Tuesday, January 6, 2009

A Higher Standard? Israel, Palestine and the U.S.

This morning brought news that the recent Israeli military actions in the Gaza Strip have taken the lives of more than 500 Palestinians, many of them civilians. The rocket and mortar attacks launched by Hamas have killed a small handful of Israelis. In fact, the total number of civilian and Israeli Defense Forces deaths is less than 10. This includes the 3 IDF soldiers who were killed by so-called friendly fire yesterday.

Humanitarian NGOs are universally stating that the living conditions in Gaza are desperate and getting worse. Aid organizations, the United Nations, and the vast majority of governments around the world are condemning the actions of the Israeli government with regard to local access to clean water, sanitation, health care and food. The only government sitting on the sidelines is our own.

Let us leave politics out of this for a moment and examine this situation from a humanitarian perspective. Whatever the stated reasons, the notion that it is morally acceptable for any entity (person, ethnic group, government) to impose this level of death and destruction on any other entity is indefensible. The “scratch” doesn’t fit the “itch” in any way. While Hamas’ incessant lobbing of ordnance across the border cannot be defended, the Israeli government’s response is a wild and heinous over-reaction. The numbers don’t lie. Neither do the comparative living conditions in Gaza and southern Israel.

As an American and a Jew, I am appalled and enraged both by the actions of Israel and the business-as-usual attitude of the Bush administration. The silence of president-elect Obama is equally chilling. Whatever one’s stance regarding our national interests in the middle east may be, the simple fact is that these attacks on Gaza should be opposed by all who value human life and dignity.

The crisis has yet to reach the dimensions of Rwanda or Somalia or Bosnia, but the humanitarian implications of Israel’s actions are no different. Mr. Obama made a huge campaign issue out of his opposition to the war in Iraq. How this situation is any more defensible is beyond comprehension. Where are those brave words now?

The United States prides itself on the principles of democracy, equality and justice invoked by our constitution. We are supposed to hold ourselves to a higher standard of behavior. We are supposed to represent the civilized world. We are not a theocracy, we believe in the rule of law and in humanitarian principles. Have we learned nothing in the past 225 years? Have we no sense of history or decency or empathy? Does self-interested politics have to dominate all of our actions as a nation?

The Jewish people regard themselves as the “chosen people”. Our religion compels us to behave in a moral, just, and principled way. We have a long history of being oppressed and dispossessed. Have we learned nothing in the past 2000 years? Have we no compassion? Is everything allowed in the name of national defense?

What has happened to the higher standards we as Americans (and some of us as Jews) are supposed to uphold? To our shame, we have forgotten. We have allowed our insistence on the hegemony of political and economic power to override our sense of ethics. We have lost our belief in justice and equality. We have sunk so low as to accept that the imposition of our political agenda, no matter how corrupt, represents the greater good.

If these events make you feel sad, ashamed or just plain angry, then make your voice heard. Nothing can be done about the Present Occupant, but we might have a chance to influence the incoming administration. You can do all the usual stuff: write an editorial or op-ed, call your representatives in Washington, talk to your friends, blog. President-elect Obama, to his credit, has made it easy to submit ideas and critical comments HERE.

Let’s hold our government and ourselves to a higher standard.