Eyeless in Gaza

High school English teachers know that they can’t go too far. Shakespeare, which some of the kids might get, after struggling through what seems to be almost a foreign language, with English words, is the limit. There’s no way they’d get Milton – the language is almost as difficult and there are no moody Danish princes or star-crossed lovers or murderous kings or those who would be king. Milton, even when he soars, is all theology, and teenage boys aren’t so sure Paradise is lost. She seems to be sitting two rows up, by the window. But it might be interesting to spring Milton’s Samson Agonistes on them – the story of Samson, captured by the Philistines, his eyes burned out, taken to Gaza, and forced to work grinding grain in a mill. Gaza is in the news. That might grab them. Israeli heroes always have a hard time in Gaza. Bad things happen there. Samson wanted to deliver Israel from the Philistines and got stuck there – “Ask for this Great Deliverer now and find him Eyeless in Gaza at the mill with slaves.”

Okay. Substitute Palestinians for the Philistines. It’s still Gaza. Go to war there, to deliver Israel from its one real enemy, and the place will blind you. You’ll end up clueless, eyeless in Gaza so to speak, but maybe your long hair will grow back, and chained to those pillars, you’ll pull down the Philistines’ temple on them, killing them all. You’ll die too, but it will be glorious. You won’t see it of course. Your impetuous incursion into Gaza left you blind, unable to see anything. There’s a lesson there.

That’s probably a stretch. Samson didn’t lead an army into Gaza to kill all the bad guys – he was grabbed elsewhere and taken to that awful place – but he still ended up blind and confused and in despair in his chains there. And really, the current Israeli government didn’t want to end up in Gaza either, but they ended up there anyway – so maybe drawing the parallel is not such a stretch. And they do seem blind to world opinion slowly but surely turning on them. Their modern military is ten thousand times stronger than whatever ragtag crap that Hamas can come up with – mostly lots of high-trajectory missiles, ballistic missiles not guided missiles, that can’t hit a damned thing except by chance, and ambushes and an occasional bomb in a café or bus. That makes Israel seem like bullies, although they do have the right to protect themselves – but the kill-ratio looks bad. That runs about two hundred to one, and there are too many dead Palestinian kids. It’s hard to get warm fuzzy feelings about Israeli heroes, each one a Samson, when four kids are blown away while playing soccer on a beach, although the editor of the National Review, Rich Lowry, did gave it a try on Fox News:

Lowry told Fox News host Tucker Carlson that the misidentification would never have happened if Hamas had not have provoked the Israelis in the first place.

“The whole idea is to invite retaliatory fire, to tell your civilians not to hide or to flee the areas where the Israelis are about to hit, and then get the civilian casualty numbers up,” Lowry explained. “And then use that as a propaganda tool, and hope the media will report it as if it’s Israel’s fault.”

“The four little kids, for example, who were killed right on the beach right on the Mediterranean in Gaza, you think that’s Hamas’ fault,” Carlson wondered.

“Yeah,” Lowry insisted. “It’s wouldn’t be happening, there’s no reason for this conflict except for that Hamas is sending the rockets over into Israel.”

“Why don’t they tell people, ‘When Israel warns you that they’re about to hit, please flee, please go somewhere someplace safe’?” he continued. “They don’t. And you’ve had various Hamas officials over the years bragging, ‘We’re going to win because we love death more than you love life.'”

That might be it, except for eyewitness accounts – there was no warning in this case and no rockets were ever fired at Israel from anywhere near there, ever. Gaza seems to have blinded Lowry too, although not everyone is blind just yet:

President Barack Obama “raised serious concern” with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about growing casualties from his country’s offensive in Gaza designed to put an end to Hamas rocket fire, the White House said today.

Perhaps Obama sees what’s obvious to anyone with eyes to see – telling civilians to get the hell out quick, the bombs are coming, doesn’t do a lot of good if there’s nowhere they can run to – a minor detail perhaps, but kind of obvious. Gaza can blind you, and things are getting worse:

Israel and Gaza have both suffered their bloodiest day since the beginning of the current offensive.

Israel says that 13 of its soldiers died since Saturday night, the biggest one-day loss for its army in years.

At least 87 Gazans were reported killed on Sunday – 60 of them in the district of Shejaiya alone. The total death toll in Gaza now stands at more than 425.

Hamas said on Sunday evening that it had captured an Israeli soldier, but Israel has issued a denial.

“There’s no kidnapped Israeli soldier and those rumors are untrue,” said Israel’s UN ambassador Ron Prosor.

Celebratory gunfire and shouts could be heard in Gaza City after the claim was made.

This has a context:

Sunday’s death toll for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is higher than that sustained by the IDF during the entire three-week duration of Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, the last time that Israel sent ground troops into Gaza.

It brings the number of Israeli soldiers killed in the current offensive to 18.

The deaths of so many soldiers on a single day will shock Israeli society, the BBC’s Chris Morris reports from southern Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to continue operations in Gaza “as much as we need to” despite the casualties.

That might be called willful blindness, given how this looks:

The UN says 83,695 people have now been displaced in Gaza and have taken refuge in 61 shelters and that the figure is “rising all the time”.

Witnesses spoke of bodies lying in the street. …

The death toll in Gaza rose sharply over the weekend, with the number of Palestinians killed now standing at more than 425 since the operation began, according to Palestinian health officials.

They say the number of wounded from the operation now stands at more than 3,000.

The majority of those killed are civilians, the UN says.

There are two ways of looking at this:

The United Nations went into emergency session on Sunday night in New York to discuss the Gaza crisis. The meeting was requested by Jordan. …

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a press conference on Sunday that the operation in Gaza can be expected to continue. Addressing the families of the fallen soldiers, he said that there was no war more just than the one for which their loved ones had given their lives.

There’s a lot of blindness going around these days, and there are protests too:

Hundreds of peaceful protesters gathered in Washington on Sunday to demonstrate against Israeli violence in Gaza, with many expressing frustration with what they see as unconditional U.S. support for Israel.

“The U.S. is the primary patron of Israel and provides unequivocal diplomatic and military support,” said Noura Erakat, a Palestinian lawyer and professor at George Mason University. “It’s a complicit third party in what amounts to a massacre of the Palestinian population entrapped within the Gaza strip.”

The demonstrators gathered outside the State Department, where Palestinian Americans, Muslims, Jews and others waved Palestinian flags and held up signs calling for an immediate end to the violence.

The United States may or may not be a complicit third party here, but we will try to stop the spreading violence:

Secretary of State John Kerry is heading back to the Middle East as the Obama administration attempts to bolster regional efforts to reach a ceasefire and sharpens its criticism of Hamas in its conflict with Israel.

The State Department said Kerry would leave early Monday for Egypt where he will join diplomatic efforts to resume a truce that had been agreed to in November 2012. In a statement Sunday evening, department spokeswoman Jen Psaki called the U.S. and international partners “deeply concerned about the risk of further escalation, and the loss of more innocent life.”

The Obama administration has toned down its earlier rebuke of Israel for attacks on the Gaza Strip that have killed civilians, including children, although both President Barack Obama and Kerry expressed concern about the rising death toll.

That will be a hard needle to thread, but the Obama team will give it a go:

Making the rounds of Sunday talk shows, Kerry pointed to Hamas’ role in the violence.

“It’s ugly. War is ugly, and bad things are going to happen,” Kerry told ABC’s “This Week.” But, he added, Hamas needs “to recognize their own responsibility.”

Both Obama and Kerry said Israel has a right to defend itself against frequent rocket attacks by Hamas from the Gaza Strip. Kerry accused Hamas of attempting to sedate and kidnap Israelis through a network of tunnels that militants have used to stage cross-border raids.

He said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that Hamas must “step up and show a level of reasonableness, and they need to accept the offer of a cease-fire.”

They’ve already given Israel a pass on that reasonableness thing, although that’s not enough for some:

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, urged Israel to “stay as long as you need to stay, go wherever you need to go, do deal with a viper’s nest called Hamas.”

“If it’s left up to Hamas, thousands of Israelis would be dead,” Graham, R-S.C., told NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Meanwhile, over in Israel, in the Knesset, there’s Moshe Feiglin:

Gaza is part of our Land and we will remain there forever. Liberation of parts of our land forever is the only thing that justifies endangering our soldiers in battle to capture land. Subsequent to the elimination of terror from Gaza, it will become part of sovereign Israel and will be populated by Jews. This will also serve to ease the housing crisis in Israel. The coastal train line will be extended, as soon as possible, to reach the entire length of Gaza.

According to polls, most of the Arabs in Gaza wish to leave. Those who were not involved in anti-Israel activity will be offered a generous international emigration package. Those who choose to remain will receive permanent resident status. After a number of years of living in Israel and becoming accustomed to it, contingent on appropriate legislation in the Knesset and the authorization of the Minister of Interior, those who personally accept upon themselves Israel’s rule, substance and way of life of the Jewish State in its Land, will be offered Israeli citizenship.

And that’s that, but on the other side of things, Imam Sohaib N. Sultan offers a thoughtful Ramadan warning about this sort of thing:

The Qur’an often describes sins and wrongdoings as “oppressing one’s own soul” (7:23). It begs the question, therefore, what the difference is between the oppressor who commits wrongdoing and the oppressed that is wronged if both are, ultimately, being oppressed. I think the answer may lie in that oppression attempts to strip the oppressed of their rights and dignity; whereas oppressing strips the oppressor of their very own humanity.

And thus everyone ends up blind, and we here in America, not in Gaza, can only hope we won’t end up blind like Milton’s ultimate strongman, Samson. We are not a complicit third party in what amounts to a massacre of the Palestinian population trapped in Gaza, nor are we blindly bumbling about there like the current Israeli government. We only approve of what they’re doing, sort of, but not really, but maybe really. Our position is ambiguous, and Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir examines that ambiguity:

Both in the real conflict on the ground and the ideological conflict for hearts and minds, both sides feel misunderstood and unfairly stigmatized – and if you’re willing or able to take the long view, they both have a point. Along with every other American journalist, I received emails this week from Arab-American groups complaining about the pro-Israeli bias of the mainstream media, and from Jewish activists eager to elucidate President Obama’s “pro-Muslim agenda” and his long-term campaign to undermine Israel. Within the American left, which for generations has been closely allied with the Jewish intellectual tradition, this ideological combat can often be intensely personal and painful. I’ve managed to stay out of the angry debates between friends and acquaintances in my Facebook feed – about whether Rachel Maddow is an Israeli shill, or whether American progressives are hypocrites for weeping over Gaza but ignoring the death toll in Iraq, Syria and Egypt – and I don’t even want to know what kinds of insults people are hurling at each other on Twitter.

What do we talk about when we talk about Israel? Perhaps this is an index of our bottomless narcissism, but the not-so-secret subtext of both pro-Israel and anti-Israel arguments is that they’re really debates about America and its role in the world. Israel is of course closely tied to the U.S. in military, economic, cultural and psychological terms, and in all likelihood would not exist if not for six-plus decades of staunch American support. Although it’s a distinctive society in many ways, Israel is also a familiar kind of place – a Westernized consumer democracy of yoga classes, designer cocktails and gay pride parades – in a way no Islamic Middle Eastern country even approaches. Israel can be read as an American proxy state, a wayward bastard child or (in the paranoid view) as a sinister force behind American politics, pulling the superpower’s strings. However you understand this “special relationship,” the genetic kinship is unmistakable.

Everything about the politics of the Israel-Palestine debate – which are mostly the politics of guilt, victimhood and mutual, purposeful incomprehension – is distorted and exacerbated by the gravitational effect of America. As I said earlier, both sides have valid points to make about the nature of that distortion. But I don’t mean to retreat to some journalistic posture of false equivalency and despair: Everybody has done bad things, and it’s just dreadful. Can we get back to watching HBO? That only fuels the hapless status quo, as captured so memorably in Mitt Romney’s phrase about kicking the can down the road, in which the U.S. appears subservient to the Israeli right wing while continuing to advocate for a two-state solution that will never happen. I have no solution to that dilemma, but it’s useful to understand that pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian forces are responding to the same phenomenon – Israel’s inextricable relationship with the United States – and interpreting it in different ways.

That simply makes things weird:

First of all, Israelis and their American allies are justifiably outraged when leftist critics compare Israel to Nazi Germany or apartheid South Africa. It is not excusing Israel’s policy misdeeds or the racist excesses of Israeli settler culture to insist that such comparisons are intellectually lazy and dishonest, and serve only to pour gasoline on an already inflammatory situation. Now, there are specific areas, such as the tormented relationship between the Israeli military and Palestinians under occupation, where those analogies may come much too close for comfort. This was famously observed by no less an authority than former Shin Bet head Avraham Shalom (in the mesmerizing documentary “The Gatekeepers”) – a man who had been born in Vienna and once saw Adolf Hitler speak in person.

But in the bigger picture, the differences are more striking than the similarities: For all its flaws, Israel is a functioning Western-style democracy that pays lip service to the rule of law and (like most other democracies) occasionally lives up to those promises. Dissent and free speech are generally tolerated, and more than 20 percent of Israeli citizens are Palestinian Arabs, who at least in theory possess full political rights. A dozen Arab Israelis hold seats in the Knesset, and an Arab judge has sat on the Israeli Supreme Court since 2004. There is unquestionably anti-Arab discrimination and ethnic tension between the Jewish and Arab populations, but it is ludicrous to compare that situation to Nazi Germany or South Africa. How many Jews hold similar positions in Muslim-majority nations? For that matter, how many African-Americans served as judges or cops or state legislators in the Jim Crow South?

So Israelis feel they have been unfairly demonized by American and Western progressives who ought to see the essential similarities between their societies, and also feel themselves (again with some justification) surrounded by enemies who would rather they disappeared. While Hamas’ rockets have been militarily ineffective – at this writing, only one Israeli civilian has been killed – they have engaged the semi-permanent condition of national PTSD resulting from decades of border wars and occupations and intifadas and suicide-bombing campaigns and all the rest of it. Now the Israeli military is certain to inflict many times the amount of damage on Gaza that the ragtag guerrilla bands of Hamas could ever inflict on Israel, while insisting the whole time that it is behaving honorably and that every atrocity that makes clear how cheaply it holds Arab lives (children killed on the beach, children killed in their bedrooms) is a regrettable accident for which the other side is to blame.

That means one must decide what to be blind to:

One Facebook post I saw from an old friend raised an argument I mentioned earlier, originating from the pro-Israel lobbying group UN Watch: If you’re outraged by the deaths of civilians in Gaza but didn’t say a word about thousands who died in terrorist attacks in Iraq, the slaughter of street protesters in Egypt or massacres in South Sudan and Nigeria, then you are motivated not by human rights concerns but by bigotry against Israel (and by extension by anti-Semitism, although that accusation was left unspoken). It’s a provocative argument, and anybody who tries to tell you there is no anti-Semitism on the pro-Palestinian or anti-Zionist left is lying. But the response is simple enough: Americans don’t feel implicated in those other crimes, or at least not to the same extent.

On the other hand, we may be a complicit third party in all this:

Like everything else about the grossly asymmetrical Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the current invasion of Gaza involves American guns, American money and the unswerving support of the American political elite and the mainstream media. If left-wing supporters of Palestine draw outrageous comparisons between Israel and murderous autocratic regimes, that is both a veiled claim that America itself is sliding toward fascism and an attempt to shock American liberals into decoupling from the Israeli cause.

But that’s not going to happen:

What ties together those who forcefully support Israel and those who forcefully oppose it is that both groups see the essential kinship between Israel and the United States, and interpret that historical legacy in different ways. Supporting Israel has become a benchmark of American patriotism – which means that no major presidential candidate of either party can ever question that support – while those who oppose Israeli belligerence and expansionism are generally the same people who see U.S. foreign policy as a baleful influence around the globe. Viewed this way, discussions about Israel and Palestine in the U.S. are really metaphorical debates about America’s role in world history – about whether we are a good or a bad nation in the end, and whether our mystical sense of national purpose can be redeemed.

There’s much more, but it comes down to this:

From the American perspective Israel looks something like Frankenstein’s monster, a morally dubious and arguably unnatural creation that was stitched together with the noblest of intentions but not much foresight, and that produced a painful litany of unintended consequences. In that analogy we are Victor Frankenstein, who can never unmake his wayward creature, control it or untether himself from it. If I remember the story correctly, they destroy each other in the end.

We seem to be blind to that, but maybe Israel isn’t so much Frankenstein’s monster as much as it is Milton’s Samson, Eyeless in Gaza. Either way it’s a horror show. And that brings up another famous British writer Aldous Huxley – that odd fellow who wrote Brave New World and ended up out here living the rest of his life up in Beachwood Canyon just under the Hollywood sign. There’s his 1936 novel Eyeless in Gaza – all about a young fellow blind to the world around him, but who then discovers pacifism and then mysticism and everything works out just fine. The novel has nothing to do with Gaza at all of course – it’s all about upper-class British twits – but the metaphor is always useful. On the other hand, there never was any point in making those high school kids read Milton. No one reads Milton. Everyone already knows Paradise was lost long ago, and now they know all about Gaza too.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to Eyeless in Gaza

  1. SalvaVenia says:

    Perfect casing, that Milton analogy.

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