Jul. 14, 2006

Middle East backgrounder

From the Comments;

I called my local mp Joe Preston consevative and stated the point of war crimes and his secretary remined me of ww2 crimes and that Isreal has a right to defend.
[context; the Conservative gov't of Canada has voiced unconditional support for Israel's invasion of Lebanon and Gaza]

You should have asked him to remind you what exactly the people in Gaza and Beirut being bombed had to do with the holocaust.

This comment of your MP points out the very great difficulty of talking rationally about the Middle East. For a number of reasons, cultural, historical but most cogently, religious, very few commentators on the Israel/Palestine conflict are able to attain sufficient detachment.

Because this land is the cradle of the three great monotheistic religions, it is almost impossible for devout followers of those faiths to step back and consider the facts of the case as if Israel was just another country. Jews and Christians see it as part of divine plan; God gave that real estate to the Jews and anything they do to defend it is okay by God. Or at least some Christians, and some Jews. There are many secular Jews, some Zionist and some not, and there are some Orthodox Jews who regard the state of Israel as a blasphemous usurpation of God's authority.

(This is why any talk of a "Jewish conspiracy" is just nuts; there's an old Jewish saying, get four Jews together and you'll have five opinions.)

Likewise, it is mostly the evangelical Christians who are vehemently pro-Israel. Their "logic" is that the Jews return to the Holy Land is necessary for the coming of Armageddon, when their loving God will rain fire and brimstone down on the heathen for seven years, something they earnestly wish for. They can't be easily dismissed as cranks, either, because they are so politically powerful in the United States, Israel's chief sponsor and protector.

On the other side, Muslims (and again we need to say some Muslims) regard Israel as a satanic intrusion into their culture area, and see a divine duty to wipe it out.

Well, I'm a Buddhist and none of those holy lands, holy books or divine injunctions means squat to me. (To paraphrase a very old joke, why can't the Jews and Arabs just behave like good Buddhists?) So maybe I can try and see things from a neutral perspective.

Leaving aside the current crisis for the moment, let's consider the overall picture, trying to treat Israel not as a special divinely inspired realm, nor as the embodiment of evil incarnate, but as just another state; one among many.

The issues around the foundation of the state of Israel are complex. It is not true that Palestine was, as early Zionist rhetoric claimed, "a land without people for a people without land." There were inhabitants; both town-dwelling and nomadic (Bedouin). There were also a minority of Jews who had been there time out of mind, and who sometimes regarded the Zionist newcomers as trouble-making interlopers.

The early Zionists didn't think in terms of displacing the Arabs. If Palestine was not empty by any means, it wasn't overcrowded either and there was land to buy. Trouble began in the thirties, when Palestine was under a British mandate. The British had been playing a duplicitous double game ever since the Balfour declaration, which contradicted promises made to the Arabs. Actually, it was a triple game, because they also made a secret pact with the French to carve up the Middle East regardless of either Arab or Jew. (Maybe even a quadruple game, because they also did a dirty on the French and took the Mosul region; perfidious Albion.)

The British never had a consistent policy in Palestine, and fed expectations on both sides. As more Jews emigrated there to escape an increasingly dark fate in Europe, the Arabs took fright, fearing a demographic revolution that would leave them a minority in their own country. There were riots, sometimes with fatalities. There also emerged a new, harder Zionist movement that spawned terrorist gangs like Irgun and Stern. The first terrorists in the modern Middle East were Jewish. Their targets at this stage were mostly British soldiers and administrators, not yet Arabs. (The very first terrorists in the Middle East were probably the Ismaili Assassins of the 11th century. Those guys were scary)

When the Brits did their usual colonial cut-and-run leaving the natives to sort it out (as they did in India) all hell broke loose. The nascent United Nations had imposed a partition plan, but neither side was happy with the boundaries. There are conflicting accounts of the Israeli War of Independence, it's hard to cut through the rhetoric. It is true that the Arab states, themselves newly independent, launched a war of aggression seeking to destroy the fledging Jewish republic. But it is also true that Jewish terror gangs, with the complicity of the army, perpetrated a number of atrocities against peaceable Arab villagers, most notoriously at Deir Yallon, in what must be called ethnic cleansing.

There are also issues of historical controversy around the outbreak of the 1967 war; Israel it is clear fired the first shot, but their claim is that it was a legitimate act of pre-emption. The Arab states, headed by Egypt at this juncture, probably did intend to attack. They had certainly taken some hostile actions like blockading the Gulf of Aqaba.

The result of this war, of course, was that Israel was now in possession of additional territories; the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan heights, Jerusalem and the Sinai (the last was later returned to Egypt in a deal that got Sadat assassinated by one of his own crazies; a typical danger for peace-makers in the Middle East)

Without getting into the whole history of the occupation, one salient development needs to be stressed. The Israelis have throughout this latter period been moving settlers into the West Bank (and for a long while, also Gaza). The settlers, understandably resented by the local inhabitants, have required protection by the military occupation regime. This protection has included heavy-handed military repression, the confiscation of lands for buffer zones, the building of Jewish-only highways and most recently, a massive concrete wall. Palestinian resistance has ranged from unarmed mob action (intifada) to small guerilla bands to outright terrorism against civilian targets.

Some of the ethical issues are debatable, but the legal ones seem clear enough. The Israeli occupation, per se, is not illegal under international law. This was territory occupied in a defensive war and need only be returned after a valid peace-treaty. (One problem is who to make the treaty with; Jordan was the last state with legitimate sovereign rights to the West Bank and they have since renounced it). However, and this is the crux of the whole problem, the way the Israelis have handled the occupation is totally illegal. Under international law, it is not permitted to introduce your own people as settlers into an occupied region. Furthermore, the occupying authority has responsibility to protect the indigenous inhabitants and look after their welfare, something Israel has manifestly not done.

It seems clear to me that in the overall long-term the number one cause of instability and tension in the region has been the introduction of the settlers into the West Bank. Had Israel not done this, a decent peace with the Palestinians could have been achieved long ago. While we're on the topic of legalities, it should be said that the Palestinian response has not always been legal either. Resistance to occupation, even armed resistance, is generally considered legal but terrorist acts against civilians is not.

But here is where the baneful effects of religion come in. Many Israelis would have been happy to negotiate a trade of the territories for peace, but the settler movement is religiously inspired. They called these lands Judea and Samaria and base their claim to them on the Torah. Many, probably most, of the settlers are religious extremists. Why else would someone want to go live in an armed camp surrounded by hostile neighbours?

As mentioned, other factors make it difficult to consider Israel/Palestine in the cold light of reason. The long shadow of the holocaust, the exaggerated hype about "Arab terror", the prevalent media bias (at least in America) towards Israel. But religion has to be the number one obstacle to honestly considering Israel and it's actions as if it were just another state.

The United States has a large measure of responsibility. By giving Israel unconditional support and huge subsidies they have let her get away with literally murder. However, in the United States, far more than in any other modern democracy, the text of the Bible is still a major factor in decision making.

PS (July 16) Thanks for the comment which pointed out a sloppy error on my part, now corrected. It was of course Anwar Sadat who negotiated a peace treaty with Israel and was subsequently assassinated, not Mubarak.

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Reference - a good source for the religious war aspect is Karen Armstrong's Holy Wars.

Links - Tikkun Magazine - a progressive, sane and humane Jewish voice with good commentary on the Middle East.
Lebanese Bloggers - for an inside look at the current crisis

Jul. 13, 2006

Middle East

For anyone interested in sanity, peace and truth, the news out of the Middle East is even more depressing than usual. The current round of blood-letting can be traced back to the Palestinian election of a Hamas government to replace the hopelessly corrupt Fatah. Israel refused to accept this election, and for all the Bush regime's palaver about "spreading democracy" in the Middle East, neither did the United States and their usual coterie of sock puppets (sadly now including Canada.)

For a year and a bit, the Palestinian side behaved with remarkable restraint; maintaining a unilateral cease-fire. The Israeli government however, did not.

But Israel's offensive did not start last week. The three-month-old Israeli government is responsible for the killing eighty or more Palestinians, some of whom were children, in attacks aimed at carrying out illegal extrajudicial assassinations and other punishments.


What broke the dam of violence was an Israeli naval shelling of a beach in Gaza, killing two and wounded many more.

Hamas shot back, firing their ineffective home-made Kasam rockets into Israel. They also captured one Israeli soldier, and this has become a major item in the propaganda war; overlooking the fact, of course, that Israel has thousands of Palestinian prisoners, including a good portion of the elected legislative council. I don't recall our PM mentioning this when he called on Hamas to release their prisoners. And by the way, Israel has refused all offers to negotiate a prisoner exchange.

Then Israel retaliated, throwing their modern land and air war machine at the desolate and impoverished Gaza strip. There's no point trying to put a pretty face on it, this Israeli action breaches several of the international laws of war. Israel has hit power and water plants. The destruction of civilian infrastructure is war-crime. So is collective punishment.

Now Lebanon is getting pounded as well. How many casualties will there be before this madness ends?

The sad irony is that none of this is in Israel's own best interests. The only way forward for the Jewish state, it's only real hope for long-term survival is to make peace with it's neighbours. Unfortunately, the Israeli peace movement, which at one time looked like gaining strength, is increasingly marginalized. The hawks feel emboldened, I think, because of the current regime in Washington. And we all know about that lot.

The deeper roots of this whole mess are twisted and complex, more complex I think than partisans of either side want to admit. The UN partition plan of 1947 was really the only sensible solution then, but neither side wanted to accept it. Any sensible person can see that the only long-term solution now is to go back to something like it; Israel ought to abide by international law and get out of the occupied territories completely. Jerusalem ought to be made an international city, like Danzig between the wars.

But unfortunately, I don't think sensible people are running the world right now.

The current danger is the conflict escalating to bring in other states; Israel has already made over-flights of Syrian territory and Iran has stated that it will retaliate if Syria is attacked. This could conceivably bring in the USA on one side and Russia and maybe even China on the other.

You know what? This samsara really sucks.

Jul. 10, 2006

Fear and Fearlessness

In a recent post, I wrote something about how we need to be vigilant to avoid being manipulated by fear. In this post, I'd like to explore a little about the Buddhist teachings around fear.

To start with, it has always struck me as curious that fear is not listed in any of the standard lists of defilements; it is not classed as a hindrance (nivarana) nor a taint (asava) nor a root defilement like ignorance, ill-will or desire. In fact, it is not even listed in the abhidhamma among the cetasikas (mental factors) unless we count hiri (moral dread) which is not at all what we usually mean by fear.

Why is this? It can only be that fear is a complex mental state composed of other factors, or perhaps reducible to other factors. I have heard, for instance, fear described as aversion projected into the future. This captures one important aspect of fear; it is a mental state that is not grounded in the now. In the present moment, there is nothing to fear. We fear what may be coming; the approach of unpleasant sensation (dukkha vedana).

Doesn't it always reduce down to that? We fear many things, but if we examine the reasons why we fear them, it is always because we imagine that they are going to hurt. This is the exact flip side of desire; we desire many things but in the end, it is because we think or imagine that they will yield us a hit of pleasant sensation (sukha vedana.) Sukha and dukha truly make the world go round.

Fear also has an aspect of ignorance. Often we fear most that which we don't know. But there is a deeper aspect here too. Fear is always related to the self. One fears loss or damage to the self or that which belongs to the self. Since the self is an illusory mental construct, there is really nothing to fear. Indeed, one of the qualities of the arahant is that he or she is abhaya, free from fear.

So insight into the true (void) nature of phenomena brings fearlessness. Metta, loving-kindness, is also given as a powerful antidote to fear. So is sila, or virtuous behaviour. One of the benefits of keeping the five precepts is freedom from fear. Once, I was in a jungle area of Thailand, being driven along with four monks and a layman to a forest monastery. The truck got stuck in the muddy road and the driver opted to stay with his vehicle and wait for rescue, and the rest of us walked the few miles left. It was just getting dark. The layman had previously in his life once made a living as a hunter in the jungles of Malaysia. As a result of that karma, he saw the darkening forest as a place of fear and dread and was afraid the whole time. None of the monks seemed to be concerned.

There is one sutta where the Buddha talks about fear and dread specifically; the Bhayabherava Sutta, MN 4. There, he lists 13 causes of fear, among them sensual desire, lack of mindfulness and "being a drooling idiot." (click on the link to read the whole list) His suggested antidote is not to surrender to the fear. If the "fear and trembling" comes upon one while walking to and fro, one should continue to walk to and fro until the fear subsides. Likewise if it comes on one while sitting.

This can be taken at face value; don't change the posture if fear arises, don't run away. But it can also be understood on a purely mental level - don't run away from that which you fear, but face it full on. One writer on Dharma (E.E. Harding) put it like this; "the way out is down and through." Running away (suppressing) only strengthens negative mental states.

(A short digression; when I first came across this sutta I asked one of the elder monks whether the advice not to change postures would apply to other defilements as well. He thought about it a moment, and said I don't think it would always work. "I'll just continue to lie here until the sloth and torpor subsides.")

Another place fear appears in the canon is in the Vinaya texts where the Buddha counsels the Sangha against making such decisions as electing sangha officers based on desire, ill-will, delusion or fear. This can be extrapolated to a general principle for making decisions in life.

The final reference that comes to mind (and I am probably not being complete by any means) is in the list of Insight Knowledges. This the description of the states the mind passes through on the way to full awakening, as insight matures through the practise of vipassana. One of the later stages is called Knowledge of Fearfulness. This is when the mind encounters, possibly for the first time, the naked reality of samsaric existence. The horror of seeing clearly how everything, one's mind, one's body and the external world, is in a constant state of break-up and destruction can lead to an experience of fear. Some meditators go through this quickly, and come out the other side. Others get stuck for a long time. The difference is whether one has the steadiness of purpose to keep going. "The way out is down and through."