Updated: Nov 7
It feels superfluous, even inappropriate, to comment on recent events in and near Gaza. But as a man whose parents were still children as German bombs fell on Florence during WWII, whose grandfathers both died in the immediate aftermath of that conflict, as a person who appreciates, quoting F. Scott Fitzgerald, that "the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time" is a sign of intelligence, and as a blogger who mostly writes about trees, weather and goings-on at Poggiosole but occasionally ventures into politics, it seems remiss not to comment, notwithstanding Simon Schama's October 13th FT opinion piece calling for forbearance from the many journalists and intellectuals who have already done so.
I am neither a journalist nor an intellectual. And I am not a Jew. But I was appalled, alongside countless others, at the CCTV footage of Hamas militants violently breaking into Be'eri kibbutz, the accounts of 260 young Supernova Sukkot music festival goers savagely cut down, hundreds of sons and daughters murdered, the families torn apart or altogether wiped out by Hamas' depraved October 7th attack, targeting primarily civilians. I am also dismayed at what I'm able to discern, so far and from afar, as the Israeli government's response, the historical disparity of Palestinian vs Israeli war-related fatalities reasserting itself, and the tired phrase "Israel's right to defend itself" (tired because it so often presages disproportionate retaliation). Of course Israel has this right (as does any state, community or group). It's fair to ask: what is at stake? What is being defended? Survival of course, therefore sustenance, shelter, medical care, freedom of movement. Perhaps also paid work, a living wage, the right to a "normal life". For decades now, hardly anything has seemed normal in Israel-Palestine, the line between defense and attack difficult to discern.
I'll venture to share five perspectives written by persons far more qualified than I to comment on the situation. Each of these had, to me, the ring of truth:
1) Shlomo Brom's political analysis, in which he pointedly opines, "It is absurd to hope that Israel can indefinitely contain with its military might and security services millions of Palestinians who claim the right to self-determination and a free, normal life."
2) Fintan O'Toole on the themes of Islamism and the absence of political agency in Gaza, in which he states, "when violence has become the only means of communication, everyone knows that its language will be spoken—and not in whispers but in screams."
3) Simon Diggins on holding "moral high ground" and the difficult choices facing the IDF.
4) Ruth Margalit on Netanyahu's failure and the "impossible choice" faced by Israel.
5) Sari Nusseibeh on "the dream of a future for both peoples" as a victim in this tragedy.
I may add to these in the coming days and weeks.
I've also been thinking about the quote, from Edward Said's 1993 book Culture and Imperialism, around which I built a post published in April of 2022, a few weeks into the Russia-Ukraine war. The quote, and Said's reflection on it, is an invitation to move beyond tribalism and the notion of one's "homeland". At a time like this, many will consider it naive, even dangerous. I see it instead as a plea to dare to dismantle the primitive polarity of "us and them", which, in this recent turn of events, first Hamas and then the IDF's Lt. General Herzi Halevi seem hell-bent on perpetuating. Call and response, ad infinitum.
Postscript, October 22: Fintan O'Toole deserves another link for a piece published today in The New York Review of Books in which he explores the line separating "those who deserve the protection of morality and law and those who do not" as well as the "colonial mindset" (forged in Britain, bequeathed, in O'Toole's view, to Israel) which assigns a "collective lack of civilization" to atrocities committed by individuals (or organizations within the collective). In short, posits O'Toole, "the most important doctrine of the polity [the British Empire] from which Israel itself emerged" was that "civilized nations did not have to grant their subject peoples the same rights and protections they claimed for themselves."
It's a short hop from O'Toole's analysis to the apartheid system undergirding the violence the Israeli state visits daily on the people in the occupied territories (in the name, quoting Netanyahu, of "the forces of civilization"). In periods between flashpoints such as the conflict we're now witnessing, this violence finds expression in economic sanctions and restrictions on movement: what David Shulman refers to when, in the above-linked essay, he describes Gaza as an "open-air ghetto" (others use the phrase "open-air prison"). A measure of these restrictions is the 15-to-1 ratio between the wealth of the average Israeli and the average Palestinian and the half of the Gazan adult population that lives below the IMF’s poverty line (figures pre-date Hamas' October 7th attacks). Two weeks of Israeli air strikes haven't helped these figures, though they may just have pushed a few Gazan youngsters closer to the military wing of Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad while putting the lives of over 200 Israeli hostages at even greater risk.
Post-postscript, November 1st: The Jewish editor Joshua Leifer, also writing in The New York Review of Books, lays bare the mirrored inhumanity of the war and the utter failure of Netanyahu (and, more broadly, the Israeli hard right he is beholden to) to achieve his stated aim of being remembered as "Israel's protector".
Quoting Leifer, "Seemingly incapable of long-term thinking, Israel’s leaders cannot see that even if successful this campaign will achieve little more than unfathomable suffering and death." In my view this is less a prognostication than a recognition of a result already achieved, if "achievement" is a term that can be applied to the actions of the IDF since October 7th. Also writing in the NYRB Fintan O'Toole dares to ask the question I've voiced each time another Gaza bombardment has made the news: "Even in the crudely mathematical logic of vengeance, the blood price for Hamas’s appalling atrocities of October 7 has long since been paid. The body count —if that is to be the measure of retribution— has mounted far beyond the level required for an equality of suffering. Yet it appears to have no visible ceiling. What factor must Jewish deaths be multiplied by?"
My own feeling, as may be clear by now, is that the course Likud has steered since Rabin's death has been disastrous for the mixed and deeply wounded populations of Israel-Palestine. My humanist bent has me reject religion as a basis for politics. I am borderline anti-Zionist (vs. antisemitic) and have as little patience with the idea of a Jewish state (I prefer Herzl's original phrase "national home" or "homeland") as I do with a Catholic or Muslim one. I believe post-war Italy would likely have faired better as a democracy had it not been for the enshrining of Catholicism as the official state religion under Mussolini (an arrangement finally and fortunately revised in the mid-1980s) and that Iran might have found a serene and secure place in the global economic order had MI6 and the CIA not cynically arranged for the removal of Mosaddegh, paving the way, 26 years later, for the revolution that gave birth to the Islamic Republic (of Iran).
God and scripture are useful, in my view, as instruments for private meditation. Temples, mosques, synagogues, churches, gurdwaras... congregations generally create a feeling of community, but they feed the human drive towards tribalism, perhaps our darkest and most dangerous drive. A country run on the basis of tribal or religious affiliation (witness Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan) gives rise to extreme repression, ongoing sectarian violence, or both.
Final thoughts, November 3: David Remnick, writing in The New Yorker, sounds a note of hope, recalling a time "when leaders and movements, for all their flaws and failures, agreed to agree, and fought for the rights of ordinary human beings to live in freedom and without fear." May such a time return soon.