Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Explaining the attack on the flotilla to my ten year old son

I could start by kvelling about my ten year old who is so concerned with world events and justice, but that would be inappropriate the day after 9 (or more) people were killed by my army on the high seas.
I could also start by condemning the actions of the government which led to this catastrophe, but that would be uncritically assessing a very complex situation, something that goes against my democratic sensibilities.
I will start with the pain I feel for the deaths of 9 civilians whose families will miss them forever and whose country folk will make martyrs of them, further perpetrating the violent animosity.
Last night my children couldn't watch the news with us. They were terrified by the images of Israeli soldiers being beaten by angry mobs of metal rod bearing thugs. This is what they saw before they ran away to their bedrooms. This is what many Israelis will see and never look deeper. But in a democratic country, a country not defined exclusively by free elections (only 63% of Israelis voted in our last election, the lowest number ever) but by democratic values, it is incumbent upon citizens to look deep and ask challenging questions. This is what my son did this morning as he grilled me on the situation.
"Why did we drop our soldiers into a boat of angry people with clubs?" "Why didn't they just shoot from the helicopters?" "What was on the boat that was so important they had to fight over it?" "Why didn't Israel just let the boat go to where it was headed?" OK, I will kvell for a second. My son asks great questions. The challenge is answering him in a way he can understand and come to conclusions for himself, unlike the way Israeli citizens will be answered by their government.
There are some answers I cannot portent to provide at this point in time. I want my son to know that I don't have all the answers and that there are good and bad ways of acquiring them. I tell him that we will need an independent commission of inquiry (not in those words although I do work to improve his vocabulary) into the situation. I explain that we cannot expect the army or government to investigate themselves, and get full disclosure of the facts. For his sake, I compare this to him fighting with his sisters. When we ask him what happened, does he ever say 'I acted wrong. I should have thought more before…'?
"Why didn't Israel just shoot from the helicopters?" I through this question back at him. "Why?" His response was exactly where I hoped it would be as a result of my parenting. "If we did that, we would probably kill a lot more people." For my son, this was a great answer. My fear is that in Israel we will take this to illustrate how "moral" we are and how highly we value human life, but that is a crock of … (I won't say it). Asking questions on their own, without context is a great way of getting the answers you want instead of the answers you need to hear. There is no way to examine this issue without the remaining questions. "What was on the boat that was so important they had to fight over it?" and "Why didn't Israel just let the boat go to where it was headed?"
These questions really address the crux of the matter and open up a slew of other important questions. It is important to address the question "What was on the boat that was so important they had to fight over it?" in a manner befitting the situation. We were told that there was humanitarian aid. We can't be sure without checking? We had to weigh the possibilities of not checking and having "bad stuff" get into Gaza, against the possibilities of blocking aid from getting to people who need it.
Here I didn't go into all the details because it is a lot for the young mind of my son. There is a precedent for dishonesty and smuggling "bad stuff" into Gaza, I told him. I didn't know how to explain that Gaza is ruled by Hamas, a terror organization that won the Palestinian election and lost control over the majority of Palestinian territory in a violent civil conflict with Fatah. I didn't try to explain that many of my Palestinian friends told me that they couldn't vote for Fatah any longer because of the corruption, even if they didn't vote Hamas. I didn't try to explain that the Palestinian election system can run two candidates from the same party on one ticket against one from the opposition ending in loss by plurality. These are the kinds of information I expect my fellow citizens to look for when they judge our neighbors, but my son is too young to understand this.
What was hardest to explain was that Israel has been conducting a siege of Gaza and blocking humanitarian aid to its civilians in order to get Hamas out of power. This point I considered explaining. I had an analogy, the South Africa divestiture movement I participated in as a college student, except in that case the people who would suffer from the lack of aid were the ones who asked for the divestment. Gazans, whether they agree with Hamas or not, want to rebuild their homes after the devastation of the war we had with them two winters ago. They want medical supplies and food. I was embarrassed to tell my son that Israel was spreading videos on You Tube showing that Gaza has plenty of food and supplies. What would I tell him, that what really matters is what people think about the bad things you do not whether they are bad in and of themselves?
Why didn't Israel just let the boat in is also complicated? Many will claim that that would be a terrible precedent. I told my son that this question is great and asked him how he might have done this. He said, "Can't America check what's on the boats for us?" He said, "If it's not bombs and guns, then why not let the people deliver the stuff?" Again I kvell. My son's insight was amazing. Would it have been so hard to seek a neutral inspector for these boats? On one hand, Israel claims that they acted according to international law, on the other, they reject the involvement of international bodies designed to prevent these types of situations. How crazy is this?
In the Judaism that I grew up with, that makes me want to live in Israel, that makes me want to be a rabbi, we have a saying that goes, "whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world. (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 4:8 (37a)" Islam shares this saying. I cannot understand, and I can surely not explain to my son, how it is that our Jewish homeland and country has not acted according to this very important and contemporary value.


Can you hear me now said...

Thank you for the local insight.... certainly different than as you said the 15 second clips that make the news over hear.

Eric said...

It is a complex situation for sure. One the one hand, Israel has imposed a naval blockade in accordance with International law. Israel has a bona fide enemy in Hamas and to the extent that she can deprive her enemy the means to wage war Israel is entitled to prevent that. The fact that civilians suffer sucks big time. But that's why war is horrible. But the fact that civilians might be in harms way is not a reason not to take action. It is a reason to take precautions.

So I cannot share in the hand wringing too much. I sympathize with those who were killed, but the Israeli soldiers know that they go into harm's way, and the people on the ship (I hesitate to call them civilians since they were purposefully and knowingly running a naval blockade) knew that they were putting their lives and their ship at risk. In fact, they were looking for trouble, and they found it. It is stupid, and the best thing we could do is not give this any more exposure than necessary. Both sides share blame and tis incident will not change any minds about who is right and wrong. And that is the greatest tragedy of all. All the death and suffering in this incident was probably in vain. It's just more death and suffering.

This is one of those situations where nobody wins, and where both sides must realize that NO ONE WILL WIN. It is a zero sum game. Either we will all make peace, one side will annihilate the other, or both sides will annihilate each other. There is no way to win. We're all losers each time something like this happens.

It's time we all got creative. Hamas, Israel, America, PA...all of us.

Anonymous said...

Wow! Beautifully and wisely said, we should all ask those kinds of questions of our democratic government. Bravo, Heather

Anonymous said...

bla bla bla.
If you try and explain something long enough, it's possible to make something so terribly wrong sound ok. Absolutely disgusting. As more details come out about this, it's sickening the continued blatant disregard Israel has for international law and human rights.