Gaza, Israel and the Memory of Edward Said

for the martyrs, Kassab and Ibrahim Shurrab

for the suffering, Mohammed Shurrab and his family

and for the future, Amer Shurrab, Adriana Qubaia, Mahmoud and Nisreen

Our world today is evidence that those who profess to speak for God or Allah or a personal Other focused on a single, supreme nature-transcending will have unequivocally erased this almighty power’s truths, a core reality found in Christianity, Islam and Judaism–humility, compassion and love.

At approximately 1PM on Friday the 16th, Mohammed Shurrab (60) and his two sons, Kassab , age 28 , and Ibrahim , age 18, fleeing the family farm in the village of Fukhari, southeast of Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip, were struck by a hail of bullets from a group of Israeli soldiers in a house about thirty yards away, according to Yasser Ahmad and Ashraf Khalil of the Los Angeles Times. (see also Day 22)

The Israelis issued a statement: “Given the difficult combat circumstances, complex battles and fighting in urban settings, uninvolved civilians are unfortunately exposed to danger.”

Kassab died after staggering out of their Land Rover. He lay on the street for 20 hours. Ibrahim bled to death waiting for help.  Mohammed, a desperate father, could do nothing as his cell phone battery died. In the face of great suffering, no one had the compassion to assist the wounded, the suffering. Thus is war. Thus is violence.

Some of us learned of this tragedy by email because Mohammed’s other son, Amer,  is a Middlebury College graduate, ‘08.5. The original email was followed by a desperate string, anguished and outraged, and a Shurrab Family Group quickly formed on Facebook. We could do nothing.

I sat in my living room staring out at the gusts of snow. It was gray and freezing and the wind blew hard. I felt totally useless and alone. I thought of my three sons and what I might do should I ever be called the way Mohammed Shurrab has been–and I wept. I was paralyzed by the events in Gaza and the violence in our world.

I longed for the humane voice of Edward Said, how he is always able to make sense of things like this. I pulled him off my bookshelf, something I do frequently with some writers dear to me because they go head first into matters of the heart.

We find ourselves in the era of mass societies that dominate by “a powerfully centralizing culture and a complex incorporative economy,” says the remarkable Edward Said in his “Movement and Migrations” chapter in Culture and Imperialism. In 1993, following the French urban sociologist Paul Virilio, Said suggested that this form of domination is unstable. Powerfully centralizing cultures and complex incorporative economies are unstable and create instability everywhere. Yet instability is believed to be a means to an end, the control of economies, resources and production.

The fundamental premise of terrorism, also instability, is likewise the foundation of mass societies. They feed each other–and there is no end in sight. Make no mistake, Hamas will survive, this is already clear.

“Israel has succeeded in killing everything except the will of the people,” said Taher al-Nunu, the main (Hamas) government spokesman. “They said they were going to dismantle the resistance and demolish the rockets, but after this historic victory, the government is steadfast, we are working and they were not able to stop the rockets.”

“I think Hamas is stronger now and will be stronger in the future because of this war,” said Eyad el-Sarraj, a psychiatrist here who is an opponent of Hamas. “This war has deepened the people’s feeling that it is impossible to have peace with Israel, a country that promotes death and destruction.”

Iraq, Afghanistan, the global deterioration of economies and the tragic horror that is Gaza’s occupation by Israel all point to the notion that “insecurity induced by mounting crises” leads to destruction, violence and war. The innocent die, wounds fester, hatred builds. “Insecurity induced by mounting crises” builds identities reliant on an Other who is hostile.

Israel’s identity is defined by having scripted the ideals of freedom and justice for Western civilization, yet Jews now find themselves withholding these rights–for security reasons, forced to withhold them, many Jews believe–from Palestinians.

Hamas and Hezbollah have identities defined as the maligned Other, even the absent Other that is always already determined by armed aggression. Tragically and ironically, the Prophet Mohammed–and the Qur’an–teach respect for the world’s incontrovertible order, preaching a message that is intensely democratic. The Prophet, “The True,” “The Upright,” and “The Trustworthy One,” withstood severe criticism and ridicule, relentless persecution, and physical abuse and incarceration, and insisted that in the sight of Allah all people are equal.

We are in the era of mass disintegration. Israel’s occupation of Gaza is an example–and hopefully a last breath–of a global pattern attempting to occupy and inhabit all “normally uninhabitable,” the institutions integral to a culture–“hospitals, universities, theatres, factories, churches, empty buildings”; in essence, the occupation of language, speech, consciousness. (The first instance or example is the Presidency of George W. Bush, especially his first election; the second is 9/11 and the repression of Afghanistan; and the Third is Israel’s occupation of Gaza.) Israel’s occupation of Gaza is modern colonization, the “central militaristic prerogative” of mass societies. And the media accommodates, as it has in Iraq.

The alternative to state aggression is a liberation of speech in critical spaces, the integral institutions, and represented by contemporary movements “as a consequence of decolonization (migrant workers, refugees, Gastarbeiter) or of major demographic and political shifts (Blacks, immigrants, urban squatters, students, popular insurrections, etc.). These constitute a real alternative to the authority of the state.” One of the most impressive “crowd-activated” sites is the Israeli-occupied territories of Palestine. This is why Hamas and Hezbullah will thrive. We approach difference and tensions with aggression, where the opposite approach is calling out. We can hear the screams of the suffering, the innocent buried in rubble, bodies decomposing. Our inhumanity is extraordinary.

At least in Gaza, right now, Hamas represents something unique, a “freedom” from the usual “exchange”; that is, Hamas represents a firm antidote to Israeli domination. Israel’s Gaza operation is not meant to stop Hamas’s rockets; it’s meant to shore up a doctrine on which Israel thinks its safety must be still based–immediate response to any signs of a punitive raid, by Hezbullah or Hamas, armed by Iran.

“Those people compelled by the system to play subordinate or imprisoning roles within it emerge as conscious antagonists, disrupting it, proposing claims, advancing arguments that dispute the totalitarian compulsions of the world market,” says Said. “Not everything can be bought off.” This is the war cry of Islamic Fundamentalism, a notion that has fallen on deaf ears. At the heart of Islam–the Prophet Mohammed is the example–is resistance to threats to its existence, even expansion (see: The World’s Fastest Growing Religions)

The problem is that we in the post-modern West fail to understand that in many parts of the world–Iraq and Iran, Afghanistan, some parts of the Arab world and Africa–people, governments and religious leaders are still trying to come to terms with Modernity. There are people and cultures in the world struggling with a singular notion, how are we to modernize?

“The major task, then, is to match the new economic and sociopolitical dislocations and configurations of our time with the startling realities of human interdependence on a world scale,” says Said.

Christianity, Islam and Judaism are interrelated, philosophically and geographically. We have to begin here, in this singular fact.

Islam is derived from the root s-l-m, which means primarily “peace” but in a secondary meaning, “surrender”; its full connotation is “the peace that comes when one’s life is surrendered to God,” that is a surrender to the totality that are humility, compassion and love. Adherence to humility, compassion and love enables creative and virtuous actions. We can’t have peace without this.

Judaism affirms the world’s goodness, arriving at that conclusion through its assumption that God created it. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1) and pronounced it to be good. Judaism is a faith of a people, and one of its features is faith in a people–in the significance of the role the Jews have played and will play in human history. This faith calls for the preservation of the identity of the Jews as a distinct people.

The only way to make sense of Christianity–and to make sense of Jesus’ extraordinary admonitions as to how people should live–is to see them as cut from the understanding of the God who loves human beings absolutely, without pausing to calculate their worth or due. We are to give others our cloak as well as our coat if they need it. Because God has given us what we need. We are to go with others the second mile.

Humility, compassion and love–Islam, Judaism and Christianity are one in these principles.

But given the hostile conditions of our world, we can only seek–and find–these principles in the margins, in the shadows, in-between boundaries and lines of demarcation that are always already blurred, stretched, even erased, for better and for worse.

Says Said, reminding us,

Yet it is no exaggeration to say that liberation as an intellectual mission, born in the resistance and opposition to the confinements and ravages of imperialism, has now shifted from the settled, established, and domesticated dynamics of culture to its unhoused, decentered, and exilic energies, energies whose incarceration today is the migrant, and whose consciousness is that of the intellectual and artist in exile, the political figure between domains, between forms, between homes, and between languages. From this perspective then all things are indeed counter, original, spare, strange. From this perspective also, one can see ‘the complete consort dancing together’ contrapuntally.

Historically then it’s not surprising that a new era is upon us, a new stage marked by the inauguration of a Black man of mixed race–and who has come to be following the compelling history of a movement totally dependent upon non-violent resignation and protest. President Barack Obama offers “something unique” and “even against his will,” represents “freedom [from the age old forms] of exchange.”

People forced to play subordinate roles always emerge “as conscious antagonists, disrupting it, proposing claims, advancing arguments that dispute totalitarian compulsions.” Barack Obama represents this historical reality.  There is no other way to look at it.  This is why in the last week or so there has been such an uncomprimising allegiance to history. Today, we finally have soul in the White House.

Israel’s occupation of Gaza–and Hamas’ and Hezbollah’s, as well as Iran’s, hostilities–represent an anti-historical approach based on the violent dislocation of language, speech and consciousness. This has always failed.

Enough. Enough is enough! We can suffer no more like this. Let’s then join Karen Armstrong and sign a Charter for Compassion instead and help make religion a force for harmony.

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