A young teenager, detained in a dark transit hall, one among many others similarly confined, hears planes overhead, bombs dropping, the sounds of destruction moving ever closer. Explosions are heard, loud and menacing, his only shelter the bodies of others, all waiting, riveted by fear and foreboding of whatever fate has decreed for them. Moved by his own fear, a particularly angry guard screams at the petrified assembly that it is their own fault that the planes are raining bombs upon them all. For the young person, who is but an adolescent, the moment is captured forever, a frozen memory in the form of a lucid insight that moves him to a place strangely beyond both hope and terror. He muses thus:
Will it drop, or will it not drop, that was the question. I had to recognize the pittance of the stake so that I too could enjoy the game. I was beginning to grasp the simple secret of my universe, one in which I could be killed anywhere, anytime, with no choice on the matter whatsoever.
You would think Gaza, right? Not quite – these words (as they appear in the subtitles) were spoken by the 14-year-old György Köves in Hungary, as he awaits transportation to a place of dread in the movie “Fateless”. I watched the movie just a week ago – for the first time – because something moved me to get the disc, now. Based on a very moving and very difficult to read semi-autobiographical story by Nobel price winning Imre Kertész, the movie recounts the passage of a young, sensitive adolescent boy from a comfortable, normal middle class life in Budapest, to parting with a respected father sent to forced labor camp, to arrest, deportation and near-miraculous survival through the horrors of the camps. The scene above takes place as he, along with many others, similarly detained and trapped, are crowded together in a hall, waiting for trains they already suspect will take them to places they dare not imagine.
I do not intend to draw a precise parallel between Gaza and what happened to the Jewish people during WWII. But the experience of a young person, whose world is shattered, vestiges of comfort erased seemingly overnight, family torn asunder, riveted by fear and foreboding, could well echo the experiences to which many young – and perhaps not so young – people in Gaza are subjected these dark days. The state of being ‘without fate” is a universal one, still suffered by all too many, no matter the variations of place, time, scale and victims. Indeed, similarly mortified, similarly sensitive young people in Gaza may well be struck by existential moments of terrifying lucidity, not unlike the Jewish György of a time long ago. To be shell-shocked, rendered mute by a situation from which all semblance of order is gone, wrecked by the realization that any and all family, friends and home can be potentially torn to shreds at any instant, is to glimpse the fatelessness of an entire people. Such is the forlorn landscape that some humans are destined to inhabit, desolate places where nothing makes sense, where the rules of causality itself are turned upside down, where personal safety is illusory and all plans and intentions, save for the will to exist, can evaporate in an instant.
The Gazans, of course, are unique, having been crowded for so many years into a limited space, the size of a moderate American city; their movements severely restricted, many reduced to near-subsistence level existence by senseless prohibitions that prevented trade and curtailed imports of even the barest necessities, including the food that Israel , their tormentor, imposes on them as “dietary edicts”. A resourceful people, the Gazans built tunnels that, among other functions, often served as a lifeline, providing a few extra comforts for an economy that the Israelis did everything they could to strangle, short of sentencing the people to outright starvation. But those tunnels were potent symbols of defiance, as were the famed rockets that so terrorize the Israelis, rockets that are, in effect, mere projectiles fired when provocations, arrests and assassinations become unbearable. In response to such affronts, the densely-populated area the Gazans call home has been devastated, time and again, in an unending series of punitive campaigns, meant to teach them a lesson. Actions masquerading as “self defense” turn every few years into operations with colorful names like Cast Lead and Solid Rock (turned Protective Shield for improved digestion). Names conjured up with no small amount of cruel irony by the branding masters who feed the Israeli jailers’ need to “mow the lawn” and “trim the hedges” of the restless territory that keeps rattling the bars of its open air prison cage. And as these operations wind their way through the obligatory wholesale destruction of life and property, lasting about as long as the world can take it, the PR machine of Israel goes into overdrive, making sure that the human stories within shrivel, the tales of individuals turned into nameless, faceless, mere talking points.
But the world outside has been increasingly taking note of just that human side, so artfully brushed aside by Hasbara spokespeople. This time around, thanks to real time reports from the ground and an ever-on, fast internet, the world has, in effect, seen the faces and heard the stories, at least some of them. And what the world has seen – as small a fraction as it is of the decimation – was enough to cause a global revulsion, a gut-wrenching reaction to what appears, for all intents and purposes, to be a senseless massacre of human beings and destruction of their habitat. Given the plethora of disturbingly realistic photos, videos and eyewitness accounts, it is bound to happen that comparisons to other places and other times will materialize. Besieged symbols of resistance with names like Warsaw Ghetto. References to wholesale punitive destruction that are eerily reminiscent of Dresden. Tales of heroism and defiance that conjure up Leningrad, surrounded by a far superior force, the inhabitants left to fend for themselves, buttressed by hope, pride and an unbreakable will to resist the assault.
Call it “war”, pogrom or punitive action, the fate of the people of Gaza is that of people who were relegated by a world gone deaf and numb to a place beyond history, where descent into madness is a kind of a rite of passage. For us, the interested spectators, it is also an opportunity to vicariously sample – from a safe distance, of course – the heart of darkness that casts such a pall over much of humanity’s barbaric past. Gaza is indeed a disturbing glimpse down the rabbit hole into the dark forces of conquest that have all too often strayed into outright genocide, as conquistadors, hordes and “settlers” of days gone did what they could to “clear the land”’ of its inconvenient natives. My concern however is not with contrasting the triumphant armed acquisitions of old with today’s more carefully disguised trophies of land and might. Rather, it is with the existential predicament of those who find themselves helpless in the face of great powers that chose each of them, individuals all, as victims. From this, more personal angle, Gaza offers a window into the universality of a state of being where existence is ground into near insignificance, as life, once full of intents and purposes turns in as moment into a quest for survival – of oneself, and one’s close beloved circle. It may be an unwelcome realization to many that the individual Gazan’s experience may not differ all that much from those who found themselves locked up in Warsaw ghetto – be they young or old, wise or dim, timid or brave, fighter or bystander, male or female. As in Warsaw, individuals may channel and react to their circumstances differently. Some will fight back, hopeless as the endeavor may be in the face of far superior forces, buttressed only with a steadfast refusal to go out without a fight, salvaging perhaps a measure of dignity if not a military victory. To challenge the walls surrounding them, they will, quite predictably, burrow into the earth, building tunnels, which not unlike the bunkers of Warsaw, may offer a temporary shelter from bombs overhead and perhaps even a small measure of battle advantage. Some will take stronger comfort in religion, often the only spiritual refuge in times of turmoil that can offer any solace. Some merely cower, having neither the inclination nor the means to do much more than find a way to live another day. Like the doomed residents of Warsaw ghetto, in the end, the Gazans’ only true weapon is their own victimhood. Hopeless as the situation is, the Gazans are sustained by hope that their plight, their struggle against brutality of their oppression, may somehow move the hearts of the world at large, if not their persecutors. A world that may, just this once, choose to look beyond religion, dress, ethnicity and affinity and perceive the sad commonality that victimhood alone proffers.
Oh, I know I am mixing up legends of past atrocities, committing the sin of analogies. I know the scale of the events is different, as is the number of the dead and perished (at least so far), as are the nationalities, religions and politics of both perpetrators and victims. I know Hamas has no colorful romantic heroes to offer, at least not yet. But the precise circumstances are not where I wish to draw the analogies. It is not in the generalities of grand events but in the specifics of the human experience that similarities abound. To suffer extreme deprivation, to be the subject of prolonged persecution, to witness the wanton killing of men, women and children, to be herded into a densely populated confining space, shorn of basic comforts, with only bare recourse to shelter and safety, trapped even as bombs are dropping and tank shells exploding, is to experience the full extent of what it means to be a victim. Whatever the reasons, whatever the times, whatever the means used by those inflicting the punishment, and whoever are the ones doomed to suffer, the condition of victimhood is universally experienced as something uniquely miserable by all humans unlucky enough to know it first hand. People the world over did and do feel extreme anguish when they are forced to come face to face with their own complete powerlessness in the face of calamitous events that spiral entirely out of one’s control. No matter how different the circumstances of victimization are, the feelings of victimhood are not a whole lot different from time to time, people to people, place to place. In the end, it is the victim whose humanity speaks softly and heart-breakingly, a piercing pleading note audible to us all, uttered in a language whose DNA is buried deep in our collective history. And it is the perpetrator who is diminished in human stature, set against an image of extreme suffering inflicted by their hand. Thus are the victimizers dehumanized no matter how many their excuses, how sharp the rationalization, how united they are in a sense of justification of the cruelty they spread. After all, what joy in victory if its most visible result is a tiny dead child?
Like György’s rationalization of the irrationality of all that was happening to him and around him, the experience of the people of Gaza, young and old, is also disturbingly reminiscent of the plight of Kafka’s Josef K.’s in “The Trial”, who eventually must come to acceptance of his own fate, even as none of it makes any sense. A mad mad world it may be, but one must somehow continue to exist within it, even if existence is hardly the same as life, even if the passivity of acceptance spells capitulation of sorts. The torments of Gaza – now, and later, when the time will come, as it always does, to pick up the pieces – will likely result in long lasting trauma for them who survived, them who somehow persevered through unimaginable loss, them whose physical wounds will have healed but who will forever carry the mental and spiritual scars. They will all be traumatized – those who fought back however they could, those who cowered, those who treated the horribly wounded and those who buried the dead, sometimes reduced to bits of flesh, carried in a plastic sack to a make shift grave. Collectively, all Gazans will be traumatized, sharing in the unbearable loss of life, homes, possessions and infrastructure senselessly obliterated, all fated again to relive the plight of dispossessed refugees. For the Gazans, there is no “cycle of violence”, as the clever scribes of the western MSM tell us. For them there is only a cycle of tragedy, made all the worse by it being repeatedly inflicted. The one certainty the Gazans do know is that the bombs will fall again and the blockade and persecution will continue, unabated by ceasefires and agreements negotiated by outsiders with bloodied hands. Unlike survivors of some holocausts past, the survivors of the horrors of Gaza will not collect compensation from their persecutors, and likely will not get to stand in a court of law pointing accusing finger at the commanders of massacres. If anything, they are far more likely to suffer again, as they have, the wrenching pangs of fatelessness revisited, when their meager dwellings will be invaded again amidst the dropping shells.
And so, I draw my analogies, risking the ire of the purists and the meticulous chroniclers of persecutions past. I draw them for the individuals who collectively may make a people, but who experience devastation separately, each in their own way, mostly miserably. Looking at the eyes and torn flesh of Gazan children horrifically wounded by shrapnel or crushed by collapsing walls, is to know what human sacrifice is to them who are being sacrificed. No wonder the Israeli PR machine insists on projecting culpability on the entity known as Hamas, though that too is part of the attempted dehumanization of the victims, an all too common a process. Elie Weisel, the lauded symbol of Holocaust survival has managed to wholeheartedly buy into the notion of evil Hamas child sacrificers, failing perhaps to note that once upon a time, it was other people who accused Jews of bringing calamity upon themselves in some kind of cataclysm of self-affliction.
The scene in the movie Fateless, where the guard accuses the detained Jews of bringing their fate upon themselves, can remind us of the absurdity of ascribing blame to the persecuted for causing their own persecution. I imagine the Aztecs too felt quite justified when sacrificing their enemies on the altar of gods who somehow never seemed to be sated. They too surely felt righteous in executing the will of destiny, buying safety for their people through the sacrifice of foes, no matter how young. There were indeed times and places in human history, deplorable cases, when it was thought that only the death of the very young could bring redemption, or safety, or solace or rain or whatever it is that a more powerful group felt is within their right to solicit through the spilling of the blood of innocents. Such people were known and righteously condemned in the Jewish bible, a bible that somehow managed to draw miraculously lucid distinctions between the death by sacrifice wrought by Philistine high priests and the death by massacre of the children of Jericho.
Gaza is not the Warsaw ghetto, they say, and that is true enough, since no place is like any other place. The Gazans are not deported, at least not yet, to places of return. The Gazans still have access to food, some livelihood, shelter, health care and education. Once in a while, someone will again be allowed out, for a medical treatment, for a short visit, and if very lucky, for further education or the practice of a skill. They still have the sea – even as their fishing rights are severely curtailed. The UN shelters will continue to provide at least some nourishment and a measure of safety. To be sure, even the UN cannot guarantee safety, as the dead and wounded of recent shelling of compounds can attest to, but some is better than none. Most Gazans do have a reasonable chance to stay alive, to survive, even if by the luck of the draw. And yes, as far as we know, there are no plans yet to get the Gazans deported somewhere else, perhaps to a desert where Egyptians can “take care” of them, though such plans are clearly not beyond the realm of possibility . We who faithfully follow the Israel/Palestine conflicts through the thick and thin of persecutors and peace processors, suspect that the plans are there, some perhaps not unlike those envisioned by Moshe Feiglin and Giora Eiland. Fortunately, the will, on the part of Israel to put such plans into action is not there – at least not yet, and probably not as long as internal consensus has not been achieved. Though, if to judge by the growing clamor to do just that among way more Israelis than we care to believe, the day for such consensus may not be all that far. Mercifully, the world, in its current state, is hardly ready to allow the worst to happen, at least not while Gaza continues to garner the attention it does. Neither is Egypt, close as it has moved to Israel under the current [elected?] military junta willing to shoulder the Gaza “problem”. So luckily, Gaza is not now, and not for a while to come, in the process of being liquidated. But can we really deny that to many Palestinians who have been through such terrible trials for over 60 years now, it feels like the current events are merely a prelude to something much worse, however and whenever this might come about? Furthermore, unlike the events unfolding around the Warsaw ghetto which transpired over a limited period of time, Gaza has been under complete blockade for over 7 years now, bombed “back-to-stone-age” every few years when Israel decides it’s time to “mow the lawn”. And each time, following a “ceasefire” the noose tightens ever more. Is that not evidence enough that, if anything, things are, at least meant to get progressively worse? And what does that mean, given Israel’s accelerating slide rightward and the increasingly effective silencing of counter voices from the left?
It may sound cynical, even callous, to say that at least Gaza gets attention, lots of it, what with tens of thousands of people on the march in almost every capital in the world. People have different religions, different world views, different nationalities, different preferences, and still they did and do march for Gaza, shocked by the sight of small children turned “legitimate targets”. Israel and its well-heeled apologists far and wide may slap a human shield label upon the child victims. Yet somehow, when we see their wounded, torn bodies, the silent scream of the orphaned and bereaved, those “human shield” abstractions seem merely – inhumane. The continuing attention to the plight of the Gazans may, for the moment, seem to be the only kind of mercy available to them by an otherwise impotent world, and a small blessing it may be, but the recognition that Gazans are, in fact, human, is a powerful antidote to their abject powerlessness.
To be sure, Gazans may not be the only ones who find themselves in an ahistorical place where support for their cause is weak to non-existent and their ability to fight for their rights is handicapped by circumstance, absence of resources, dysfunctional politics or unfortunate geopolitical collusions. Yet, in a way, the Gazans have become a poster child for the many many others around the world whose sufferings go barely noticed. And that is my answer to the apologists’ plaintive refrain “what of the Syrians? The Iraqis? The East Ukrainians? the [fill in the blank]?” That the Gazans have somehow become a living symbol for the unjust suffering of too many others in the world whose lives were decreed disposable, is a triumph of sorts, for which we surely awe thanks to the accident of their persecutors’ identity. The Gazans are both very lucky and unlucky to have Jews as their intractable enemy. Lucky because of the extra attention, unlucky because none better than Jewish people to explain away the inexplicable.
Yes, world attention may be a poor consolation for the Gazans who suffered unimaginable losses. Attention alone will not bring a single life back or lift the blockade any time soon. But on the human level, the place where we are all connected in our finiteness and fear of pain and loss, the fact that the Gazans have come to matter is a significant triumph for humanity. Elie Weisel may choose not to see the ramifications of making preposterous references to child sacrifice by Hamas, but we do. All of us who care, see through this most transparent ruse of persecutors from time immemorial know and perceive the full obscenity of Weisel’s excuse. And it is well that a great many will start taking seriously the Feiglin style zealotry rearing its head in Israel. Hopefully, Gaza could take some small comfort from the growing realization around the world that something deeply disturbing and potentially quite dangerous, has taken hold in Israel. And if there is any lesson to be gleamed from the mayhem Gaza has just undergone, it is that we, as in all of us, would do well to heed the warning this event represents. A good start would be to come to terms with the idea that “Never Again” should be for everyone; Gazans too.