The War in Context

   alternative perspectives on the "war on terrorism" and the middle east conflict

Moral courage calls for more than "moral clarity" - an open letter to Congress

By expressing your unqualified support for Israel in its "war on terror" through measures passed in Congress last week, you have betrayed your country and the people you claim to represent. You may believe that America' s interests and allegiances in the Middle East are centered squarely on the State of Israel, but the truth that you fail to represent is that for millions of Americans their interests, loyalties, affiliations and affections stretch into every quarter of this region.

You claim to be demonstrating moral clarity when you stand up for Israel, but what you have actually demonstrated is a pitiful lack of moral courage. You know that expressing sympathy or support for Palestinians will earn you little in terms of votes or campaign contributions and so you remain silent. But you also know that the suffering of a Palestinian is actually no different from the suffering of an Israeli or an American.

When any of us become partisan in the realm of human misery, we can only do so by choosing to be selective about whose suffering we attend to and whose we ignore. Through these partisan perceptions we hear about the individual Israelis who are the victims of terrorism, while Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are invariably referred to and thought about simply in the collective. Only do they become individual when we wish to vilify or demonize them, whether it be through the much-derided figure of Yasser Arafat, or through the nameless monsters who have used their own lives to obliterate the lives of others. The individual lives of ordinary Palestinians struggling to survive under a military occupation get concealed behind impersonal issues as debates then revolve around questions such as the definition of a "massacre" or the legitimacy of "targeted killings." The line then runs that the destruction of a "terrorist infrastructure" inevitably results in the loss of some innocent lives and though this is regrettable, we are assured that the greater goal of Israel's security has been served.

The U.S. Congress, along with the government of Israel and all its supporters, has agreed that the loss of innocent lives, the destruction of communities and an all-out assault on a whole society, is an acceptable price to pay if it can buttress the safety of a few thousand settlers and briefly pacify the fears of a nation. This is not the pursuit of moral clarity; it is the abandonment of the Christian and Jewish values of love, compassion, and goodwill that so many members of Congress glibly profess.

Nevertheless, anyone is capable - whether they are inside or outside Congress - of shedding these distorted views of human grief. All that it takes is the willingness to acknowledge human suffering for what it is: a dimension of the human condition from which no nation, no people, no race, nor any individual can be excluded.

Consider then, the lives of one particular family. Last Sunday, their daily trip to a local vineyard happened to coincide with the movement of a nearby Israeli tank. As the mother, father and their children gathered grape leaves, one of the tank's treads snapped causing the crew to imagine that they had struck a mine. In response, the soldiers scoured the immediate vicinity in search of "terrorists", spotted the family and opened fire killing Fatma Zakarneh and her two children, 4 year-old Abir and 6 year-old Bassel. As Mohammed Zakarneh grieved for his family, Israeli soldiers came over, cuffed him and took him away for questioning. Meanwhile, the sight of a child's face, pulverized with the bullets that he had just fired, caused one of the soldiers to faint. Anyone with an ounce of humanity would have shared the same horror. Whether the child was Palestinian or Israeli was at that moment immaterial.

Dozens of similarly tragic stories can be told. Sometimes the result of accidents, sometimes fear, sometimes rage, sometimes malice, but always adding to the toll of grief, suffering and loss.

Congress has never been reluctant to show its support for Israel and you currently do so with the hubris to stand under the banner of "moral clarity." It is now time for each and every Senator, Congressman and Congresswoman, to stand up as an individual and have the moral courage to declare that the suffering and well-being of Palestinians is of no less importance than that of Israelis; that one people's security cannot be preserved at the expense of another people's freedom, and that the interests of Israel and America will never be served by disregarding the interests of others.

2002 Paul Woodward