Saturday, January 28, 2006

On Social Justice...

It becomes difficult to reconcile sometimes the things you now know, with what you thought you used to know. It leaves the mind to wander over the “what ifs?” and the “how comes?” The ordinary means for finding the point of equilibrium between your responsibility and the gravity of accepting your privilege is complicated by a new understanding of truth. Now that you have harnessed these perspectives, what is forthcoming?

Israel has experienced a relative calm lately. In the past years the onslaught of the second intifada has dissipated. Busses are not blowing up in Jerusalem as of late. The cafes are a safe haven of wireless internet. DVD machines hawk the latest American titles, computerized digital stations print photos, young people on the street corners canvass flyers for political parties.

Tal, 26, is an organizer for the far left Meretz party. He sports a full head of long sandy brown hair pulled back into a ponytail along with a weak mustache. He has glasses and speaks with a slight lisp as disseminates green flyers. His hands are cloaked in oversized woolen gloves, black and white flecks lint at the seams. He wears a thin faded white sweatshirt with the logo of the Meretz party stenciled in green as he shifts alternately to keep warm in the cold air of the mild Jerusalem winter.

Tal says Meretz has accepted the inevitability of a shared Jerusalem with the Palestinian Authority. Accordingly, Meretz is willing to entertain the idea of a bi-national capital. It is the prerogative of the Israeli people to accept a peace that is palatable to both peoples, but to many Israelis this is an unimaginable compromise. Within the context of the current state of the crisis, it is difficult to understand how things got so bad. To an outsider it almost seems as though there is no reason why Palestinians and Israelis should not share Jerusalem. Palestinians and Jews interact and function cooperatively in marketplaces and residential areas relatively peacefully. Speaking with the electorate there is a fervent call for a peace that will allow the Palestinians there own autonomous state, but it is not so simple.

History is a herd of elephants thundering through the old city. It provides the context for every issue, but depending on who you ask, the description of the elephants that inhabit and torment this ancient land is widely varied. Implied in the two state solution is recognition by the Palestinian Authority of the state of Israel. This is a drastic departure from their long held stance of refusal. Just as Hamas and the resistance hailed it as a victory against the occupation when Israel withdrew from Gaza, so too will Israel hold the occupation as a victory if it means recognition for Israel on behalf of the Palestinian people, no matter how begrudgingly.

Can you blame Israel? If it’s one thing the Arab world has succeeded in doing throughout the conflict, it is making the Jewish nation feel small and vulnerable. All you have to do is open the Jerusalem Post and find advertisements by the likes of the American Jewish Committee notifying Israelis that the Iranian government will do everything it can to get its hands on a nuclear warhead.

“And Tehran has a plan to make this genocidal vision a reality—with
an intensive program, violating international treaty obligations, that could
place nuclear warheads on missiles aimed at Israel, and potentially at countries
from Europe to Asia to Africa.”

Israelis are an anxious bunch, they have learned to avoid crowded places and fear nefarious acts of random, seemingly unprovoked, violence. If virtual imprisonment and occupation is what it takes to get a meager existential validation, then from an Israeli standpoint, perhaps it has served its purpose. Unfortunately, the Palestinian people are the prisoners serving the term for the sins of their Arab brothers.

It is the plight of the Palestinian people to pick a fight with a civilization that has just returned miraculously from the brink of extinction. Israelis live in the shadow of the Holocaust, they have descended from it, and the trauma has metastasized to all aspects of policy. The AJC advertisement aforementioned was entitled "Never again?" The allusion here is not so subtle, but indicative of Israel’s self-perceived position within the global context. Unfortunately, the fear of the next Holocaust manifesting itself as nuclear war in holy land is not entirely irrational.

Palestinians themselves will tell you they bare the brunt of Europe’s atrocities. Whether it’s the Holocaust, or Sykes-Picot (ca. 1916), everyone here has a slightly different understanding of what the larger European context means to the Jewish nation. What remains so exceptional about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the degree to which a seemingly small nation has subjugated a group of people who exist within a much larger Arab context.

From a historical perspective this is seemingly an obscure circumstance which greatly strains the paradigm of racism as it has come to be known within large academic circles. Racism as it is defined by such, is generally described as an ethnic prejudice with the addition of a skewed power dynamic which enables one party to manipulate and exert his power over another. So depending on how you look at it, whether the struggle is ‘Israel vs. Palestine’ or the collective ‘Arab World vs. Israel,’ there are much larger forces at play here. If you look at it strictly from a racial perspective however, as Israelis often do when expressing their fear of their Arab neighbors, don’t expect to unearth any larger truths about the people themselves, but it may help to explain the role of the United States.

If you are going to group the Palestinian people within the larger Arab block, then certainly you must also include Israel within the larger European/North American block. So whose conflict is it now? The more we step back, the more the conflict seems to validate Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. We’re democratic, they’re not. Another way of putting that though—democracy serves the interests of Western nations, populated mostly by white people. This is perhaps a useful tool for examining just the type of democracy Israel provides to the Middle East.

Social justice is a very broad term, making it difficult to pin down its applications. However, it is a fascinating articulation and as such, much of the world’s greatest work is carried out in its name.

My work here has pushed me to examine my role as a white person in this world more than ever, but the key applications are in the United States. Allowing Americans to understand the enabling role we play in driving the force of racism here, is perhaps the most profound of my discoveries. I think many American Jews especially, are at a loss when it comes to this notion. Without the cushion of America, Israel would not be the prize show dog it is, clearly the power dynamic would look entirely different. Extracting America’s role from conflicts such as this is neither realistic, nor is it ethical, but causing Americans to realize the heavy sword we lend to oppression all over the world is...


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