When Political Discourse Turns to Bullets, Real and Imaginary

Children worry, but they worry about themselves, wrapped in their own fears of abandonment or injury. Only when we’re able to worry about others, have we really grown up.

This week, Atlanta Jewish Times publisher Andrew Adler resigned after all but calling for the assassination of U.S. President Obama; on Wednesday, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords resigned from the U.S. House of Representatives a year after a gunman shot her at close range, and on Thursday the IDF opened an investigation into the wounding of Israeli journalist and human rights activist Didi Remez. Remez had been attending the Palestinian protest in the West Bank town of Nabi Saleh when IDF soldiers shot him with seven rubber bullets, a year before soldiers would shoot a tear canister at Mustafa Tamimi in the same location, killing him.

The attempted or actual killing of an elected official, and the use of violence against unarmed protestors, is shocking for so many reasons, but partly because it is a most horrible form of silencing. When I think about voice and silence, I think about childhood, that tender time when we struggle to find our voice.

nabi saleh - Miki Kratsman - December 12 2011
Miki Kratsman

Recall the prelude to Obama’s State of the Union address this week, where the president and Giffords fell into a spontaneously joyful hug, rocking to and fro, as if in a bit of dreamy, childlike revelry. Giffords, tragically, lost part of her speech capacity in the shooting. Two days later, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz publicly thanked her friend and colleague for her national service before lending her voice by reading out Giffords’s moving letter of resignation. Rep. Wasserman Schultz’s speech exhibited a heartbreaking blend of grace and leadership with the childlike honesty of tearful emotion breaking through.

In contrast, Atlanta-based publisher Adler’s teary interview on a local cable channel (about which JJ Goldberg wrote in The Forward reveals the weeping of a child, but the kind that follows the worst kind of childish impulse. Or maybe Adler was more of an adult than he seems, and maybe he had thought through the implications of his frightening words. We will never really know.

Didi Remez’s injuries from seven rubber bullets aimed at his legs and groin suggest another form of silencing: the attempt to silence someone standing in solidarity with another. While there is much innate empathy among children, taking a public stand on behalf of another is something that comes with maturity. Obviously some segments within each society get there before others do.

Rubber bullets (which are metal cylinders coated in a layer of rubber) have a storied legacy within Israel’s attempt to quell Palestinian resistance. Childhood never seems far from the mind of critics on this issue. During the first Intifada, Nurit Galron sang of the effects of rubber bullets on Palestinian civilians in her political lament, "After Us, The Flood." “Don’t tell me of the girl who lost her eye. It only makes me feel bad.” The human rights organization B’tselem staged a protest around that time by handing out small rubber balls (balls and bullets share the same Hebrew word, kadurim) on street corners.

These are no child’s play, the kind which Bernard Avishai wrote about as he discussed the IDF wounding of Remez on his blog almost two years ago. Israeli political scientist Yaron Ezrahi immortalized the idea of rubber bullets in his book of the same name. Ezrahi noted that as Israeli society was maturing out of its infancy, Israelis were shedding a commitment to collectivism for a studied individualism. But where to now?

I spoke to Didi Remez the day after his interrogation by the IDF. I asked him what had transpired moments before the shooting. He told me that, unarmed and with his hands up, he had yelled at the soldiers: “If you stop shooting and get out of the village, the stone-throwing will end!” Moments later, he was doubled over in pain.

A successful journalist and human rights activist, Remez has 70,000 followers on twitter and 4,000 friends on Facebook. I asked him if he thought the soldiers knew who he was. His answer pointed to the starkness of the political situation. “I’m sure they knew I was Israeli. If an Israeli gets shot at like this, what can a Palestinian expect? This is the social pathology seeping into Israeli democracy,” he added. “Israelis need to be worried about this.”

Children certainly worry: but they tend to worry about themselves, wrapped in their own fears of abandonment or injury. Only when we’re able to worry about others, have we really grown up. Giffords’ shooter was apparently worried about America and took it in a horrible, murderous direction; Adler was worried about the Iranian threat to Israel and took it to awful and bizarre extremes; Remez was worried about Palestinian liberty and the erosion of Israeli democracy and went to observe a peaceful protest where he was shot at. To paraphrase children’s activity books: what’s wrong with this picture?

As the bullets -- rubber or not, real or suggested -- are flying, we need to do that most adult of things: think about the long term benefit for all of us rather than the short-term, sometimes twisted, gain for some.