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Et Tu, Elie?
Published on Wednesday, May 15, 2002 by
Et Tu, Elie?
by Brandon Keim

The first casualty of the conflict in Israel and Palestine, and perhaps in the end a loss greater than that of life and property, has been objectivity. Far too few commentators have tried to steer through the storms of warring propaganda make it so difficult to simply understand the situation, much less conceive of a peaceful solution.

An open letter from Elie Wiesel to President Bush in the May 7 New York Times is a characteristic example. Mr. Wiesel, an acclaimed Holocaust author and Nobel Peace Prize winner, displays the reflexive bias and determined absence of self-examination rampant among those who sympathize with the Israeli 'cause'. Such tendencies are also common on the Palestinian side; but the immorality of suicide bombing apologists is well documented, and poses less of a long-term threat to peace than the single-mindedness of Israel's leaders and their American allies.

Mr. Wiesel begins by urging Bush to remember that "a majority of Israelis favor a Palestinian State alongside Israel if the terror is stopped, whereas a majority of Palestinians including Yasir Arafat support suicide killing operations against Israel." The imbalance of this statement is obvious. Whereas Israeli sentiment is qualified -- "if the terror is stopped" -- the Palestinians are given no such consideration. A fair treatment would measure Palestinian support for suicide bombing if occupation were ended and a viable, independent Palestine established. Perhaps support would exist even under these conditions, in which case Wiesel would be justified in saying so -- but to imply that pro-terror sentiments are unconditional is dishonest.

"Please remember that while Palestinian terrorists were hiding explosives in ambulances," Mr. Wiesel continues, "Israeli reservists in Jenin were taking up collections out of their own funds to repay Palestinian families for the damage done to their homes."

Structural bias is replaced by linguistic: the subtle inflection of 'reservists' rather than 'soldiers.' The distinction is irrelevant here; whether part-time or professional, citizens who bear arms for their nation's military are soldiers. To call them by another, gentler name is misleading. Conversely, Mr. Wiesel fails to make a distinction that is necessary: 'the damage done to their homes.' 'Damage' can be used to describe a broken window as easily as a flattened building.

One need not be be impartial to be objective. Wherever our sympathies lie, when referring to Jenin, the word we should use is 'destruction.'

As for those 'reservists' passing the hat for freshly 'displaced' Palestinian families -- what fiscal compensation can they provide for the supposedly inadvertent loss of innocent life that Israel claims did not happen, yet forbids the investigation of. If Mr. Wiesel is going to mention the conscientious benevolence of reservists, he should also acknowledge those who have chosen incarceration over service in the occupied territories. While the maps on Arafat's uniform indeed depict "a Palestine encompassing not only the West Bank but the whole of Israel," there are many Israelis whose conception of Israel includes what is now Palestine.

Most disturbing is the presence in Mr. Wiesel's letter of a germ of the most abhorrent of all beliefs -- the idea that, somehow, the lives of one people are more valuable than those of another.

"Please remember Danielle Shefi, a little girl in Israel," Mr. Wiesel writes. "When the murderers came, she hid under her bed. Palestinian gunmen bound and killed her anyway. Think of all the other victims of terror in the Holy Land. With rare exceptions, the targets were young people, children, and families."

Indeed, we should remember the death of Danielle Shefi -- just as we should remember all who have died in this miserable conflict, Israeli and Palestinian alike. It is wrong to make one death a symbol of the violence, and to assign terror solely to one side. When condemning those Palestinian terrorists who have targeted the young, so too should we condemn the similar behavior of Israeli soldiers, described with terrible eloquence by Chris Hedges' in "A Gaza Diary":

Children have been shot in other conflicts I have covered -- death squads gunned them down in El Salvador and Guatemala, mothers with infants were lined up and massacred in Algeria, and Serb snipers put children in their sights and watched them crumple onto the pavement in Sarajevo -- but I have never before watched soldiers entice children like mice into a trap and murder them for sport.

It is not only Israel which has lost "too many sons and daughters, mothers and fathers" -- and neither has Israel been alone in learning to "trust its enemies threats more than the empty promises of 'neutral' governments.'"

Mr. Wiesel suggests that, now more than ever, Israel should be trusted to chart the course of peace in the Holy Land. He calls Ariel Sharon a "military man who knows the ugly face of war better than anyone," an unintentionally apt description -- for Mr. Sharon is the ugly face of war, as survivors of massacres in the refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila will attest.

This is not to suggest that the responsibility of negotiating peace should fall principally to Yasser Arafat and the current PLO leadership. While he is not "Osama bin Laden with better P.R.," in the words of the apocalyptically hawkish former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Arafat's sponsorship of terrorism can hardly be doubted. Israel's distrust is wholly justified -- but to imagine that Yasser Arafat is the dark heart of terrorism, that it would end with his removal, is an act of willful and self-destructive blindness.

Nevertheless, political reality dictates that both Sharon and Arafat will have to play some part in negotiating peace. Sharon's staggeringly myopic military offensives have unified Palestinian support for Arafat; in less than a year he has been transformed from a corrupt politician to a people's champion who will be honored as either a hero or a martyr. Meanwhile, the latest wave of terror has swelled the ranks of Israelis who -- like Netanyahu -- advocate the total annihilation of Palestine. Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat may end up as two of the strangest bedfellows ever created by politics.

Whatever happens, we hopefully will see an end to the odious practice of describing either Arafat or Sharon as a beleaguered but noble leader, with his his opposite a soulless terror. Both are covered in the blood of innocents, and should be brought to justice as soon as circumstances permit.

Mr. Wiesel's letter concludes by reminding President Bush that "American Jews share your moral outrage at international terrorism as well as your determination to defend democratic ideals and religious freedom in the world." This is simply another way of saying that the Jewish vote is important to Bush's chances for re-election -- and it is utterly deplorable. Up to this point, Mr. Wiesel's appeals were at least grounded in morality. Making peace in the Holy Land a matter of political expediency is profoundly wrong. Whatever solution is found, it should be motivated by a love of life -- not the desire for power.

To see someone so great resorting to such shameless maneuvering is disheartening. Were Elie Wiesel a mere politician or pundit, his posturing would expected -- but to many he is a symbol of peace, almost a saint. Rather than appealing in the name of democracy and freedom to a President for whom those words mean so little, one hopes that Mr. Wiesel would speak honestly against all terror, be it sponsored by Palestine or Israel, Saudi Arabia or America.

Perhaps, given the primal emotions stirred by the conflict, and the disturbing rise of anti-semitism in Western Europe and the Arab world, it is too much to expect that Mr. Wiesel -- himself a survivor of Nazi concentration camps -- not revert to tribalism. But even if Mr. Wiesel is not capable in this situation of maintaining the strength of his convictions, the world can still heed his words: "When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant."

Until Jews and Arabs, the international community and its media, accept the impossibility of military solutions and approach Israel and Palestine objectively and without prejudice, there will be no peace.

Brandon Keim is a freelance writer & graphic designer, born in Maine, currently residing in Boston.


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