I've been hearing people say lately, that if they hear one more negative thing about Israel, it will drive them nuts.
I've heard this from people who hate Israel to death, from people who adore Israel all but uncritically, and from the group I belong to, people who love this place and find it maddening in every sense of the term, painful to love, painful to leave, terrifying in prospect, an indelible, at times miraculous shadow sewn to the soul.
In theory, a movie house ought to offer a certain escape from this. No such luck. When my wife and I took the bus to see "Lincoln" this week, the driver let us off at the stop closest to the theater: Rabin Square, site of the 1995 assassination and, although we didn't know it yet, a lens through which to understand the darkness of Abraham Lincoln, an America torn to catastrophe by slavery, and, most of all, ourselves.
I know something of American history. I know much about the Civil War. But for my wife and I, the two and a half hours we watched "Lincoln," were spent watching our Israel tear itself to death over how we relate to, or manage not to relate to, Palestinians as people.
Over and over, in the film's debates over slavery, an endless, unbearable war, and their interconnections, it was impossible not to see the parallels to Israeli society, politics, warfare, and daily life.
It was impossible not to see, in this theater across the street from Rabin Square, what one determined, inspiring, all-too-human leader, in cooperation with the vast majority of a nation, could accomplish for the sake of fundamental human justice - and the price that one fuming, armed extremist might make that leader pay for any success in moving forward.
Sometimes you have to look away from what you're overused to, in order to see it at all. Sometimes you need to be in some faraway dark place, for there to be light shed on your own.
I realize now why "apartheid" is too easy, too slick, too Madison Avenue a term, for what occupation truly is and does.
Occupation is slavery.
In the name of occupation, generation after generation of Palestinians have been treated as property. They can be moved at will, shackled at will, tortured at will, have their families separated at will. They can be denied the right to vote, to own property, to meet or speak to family and friends. They can be hounded or even shot dead by their masters, who claim their position by biblical right, and also use them to build and work on the plantations the toilers cannot themselves ever hope to own.
The masters dehumanize them, call them by the names of beasts.
The clergy of this Old South in the new West Bank, claiming God and the Bible, preach that it is permissible to rebel against the government, against the army, in order to protect the plantations and the sanctity of the institution of occupation.
The spokesman of this Old South, speaking to us across the secession lines, trade in fear of those under oppression, warning that they will take us over and kill us, if they are allowed to be free.
The day we went to see "Lincoln," headlines spoke of 15 Jewish youths nearly killing an Arab Israeli in Jaffa, bloodying his head and one eye with bottles and glass shards, sending him to hospital in serious condition. The victim was attacked as he re-filled his vehicle with water, in order to continue to clean their streets. His wife quoted the attackers as saying as they beat him, that Arabs were "trying to take over the country."
I realize now that I am an abolitionist. I realize how many, many people I know, people in that unnamed, largely unorganized group I belong to, are abolitionists as well, people for whom the central, the crucial, the overriding issue facing Israel and Israelis – and Jews the world over – is how to bring the occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem to an end.
I realize now that I need to pay more attention to Abraham Lincoln, in his ability to remind us all – in our natural desire not to hear one more bad thing – of the wisdom hidden in the obvious.
"Those who deny freedom to others," he once said, "deserve it not for themselves."
And this: “Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.”
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