Shulamit S. Magnus
Jewish historian

Split screens, personal

Much has been made of the split-screen images produced on Monday, May 11, showing scenes of violence on the Gaza-Israel border on one side and a smiling Ivanka Trump (or alternatively, a delighted-looking Netanyahu), at the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem, on the other.

Juxtaposition of these images was accompanied with condemning commentary: there was callous Israeli indifference, or worse, regarding the high level of casualties and deaths on the Gaza lines that day.

Some of us have our own split screens. Indeed, not two, but multiple split screens. I feel mine keenly these days.

I have utter sympathy for desperate people in Gaza, even if they hate me; deny my right to exist; wish me dead. They are human beings and yes, they live in an outdoor prison.

That prison is of Hamas’ making. The reptilian ruthlessness of Hamas toward the people of Gaza, nothing new but on technicolor display these past few weeks in particular, is breathtaking. The lies Hamas told people without jobs, drinking water, sewage treatment, electricity, hope, because Hamas has prioritized offensive weapons against Israel over the lives of Gazans, beggar the normal mind. Gazans were told that they could go out and prevail against one of the best armies in  the world, which is sworn above all (“Israel Defense Forces”), to protect its citizens, and which has ample reason to fear that people who say they are going to storm through the border, kidnap and murder, will do just that. Gazans, armed with Molotov cocktails, wire cutters, machetes, knives, scissors, and some, with guns, were told that Israeli soldiers were fleeing (a lie their ancestors were told in 1947-48, which is partly responsible for the existence of refugee descendants to begin with); entry would be “easy” once the border was violated. Children and women were not to worry because Israelis would not shoot children and women, even as Israeli fields and forests burned from incendiary kites which “peaceful” Gazan “protesters” flew over the border; kites often emblazoned with swastikas, “because Jews go crazy when you say, Hitler.” The “march of return” was one big lie, deceiving people that they could overrun and undo the State of Israel and take back their great-grandfather’s home. Done for an anticipated media response and subsequent fallout, hostile to Israel, which in fact, have materialized.

Hamas sent “peaceful” “protesters” to destroy the Shalom Crossing, through which dozens of trucks daily pass from Israel, bringing tons of food and supplies (this is Israel’s “blockade”). It was also the site of a gas installation, though which gas was delivered from Israel to Gaza. At first, scenes of the destruction were just incomprehensible. Then we learned that the PA, sworn enemy of Hamas, taxes goods that pass through the Crossing, so Hamas wanted it destroyed, using the cover of the “march” events; Gazans, per Hamas norm, be damned. But what to expect from a group led by Yihye Sinwar, who has declared holy the deaths of even a million Palestinians, specifically including women and children, in the “march of return”? If the people are hungry, Sinwar has said, they will “eat the livers” of Israelis (Khaled Abu Toameh and TOI Staff, “Hamas Head Sinwar Says Gaza Protest Will Continue Until the Border is Erased,” Times of Israel, March 30, 2018).

I have followed reporting on the events on the Gaza border closely and been stupefied by willful distortion of facts, perpetrated again and again in misleading headlines and articles about “unarmed demonstrators” and supposed wanton IDF use of force and failure to use non-lethal measures of deterrence. These reports ignore numerous videos showing heavy use of tear gas as well as shots fired to the air, to little effect.They ignore the Israeli airdrop of leaflets warning Gazans not to storm the border, and similar announcements over the radio. Such reports ignore published testimonies by soldiers and observers detailing elaborate measures the army took not only to prevent incursions but injuries to, let alone deaths, of violent masses surging toward them on multiple points along the lines (see, e.g., Kinley Tur-Paz, “I Was at the Gaza Border, We Did All We Could to Avoid Killing,” Times of Israel, May 17, 2018). They ignore the statement of Doctors Without Borders that over 90% of gunshot injuries were to the legs.The injuries detailed are grievous; no gunshot injury is anything but grievous. But the lie about IDF behavior is precisely that. And the responsibility for sending civilians, including women and children, to try to storm an army is Hamas’ alone.

Yet mainstream media persist in portraying highly organized, subsidized, violent actions as a “spontaneous” uprising of “unarmed civilians” and in asserting a “massacre” by Israel. The “massacre” designation persisted even after Hamas claimed 50 of the 62 people killed in the clashes on May 11, and Islamic Jihad claimed another three (see (…/Manage  Hamas official: 50 of the 62 Gazans killed in border violence were our members

Einat Wilf poses the question, “If an army were to shoot indiscriminately for several hours into a crowd of 45,000 representing the population distribution in Gaza, what are the odds of killing 50 men who are all Hamas operatives (0.1% of the population), and only 12 civilians?” (again, the actual civilian toll was 9).

Reports of a “massacre” of “unarmed” “protesters” persisted even after a senior Hamas official, interviewed in Arabic on Al-Jazera, denied that Hamas’ tactics in general or in this instance were non-violent in intent or practice (Senior Hamas official: “This is not peaceful resistance. We are deceiving the public.”…/status/996365500308492291Manage  MEMRI on Twitter MOBILE.TWITTER.COM)

I am a Jewish historian. I know very well instances of wild distortion and demonizing fabrication about Jews, whether driven by ignorance, phobia, or willful, malicious intent. It is one thing to study such past phenomena and quite another to experience them. The last few weeks have dispensed with the need for “historical empathy,” or even imagination about things like blood libels or well poisoning accusations. PA President Abbas was just photographed reading a newspaper with a huge cartoon showing an Israeli soldier feeding poison to a Palestinian baby.

Hamas is the Assad of Gaza. Yet reporting persists in placing the onus on Israel for Gazan casualties and deaths. The pass which Hamas is given constitutes collusion, enablement, and encouragement, and manifests the racism of low expectations (see the particularly trenchant critique by Bret Stephens, “Gaza’s Miseries Have Palestinian Authors,” New York Times, May 16, 2018).

If all this were not mind boggling enough, there is the remarkable experience of hearing people, Jews, say that events are “unbelievable” and so cannot, in fact, have occurred.

When I have taught any course related to the Shoah, my urgent goal is not so much to bring students to declare “never again” but to confront them with overwhelming evidence of what people and systems are capable of; to strip them of disbelief which denies facts; disbelief which was indispensable to the Nazis’project, because disbelief disabled the victims and those who might have helped them.The Nazis’ banked on the disbelief of decent people who could not grasp what the Nazis were doing because it was completely outside their own universe of imagination.

Decent human beings inhabit the confines of their own experience and imagination. They also unknowingly assume that others share these confines. And that is very dangerous, because such assumption gives powerful advantage to perpetrators, whether of “everyday” crime; massive fraud, like that of Bernard Madoff; or orchestrated manipulations, like the “march of return.” The fact that it “makes no sense” to send people to charge lines defended by the IDF is indeed true—depending on what “sense” one is using. But the sense of decent, normal people and that of those who orchestrate and valorize the death of desperate civilians are entirely different animals. When normal people assume that sociopaths share their norms, terrible things happen.

Rigid denial, not just by media outlets: I interact with people who, confronted with evidence, persist with the same line they started with, as if fantasized and actual reality are– or must be, identical, and suited to their needs. To the “don’t confuse me with the facts” crowd, no evidence makes a dent. Prior ideological, or emotional, commitments and needs rule.This crowd includes Trump and his minions, and people on the opposite end of the political spectrum from him. The experience of encountering the denial of evidence, the substitution of subjective assertions and needs for fact, is surreal, like something out of Kafka or Arthur Koestler.

Then there is demonization. I saw a performance by a Dutch comedienne, broadcast on Israeli TV, in which the actress spoofs Netta Barzilay, Israel’s recent winner of the Eurovision contest and her winning song, “Toy.” But there was nothing funny about this spoof, in which, against the backdrop of scenes from the Gaza violence, “Netta Barzilay,” sings rather different lyrics, celebrating the Israeli “massacre” of innocents. To be clear: in this expression, broadcast on Dutch TV by a popular entertainer, Israel not only “massacred” innocents; it celebrates this. The only thing missing from this “Netta” and her accompanying dancers were horns and a tail.

So: I have utter sympathy for civilians in Gaza, and I know that the libels about IDF ”massacres” are precisely that. Violence, casualties, and fatalities do not serve Israel’s interest. They do serve Hamas’ interest, which card we are seeing played to perfection, to the ignorant, the gullible, or the prejudiced on the world scene.

One could of course, and should, subject Israeli policies and politics to solid, critical scrutiny. Such scrutiny however, should not be limited to Israel because Israel is far from the only actor in all this and the obsessive, demonizing focus on Israel to the exclusion of other actors, not least Hamas but Egypt, as well, perpetuates the disaster of Gaza. Unless of course, the obsessive, demonizing focus on Israel has nothing to do with misery in Gaza and serves rather different goals. Goals closer to those of the organizers of the “march of return.”

Finally, the embassy opening.Talk about split screens.

I supported the embassy’s move to Jerusalem. Refusing to locate it and other embassies in Jerusalem is a remnant of the dogmatic denial of Jewish sovereignty which informs both classic Christian and Muslim theology. A secularized, politicized version of this denial underlies the Arab boycott of Israel, threats to other nations to comply with it, and their actual compliance. The time for all this has long since passed. Jewish sovereignty in Israel is not negotiable. Those who have a problem with it need to deal with and get over it.

I wish the decision to move the embassy had not been enacted by Trump, whom I revile. Yet I know that Clinton, for whom I voted, and for whom I would vote again, would not have moved it.

I am no fan of Netanyahu, either. I was a new olah when the last elections were held and Netanyahu made an openly racist, fear-and-hate-mongering, election day appeal to bring his voters to the polls. It was despicable but I have come to expect such from him and from those in his party and coalition.

We cannot even ascribe Netanyahu’s election day comments to opportunism. Just this month, he posted on his facebook page an unsupported and, it turns out, fabricated accusation that fans of the Arab-Israeli Bnei Sakhnin soccer club had jeered during a moment of silence for ten Israeli teens killed recently in a flash flood. When Netanyahu learned that the information was false, he removed the post from his facebook page but has refused to apologize to the Israeli-Arab team for his slander and incitement or to the families of the dead for using their pain to incite division and hatred– his stock and trade as a politician.

Not surprisingly but disappointing, nonetheless, there was not a word of generosity, inclusion, or reassurance, in Netanyahu’s speech at the embassy opening to the twenty-percent of the Israeli population which is Arab.There was no model to Jewish Israelis of respect and accommodation to the minorities of this country, rather than the crass triumphalism in which Netanyahu and too many others revel.

And then, there were the other events of the embassy’s opening, which were a disgrace to diplomacy and a fulsome affront to Jews.

The event was a wildly partisan affair, a Republican, specifically, a Trumpian campaign event. The trend to make Israel a partisan issue, a tactic Netanyahu has promoted if not invented, is toxic and dangerous to Israel and to American Jewry. Those who made this event a  partisan affair are short-sighted political narcissists causing tremendous harm to long-term Israel-US relations and to relations between the State of Israel and the vast majority of US Jews, who did not and do not support Trump or vote Republican.

This embassy is that of the United States, not of any of its political parties. Or so one would hope, a hope not given even standing room at the embassy opening.

And then there were the two evangelical preachers openly missionizing during their invited “benedictions” at the event.

One of them, Robert Jeffress, is a bigot who has made rabid comments about gays, Mormons, and Muslims and has said Jews will go to hell. Jeffress not only mentioned “the Messiah” among those—“the prophets, the Scriptures”– who brought the message of Jerusalem to the world. He actually ended with, “We pray this in the name and spirit of the prince of peace, Jesus our lord.” (Don’t take my word for it; the entire event is on Youtube, under “US Embassy Opens in Jerusalem—Full Ceremony”).

John Hagee was given the stage for a closing “benediction”, in which he turned the tented space in which the assembled sat into a church. “Can we stand?” he asked, which the assembled — Israelis, including army representatives but also Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Chief rabbis and various other very bearded, black-hatted Jewish men, Israel’s Prime Minister and President, and Members of Knesset, dutifully did. Then he cried out, in best revival style, “Can we all shout ‘Halleluya’?” Which they all did. To which Hagee answered, “Amen.”

I, a religious Jew, was so shocked and offended at this spectacle that I cannot begin to convey it. But any kind of Jew would be offended, though I fear most at the event had no idea of the worldview into which they were being impressed and the role they were being made to play, unknowingly (not that intent matters to evangelicals).To have an embassy opening become an evangelical (or any Christian) meeting; to see missionizing pastors use it for their apocalyptic vision of mass Jewish conversion at the Second Coming, and to know that the US State Department and an ambassador whose politics are as right-wing as his diplomatic credentials are thin, left me not celebrating the opening but shaking my head in disbelief and dismay.

Let me hasten to add that I was not cheered by the not-even-equal-time — two missionizing pastors to one rabbi — given to, of course, a fundamentalist rabbi, from Chabad.

This was an embassy opening.There should have been no religious intrusion whatever, by any representatives of any religion or sect therein. Not even by a Muslim Imam, of which — of course — there was none.

The only expansive, inclusive, diplomatic moments came in remarks by Israel’s President Rivlin and by the performer, who sang, “salaam,” several times in her song, “od yavo shalom alenu” (“peace will yet come to us”).

So, my screens are very split these days. My complex identity always has multiple screens, which mostly is fine and makes for creative tension, and in any case, is an inescapable part of contemporary consciousness..

But the screens these days do not even seem to be on the same “set.” And any kind of wholeness seems a long way off.

About the Author
Shulamit S. Magnus Professor Emerita of Jewish Studies and History at Oberlin College. She is the author of four published books and numerous articles on Jewish modernity and the history of Jewish women, and winner of a National Jewish Book award and other prizes. Her new book is the first history of agunot and iggun from medieval times to the present, across the Jewish map. It also presents analysis and critique of current policy on Jewish marital capitivity and proposals to end this abuse. Entitled, "Thinking Outside the Chains About Jewish Marital Captivity," it is forthcoming from NYU Press. She is a founder of women's group prayer at the Kotel and first-named plaintiff on a case before the Supreme Court of Israel asking enforcement of Jewish women's already-recognized right to read Torah at the Kotel. Her opinions have been published in the Forward, Tablet, EJewish Philanthropy, Moment, the Times of Israel, and the Jerusalem Post.