My maternal grandmother, Pearl Weiner, used to tell me stories about her adolescence in Odessa, where, in 1918, she lived through the Ukrainian Revolution. In one year, Odessa was overrun with a succession of occupying armies and gangs, whom she invariably described as “the Bolsheviks, the Denekinovitches [followers of Anton Denekin, a White Russian General] the Petliuravitches [followers of Simon Petliura, the Ukrainian nationalist folk hero],the “morphines” [her wonderfully evocative word for drug addicts] and various criminal gangs whose names I have forgotten. When I would ask her about the differences between the groups, she would say, angrily, “They were all robbers!” and refused to differentiate between them as a matter of principle.
She worked in a pharmacy at the time, at the age of 18. Pharmacies were considered off-limits even by the most brutal soldiers. But she recounted all kinds of harrowing stories about the behavior of men wearing different uniforms. If I recall correctly, she said the worst behavior was exhibited by the Ukrainians, whom she blamed for “pogroms.”
Decades later, I found myself in the Ukrainian Museum in Chicago. There, I saw a portrait of Simon Petliura. The caption next to the painting was something like “Our Liberator.” An elderly woman sat at a reception desk nearby. My grandmother’s tormentor was her people’s hero. I didn’t talk to that woman, but soon afterwards, read a little Ukrainian history, and learned that while Petliura and his people were often blamed for anti-Semitic attacks, there was little evidence that he was responsible for them. I also read that while there were horrible pogroms in the Ukraine for decades, there were none in Odessa, in 1918.
Had they met, my grandmother and the woman in the museum probably would have been quite nice to each other. But if the conversation had turned to Petliura, there would have been no way to bridge that chasm. They both believed what they chose to believe, based on the information available to them and the circumstances of their lives.
I can hear my grandmother’s voice while reading the completely different, utterly irreconcilable narratives of the Gaza conflict that are bouncing around the Web. Ezra Klein had a nice post early in the conflict that mentioned only the most obvious distinctions between the narratives.
This is nothing new, this rendering of the same events in the Middle East by people who appear to be denizens of completely different universes. But I cannot remember a time when efforts to try to see any validity in each side’s points of view, or to show a small amount of empathy for the side that is deemed to be the aggressor, have been attacked with such venom.
At times like this, the anger on both sides of the divide is understandable. Innocent people are being torn to shreds by Israeli bombs and mortar shells in Gaza, and those who believe there is no possible justification for it cannot be expected to be anything other than furious. I know I am. I think Israel’s behavior has been appalling and nothing I have heard is going to make me change my mind.
But I also think Hamas’ behavior has been appalling. And I am feeling very lonely, because other critics of Israel’s assault either won’t admit that or–worse–don’t believe it. If you believe, like much of the blogosphere, that people in southern Israel are not seriously threatened, and the proof you cite is the “kill ratio” (i.e., hundreds of Palestinian civilian casualties, less than a dozen Israeli civilians killed) , then you and I are even farther apart than my grandmother and that Ukrainian woman. From where I sit, the trauma of those rockets in southern Israel has been real, and unbearable, and Israel had to do something about it. Moreover, the threat of long-range missiles from the Gaza Strip landing in Tel Aviv and other major Israeli cities is also real. I am not trying to rationalize or justify Israel’s disproportionate response. But too many people COMPLETELY deny the significance of the trauma in Sderot and the threat to Tel Aviv, and have decided that Hamas is some kind of noble resistance movement that was simply trying to stop Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip. We don’t have much to say to each other. Our information, and our circumstances, are too different.
What I remember, and believe, is that the rocket fire began right after the Israelis withdrew from Gaza in 2005, when Hamas took over property abandoned by Israel and began firing away in what at first appeared to be a kind of macabre celebration. The rockets continued for years. According to Philip Weiss, in a lecture given this past February, Rashid Khalidi, (a harsh critic of Israel) blamed both sides for the Hamas-Israel conflict. He called the rocket attacks “immoral, illegal and politically stupid.” If you can find a way to justify those attacks, or Hamas-directed suicide bombings that have killed Israeli women and children in buses and supermarkets, or the Hamas purge of Fatah activists from Gaza, then the chasm between us cannot be bridged.
I can hear my grandmother calling out “They were all robbers!” She passionately and angrily blamed all sides for the traumatic events she witnessed. I used to think her remarks were amusing and I would tell funny stories about the memories she shared. Now, I understand how wise she was.