Israel, Lebanon, and a talk over the hookah

My downstairs neighbors are a family of Arabs, the father and mother originally from Jerusalem.  While we rarely say more than “how’s it going” to each other, last weekend they were smoking the hookah on the front steps and enjoying the nice night.  Nicole and I were stepping out for a bit and suddenly became engaged in a regular conversation with the parents.

We talked about neighborhood things, their kids, our cats and so on.  I really like them and enjoy our infrequent talks.  Then, unexpectedly, the father, who knows that I’m Jewish, asked me what I thought of Israel’s recent actions in Gaza and Lebanon (this was just before things really escalated in Lebanon).  I didn’t really want to respond to him because this is probably the most sensitive subject I can imagine, outside of the Red Sox vs. Yankees question.  “It’s a terrible situation,” I said.  “I believe in human rights above the rights of any one group, and I hate it when any situation threatens the existence of regular people.”  I surprised myself with my balanced response; I’ve recently been much more unhinged.

Now, as a war seems to be on the verge of breaking out between Israel and the rest of the region, I’m more upset than ever at the conduct of pretty much everyone involved.  A lot of my criticism is often directed at Israel, perhaps because I’m Jewish and I feel implicated in their behavior (others might suggest it’s a product of typical Jewish self-hate — I hope it isn’t).  Because I instinctually favor the rights of the helpless and violated over those of a powerful state, I’m finding it hard to watch the damage being inflicted on the civilians of Lebanon.  In my mind it’s an imbalanced use of force that is serving the purposes of Hezbollah, Iran, Syria, and whoever else might be helping involved in this.  Every time I see a web site like this, or read on of Juan Cole’s posts about the Middle East, I’m reminded that Israel is making more and more enemies as it progresses, ensuring unending hostilities if not all-out war.

This is all so reminiscent of America’s own troubles in Iraq: my feelings as an American opposed to my country’s bellicosity; the powerlessness I feel when seeing my people kill innocent civilians; and the inevitable hatred of our country that our belligerence breeds.

It is hard for many Jews to reconcile notions of Jewishness with Israel.  On one hand, I was taught from a young age that it’s my spiritual and physical homeland, and my identity, in part, was formed in relation to it.  On the other hand, I view my self first and foremost as an American.  I believe in multiculturalism and tolerance among all people, especially among those groups who have suffered intolerance and hatred.  To see Jews in Israel — a group that has experienced one of the most acute forms of hatred history has ever seen — become the aggressor in Gaza, Lebanon, and the West Bank is difficult.  It challenges not only my political beliefs but my conception of my own identity.

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