A chorus of apologists among Jewish intellectuals matches Israel's erasure of all distinctions between humanity and barbarism in war, writes Haim Bresheeth*
One of the most determined, courageous and influential opposition groups in Israel, now and in the past, is called Yesh Gvul; it represents and assists those bold Israelis who are taking a stand against their country's and government's war crimes: they refuse to serve in the Israeli army, preferring instead to go to prison in support of their refusal to kill and destroy. About 2000 Israelis have already taken this position, despite the almost hysterical support the Israeli public gives its leadership in most military adventures, and especially during the latest and worst atrocities in Gaza and Lebanon. Between them, small group that they are, those Israelis represent what little is left of the Israeli moral and principled stance.
Yesh Gvul in Hebrew is literally "There is a boundary", but could be better transliterated as "This far and no further", or "There is a limit". So, the group thinks there is, or should be, a limit, a boundary which should not be crossed, a red line: a limit to barbarism, insensitivity and brutality, a civilised limit to behaviour even in wartime, a limit which emerges from international law, UN resolutions, the Geneva Conventions, a generally-accepted level of violence beyond which one cannot, and should not venture, so that the fabric of society does not rupture. There are boundaries that should not be transgressed -- once you cross that boundary, they believe, you cannot argue when the other side does the same. A code transgressed is a code destroyed. The last few years, not to mention the last few weeks, have proven them wrong. Each of the boundaries of civilised behaviour was crossed and decimated, trampled by US, UK or Israeli tanks, never to return.
One of the boundaries we seem to be unable to discover is the limit to the endurance of the Jewish lobby, here, in the US, and in Europe. A sorry tale of collusion emerges from almost every leading newspaper, every hour of quality radio, every current affairs television programme. It is well known that many Jews front numerous media outlets and discourse on the continued Middle Eastern saga of pain, violence and propaganda, yet no one seems to think this strange. There are no Arabs, or even influential Muslims, in similar positions in the British or American media. That in itself is worrying, but would have been less so if we had examples of a wide variety of positions taken by influential Jews -- if some were, for example, doing better than mouthing Israeli propaganda, and imaginatively representing the Palestinian, Arab or Muslim perspective, or being sometimes critical of Israel's positions, especially when they are so obviously not just immoral, but counter- productive. That day has not yet come, it seems. The great majority of such commentators are automatically supportive of even the most brutal excesses of Israel; a kind of a Zionist Pavlovian dog chained to the flag, on a short leash, shooting from the hip, and never venturing far from home.
How can the public in Britain, for example, get a proper, balanced and informed opinion of events if this guaranteed choir of apologists is there, day in day out, to sing in disturbing unison, protecting us from facts, truth and evidence, and taking care to brand any critic of Israeli brutality an anti-Semite? The main difference is of style rather than content amongst members of this regiment of befuddlers. They range from the hysterical tones of the Jewish Chronicle and the English language press in Israel, to the more complex, better-presented and confusing arguments of Dershowitz in the US, and The Guardian's own Jonathan Freedland. On the one hand, you have the voice of unwavering right- wingers such as Melanie Phillips, never one to stop and wonder about the wisdom and morality of Israeli policy and actions, and always ready to justify whatever happened that day, and what will happen tomorrow, telling us that Israel has been "restrained" and "humane", inferring that it has been unnecessarily so, and could indeed be even more brutal in the future. Such people are taking a moral leaf from the book of the Yesha Rabbinical Council, the august body of extreme settlers, who in response to the Israeli massacre in Qana declared that, "in war time, there are no innocent civilians". That this attitude is illegal under international law seems of little consequence; that it may be applied by one's opponent should have been enough to persuade people against taking this position, but no such luck.
On the other hand, we have writers in such erstwhile publications as The Observer, The Guardian and The New Statesman, apologising in more restrained tones. Israel, they tell us, is fighting in the frontline against terror, represented by Hamas and Hizbullah (both popular parties which were elected to government); that this is a war to return the abducted (sic) soldiers or to defend Israel's borders from rockets. All this is in clear defiance of information and facts, and even of clear military thinking, not to mention morality and legality. In an article in The Guardian, Wednesday, 2 August, Freedland seemed to have found the perfect pitch as to why we should support Olmert: Yes, he may have made a (military and strategic) mistake, but if he loses out, he will be replaced by someone even worse, like Netanyahu. Not a word on the warped immorality and barbarity of the invasion, of the deranged use of proscribed ammunition like cluster bombs, white phosphorous and depleted uranium on population centres, on the killing of over 700 civilians (now over 1000), on the wanton destruction of Lebanon in order to, as the Israeli chief-of-staff put it, "knock them back 20 years". One assumes the latter meant a return to the mid-1980s when Beirut was a total wreck as a result of months of Israeli bombing and shelling. Well, this was already achieved in record time, but that does not seem to bother too many Jewish intellectuals in Britain or the US, or such luminaries like Bernard Henri-Levy or Alain Finkielkraut in Paris, of a new brand of right-wing Jewish intellectuals, paralleling the many such examples in Israel of left-wing "peaceniks" who have turned into the worst type of hawks, like Defence Minister Amir Peretz, out to "out-Sharon" Sharon.
So what has happened to Jewish morality? What has happened to the descendants of the prophets, the progeny of those who have laid the foundations of our commonly held concepts of justice? What has happened -- more to the point -- to the sons and daughters of Holocaust survivors?
The best-known rabbi of the classical Jewish period in ancient Palestine was Rabbi Hillel the Elder. In a delightful episode, we are told of a businessman who stopped him in the street, asking him to deliver the gist of the Torah "on one foot", or as we might now say, "in a jiffy", because he had no time to waste. Instead of waving him off, Hillel the Elder carefully considered this inquiry. His answer is a classical tenet of any juridical codex: "That which is hateful to you, do not inflict unto your neighbour." That, he told the man, is the "Torah whole". So, here we have the ancient Hebrews and their moral driving force that survived to this very day -- all social actions should be dictated by reciprocity; all actions which are the same, are equally valued, whoever commits them. How sad, then, that Israel, and most Israelis and Jews, have forgotten this simple principle. If you do not wish your soldiers to be "abducted," do not abduct thousands of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians; if you wish your populations to be safe in their homes, it may not be a good idea to terrorise the Palestinians and Lebanese for so many decades and destroy their cities; if you wish to be safe within recognised boundaries you should not hold on to territories occupied by force many decades ago; if you wish recent UN resolutions to be honoured by Lebanon, how about honouring ones from the late 1960's about vacating the occupied territories of Palestine, Syria and Lebanon; and if you wish to be safe from the nuclear weapons which "rogue states" like Iraq or Iran may develop one day, then maybe it is not such a good idea to keep an arsenal of almost 1000 nuclear bombs. You get the idea.
That Jewish politicians and intellectuals have abandoned, forgotten and erased such moral principles of social interaction is dangerous not only to them, and to their numerous victims in the Middle East, but also to the rest of us. After 9/ 11, President Bush and Vice President Blair have adopted the morality developed and perfected by modern Israel, honing it into a military clash of civilisations, a thesis beloved of Israeli "thinkers". That is why the two refuse to move towards a ceasefire and resumption of some kind of normality so that the many people now trapped can be saved, and a semblance of order can return to Lebanon and Gaza. The Israelis are the vanguard of the new morality of HiTech crusaders, with its typical chant of the First versus the Third World; for one eye, a hundred eyes; for one soldier, whole cities; for one rocket on Haifa, 200 missiles on Beirut; and for every American soldier or civilian killed, a hundred Arabs shall pay with their lives.
I have no doubt that many of those who justify and argue away Israeli barbarities as "strategic moves" are quietly ashamed of themselves, but hold the party line as is expected of them. In so doing, they betray Jewish tradition and values, Jewish liberalism, and a long history of suffering from racism and anti-Semitism. They also make such terrifying historical echoes more likely to return in the future, when they are part of removing the limits and boundaries, of justifying the unjustifiable. Justice, we learnt from Hillel the Elder, is not divisible -- either we all have it, or none shall have it. They, and the rest of us, may rue the day they were too frightened to remember their own history, and act to keep the boundaries intact between humanity and barbarism.
* The writer is chair of Cultural and Media Studies at the University of East London. He is co- editor of The Gulf War and the New World Order , published by Zed Books.
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