Who’s Right?

The situation in the Middle East involving Palestine and Israel is so complex that one wonders if things will ever become clear. Virtually every other nation on the planet except for Israel and its staunchest ally the United States believes that the appropriation of land by Israel in that part of the world after the Middle East war in 1967 was illegal if not immoral. The United Nations recently voted overwhelmingly to grant Palestine “State” status — over the protests of Israel and the United States. Is it possible that the rest of the world is right and we are wrong? One does wonder.

In the latest chapter in what has become an ugly book filled with violence and mutual hatred, Israel has announced that it is going to expand its settlements in East Jerusalem. However, as a recent news story by MSNBC points out:

The White House  and the State Department said on Friday a new Israeli settlement expansion plan was “counterproductive” and could make it harder to bring Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table.

“We reiterate our longstanding opposition to settlements and East Jerusalem construction and announcements,” White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland reiterated this position, adding: “We’re going to be evenhanded in our concern about any actions that are provocative, any actions that make it harder to get these two parties back to the table.”

I am certainly not in a position to say who is right and who is wrong in this situation. I’m not sure anyone is! But this is the strongest language I can remember hearing in the way of a disagreement between the US and Israel. This country is usually foursquare behind every step Israel takes in its ongoing battle with its neighbor. The relatively mild comments above almost sound like scathing criticism. But it is clear that an action such as this planned expansion at a time when the situation is already red-hot and ready to explode seems ill-advised. Indeed, it almost seems designed to provoke a response of some sort.

I have a friend who is married to a Palestinian woman and who insists that Americans are not provided with objective news reporting about the goings-on in that region of the world. This may or may not be  true, though it does seem that we have developed a one-dimensional viewpoint on issues involving Israel and Palestine. I dare say there is right and wrong on both sides of the ongoing conflict and it would be refreshing to know that the news we read is impartial — to the extent that it is possible to read news that is not slanted one way or the other.

But in the end, this situation is a powder-keg waiting to explode and we do know for certain that many people will die in the aftermath. And any steps that can be taken by either side to temper the situation would seem to me to be well advised. As long as the two countries continue to dig in and insist that there is only one right course of action and each of them insists that they are taking that course, there can be no resolution to the situation.

On a much smaller scale, of course, one is reminded of our Congress where the sides are entrenched behind barriers of party loyalties and seem incapable of admitting that they might just be wrong. There lies intransigence: the heart and soul of stupidity and prejudice born of the unwillingness (or inability) to admit we might be wrong.

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Hooray For Canada!

Ya gotta love it! The border guards between Canada and Michigan refused admission into Canada of pastor Terry Jones and his fellow passengers. The story begins with a couple of tasty paragraphs:

Stephanie Sapp said fellow pastor and her husband Wayne Sapp, along with Jones, were turned back at the Michigan-Ontario border after being detained for several hours. Jones, who leads Florida’s tiny Dove World Outreach Center, and Wayne Sapp, were scheduled to attend Freedom Showdown, an inter-faith debate Thursday evening outside the Ontario Legislature.

Stephanie Sapp said Jones was denied entry because of a fine he got in Germany almost 20 years ago for using the title “doctor” there (he had received an honorary doctorate in theology from a Californian university in 1993). Also, both men had been charged with breaching the peace at a planned rally in Detroit last year.

I’ll overlook the fascinating question of why the man wanted to be addressed as “doctor” after holding an honorary doctoral degree from “a California university.” (But I do wonder what on earth they were thinking??) The Germans had it right: they should have fined him for impersonating a respectable person. And I would defend anyone’s right to “breach the peace” in the name of conscience. But bear in mind that this is the man of God who ordered the burning of the Quran not long ago precipitating a riot in the streets of Kabul, Afghanistan. He is apparently not the sharpest knife in the drawer.

But I love to think the Canadians have it right to refuse admission of this man into their country. I’m all for freedom of speech (which he claims he is being denied), but there are certain people who simply shouldn’t be allowed to open their mouths in public. Defending a person’s right to spread hatred is pushing the first amendment to its limits. Hate speech is designed to drive people apart and start riots; that sort of thing coming from a professed man of the cloth is doubly reprehensible. However, we cannot pick and choose what a person is allowed to say, though (speaking for myself) there are times when I would like to!!

In this regard, one can sympathize with those in the Middle East who wondered why this country doesn’t refuse to allow films such as “The Innocence of Muslims” that promote racial hatred and which has recently led al-Qaida to declare a “holy war” against the United States and Israel. One can understand, if not sympathize with, those who were outraged at the insults heaped on the founder of Islam. Our notion that free speech is a basic human right is not one that is shared by every other culture. But our defense of free speech is vital to what this country means and we were right to allow the film to be shown in spite of the fact that it stirred up hatred and violence in the Middle East.

We must protect any person’s right to say anything as long as it doesn’t directly result in harm to another person. Determining just what this might be before the person speaks or writes is a problem. One must try to determine the person’s intent, which is not always clear. And the intention of the film-maker in this case was to increase sympathy for the Christians living in Egypt, not to spread hatred — or so he says. Whenever speech is prohibited there is always the danger of censorship which, like any form of repression, is anathema to a free country. Thus, while I may applaud the Canadians for doing what I would love to do myself — namely, refuse to allow Terry Jones entry into the United States — I must admit that he has a right to his opinions no matter how hateful and stupid they might be. It’s the price we pay I suppose.

Bombs Away!

We live in an age that defies logic and disturbs our moral sensibilities. There is a growing number of nations that are busily building up their supply of nuclear weapons — any one of which is six times more powerful than the bombs the U.S. dropped on Japan in the mid-1940s. And there are other bellicose nations that want desperately to join the fray. During the Iraq war President Bush actually contemplated using “limited yield” nuclear weapons but settled in the end for 500 pound “bunker-buster bombs” that burrow deep into the ground and destroy everything above and below ground for miles around.

The latest episode in this absurd nightmare is Israel’s request for a few bunker bombs from the United States — along with some planes that can carry the bombs closer to Iran without refueling. At this writing it is not clear whether this request will be met by the Obama administration, but a paragraph in a recent news story is worth a moment’s pause:

A front-page article in the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv on Thursday said Obama had told Netanyahu that Washington would supply Israel with upgraded military equipment in return for assurances that there would be no attack on Iran in 2012.

Again, this may or may not be true. But one bizarre feature of the story is that Obama’s hesitation (if there is any) is apparently due to his concern with his own reelection — since a war between Israel and Iran would raise oil prices precipitously thereby damaging his chances for reelection. We apparently don’t care if Israel attacks Iran as long as it occurs after the election: it’s OK if you attack, but just not yet! The fact that a President’s main concern seems to be with his own reelection rather than the carnage that would result from the sale of the planes and bombs — not to mention the possibility that the United States might well be drawn into the war as an ally of Israel — beggars belief.

As I write this the Sierra Club is desperately trying to get people to write their Congressmen to help save jobs in the clean energy industry. There is an immanent threat of lay-offs which has dampened investor’s enthusiasm for alternative energy. In their plea, Sierra Club says, “By failing to act, Congress is holding the fate of more than 40,000 jobs in the clean energy industry in its hands. Already, their lack of commitment has caused orders for new wind turbines to dry up and has created a crisis where layoffs are imminent.” Do you see the connection here? Our President worries that gas prices will go up if Israel goes to war with Iran, but he and the Congress are reluctant to support a movement that could help us break away from our dependence on foreign oil! I sometimes think I have passed through the looking glass.

What this government needs to do is get squarely behind the clean energy movement and make a serious attempt to get adequate funding for research and meaningful tax breaks for industries that will in the end make alternative energy a viable alternative and affordable by all. Imagine the benefits that would accrue if we simply took a fraction of the money we spend on “defense” and put it into clean energy research. With sufficient funding it is possible that nuclear fusion could replace nuclear fission. As things now stand, we stumble about on the issue of alternative energy and focus our attention on factors that might raise oil prices — as though the latter are what really matter. They don’t. What matters is taking a long view and committing to a path that will deliver us from a world that seriously contemplates destruction on a mass scale and worries only about the cost of gas at the pump.

Rejecting the Righteous

It was recently reported that Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust museum, will not recognize the heroism of a man who risked his life saving more than two dozen Jews by hiding them out on his farm during the Hitler regime. This is most unusual because 23,000 men and women who risked their lives are memorialized and there is no question that this man did indeed risk his life to save others. In fact there are numerous testimonies to his heroism, but twice he has been turned down. He is not regarded by those who elect as one of the “righteous.”

The story was recently reported in the New York Times and the writer hints that the decision was based on prejudice: the man, Khaled Abdul Wahab, was an Arab Muslim. He is now deceased. His bravery took place on the eastern shores of occupied Tunesia during the 1940s, but it will go unrecognized for reasons that seem suspect — he didn’t “risk his life” by suffering actual physical harm — though among those recognized in the museum, there are numerous people who saved Jews without suffering any physical harm themselves. Wahab most certainly did risk his life, however, as did anyone in those days who attempted to save Jews from the Nazis.

The conclusion does seem unavoidable: the “Commission for the Designation of the Righteous” can’t see beyond their own prejudice, despite the fact that the Jews have themselves been persecuted for centuries by bigots. How ironic, and how sad.

While morally indefensible, the prejudice is understandable, since the Jews live among the Arabs and there is deep-seated hatred between the Muslims and the Jews. One can understand the bigotry on the part of the Commission, but one cannot condone it. It is simply wrong. There is a fundamental difference between explaining someone’s behavior and justifying it. In this case, we might be able to explain why this decision was made — twice — but we cannot say it is justifiable. Explanation involves the cultural and psychological reasons why people do the things they do. Justification requires the giving of moral reasons to support a moral claim. There can be no moral support in this case. The man should be recognized for his courage in saving lives at the risk of his own. It’s fairly straightforward.

One does wonder, however, how one would behave if he were in Wahab’s shoes: would he or she do the right thing, or take the easy road? This suggests another key difference: what one would do and what one should do. Clearly, one ought to try to alleviate suffering and act as Wahab did. But in the circumstances, with the enemy at your very doorstep, would you be able to do the right thing?

Hannah Arendt, who spent a great deal of time pondering these limiting situations, thinks it is a question of whether or not we can face ourselves in the mirror. It is not a matter of conscience, strictly, nor is it a calculation of pros and cons. “There comes a point where all objective standards — truth, rewards, and punishments in a hereafter, etc. — yield precedence to the ‘subjective’ criterion of the kind of person I wish to be and to live with.” Resistance was not a matter of intelligence: Bonhoeffer resisted, while Heidegger capitulated. It was unpredictable. At some point some folks simply said “no.” Could I live with myself knowing I sacrificed the lives of other innocent people to save my own? Could I say,”No”? That, according to Arendt, is the central question. I’m not sure how I would answer it in the circumstances. But I am confident in saying that Wahab’s heroism should not go unrecognized and unrewarded.