There are times when one simple question is enough to cut through a massive, over-intellectualized, elaborately contextualized, creatively dogmatized, heroically self-righteous thicket of bull.
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There are questions that, while short, have much to teach all of us.
A question like this one, for example:"How does stabbing a 70-year-old man and an 80-year-old woman free Palestine?"
Veteran peace activist Gershon Baskin posted the question on Facebook late on Monday, following consecutive knife assaults in the Israeli towns Rishon Letzion and Netanya.
In both cases, elderly people just walking down the street were the chosen first targets of the young Palestinian assailants. In both cases, the victims were critically injured. Doctors said the assault on the woman in Rishon Letzion was so violent that the blade sliced through internal organs and the victim was thrown to the ground, the fall causing her hip to fracture.
How, then, does stabbing a 70-year-old man and an 80-year-old woman free Palestine?
The question is not a trick.
It was an honest one, not – as comments on the Israeli-Palestinian issue have taught us to expect – a hostile one, or one so blindly biased as to not be a question at all.
Baskin has devoted the whole of his adult life to the cause of reconciliation, co-existence, and the search for conflict resolution between the Jews and Arabs of the Holy Land – even between Israel and Hamas.
Specifically because this is a time of rage and great fear and widespread grief, the question is a short and extremely profound test of what we really are as human beings – regardless of what side we're on. It is a test of what we're really made of.
I will readily admit that the first answer that came to me was grounded in anger and disgust. When a 19 year old man intentionally chooses to try to murder an 80 year old woman he doesn't know – what kind of a person does this, I thought. A coward. A criminal. A punk.
My anger only grew when I read one of the responses to Gershon's question.
"The same way bulldozing a refugee camp or carpet bombing an entrapped, concentrated civilian population frees Israel," one man wrote from Santa Rosa, California. "Why waste space with such a selectively moralistic, inanely self-evident rhetorical question? Make you feel more righteous?"
I thought: How is it that, where Israel/Palestine are concerned, perceptive and knowledgeable people so often see one side as entirely in the right and blameless and understandable – no matter the horrendous acts committed in its name – while seeing the other side as vicious, wicked-hearted and monstrous – no matter their history, their humanity, their fundamental rights as people?
Then I learned something.
In the course of the emotional debate which ensued on Gershon's Facebook page, the man from Santa Rosa made it clear that he was "equally disgusted and horrified by the incitement and indiscriminate depravity of this wave of stabbing attacks."
It's now the next morning, and I've consciously stepped back, to see what I might learn from this. It begins here:
1. Don't confuse the sharp and sudden tunnel vision of anger, with what it truly and misleadingly feels like: clarity of focus. The second lesson I drew required more work:
2. Listen to what the other side is saying. Listen not only to the outrageous extremists that confirm our prejudices and make us feel better about ourselves, but also to the voices of reason which are so often shouted down and drowned out.
Just before the attacks took place on Monday, I read an exceptional interview in +972 Magazine with Mubarak Awad, a Palestinian activist and tireless, pioneering campaigner for non-violence, who was jailed, tortured, and deported by Israel in 1988 for distributing leaflets supporting civil disobedience.
Awad explains the roots of the current wave of violence, but significantly does not absolve the assailants of responsibility for their actions. "Look, I don’t have a reason to like Israelis. They killed my father. They destroyed my house. They’re destroying my culture. They destroyed my life. They’re continuing to destroy the lives of my family back home, coming in the middle of the night and arresting Palestinians from their homes. They block our roads. They take our land. They aren’t showing an interest in wanting peace with us.
"But we still have to take the strategies of nonviolence and show the way forward," he maintains. "I still think the Palestinians have to really commit themselves to nonviolence. They can’t accept both violence and nonviolence. We really have to come to terms with the idea that we cannot defeat the Israelis with violence," Awad concludes. "They will always beat us if we choose violence—or choose to resign ourselves to the occupation."
3. Extremists will act and speak in the name of their entire people, regardless of how, in the end, their actions severely harm their own side.
4. You are what you do. When I thought that, whoever else they are, the two young men who knifed the old people were, in fact, cowards, criminals, and punks, I wasn't wrong. How does stabbing a 70-year-old man and an 80-year-old woman free Palestine? It does not. It is dead wrong. As is the occupation the assailants of the old people purport to be fighting. Which leads to perhaps the only real lesson of all of this:
5. Two dead wrongs will never make a right. They will only make more dead.