sounds to me like an old American problem, as embodied in the McCarthy/HUAC era: you can be political, as long as you’re political correctly. For Rennert, being “radicalized” about the situation of the Palestinians is clearly politically incorrect for Israeli Arabs.
No doubt Rennert would approve of SodaStream employing Palestinians whose land is occupied by Israel and whose movements are tightly controlled by the security needs of the Occupation. That Palestinians take these jobs is, of course, understandable: you’re a Palestinian with a wife and children to feed; there’s a job, offering an “appropriate” salary and benefits, but it is a job with an Israeli company. What any of us would do in such a situation is difficult to say. But it is Birnbaum’s nation and his fellow citizens who have sustained the occupation of the West Bank for decades. It is the Israeli dissection of Palestinian lands and destruction of Palestinian businesses, olive groves, and lives, that have created a situation where people must make the kinds of complicated moral choices at play here, even if Birnbaum thinks his factories are apolitical. Just because choices must be made does not make the outcomes or implications less political, or less morally fraught.
Like any compassionate human, I am distraught and saddened by the escalating violence, terror, destruction, and death taking place in parts of Israel and Gaza.
But do not ask me to “stand with Israel.” And do not ask me to “stand with Palestine.” I cannot; I will not.
I stand with the people of every nationality, religion, or ethnicity who live in fear for their lives and livelihoods, who worry about how to protect themselves, their families and their children. I stand with the Israelis and the Palestinians who are forced to wonder under what arbitrary moment they may find themselves in mortal danger–merely for being Palestinian or Israel; merely for living–and, especially, with those who, in the face of such terror, are brave enough to resist the temptation to view the conflict in Manichean terms.
The blame for the present debacle falls squarely and evenly on the governing bodies on both sides, in Palestine and in Israel. Sitting in synagogue this morning, listening to my compassionate, erudite, and peace-loving rabbi carefully choose his words and frame his remarks on the subject, it occurred to me that perhaps the best framework for articulating my views is one that follows the traditional form of the Al Cheyt confessional said by many Jews on Yom Kippur. It might go something like this:
For the sins we have committed before You by believing that there is no partner for peace.
And for the sins we have committed before You by refusing to pursue peace before war.
For the sins we have committed before You by exercising power.
And for the sins we have committed before You by believing that power and might make right.
For the sins we have committed before You by those who should know better.
And for the sins we have committed before You by those who never had the chance to learn.
For the sins we have committed before You by using doublespeak, to speak of peace while engaging in war.
And for the sins we have committed before You by equating peace only with victory.
For the sins we have committed before You under duress and willingly.
And for the sins we have committed before You through having a hard heart.
For the sins we have committed before You by instilling fear in the hearts of the innocent.
And for the sins we have committed before You by mistaking aggression for bravery.
For the sins we have committed before You by using fear, oppression, and repression as a tool of politics.
And for the sins we have committed before You by cloaking theocracy in democracy.
For the sins we have committed before You in thinking a Jewish life is worth more than a Muslim one.
And for the sins we have committed before You in thinking that a Muslim life is worth more than a Jewish one.
I am an American, and a Jew. As an American, I “stand with” my country, but part of my standing with it is also standing up to it: speaking out when I believe it is wrong, and when the actions taken by my government do not represent my views or my values.
That I am Jewish does not mean that I am an Israeli. Nor does it mean that I can support or “stand with” Israel–especially when its actions betray the values of the Judaism we allegedly share.
And I cannot stand with Palestine, despite my deep sympathies for their plight and an unwavering belief in the right to Palestinian statehood. But the government(s) of Hamas and Fatah are complicit, along with the Israelis, in de-prioritizing peace and in stoking the embers of a conflict that periodically flares up, at great cost to the Palestinian people.
Instead, I say that now is the time for Palestinians and Israelis–the people, not the nations–to stand with each other and demand a cessation of hostilities. To demand change.
Perhaps the place to start is by atoning for their mistakes, and asking for forgiveness from each other as a first step in rebuilding a comprehensive and meaningful process for peace.