Israelis could take a page from Abraham Lincoln

Forty years ago there existed a large group of Israelis that didn’t want to occupy the Palestinian territories – a group which at one time was the majority; this majority has since turned into thin air. Lessons from the 19th century American South.

(Translated from Hebrew by Jordan Michaeli)

Abraham Lincoln (Photo: Mathew Brady)
Abraham Lincoln (Photo: Mathew Brady)

In 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe, a young and prim author from Connecticut, published one of the most influential books of the 19th century, if not history: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which talks about the fate of slaves in the United States South.

The book, which didn’t age very well over the years (it is barely readable for a modern crowd and is heavily packed with Christian preaching) was a dagger in the heart of slavery. It was written so masterfully: there is one scene, that no one who has read the book will ever forget, in which the slave Eliza escapes from her traders on the fragile ice of the Ohio River, her young son in her arms. Eliza was willing to risk her and her boy’s lives to prevent him from being sold and sent to the South.

“There,” told Stowe to the good people of the North, “that’s what you support when you look the other way: tearing children from their parents’ arms and selling them to strangers.” She wrote to a generation well-versed in the Bible, a crowd that immediately knew what she was referring to: “Do not hand him [a slave] over to his master” (Deuteronomy 23:17), and the dreadful verse: “Thy sons and thy daughters shall be given unto another people, and thine eyes shall look, and fail with longing for them all the day; and there shall be nought in the power of thy hand” (Deuteronomy 28:32). Stowe found the crack in the shining armor of lies protecting the unjust and struck with all her might.

She was admired in the North. The book became an unprecedented bestseller – only the Bible sold more copies in the 19th century – and is regarded as one of the direct causes for the Civil War, as it led to a radicalization in the South. People who until then hid behind numerous excuses, including “it’s not as bad as it sounds” to “it will lead to a civil war,” had a hard time avoiding the truth any longer. When Stowe eventually met President Lincoln in the midst of war, the latter remarked: “So this is the little woman who brought on this great war.” I, by the way, suspect that Lincoln stole one of his best lines from Stowe’s scenes – towards the end of the decade he told the Southerners that they know slavery is injustice; they allow their children to play with the children of slaves but not with those of slave traders. For Stowe as well, the slave trader is the lowest of the low and even slave owners are disgusted by him.

It’s customary to speak about the appreciation the book received and its influence in the North as well as Britain. We can speculate on the extent to which the phenomenal success of the book prevented the British government from acknowledging the southern states, out of fear from the expected public uproar that would follow. But that is the well known story. The real story is how the South reacted.

The Southern public reacted with total shock. Suddenly an institution with negligible salience for most Southerners (most of them didn’t own slaves, the Civil War was conducted by the elite) stained the entire South with the most despicable crimes. The very active Southern press was filled with appalled articles, arguing that such things almost never happen, and if they do take place, then they are specific cases caused by barbaric and uneducated plantation owners, and one should not judge an entire culture according to a few minor events. And besides, the slaves want to be slaves, slavery civilizes them, and in any case they are in much better condition than that of the average slave in the North. In short, the South cried out: “Why don’t they show the whole story?” and next to the tuba which roared that the slaves are happy and doing just fine, a piccolo was also heard, saying we must show them who the master is here or else they will rise in the dead of the night and slaughter us all.

And those were only the polite people. The ones who write for newspapers and publish books. Other simply burned copies of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and ran those who dared to sell the book out of town. One psycho even sent Stowe an ear of a slave in the mail. Others bitterly wrote that the book is proof that the North hates them and won’t hesitate to spread stories about them.

In short, almost nobody in the South dared looking at the mirror that Stowe put before them.

Sound familiar?

***

The above use of “why don’t they show the whole story?” was, of course, intentional. Israel in 2013 is like the American South in 1852: a xenophobic mob that cannot see its own, real image.

We have been occupying another nation for 45 years and the more time passes, the more hardened our hearts become. Two generations before Stowe, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever.” One generation later, in his last days, he was one of the toughest of slave owners, convinced that the release of slaves will bring a fiery and bloody end to the South. Forty years ago there existed a large group of Israelis that didn’t want to occupy the Palestinian territories – a group which at one time was the majority.

This majority has turned into thin air. One reason is the savage war that our occupied population conducted. Another is that we simply got used to it. Most people living today in Israel, including the author of these words were born after 1967 (and I assume I’m older than most readers of this post). Most of us were born into a reality in which the occupation is a given, static state. They grew up with an understanding that one day they will have to spend part of their lives occupying another nation or support the occupation, strategically or militarily. Years of rigorously blurring the Green Line, with the active help of the Education Ministry, gave birth to a generation that knows nothing. A generation that doesn’t separate between the occupied territories and Israel and has a weaker understanding of the difference between Palestinian residents of Israel and residents of the occupied territories. And since this generation was brought up Jewish, and not Israeli, it does not understand the whole citizenship thing either.

Most Israelis don’t benefit directly from the occupation. The vast majority does not reside in the occupied territories or enjoy the exploitation of occupied land. Considering the very low number of combat soldiers relative to the army’s size, and the decrease in military service in general, it is okay to assume that most Israelis haven’t served in the occupied territories. Nonetheless, like in the American South, they find themselves protecting settlers and settlements, the occupation and occupiers, because the occupation has become their own black mark. It’s become like a family member.

So we don’t mention how the occupation violates 15 out of 30 principals of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. So we ignore how our occupation forces regularly kill children. We don’t ask “how did we reach a point where we are shooting at children?”; we ask, “why don’t they show the whole story and what he did just before we shot him?” We search, with rage and puffy veins, for an excuse that allows us to say that the child simply made us kill him. In the process we legitimize every horror and corruption of our legal system – one that can’t find an prosecutor for the case of a dead child even 14 months after he was shot. We know, or in any case we have absolutely no excuse not to know, that children are abducted every night from their houses by armed, masked men, taking them into interrogation rooms without an adult present to protect them while they undergo abuse and torture. We also know, given that we don’t lie to ourselves, that this practice did not start yesterday. Things have always been this way.

We know that a whole nation lives without the basic right to protest, and that as far as our gunmen are concerned, the arrival of a person to a demonstration is a reason good enough to shoot at him or her. We know, given that we don’t lie to ourselves, that our gunmen exercise excessive violence towards those demonstrators, violence they will not direct towards Israeli citizens. We know that those gunmen lie to investigators, they cover for each other and bring criminal behavior home with them after the end of their service. We know. And whoever says he doesn’t know – chooses not to know.

Our armed men shoot at Palestinian youth when they break bread together, shoot at them when they stand in a field, claiming in retrospect they were assaulted with an axe, which a day later turns into a bottle, and then into a syringe. We shoot at them when they try to take cover in our cemeteries and say they were about to stab someone, a claim that turns within a day to “he picked up something from the ground and it could have been a knife so I shot him.” We know that the occupation forces will release those murderous armed men with the excuse that “they felt that their lives were endangered.”

Stowe said that her criticism was directed above all toward the legal system, and especially toward the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act. She wrote her book six years prior to the Dred Scott decision, but already then it was clear who the legal system was serving. We know that the occupation turns our legal system into an accomplice to an unjust system (sometimes by force, other times by consent). We know that the investigators and legal experts will take their time with the investigation. We know that the judges themselves will look the other way, write a few hypocritical words expressing dissatisfaction from being forced into something so repulsive, but only rarely will they rule against an “an illegality that pierces the eye and outrages the heart,” since their eyes are blind and their hearts have been sealed a long time ago, sealed on the day when the cry of a family about to lose its home due to the actions of one its sons was pushed aside by explanations about the reasoning of the commander’s decision.

The South used to threaten the North that if it wasn’t allowed  to do as it pleases – that if it wasn’t allowed to expand slavery to the free states or if it were told that slavery is immoral – it would have no choice but to leave the Union or embark on a civil war. Such threats were voiced in intervals of five years starting in 1830. Israelis, too, are regularly threatened with a civil war. The South used to say, with a considerable amount of justice, that its men held an exceptionally large number of positions in the armed forces and therefore it may decide what those men should do. When crisis came, the Union found itself in a civil war with states populated by less than a third of its citizens, but who enjoyed the services of half of the army’s officers. The military service of slave owners was conditioned. The moment the country stopped fulfilling its stated purpose, they would turn their weapons and use the training they received from the government against the very same government.

Two years ago, an armed Israeli Defense Forces soldier – a member of the Kfir unit – killed Mustafa Tamimi during a demonstration in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh. He shot Tamimi with a smoke grenade, aimed directly at him from five meters away, through the open door of a moving military vehicle. Tamimi was killed while demonstrating in his village, on his land, against the occupation. A clear act of a free man who refuses to be enslaved. A few weeks ago the Military Advocate General closed the case. The MAG swallowed the soldier’s tale according to which he merely shot at the ground from a moving vehicle and didn’t seen Tamimi at all, and oops, the grenade ricocheted from the ground and hit Tamimi directly in his face.

Even if this is true, and I think you have to be a clinical idiot or an evil person to accept this argument (the MAG is welcome to choose) then the soldier is not guilty of murder, but of manslaughter. Only that the MAG ruled the firing took place “according to the relevant rules and procedures and did not involve any illegality.” This is how acts of killing are covered today: they say that shooting from a moving vehicle, supposedly toward the ground “took place according to the procedures.” It doesn’t matter there is no such procedure.

And most Israelis continued sleeping. As far as they are concerned, the killing of a young Palestinian who dared to resist the occupation is nothing they should lose sleep over. They have become used to seeing this reality as a world order, only that such an order has a price. Always.

Slavery in the South was overthrown with blood and fire. It seems fit to quote Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address:

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.

We better stop before we get there.