A Second Opinion


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Say what you like about Israelis, they know how to play the game. I’m speaking of the humanity game. It’s a game with specific rules and expectations in Western civilization. Its centerpiece, the very core of the game, is self-reflection. Demonstrating your humanity (since the Enlightenment, at least, but the roots go back to the beginning) is less about doing and more about reflecting on what you’ve done. The basic formula is already there at the Delphic Oracle: Know thyself. The trick of it, the reason that the humanity game is hard to play, is that the quest for self-knowledge does not lead to clarity, but down ever deeper into the muck. Knowledge, in the Western tradition, is very much about its limits. Knowing ourselves is thus partly about knowing the infinity of an enigma.

Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir is a “know thyself” kind of movie. It is obsessed with memory, and memory is the thread around which a self is built. You can’t know yourself without memory. The problem is that Folman doesn’t remember. Crucially, he doesn’t remember anything from his youthful days in the Israeli army when he was part of the Israeli incursion into Lebanon. He decides that he needs to remember, and tracks down a number of his fellow soldiers in order to reconstruct that past. The story is told in animated form. It’s a nice move. It creates a distance from the reality of lived experience. It is like drifting through someone else’s dream.

The traumatic core of Folman’s quest is a very specific memory. It is the memory of his presence at the massacre of thousands of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. The actual massacre was carried out by the Christian Phalangist militia, one of the sides in the complicated Lebanese civil war. They were exacting revenge for the murder of their leader, Bashir Gemayel. The young men of the refugee camp were killed first. Then came everyone else. Whole families executed outright behind their homes. Mothers gunned down with their children in their arms. It couldn’t have happened without the Israeli army, which provided the military cover for the massacre and then tacitly allowed it to happen. Folman, like hundreds of other young Israeli soldiers, was left to wander about the camp after the massacre, a nightmare landscape of bloated human corpses frozen in their wretched death throes. The hand and face of a dead little girl half buried in the rubble of her destroyed home.

In the final scene of Waltz with Bashir, the film shifts from animation to actual footage taken after the massacre. You see real bodies, real death. Folman has discovered the buried memories and therefore accomplishes a return to reality. In a deeper sense, he has reconnected with his own humanity by facing those dead bodies simply as human beings, no different from any other human beings, cut down in cold blood.

This brings us to the heart of a terrible thought. It is difficult for Westerners — and I include all of us, from every spectrum of the political rainbow — to recognize the essential humanity of the Palestinian people.

Andrew Sullivan touched on this problem recently in his Daily Dish blog, bringing attention to Glenn Greenwald’s powerful arguments about the inability of many Western liberals to fully identify with the Palestinians in the same way they do the Israelis. Sullivan puts the problem like this:

A refusal to grapple with the moral costs of this conflict, and a glib dismissal of the terrible human carnage now being inflicted by Israel (and paid for in part by Americans) is a sign of moral unseriousness. But it is the same mindset that can authorize the torture of human beings and see it as “coercive interrogation” only when Americans do it to Muslims.

Greenwald, going a little bit further, argues that:

If you see Palestinians as something less than civilized human beings:  as “barbarians” — just as if you see Americans as infidels warring with God or Jews as sub-human rats — then it naturally follows that civilian deaths are irrelevant, perhaps even something to cheer. For people who think that way, arguments about “proportionality” won’t even begin to resonate — such concepts can’t even be understood — because the core premise, that excessive civilian deaths are horrible and should be avoided at all costs, isn’t accepted. Why should a superior, civilized, peaceful society allow the welfare of violent, hateful barbarians to interfere with its objectives? How can the deaths or suffering of thousands of barbarians ever be weighed against the death of even a single civilized person?

The tragedy of the Palestinian people is that their suffering, somehow, by some horrible underlying logic, does not rate as equal.

The more I’ve come to see the dilemma in this light, the more the footage of carnage in Gaza has become impossibly heartrending to watch. A terrible dialectic is at play. As the Palestinians are battered to bits they rush, with camera in hand, to the scenes of devastation and to the hospitals where the wounded are being carried. They want to show the world. “Look,” they are saying, “we are human beings, just like everyone else. If you prick us, do we not bleed?” But the footage they capture gets perverted as it is conveyed. We see it on the other side as a chaos of bodies and activity that, while upsetting, is almost too kinetic. More tragically, the people sticking cameras into the scenes of injured children and families begin to look lewd. “Well,” we say, secretly in the dark whisperings of our private thoughts, “that’s no way to act.” The very attempt by everyday Palestinians to express their common humanity, to show their essential vulnerability, begins to look to us like opportunism, like the uncouth acts of a people fundamentally different from us. Barbarians.

Most people of good conscience don’t dispute the essential point: Israel is in the wrong for having pursued a strategy of occupation in the first place and for having forced the Palestinian people into prison-like camps and ghettos over which the Israeli Army has complete control. Nothing good comes of such an occupation and it constitutes a decades-long crime against humanity. The recent and ongoing tragedy in Gaza is but another episode in this longstanding evil. This in no way implies support of Hamas, which, for all its vaunted humanitarian works in Gaza, is a fundamentally despicable organization that only adds to Palestinian misery.

But the Palestinians are at a fundamental disadvantage because they are not as comfortable with the rules of humanity-showing as the West has defined them over the last couple of millennia. They do not, in our eyes, play the victim right. There is nothing, in principle, that should make the Palestinian struggle for autonomy and self-rule any less legitimate than the struggle to end apartheid, the American civil rights struggle, Gandhi’s fight to end English colonialism in India, or any number of other struggles that were ultimately recognized as struggles of a common humanity. Perhaps the only meaningful difference is that Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela were able to provide a sympathetic face, the proper face of the victim, to the Western world. The closest to such a figure that the Palestinians have come so far was Yasser Arafat. But let us speak an embarrassing truth. Arafat looked like a racist portrayal of “The Arab” from some 1930’s cartoon. And he was always rendered impotent by an essential schizophrenia, an inability to fully bridge the civilizational gap between the West and the Middle East. I often found myself descending into a sustained cringe-mode watching Arafat in the past and watching other Palestinian leaders today. I see them making mistakes, expressing themselves in ways that convey the very opposite of what they intend. Suddenly, Tzipi Livni appears on the screen and I become more comfortable. What she is saying is abhorrent to me, but I like the way she says it.

We ought to be ashamed of ourselves for forcing the Palestinians into this Faustian bargain. Implicitly, we refuse to acknowledge their root humanity until they agree to express that humanity according to our rules and our standards. It is as if we will only let them be a people if they agree to stop being the particular people that they are. On the other side, we rush to applaud the humanity of the Israelis exactly as they continue to kill and dehumanize the Palestinian populations that they control. Instead of enlarging our own concept of humanity and how it is to be expressed, we close the gates and stand before them as keeper. It’s a shameful thing and we all play a part in it — me, you, everyone. • 20 January 2009