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Monday, July 04, 2005

It's the names that hurt me!

What the hell has gotten into people that would make them think for one moment that just because they are condemning inexcusable actions it is somehow OK to use inexcusable words?!

I'm not talking about inarticulate dolts who have no choice but to express their rage in its rawest form... without regard to the potential consequences.  No, I'm referring to some of the best educated and most well-spoken/written members of our society.

Up until recently I have been fairly impressed with the media in general, and bloggers in particular, for their collective restraint in conveying their political agendas (yes, even the media has a carefully-crafted political agenda) without crossing the line into libel and incitement.

But I get the sense that all bets are now off... and no quarter is being asked or offered now that the disengagement is upon us.

Perhaps the blame rests with the heat of the Israeli summer as the showdown over disengagement begins in earnest... or perhaps we simply tend to be at our worst when engaging in 'family' screaming matches.  But whatever the reason, it is shaking my faith in our collective humanity.

When misguided teenagers pour oil and nails on a busy highway, they are setting events in motion that could certainly cause damage to property, and quite possibly lead to injury... or even loss of life.  But to call these misguided people terrorists is to suggest that their primary intention was to maim and kill in order to further their agenda... and that is not only grossly unfair, but it is patently untrue. 

Do people who spread oil and nails on a highway deserve to be locked away for a long, long time (not to mention be required pay severe reparations for any damage or injury they may have caused)?  Absolutely.  But to use the word terrorist to describe them is to intentionally dilute the word terrorist. 

We have so few meaningful words to describe people who deliberately set out to inflict as much bodily harm and death as as possible.  We rant and rave when reporters insists upon calling them 'militants' and 'insurgents' and 'infiltrator's'... anything but terrorists.  Why the hell would we voluntarily devalue one of the few remaining words that accurately describes a person whose primary goal is indiscriminate politically/racially-motivated murder?

I honestly don't know what the world is coming to when an otherwise thoughtful, humanist blogger commenting on the 'oil & nails incident' suggests that the parents of these teenagers should be sent to reeducation camps!  I almost wept when I read that.  I have seen with my own eyes (up close and personal, as the saying goes), what kind of horrible scars are left by the 'instructors' in such camps; the cigarette burns... the caning scars... the missing finger/toenails... the poorly set bones... the broken and missing teeth.  Worst of all I have seen the broken spirits that have somehow managed to survive the brutality of the 'reeducation' process.  That a thoughtful, caring woman with impeccable humanist credentials could suggest such a thing, even in jest (and there was no indication that it was a joke), made me wonder if there was anything good and decent left in the world.

I physically flinch every time I hear anyone from either political or religious extreme glibly tossing around 'N' bombs (meaning n*zi, not n*gger).  How dare they water down the terrifying force that remains in that word?  How can we expect the world to take notice of our pleas of 'Never Again' when we invoke the ultimate bogeyman any time we feel like insulting someone whose views we find in conflict with our own?

When the Histadrut blocks highways with people and burning tires to add emphasis to national strikes, there is much hand-wringing and many impassioned editorials about the effectiveness of the tactic. 

But when those who oppose the disengagement block highways with people and burning tires (I'm not talking about oil and nails here), the Walla web portal (owned by the left-leaning Ha'aretz) publishes an editorial calling for "large groups of people go to the Ayalon highway [in Tel Aviv] with heavy chains…or plain fists" to assault road block protesters.  It also suggests throwing gasoline on anti-evacuation demonstrators and "fixing" their windows and headlights. There was also the helpful suggestion that if police were to question them about breaking the windows of cars with orange ribbons, they should answer that they thought they saw a baby locked in the car.

There is simply no way a reasonable person could read those words and not understand that it is calling for violence and possibly murder.  In fact there were several incidents on the Ayalon during demonstrations where people wielding chains seemed to be acting in direct response to that editorial.

The same can be said of refusal. 

Each side sees its own refusers as heroes of conscience, and the soldiers who refuse from the other side as traitors.  Rather than concentrating on the only real issue of what constitutes an illegal order (the only kind a soldier is allowed to refuse), both sides seem quite content to set aside such litmus tests in order to escalate the name-calling. 

Each side accuses the other of indoctrinating its children with hatred, yet they fail to listen to the hateful words and messages coming from their own mouths. 

The secular left accuses the religious right of teaching its children that "the other side is dominated by goy-appeasing, dati-hating, acculturated lefties who are prepared to make idiotic withdrawals on other people's backs out of pure spite."

The religious right accuses the secular left of encouraging its children to view the them as being "dominated by nut cases who will never agree even to obviously-beneficial retreats because they are in the grip of a messianic ideology that includes the certainty that they have the map of the geulah in their shirt pockets and all the streets on it are one-way."

[both of the excellent quotes in the two paragraphs above were crafted by my friend Ben Chorin in this well-written post]

If one were of a mind to assign blame, the growing distance between the two sides could, by itself, be a likely culprit.  By this I mean that if you don't have occasion to actually meet and exchange ideas with someone it becomes child's play to paint them as some sort of monster... and then actually start to believe it. 

However, I don't think this is all there is to it.

The very tactic that makes it psychologically possible for soldiers in the field to kill another human being is being deliberately employed in political and religious debates.  By this I mean that both sides are actively indoctrinating their children and teenagers to stop viewing the other side as human, and to start seeing them simply as 'the enemy'.  Once that transition is complete, no rumor or suspicion is beyond plausibility, and no act of sabotage or violence is beyond the pale.

A friend of mine forwarded a link to a video taken by a bystander during last week's opening salvo in the disengagement.  The video showed a group of Israeli policemen handcuffing an anti-withdrawal demonstrator .  Once the demonstrator was completely immobilized, one of the policemen deliberately reached his fingers up the bound man's nostrils and pulled sharply upwards... nearly tearing the man's nose off.  What did this policeman's parents teach him about the monsters on the other side of the divide to make such a horrible (and clearly well-rehearsed) action possible? 

I won't paint myself as some sort of angel.  When I hear people attacking me  because I happen to feel differently than they do (or perhaps because I sometimes don't know what to feel), I get defensive.  Instead of a Jew or an Israeli I see only an opponent and I want to defeat him/her and make them agree with me at any cost. 

This is human nature at its most basic.  44 years of living have not dulled this instinct in me one bit, and it is only through tremendous effort that I am able to keep my ugly feelings hidden from view until they have had time to either mature or dissolve.

As a thinking, feeling human being living in a liberal democracy I hate having to confront such feelings on a daily basis.  The only reason you don't read more of them here is that, while I allow myself to write while I am angry, I try very hard not to publish under the influence of such strong emotions.

Which brings us (finally) to the point of this rant.

One can (almost) be forgiven for saying terrible things out loud in the heat of an argument.  But I would hope that when putting pen to paper (even in the virtual sense of blogging /writing for publication) there is ample opportunity to look back over what has just been written, and be critical enough to see the damage our words can do.

In these emotionally fragile times, the carnage that can be wrought by careless name-calling is every bit as devastating as that inflicted by well-thrown sticks or stones.

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Posted by David Bogner on July 4, 2005 | Permalink

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Everything you're saying is obviously true - and hopefully should be self-evident (but often isn't.)

The one corrolary I would add - even if you are called an improper label, that doesn't mean that you can or should reply in kind. It's never too late to stop the escalation that these kind of debates often devolve into.

Simply watch the show Politica (formerly Popolitica) to see how bad things can get...

Posted by: Dave | Jul 4, 2005 3:47:04 PM

Very insightful.

I think that this represents one of the major challenges that we face as bloggers, in that we have the ability to instatnly post our thoughts, and depending how succesful our blogs our, have them reach many, many people...

Jewish history is replete with tragedies that resulted from mere words being spoken (see the last 2 weekly Torah portions)...

Hopefully, we can learn our lessons so we don't repeat the same mistakes.

Posted by: Ze'ev | Jul 4, 2005 4:08:32 PM

Wow, David it sounds like things are getting kind of crazy (or is it simply getting *crazier*?). Your advice is wise, even if difficult to follow at times.

I've never heard of 'reeducation camps'... sounds spooky and prone to misuse.

Posted by: Steve Bogner | Jul 4, 2005 4:10:56 PM

things are getting a little hot here lately. it's been interesting for my pretty Americanized kids to be seeing it up close. lots of roadblocks in the area where we're staying.

Posted by: timna | Jul 4, 2005 4:50:53 PM

Well said. I couldn't agree with you more.

I have personally made a real effort to ensure that I use concilatory language when addressing this issue. I think maintaining unity within our society - as fragile as it is at the moment - is of paramount importance.

Posted by: Dave | Jul 4, 2005 5:23:28 PM

Wow. I'm embarrassed to admit I committed the same sin. I had no idea how bad things were. I hadn't read about the oil and nails incident or that cops (or, hopefully, just a single cop) were using intentional unnecessary violence.

I wrote about the recent protests in Jerusalem and the raid on the Gaza hotel to remove the protesters that had barricaded themselves inside. I said that I wanted the anti-disengagement protests to stay non-violent, and, in my anger, threatened to beat up (using less polite words) any protester that causes a cop or soldier to get injured. I, of course, had no intention of flying to Israel to carry out my threat, but my words were entirely inappropriate. An anonymous commenter called me on it and I apologized.

If the situation makes me, a typically dispassionate guy living in California, loose my cool, then I have no idea what it must be like over there.

I pray both sides start thinking not just in terms of what happens this summer, but what will be left in the Fall.

And thanks for the rebuke. I know you didn't intend it for me, but I deserved it.

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Jul 4, 2005 5:41:45 PM

"I pray both sides start thinking not just in terms of what happens this summer, but what will be left in the Fall."

I strongly agree. And would add "and later".

The whole disengagement situation is a nightmare.

Posted by: Sandra | Jul 4, 2005 7:02:33 PM

It hurts so much to read how bad things have become between the two sides. I had heard about the abuse and injustice done to these youths and the labels put upon them, but I guess I took them as mostly rantings from people who tend to be too much on the "right." Israel is tearing itself apart from the inside out and it's enemies are probably rejoicing over it.

I totally agree with you with the misuse of the word terrorists. Excuse me as I go off on a tangent, but as someone who sympathises with environmental activists and their many forms of protest, it's sickening to hear the words "eco-terrorist" applied to those whose methods may not be the appropriate action to take and yes, may hurt those in power financially, but to label them and punish them as such is another injustice to the real meaning of a "terrorist."

Posted by: ginger | Jul 4, 2005 7:39:41 PM

Words do hurt. The "sticks and stones" rhyme is simply untrue.

I look around at what is going on and feel despair.

Posted by: Rahel | Jul 4, 2005 8:19:52 PM

It is a scary time and it is important to maintain some perspective, but it is much easier said than done.

People are frightened and their actions show it, not a lot of rational thoughts being tossed around right now.

Posted by: Jack | Jul 4, 2005 10:26:00 PM

Dave... True, one sort of name calling doesn't justify another. However, the look on Israeli's faces when I call them a 'doody head' is priceless! :-)

Ze'ev... I agree completely. There are also several times in Jewish history when the Jewish nation was divided against itself and none of them ended well. It seems we really don't take much form history.

Steve... Vietnam, Cambodia and the former Soviet Union had a horrible history with reeducation. It was a polite term that covered organized torture, brainwashing and frequently murder.

Timna... I'm a grown up (theoretically) and I can't get used to it. On top of that, I drive past the spot where those two boys were killed a couple of weeks ago so my commute is just full of shocks.

Dave... the problem is that some times conciliatory language is perceived as weakness. No answers here for that one.

Doctor Bean... I certainly wasn't talking about you, but if I've made anyone take a second look at the language they use then I'm glad I went against my first instinct to delete this post.

Sandra... That is one of the many things that worries me. When family members fight they tend to pull some punches because there are certain things that can't be unsaid. Here in Israel nobody is pulling punches anymore, and if there is some kind of rapprochement in the fall, there will certainly also be wounds that will be taken to the grave.

Ginger... Just like in high school... all it took to turn a girl into a slut in the eyes of the student body was to call her one. When we use these terrible terms to describe one another, the entire world looks on and believes it.

Rahel... Me too.

Jack... I'd actually be happy if people were scared. Scared people hunker down and make the hard decisions for survival. What I'm seeing are people who are acting like nothing bad can come of their actions (and reactions).

Posted by: David | Jul 4, 2005 11:11:28 PM

Jack... I'd actually be happy if people were scared. Scared people hunker down and make the hard decisions for survival. What I'm seeing are people who are acting like nothing bad can come of their actions (and reactions).

You are talking about scared and logical behavior. I distinguish between scared and frightened the way I do between listening and hearing.

Point being that one deals with logic and the other does not. And when you are not thinking about the consequences you are in a world of danger.

Posted by: Jack | Jul 5, 2005 1:44:04 AM

Jack makes a wonderful point, and the allusion to hearing vs. listening is an astute commentary on the situation! The rising hysteria is due largely, IMHO, to the fact that each side seems to have (momentarily, we can only hope) lost the ability to hear each other's side and to remember that while we may disagree on the methodolgy, that ultimately we want the same things: PEACE and a stable economy.

My heart is truly rent with the pain if watching both sides in this awful reality. Woe is us that our citizens could ever consider to lift a hand against those whose service for our country requires them to daily put themselves in harm's way. Likewise, woe is us whose governmental policy pitches soldier against civilian, and uses a force whose sole purpose should be defensive in such a truly offensive manner (and YES! pun intended).

Our enemies seek to destroy us. Of this there is no secret. How happy must they be now....

Posted by: zahava | Jul 5, 2005 3:54:31 PM

Our enemies seek to destroy us. Of this there is no secret. How happy must they be now....

Zahava,

Our enemies also seem to have a knack for viewing us all as "evil geniuses" so I am in some ways less concerned, or maybe that is just being naive.

But if you read their press we seem to be capable of amazing feats of strength and ingenuity. In fact the thing that makes me shake my head is that in some ways when I read stories about what they say we did I wonder why they even try to fight because we are given almost supernatural powers.

Posted by: Jack | Jul 5, 2005 4:21:48 PM

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