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Gaza Triptych

Truthdig | Monday, Aug 04, 2014

Gaza Triptych

Palestinian medics treat a wounded girl at the emergency room of the Shifa hospital in Gaza City. AP/Khalil Hamra


ISRAEL HAS BEEN BITTEN BY A BAT Truthdig, July  18, 2014

The news out of Israel and Palestine: relentless, remorseless, repetitively compulsive, rabid.

And I am put in mind of a passage from Norman Mailer, in 1972, in which he attempted to plumb the psychopathology behind America’s relentless bombing of Cambodia and Laos and Vietnam during the Nixon years:

"... bombing [which] had become an activity as rational as the act of a man who walks across his own home town to defecate each night on the lawn of a stranger—it is the same stranger each night—such a man would not last long even if he had the most powerful body in town. “Stop,” he would scream as they dragged him away. “I need to shit on that lawn. It’s the only way to keep my body in shape, you fools. I’ve been bitten by a bat!”

A species of human rabies, as Mailer had explained earlier in the same book (“St. George and the Godfather,” his account of the McGovern campaign), “and the word was just, for rabies was the disease of every virulence which was excessive to the need for self-protection.”

I know, I know, and I am bone tired of being told it, when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is plenty of blame to go around, but by this point after coming on almost 50 years of Israeli stemwinding and procrastinatory obfuscation, I’d put the proportionate distribution of blame at about the same level as the mortality figures—which is, where are we today (what with Wednesday morning’s four children killed while out playing on a Gaza beach)? What, 280 to 2?

For the single overriding fact defining the Israeli-Palestinian impasse at this point is that if the Palestinians are quiescent and not engaged in any overt rebellion, the Israelis (and here I am speaking of the vast majority of the population who somehow go along with the antics of their leaders, year after year) manage to tell themselves that things are fine and there’s no urgent need to address the situation; and if, as a result, the endlessly put-upon Palestinians do finally rise up in any sort of armed resistance (rocks to rockets), the same Israelis exasperate, “How are we supposed to negotiate with monsters like this?” A wonderfully convenient formula, since it allows the Israelis to go blithely on, systematically stealing Palestinian land in the West Bank, and continuing to confine 1.8 million Gazans within what might well be described as a concentration camp.

Note, incidentally, I say “concentration camp” and not “death camp.” I am not comparing Gaza to Auschwitz-Birkenau, but one cannot help but liken the conditions today in Gaza to the sorts of conditions once faced by Japanese-Americans during World War II, or the Boers in South Africa during the Anglo-Boer War, or the black South Africans years later in such besieged townships as Soweto, or for that matter Jews and gays and gypsies at Dachau and Theresienstadt in the years before the Nazis themselves settled on their Final Solution.

And it is quite simply massively self-serving delusion that Israelis (and their enablers and abettors here in America, among whom incidentally I count a steadily declining number of American Jews) refuse to recognize that fact. The backbone of Zionist AIPAC-like electoral strength in the U.S. today is rooted among Protestant evangelicals and other instrumentalist neocons, and I suspect that Israel will one day come to rue that fact.

I’m tired, for example, of hearing about how vital and cosmopolitan and democratic are the streets and cafes and nightclubs of Tel Aviv. For the fact is that one simply can’t sustain such cosmopolitan vitality 40 miles from a prison camp containing close to 2 million people: It’s a contradiction in terms. One that in the end (and we may fast be coming to the end of this game) will have completely twisted and disfigured the lives of those who go on trying to sustain it. 

I know the Israelis need to protect themselves in a dangerous neighborhood, blah, blah, blah, but (leaving aside the fact that you don’t get to call it “self-defense” when you are occupying or besieging someone else’s land), can there be any doubt that in the end the Israelis’ own security will depend on how they treat their Palestinian brothers?

And I’m tired, finally, of hearing people marveling at the insane sectarian rifts between Shiites and Sunnis, or Serbs and Bosnians, or Tutsis and Hutus, as if they themselves could never fall into such primordial, atavistic blood feuds. For what else is the Palestinian/Israeli divide at this point, these two Semitic Peoples of the Book, than just one more inchoate, incomprehensible, sectarian vendetta?

In short: rabies.


GAZA AS SARAJEVO Truthdig, July  23, 2014

Strange the things that stick in the craw.

After the publication earlier this week of my Truthdig commentary about Israel’s repetitively compulsive and rabid behavior (“Israel Has Been Bitten by a Bat”), I got a lovely note from a dear longtime friend who was in general and quite anguished agreement with much of what I’d written. But, perhaps not surprisingly, given that he is considerably more of a Zionist than I’ve ever been (a longtime theme in our relationship), he took particular umbrage at my suggestion that the nearly 2 million Palestinians bottled up in Gaza were living in what was for all intents and purposes a concentration camp—not a death camp, mind you, but hardly different from the notorious sorts of conditions Japanese-Americans had been subjected to in World War II, or Boers during the Anglo-Boer wars, or Sowetans under apartheid, or (and this is clearly what got to him), for that matter, the kinds of conditions Jews and gays and gypsies and the like were subjected to at Dachau and Theresienstadt in the years before the Nazis themselves settled on their Final Solution.

Several others, after the publication of the piece, had commented that a fitter analogy might be to the Warsaw Ghetto (a hideously overcrowded, enclosed and besieged space regularly subject to lethal tank sweeps), but my friend Joel weighed in:

"You yourself have commendably drawn a distinction between a death camp and a concentration camp. But you need to take note of a further distinction: between a concentration camp and a besieged urban population living in a two-way (even if still asymmetrical) military confrontation."

Now that I reread his note, that characterization might well equally apply to the Warsaw Ghetto, but in response at the time, I wrote back, “So you mean something like Sarajevo in the nineties?” It was a parallel with which, he in turn, was willing to concur, going on himself to note how this was hardly “a happy analogy.”

Indeed. That exchange, and some television footage later the same afternoon of Israeli tank columns safely ranged on the periphery of Gaza methodically lobbing in round after round of supposedly precision-guided munitions (precision, that is, give or take the odd 25 person civilian family huddled together for the breaking of their Ramadan fast), sent me whistling back to my own time in Sarajevo, after the lifting of the siege there in the wake of the Dayton Accords in late 1995.

And in particular to the peculiar late night conversations I used to have with Nikola Koljevic, the vice president of the Bosnian Serbs, in his dilapidated makeshift fastness up there in the little cow town of Pale in the mountains high above Sarajevo, which had served as the capital of the Bosnian Serbs and from which they had supervised the relentless shelling of their onetime hometown, prone and prostate there in its steep valley down below, through the nearly 1,500 days of the siege.

“Siege!” he would thunder mawkishly, downing yet another draft of sour red wine. “What siege? We were the ones under siege. They kept boiling up from out of the valley to attack us at every point. They had us surrounded 360 degrees!” A neat piece of mathematical jujitsu, that, and in turn reminiscent of the way so many Israelis nowadays characterize their Palestinian counterparts. (What is it with these guys? Why do they keep attacking our clenched hands with their tensed up neck muscles?)

The thing about Koljevic that so used to bewilder the visiting reporters during the months of the gruesome siege when he would hold court up there in Pale is that he was hardly anyone’s standard image of a partisan thug (which is doubtless one of the reasons the Bosnian Serbs liked parading him before the cameras). On the contrary, back in the days before the war, he’d been a distinguished Shakespeare professor at the University of Sarajevo (hell, he’d even served a stint as a Fulbright scholar at Wayne State University!) and he used to love entertaining his late night visitors with extended recitations from his No. 1 favorite Shakespeare play of all time, which was, I shit you not, “Romeo and Juliet.” Completely, but completely, oblivious to the peculiarity of that specific choice in that particular context.

And indeed it took a while for me to come to understand that far from being some bizarre tic in his formation, Koljevic’s passion for Shakespeare was a key to his understanding of what he’d been doing up there in Pale lo these many years. The whole war, for him, had been a desperate last ditch stand to save the future of the possibility of Shakespeare for a Europe, as he saw it, under siege from the massing Muslim hordes (of which his largely secular onetime fellow citizens down below he considered merely the first lappings of a steadily advancing tide). Much as Israelis too like to fancy theirs as a bastion of Western cosmopolitan democratic civility and culture in a sea of fanatically barbarous anti-democratic menace lapping all about them, notwithstanding the fact that the Palestinians too, at least at the outset, were by and large among the most secularly mild of Muslims (the ones that are Muslims, since many are in fact Christians): hence the relentless need for their own tough, and tougher than tough, vigilance and response.

(Incidentally, a few months later, in January 1997, back in Belgrade, under somewhat mysterious circumstances, the good Shakespeare professor committed suicide, who knows exactly why.)

The thing is, back in my days reporting in the former Yugoslavia (see in particular my New Yorker Letter from Belgrade in the Feb. 10, 1997, issue, since included in my “Vermeer in Bosnia” collection), I often found myself thinking about Israel. And I don’t think I was alone. The breakup of the former Yugoslavia was immensely perplexing for many Jews. For one thing, historically the Serbs had been the good guys, particularly during the partisan struggles of World War II when they had made common cause with their own Jewish brethren against the more Nazi-allied Croats, saving thousands of them—and their enemies in this current war were not just those same Croats but Muslims as well, for god’s sake! Still, here now came all of these images pouring in over their television monitors of savagely emaciated prisoners huddled behind barbed wire in Serb-run concentration camps, along with all those reports of vicious bouts of ethnic cleansing, so reminiscent of the sorts of things they themselves had been subjected to in the Pale of Settlement: Jews generally knew whom to side with, faced with such imagery, and whom to side against. But it was all very confusing, all those crossed historical wires.

And it was more than that for me. Because, time and again, Serb claims on me—how could I, a Jew, not see the similarity of their situation to that of my brother Israelis in Palestine—forced me to gaze more fixedly and lucidly on the kind of self-justifying rhetoric coming out of Israel and from Israel’s vociferous defenders in the U.S. History seldom ennobles its victims: More often than not, it crazes them, and I couldn’t help but recognize among Israel’s defenders the same kind of brain damage—or rather, as I identified it elsewhere in my reporting, “the bug in the software of the cognitive operating system”—that I so often encountered on my reporting rounds in Belgrade and the Serb rump of the post-Dayton Bosnia. You could be having conversations of sublime subtlety and rationality with your ever so civilized interlocutor, when, all of a sudden, the bottom would fall out of the discourse, and for two or three minutes all was jibbering-mad blood-curdling irrationality till, just as suddenly, the calm veneer of civility returned and all was sweetness and light once again.

So, anyway, I went back and looked at that Yugoslavia piece just now and came upon the following extended passage (again, we are in Belgrade at the time of the first round of student risings against Slobodan Milosevic in the winter of 1996, not so much for having fought the war perhaps as for having lost it):

"When it came to the question of moral responsibility for the war, Serbians had, as my crusty cop-reporter pal Vasic liked to put it, “a blind spot the size of Bosnia-Herzegovina.” Or, as I sometimes came to feel, reverting to my computer analogy, a definite bug in the software. Belgraders didn’t want to talk about {the recently concluded war}  at all ... but if you persisted, it could get to be as if you’d barely finished typing in, say, the word “Srebrenica,” when the screen would spontaneously pox over in a veritable blizzard of frantic rationalizations. “Oh, yeah, but what about….?” What about Cambodia (how come nobody paid any attention to that? why is it always only the Serbs who get picked on?). What about Vietnam (how come no American presidents ever got hauled to The Hague?). What about the NATO bombing runs on our guys (wasn’t that a war crime?). What about the 20 Serb villagers massacred in the environs of Srebrenica in 1992? And what about the Ustasha massacres in 1944? And what about the Turk treachery at the battle of Kosovo in 1389? What about the 10,000 Krajina Serbs who completely disappeared during Operation Storm last year—a total fabrication but an eminently convenient one since it so neatly seemed to balance out the 8,000 Muslims still unaccounted for, and presumed dead, in the wake of Srebrenica. And anyway, how come everybody so easily credits that 8,000-figure, simply because it puts Serbians in a bad light? Has anybody actually seen the 8,000 bodies? And how do you know they didn’t simply go around executing themselves, just to make the Serbs look bad? (After all, Muslims are famous for that sort of thing.) And anyway, what about the German-Vatican conspiracy against the Serbs? What about the famous Trilateral Commission-Council on Foreign Relations plot? {…}

One evening I had coffee with a woman I had met at a screening of Srdjan Dragojevic’s Pretty Villages, Pretty Flames, a withering Catch-22-like satire of the Bosnian War that devolves into the story of a disheveled band of Serbian irregulars holed up in a dead-end tunnel, pathetically pinned down under merciless siege. (Admittedly, an inside-out characterization of the Bosnian conflict.) The woman told me a bit of her life history—she was thirty years old, a kindergarten teacher; she’d been visiting her brothers in the United States during the late eighties when, overcome with homesickness, she’d made what she described as the mistake of her life, returning to Belgrade just as the country fell apart; she hated Milosevic but was otherwise somewhat confused politically. She was a good person. (I’ve often thought somebody should write a book about the Serbs: “When Bad Ideas Happen to Good People.”)

I took my time—it takes a while, talking with Belgraders, especially if you’re an American, before you can establish your credentials, that you’re not some knee-jerk Serb-hater, but I thought I’d done so—and after an hour or so, I hazarded out upon the topic of Srebrenica. “So a couple dozen Muslims were killed,” she shot back defensively. “Why does everybody keep beating us over the head with that?” I suggested it was more than a couple dozen. “Okay, so a couple hundred—it was wartime, what do you expect?” No, I persisted, it was more like several thousand. She hesitated: how did I know? Where was the evidence? I explained that I’d been at some of the mass-gravesites and I’d heard eye-witness testimony of survivors. I described how men were taken off buses by the hundreds, their arms bound behind their backs, paraded to ditches and machine-gunned in cold blood for hour after hour after hour. She was silent for a few moments—authentically shaken, it seemed. Not that she was hearing this for the first time, I don’t think, but maybe that she was being forced for the first time truly to listen and to take it in.

She sighed and steadied herself. “Well,” she replied at length. “I knew someone in Croatia, a Serbian girl working in a restaurant, and one day these bandits came barging in on the place, lined the staff up along a wall, selected one boy at random, killed him, and then told all the others that if they ever so much as breathed a word about it, they’d come back and kill them too.”

I waited for the rest of the story but it gradually became clear that that was it—there was no more. By my expression it must have been evident that I was failing to fully grasp the moral equivalence between the two episodes.

“The point is,” the woman elucidated, “the boy at the restaurant—they stabbed him.”

I still wasn’t getting it.

“They stabbed him! Can you imagine? Stabbed. I mean, the people in Srebrenica, okay, so there were more of them, but at least there they were machine-gunned, so they all died instantly, mercifully. And each individual can only die once. But try to imagine the agony of that poor Serb boy who was stabbed like that for no reason.” 

Like I say: Brain damage."

Sound familiar? (“You never hear of a Serb just dying in battle,” I quote my gruff cop reporter pal Vasic a bit later in the piece. “They’re always being ‘butchered’ or ‘slaughtered’ or ‘massacred.’ ”) The willful obtuseness, the refusal to acknowledge the basic fellow humanity of one’s counterparts, that their children might be every bit as precious to them as one’s own and worthy of every bit as open and bright a future. The incredible scaffolding of bad faith and ideological rigidity it takes to maintain such obtuseness: the sheer disfiguring drain of it all.

And yes, I know, something like the same could be said of both sides. But just now (as in the case of Sarajevo), I am speaking of the side that is doing the vast majority of the raining down of death and destruction to the tune of (where are we today?) over 600 human souls, the vast majority of them—pinpoint bombing notwithstanding—civilians, and a sizable majority of those women and children.

I could go on, but you get the idea. And please don’t go writing me off as a self-hating Jew. I’m a Jew who likes himself fine, though, as for a few of my fellow Jews these high-strung hothouse days, I’m no longer quite so sure.




 A Palestinian looks for his belongings after a house was destroyed in an Israeli strike in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on Saturday. AP/Hatem Ali


Strange the way things line up, the through-lines that suddenly reveal themselves amidst the twists and turns of historical progression.

Last month, in these pages, I was writing about the ways in which Israel’s ongoing treatment of Gaza and the Palestinians cooped up therein (the strangulating siege, the warehoused concentration-camp-like conditions, the regularly recurrent assaults, the lopsided carnage) put me in mind, not so much of the fate of the Jews and gays and Gypsies in Dachau or the Warsaw Ghetto in the years before the Final Solution, or the Afrikaners under the British during the Boer War, or the Sowetans under apartheid, or the Japanese-Americans in their World War II internment camps (all analogies regularly invoked both by me and others), as that faced by the citizens of Sarajevo during the terrible 1,500 days of their siege and bombardment by the Bosnia Serbs from 1992 through 1995. And then furthermore, come to have thought of it, how uncannily the obfuscations and protestations and delusionally heightened sense of grievance regularly expressed by many Israelis (and even more of their American apologists) reminded me of the sorts of “bugs in the software,” the “brain damage,” the raving, raging momentary episodes of slippage I’d so frequently encountered among otherwise quite sensible and civilized Serbians in Belgrade during that same period just after the recent Bosnian War.

Some people liked the analogy, others didn’t, but in the meantime I myself, this past week, have found myself falling clear through that historical parallel and down through the years to that other, or rather that earlier Sarajevo, the site in 1914 of the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand and his wife by the Serb nationalist fanatic Gavrilo Princip. One hundred years ago June 28, the event set the gears in seemingly inexorable motion toward the launch of actual hostilities exactly one hundred years ago this week as World War I brought a horrendous Niagara-like (Henry James’ image) conclusion to the nearly 100 years of relative peace on the European continent since the aftermath of the Battle of Waterloo in June of 1815, and, in turn, launched the harrowing succession of decades that were to follow, dark-blasting so much of the rest of the 20th century.

More specifically, I’ve been thinking about the way historians over the last few decades have regularly taken to speaking of the Long 19th Century (by which they mean the years from the French Revolution of 1789 through the start of the First World War in 1914) and the Short 20th Century (from 1914 through the remarkable succession of largely nonviolent revolutions that brought about the downfall of communism in 1989). That 1789/1989 rhyme is indeed remarkably uncanny, but no less so the way that so many of the historical processes set in motion in 1914 did indeed seem, finally, to resolve themselves in 1989. The braiding in particular of the rise and fall of the twin totalitarian scourges launched by the catastrophes of that First World War: the way Bolshevism was able to overthrow the ages-old Imperial order in Russia in 1917 as a direct result of the latter’s calamitous failures on the Eastern Front, but also the way that the rise of Nazism proved a direct result (directly predicted at the time) of the way Germany was mistreated in the grievously misguided peace settlements after 1918. How the inevitability of a Second World War was almost baked into the mix at Versailles, one that would come to pit Bolshevik Russia (and her allies) against Nazi Germany, calving off large swaths of Central and Eastern Europe in the peace that followed and subjecting them to Soviet Russian domination for almost another half-century, that is until successive uprisings in that same (as it turned out, indigestible) periphery came to bring about the downfall of communism in Moscow Central itself, thereby reuniting a transformed and now decidedly more pacific Germany at the heart of a decidedly wiser and more tempered United Europe. Problem solved, Short Century closed.

Except that, it seems to me, it’s becoming more and more clear that that standard account leaves something important out, and that the intricate braidings of the so-called Short Century have in fact yet to play themselves through.

Leave aside such peripheral (albeit paradoxically seminal) problems as what to do with those damn Balkans. (Sarajevo! The place it all started.)

Turn instead to what in retrospect may have proved a whole other strand of historical braiding across the Short Century: the question of what to do with Europe’s Jews.

Granted, the taproots of that dilemma wend well back into the Long Century, generally speaking to the upsurge in anti-Semitism occasioned most immediately by the flood-tide of Jewish assimilationism in the wake of the French Revolution, and more specifically to the ways in which that anti-Semitism initially flared most powerfully in France (partly as a result of the French military’s humiliating defeat at the hands of a surging Germany during their mini-war in 1870) with the appalling Dreyfus affairof 1895 and its various unwindings in the years thereafter. That affair (at first, essentially, a German spy scandal at the heart of the French military command) in turn left two lasting legacies, in terms of the history of braidings we are considering here: It badly damaged French military command cohesion and integrity in the decades leading up to 1914, thereby accounting to some degree for the relative incompetence of the French military response to the German invasion in the first months of the coming war; but more to the point, it (along with the rise to power back in his hometown of Vienna of the rabid anti-Semite mayor Karl Luger that same year) inspired Theodor Herzl, an Austrian journalist in Paris to cover the Affair, to publish the following year “Der Judenstaat,” the founding document of Zionism and the entire Zionist movement, with its clarion call for the creation of a national homeland for Europe’s Jews in Palestine.


Herzl, who died in 1904, never lived to see the sequence of events that were to play out across the two world wars that dominated the first half of the ensuing Short Century, and that would in turn bring about the realization of his dream. For starters, it’s worth remembering that the Zionist cause received one of its most significant pushes forward as the First World War was nearing its climax with the Balfour Declaration of November 1917, wherein the British foreign secretary affirmed that “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object.” At the time, according to historian James Gelvin, the British foreign office was motivated to issue the Declaration (notwithstanding contravening pledges the Brits appear to have been making at the same time to their Arab allies in the war against the Germans’ Ottoman confederates) in the hopes that supporting Zionist aspirations might in turn shore up support among some of their own other and more significant allies.

The British did not know quite what to make of President Woodrow Wilson and his conviction (before America’s entrance into the war) that the way to end hostilities was for both sides to accept “peace without victory.” Two of Wilson’s closest advisers, Louis Brandeis and Felix Frankfurter, were avid Zionists. How better to shore up an uncertain ally than by endorsing Zionist aims? The British adopted similar thinking when it came to the Russians, who were in the midst of their revolution. Several of the most prominent revolutionaries, including Leon Trotsky, were of Jewish descent. Why not see if they could be persuaded to keep Russia in the war by appealing to their latent Jewishness and giving them another reason to continue the fight?

In the event, of course, the Declaration had little immediate effect, either on the Bolsheviks, who left the war effort nonetheless, or on Wilson, who declined to include a Jewish state as part of the postwar Versailles settlement that enshrined so many other national aspirations, while at the same time shredding the losing German side’s prospects so savagely that many even at the time argued that a second war would now likely prove just about inevitable.

Few even then though could have predicted just how unprecedentedly horrendous the resultant Nazi German regime would prove, or how calamitous for Europe’s Jews. And there is little doubt that following the Second World War (braid into braid, strand upon strand), the case had become well nigh irrefutable that the surviving Jewish remnant indeed finally did deserve a state of its own. But—and here is the crux of the matter, at least in terms of how history thereafter would play out—why not the state of Bavaria, for example, or the Ruhr Valley, or Vienna and its surrounds? All sorts of massive movements and relocations of population were taking place in the years immediately after the war. Wouldn’t a more just settlement of Jewish claims have taken territory from those who had inflicted the most horrific suffering and violence upon them, and who would as a result have had the least justifiable cause for complaint?

The fact of the matter is that Europe—all of Europe—had no appetite for such an outcome. Even after the Holocaust, anti-Semitism was still rampant in the higher counsels of governance across the continent (as it had been, for that matter, throughout the war in the relevant reaches of FDR’s State Department). Far easier to foist the problem onto the Arabs of Palestine. This despite the fact that Palestine had been only one of many possible sites for such a homeland in the early days of Zionism (for many years Uganda, for example, had been given almost equal consideration, and secular Zionism hardly based its claims on any biblical standing), and likewise despite the fact that, all that “People without a Land for a Land without a People” rhetoric notwithstanding, Palestine was already full up with people who had been residing there quite peaceably for centuries (even the Balfour Declaration had acknowledged, in a proviso that has tended to fall out of people’s memories, how it should be “clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”).

The point I am trying to make here is that the settlement forced upon the local Arabs of Palestine in the years following the end of the Second World War was in many ways every bit as blatantly unjust and corrosive as that forced upon the Germans at the end of the First World War. (When Palestinians decry it as the last great colonialist land grab, undertaken at a time when colonialism was in fast retreat everywhere else, they have a point—a point albeit aimed at Europe generally even more than at the Jews, though Jews supplanting indigenous olive groves with Northern European pine forests so as to cover up evidence of their own depredations hardly get off scot-free.) And, more to the point, every bit as fraught with ongoing consequence.


It is in that sense that the so-called Short 20th Century has yet to play itself out. And this is more than a mere quibble over historiographical taxonomy. Because there was one other braiding strand rising up and out from that history that needs to be considered and layered back in: the way in which predominantly Germanic physicists (a plurality of those Jewish) were cracking the atomic code across those very years of the first half of the Short 20th Century, thereby giving rise to the creation (in exile) of an atom bomb that ended the Second World War and then defined the Cold War that followed, right through 1989, though one whose awful pall persists to this day, in arguably its most fearsome prospect, in the form of the Israeli arsenal. (OK, granted, the Indian/Pakistani stashes and the much, much smaller North Korean one may come in a close second, but those belong to other narratives.)

I say this because of the recurrently rabid (see my first article) temper of so much of what passes for Israeli policy these days with regard to the Palestinians, and the seeming inability of so many Israelis (and their allied apologists abroad) to credit the sheer and ongoing human suffering that those policies bring about or to be able with any accuracy to weigh that suffering in proportion to their own discomforts (see the discussion of brain damage in my second piece). And I’m not saying that those two tendencies would necessarily, by themselves, escalate matters to the level of a potential nuclear strike. Rather it is the way the combination of the two, stretched endlessly into the future, with no countervailing pressures of the sort that perhaps only American leaders might be able to bring to bear (but never, never, never seem like they ever will, hogtied and hobbled as they in turn are by the various domestic Likkudist neocon and Christian evangelical lobbies)—how those two together may well serve to isolate the Israeli state more and more, such that it wedges itself into an ever more feverishly self-righteous and self-pitying corner (its military leadership increasingly drawn from the most self-righteous and self-pitying sectors among the settler activists, its civilian leadership driven to ever more extreme positions by the ever more desperate reactions their policies may in turn provoke among the Palestinians), and then, down the line (especially should things turn grim), who knows what a sufficiently panicked Israeli elite might do, given the availability at hand of those “seventy-five to four hundred nuclear weapons” one keeps hearing about? Seymour Hersh’s so-called Samson Option? (The option, incidentally, the Christian evangelicals are banking on, theirs being a millennial time scape far vaster than any piddling Long or Short Centuries.) Masada?

The point, finally, in this context, is that the perhaps not-so-Short 20th Century, which began exactly a hundred years ago this weekend, won’t truly have wound itself out till the Israeli-Palestinian impasse is resolved, one way or the other.

Let us pray.


These past several weeks, two poems have kept thrumming through my mind. The first being that middle stanza from W.H. Auden’s meditation “September 1, 1939,” just as Europe was plunging back into war:


Accurate scholarship can

Unearth the whole offence

From Luther until now

That has driven a culture mad,

Find what occurred at Linz,

What huge imago made

A psychopathic god:

I and the public know

What all schoolchildren learn,

Those to whom evil is done

Do evil in return.

And the second, the countervailing stanzas out of Seamus Heaney’s “The Cure at Troy,” his rendition of Sophocles’ “Philoctetes,” published in 1991, in direct response, one fancies, to the marvels, all around the world, of the immediately preceding years:

Human beings suffer,

They torture one another,

They get hurt and get hard.


History says, don’t hope

On this side of the grave.

But then, once in a lifetime

The longed-for tidal wave

Of justice can rise up,

And hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change

On the far side of revenge.

Believe that further shore

Is reachable from here.

Believe in miracle

And cures and healing wells.

Call miracle self-healing:

The utter, self-revealing

Double-take of feeling.

If there’s fire on the mountain

Or lightning and storm

And a god speaks from the sky

That means someone is hearing

The outcry and the birth-cry

Of new life at its term.

It means once in a lifetime

That justice can rise up

And hope and history rhyme.

For which is it going to be? I keep thrumming, wondering, back and forth, braiding, layering. Those two poems, and Margaret MacMillan’s final lines of evaluation at the conclusion of her magisterial account of the years leading up to the outbreak of the First World War, “The War That Ended Peace:”

"If we want to point fingers from the twenty-first century, we can accuse those who took Europe into war of two things. First, a failure of imagination in not seeing how destructive such a conflict would be, and second, their lack of courage to stand up to those who said there was no choice left but to go to war. There are always choices."

Or, to phrase the same idea just slightly differently (returning to a slightly later moment in that same 1939 poem of Auden’s):


“We must love one another or die.”