Has War Made Me Radical?

There are many writers out there who fight for seeing the gray, for being introspective, for thinking deeply about situations and not forcing ourselves into a life of propaganda and simplistic thinking.  And this war in Gaza, which is hopefully winding down, has thrown us off.

I noticed it among many writers.  The ones who, when the conflict first began – back when things seemed a lot more complicated, when three Jews had been kidnapped and killed, and a few other Jews had done a revenge killing of a young boy – were calling for people to look at things calmly, to evaluate things in a measured fashion.  We were apologizing for the death of the young boy.  We were frustrated, seeing some people adopting radical tones.

But then the rockets came.  And then the tunnels were discovered.  And then the war truly started.  And then the world started condemning Israel, as they tend to do.  And then our soldiers died.  And then their civilians died. And then more died.

And soon, I noticed something, not just within me, but within most writers who were calling for this gray, for this peaceful, calm, complicated thinking.

The gray started to get lost.  The calls for complicated thinking started shedding.  Soon, we were out there, like all the rest, calling for the world ot understand Israel’s actions.  We were spreading our own propaganda.  We were fighting the good fight.

Suddenly, there was no gray.

I noticed it in my fellow Muslim writers as well.  A writer who I’ve always admired as a voice of moderation began mercilessly attacking Israel for its war.  A friend of mine in Saudi Arabia claimed Israel’s very existence was what encouraged antisemitism.

I think most people would see these developments as negative.  “War makes people radical!” they say.  “You’ve bought into the propaganda!” they yell.

Another Time When Choices Were Made

I wonder what it was like to be a peace-loving postmodernist devoted to diversity in Europe in the 1930s.

Your country is on the verge of getting invaded by an evil psychopath with an army of devoted brainwashed followers.  The Jews in your hometown are shaking in their boots, knowing that if you fall, the lucky ones will be shot on the spot, and the unlucky ones…  You’ve seen other countries fall piece by piece, and as far as you are aware this psychopathic leader won’t stop until he’s taken over the whole world.

How would you see it?  What would you say?  Would there be a way to look at this while still remaining calm, remaining peaceful, looking at the gray and the complications of it all?

Today

This isn’t 1930’s Europe.  There is no Hitler on the verge of taking over the world, thank the Good Lord.

But I think we can compare our situation, in a way, to the peace-loving postmodernist in Europe.

A war breaks out.  Suddenly, a choice needs to be made: am I for or against this war?

I’m sure the European would have preferred to discuss the ins and outs of war, the various advantages, the value of fighting and not fighting.  But it no longer mattered once the war actually was upon him, once his country had made its choice.

There are times, in other words, where the gray disappears, where it matters, theoretically, but in which we must make a choice between the black and the white.

I wanted nothing more when this whole mess began than to start looking at everything from all the different angles.  To use the conflict as a means to introspection, as a way to get others to introspect.

But suddenly, the anger of the world erupted.  The fighting in the streets, the surrounding of synagogues by vile antisemitic dreck in Paris.

Israeli soldiers began dying.  Palestinian civilians.  Hamas continued its lies.

And suddenly, the gray no longer mattered.  Introspection no longer mattered.

What mattered was that, among the many wars being fought, there was also a war of words.  And by keeping my voice moderate, calm, level-headed, I was essentially a pacifist in a war that was leading to the suffering of Jews the world over and to a war I, in the end, considered just.

All my desire for peace with Muslims, the awareness that some of the moderate readers I wanted to most read my blog, the peace-lovers, the liberals, the deep thinkers… the awareness that they would be upset with my speaking my mind on this, on my choosing white or black as opposed to gray… all these things mattered less and less as the war wore on.

I was either a soldier, or I was AWOL.  There would be a time for peace, for calm deliberate talk about unity and the gray.  Now was not the time.

I think there is a deceptive nature to the concept of avoiding black and white thinking.  The gray can be seductive.  It can allow us to wallow in a world where choices are not made.  Seduce us into thinking, thinking, thinking without taking a deliberate, hard stance.

What “Choosing Sides” Reveals

As a writer, I am saddened by the fact that this war has created so much division among people that could have, in another situation, been united.  Who were uniting in a world of peace.

But it has also made it clear that much of that unity was an illusion.  An illusion that we allowed to deceive us as long as it never had to be tested.

War, something with which, on a practical level, you can only be for or against, doesn’t necessarily make us more radical.  It brings out our true beliefs.  It causes all our introspection and self-examination to be tested.  The black and white of it tests the gray we’ve delved into.

And perhaps therein lies the lesson: even the gray is complicated.  Even the infinite nature of complicated thinking is finite.  And sometimes, it is by choosing the black or the white that we truly can tap into the power of that infinitude.

  • If you really want to look at the radical left in the thirties and early forties, check out some of George Orwell’s essays, such as My Country Right or Left or the last section of The Lion and the Unicorn (most of it is out of date, but the last few pages are still relevant). I know I’ve mentioned Orwell before, but as a socialist he understood the left and its flaws from the inside and he spent much of the thirties and forties complaining about people on the left (mostly Marxists – no postmodernists until the sixties) who sided with Hitler, particularly after the Nazi-Soviet pact made support for Hitler official Soviet policy. Despite the fact that he was an anti-Zionist, I’ve always found Orwell’s essays hugely rewarding for understanding contemporary politics, if one changes a few names here and there, particularly why so many people on the left side against the only stable liberal democracy in the Middle East and with theocrats and terrorists. In The Lion and the Unicorn Orwell challenges people who argue that Britain is as bad Nazi Germany to stop making easy comparisons and decide where they would rather live in similar language to what you have written. “For there is no such thing as neutrality in war; in practice one must help one side or the other.”

    Other essays worth reading from this point of view include the parts of Inside the Whale where he talks about the pro-terrorism left, Antisemitism in Britain (of course!) and Notes on Nationalism (which deals with the whole idea of nuance vs. prejudice). But almost any essay Orwell wrote touches on politics in some lasting and insightful way e.g. Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool,, which is mostly about Shakespeare and Tolstoy, has a brilliant insight into the way pacifists can be the most intolerant people of all.

    For what it’s worth, although I don’t write publicly, I’ve found it hard to write poetry that doesn’t read back as propaganda these last few weeks, hard as I try to overcome this. I want nuance in my writing, I want to be able to feel the pain of the innocent no matter who they are… and yet I know which side I think is right and which my family, literally and metaphorically, are on. I think a balance can be struck – but don’t ask me how. Perhaps that can only come later, after the guns and the rockets stop.

    • Dude, you have gotten me on a hardcore Orwell kick. I’ve saved half his essays to Pocket, and am looking forward to reading them. I’ve also read the Antisemitism piece, which I found fascinating. I totally agree that he has many insights that apply today, and, in fact, I think they are almost necessary for a true understanding of the present, since there has been so much BS layered on top of BS over the last seventy years that can make clear thinking extremely difficult.

      And I hear what you’re saying in your last paragraph. I guess part of my point here is that a lack of nuance is not always a bad thing. In fact, I really believe that nuance can be something of an escape: a way to avoid the hard facts on the ground, and the difficult choices we have to make. Not saying that’s the case for you, but it definitely has been for me.

      • I’m glad you’re finding Orwell interesting and useful. My copy of his essays is falling to pieces from over-reading!

        I hear what you’re saying as well. As I said, I DID make a choice here: I sided with Israel, even going on a pro-Israel rally (on my birthday, no less!). Still, part of me feels that there is a place for nuance as well, maybe only once the fighting stops, a way to see both sides before making a choice. Certainly not to say both narratives are equal, but to make an informed choice, not a knee-jerk one, let alone one based on prejudice. To try to feel the pain of all suffering in the war, but at the same time to say, there is no moral equivalence between Israel and Hamas, the responsibility for the suffering ultimately rests with Hamas, who provoked an unnecessary war and then turned Gaza into a giant human shield. It’s difficult to get that balance, though, and I can’t say I’ve managed it myself.

  • Shoshannah

    There have been several times in our history when we have been commanded to be “radical” in self defense. But I do not just see this as Israel’s self defense or the Jewish people’s self defense. I also see this as a truly humanitarian cause and a door opened to save the next generation of Muslims from becoming what Hamas is. Three hundred children died in Gaza; incredibly sad to those of us thinking with National Geographic lenses. We can also say 300 souls spared a life of hatred and strapping bombs to their vests – or beating wives and children into the same oblivion. G-d loves His children. I work with so many abused individuals who strive to see why bad things happen to good people. Often, I think, it is good people making bad choices. But these are emotional thoughts. The REALITY is that we know for a fact that Hamas and every terror organization like them plans to raise a generation of haters for the soul purpose of death, destruction and everything that stands against humanity. They voice it proudly; this is not propaganda or rumor. As Jews, and as humanitarians, we have an obligation to recover that generation or as much of it as we can. We have an obligation to restore humanity to the region and to all nations by example and making the tough choices. How many times have we heard of people running into the most fatal situations to save a loved one, a friend, a child – even a pet? That’s extreme. This is not about you or me; this is about the future. Why were there trees in the desert when we left Mizraim? Because Jacob had thought ahead for us. We can be radical without hatred, without excessive emotion – we can radically love and we can radically do what needs to be done with intelligence and consideration. I do not think destroying an underground network of terror is radical; I know it is needed.

    Thank you for sharing and kol tuv, Elad.

  • bat Sarah

    Choosing the gray is almost like when people actively choose against themselves in attempt to think objectively. Like when Jews are anti-Israel without checking the facts just because they do not want to be defined by their background. Sometimes people choose to be anti-conformists under the guise of introspection for this very reason. I think it’s probably usually not a conscious decision…

    Nonetheless, I think that the pro-Israel mentality is, in general, one that allows for gray. Hardly any of us want to see innocent children and civilians die, but we understand that it is a necessary sacrifice when the terrorists hide behind them. There is also the point that @disqus_uk4RHBTj6c:disqus brought up about demolishing Hamas (and other terrorist groups) so that they do not indoctrinate any more people. But there is just no excuse for not protecting yourself. Perhaps what makes this seem less gray and more black-and-white is the fact that it has been repeated so many times. But that would only underscore the nuance within the argument.

  • Chosid

    The Western world, including ממשלת ישראל, is unwilling to use the extreme violence necessary to pacify or expel a hostile population. This war had nothing to do with Hamas, the kidnappings, the rockets or the blockade. It was, like every war that preceded it, about the existence of the Jews and their state.

    The fact that foreign values are preventing the end of this conflict means they are sentencing many future generations to the same cycle of endless war, with temporary ceasefires. The humanitarian solution is a war so violent that neither side will consider another one for the conceivable future.