Tuesday, January 06, 2009

COMMENT: Not all believers speak with one voice ...

I get really peeved when people assume that my view on any issue is necessarily the same as that of an official "spokesman" or self-appointed "gatekeeper" or "native informant". I can imagine my Jewish cousins must feel the same.

Not all Jews blanketly support the logic used by some self-appointed community leaders on the current conflict in Israel/Palestine. Not all Muslims support the views of their self-appointed spokespeople. There are many views and many voices.

I've been watching the conflict on Al Jazeera English. I've watched interviews with HAMAS spokesmen. I have to acknowledge that I'm not convinced by HAMAS explanations (and it seems neither are the Al Jazeera interviewers). I'd hate to live in Canberra knowing that people from Queanbeyan were firing home-made rockets into my backyard. HAMAS rocket fire was grossly irresponsible and stupid, even if it was in response to an Israeli and Egyptian blockade. I wonder why HAMAS didn't fire rockets into Egypt.

At the same time, we are all appalled by the completely disproportionate response. Information on the effects of this response on Gaza's civilian population is available in both English and Hebrew on a blog set up by eleven human rights organisations in Israel.

But there are other Jewish voices. Rabbi Levi Brackman, described on Ynet News as "author of Jewish wisdom for Business Success", dismisses Jewish criticism of Israel in these words:

There are two types of Westerners who have been critical of Israel’s defensive actions in Gaza this week: Anti-Semites and some in the so-called Jewish intellectual elite.

Brackman is particular scathing of Dr Sara Roy, much of his criticism being based on her view of Judaism as ...

... defined and practiced not so much as a religion but as a system of ethics and culture. God was present but not central.
If someone said this about Islam, I'm sure many Imams would use this as an excuse to dismiss their views also. Brackman cites Musa bin Maymun al-Qurtubi (Moses Maymonides) as authority for the proposition that:

... a deeper reading of Judaism shows that whilst Jews as a people have been defined by their capacity for compassion and tolerance of others, there are times when we are forbidden to act upon those feelings because such action would be destructive.
So there are actually times when Jewish sacred law forbids Jews from acting in a compassionate and tolerant manner. I'm no expert on Jewish sacred law, but I find it hard to believe that any religious tradition (let alone Abrahamic faiths like Judaism) would not see compassion as a basic value in and of itself. Brackman then makes this startling claim:

The liberal culture which says “follow your heart and feelings no matter what” has caused destruction on multiple levels. The high divorce rate in the West can be ascribed to that prevailing, yet erroneous, attitude.
I don't have sufficient hubris to suggest a single cause to divorce rates in any country, let alone "in the West".

Regardless of her views on Judaism, there are a number of reasons why Dr Roy's work cannot be easily dismissed. She has spent over 2 decades studying the Gaza economy. This study has not just been compiling academic papers and books from the relative safety of Harvard University's Center for Middle Eastern Studies. Dr Roy has spent much of her time in Gaza itself. Her work has focussed on the impact of Israel's occupation and then boycott of Palestinians in Gaza.

What guide's Dr Roy's work is the fact that she is a child of Holocaust survivors. Here is part of what Dr Roy said when she delivered the 2nd Annual Holocaust Remembrance Lecture at the Center for American and Jewish Studies and the George W. Truett Seminary, Baylor University:

The Holocaust has been the defining feature of my life. It could not have been otherwise. I lost over 100 members of my family and extended family in the Nazi ghettos and death camps in Poland--grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, a sibling not yet born--people about whom I have heard so much throughout my life, people I never knew. They lived in Poland in Jewish communities called shtetls.

... As a young child of four or five, I remember asking my father why he had that number on his arm. He answered that he had once painted it on but then found it would not wash off, so was left with it.My father was one of six children, and he was the only one in his family to survive the Holocaust. I know very little about his family because he could not speak about them without breaking down. I know little about my paternal grandmother, after whom I am named, and even less about my father’s sisters and brother. I know only their names. It caused me such pain to see him suffer with his memories that I stopped asking him to share them.
I reproduce these paragraphs not in some attempt to compare the suffering of Holocaust victims to victims of other conflicts. I really don't know what it's like to lose a huge chunk of my family in a death camp. Perhaps only survivors of such horrors can understand the dangers of nationalism gone mad.

Israel and the notion of a Jewish homeland were very important to my parents. After all, the remnants of our family were there. But unlike many of their friends, my parents were not uncritical of Israel, insofar as they felt they could be. Obedience to a state was not an ultimate Jewish value, not for them, not after the Holocaust. Judaism provided the context for our life and for values and beliefs that were not dependent upon national boundaries, but transcended them. For my mother and father, Judaism meant bearing witness, railing against injustice and foregoing silence. It meant compassion, tolerance, and rescue. It meant, as Ammiel Alcalay has written, ensuring to the extent possible that the memories of the past do not become the memories of the future. These were the ultimate Jewish values. My parents were not saints; they had their faults and they made mistakes. But they cared profoundly about issues of justice and fairness, and they cared profoundly about people - all people, not just their own.
The memory of past suffering should lead to feelings of sympathy and empathy with those who continue to suffer. Dr Roy's work on Gaza cannot be easily dismissed.

Words © 2009 Irfan Yusuf

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Warren said...

Irfan:“I've been watching the conflict on Al Jazeera English. I've watched interviews with HAMAS spokesmen. I have to acknowledge that I'm not convinced by HAMAS explanations (and it seems neither are the Al Jazeera interviewers).”

-I don’t know what Al Jazeera you have been watching, but I have been watching it and the interviewers have definitely not been showing they are “not convinced” by Hamas explanations. In fact, yesterday one reporter went out of her way to say that the Palestinian people are ‘insulted’ that Israelis and some outside parties from western countries were trying to divide the Palestinians into ‘extremist’ (Hamas) and ‘moderate’ (Fatah) camps for their own cynical purposes. Palestinians do not want to be divided up in this way, and a great many (most in Gaza) support Hamas.

Irfan: “HAMAS rocket fire was grossly irresponsible and stupid, even if it was in response to an Israeli and Egyptian blockade. I wonder why HAMAS didn't fire rockets into Egypt.”

-Who are you to call Hamas “irresponsible and stupid”. The siege on Gaza had not been lifted, and even so they stopped firing rockets into Israel when a truce was called. It was only when Israel broke the truce that rockets were fired again. Israel has never denied that it broke the truce, only apologists for Zionism deny this. What do you expect from the people of Gaza, a total capitulation and slow starvation? What would you do in this situation? Why do you think they didn't fire at Egypt? This is a stupid question, and is really a cheap shot.

Finally, why on earth do you bring the Holocaust into this? The mere mention of this in an article about the mass murder of women and children in Gaza is not a sign of a balanced opinion on your part. The Holocaust has nothing to do with what is going on in Gaza. Only those who would justify the barbarity of the IDF on civilians would raise such a poor excuse as the suffering of the Holocaust. Another thing I heard on Al Jazeera was a phone call from a doctor to the TV station who said that the Israelis were killing everyone - men, women and children – indiscriminately. And yet you use the spin term “disproportionate response”.

Believe me Irfan, I have long enjoyed your blog entries, but I believe your attempt to be ‘balanced’ is becoming unbalanced. You are beginning to come across as compassionate to zionists and condescending and towards Arabs and Muslims.


Irf said...

Warren, thank you for your comment.

In relation to the Holocaust references, I was mentioning them with a view to defending Dr Roy. The rabbi cited here attacked Dr Roy's credibility on the basis of her views on what Judaism represented. I wamted to reproduce excerpts from her oration in order to give some idea of why she has spent so much of her professional life working with the people of Gaza.

I was tempted not to reproduce these paragraphs as some would claim I was suggesting the actions of the Israelis were on the same scale as those of the Nazi forces during WWII.

Your take on the Al Jazeera coverage is quite compelling. I might go back and re-visit some of the stuff I've posted here. It's unfortunate that this material isn't being broadcast more widely.

Finally, I should remark that in Australia it is only the military wing of HAMAS that has been proscribed as a terrorist organisation. This is in recognition of the fact that much of HAMAS's work is in the field of providing social services.