Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Validating the Suffering of the Palestinians

Susan Nathan explores how to address the suffering of the Palestinians without pointlessly resorting to comparisons of whose suffering is worse. Showing how the Palestinians are suffering validates the Palestinian experience, but it in no way reduces the horrors experienced by Jews in the Holocaust.

It asks for all people to open their hearts, and recognize the common quality to all such human tragedies.

The apparent inability of Jews in Israel and the Diaspora to address the true roots of the Middle East conflict and accept their role in the Palestinians' suffering is given an alibi by their fears, which are in turn stoked by stories in the media of the ever-present threat of anti-Semitism, a Jew-hatred in both Europe and the Arab world that, we are warned, has troubling echoes of the period before the Second World War. A disproportionate part of the media coverage of anti-Semitism concentrates on tarring critics of Israel with this unpleasant label. Anyone who has disturbing things to say about what Israel is doing the the Palestinians is, on this interpretation, an anti-Semite. I have little doubt that the motivation of Israel's defenders in many cases is to silence the critics, whether their criticisms are justified or not.

My own critique of Israel - that it is a state that promotes a profoundly racist view of Arabs and enforces a system of land apartheid between the two populations - risks being treated in the same manner. So how does one reach other Jews and avoid the charge of anti-Semitism? Given the sensitivities of Jews after their history of persecution, I think it helps it we distinguish between making a comparison and drawing a parallel. What do I mean? A comparison is essentially a tool for making quantitative judgments: my suffering is greater or lesser than yours, or the same. Jews have a tendency to demand exclusive rights to certain comparisons, such as that nothing can be worse than the Holocaust, because it involved the attempt to kill a whole people on an unprecedented scale. Anyone who challenges that exclusive right, for example by suggesting that Israel is trying to ethnically cleanse the Palestinians from their homeland, is therefore dismissed as an anti-Semite. The debate immediately gets sidetracked into the question of whether the argument is anti-Semitic rather than whether it is justified.

Drawing a parallel works slightly differently. It refuses, rightly, to make lazy comparisons. Israel is neither Nazi Germany nor apartheid South Africa. It is unique. Instead, a parallel suggests that people can find themselves in similar circumstances, or that one set of events can echo another. Even more important, the emotions people feel in these circumstances may share some of the same quality. That common quality is what allows us to see their suffering as relevant and deserving of recognition, without dragging us into a debate about whose suffering is greater.

From The Other Side of Israel: My Journey Across the Jewish/Arab Divide, written by Susan Nathan. Emphasis mine.


TomCat said...

My mother was a Jew, so I can hardly be accused of anti-semitism. I love Jewish culture.

That said, I agree with everything you said in your article, RJ. The jewish people have certainly had, as a whole, more than their own fair share of abuse. Sometimes, victims of abuse feel so powerless that they become abusers themselves. It is sad, but often true. I think that may well apply to nations as well as individuals. That's no excuse, and cannot be used as a justification, but it may help us understand the dynamics of what is happening in the middle east.

Red Jenny said...

"...victims of abuse feel so powerless that they become abusers themselves..."

That is an excellent point, something like the old saying that best defense is a good offense. One sees something similar, for example, in some soldiers with PTSD - sometimes they become violent and can even harm their partners, but it is because they are terribly traumatized, not because they are mean or evil or something.

It feels like Jews are a traumatized people... but unfortunately, they are not the only ones. And there have been apologies, punishment, reparations, recognition, Holocaust museums, etc. all of which do something very important: they bear witness to the terrible experience of those who suffered in the Holocaust.

Any trauma survivor's experience is made so much worse if they are denied this. A rape victim who is told it is her own fault has a much harder time healing than one who is supported in her family and community. Same with a domestic violence survivor who is told: "it can't have been that bad, get over it" or a vet whose trauma is dismissed as a weakness.

The Palestinians are also a traumatized people - but worse, they are still experiencing the violence and poverty. They can't even begin to heal until they have peace and justice.

Red Jenny said...

Oh, and I think there is more to it.

Being in a position of power and dominance also changes people. The Stanford Prison experiment is a really good demonstration of how this happens.

Also illustrative is the tendency for people to do awful things when ordered as seen in the Milgram Experiment.