The job of a writer during any political or moral crisis is to refute lies and convey truths. This, in and of itself, seems trite. Of course, people will say, that’s what writers are supposed to do—it is their raison d’etre, the first principle of their profession. If they cannot do this, what good are they?
But moral and political crises pose specific challenges to the writer. When war is involved, one must choose a side. There is no such thing as neutrality; pacifism and righteous claims to impartiality are themselves political statements. Silence is a statement, too, and often a deafening one. Most people end up choosing one side or another, or they have a side chosen for them. Usually, this amounts to ‘my side is doing this and I will support them.’ In this manner, as nationalism and tribalism overtake rational thought, truths end up in service of power and free minds defend the indefensible
Sometimes, the moral crisis is black and white. A government rounds up its citizens and begins murdering them; a fanatic religious group begins amputating wrists and shooting pious worshippers of different sects; an autocrat invades a neighboring country to ‘reunite’ the peoples. These crises are simple to address. One party has committed a crime against another, and anyone who attempts to rationalize the issue immediately surrenders their own intelligence.
For the vast majority of individuals who have not had their moral compasses corrupted, these kinds of crises are addressed directly. When I wrote about South Asian culture perpetuating men’s hatred of women, I had this kind of crisis in mind. These explicit crises are between right and wrong, and the demarcation between the two is clear. A child could see the difference between the male mob and the lovers being stoned. This is why some of the clearest moral questions are indeed asked by children. Their minds have not yet developed the mechanism to convert truths into lies and lies into truths.
The second kind of moral crisis, however, is not between right and wrong but between right and right. I borrow the phrase from the Israeli novelist Amos Oz, one of the first champions of a two state solution in Palestine and an opponent of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. In this kind of moral crisis, both sides are in the right, at least historically. Both narratives are convincing. Both point to immense tragedy, loss of life, suffering, and exploitation. The Jewish people were very nearly exterminated in Europe and vilified in every European country centuries before Versailles, Nazism, and Hitler. In fact, only at the Second Vatican Council in 1965 was the collective blame placed upon them for the crime of deicide—the killing of the Christ—finally repudiated.
This mass suffering is part of the Jewish narrative. No one can understand Jewish history without first understanding the promise and absence of redemption. In Saul Bellow’s novel, Ravelstein, a fictionalized account of the late Professor Allan Bloom, the narrator reminds us that:
Such a volume of hatred and denial of the right to live has never been heard or felt, and the will that willed their death was confirmed and justified by a vast collective agreement that the world would be improved by their disappearance and their extinction.
This is not ancient history, but recent memory. When a Jewish person asks me, a secular Muslim, to try and understand the suffering his ancestors faced from pogroms to the Shoah, I attempt to empathize with and reflect on the immense harm done, but I will never be able to experience the tragedy the way my interlocutor relives it every day. Perhaps he sees the charred photographs in his home; perhaps he can hear echoes of stories he has been told since a toddler; perhaps he sleeps in nightmares that are as ‘real’ as his evening drink.
But the story does not and cannot end here, because there is another narrative living alongside it, shared by a people who have also been exploited and occupied. The Palestinians were humiliated by their fellow Arabs, who demonized them and kicked them out of their countries or forced them into squalid refugee camps. They were humiliated by Israel, which annexed their land, built settlements upon it, and today patrols their daily life. They were humiliated by their own leaders, time and time again. For years, Israeli leaders refused to even recognize that a Palestinian people existed. “There were no such thing as Palestinians,” Golda Meir said in 1969, because the Palestinians did not have a state, or a nationalism, or a unifying identity. Therefore, “They did not exist.”
At its core, the Israel and Palestine dispute is fundamentally a clash of narratives. These narratives are irreconcilable. Either the Palestinians deserve a state, or they do not. Either Israel has a right to exist, or it does not. What makes these narratives so potent, so emotionally distressing, is that the people for whom Israel was created were one of history’s worst victims; the one’s for whom a Palestinian state will be created (though the prospect seems unlikelier each day), were victims of the victim, as Edward Said memorably put it. That one of the victims has now become an occupier is a bitter irony not lost to Jewish opponents of the occupation.
As a writer, I find grappling with narrative and violence both the most difficult part of communicating truth but also the most important. In battles and wars, violence clouds what is true and what is not. Flags and emotions overpower reason and fact. People return to their respective corners and barrage the other side with invective and propaganda. When the moment calls for clarity, when it demands illuminated thinking, what we instead get are scripted talking points.
Much of what I write about is personal. It is part of my own narrative, and I cannot shed that narrative. My parents were born in a country that was conceived in violence, as so many countries are. I could call this original sin, but original slaughter is closer to the point. My father left Pakistan just after his country’s armed forces committed genocide against their compatriots in Bangladesh. The cult of violence that engulfed South Asia at this time was horrific. To this day, a full account has not been made for the crimes against humanity committed in Pakistan’s civil war.
Last spring, I spent entire days listening to the stories of Turkish Cypriots kicked out of their homes and Greek Cypriots murdered during Turkey’s 1974 invasion of Cyprus. During Ramadan that summer, I ate and drank with Iraq’s Kurds, a people whom Saddam Hussein tried to extinguish with chemical weapons. Almost every young man I met there had lost a father or grandfather to Saddam’s death squads. This was violence at its most banal: A surplus of evil above and beyond what was necessary to repress people. It was not something that could be romanticized or ignored, but was an evil that needed to be confronted. What I saw in these stories was the ugly face of humanity, and the depths to which man could sink when prodded on by nations or notions of self-righteousness.
This brings me back to the Israel-Palestine conflict and truth. In no other conflict is language policed so heavily as it is in this dispute. Call it a ‘separation barrier,’ call them ‘Jewish communities’ and not illegal settlements, call it Israel’s ‘presence in the Palestinian territories’ and not the ‘illegal, unjust, occupation of Palestine.’ When words are twisted to convey docility on one side and hostility on the other, the truth becomes poisoned, as do our minds.
On the current war between Israel and Hamas, we are told this is Hamas’s fault. We are told Israel has no choice. We are told Gaza is not even occupied anymore. An occupation does not end if soldiers leave the territory but its airspace, borders, and waters remain blockaded by another country, which restricts even the number of calories allowed in. When Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, the top aide to the Israeli prime minister said this:
The significance of the disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process. And when you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, and you prevent a discussion on the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem. Effectively, this whole package called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda.
When David Cameron, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, called Gaza a prison camp, he was describing the lived reality of 1.7 million Palestinians. A follow up question the prime minister should have been asked is, if Gaza is a prison, who are the prison guards? From whose uniforms do the keys to the massive cell jangle?
On the current war, we are told the genesis of the bloodshed came at Hamas’s kidnapping and murder of three Israeli settlers. What is missing from this is the fact that no evidence has tied Hamas to the killing of the three Israelis. What is forgotten is that Hamas initially vowed restraint, even arresting a terror cell that was firing rockets into Israel. Up until the day one of Hamas’s members was killed, apparently in error, by the Israel Defense Forces, Hamas did not launch rockets into Israel.
Do not assume these facts mean that Hamas is a nice player. It is not. It uses human shields and fires indiscriminately into civilian areas. Rights activists in Gaza will quickly tell you that during lulls in violence, Hamas exercises an ironfisted rule where there is little freedom or respect for rights. But a Hamas that agreed to a unity government rejecting violence and recognizing Israel, a Hamas that created a 600-man force to stop other militant groups from firing rockets, this is a Hamas that can and must be dealt with diplomatically.
For two-thirds of its existence now, Israel has been an occupying power. This occupation is an inherent form of violence. It is intrinsically racist—one state cannot occupy another people without first thinking those subjects are racially and ethnically inferior. Are the Palestinians still human beings with dignity and rights to self-determination? Or are they the permanent punching bag of Arab states and Israeli governments?
‘Singling out’ Israel has nothing to do with tribe and everything to do with what is just. Because Western powers have supported this occupation, Westerners are now complicit in the humiliation of Palestinians. Why don’t I devote my energies to Iraq, Syria, China, Saudi Arabia, or Russia? The answer is I have and I do, but my government is not supporting and funding those regimes. As a Westerner, I am joined at the hip with the Palestinians, because I inadvertently keep their subjection going. If the West funded China’s occupation of Tibet, or Russia’s of eastern Ukraine, I hope we would clamor past one another to condemn our governments, condemn China and Russia, and not make up excuses for why all of this was fine. When Albert Camus reminded us not to be on the side of executioners, I wonder if he foresaw a day where we would be on the side of occupiers.
The current prime minister of Israel has never accepted even a notional Palestinian state on terms the Palestinians could accept. According to The Times of Israel, Israel’s prime minister “could never, ever, countenance a fully sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank.” The italics are not mine.
So, Palestine will be permanently occupied, or it will have settlements built upon it until further annexations, or it will be absorbed into Israel. All of these scenarios mean an end to Israel as it exists today, and an end to Palestinian aspirations. The status quo logically leads to mutually assured destruction.
Finally, one cannot exculpate the armchair enablers of wonton violence: the discourse-shapers, the writers, the intellectuals, the professors, the journalists, the politicians, the media personalities, who want their populations to think this abstract group known as The Palestinians are unleashing a wave of terror against Israel. To turn the truth into a falsehood, to turn the victim into the victimizer, to dehumanize the occupied and legitimize the occupier, this is one of many gross injustices we will eventually have to face, and a time will come when we ask ourselves, as we have so many times before, how we crossed a red line without realizing it and how we, too, became the occupiers.