classic optical illusion: how old is this woman?

classic optical illusion: how old is this woman?

We live in a world where there are as many perspectives as there are people. These perspectives are often only a mouse click away. Now more than even we have the opportunity to learn about the many different ways people interpret events, relationships, politics etc. Yet, despite the overwhelming amount of information, people seem to be just as alienated from different perspectives as they were before the internet hit the masses. Democrats hate republicans, and vice versa, Arabs dislike Jews, and vice versa, Europeans don’t understand the Muslims in their midst, the Muslims don’t understand the Europeans, Americans dislike Hugo Chavez, Hugo Chavez dislikes Americans. The French and the Americans, The Turks and the Kurds, the Shii and the Sunni, the Hutu’s and the Tutsi, This list goes on and on.


One would assume that the enormous increases of information at the tips of our fingers would be instrumental in bridging those differences. Not so. One only has to browse through different blogs, articles, message boards, chartrooms, newspapers etc to find out that the wealth of information is being used to reinforce one’s own perspective instead of trying to understand the perspective of the other. Information is being selected, processed and redistributed in such a way that nothing ever changes, and instead of seeing each other as more human, we end up dehumanizing each other further. In conflicts in which lives are on the line, these differences in perspectives matter. As the ability to see something from the perspective of the other goes hand in hand with the ability to have empathy for the other, both necessary and interdependent prerequisites that allow human beings to see other as human. Perspective, empathy and humanity are the three pillars in creating a more human, more peaceful world. Vice versa, conflict resolution and peace negotiations can’t take place in an environment where people no longer see the perspective and therefore the humanity of the other.

In my previous blogs I have written a little about differences in perspectives. They play a role in the Israel-Palestine conflict where two different perspectives on the conflict clash as hard as the people having the perspectives. The Israelis sees the Arabs as the modern day Hitlers, bent on their destruction, while the Arabs see the Israelis as colonizers and land robbers. Differences in perspectives play a role in the rising islamophobia in Europe’s capital where the western mind for example can’t understand the eastern demand for Sharia laws and the eastern mind for example can’t grasp what it sees as western decadence. (see https://owlminerva.wordpress.com/2009/04/15/a-few-thoughts-on-dunbar-ii-and-the-clash-of-civilizations/)

So what is going on?

Perspectives are stranger than we think. They are mental habits, as comfortable to our brain as an old pair of shoes is to our feet. They are mental layers that protect us from too much difference, without telling us however that the price we pay for this comfort is less of the truth instead of more. Perspectives are self-perpetuating. Once they are there they find ways of reinforcing themselves as if they have an existence of their own. Existing perspectives resist competing perspectives by influencing the individual to perceive the world selectively, to process information erroneously and to remember information selectively or worse, wrongly. We can call these the defense mechanisms of narrative perspectives. We think we are in control over the way we judge things. We believe we have chosen our perspectives freely and we believe that we judge fairly. But we don’t own our perspectives. They own us. And to the extent that we are dominated by our perspective, we are incapable of judging anything fairly. For the comfort, safety and stability that perspectives offer us, most of us accept the prison they impose on our minds.

I like to compare perspectives to optical illusions. For example, look at the picture of the young woman above. If you look long enough, you will see a very old woman appear in the same picture. Once you see the old woman, it is very hard to see the young woman. And vice versa. I believe our perspectives of the world around us are like that. Even though these differences in perspective are narrative and not optical in nature, the same dynamic holds. It is possible to see the same event from different narrative angles. There are many reasons why something in us decides upon a certain angle to begin with. The angle can be taught to us, it can fit in with a pre-existing cognitive scheme, it might complement our religious, political, ethical values, or it might be the most convenient angle or most self-serving one. However, once we have decided upon an angle, it becomes nearly impossible to shift and see a different angle. Most of us are not even aware that we have these perspectives to begin with. Our brain resists such awareness. If we are that lucky to be aware of our angle we try our hardest to justify that angle, making it into a matter of right and wrong, thereby decreasing the chances that we would try to shift our perspective. Perspectives are tyrannical in the sense that once they have a hold over us they have strategies to maintain that hold and bar other perspectives from flooding our consciousness.

One might ask: “what if my perspective is the right one? What do I have to gain then from seeing something from a different perspective?” And to that one might answer, that first of all there is no perspective that is 100% correct, as nobody up to this point in history knows everything there is to know. So everybody can learn something from another perceptive. Narrative Perspective Blindness, as I like to call the inability to switch perspectives, deprives ones brain of the information it needs to formulate more appropriate conclusions. Second of all, how can we know whether or not our perspective is right or wrong if we are locked in the perspective to begin with? We have no point of reference in deciding how right or wrong our point of view is. One needs to be able to be outside perspectives in order to be able to judge them. Since we can’t look at anything without a perspective to begin with such outside reference point is in principle impossible. Thirdly, even in the impossible case that our perspective was 100% correct, not understanding the perspective of the other will still prevent us from understanding the humanity of the other. Perspective and empathy are mutually dependent upon each other. Unless one has no interest in creating a more peaceful and just world, there is nothing more important than understanding the perspective of the other so that once can remain in touch with the humanity of the other. Not only is this ability to see different narratives a moral necessity, (one simply can’t be a good person without the capacity of seeing different perspectives); it is also a matter of intelligent strategy. One can’t be a good statesman, a good lobbyist, a good peace activist, a good lawyer or a good humanitarian without this capacity to see something from another human being’s point of view.

The good news is that it is possible to break the oppression of our perspectives. Just like we can practice and we can get better in optical illusions to the point that it is possible to switch perspectives in the blink of an eye, even up to the point that it is possible to see the young woman and the old woman at the same time, and extend this ease to new optical illusions, it is also possible to train our brain in understanding different narrative angles. The more open, flexible and wider we train our brain to be, the less our ‘orthodox’ perspective controls us. Part of this training is getting used to the uncertainty and the anxiety that accompanies seeing different angles at first. Entering a different narrative perspective is as scary as entering a foreign land of which one doesn’t know the rules, the language and the customs. It is leaving behind certainty and opening oneself up to the possibility that what one believed before could have been wrong. It is learning to live with uncertainty and vulnerability. It requires mental strength and moral courage. Not something a lot of us have; but something that a lot of us can learn to cultivate. We don’t have to be the victim of our own mindsets. We can learn to juggle perspectives, learn to hold them in suspension in the air so that we can examine them, study them and learn to understand them. What seems like a miracle now can become a mental habit as familiar to us as brushing our teeth. Surfing the internet and reading the articles, essays and blogs of a lot of smart, well intentioned bunch of people, I am getting the impression that no matter how smart and well intentioned one is, without this capacity for shifting perspectives and empathy, nothing will ever be gained. No matter how well intentioned one is, without the ability to ultimately see the other as human, one will always do more damage than good.

Israel’s conscience: The weekly column of Uri Avnery

Can Two Walk Together?

I AM not saying that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is an agent of the Mossad.Absolutely not. I don’t want to be sued for libel.

I am only saying that were he an agent of the Mossad, he would not behave any differently.

And also: If he did not exist, the Mossad would have had to invent him.

Either way, the assistance he is giving to the government of Israel is invaluable.

LET’S LOOK at last week’s scandal.

Years ago, a conference against racism was convened by the UN in Durban, South Africa. It was natural that such a forum would denounce, among others, the Israeli government for its policy towards the Palestinians – the occupation, the settlements, the wall.

But the conference was not content with this. It turned into a platform for wild incitement against the State of Israel – and only against it. No other state in the world was denounced for violating human rights – and among the denouncers were some of the most obnoxious tyrants in the world.

When preparations were made for a second “Durban Conference”, this time in Geneva, the Israeli government did everything in its power to convince at least the countries of North America and Europe to boycott it. That was not so easy. Well before the start of the conference, the US succeeded in eliminating the reference to Israel in the draft of its final document (leaving only a reference to the resolutions of the first conference), and in the end it decided to boycott the conference anyway. But the European countries agreed to attend.

The Israeli government was anticipating the conference with great apprehension. The atrocities of the Gaza War have turned public opinion in many countries against Israel. The conference could become an outlet for these emotions. The brightest minds in Jerusalem were trying to find ways to prevent this.

And then along came Ahmadinejad. Since he was the only head of state to attend, the organizers could not prevent him from speaking first. He delivered a provocative speech – not being satisfied with criticizing Israel, his words dripped with unbridled hatred. That was a welcome pretext for the European representatives to get up and walk out in an impressive pro-Israeli demonstration. The conference became ridiculous.

If the “Elders of Zion” had planned the conference, it could not have ended better as far as the Israeli government is concerned.

ALL THIS happened on Holocaust Day, when Jews in Israel and all over the world commemorate the millions of victims of the genocide.

The memory of the Holocaust unites all the Jews in the world. Every Jew knows that if the Nazis had reached him, he, too, would have gone to the death camps. We, who were then living in Palestine, knew that if the German general Erwin Rommel had broken through the British lines at El Alamein, our fate would have been that of the Warsaw Ghetto.

All Jews feel that it is their moral duty to keep the memory of the victims alive. To this profound feeling there is added a political consideration: the memory of the Holocaust causes most Jews everywhere to support the State of Israel, which defines itself as the “State of the Shoa Survivors”.

But time passes and memories fade. There is a recurrent need for a present, actual enemy, a “Second Hitler”, who arouses all the latent fears lurking in the Jewish soul. Once it was Gamal Abd-al-Nasser, the “Egyptian Tyrant”. Then Yasser Arafat played this role. Nowadays there is Hamas, but that is hardly sufficient. No way to convince anyone that Hamas could possibly annihilate Israel.

Ahmadinejad is the ideal candidate. He is a consistent Holocaust denier. He declares that the “Zionist entity” must disappear from the map. He is working on the production of a nuclear bomb. This is serious – a few nuclear bombs on Israeli population centers can indeed wipe out Israel.

So we have a “Second Hitler”, who is planning a ”Second Holocaust”. Against him, all the Jews of the world can unite. What would we do without him?

THE PUTATIVE Iranian nuclear bomb fulfills another very important role. It is serving now as an instrument for the obliteration of the Palestinian problem.

Next month Netanyahu will present himself at the White House. That might turn out to be a fateful meeting. President Barack Obama may demand a clear commitment to start a peace process that will lead towards the creation of the Palestinian state. Netanyahu will make a desperate effort to avoid this, since peace would mean the evacuation of the settlements. If he agreed to this, his coalition would fall apart.

What to do? Thank God for the Iranian bomb! It constitutes an existential threat against Israel. It is self-evident that the Israeli Prime Minister should not be bothered with bagatelles like peace with the Palestinians when the Iranian nuclear sword is dangling above his head!

Netanyahu’s predecessors also used this ploy. Whenever somebody raises the matter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and demands that our government start real negotiations, freeze the settlements, dismantle the outposts, release prisoners, end the blockade on the population of the Gaza Strip, remove the roadblocks – the Iranian bomb appears ex machina. No time to think about anything else. The bomb heads our agenda. The bomb is our agenda.

There is a lot of irony in this. Iran has never been the least bit interested in the plight of the Palestinians. Ahmadinejad, too, doesn’t give a damn. Like all other Middle East governments he uses the Palestinian cause to further his own interests. Now he wants to penetrate the Sunni Arab world in order to turn Iran into the dominant regional power. For this purpose, he raises the banner of the Palestinian resistance. But for the time being, he has only succeeded in pushing the Sunni Arab regimes into the arms of Israel.

AHMADINEJAD’S MOST enthusiastic fans sit in the Ministry of Defense in Tel-Aviv. What would they do without him?

Every year, the struggle over the defense budget breaks out anew. This year, with the economic crisis, the debate will be even more acrimonious. Little Israel maintains one of the largest and most expensive military establishments in the world. Relative to the GNP (gross national product), we easily trump the United States, not to mention Europe.

Must one ask why? Israel is surrounded by enemies who are plotting to destroy us! True, Egypt is now the most loyal collaborator of Israel, Iraq has quit the game for the time being, Syria has long since ceased to be a threat. Jordan is humble, the Palestinian Authority dances to our tune. It is hard to justify a giant defense budget for fighting little Hizbullah and tiny Hamas.

But there is Iran, thank God. And there is the fearsome Iranian bomb. Here you have an honest to God existential danger. Our Air Force declares that it is ready to take off any day – no, any minute – and eradicate all the many Iranian nuclear installations.

For that they need money, lots of money. They need the most advanced airplanes in the world, each of which costs many, many millions. They need suitable equipment for reaching the targets and fulfilling the task. That is more important than education, health or welfare. After all, the Iranian bomb will kill all of us – including the children, the sick and the underprivileged. (The tycoons may perhaps succeed in getting out in time.)

The budget will be approved, but the flyers will not fly. It is not clear whether such an attack is at all feasible. Neither is it clear if it would significantly postpone the production of the bomb. But it is clear that such an attack is not possible politically: it cannot be executed without the express confirmation of the US, and there is no chance that this will be forthcoming. The attack would almost automatically cause the closure of the Strait of Hormuz, through which all the Gulf oil is shipped. That would be catastrophic, especially during a world-wide economic crisis, when a huge rise in the price of oil can cripple the already weakened economies. No, our valiant pilots will have to content themselves with bombing residential neighborhoods in the Gaza Strip.

IT COULD be argued: if Ahmadinejad behaves like a Mossad agent, Avigdor Lieberman behaves like an agent of Iranian intelligence.

I don’t say so, God forbid. I really don’t want to be sued for libel.

But Lieberman’s behavior is indeed – how to put it – slightly bizarre.

True, for a moment he looked like a winner. After he sent Hosny Mubarak to hell, the Israeli media reported that the most important Egyptian minister had met with him, shaken his hand and invited him to Egypt. Perhaps he wanted to show him around the Aswan dam, which Lieberman once wanted to bomb. But the next day a furious Mubarak reacted by denying the story and declaring that Lieberman will not be allowed to set foot on Egyptian soil.

In the meantime, an important newspaper in Russia published an interview with Lieberman, in which he asserted that “the US will accept all our decisions.” Meaning: we rule America, Obama will do as we tell him.

Such talk will not increase Israel’s popularity in the White House, to say the least. Especially just now, after it was disclosed that the Israeli Lobby, AIPAC, has asked a congresswoman to intervene in favor of two American Jews indicted for spying for Israel. In return, AIPAC promised to get the Congresswoman appointed as chairwoman of a very important committee. How? Simple: AIPAC will tell the majority leader of the House that if she does not comply. a Jewish billionaire will stop contributing to her election fund. Not a very savory disclosure.

In brief, the Iranian Ahmadinejad and the Israeli Lieberman are Siamese twins. The one needs the other. Lieberman rides on the Iranian bomb, Ahmadinejad rides on Israeli threats.

“Can two walk together, except they be agreed?” asked the prophet Amos (3:3). The answer is: Yes, indeed. These two can very well walk hand in hand without agreeing on anything.

http://www.avnery-news.co.il/english/

A Little Red Light

April 21, 2009

To me Uri Avnery is Israel’s conscience. Voices like his are very rare. 

Uri Avnery’s Column:

 

A Little Red Light    18/04/09

PERHAPS Avigdor Lieberman is only a passing episode in the annals of the State of Israel. Perhaps the fire he is trying to ignite will flicker briefly and go out by itself. Or perhaps the police investigations into the grave corruption affair of which he is suspected will lead to his removal from the public sphere. But the opposite is also possible. Last week he promised his acolytes that the next elections would bring him to power. Perhaps Lieberman will prove to be an “Israbluff”’ (a term he himself likes to use), and be revealed, behind the frightful façade, as nothing more than a run of the mill impostor. Perhaps this Lieberman will indeed disappear, to be replaced by another, even worse Lieberman. Either way, we should candidly confront the phenomenon he represents. If one believes that his utterances sound fascist, one has to ask oneself: is there a possibility that a fascist regime might come to power in Israel? THE INITITIAL gut-feeling is a resounding NO. In Israel? In the Jewish State? After the Holocaust which Nazi fascism brought upon us? Can one even imagine that Israelis would become something like the Nazis? When Yeshayahu Leibowitz coined, many years ago, the term “Judeo-Nazis”, the entire country blew up. Even many of his admirers thought that this time the turbulent professor had gone too far. But Lieberman’s slogans do justify him in retrospect. Some would dismiss Lieberman’s achievement in the recent elections. After all, his “Israel is Our Home” party is not the first one to appear from nowhere and win an impressive 15 seats. Exactly the same number that was won by the Dash party of General Yigael Yadin in 1977 and the Shinui party of Tommy Lapid in 2003 – and both disappeared soon after without leaving a trace. But Lieberman’s voters are not like those of Yadin and Lapid, who were ordinary citizens fed up with some particular aspects of Israeli life. Many of his voters are immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who look upon their “Ivett”, an immigrant from the ex-Soviet land of Moldova, as a representative of their “sector”. Although many of them brought with them from their former homeland a right-wing, anti-democratic and even racist world view, they do not pose by themselves a danger to Israeli democracy. But the additional power that turned Lieberman’s party into the third-largest faction in the new Knesset came from another sort of voter: Israeli-born youngsters, many of whom had recently taken part in the Gaza War. They voted for him because they believed that he would kick the Arab citizens out of Israel, and the Palestinians out of the entire historical country. These are not marginal people, fanatical or underprivileged, but normal youngsters who finished high-school and served in the army, who dance in the discotheques and intend to found families. If such people are voting en masse for a declared racist with a pungent fascist odor, the phenomenon cannot be ignored. FIFTY YEARS ago I wrote a book called ”The Swastika”, in which I described how the Nazis took over Germany. I was helped by my childhood memories. I was 9 years old when the Nazis came to power. I witnessed the agonies of German democracy and the first steps of the new regime before my parents, in their infinite wisdom, decided to escape and settle in Palestine. I wrote the book on the eve of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, after realizing that the young generation in Israel knew a lot about the Holocaust but next to nothing about the people who brought it about. What occupied me more than anything else was the question: how could such a monstrous party succeed in coming to power democratically in one of the most civilized countries in the world? The last chapter of my book was called “It Can Happen Here”. That was a paraphrase of the title of a book by the American writer Sinclair Lewis, “It Can’t Happen Here”, in which he described precisely how it could happen in the United States. I argued in the book that Nazism was not a specifically German disease, that in certain circumstances any country in the world could be infected by this virus – including our own state. In order to avoid this danger, one had to understand the underlying causes for the development of the disease. To the assertion that I am “obsessed” by this matter, that I see this danger lurking in every corner, I answer: not true. For years I have avoided dealing with this subject. But it is true that I carry in my head a little red light that comes on when I sense the danger. This light is now blinking. WHAT CAUSED the Nazi disease to break out in the past? Why did it break out at a certain time and not at another? Why in Germany and not in another country suffering from similar problems? The answer is that fascism is a special phenomenon, unlike any other. It is not an “extreme Right”, an extension of “nationalist” or “conservative” attitudes. Fascism is the opposite of conservatism in many ways, even though it may appear in a conservative disguise. Also, it is not a radicalization of ordinary, normal nationalism, which exists in every nation. Fascism is a unique phenomenon and has unique traits: the notion of being a “superior nation”, the denial of the humanity of other nations and national minorities, a cult of the leader, a cult of violence, disdain for democracy, an adoration of war, contempt for accepted morality. All these attributes together create the phenomenon, which has no agreed scientific definition. How did this happen? Hundreds of books have been written about it, dozens of theories have been put forward, and none of them is satisfying. In all humility I propose a theory of my own, without claiming more validity than any of the others. According to my perception, a fascist revolution breaks out when a very special personality meets with a very special national situation. ON THE personality of Adolf Hitler, too, innumerable books have been written. Every phase in his life has been examined under the microscope, each of his actions has been debated relentlessly. There are no secrets about Hitler, yet Hitler has remained an enigma. One of his most obvious traits was his pathological anti-Semitism, which went far beyond any logic. It remained with him to the very last hour of his life, when he dictated his testament and committed suicide. At the most desperate moments of his war, when his soldiers at the front were crying out for reinforcements and supplies, precious trains were diverted to transport Jews to the death camps. When the Wehrmacht was suffering from a grievous lack of practically everything, Jewish workers were taken from essential factories to be sent to their death. Many explanations for this pathological anti-Semitism have been suggested, and all of them have been debunked. Did Hitler want to take revenge on a Jew who was suspected of being his real grandfather? Did he hate the Jewish doctor who treated his beloved mother before she died? Was it a punishment for the Jewish director of the Art school who failed to recognize his genius? Did he hate the poor Jews he came across when he was homeless in Vienna? All of this has been examined and found lacking. The enigma remains. The same is true for his other personal views and attributes. How did he attain the power to hypnotize the masses? What did he have that made so many people, from all walks of life, identify with him? Whence sprang his unbridled lust for power? We don’t know. There is no full and satisfying explanation. We only know that from among the millions of Germans and Austrians who were living at that time, and the thousands who grew up in similar circumstances, there was (as far as we know) only one Hitler, a unique person. To borrow a term from biology: he was a one-time mutation. But the unique Hitler would not have become a historic personality if he had not met with Germany in unique circumstances. GERMANY AT the end of the Weimar republic has also been the subject of many books. What made the German people adopt Nazism? Historical causes, rooted in the terrible catastrophe of the Thirty-year War or even earlier events? The sense of humiliation after the defeat in World War I? The anger at the victors, who ground Germany into the dust and imposed huge indemnities? The terrible inflation of 1923, which wiped out the savings of entire classes? The Great Depression of 1929, which threw millions of decent and diligent Germans into the street? This question, too, has found no satisfying answer. Other people have also been humiliated. Other people have lost wars. The Great Depression hit dozens of countries. In the US and the UK, too, millions were laid off. Why did fascism not seize power in those countries (except in Italy, of course)? In my opinion, the fatal spark was ignited at a fateful moment when a people ready for fascism met the man with the attributes of a fascist leader. What would have happened if Adolf Hitler had been killed in a road accident in the autumn of 1932? Perhaps another Nazi leader would have come to power – but the Holocaust would not have happened, and neither, probably, World War II. His likely replacements – Gregor Strasser, who was No. 2, or Hermann Goering, the flying ace with a morphine addiction – were indeed Nazis, but neither of them was a second Hitler. They lacked his demonic personality. And what would have happened if Germany had not fallen into the depth of despair? The Western powers could have sensed the danger in time and helped in the reconstruction of the German economy and the reduction of unemployment. They could have abrogated the infamous Versailles Treaty, imposed by the victors after World War I, and allowed Germans to regain their self-respect. The German republic could have been saved, the moral leaders, of which Germany had aplenty, could have regained their leadership role. What would have happened then? Adolf Hitler, whom the widely adored President of the Reich, a Field Marshall, had contemptuously called “the Bohemian lance-corporal”, would have remained a little demagogue on the lunatic fringe. The 20th century would have looked quite different. Tens of millions of casualties of war and six million Jews would have remained alive, without ever knowing what could have happened. But Hitler did not die early and the German people were not saved from their fate. At the crucial moment they met, and a spark was struck, lighting the fuse that led to the historic explosion. SUCH A fateful meeting is not, of course, limited to fascism. It has occurred in history in other circumstances and to other persons. Winston Churchill, for example. His statues dot the British landscape, and he is considered one of the greatest British leaders of all times. Yet until the late 1930s, Churchill was a political failure. Few admired him, and even fewer liked him. Many of his colleagues detested him with all their hearts. He was considered an egomaniac, an arrogant demagogue, an erratic drunk. But in a moment of existential danger, Britons found in him their mouthpiece and the leader who took their destiny in his hands. It seemed as if during all the first 65 years of his life, Churchill had been preparing for this one moment, and as if Britain had been waiting for precisely this one man. Would history have looked different if Churchill had died the previous year of coronary thrombosis, lung cancer or cirrhosis of the liver, and Neville Chamberlain had remained in power? We now know that he and his colleagues, including the influential foreign minister, Lord Halifax, seriously considered accepting Hitler’s 1940 peace offer, based on the partition of the world between the German and the British empires. Or Lenin. If the imperial German general staff had not provided the famous sealed train to take him from Zurich to Sweden, from where he proceeded St. Petersburg, would the Bolshevik revolution, which changed the face of the 20th century, have taken place at all? True, Trotsky was in town before him, and so was Stalin. But neither of the two was a Lenin, and without Lenin it would quite possibly not have happened, and certainly not the way it did. Perhaps one could add to this list Barack Obama. A very special person, of unique origin and character, who had a fateful meeting with the American people at an important moment of their destiny, when they were suffering from two crises at once – the economic and the political one – which cast their shadow on the entire world. BACK TO US. Is the State of Israel approaching an existential crisis – moral, political, economic – that could leave it an endangered nation? Can Lieberman, or someone who could take his place, turn out to be a demonic personality like Hitler, or at least Mussolini? In our present situation there are some dangerous indications. The last war showed a further decline in our moral standards. The hatred towards Israel’s Arab minority is on the rise, and so is the hatred towards the occupied Palestinian people who are suffering a slow strangulation. In some circles, the cult of brute force is gaining strength. The democratic regime is in a never-ending crisis. The economic situation may descend into chaos, so that the masses will long for a “strongman”. And the belief that we are a “chosen people” is already deeply rooted. These indications may not necessarily lead to disaster. Absolutely not. History is full of nations in crisis that recovered and returned to normalcy. Besides the real Hitler, who rose to historic heights, there were probably hundreds of other Hitlers, no less crazy and no less talented, who ended their life as bank tellers or frustrated writers, because they did not meet a historic opportunity. I have a strong faith in the resilience of Israeli society and Israeli democracy. I believe that we have hidden strengths that will come to the fore in an hour of need. Nothing “must” happen. But anything “can” happen. And the little red light won’t stop blinking.

Uri Avnery

Website of Gush Shalom : http://www.gush-shalom.org/

Link to Avnery’s column: http://zope.gush-shalom.org/home/en/channels/avnery

Uri Avnery Demonstrating at a-Ram checkpoint, 2002

 

 

 

Uri Avnery Demonstrating at a-Ram checkpoint, 2002
Can somebody please explain to me how it happened that Ahmadinejad, first class international buffoon, was given the opportunity to give a speech at the UN conference in Geneva this morning? What is the logic behind such foolishness? Is this bureaucratic thinking at its worse? Some strange flux in the rules that allowed Ahmadinejad to make a mockery out this conference?

I don’t know who deserves the most amount of anger, the UN for allowing this speech to happen, Ahmadinejad for making once again such a fool of himself, or the delegations for walking out of it (if they hadn’t already withdrew before the conference even started) instead of attempting to save the show. I do know though who will be the biggest victims of this travesty: the people this conference was ultimately meant to serve, the people that suffer from racism on a daily basis.
If Ahmadinejad had indeed any concerns for the racism Palestinians suffer at the hands of Israel, he didn’t exactly contribute to their cause, as he has now given Israeli and its allies an excellent opportunity to bail out of a necessary dialogue even more than they already did. Ahmadinejad is a fool, not simply because of his inability to contain his (justifiable) anger at Israel and letting it deteriorate into (unjustifiable) anti-Semitism, but because while doing so he is undermining the cause that he is attempting to address. His speech is exactly what hard lining Israeli need to exacerbate the conflict. Ahmadinejad managed to do the one thing that hard lining Israeli need in order to extenuate their governance through fear.

In my opinion, the rest of the world has only contributed to the hijacking of this by making such a fuss over all this nonsense beforehand and by now walking out on it. They should have stayed and fought over it, with calm and dignity. There is a way that adults who disagree with one another can communicate without creating a circus. This is not the way. I am very disappointed. There is a desperate need for forums where people of different opinions can share those opinions. I am disappointed in all those that have been promoting the demise of the conference, I am disappointed in the way the UN has managed (or rather has not managed) the conference, and I am disappointed in the lack of vision coming from the so called world leaders. Most of all I am disappointed in Obama himself. What is the point of shaking Chavez’s hand and then abstaining from this conference?

I belief that the global economic crisis linked with dissapearing resources and radically different pespectives of East and West, North and South, will only contribute to more racism, xenophobia and antisemitism. The stupid statements of a buffoon or the hurt pride of an Israel should not have been a deterrent to the attempts this conference had made to eliminate all of the above vices. Both Israel and its allies and Iran and its allies will only be more encouraged in its racist beliefs. That the world allowed this spectable to happen is a sad victory of pettiness over wisdom. And maliciousness over good will.

“Norway will not accept that the odd man out hijacks the collective efforts of the many,” Jonas Gahr Store (Norwegian Foreign Minister)

“We all should be mindful that a failure to agree on the way forward would negatively reverberate on the human rights agenda for years to come,” Navanethem Pillay (chairman of the conference)

“After Mr Ahmadinejad’s latest rant against Israel, all the elements are in place for a dangerous escalation”. Richard Beeston

“I fear that today’s economic crisis, if not handled properly, could evolve into a full-scale political crisis marked by social unrest, weakened governments and angry publics who have lost faith in their leaders and their own future, … In such circumstances, the consequences for communities already victimised by prejudice or exclusion could be frightening.Ban Ki Moon

palestineimagesThe story of the Palestinian children’s orchestra (Strings for Peace, see previous blog entry) has kept me occupied. My mind keeps returning to the fact that the Palestinian children had never heard of the Holocaust. We know that Palestinians prefer not to talk about the Holocaust, because they fear that the Holocaust will be used to legitimize their own dispossession. We also know that seeing the other as the victim of something so horrendous would imply seeing the other as human, which people who are at war with each other avoid at all cost. And finally we know that some of the most hateful extremists deny the Holocaust out of pure spite against Israel and the West. However, whole generations growing up alongside Israel’s borders without even the most basic knowledge of this ultimate evil is very scary. The names of the death camps (Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec and Chelmno), should be engraved in the memory of all of us as places where people were send for the sole purpose of being slaughtered by the millions in an industrialized fashion. They have to be engraved in our memories because part of being human is to be aware of the evil we are capable of, and there is no bigger evil than the evil that was committed in these camps. It is the responsibility of all of us to remember and be aware. Not knowing is inexcusable and unacceptable. Palestinians should know first of all because they are human. However, they should also know because they are involved in struggle with the people that were the victim of this. How can one make peace with an enemy one does not understand?

Vice versa, it has also become more clear to me that Israelis don’t understand Palestinians much better. It seems to me that Israelis have settled upon their own version and interpretation of their history in the Arab world and base their policies upon this interpretation. This interpretation often involves the denial of the unique identity of the Palestinians as Palestinians, the denial of the right of the Palestinians to a piece of land that can be the foundation of a sustainable state, and all sorts of opinions on the responsibilities of surrounding Arab nations. There is very little compassion for the circumstances the Palestinians in the occupied territories. On the contrary, these circumstances are often being denied, even the occupation itself is often being denied.

It is hard to understand how Israel and Palestine will be able to make peace with each other without recognizing either the history or the identity of the other. What seems to be desperately lacking in years and years of ‘peace processing’ is some form of openness to the story of the other and the willingness to see each the other as human. Not much dialogue is needed to understand another human being. All that is needed to have empathy is openness, a little imagination, and the capacity to see the other as a human being with the same desires and fears as ourselves. Without compassion for the other, there can be no wisdom, and without wisdom, conflict can never progress into a lasting peace.

In conjunction with all of the above, I have thought about my own problems debating this issue with people that hold different positions from myself. I am wondering whether or not the same problems people face debating this issue on a micro level aren’t exactly the same problems, maybe to different degrees, that occur on a macro level between Israel and Palestine.

A couple of the things I have learned:

1) Anybody entering this conflict narrative should be aware of the fact that this debate is very old and positions have hardened. This does not mean however that emotions have cooled down. On the contrary. When it comes to this conflict, the most reasonable people are capable of the most unreasonable reactions. The fierceness of the debate, combined with the fact that the arguments pro and against are so old, makes it very hard for a ‘novice’ to enter it. There are standard responses for standard criticisms and standard attacks for the same criticisms. More often than not an attack constitutes the response.

2) Trust is very hard to build. One has to remember at all times that one is debating a people that has faced the worst. A people cannot face the worst and comes out of it unscathed. The fear of anti-Semitism is real and justified. So it is important to exercise restraint. This is one of the responses I received by somebody who believes I do not exercise enough restrain in debating Israel:

“Feelings about the Holocaust is something that runs extremely deep in many of us. In me, it’s a gnawing pain. My mother very nearly lost her life and her father did. When you love somebody who experienced such rabid racism first-hand – you kind of get upset when your friends can’t see how hurt you are. Maybe we are too sensitive to criticisms of Israel, but you should try to be a little more sensitive to your friends. You know, bite your tongue from time to time. Realize that however incensed you are by the treatment of the Palestinians, that your friends may get really truly hurt by your opinions.” (Kate)

I am no diplomat. And I have a lot more to learn. My perspectives need to widen. Wisdom doesn’t only come from compassion, but from perspective as well. I hope to be as open as possible to anything that can help me understand something.

HOWEVER,

After one has taken into account a very long history of anti-Semitism culminating in a Holocaust and all the fear and pain associated with this history.

After one has taken into account the long history of the Jewish people in the lands that are being disputed.

After one has taken into account the many contributions of the Jews to our own history and current material prosperity, richness of ideas etc,

After one has reassured as much as one can that the existence of Israel is not at stake, that it should not be at stake, and if it is at stake then the whole world should come to its defense,

And finally, after one has made sure that anti-Semitism is not an option,

One should be able to express that what is happening in the occupied territories is wrong. That a country should not have ‘occupied territories’ to begin with. One can and should argue that all of the above factors make Israel’s predicament understandable. It places it within a context. However, it doesn’t justify anything or even makes it tolerable. Understanding the behavior of a country or being sympathetic to this country does not mean we should tolerate the behavior. In other words, while the past, the present and fears about the future might make the irresponsible behavior of a country comprehensible, it doesn’t make it defensible. The actions of Israel in West bank, Gaza and East-Jerusalem are deeply wrong, to say the least. Israel is to a large extend responsible for the fact that a few million Palestinians are either living as second class citizens within Israel (threatened at the very moment by a foreign minister that wants to expel them) or without any nationality and rights in either refugee camps in other Arab countries or in West bank and Gaza. If Israel itself cannot fix this situation, that it is the responsibility of the rest of the world to intervene. One has to be able to say this much. Silence cannot have the last word, as silence creates complicity.

I keep thinking about the concept of a no-mans-land. There should be a zone where people can exchange stories, thoughts, sentiments and even opinions without being ‘blasted’ viciously by the other. In a land that is claimed by two people, maybe a zone that doesn’t belong to any of them is necessary to make such a dialogue possible.

To end this essay on a happier note. Thinking about the terrible fact that there is so much Holocaust taboo and straight out anti-Semitism in the Arab world, I was browsing the web and found this project: Project Aladin. It is a multilingual website (in Arabic, Persian, French, English, and soon in Turkish) supported by over a 100 muslim intellectuals and a lot of western politicians and thinkers (among them Chirac, Simone Weil, etc) which provides information in a simple fashion on the Holocaust, on the Jews and on the relationship between Jews and Muslims throughout history. Accompanying the website is an online library where members are able to download freely reference books on the Holocaust translated into Arabic and Persian. They include such classics as Anne Frank’s “Diary”, “If This Is a Man” by Primo Levi, “Hitler and the Jews “by the Swiss historian Philippe Burrin, and” Sonderkommando “by Shlomo Venezia. Please check it out. Such initiatives deserve a little attention in a world that seems hell bend on more conflict and more war.

http://www.projetaladin.org/en/homepage.html

 a corny optical illusion (do you see it?) (a corny optical illusion, do you see it?)

The fiasco of the 2001 UN racism conference, and the fiasco in the making that is the follow up racism conference (starting in Geneva on April 20 next week) points to a fundamental difference in perspective between east and west that makes consensus on a draft, meant to provide a framework to governments and NGO’s on how to deal with racism, xenophobia, etc, nearly impossible. There are two main issues that have led countries like the US, Canada, Australia and Israel to abandon the current conference in its preparatory stage. One of them is the attempt of the Islamic world to outlaw defamation of religion, which is being interpreted by the west as an attempt to curb free speech. The second problem is a focus of the Islamic countries on Israel’s policies in its occupied territories which comes across to non-Islamic countries as an anti-Semitic singling out of Israel, which of course undermines the purpose of the conference to begin with. Both issues have led to self-righteous outrage on all sides, but especially on the side of western counties, which either withdrew from the conference or threatened to withdraw, thereby ironically reinforcing the need for such a conference. Though self-righteous anger and uttering accusations back and forth is a lot of fun, one has to look beyond them if one believes intolerance is on the rise and a global conference could help. And I happen to belief that now more than ever there is a need for such a conference. From the treatment of illegal immigrants as criminals here in the US, the problems with gay marriage, gripes in Europe towards Muslims, and anti-Semitic and anti-Christian attitudes in the Arab world, it seems that the whole world could use an extra dosage of tolerance.

 So what is the underlying problem?

 It seems to me but I could be wrong, that east-west tensions are rooted in an inability to grasp each other’s fundamentally different perspective. Not being aware of how different our outlooks on life are, we assume the other thinks likes us and therefore behaves and more importantly misbehaves like us. And we judge the other the way we judge ourselves. However, east and west do no think the same. There is a radical difference. East and west have very different opinions as to what constitutes the center of our world. For the east that center is God, for the west it is the individual. God used to be our center too, but somewhere in history’s dark recesses we lost this insight and replaced it with a completely new emphasis on the individual. Hence the rise of democracy, human rights, tattoos and rock and roll. Once the perspective shifts, it is no longer possible to go back and remember what we once knew. It is like one of thoface-black-and-white-optical-illusion1se optical illusions in which it is not possible to go back. God has not completely disappeared in the west, but the structure in which God (or the idea of God) and the individual (or the idea of the individual) coexists has changed fundamentally. Such a Copernican shift in consciousness did not occur in the Arab world. God still inhabits his old place in the center of the universe. For the Muslim God is his meaning that permeates his daily life. I do not know which perspective is better. I prefer mine. But I am sure the Muslims will say the same. However, it think it is important to keep in mind what fuels a lot of disagreements. While we want to protect the individual from being persecuted for speaking his mind, an eastern mind wants to protect God from the blasphemies of the individual. While we want to make women equal to men and outlaw headscarves because they are symbol of submission, the Muslim women might want to dedicate her scarf to God. The capitals of Europe are the battlefields on which the perspective wars are taking place. Probably the most important battlefield at the moment however is Israel, where east has been meeting west for decades now in a confrontation of titanic proportions. I believe that this might be the main reason for the ‘singling out’ of Israel by the Arab world. It is the only battlefield in which the east can make itself heard, especially on an occasion such as the racism conference, where all our best values are being discussed. While we may not be able to see the world from the perspective of the other at this moment in history, we can keep in mind that these differences exist. And that the other values his perspective the same way we value ours. This does not solve anything practically. I do not know whether girls should be allowed to wear headscarves in public schools or whether religion should be constitutionally protected. However, keeping these different perspectives in mind may prevent us from accusing each other of ill will, racism, anti-Semitism etc for nothing. Especially on a conference that is meant to out root such evils. From where I stand, and believing that individuals shouldn’t suffer racism etc, having such conferences is always better than not having them. There are too many places in the world where certain people are not tolerated. The more countries that participate in this conference the better. Especially if those countries have a bad track record themselves.

 In other words, to talk is always better than not to talk. In fact we can’t afford not to talk. A conference offers such an opportunity for dialogue. After all, these are not peace negotiations in which swaps of land are at stake. We have nothing to loose except our pride. Walking away from it is to acknowledge the defeat of all that is decent in us. It is the victory of our worst instincts over our capacity for wisdom and patience. It is allowing our ego and our pride to feel insulted, ignored and hurt at the expense of all those who really suffer because of racism, xenophobia, homophobia etc. We have to remember that besides the Individual and besides God, there is the Other for whom we created this conference. And we have to remember that the only alternative to dialogue to solve our differences is violence. And except for those few that thrive on conflict and war, nobody wants to send their sons to war.

 Ending on a good note. After the US made its decision to withdraw from the conference, the preparatory committee took out all references to the defamation of religion and Israel out of the draft paper. Susan Rice, ambassador to the UN is pushing for the US to participate. I am thinking, isn’t this exactly why we voted Obama into office? So what is he waiting for?

 

Link to the UN Dunbar Review Conference: http://www.un.org/durbanreview2009/stmt06-04-09.shtml

 Link to info about Navanethem Pillay, South African president of the conference:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Navanethem_Pillay 

  Link to optical illusions website (just for fun): http://www.newopticalillusions.com/3d-optical-illusion/two-faces-illusion/