December 27, 2008

Without Exit

Tom Segev's bitter commentary in Haaretz today attempts to tie the restrictive weight of history to the momentum of the ongoing Gaza seize. There is nothing new here, he says, as if the past disasters could possibly serve to illuminate the present rather than explain its necessity. Bombardment as enlightenment-styled punishment of the barbarians, the attempt to create a particular political perspective in a sphere beyond control, the anxious moral blindness of claiming "self-defense."

To that he may have added the compulsion to act out of the need to avoid passivity. And to that the desire to beat back the specter that says all failures were the result of prior restraint. As Segev writes, "[the one] historical truth worth recalling in this context: Since the dawn of the Zionist presence in the Land of Israel, no military operation has ever advanced dialogue with the Palestinians."

As Ehud Barak promises to kill this ghost of Lebanon, to employ the necessary excess, to stop at nothing to eliminate Hamas rocket fire, the rockets reach further into Israel.

Segev's comments are brief. One suspects he cannot bear to say too much more. For what? He has written too much already to too little effect. The stories of the 7th million, the dangerous deliriums of 1967, the summer of 2006, and still now, yet again, it plays out deadly and heartbreaking: the return to the grotesque place without exit. Surely he feels his words strangled.

It was, then, in another newspaper piece that recently appeared where, perhaps, a more appropriate idea came for thinking about these "dark times." It was not about the long conflict, its brutality and senselessness, but about the now dead playwright Harold Pinter. It was about the subtle play between idea, word, and proximity; people trapped with each other.

In his encomium, Ariel Dorfman praised Pinter's artistic treatment of a fundamental recognition -- that political plights came from the intimate turns of language, the trembling distance between people bound together in tight quarters; where words build brittle bridges, all too many of which are blown. There may not have been commentary on historical and political events in those early plays, Dorfman writes,

And yet, by trapping us inside the lives of those men and women, Pinter was revealing the many gradations and degradations of power with a starkness I had not noticed before in other authors who were supposedly dedicated to examining or denouncing contingent politics. All power, all domination and liberation started there, he seemed to be saying, in those claustrophobic rooms where each word counts, each slight utterance needs to be accounted for, is paid for in some secret currency of hope or suffering. You want to free the world, humanity, from oppression? Look inside, look sideways, look at the hidden violence of language. Never forget that it is in language where the other parallel violence, the cruelty exercised on the body, originates.

The shouts of protest, the statements of statesmen, the editorial endorsements and cries of rightful outrage seem so far from what is actually being exchanged with that "secret currency" of need and evil.

December 25, 2008


December 24, 2008

A Promise of Miracle

Arvo Part:

December 21, 2008

Arctic hysteria

Outside, dead white and bitter. Inside the old brick building, dense and thick and protecting,storm windows dropped, insulated, and tight, there is steam heat running through the walls. A fire burns in the fireplace and no shortage of wood. There are lights brightening many corners; the electrical current wholly shapes the space. Still, it is possible to feel the faintest thread cold that blows in, somehow, like an ominous whisper.

Eliot Weinberger writes of living amongst the dynamic lifelessness of ice. He describes the point at which the mind of the hunter in the kayak off the coast of Greenland--forced to hunt ahead of the coming winter-- can no longer keep the immensity of the threat from the thickening, darkening water from devouring their consciousness. They never go out onto the sea again.

"The landscape is always changing. The icebergs are always moving. They calve, drift, suddenly flip over. The ice is alive. It creaks, groans, grinds, trickles, gurgles, drips, thumps. Sea slaps it; wind howls through its hollows."

He writes of Arctic hysteria: nineteenth-century seamen leaping mad from their ships, huddled in tents, delirious and paranoid.

He repeats the story told in Greenland of three men who set out to know the world and come across an igloo. They are unable to escape it. The igloo seems like an continent. They walk inside for days and days, holding fast to its walls, searching on and on, for days, weeks, and months:

"Two of the men could take it no more and sat down and died. The third kept walking. He finally found the exit: his kayak was where he had left it. He returned to his village an old man, and he told the people: 'The world is just an enormous igloo.'"

Photo: Cape Prescott, Franklin Pierce Bay, by Charles White (1875)

December 17, 2008

The Gyre of Passionate Intensities

After the UN's official for Human Rights in the Palestinian territories was denied access to Gaza by Israel, the New York Times described Richard Falk, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton, this way:

He has compared Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to Nazi atrocities and has called for more serious examination of the conspiracy theories surrounding the Sept. 11 attacks. Pointing to discrepancies between the official version of events and other versions, he recently wrote that “only willful ignorance can maintain that the 9/11 narrative should be treated as a closed book.”
In his capacity as a United Nations investigator, Mr. Falk issued a statement this month describing Israel’s embargo on Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas, as a crime against humanity, while making only cursory reference to Hamas’s rocket attacks against Israeli civilian centers. Israeli officials expressed outrage.

In other words, Falk is not an "honest broker." The comment alleging support for 9/11 conspiracy theories is, of course, crude demagogy and reflects nothing of Falk's real questions about the implications for reductionist thoughts of 9/11, which are outlined in his book, The Declining World Order: America's Imperial Geopolitics (Routledge, 2004).

The first line above mobilizes without reference one of Israel's chief criticisms, which is that Falk "draws shameful comparisons to the Holocaust." Such policing of the Holocaust comparisons is nothing new. As a metaphor it is repeatedly called upon to advance Israel's national needs, and as a historical lesson it can easily be used to characterize the Palestinian/Arab threat, which as public figures like Bernard Henri-Levy still insist on asserting, contain the DNA of intractable Nazi sympathies. If 1967, the threat of annihilation was felt more directly, and so when there was talk of a coming Auschwitz, the public was fueled by deep-seated fears, a need for vengeful protection, and an identity-affirming aggression. "Never again" was not a mere phrase then, but an orienting principle that sustained the new state. It is so common a gesture now, however, that its rhetorical impact may be nothing at all.

Except, however, when it is brought forth by outsiders trying to describe the plight of Palestinians. Alain Finkielkraut has written of the comparative phenomenon in France, where domestic political positioning too often relied on the specious assertions -- and crude formulations -- which marked Israel as Nazi-esque and Palestinians an undifferentiated mass of assembled victimhood. Finkielkraut was correct in drawing out the historical obfuscation at work in that context. But there is a far different tenor in what Falk wrote in 2007:

There is little doubt that the Nazi Holocaust was as close to unconditional evil as has been revealed throughout the entire bloody history of the human species. Its massiveness, unconcealed genocidal intent, and reliance on the mentality and instruments of modernity give its enactment in the death camps of Europe a special status in our moral imagination. This special status is exhibited in the continuing presentation of its gruesome realities through film, books, and a variety of cultural artifacts more than six decades after the events in question ceased. The permanent memory of the Holocaust is also kept alive by the existence of several notable museums devoted exclusively to the depiction of the horrors that took place during the period of Nazi rule in Germany.
Against this background, it is especially painful for me, as an American Jew, to feel compelled to portray the ongoing and intensifying abuse of the Palestinian people by Israel through a reliance on such an inflammatory metaphor as 'holocaust.' The word is derived from the Greek holos (meaning 'completely') and kaustos (meaning 'burnt'), and was used in ancient Greece to refer to the complete burning of a sacrificial offering to a divinity. Because such a background implies a religious undertaking, there is some inclination in Jewish literature to prefer the Hebrew word 'Shoah' that can be translated roughly as 'calamity,' and was the name given to the 1985 epic nine-hour narration of the Nazi experience by the French filmmaker, Claude Lanzmann. The Germans themselves were more antiseptic in their designation, officially naming their undertaking as the 'Final Solution of the Jewish Question.' The label is, of course, inaccurate as a variety of non-Jewish identities were also targets of this genocidal assault, including the Roma and Sinti ('gypsies'), Jehovah Witnesses, gays, disabled persons, political opponents.
Is it an irresponsible overstatement to associate the treatment of Palestinians with this criminalized Nazi record of collective atrocity? I think not. The recent developments in Gaza are especially disturbing because they express so vividly a deliberate intention on the part of Israel and its allies to subject an entire human community to life-endangering conditions of utmost cruelty. The suggestion that this pattern of conduct is a holocaust-in-the-making represents a rather desperate appeal to the governments of the world and to international public opinion to act urgently to prevent these current genocidal tendencies from culminating in a collective tragedy. If ever the ethos of 'a responsibility to protect,' recently adopted by the UN Security Council as the basis of 'humanitarian intervention' is applicable, it would be to act now to start protecting the people of Gaza from further pain and suffering. But it would be unrealistic to expect the UN to do anything in the face of this crisis, given the pattern of US support for Israel and taking into account the extent to which European governments have lent their weight to recent illicit efforts to crush Hamas as a Palestinian political force.

His title, "Slouching Toward A Palestinian Holocaust," and opening paragraphs acknowledge the poetic groping for an arresting image in a time of desperate need. His grim conclusion is that Israel's effective control of borders and air, its manipulative and fluctuating blockades of international aid, and its policy of air-strike assassination have entrenched a reality of collective punishment that cannot be dislodged; it will go on and on, unabated by humanitarian impulses from without or within, the catastrophe scripted and certain. Still, he cites the Fatah v. Hamas proxy war in the territories, the hands-off posture of neighboring Arab countries, and the legacy of UN impotence and irrelevance, all in an effort to untangle the complex dynamics in which the Palestinians are trapped.

Any honest discussion of Falk, the UN, Israel, the Middle East's slow war, the prospects for a solution that would do less damage than the current state of affairs, and the place of fundamental human rights for those living encamped in Gaza will have to deal with the real assertions and real measures, and then talk about the path toward a responsible apprehension of real possibilities and likely outcomes. Instead, the New York Times demonstrates the wide-spread pattern of such cruel incapacity.

December 4, 2008

Reef upon reef

Your mother's soul hovers ahead.
Your mother's soul helps sail around night, reef upon reef.
Your mother's soul lashes the sharks on before you.

This word is your mother's ward.
Your mother's ward share your bed, stone upon stone.
Your mother's ward stoops for the crumb of light.

--Paul Celan, "Der Reisekamerad [The Travel Companion]"