Mrs Arafat's lost opportunity

An article in The Jerusalem Post was drawn to my attention and described as 'brilliant'.

I read it carefully, twice, hoping for its brilliance to shine forth, when it failed to do so, well written as it is, I sat down and tried to think why?

The article suggests that 'moral clarity' resides with everyone with whom the author agrees and moral obfuscation belongs to those with whom the author disagrees. It is clear to the author that Israel is a democracy that only wishes to live peacefully within its borders and Hamas is a terrorist group, pure and simple, whose only mission in life is Israel's extermination. Now both poles of this statement have an element of truth - their purchase on our imagination requires that they do - moral clarity is only achieved if we simplify and contrast. It thrives within the sharp borderings of a black and white world.

No doubt a columnist at the Gaza Post could write a similar article only inverted bringing Palestine into the light contrasted with the Machiavellian leadership of Likud and hiding their own shadows. (In passing please note the Jerusalem Post's sleight of hand contrasting a state not with another state but with an element within it - and one, sadly, quasi-democratically elected at that).

The problem, however, is that the world is in colour. The first victim of violence is always the truth and the truth is never simple and never comes in black and white. It is complex and multi-coloured. (So Israel wants to live peacefully within its borders - but which are they - and if the international community is to be believed they do n't - they occupy large chunks of their neighbours by force - justified or not - they are there)!

The sheer complexity of truth makes it difficult to live with which is why moral clarity is so comforting and why the author of lies is its principal proponent. Solzhenitsyn famously wrote in the Gulag Archipelago that the dividing line between good and evil travelled through each and every human heart and both in the Gulag and in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (whose fiftieth anniversary of publication we celebrate this week) what is so striking is that Solzhenitsyn achieves a clarity of truth telling through the complexity of the detail - by its cumulative weight in the Gulag and in its unfolding ordinariness in the life of one man in One Day- that allows for the judgement of a collective, human moral failure in which we can then see particular individual responsibilities. It is a systemic failure of individual responsibility fed by the delusion of a moral certainty carried by 'us' against 'them'! It was Communism in that case - another simple minded moral certainty leading us into the abyss of violence.

I use here an 'Israeli example' and the risk of that is, of course, that a reader will assume I am  against them and for the Palestinians. However, the continuing tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is precisely rooted in the assumption making faculty we all have that does not want, cannot bear the complexity of the truth and the first and primary truth is the human failure to recognise the place where good and evil is divided: the human heart, mine and yours and everyones.

From that place of recognition, you can begin, with great difficulty, to paint a world in colour and invite people to share the complexities of their own palette (and the clashing colours, at least initially, will undoubtedly be frightful, indeed painful) but there is no other way except the path of violence with its clashing moral clarities and that way has failed, is failing and will fail.

Rather than moral clarity, we need truth building, forgiveness of sins and reconciliation. This is not utopian because it has been done elsewhere, admittedly messily, imperfectly, this side of the kingdom there is no perfection. This is probably just as well because undoubtedly the perfection would belong to 'us' and not to 'them'.

When are people in this conflict going to be tired enough of the futility of violence to try alternatives? To try complexity and moral struggle (I am tempted to write 'jihad') for a change.

I had a hopeful fantasy once - it was when the Arafats were enclosed in their compound and it was Christmas and Mrs Arafat (a Christian) wanted to attend the Christmas Vigil service in Bethlehem. They vowed to go at any cost but, sadly, it was all bluster. What if, I speculate, Mrs Arafat had put on her Sunday best, slipped her prayer book in her handbag and set off - on her own or perhaps with a few women friends for company, singing hymns perhaps and with presents for the Israeli soldiers on route? There is nothing the Israeli authorities could do in this situation but lose - let her through, stop her, even kill her - they would have lost yet there might be the first glimmer in that losing of everyone winning. People winning with out violence, people losing without violence - it might have caught on! Undoubtedly this would not have been without its breakdowns and reprisals - after all both Gandhi and Martin Luther King were assassinated - but as both remarked, in different ways, if you do not want to die for it no cause is worth it, if you want to kill for it no cause is worth it.


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