Letter to a Zionist

It’s been almost a year. Do you remember it? It was a speaking event like any other but it sticks out in my mind even now. A friend from the International Solidarity Movement had come back from the Occupied Territories and was giving his report. Others offered some analysis of the situation there. It was well attended. I was the moderator.

As at any event about Israel/Palestine, there were some in the crowd who were purveyors of nonsense or worse. For example, the first person to speak during the question period told a bizarre story about how Israelis were harvesting the organs of Palestinians and how there were no Jews in the World Trade Center. I dismissed the stories as anti-Semitic conspiracy theorizing.

You, on the other hand, had serious concerns. When it was your turn, you identified yourself as a Zionist, and made a comment and announcement instead of asking a question. Afterwards, you came up to me and we argued for a while. Eventually I ended the interaction, saying: “There is no way we are going to agree even on the most basic things.” You said: “I think we could if we had a few hours.”

I suppose I remember the event in detail because I remember admiring your patience. You came and sat through about two hours of talk with which you must have very strongly disagreed.

I’ve thought about what you said, and what I said to you. I wanted to drop the conversation not only because we couldn’t agree on specific facts or history, but also because we couldn’t agree even on the broadest and most important matters. I hope I was wrong.

Robert Fisk started his book on the war in Lebanon with some thoughts on a trip he made to Auschwitz. It seems a bit of a stretch, so maybe I should let him explain himself:

“Four days earlier, I had been in Beirut, driving past the Sabra and Chatila Palestinian camps to the airport because I suspected that in Poland, at Auschwitz, lay clues to what I had seen in Lebanon. Yet from the hot, untidy killings of the Middle East to this frozen, methodical place was a journey that should have been taken in a spaceship across light years. No massacre in Lebanon could remotely compare with this in size, in scientific evil. The scale of the Holocaust here – of gypsies and Polish non-Jews as well as Jews – was so unimaginable that the tens of thousands of deaths in Lebanon seemed somehow an irrelevance.

“This, of course, is not what history should teach us. Nor is it true. But if that is how I, a stranger, a non-Jew born a year after Hitler’s death could think – even briefly – then how is one even to question the survivors or their children? Or, more importantly, how is one to approach the behaviour of the state which was forged – as many of its citizens will tell you – in the very fires of Auschwitz? Every Jewish victim of the Holocaust, as it says at the Yad Vashem memorial outside Jerusalem, was made an honorary citizen of Israel. If this premise is accepted, then to visit Auschwitz is not only a pilgrimage to the largest mass grave in the world but an acknowledgement of its intimate connection to the Middle East and, ultimately, to the tragedy – of inconsequential significance if the equation is to be resolved only with numbers – of another people, indeed of numerous peoples whose suffering I and my colleagues in Lebanon had witnessed.” (Fisk, ‘Pity the Nation’, Nation Books, 2002, pp. 6-7)

The massacres in Lebanon he refers to were Sabra and Shatila, that killed about 1,700 people. Israel’s Lebanon war killed about ten times that in all.

But Robert Fisk wrote those words about the ‘inconsequential significance if the equation were to be resolved only with numbers’ some time ago. Since then, the UN Special Rapporteur for food just released a report that shows that the reality in the Occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip is one of 3.8 million people on the verge of humanitarian catastrophe:

“Over 22 per cent of children under 5 are now suffering from malnutrition and 15.6 per cent from acute anaemia, many of whom will suffer permanent negative effects on their physical and mental development as a result. More than half of Palestinian households are now eating only once per day. The World Bank states that food consumption has fallen by more than 25 per cent per capita. Around 60 per cent of Palestinians are now living in acute poverty (75 per cent in Gaza and 50 per cent in the West Bank). Even when food is available, many Palestinians cannot afford to buy it, given the rapid rise in unemployment. Over 50 per cent of Palestinians are now completely dependent on food aid, and yet humanitarian access is frequently restricted.” (Jean Ziegler, Addendum: Mission to the Occupied Palestinian Territories, October 31, 2003. United Nations.)

The Red Cross is ending its emergency programme in the Occupied Territories, “saying the economic collapse is the direct result of Israeli military closures and that Israel must live up to its responsibility as the occupying power for the economic needs of the Palestinians.” The UN agreed that the situation is on the verge of disaster, primarily because of Israel’s actions.

But it’s not just the Red Cross and the UN. It’s also people like Moshe Ya’alon, Ami Ayalon, Yaakov Peri, Avraham Shalom, and Carmi Gillon. These are military and former Shin Bet directors. Ayalon was the Shin Bet director from 1996-2000. He said: “We are taking very sure and measured steps to a point where the state of Israel will not be a democracy or a home for the Jewish people.. Much of what we are doing today in [the West Bank] and Gaza is immoral, some of it patently immoral. But I think what has happened to us is the loss of hope. And I’m speaking of both sides. Almost everything that we do to them and that they do to us, were we able to put it into a context of time and to say this is a stage on the way to something better, would be tolerable. The problem is that today, neither us nor they see any better future.”

We could well be approaching a moment when Fisk’s statement about the Palestinians’ tragedy being “of inconsequential significance if the equation is to be resolved only with numbers” will no be longer true. The question is, what can keep such an unspeakable tragedy from happening. People I’ve asked console themselves by saying that “the international community wouldn’t let it happen.” But those of us with a sense of history, as you and I both have, know that the “international community” fails to prevent holocausts.

It failed to prevent the holocaust suffered by the Jews. The powerful governments of the world were unsure about whether they wanted to stop the Nazis. The racism of the Nazis was, after all, just an extreme form of a long- standing European racism and anti-semitism. But it failed elsewhere as well.

Did you know that Hitler modeled his conquests on the destruction of the indigenous in the Americas by the United States? He saw no reason why Germany shouldn’t do to the Eastern Europeans what the US had done to the indigenous. That was a genocide that happened here in the Americas (it’s described in Ward Churchill’s ‘A Little Matter of Genocide’). Today the indigenous live on reserves in deplorable conditions, their societies shattered, attempts to colonize them ongoing. But they resist. They were all but wiped out from these lands, but in the end they were not wiped out, and they still struggle for justice, for land, against their ongoing colonization, and against the rewriting of history. In the decades following Christopher Colombus’s arrival in the Americas, the continents were depopulated by something like 90%. Tens of millions were driven, starved, slaughtered, or succumbed to new diseases, made more vulnerable because their societies were destroyed. The “international community” didn’t stop that from happening. The only “international community” that existed at the time was the Empires, and they were in the business of making genocides, not stopping them.

The African holocaust was perpetrated over this period too. No one knows how many died over the centuries of slavery, when Africans were herded on to ships, crammed into boxes over a voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to live and die building the Americas, pressed into doing the work that the indigenous of the Americas could no longer be pressed into doing because they had been slaughtered. It was certainly millions of Africans who died in those slave wars and on those slave ships. The slave trade shattered African societies and weakened them, leaving them easy prey for colonization (Basil Davidson, ‘The African Slave Trade’). That brought millions more deaths: perhaps ten million under King Leopold in the Belgian Congo of the 19th century (Adam Hochschild, ‘King Leopold’s Ghost’). These holocausts brought Africa into the “international community” – or perhaps into the “global economy”, as they did the indigenous of the Americas.

Asia suffered holocausts entering the “world economy” as well. It was a complicated mix of free-market fanaticism that demanded that people be allowed to starve though food was available to save their lives if it were only redistributed, along with bad weather and bad harvests, that led to two terrible famines in the 19th century that killed at least 12 million in India, 20 million in China, and 2 million in Brazil. (Mike Davis, ‘Late Victorian Holocausts’)

Perhaps it was Viet Nam’s attempt to break free of the chains of the “world economy” that made the United States angry enough to perpetrate a holocaust against it. Chemical warfare, starvation, saturation bombing, and massacres killed perhaps 2, perhaps 4 million people there, at least 40 Vietnamese for every American.

This has become a very gruesome letter, and for that I apologize, but holocausts are gruesome and we have to talk about them. We have to remember them. We have to never forget them. We have to remember the victims of these powerful forces because we want these things never to happen again. Don’t we? Don’t we agree on that? Is this one of the things you believed we could agree on if we’d had a few more hours to talk?

These things are happening now. UNICEF estimates that 13 million children die of preventable diseases and starvation every year. The mayor of London said that the structural adjustment programs of the International Monetary Fund (there’s the “world economy” again) structural adjustment programs have killed more people than all the weapons of mass destruction used throughout history. Over the 11 years of sanctions against Iraq, the destroyed infrastructure, the drinking of dirty water, the shattering of that society, led to hundreds of thousands of deaths. The war of occupation going on there now has led to tens of thousands more deaths and has not led to a lifting of the murderous weight on the Iraqi people. And Palestine, as I wrote you in the beginning, Palestine is on the brink.

But there is more to history, even this history, than Holocausts. When it doesn’t kill, colonization can distort consciences and minds.

Sometimes people who didn’t die lost their ethical sense, lashed out blindly in ways that would hurt, rather than help, their own people and bring reprisals on them. People who succumbed to the easy formulas offered by opportunists. It is tempting to do that. Do you know the people I am talking about?

There is another group, too, whose consciences were contorted by colonization. These are the collaborators. Sometimes they are called ‘Quislings’ after the fellow who handed Norway to the Nazis. It might be unfair to judge them all so harshly, because they aren’t all opportunists. Some of them might genuinely have believed that the price of resistance was so high that surrender would be better, would prevent more deaths. Others might have made a choice to save themselves or their families at the expense of their people – it is too easy to say such people should have made sacrifices. Still others might have experienced genuine oppression and fear among their own people, and turned to their colonizers for help. It is also easier to blame them than it is to look at what our own people are doing to drive such people away.

But there is a noble history as well.

From within the empires, there have always been voices of conscience. Bartolome de las Casas was a contemporary of Christopher Columbus, and he struggled to stop the Spanish empire from destroying the indigenous. White America, even as it was enslaving Africans, produced its abolitionists, people like John Brown. The actions of the United States in Mexico, the Philippines, Cuba, were protested by Mark Twain and many others. The British Empire had Bertrand Russell. These people tried to wake their own societies up to what they were doing to others.

There is another tradition, of colonized people learning about the empires from within, using that understanding to try to free their own people. Some of the leaders of India’s independence movement — Jawarhalal Nehru, M.K. Gandhi, B.R. Ambedkar — all had British educations.

But these were elite figures. On the ground there were millions of people who struggled to live with dignity, to try to save lives, to try to make a future for their children, or even just to make their killers pay a price. The indigenous fought wars for their freedom against weaponry that was hundreds of years more advanced. The Africans and indigenous together created a society called the Seminoles in the southern United States, and they fought for their independence until the end, and were not easy to defeat. The Vietnamese saw their country destroyed, millions of their people killed, and did not surrender. And in every pogrom against the Jews, in every ghetto, when the mobs or armies came to destroy them, there were brave people who died fighting against overwhelming odds.

I feel a connection to India that is probably not unlike the connection you feel to Israel. Should we be surprised that Palestinian refugees and their children feel such connections too? I was not born in India, or brought up there. I have family there, and think about them a lot. I follow events there. I feel a debt to people there, so many millions of whom want so badly to have the opportunities that I didn’t earn. When something terrible happens there, I feel as if it should have happened to me. Sometimes I think of the Bengal famine, the way the British used Indian troops to kill other colonized people in other parts of the world, the way they empowered regressive forces in society and reorganized a thriving economy and society for their own benefit. I think of some of the horrible conflicts there, the nuclear tensions between India and Pakistan, and see, at least partly, a mess left by colonizers, a mess no one has figured out how to clean up yet. Instead, colonizers are still at work all over the place.

And the colonized, and the anti-imperialists? Who can they look to? Not only to the victims, but to those heroes from the past. Those indigenous warriors – do you know the story of Hatuey? He fought the Spanish conquistadores in the 16th century, around the same time that the Inquisition was rooting out and burning Jews and Muslims who were secretly practicing their faith after being forced to convert to Christianity. Hatuey was caught and, set to be burned at the stake, offered the choice of conversion to Christianity. Convert and go to heaven, don’t convert and go to hell. He asked if there were Christians in heaven, was told that there were, and chose hell. Those African slaves who fought, who escaped, who joined the Seminoles. Those Indians who followed Gandhi’s advice and faced British weapons with empty hands. Those Vietnamese who held on while every horror imaginable was unleashed upon them.

Those Jews, who fought the Nazis with Molotov cocktails and grim courage, the partisan fighters who found ways to hit back. Those Jews like Rosa Luxembourg and Emma Goldman, those Jews who were part of every movement for humane progress and change in Europe and North America.

And yes, my friend, the Palestinians too. They face tanks, F-16s, usually with stones. They refuse to leave homes that are being bulldozed. They refuse to stop educating their children when their schools are closed. They refuse to stop trying to harvest their olives though walls are built through their villages. They refuse to stop traveling though checkpoints make any trip an exercise in frustration and curfews and incursions make every step outside potentially fatal. They refuse to die. And now they face starvation.

Do you know that in fighting the Palestinians Israel has patterned itself on the wrong side of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising? Did you read the quote from the unnamed ‘senior IDF official’ in Ha’aretz on January 25, 2002, who said “If the mission is to seize a densely populated refugee camp, or to take over the casbah in Nablus. the commander. must first analyze and internalize the lessons of earlier battles, even, however shocking it may sound – how the German army fought in the Warsaw ghetto.” Did that shock you as it did me? Did you wonder why he called it the ‘German army’ instead of the ‘Nazi army’? I did.

Can you see the Palestinians as part of the same tradition? They have their quislings, they have their opportunists, there are those among them who have been driven to blind hatred, as there are among all of us. But I wonder if you see that what they are doing and facing is part of a tradition that all of us with colonization in our past or present share. That most of them are not so different from those ancestors of yours and mine who struggled. Can you see your own Refuseniks as voices of conscience? Can you hear them when they say that they believe the best way to protect Israel is to get out of the Occupied Territories?

If the world cannot see them that way, the Palestinians will pay a price, the terrible price that we have been talking about. But so will you, in a way. Because you will have to turn away from that noble part of your history, that history of struggle against injustice, that has inspired and will continue to inspire so many. You will have to hand that history back to be humanity’s common property, and you will be left with no one to align yourself with but the colonizers, with no heroes but those who proved themselves in battles against weak or defenceless opponents. And that, too, will be a tragedy.

This is what I would have told you in those hours you thought would bring us to agreement. Were you right? Did I cut the conversation off prematurely? I hope so.

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