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Why Israel is no better than the African wife-beater

Wednesday January 7 2009



Watching the might of the Israeli army pounding hapless Gaza into the Stone Age in retaliation for the radical Hamas group’s rocket attacks on civilians inside Israel, reminded me of the contradictions of life in the village donkey’s years ago.

When we were little, whenever we visited our grandparents, we were struck by how widespread and public wife-beating in the village was. A “real man” in Africa was the one who put his woman in her place with a jolly good whacking whenever she “stepped out of line”.

Something puzzled us, though. Some of the wives seemed fearless, because sometimes they would publicly provoke and goad their husbands into a temper. The sight of someone “looking for a beating” was incomprehensible to us.

When we grew older and wiser in the ways of the world, it all made sense. For while wife-beating was tolerated as a legitimate tool for disciplining an errant spouse, at the same time, there was no man more despised than a wife-beater.

At the beer pot, a man who was dismissed as a “weakling who can only beat his poor wife” would be so humiliated, he would have to walk away.

We understood that, in a bizarre way, in societies where women were powerless, provoking men into beating them was a strategy. They suffered, but the husband lost more by having his standing in society diminish, because he was seen as a bully who preyed on the weak.

In this way, the women could be “helpless” victims of domestic abuse, provocateurs, and heroic casualties of war all wrapped in one.

Which brings us back to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. My own view of Israel is a messy bundle of mixed feelings. When I was much younger, I was pro-Israel. Then I grew older, more knowledgeable, and became an idealist, hoping to make a small contribution to save the world. Then what Israel was doing to the Palestinians became unpalatable.

The genocide by the Nazis in which more than six million Jews were killed, remains one of the most difficult bouts of hate and murderousness to come to terms with. It therefore hasn’t been easy to be critical of Israel, a State founded partly to give Jews a sanctuary in which they could defend themselves.

So here we are, after 12 days of air strikes and a ground offensive, Israel has killed more than 600 Palestinians in the Gaza, many of them women, and children blown up while they were in their school building. On the Israel side, Hamas’ rockets have killed five people.

Hamas is just one of many radical Palestinian organisations. That Israel needed to lay siege to Gaza for 18 months and starve its population into submission, and now deploy its vast army to deal with this threat, is actually a failure. It is a war that, in the end, Israel cannot win.

Many supporters of Israel partly side with it because radical groups in the Middle East are determined to wipe it off the face of the Earth. That would mean a repeat of the Nazi-type genocide against Jews, and that is unacceptable.

Hamas probably understands that, and its success has been in provoking Israel to act with disproportionate and raging vengefulness. Over the years, Israel’s treatment of Palestinians has sometimes had uncanny parallels with the Nazi’s treatment of Jews.

The result is that Israel is close to establishing some kind of equivalence of evil, in which its excesses against Palestinians assume the level of abomination of that of the Nazis against Jews.

Israel’s right to exist is based on a powerful moral imperative that derives, in large part, from the Holocaust. If it loses that through its severity against the Palestinians, it loses the argument about its existence. If that happens, even if it had the strongest army in the world, it would no longer be able to defend something that no longer exists.

Increasingly, there are many thoughtful Jews to whom Israel’s militarism has become unbearable. Writing in the Christian Science Monitor a few days ago, Sara Roy, a senior research scholar at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies, Harvard University, and the author, of Failing Peace: Gaza and the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict, said: “In nearly 25 years of involvement with Gaza and Palestinians, I have not had to confront the horrific image of burned children — until today”, she wrote.

“Why have we been unable to accept the fundamental humanity of Palestinians and include them within our moral boundaries?… Ultimately, our goal is to tribalise pain, narrowing the scope of human suffering to ourselves alone.

“Our rejection of “the other” will undo us. Israel’s victories are pyrrhic and reveal the limits of Israeli power and our own limitations as a people: our inability to live a life without barriers… As Jews in a post-Holocaust world empowered by a Jewish state, how do we as a people emerge from atrocity and abjection, empowered and also humane?”