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The bodies of 86 people buried in a mass grave near Tyre, Lebanon [Tyler Hicks, NYT]

Struggling Against Amnesia
An Open Letter to Amos Oz

[Last Sunday Candide’s Notebooks published a piece on Amos Oz, one of Israel’s leading intellectuals and leaders of the peace movement, recalling an essay he wrote twenty-four years ago about the divide between Arabs and Israelis, and how to bridge it. On Wednesday, Oz wrote a brief essay for the Los Angeles Times in which he broke from his past criticism of Israeli military action in Lebanon, this time wholeheartedly supporting it because “a defeat of a militant Islamist terror organization may dramatically enhance the chances for peace in the region.” Cecilia Lucas, a graduate student in education at the University of California at Berkley, responds to Amos Oz.]

On July 17, I attended a rally outside of the Israeli Consulate in San Francisco, organized by Jewish Voice for Peace. While it may be true that some participants in “the Israeli peace movement” have become less vocal in their criticisms of Israel over the past eight days, it is certainly not the case, as the title of your July 19 Los Angeles Times article declares, that “Hezbollah Attacks Unite Israelis.” Yes, “this time,” too, there are voices of outrage by Israeli peace activists desperately trying to be heard, including that of Gideon Levy, from whose July 16 Haaretz article the following is taken: “ Israel once again is not distinguishing between a justified war against Hezbollah and an unjust and unwise war against the Lebanese nation.”

I am writing because I left that rally frustrated at the similarities of how protesters on both sides of the street were using our voices. If I could erase the images of bombed bodies and cities from my eyes, the sounds of sirens and explosions from my ears, I might have found the parallel chants comical. “Hey, hey, ho, ho, the occupation’s go to go!” “Ho, ho, hey, hey, Israel is here to stay!” But living as far away as I am from the attacks, I try to keep those images and sounds in the forefront of my consciousness and conscience, lest it become far, far too easy to go about my daily “business as usual,” pausing occasionally to watch the “spectacle” on the nightly news while I “munch popcorn.” These are actions you described, Amos Oz, in a beautiful essay you wrote in 1987 called “Hebrew Melodies,” part of a collection titled “The Slopes of Lebanon.” I found your book the day after the rally as I was searching desperately for voices that, in tune with the human consequences of military actions, strive to protest not just in content but also in form. Not just by screaming but by also helping us to look closer, to look deeper, to connect, to be moved. In that beautiful piece, you discuss what you learned from the 1982 war on Lebanon, the need to take responsibility, and the struggle against amnesia:

The guilt for Lebanon lies not with Begin alone. We will have to grit our teeth and admit that this war was a war of the people. The people wanted it and the people (most of them) supported it, took pleasure in it, and hated the handful who were opposed. At least that is how it was until the war got ‘bogged down.’ There are times when I forget a little, when I try to persuade myself that the ‘people’ learned a lesson, that they have learned-the hard way-the limits of power, that there’s a catch in a philosophy based on violence. There are times when I think that ‘it’ can’t happen again.

It is happening. This time, you have joined “the people” and are using your powerful voice to convince us that this is a different “it.” That this is a justified war, a war of self-defense. Of course, as you described in 1987, there were voices in 1982 trying to convince us of the same. What will it take, Amos Oz, for this war in 2006 to be considered “bogged down”? Are 400-and-counting dead civilians not enough? Do we need another BBC report on Phalangist slaughter? Do we need more anti-war activists to be murdered? Do we need the dead body count to rise into the tens of thousands until you and all those who stand “united” behind Israel (regardless of their nationality) can see the obscene destruction of Lebanon and its inhabitants as an extraordinarily exaggerated escalation of violence? Your essay gives me clues as to how you could think today’s war is so different. In 1987 you wrote:

Missing is the fear that the war may descend upon our own red-tiled roofs here at the kibbutz. Unlike earlier wars, no one bothers to clean out the bomb shelters or to reinforce the windowpanes with strips of masking tape. The results of this war are clear from the outset, and, in any event, not one sliver from it will reach us here. The whole war will be taking place in another country, and may Allah have mercy on them.

In 2006, this is not the case. Although Hezbollah is not nearly as powerful as Israel (or, if it is, it is not abusing its power to nearly as great an extent), it is managing to bring some of the effects of war onto Israeli soil. Sometimes I find myself thinking, “while I understand people who are, I am not sympathetic to Hezbollah’s methods.” But then I think perhaps that is because I am not living in Lebanon. Perhaps that is because it is unimaginable to me what it is like to live in a war zone, in a constant state of terror, homeless, family and friends dying every day, the world around me literally crumbling to the ground. Perhaps then I, too, would feel a surge of hope at a group that I may have despised during peace time but that is now not willing to back down when Israel lets its muscle be felt. It’s easy from afar to sum the moral of the story up in a paternalistic, moralistic sigh: “Now, now, Hezbollah. I know Israel is being monstrous, but you should know better than to provoke a lightly sleeping monster.” And perhaps it is because Israel has not been able to keep this war entirely off of its roofs that you, too, are finding yourself in a state of terror. Perhaps this is why you have forgotten what you learned in 1982.

But I agree with you on one thing you wrote in your recent article: “There can be no moral equation between Hezbollah and Israel.” Both sides have and continue to destroy and to terrorize. And while it is always a tragic set of circumstances when one is led to compare atrocities, those committed by Israel and Hezbollah are, in fact, not equal. Israel has much more military might (not least because of money, missiles and political backing provided by the United States) and has caused much more human (including civilian), property and environmental destruction. And not just in Lebanon. And not just in 2006 and 1982. In 1987, you seethed at those who said things like, “Well, who told those bastards to hide behind old women and children?” when reports of Lebanese civilian deaths were printed. Now, as Israel shatters Lebanon’s infrastructure, creates hundreds of deaths and hundreds of thousands of refugees, it is you who are claiming that “Hezbollah missile launchers are too often using Lebanese civilians as human sandbags.”

I have some final questions for you, Amos Oz, as I try to remain as close as I can to these atrocities while sitting safely in the belly of a mighty empire. In places and times when the wail of the air-raid sirens is not drowning out all other sound, do you still hear the “old-time Hebrew melodies”? Do you still wonder “what emotions those cloying tunes [are] meant to arouse or to silence”? Do you still offer the answer “that we are beautiful, gentle people, righteous, pure, and sensitive, completely out of touch with our actions; that we will be forgiven because our pure and poetic hearts know nothing about the filth that is on our hands; that the evening scent of roses will come to perfume the stench of dead bodies that will pile up by the hundreds and thousands in the days to come”? Can you, today, in between (or far away from) the sounds of war hear the strains of “We love you, precious Homeland/ in joy, in song, and toil/ Down from the slopes of Lebanon to the shores of the Dead Sea/ We will rake your fields with plows”?

I have been touched by your words, Amos Oz, and so I will end this letter with those words that I hope will inspire you once again: “among the victims of the Lebanon War was ‘the Land of Israel, small and brave, determined and righteous.’ It died in Lebanon perhaps precisely because, in Lebanon, its back was not to the wall. After Lebanon, we can no longer ignore the monster, even when it is dormant, or half asleep, or when it peers out from behind the lunatic fringe. After Lebanon, we must not pretend that the monster dwells only in the offices of Meir Kahane; or only on General Sharon’s ranch, or only in Raful’s carpentry shop, or only in the Jewish settlements in the West Bank. It dwells, drowsing, virtually everywhere, even in the folk-singing guts of our common myths. Even in our soul-melodies. We did not leave it behind in Lebanon, with the Hezbollah. It is here, among us, a part of us. That which you have done-whether it be only once in your life, in one moment of stupidity or in an outburst of anger-that which you were capable of doing-even if you have forgotten, or have chosen to forget, how and why you did it-that which you have done and regretted bitterly, you may never do again. But you are capable of doing it. You may do it. It is curled up inside you.”

Cecilia Lucas is a graduate student in education at the University of California at Berkley. She can be reached at cecilialucas@gmail.com; read her new blog, Mariposa Rythms--Creative Dissent.

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