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Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Calling it an apple doesn't make it one

[Zahava weighs in with a guest post]

So the news..... Argh!....  is not good. (Is it ever?!)

For the past week, as the "peace flotilla" made their preparations and neared our shores, the foreign politicians and media have been doing their best to ensure that no matter what happened when Israel intercepted the flotilla, there would be a receptive audience of sharks gathered when the blood hit the water.

I don't think anyone who keeps up with the news is particularly shocked by the way things turned out or how they have been reported. On the contrary, I think that to some degree most people have been waiting -- some with no small amount of dread -- for these exact events to unfold.

What is, however, truly amazing to me -- is the insistence that the passengers aboard the flotilla were peace activists and that we are meant to accept/believe that they were simply exercising their rights to civil disobedience in a public place, and that we should be outraged by the use of force against them.

There exists a well-documented history of civil disobedience in world history. I am by no means a scholar of history, but it seems to me that Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would both be horrified by the hijacking of the terminology to describe their non-violent methodologies to affect social and political change to describe a well-planned-and-executed operation which culminated in the protesters bearing arms.

When I was a student, my teachers taught us that what precisely was so powerful about both Gandhi and Dr. King was that even in the face of violence being employed against their followers, the violence was not returned. The public quickly grew sick from seeing peaceful, unarmed participants -- many of whom were youths -- being indiscriminately beaten without there having been violent provocation toward their attackers. It was the resolute maintenance of non-violence on the part of the protesters which caused the public to become involved in the issues and to democratically institute change.

Peace activists BY DEFINITION do NOT bear arms and utilize them against others. FULL STOP.

Civil disobedience only deserves the name when violence is not employed by the individuals engaging in the protest/demonstration.

“Peace activists” aboard a ship who attack military personnel as they are boarding a blockade runner are not engaged in peaceful protest — they are engaged in offensive combat. 

If we -- and by "we" I mean any person capable of distinguishing between "black" and "white" regardless of our political affinities -- tolerate such misuse of language to describe the passengers of this flotilla, then we make it impossible to have meaningful discussion because we will have stripped important -- and formerly potent -- words of their meaning.

If we allow it to persist, the asymmetrical application of language will lead us to anarchy. If we allow the definition of a peace activist to change from "one who refrains from violence" to "one who refrains from violence except when...", then we create a situation with limitless opportunities to continually modify language to suit the needs and political sympathies of the speaker, and we simultaneously erode the possibility of achieving understanding and agreement.

Our society has evolved to the point that we expect and demand a certain amount of honesty from the entities which sell us things; we call it 'truth in advertising'. While it is true that this has resulted in the shifting of some of the responsibility of representing truth to those in the business of marketing it, it doesn't completely absolve us of the responsibility to question the validity of the claims we are hearing and reading.

Let's not collectively surrender our ability to call things by their correct name.  You can't very well compare apples to apples unless everyone can agree on what an apple is... and is not.

Posted by David Bogner on June 2, 2010 | Permalink


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Preaching to the choir, my friend. I think anyone around the world with half a brain has now conceded that they were anything but peaceful. Unfortunately many of our enemies around the world are lacking even that.

Posted by: Benji Lovitt | Jun 2, 2010 2:11:05 PM

Not to suggest that you are one of the half-brained people....I know you are operating at full strength.
: )

Posted by: Benji Lovitt | Jun 2, 2010 2:11:43 PM

I'm sure you know I agree with you 150%. I need to point out a difficulty with just one sentence of yours, though:
"If we allow the definition of a peace activist to change from 'one who refrains from violence' to 'one who refrains from violence except when...', then we create a situation with limitless opportunities to continually modify language to suit the needs and political sympathies of the speaker..."

In the fluid nature of reality, we need to be extremely specific and exact. The problem with your statement is that it can be easily turned around to suit our enemies. That is, Israel calls itself a peaceful nation, which means that it refrains from violence except when the security of its citizens is threatened. "Wait! What do you mean, 'except when...'? There can be no exceptions!"

I don't know much about Gandhi and his followers, but I'm pretty certain that MLK Jr. was strongly influenced by Christian theology, including the mandate to "turn the other cheek". I think that this mindset in most of the Western world to this day is exactly what validates condemnation of Israel when she dares to defend herself.

If IDF soldiers had come on board that ship brandishing actual weapons and threatening the lives of the protesters, or if they had fired at the people on deck from the helicopter above, I believe that those under attack would have had every right to fight back, regardless of what their original intention had been. I won't theorize about whether that's what Israel should have done, world opinion be damned...because that is not, in fact, what happened.

My point is simply that caveats are not bad just because they modify an absolute. If you don't mind my going a bit philosophical on you, black and white stripes may look gray from a distance, but they are still black and white -- bold, contrasting opposites -- and they should be described as such.

Posted by: Alisha | Jun 2, 2010 5:45:12 PM

Zahava, nicely put, thank you.

Posted by: Alissa | Jun 2, 2010 9:55:06 PM

Great post. You speak for many of us ...

Posted by: It's Full of Stars | Jun 3, 2010 3:34:35 AM

Benji: Thanks -- especially for the clarification that you think I am operating at full strength. :-)

Alisha: I don't think your analogy is fair or apt. Groups of people do not bear the responsibility to protect millions the way a country/government does. A country must protect her citizens. Israel has always yearned for peace. Always. Full stop. The fact that our neighbors don't prevents us to achieve that goal. If the Palestinians were to lay down their weapons and recognize our right to be here, the conflict would be quickly resolved. If Israel were to lay down her weapons without these two things from the Palestinians, she (we!) would be annihilated.

Also, as it appears now, those aboard the flotilla were not engaged in defense -- it appears that they struck first, and that's offense.

Gandhi's ideas were most definitely not based on the Christian mandate to turn the other cheek. As for Dr. King, from what I remember (and I have now been out of school for far longer than I was in), Gandhi was the model for his approach to the civil rights movement. Yes, it was convenient that it so neatly dovetailed with his Christian theology, but the inspiration was the successful -- and generally peaceful -- manner in which the Indian people won their independence from British colonization.

Alissa and It's Full of Stars: Thanks so much.

Posted by: zahava | Jun 3, 2010 7:14:23 AM

Zahava: always nice to hear from you out here.

But I think you are a little too literal-minded here, if you don't mind my saying so. True, Gandhi and King and others defined "non-violent" means of protest to be peaceably assembling, making speeches, marching, singing, sitting in, etc., and "turning the other cheek" when the authorities responded violently. I am surprised that you cannot expand your narrow interpretation of "non-violent" to embrace the peace-loving protesters who employ stun grenades, chains, pipes and bars on "the authorities" as they enter the situation, and then set about throwing them overboard, wresting weapons from them and firing on them in an attempt to kill them.

Don't you know? Haven't you heard? "Redefining" age-old concepts is what the 21st Century is all about! ;o/

Posted by: Wry Mouth | Jun 3, 2010 9:14:40 AM

P.S. recall Ghandi was fairly well educated in world religions, so it is possible some Christian (and Jewish) thought permeated his political thinking: "I have an implicit faith- a faith that today burns brighter than ever after half centuries experience of unbroken practice of non-violence that mankind can only be saved through non-violence, which is the central teaching of the Bible as I have understood it.” etc., etc.

Posted by: Wry Mouth | Jun 3, 2010 9:20:59 AM

Wry Mouth: Eastern religions (Hinduism, Buddism, to name two) have strong themes of being in balance (at peace) with the world. I had always thought (learned? assumed?) that Gandhi used examples from the Bible (such as your quote above) as an efficient way to appeal to Western society -- not as the philosophical foundation of his strategy, but because these examples best illustrated -- in language and ideology -- the Eastern ideals to which he aspired to realize.

Posted by: zahava | Jun 3, 2010 10:06:19 AM

"What is, however, truly amazing to me -- is the insistence that the passengers aboard the flotilla were peace activists "

Zahava (and David),

I think that at this point we should be unshockable.

Put nothing past these people, nothing.

In a world where the Chinese ambassador can lecture the Israelis about brutality, nothing should shock us.

I understand your feelings, believe me, I get it, but for our own sanity, let's focus on reality.

Posted by: sophia.abady | Jun 3, 2010 9:07:26 PM


I agree with and/or accept everything you said just now and I don't see how it revokes or contradicts what I said at all. In fact, from some of your response I think you may not have read or digested my comment correctly.

First, I wasn't making an analogy between Israel and groups of protesters; I was pointing out that our enemies (both in the literal, physical sense and even more relevantly in the arena of public media) could easily do so based on the specifications you drew...and then accuse us of holding a double standard. Yes, it's true that regardless of what religious philosophy the inclination stemmed from, followers of Gandhi and MLK Jr. were only endangering themselves by "turning the other cheek", not abandoning a responsibility to protect an entire nation. Nevertheless, because Israel does have that responsibility, there are necessary caveats to the extent to which it conducts its interactions peacefully. Yes, Israel has always yearned for peace. Yes, if the Palestinians were to lay down their weapons and recognize our right to be here, the conflict would be quickly resolved. That's exactly the same as saying, as I did, that Israel is a peaceful nation which refrains from violence except when the security of its citizens is threatened.

Likewise, I said myself that the IDF soldiers did not threaten or attack the protesters on the boat -- I simply drew a hypothetical situation to illustrate that if they had, it would be fair to apply the self-defense caveat to the protesters' allowable behavior. Again, it is quite clear that in this situation the protesters were the aggressors...but your post is about definitions, and all I was saying is that the use of violence does not inherently turn someone from a peaceful party into a violent party; rather, it depends on the context in which violence is used. Case in point: The IDF was the peaceful party in this incident, despite the fact that there were multiple deaths at their hands.

Posted by: Alisha | Jun 3, 2010 11:13:10 PM

And yes, I recognize that the world hardly needs our help to find things to accuse us of. But the whole point of the necessity of our sorely-lacking hasbara is that we need to be one step ahead. They're the ones with a double standard, and we need to be pointing that out continuously while making certain never to hold one ourselves.

Posted by: Alisha | Jun 4, 2010 12:04:09 AM

Zahava: re: Ghandi -- I can concur with your POV. I would say the thrust is that Mr. Ghandi found points of concurrence b/t the oldest faiths -- Hinduism and Judaism and the more recent Christianity. Most famously, he said "I like their Christ, but not the Christians," or some such. It would be worth exploring, for me, whether he was using the points strictly pragmatically, or that he had cultivated some sympathies, via them, for Western faiths.

Thanks for lending my post(s) some additional clarity. ;o)

Posted by: Wry Mouth | Jun 4, 2010 5:49:45 AM

Sophia: I guess it's a sign of hope that we're still (a little bit) shockable?!....

Alisha: You know I love you, right? I fully understood what you wrote but think you are so locked on the literal semantics that you didn't fully appreciate what I wrote. There is no double standard in this application. Of course our enemies will twist and turn and point fingers. This is a given. They are exceptionally adept at getting the rest of the world to willingly suspend their sense of disbelief. The fact that you are so fixated on this is proof of their success. Conversations such as this -- over whether or not we are guilty of a double-standard -- enable our enemies. Our desire to be liked causes us to perform mental acrobatics which simply defy logic. I will grant you this, however: you are right, violence needs to be defined by the context. In this context, where the wolves in sheep's clothing instigated the violence, however, it absolutely negates any and all peaceful intentions.

WryMouth: Thank you! I always enjoy conversations with you! You make me think and you always add meaningful insight to these dialogues!

Posted by: zahava | Jun 4, 2010 7:31:11 AM

Zahava, I appreciate your tone, and I'm glad it's clear that we agree on the most important points. I think the issue that's getting in the way is that you're talking only about this application, this context, this particular case, and I was expanding your definition to all sorts of potential situations. Because that is, after all, how definitions are meant to be used.

I'm not actually concerned that "our enemies", that is, Arab and/or Muslim terrorists and their direct supporters, will misinterpret us. It is long, LONG past the stage where that is even vaguely relevant. I'm concerned with our "friends when they feel like it", i.e. the rest of the world. And my desire is not to be liked, but for truth to be acknowledged.

It sounds from what you write that you have given up on hasbara as a completely hopeless cause, that you don't care how we might appear as long as we're doing the right thing because we will be condemned regardless. Granted, there are days when I agree with that cynicism, but I try not to let it overwhelm me. Especially after a incident like this one, where all over the internet there is physical proof of what actually occurred, I feel like we need to be able to say to otherwise intelligent but misinformed, mis-persuaded people (usually Westerners), "If such-and-such had happened -- i.e. if the IDF had come on board on the offensive, etc. -- you could reasonably come to the conclusions you have. But look at the evidence: That's not what happened." That is, we need to be specific and precise in our definitions and our analysis. If we start out by saying that no matter what, Israel is justified in what we do because the overall intentions of our enemies are evil, well...that's not very credible, especially to someone starting with the opposite viewpoint. And yes, I do believe that there is some necessity to having at least a segment of world opinion on our side.

Shabbat shalom!

Posted by: Alisha | Jun 4, 2010 10:16:26 AM

BTW, among the Westerners I refer to are Jews who are so disconnected and influenced by the popular opinions around them that they haven't the least clue why they should support Israel, or at the very least not actively condemn her. They need it spelled out more than anyone, and we need for them to understand for both our sakes.

Posted by: Alisha | Jun 4, 2010 10:45:28 AM

Have you watched the latma parody?


Posted by: Lynne | Jun 4, 2010 5:52:06 PM

"The bigger the lie, the more it is believed"


Posted by: rRivkA | Jun 6, 2010 3:12:10 AM

being curious i read arab and usa blogs about this flotilla accident. its amazing how they ignore facts and play with them in oder to show israel as terrorist and agressor. the world is anti-semistic!

Posted by: avi@israel | Jun 6, 2010 12:38:10 PM

I fear your faith in Gandhi and King may be misplaced. Gandhi infamously told the Jews of Europe they should be happy to be killed by the Nazis. Perhaps in 1945 he would have been horrified by the flotilla. But give him forty years of third-world, multicultural ideology, and I'm not so sure he wouldn't automatically side with the Arabs every time.

King was well on his way into the far left by the time he was killed. (His famous march on Washington was for "jobs," not for civil rights, which was pretty much accomplished years before he was killed, at which time he was well into anti-Vietnam and socialist causes.) Now, King was famously pro-Zionist and felt that anti-Zionism was simply a code word for anti-Semitism, bless him. But, again, give him enough time on the left and I fear he would have wound up right with the rest of them when it comes to Israel, much as the Left today, Jewish or not, is at the very least equivocal about Israel.

Posted by: Nachum | Jun 6, 2010 10:53:36 PM

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