Thursday, January 6, 2011

Liberation – Dignity, Denigration, Compensation (Bo)

Does liberation and dignity for group A, depend on the denigration of group B? is that the right approach? What else restores dignity?

A scream borne of the frustration of the youth of Gaza with their life situation, Israel, Hamas, Fatah, and the world [1] has taken off on Face-Book this week. It went from 7000-12,000 likes in 3 days. They call for peaceful action, and cry out for a normal life, or dignity. It follows the “them = perpetrators, us = victims” line, and includes an accusatory cartoon portraying the US, as Uncle Sam enjoying himself in a pool of Gazan blood and Israel as ex-PM Olmert covered in blood walking out of the pool. As a Jew this FaceBook page raises some questions.

Justice, safety, peace, dignity and normal lives for all the people living in the holy land is vital. The following is not an attempt to comment on the core claims or counter claims of this important argument and reality. Instead, it addresses a secondary issue of fighting fair, how outraged should one feel when the other side does something we object to? The starting point is surely, the Talmudic “Lshitato”, judging details according to their own view of the context, is their behaviour reasonable? What are the ethics of liberation struggles generally?

Mockery & Satire
As part of liberating the Jews from Egypt, God tells “Moses to come to that I will put these of my signs within him “and in order that you tell into the ears of your son and your son's son how I made a mockery of the Egyptians, and [that you tell of] My signs that I placed in them, and you will know that I am the Lord[2]. This translation is not the only one. Early translations found no humour in the plagues, instead it has it as “what I have wrought upon Egypt[3].  Regardless, the idea of mockery of evil is justified, “He that sits in heaven laughs, the Lord has them in derision[4]”.

The most dramatic use of mockery is the prophet Elijah’s sarcastic jibes at the prophets of the Baal at the contest to see which “god” would create a fire to accept his offerings. “And it came to pass at , that Elijah mocked them, and said: 'Call in a loud voice; for he is a god; either he is musing, or he is gone aside, or he is in a journey, or he sleeps, and must be awaked”[5]. Satire is an acceptable method for fighting evil, the difficulty with cartoons and satire is that exaggeration and even demonization is common.

Demonization Exaggeration & Hyperbole
We know from bitter recent experience that demonization leads to violence, that words are not harmless.  In the story of Joseph, before they seek to kill him they call him “this dreamer[6]” and cannot even bring themselves to say his name.

The story of Joseph is an example of the powerful many demonizing the one powerless individual. When it comes to blasting the powerful, the prophets don’t seem to hold back. “Behold the princes of Israel, every man was in for his own power, for the sake of bloodshed...A man commits abominations against his neighbours wife, a man would defile his daughter in law with lewdness, a man would afflict (rape) his sister, the daughter of his father[7].  “Listen to the word of God chiefs of Sodom, give ear to the Torah of God nation of Gomorrah...your hands are filled with blood, has the faithful city filled with justice become a prostitute? A place of justice, but now murders... your princes are wayward, friends of thieves, all of them love bribes”[8].  

Outcomes & Ethics
One angle to consider is the end result. Jewish law forbids the ransom of captives in excess of the market value of the captives for the simple reason that by paying more, it will simply encourage more kidnapping.

On the one hand, demonization of the other can perpetuate conflict.  In the real world we live in, causes draw attention to themselves through, carnage, crass simplification or creativity. Afghanistan gets billions, while Sudan gets lip-service because murderers came from there. I think Palestinians have learned to play the world media game to pursue their objectives, going back to Munich. If young Gazan’s put their energy into words on Face-Book and calling for peaceful action, even using offensive and crass cartoons and harsh combattitive words, can this mean less violence toward Israelis, less reprisals and a slowing of the vicious cycle. Who knows?

Dignity & Compensation
Aside from the questions of denigration, is the question of the link between monetary compensation and the restoration of dignity. In the Exodus story, Jews are instructed to borrow (or request) silver and gold from their Egyptian neighbours[9]. The purpose of this is to compensate the slaves for years of unpaid labour[10]. Jews follow this instruction but with a slight variation, in addition to silver and gold they receive clothing[11]. Of the three items, the clothing was cherished to them than the gold and silver[12].  It was important to the “God of law and justice (mishpat), that the goods come from the Egyptians… to save their wages from their (the Egyptians) hands. … because this way, our father Abraham would have some comfort about the difficult work performed by his children”[13].     

Admission and Apology
The former PM of Australia apologised to Indigenous Australians but did not offer compensation. Still, this had a powerful healing effect on many Indigenous people. The Jews never get a sincere apology from Pharaoh, only pretence and back-pedalling; the mockery by God or our own storytelling will suffice.

In today’s conflict there is little hope of a mutual acknowledgment of the others narrative, which brings us back to the big question of who is right, that I have chosen not to deal with. Instead, I conclude with the smaller question of how to react to the output of the Gaza Youth. Facebook’s option of “Like”, does not leave much scope for nuance, or “wait and see”, our tradition does.

[2] Exodus 10:1&2, translation consistent with commentary by Rashi, Ramban and others
[3] Translation of Oonkelus, Targum Yontan Ben Uziel,
[4] Psalms 2:4
[5] Kings I,
[6] Genesis, 37:19
[7] Ezekiel 22:6,10, &11
[8] Isaiah 1:10,15, 21,23.
[9] Exodus 11:2
[10] Talmud, Sanhedrin Perek Chelek
[11] Exodus 12:35
[12] Mechilta, with slight variation also in Rashi, on Exodus 12:35. (Rashi, changed from the Mechilta’s “Chaviva”- which means loved or cherished to “Chashuva”, more important. This in turn is interpreted by Maharshal, Sifsei Chachomim and Gur Aryeh, as the clothing being more significant for the Egyptians who expected the gold and silver to be returned as they are but expected the clothing to be modified to “Jewish style” dress, so found it hard to give away.
[13] Klei Yakar, on Exodus 11:2


  1. Interesting that you have ventured into the Israel/Palestine minefield but probably wisely not too far. It is hard for me to see the suffering of Palestinians without becoming so angry that as I frequently do use harsh language. Maybe it is because I have grown up with an Australian tradition of calling a spade a spade and not a "manually operated earth inverting implement. Either way my harsh language is usually met with a similar response from the other side.

    In spite of my rhetoric I have always had the view that doing something about the violence from both sides is becoming an increasingly urgent priority. It is urgent because the generation who knew what it was like before the violence started is dying out and will be replaced by their children who have grown up knowing little else than violence and insecurity. The big risk is that the violence then becomes a permanent state of affairs with a vanishingly small chance of any peaceful resolution.

    Your passage about Jewish law forbidding paying a premium for ransoming hostages is in a perverse way perhaps the most important point here. So long as the "other" is devalued there is no real hope of peace. A life without value is a life easily spent. I know it is a cold-blooded view but when a Palestinian who views his life as worthless can redeem some value in death by giving his life in the course of taking the life or lives of an Israelis and if Israelis similarly place a lower value on Palestinian life then there is no end in sight for this cycle.

    Perhaps it is time to revisit the Jewish law on ransom and for both sides to place a premium on the value of the lives of the other. Then perhaps both sides will realise they can't pass this cycle onto their most valuable asset, the next generation

  2. Very insightful.
    The current exchange rate between Israeli and Palestinian prisoners is strange and might contribute to the tragic dynamic.

    On the one hand, people involved in a problem have the best insight into their own experience and must own the solution. On the other hand, we have a tradition "a prisoner cannot release himself" and the idea that people involve in a situation like this get very caught up. Outside people, need to care deeply while also keeping perspective to be more useful.

  3. Spot on. I forgot that for there to be a hostage there has to be a hostage taker. In this situation each side has become the hostage of the other.

    Worse still they are not the only hostages. Those from outside who talk of peace but also enable the conflict to continue have made themselves hostages. Maybe these prisoners need to free themselves before freedom can start for the others.