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Getting Beyond the Slogans and Rhetoric

Dennis Fox

January 8, 2009

Guest Column
Brookline TAB Online

Last Monday evening I attended a Coolidge Corner protest of Israel’s attack on Gaza. As with most protests even in always-willing-to-talk Brookline, the setting did not lend itself to meaningful discussion. It’s hard to make much sense with the half-dozen words that fit onto the typical hand-held sign. With rallies in other Boston locations going on at the same time, only a handful of us showed up in Coolidge Corner. Most of the time we were outnumbered by those who came to endorse Israel’s attack.

Standing there in the cold I spent a lot of time listening to the shouts of those on the other side. Especially depressing was watching a few energetic teenagers loudly repeating just about every tired defense of Israel we’ve heard for decades. Their elders did the same, taunting Gazans’ supporters with ridicule, defending Israel with dubious claims that many Israelis themselves have long since abandoned as historically inaccurate.

I will acknowledge that some of Israel’s critics also used rhetoric not likely to persuade anyone to think about the issues. Clichés and other superficialities are common on all sides. Protests have a variety of uses, but deep thought is not one of them.

After despairing for a while I got some poster board at Walgreens and made my own sign. I aimed for content rather than sloganeering, despite knowing that so many words would be hard to read as people rushed from the T to dinner. But here’s what I came up with:

I’ve heard the same superficial pro-Israel statements
since I was saying the same thing 40 years ago.
Then I started to think about justice.
Beware of unexamined assumptions.

Despite the small lettering, a fair number of people stopped to read. Some nodded, thanked me, and moved on. Even before that we got a reasonably steady stream of passersby giving us thumbs up. It was good to see.

In the past four years I’ve visited Israel and the West Bank three times after longer visits decades earlier. In 2006 I taught a seminar on Psychology, Law, and Justice at Ben Gurion University in Be’er Sheva, then lectured at Birzeit and Al Quds Universities in the West Bank.

Six weeks ago I returned from a month-long visit. I expected to go to Gaza to present a paper at an academic conference on Siege and Mental Health, sponsored by the World Health Organization and the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme. A dozen other Boston-area doctors and mental health professionals also made the trip.

I had hoped to stay in Gaza for two weeks, to see for myself what life was like under already desperate circumstances. I had been in touch with Gazan artists and hoped to see their work in person, to look out at the Mediterranean from the beach, to document circumstances the Israeli authorities did not want documented. However, Israel barred our entry. As a result, more than a hundred conference attendees met in Ramallah instead, where I remained for three weeks. I also visited friends and relatives in Israel.

In Gaza I would have photographed places that Israel has now bombed. I would have met people who now might be dead or injured, perhaps making their way into devastated hospitals no longer able to function. Ordinary people like you and me.

Two years ago, Israel’s former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu issued a statement explaining that Biblical precedent allows killing as many civilians as necessary to save Jewish lives. If attackers can’t be stopped by destroying their specific location, it’s okay to destroy the whole neighborhood, the whole section of town, even the whole city. Innocence is irrelevant.

Last week’s transition from religious rant to state policy was horrifying to witness. This week’s escalation is even worse, highlighting as it does Israel’s traditional reliance on apocalyptic bullying rather than justice-focused peacebuilding.

Back in Coolidge Corner, I was glad that the vigil ended with two decent conversations that for a time went beyond sloganeering. I don’t believe such conversations change many minds, and I don’t think changing individual minds will affect Israeli policy, but the give-and-take was more pleasant than screaming in the cold.

Note: this version may differ from the published version.

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