Palestine and the Country of Last Things

Sometimes coincidences collide violently.

A book on an empty late night R train and rifle fire half a world away.

I lurched through the tunnels under Queens Boulevard as I turned the first few pages of Paul Auster’s In the Country of Last Things.  In the book, Auster describes a wealthy young woman who leaves her family to search for “William,” lost in a nameless city riven by homelessness, poverty, scarcity, and famine.  Auster sketches hell but does so merely by extrapolating the very reality of want out to a scale at which it affects those who would otherwise be insulated from its terror. His hell is absolutely real – life without food or shelter – but hellish only in the way he forces his reader to imagine it as something more than a marginal reality for marginal people; corners of cities rarely visited, exurbs easily ignored, people in other places, arid corners of the world.

At one point, in describing the ubiquity of death in the city, Auster’s narrator comments on what the reader may perceive as the callousness of her fellow city-dwellers.  She says:

“No matter what you might think, the real problem is never a lack of pity.  Nothing breaks here more readily than a heart.”

Some hours after I read those words, news broke that Israeli soldiers had fired on largely unarmed Palestinian protestors while dispersing a protest at their militarized partition on the Gaza Strip.  Before the sun set on the 1967 lines, they had killed 58 unarmed civilians.  Hamas reported that the soldiers injured more than two thousand other unarmed demonstrators as well. I suppose one might argue that there’s little reason to accept such a self-serving account at face value, but for those familiar with Israel’s past actions at the border, there’s little reason to doubt it either.  That aid organizations and media outlets corroborate most accounts of the violence leaves little room for disagreement except perhaps by those inclined to quibble over the exact body count.

Hamas likely instigated the more aggressive of the protesters, fully expecting a militarized response.  Israel didn’t disappoint and fired live ammunition at unarmed men, women, and children. The United States saw fit to unveil its controversial new embassy in the middle of it all, scrubbed its criticism of the protesters from its transcribed remarks, and ignored the Israeli overreaction.

There is nothing here of which politicians should be proud.  Just a host of bloodied civilians and those moving them about the board as political pawns.

I put the book away, left the train, and walked home.  The next morning I opened Facebook and saw the following comment on a post about the dead:

“If you're dealing with enemy combatants attempting to invade a sovereign nation and commit acts of terrorism, I don't see how the age or gender of those combatants is relevant.”

Nothing breaks here more readily than a heart.  But apparently “here” is populated more sparsely than it once was.

I often think that partisanship shouldn’t rob people of their humanity, but that’s much too passive an assessment in an affluent country amidst affluent peers where compassion cannot be snatched away like a half-eaten sandwich by a stray dog.  Empathy, under the circumstances in which our political debate generally unfolds, is far more often relinquished than wrenched from clasped hands. It’s more appropriate to say that people don’t need to cede their compassion to partisan considerations. Or that people must not forfeit their compassion to partisan concerns.  Or that people who willingly relinquish their humanity to partisan concerns have lost something they won’t easily get back.

There is plenty of room to believe in Israel’s right to exist without supporting its overbearing military occupation and violent handling of protestors.  There is plenty of room to oppose Israel’s violent excesses and mourn for those torn apart by its bullets without ignoring or minimizing Hamas and Hezbollah.

I have a lot of thoughts about the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but they’re subordinate at the moment to one.  If your heart can’t break both for Israeli civilians taking shelter from rockets and for unarmed Palestinians being gunned down by soldiers, then you’re a small but indispensable part of the machinery that keeps the rockets in the air and the army mobilized.

Nothing breaks here more readily than a heart, but it’s worth contemplating other things that break quite readily. 

Spines of books. 

Our capacity for decency, apparently. 

Shin bones in the path of a bullet. 

A certain resignation to a life robbed of dignity. 

Simple narratives. 

Political courage.