Sunday, July 30, 2006

Standing in the Shoes of the 'Enemy'

In Harper Lee’s classic “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the precocious Scout Finch is recalling something her father told her once:

“Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.”

I have been thinking of this fatherly wisdom and its dawning on a daughter ever since the breakout of the horrific fighting in Israel and Lebanon.

Have Hezbollah (and Hamas and other warring factions) and the Israelis ever considered standing in each others' shoes, I wondered, and walked around in them?

When a Hezbollah fighter launches a rocket toward Haifa, can he imagine being in the shoes of an old woman in that city shuffling in her modest kitchen to prepare a meal, unaware that death is whistling down on her?

At the precise moment that an Israeli pilot presses a button to unleash a missile over Lebanon, can he imagine being in the shoes of a child in an apartment building playing with his toys, oblivious that he is about to be blown into smithereens?

I think not.

There is not only a moral failing here, but also a failure of the imagination.

And as long as these failures persist, the Middle East violence we are now witnessing will continue with terrifying regularity.

But let’s face it: It is supremely difficult for most of us to stand in the shoes of our enemies, much less walk around in them.

We have neither the morality nor the imagination for it, no matter how virtuous and mentally agile we may think ourselves to be.

Yet there is a way to get to that exalted state, a prelude if you will, and that is to engage in honest self-examination, to ask: “Before I point my finger at the ‘other,’ let me consider my own culpability.”

Although this too is a rare trait, there are inspiring practitioners who represent a beacon of hope in our darkening world.

Consider this from Ze’ev Maoz, a professor of political science at Tel Aviv University (Haaretz, July 25):

“There’s practically a holy consensus right now that the war in the North is a just war and that morality is on our side. The bitter truth must be said: this holy consensus is based on short-range selective memory, an introverted worldview, and double standards … Israel is using excessive force without distinguishing between civilian population and enemy … We invaded a sovereign state, and occupied its capital in 1982 … Approximately 14,000 civilians were killed between June and September of 1982 … On July 28, 1989, we kidnapped Sheikh Obeid, and on May 12, 1994, we kidnapped Mustafa Dirani … Hezbollah crossed a border that is recognized by the International community. That is true. What we are forgetting is that ever since our withdrawal from Lebanon, the Israeli Air Force has conducted photo-surveillance sorties on a daily basis in Lebanese airspace … border violations are border violations. Here, too, morality is not on our side …”

Now consider this from Youssef Ibrahim, a distinguished Egyptian-born reporter (New York Sun, July 14):

“Suddenly, war is upon us in the Greater Middle East. A coalition of Arabian Muslim jihadists has set the trap. Using Israeli soldiers as hostages, the Iranian, Hamas, Muslim Brotherhood, and Syrian jihadists are enveloping the region, opening a two-front war with Israel, delivering Lebanon into Hezbollah's grip, checkmating vital American interests, and bringing Iraq to the brink of civil war … Hobbled by fifth columns of Muslim fundamentalists within, the Arabs themselves cannot take on Syria or Iran … If Israel goes for the Syrian jugular, Iraq will get a break from the unending stream of insurgents from the Syrian border, and Lebanon could stand up to Hezbollah.”

Partisans may rant and rave but these are bold voices that challenge the status quo and the reflexive response, compelling Jews and Muslims alike to look into their hearts to seek paths to enduring peace.

Just as we are convinced of the goodness of our conviction, we have to recognize that our “enemies” are also convinced of the goodness of their conviction. “Legitimate grievance” is not the monopoly of any one side. In spite of the historical baggage, or perhaps because of it, both the Palestinians and the Israelis have claims upon it.

As long as Arabs derive their pride only from fighting Israel, the Arab world is doomed. As long as Israel thinks technological and military superiority are the final arbiter, Israel is doomed.

That is why the bold voices emanating from Israel and the Arab world stating difficult truths are so important. They point toward a different possibility, a possibility of replacing unending warfare with meaningful peace.

Only when such voices reach critical mass can we hope for the antagonists to make the effort to stand in each others’ shoes. Only then perhaps will an Israeli understand the anguish of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora when he says, “Are we children of a lesser God? Is an Israeli teardrop worth more than a drop of our blood?” Only then perhaps will an Arab understand the grim determination of an Israeli pollster when he says, “We are fighting for our survival. This time there is no other motive than Israel’s existence.”

Perhaps when that stage is reached will peaceableness toward enemies become a practical idea.

I leave you with the final scene from “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

The Finch family, and residents of sleepy Maycomb County, Alabama, have gone through a traumatic event. Irrepressible Scout is narrating her view of the event to her father. She is particularly wonder-struck by the dissolution of a stereotype.

“They all thought it was Stoner’s Boy messin’ up their clubhouse an’ throwin’ ink all over it an’ they chased him ‘n’ never could catch him ‘cause they didn’t know what he looked like, an’ Atticus, when they finally saw him, why he hadn’t done any of those things …. Atticus, he was real nice …”

His hands were under my chin, pulling up the cover, tucking it around me.

“Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.”

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