Finding a way to talk may be a practical necessity for Gaza

Writing in the Toronto Star, Dr. Gabor Maté expressed the sense of despair around Gaza exquisitely. That's exquisite as in painful. Speaking as a writer who's written on this for 35 years, and still hopes to find lifelong Jewish friends among my readers, I've never found communication so hard. I don't mean agreement, I mean the simple ability to engage among people of goodwill.

This despair is greater regarding Jews in Canada than in the U.S., where a limited but perceptible critique of Israeli policy has emerged not just on the "left" but in the mainstream. There's nothing parallel here. Stephen Harper seems to have recruited the self-identified Jewish vote (which doesn't mean all Jews) with a blanket call to support anything Israel does. I have no idea why that works so effectively in Canada.

Our local despair obviously pales compared to despair in Israel/Palestine. It's been a cliché to say Jewish criticism thrives in Israel, compared to here. But that's now less true. When Jewish vigilantes kidnapped an innocent Palestinian teen and burned him alive, there was wide disapproval but not the stark horror one might expect given the images that come to mind (Jews burned at the stake by the Inquisition, or gassed). Something has shifted in Israeli discourse. Dehumanization sets in insidiously, not just of the Other but of oneself.

It's also a cliché that anyone's who's lived the experience of many Palestinians could easily (though not necessarily) become a terrorist in response. Israeli leaders like Moshe Dayan and Ehud Barak said it explicitly. This week a 17-year-old Gazan emerging, literally, from the rubble, told Reuters, "I once dreamt of becoming a doctor. Today I am homeless. They should watch out for what I could become next." What I find amazing in his words is they aren't just a threat, they sound like a plea: Please don't let this happen to me.

Cynicism comes readily. When the U.S. Senate voted unanimously, 100-0, to back Israel's version, was there no one -- Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders -- who knew it was idiotic? But rather than deal with electoral threats from the Jewish-Israel lobby that would follow, plus charges of anti-Semitism, they cynically went along. Like Secretary of State John Kerry on Fox News one-sidedly condemning Hamas, but on a live mike before the show sarcastically mentioning Israel's "pinpoint" targeting and saying "we've got to get over there" to stop it.

I actually see this as "constructive" cynicism, which may simply show how desperate you can be for positive signs. Kerry and Obama seem to feel there's no point arguing with Israel, so just agree with what they say and try to improve things anyway, ignoring your own words. Hamas, too, has their somewhat cynical calculation: they reject an immediate ceasefire, which Israel accepts. For Israel a ceasefire means "quiet for quiet": back to normal life and no more rockets. For Gaza it means back to the "slow death" of blockade, insufficient medicine and food, no free movement -- so they say No, which means continuing slaughter under Israeli attack. It's a horrible choice but it's not insane -- or totally cynical. It's the kind of decision you might make in an insane situation.

For hope, maybe, there's Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, the Gaza doctor whose three eldest daughters were killed by Israeli shells during the 2008-9 invasion. He's now in Toronto with his five surviving kids. He lives by the words, I Shall Not Hate. (It's his book's title.) You go to his house for dinner and there aren't just strong-willed Palestinians. There are proud Jewish Zionists, some of whom accompanied Stephen Harper on his solidarity trip to Israel. You think: this is the recipe for a train wreck. But somehow, due to Izzeldin's fierce, almost intimidating commitment to non-violence and dialogue, people do talk.

This may matter beyond just being nice to see. Israel isn't apartheid South Africa: a clearly unjust situation to almost everyone. Here, the "sides" are equal in numbers and the moral balance doesn't tilt as self-evidently as it did there. So finding a way to talk may be a practical necessity. It won't solve the impasse; that'll require other pressures. But it could, surprisingly, play a crucial role.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: manos_simonides/flickr

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