RECENTLY, I RECEIVED an email from my cousin in Washington D.C. saying that because of all the international crises and conflicts, the holiday season didn’t seem to be “Christmasy” at all. I totally agree with her. Being one of those people who follow international events closely, the news – especially concerning the October 7th Hamas attack on Israeli civilians and the Israeli army’s ongoing “pacification” of the Gaza Strip, which has killed almost 20,000 people – puts me in a very un-holiday-like mood.
Many people think that during the Christmas season people should be cheery and upbeat. After all, we celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace. It’s almost their duty (which causes all sorts of psychological problems for people who feel blue during the holidays). Yet the world around us has become more and more addicted to violence and war.
Both in Israel-Palestine and in America, the Gaza crisis has displayed the worst aspects of human nature: not the least of which is a very active victim consciousness which repeats, endlessly, “my victimization is more important, more significant, than yours.” Which is akin to saying: I am fully human; you are not.” By focusing exclusively on the suffering of his or her own people, the self-proclaimed victim often ignores the equal if not greater suffering of the “others.” As I mentioned in my remarks back in spring, the world has had more than enough of weaponized victim consciousness.
It has become the principal driver of violence and discrimination around the world. What is worse, the word “God” often is used to sanction it.
In the wake of the Gaza crisis, many supporters of Israel have pointed to the brutality, especially the sexual brutality, inflicted on Israeli civilians by Hamas. Those attacks were indeed horrible. But I suspect that many of the people who bring up Hamas’ crimes on October 7th are just trying to deflect attention away from the killing of innocent Palestinians. They don’t seem to realize: two wrongs don’t make a right. For example, the atrocities perpetrated by the Japanese military on the Asian mainland during the Pacific War did not justify the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where mostly civilians died.
When I was an 11 year-old kid, my mother took me all the way to New York City to see Cecil B. DeMille’s epic movie, “The Ten Commandments.” I don’t remember what my mother thought of it, but for me it was something like a religious experience, though not in a good way. I was shocked by how cruel Yahweh was to the Egyptians. They were a civilized and cultured people, who had impressive architecture and beautiful art. Their residences on the banks of the Nile and their clothes seemed almost modern. And they were certainly no more warlike than the Old Testament Israelites. Yet Yahweh sent down seven plagues to torment them, just because the Pharaoh would not, in Moses’ words, “let my people go.” The life-giver of the Egyptians, the Nile River, was polluted with blood and sudden death struck down the first-born of Egypt.
Yul Brynner gave a moving performance as Pharaoh Ramses II, who grieves for the death of his son, his first-born. Charlton Heston, who played Moses, was supposed to be the hero, but he came across to me as a heartless religious fanatic. In fact, a lot like Osama bin Laden.
So, I was rooting for the Egyptians rather than the Israelites. I didn’t say this this to anyone at Sunday School.
After October 7th, Israel’s right-wing prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu brought up another Old Testament story. He said: “You must remember what Amalek has done to you, says our Holy Bible. And we do remember.”
Who was Amalek, and the Amalekites (descendants of Amalek)?
Without getting into too many details, the Amalekites were a nomadic people who lived in what is today Israel-Palestine, especially in the region of the Negev Desert. They were nomads, like the Bedouins, and opposed the entry of the Israelites into the Promised Land after they arrived from Egypt. Moses himself saw the first battle between the Israelites and the Amelikites.
In 1 Samuel 15: 1-3, Samuel says to King Saul:
The Lord sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel; now therefore
harken to the words of the Lord. Thus says the Lord of Hosts, “I will punish
what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way, when they came up
out of Egypt. Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they
have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling,
ox and sheep, camel and ass.”
Christians, especially liberal Christians, often ignore the bloodier bits of the Old Testament since they seem so at odds with the message of Jesus. But there is no denying that this is “divinely mandated genocide” – also very evident in the brutal attacks on Gaza, which – as mentioned – have killed so far as many as 20,000 people, including many women, children and old people. Samuel’s words can be compared with those of the leader of the Albigensian Crusade in the 13th century: “kill them all! God will sort them out.”
In Moses’ day, the Israelites stood up for their own freedom from Egyptian servitude. But while they cared very much for their own freedom, they cared little for the freedom of others, including the Egyptians and the Amalekites. In Israel today under Netanyahu, the same maxim holds: “my freedom is precious, and in defence of it I will destroy the freedom of others, which doesn’t matter to me at all.”
In a sense, I can understand the Israelis and Palestinians. They have been locked in a brutal dance of death since 1948, an unending cycle of violence and revenge. If I were either Israeli or Palestinian, I might hate the other, especially if they killed members of my family or friends. Living in peaceful countries, we cannot imagine how brutality and death can warp human consciousness and pull us into nihilistic chaos.
The reaction of the American government to the Gaza crisis – full support for Netanyahu and his right-wing regime – is to me, an American citizen, deeply shameful. And here we see another dimension of the Israel-Palestinian problem. Inside the United States, Zionist lobbies (especially the America-Israel Political Action Committee), so-called “conservatives” and even many so-called “liberals” are lobbying to have any opposition to Israel’s policies labelled as anti-semitism. The equation of the two is a little like saying that calling out the brutal policies of the Army-State against ethnic and religious minorities in Burma is anti-Buddhist, because the country is 90 percent Buddhist. Just as many Jews have criticized Israel, many Buddhist monks have criticized the Army-State on the basis of Buddhist principles. In sum, the profligate use of the word “anti-semitism” is a kind of blackmail, meant to silence critics of Israel.
Powerful lobbies inside the United States are one reason why President Biden, thinking of his own political career, refuses to call for a cease-fire or limit military aid to Netanyahu. But another reason is a kind of resonance between Israel and America, based on their common history of “settler colonialism.” The official American narrative is often compared to the Book of Exodus, and in a very real sense the story of Moses in DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” movie is not about the Old Testament Israelites but Americans who came from Europe and created a new country despite the opposition of the indigenous peoples (America’s equivalent to the Amalekites). All the bloviating about America being “a city on a hill” is based on the idea that God sanctioned the settling of white people in the North American continent, which meant genocide for the Native Americans.
I don’t know whether any of you have seen a rather mediocre, Disney-style animated musical from 1986 titled An American Tail. It is about a colony of Jewish mice (I kid you not) in Russia, who are persecuted by Russian cats and hop abroad a ship and sail to America, where after overcoming American cats they finally achieve the freedom they long for. The film was popular, and had sequels. Perhaps its resonance with American self-images made it impossible to fail.
Americans need a new narrative, one very different from the Book of Exodus. And we need to take a long, hard, cool look at Israel, whose settlers are trying as hard as they can to annihilate the Amalekites.