Ed note: I received this email last Friday morning from my friend, Brian Eno. I shared it with my office and we all felt a great responsibility to publish Brian's heavy, worthy note. In response, Brian's friend, Peter Schwartz, replied with an eye-opening historical explanation of how we got here. What's clear is that no one has the moral high ground.
Dear All of You:
I sense I'm breaking an unspoken rule with this letter, but I can't keep quiet any more.
Today I saw a picture of a weeping Palestinian man holding a plastic carrier bag of meat. It was his son. He'd been shredded (the hospital's word) by an Israeli missile attack - apparently using their fab new weapon, flechette bombs. You probably know what those are - hundreds of small steel darts packed around explosive which tear the flesh off humans. The boy was Mohammed Khalaf al-Nawasra. He was 4 years old.
I suddenly found myself thinking that it could have been one of my kids in that bag, and that thought upset me more than anything has for a long time.
Then I read that the UN had said that Israel might be guilty of war crimes in Gaza, and they wanted to launch a commission into that. America won't sign up to it.
What is going on in America? I know from my own experience how slanted your news is, and how little you get to hear about the other side of this story. But - for Christ's sake! - it's not that hard to find out. Why does America continue its blind support of this one-sided exercise in ethnic cleansing? WHY? I just don't get it. I really hate to think its just the power of AIPAC… for if that's the case, then your government really is fundamentally corrupt. No, I don't think that's the reason… but I have no idea what it could be.
The America I know and like is compassionate, broadminded, creative, eclectic, tolerant and generous. You, my close American friends, symbolise those things for me. But which America is backing this horrible one-sided colonialist war? I can't work it out: I know you're not the only people like you, so how come all those voices aren't heard or registered? How come it isn't your spirit that most of the world now thinks of when it hears the word 'America'? How bad does it look when the one country which more than any other grounds its identity in notions of Liberty and Democracy then goes and puts its money exactly where its mouth isn't and supports a ragingly racist theocracy?
I was in Israel last year with Mary. Her sister works for UNWRA in Jerusalem. Showing us round were a Palestinian - Shadi, who is her sister's husband and a professional guide - and Oren Jacobovitch, an Israeli Jew, an ex-major from the IDF who left the service under a cloud for refusing to beat up Palestinians. Between the two of them we got to see some harrowing things - Palestinian houses hemmed in by wire mesh and boards to prevent settlers throwing shit and piss and used sanitary towels at the inhabitants; Palestinian kids on their way to school being beaten by Israeli kids with baseball bats to parental applause and laughter; a whole village evicted and living in caves while three settler families moved onto their land; an Israeli settlement on top of a hill diverting its sewage directly down onto Palestinian farmland below; The Wall; the checkpoints… and all the endless daily humiliations. I kept thinking, "Do Americans really condone this? Do they really think this is OK? Or do they just not know about it?".
As for the Peace Process: Israel wants the Process but not the Peace. While 'the process' is going on the settlers continue grabbing land and building their settlements… and then when the Palestinians finally erupt with their pathetic fireworks they get hammered and shredded with state-of-the-art missiles and depleted uranium shells because Israel 'has a right to defend itself' (whereas Palestine clearly doesn't). And the settler militias are always happy to lend a fist or rip up someone's olive grove while the army looks the other way. By the way, most of them are not ethnic Israelis - they're 'right of return' Jews from Russia and Ukraine and Moravia and South Africa and Brooklyn who came to Israel recently with the notion that they had an inviolable (God-given!) right to the land, and that 'Arab' equates with 'vermin' - straightforward old-school racism delivered with the same arrogant, shameless swagger that the good ole boys of Louisiana used to affect. That is the culture our taxes are defending. It's like sending money to the Klan.
But beyond this, what really troubles me is the bigger picture. Like it or not, in the eyes of most of the world, America represents 'The West'. So it is The West that is seen as supporting this war, despite all our high-handed talk about morality and democracy. I fear that all the civilisational achievements of The Enlightenment and Western Culture are being discredited - to the great glee of the mad Mullahs - by this flagrant hypocrisy. The war has no moral justification that I can see - but it doesn't even have any pragmatic value either. It doesn't make Kissingerian 'Realpolitik' sense; it just makes us look bad.
I'm sorry to burden you all with this. I know you're busy and in varying degrees allergic to politics, but this is beyond politics. It's us squandering the civilisational capital that we've built over generations. None of the questions in this letter are rhetorical: I really don't get it and I wish that I did.
And now, Peter's reply:
Dear Brian and friends,
I am writing to respond to your note about Gaza and how America is responding. It deserves a response. My feelings and the actual realities are complex on several levels; the realities of the Arab-Israeli history and conflicts, global politics and modern American history/demographics. All three levels interact to create the current situation. And to understand the US posture you have to consider the history. Let me say, that, as you know I am an immigrant and child of Holocaust survivors. I am culturally Jewish, but with no religious or spiritual inclinations, an atheist. And I believe that creating the Jewish state of Israel was a historic mistake that is likely to destroy the religion behind it. The actions nation states take to assure their survival are usually in contradiction to any moral values that a religion might espouse. And that contradiction is now very evident in Israel’s behavior. Israel will destroy Judaism.
First, the history has two important intersecting threads, Zionism and the end of the Ottoman Empire. Zionism began near the end of the nineteenth century as a response to a millennium of anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe. An end to the diaspora and a return to the biblical homeland were seen as the only hope of escaping the persistent repression of places like Hungary, the Ukraine, Russia, etc. The British government with its Balfour declaration (1917) and the League of Nations Palestine Mandate (1922) gave impetus to that hope. And of course WWII and the Holocaust sealed the deal. The murder of 6 million Jews was seen as sufficient reason to pursue a Jewish state and the UN granted that wish with the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab States in 1947. The seven Arab states declared war and urged the Palestinians to flee. After defeating the Arab armies Israel made it very hard for them to return. Hence we ended up with a large Palestinian refugee population.
Those Arab states themselves were the result of a combination of British/French artistry in drawing the maps of the post Ottoman world as well as the subsequent tribal military campaigns that left the Saudis in charge of the Arabian peninsula (vast oil wealth soon to be found) and the Hashemites driven up into Trans Jordan. Other than the war with Israel, the conflicts and rivalries among the various Arab and Persian factions have shaped Middle Eastern and North African politics ever since then.
Over the subsequent decades following the 1948 war there was a persistent Arab bombing campaign and two more large scale Arab attacks on Israel, 1967 and 1973. Until the mid seventies Israel was seen as having the moral high ground based on the holocaust and Arab behavior. But beginning with the Israeli incursion into Lebanon in the early 80s that moral position began to erode. Israel’s behavior in Lebanon was the first major example of aggressive action and attacks against vulnerable populations. Israel began to develop a more right wing and aggressive political faction of which Netanyahu is the worst current example. The settlements in Arab territory in the West Bank are the direct result of that evolution. (And of course the mass migration of the 1990s mainly from Russia.) Suicide bombings and missile attacks were the Arab response. Walling themselves in was yet another ironic Israeli response. Today’s horrors are a continuing extension of those conflicts following a cease-fire of a few years.
Once Israel declared itself a Jewish state in 1948 the Palestinians had only three options; accept a division of the land into two states, accept being second-class citizens in the Israeli state or perpetual conflict because they could not win. The Arab states chose the third option because it is in their interest to maintain unity against their common enemy, Israel. They could even share a common enemy with the hated Persian Shiites in Iran. So rather than helping the Palestinians develop by investing in education, health care, jobs, infrastructure etc. the Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia help keep them poor but well armed. Palestinian refugees would remain a festering sore in the Middle East to remind the world of Israel’s perfidy. And of course any aid that did come ended up in corrupt pockets, not in helping development. The obvious counter example was Jordan, which developed itself, with little help from their Arab brethren and eventually made grudging peace with Israel. The difference in Jordan was good Arab leadership that recognized that Israel was not going away and war forever was not a good development policy.
At the geopolitical level several threads played out. The UN became a place where the Israel and Arab conflicts became a symbolic pawn in the Cold War, especially in the Security Council with the U.S. on the Israeli side and the USSR on the Arab side (with exceptions i.e. the Saudis). That hardened the U.S. position and associated in American minds Israel with our side and the Arabs with the other guys.
Even though I have no support for the Israeli position I find the opposition to Israel questionable in its failure to be similarly outraged by a vast number of other moral horrors in the recent past and currently active. Just to name a few; Cambodia, Tibet, Sudan, Somalia, Nicaragua, Mexico, Argentina, Liberia, Central African Republic, Uganda, North Korea, Bosnia, Kosovo, Venezuela, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Zimbabwe and especially right now Nigeria. The Arab Spring, which has become a dark winter for most Arabs and the large scale slaughter now underway along the borders of Iraq and Syria are good examples of what they do to themselves. And our nations, the U.S., the Brits, the Dutch, the Russians and the French have all played their parts in these other moral outrages. The gruesome body count and social destruction left behind dwarfs anything that the Israelis have done. The only difference with the Israeli’s is their claim to a moral high ground, which they long ago left behind in the refugee camps of Lebanon. They are now just a nation, like any other, trying to survive in a hostile sea of hate.
We should be clear, that given the opportunity, the Arabs would drive the Jews into the sea and that was true from day one. There was no way back from war once a religious state was declared. So Israel, once committed to a nation state in that location and granted that right by other nations has had no choice but to fight. In my view therefore, neither side has any shred of moral standing left, nor have the nations that supported both sides.
So now let’s at look at why the U.S. behaves as it does with a nearly uncritical support of Israel. You are right to criticize our media in so many ways, but that only makes things worse, it does not really explain why. They are simply doing what they think their audiences want to hear. And they are mostly right.
Part of it has to do with post war American evolution and perceptions of Israel and the Arabs. When I was a boy in the fifties, through my teenage years anti-Semitism was still common in America. If you were Jewish you did not go to work for IBM or GE. You did not join the Navy. You did not go to Harvard, Princeton or Yale. I could not play tennis at my local country club. I regularly heard derisive, anti-Semitic comments from some of my classmates. But by the mid sixties along with the Civil Rights Movement, toleration in general increased and anti-Semitism declined, almost vanishing. Support of Israel was part of that tolerance and was seen as a noble response to the Holocaust. The Arabs were seen as the oppressors and enemies of the US. That perception was given particular impetus by the oil embargo of 1973 and of course the Iranian revolution, even though it was Persians not Arabs, because Americans don’t see that distinction. (We should never forget that we have a Republican dominated Congress, half of whom do not own a passport and see ignorance as a virtue.) The Israelis were seen as innovative and benign, people who made the desert bloom. To this was added the growing and ironic support from the U.S. religious right who saw the route to salvation as the Israeli defeat of the Arabs leading to a second coming of Christ. (Of course, we Jews would have to convert to Christianity to survive the second coming.) 9-11 amplified the American antipathy to the Arab world. Seeing the delight throughout the Arab world at the fall of the twin towers did not endear the Arabs to the American people. We can add Saddam, Khaddafi and Osama Bin Laden to the pantheon of iconic American villains. The UN is no longer seen as legitimate and almost always acting against U.S. interests.
So my generation and most of today’s American leadership grew up with the Israelis as heroic good guys and Arabs/Persians as greedy bad guys. The younger generation, my son Ben’s age (24) have a much more balanced view. Israel’s behavior in their youth, the last two decades, has destroyed whatever moral standing the Israelis had with them. In addition the pro Israeli lobby in America has been very effective in the political arena and their Arab counterparts have been counter productive. So our leaders who group up with noble Israel and evil Arabs and supported by Jewish political contributions are unequivocally pro Israeli while young people are more divided as is at least some of the Jewish community. Eventually demography will win out as a new more skeptical generation comes to power, a generation for whom Israel will not carry the same moral weight as it did for their parents.
I don’t think there is any honor to go around here. Israel has lost its way and commits horrors in the interest of their own survival. And the Arabs and Persians perpetuate a conflict ridden neighborhood with almost no exceptions, fighting against each other and with hate of Israel the only thing that they share.
It is also worth noting that the largest Muslim populations are not Arab and the largest, Indonesia, is fairly peaceful. So it is not about religion. The Arabs have been engaged in tribal conflicts for centuries that have been from time to time quelled by Imperial powers like the Ottomans and strong men like Saddam and Ibn Saud. And in those wars they have committed horrors on their own people. Observe the genocidal destruction of Homs by Hafez Assad just to point to a recent example. The Zionists brought another tribe to the war. It is of course a tribe that is also divided, like the Arabs, in to factions, some of which are fanatical and war like and others more moderate. The comments about the racism of the Zionists are fair, but the Arab world does not lack for similar attitudes. One need only see how the vast number of South Asian, Philippine and African near slaves are treated even in the more benign countries like the UAE.
So given that history and current reality and even though I believe the creation of Israel was a historic disaster, I am a member of the tribe, (perhaps its more pacifist, atheist wing). I find objectionable the unique singling out of Israel for condemnation. So if we are prepared to boycott, condemn, shame, etc, the Saudis, the Qataris, the Iranians, the Egyptians, the Syrians, the Russians, the Nigerians, the Taliban, the Venezuelans, the Zimbabweans, the Sudanese, the South Sudanese, the Central African Republicans, and lets not forget the Americans and the British, all of whom are as guilty as Israel, then I will join the demonstration. (Two small things that might help would be if the rich Arab states provided some funding and development assistance for the Palestinians and if the Palestinian government didn’t steal all the aid.)
We find ourselves at a historic impasse. There is no way back. Israel will do whatever it takes to survive. They will not leave. And the Arab identity has become opposition to Israel. It will be centuries, if ever, before they accept the existence of Israel. So both sides will always rightly feel threatened. There will be no other state there but perpetual tribal war with an occasional truce. And in that perpetual state of tribal war there be ample opportunity for horrors on both sides. We can only hope to lower the level of violence, but true peace will remain illusive.