Friday, 7 March 2008

Compassion and the non-lives of Palestinians

Unsurprisingly, the killing at the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva in Jerusalem has been vocally condemned by Western politicians and given special prominence across the media. A sad and brutal attack it may be. But, why the privileged attention? Was there ever any doubt that Israeli and Western lives matter more than Palestinians, Iraqis, Afghans and any (as Said terms it) 'other'?

True to form, the BBC presented it as a decisive moment in shaping "Israel's response" to Gaza, as though already long-suffering Palestinians should now prepare to be punished for this particular deed:

"But depending upon whose fingerprints are on the operation, the wider consequences could be considerable...Whoever ordered this gun attack, the emotions raised by this incident will inevitably influence Israel's response to continuing rocket fire from the Gaza Strip."

Israel sends F-16s to carry out 'targeted assassinations' of its enemies in Gaza and the West Bank. That is, Hamas and anyone else who seek to resist Israel's illegal occupation and ruthless killing. Israeli forces massacre women and children as part of the process, but it's treated by the elite political class as a consequence of the 'ongoing conflict'; an abstraction that allows for 'legitimate state responses' in which people get translated into 'collateral damage'.

The loss of civilian life is noted in much the same way by a supposedly 'objective' and 'impartial' media. It may even report some of the 'unfortunate' effects; the lost legs of the children, the traumatic scenes of blood and screaming mothers. But never as a 'breaking news' story, never accompanied by the names and life accounts of those whose existence has been snuffed-out in terrifying air attacks. Lives can be shattered in an instant, homes blown to pieces. But they're regarded, essentially, as part of a body count, targeted infrastructure, additional statistics.

Reporters pride themselves in reporting the numbers. Doing the 'job of reporting'. Tallying-up the casualties. Noting a line of Palestinian or international condemnation, here or there. But never seriously considering the human pain, loss and suffering. Never giving it that immediacy or urgency. And never squarely and consistently setting it within the contextual reality of a people under continued siege.

And so, the viewing public accord it the same kind of sparse and bewildered attention: what a shocking attack on the seminary; things are bad again in Gaza, they might even say, maybe shaking their heads. Wonder what's behind all this conflict, they'll think. Too complex to understand. Maybe Israel is 'acting badly'. But, they'll likely reason, the papers and the BBC don't talk of 'outlandish' things like 'genocide' or 'ethnic cleansing'. They talk of 'incursions' to take out 'militants'. Which sounds more reasonable, more balanced, more...BBC. So, maybe Israel's actions are kind of, well, 'justified'. It's a 'dispute', after all. And Israel's got a legitimate government and an army to defend its people - just like us here in the civilised West. Unlike the chaotic Palestinians with their warring factions and sneaky rockets, set off by all those menacing, shouting men we keep seeing on the telly whenever they refer to Palestine. And, Mark Urban says that Israel is just trying to figure out how best to defend Sderot against the incessant Qassams. And he's the diplomatic and military expert. From the BBC, right? This is Newsnight, after all. Who are we to question the integrity of Newsnight and the BBC?

In stark contrast, a Palestinian targets a seminary regarded as the ideological hub of Zionist settlers, a mainstay of the Israeli occupation, and he is branded a wicked terrorist. The photos of his victims are prominently displayed. Their loss is mourned. Their lives mattered. Their bodies count in a different way.

Gordon Brown, David Miliband, Hillary Clinton and multipe other Western elites rush to condemn the attack as a particular extremist act. Only the state, by their logic, can sanction killing. With proper shiny, expensive armaments built in the West and supplied to friends like Israel. Only governments of the kind we like can authorise force and carry out executions of those it deems a threat. Sometimes they might get 'reprimanded' for going a bit too far. As in Gaza. But, hey, we're all part of the caring-sharing club of like-minded nations trying to maintain freedom and democracy.

Some, of course, remain beyond the pale. Libya, for example, is demonised for requesting a Security Council resolution recognising the wanton killings that have also taken place in Gaza. Asking for "balanced action", simple moral equivalence to the Jerusalem attack, Tripoli is roundly condemned, led, predictably, by the US. A case of more dusky-faced 'others' 'condoning terrorism'.

And so the safe proclamations that pass for compassion filter on down, encouraging us to condemn the 'crazed gunmen' who are trying to 'wreck' the peace process.

Not, of course, the IDF, Israeli politicians and jet-setting US diplomats who really are doing their utmost to prevent a just peace. A deception, again, seemingly at odds with the diplomacy-speak faithfully repeated by the media. Tony Blair, a peace envoy, serving to undermine peace? How could that be? What absurdity in thinking that Ehud Olmert really wants Gaza kept as a destabilised mega prison. Surely he and Barak are doing all they can to help the West Bank - so long as Israel gets to maintain its settlements, private roads and internal security.

Well, accepted, some might say, maybe these people do have a more mendacious agenda. Bush, Rice, Olmert and Abbas were all involved in trying to enact a covert coup to overthrow the elected Hamas government. Yes, they are cynical politicians. Point taken. But, hold on, what about those Israelis who roundly condemn all the killing. Surely, all they want is a just peace? Surely they feel compassion for the Palestinians?

Well, regretfully, no.

The essence of true compassion is to speak clearly in defence of the oppressed.

True compassion isn't just saying we regret the loss of lives on both sides. We can, and should, feel that sense of regret. But that, in itself, isn't enough. It's not real proactive compassion. It's liberal compassion. Safe compassion.

Meaningful compassion, in contrast, comes when, alongside the regret, we have the care and courage to say that the attack at the yeshiva stemmed specifically from the structural oppression of the Palestinian people in an illegal and wicked occupation. And to insist that until that fundamental injustice is addressed, there can be no end to such suffering. Otherwise, we take easy, self-regarding refuge, cocooned in a state of moral denial. We also, in the process, help maintain a state that's in crisis denial about its own oppressive actions and inability to feel compassion for its victims.

Are we surprised that a people beaten into submission resort to this kind of action? As Ilan Pappe warns: "the third intifada is on its way" and Israel is ready for "a further elaboration of the mega prison system". Feel regret for the multiple loss of life that's happened and the untold suffering still to come. But understand the key causal roots of that suffering. Otherwise, we languish in a form of ersatz compassion, helping no one to transcend the misery.



David Cromwell said...

Eloquent piece, John. Thank you. You're right - it's not enough to condemn all killing. Any reasonable person would do so. It's necessary to speak out, and act, on behalf of those who are most oppressed.

You say, accurately: "...the IDF, Israeli politicians and jet-setting US diplomats who really are doing their utmost to prevent a just peace."

Even the establishment Financial Times said in one of its editorials the other day:

"...Israel, arguably, has never pursued a realistic peace settlement." (Leader, 'Ceasefire for Gaza', Financial Times, March 5, 2008;

Keep going!

David Cromwell

John Hilley said...

Many thanks, David.

The compassionate thoughts and actions of the Media Lens editors continue, as ever, to inspire.

Best wishes,