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An uncomfortable silence

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Palestinians walk through the rubble of damaged houses minutes after they were hit in an Israeli strike, in Gaza City on Wednesday, July 23, 2014.

KHALILBY HAMRA / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES Enlarge Image

Palestinians walk through the rubble of damaged houses minutes after they were hit in an Israeli strike, in Gaza City on Wednesday, July 23, 2014.

As the violence surged in Gaza, information flew fast and furious, little of it unmoderated by bias -- and almost none of it unscarred by accusations of the same.

 

This is a regional conflict, but the world has an interest: because the conflict there is being prosecuted, in part, with support from the United States and other Western nations. Because the issues at play relate to a greater global movement toward peeling back the processes of colonization. Because the conflict is destabilizing, and radicalizing, and seemingly unending. Most of all, because human beings are unendingly being harmed.

Yet we struggle to talk about it openly -- and the razor-thin space allowed for non-partisan discourse forms its own bitter companion to tragedy.

Online, the topic degenerates into rage with no target. Impossible to discuss, sometimes even to raise, without risking public censure on the basis of beliefs not actually held, or accusations of agendas not actually felt. Express horror over the shattered bodies of Palestinian children, as many as 150 of whom had been killed in the conflict by Wednesday? You're called a fan of Hamas. Critique the deplorable tactics of Hamas? You're called complicit in the deaths of those children.

This week, The Daily Show host Jon Stewart skewered this schism, appropriately, by almost not saying a word. In a previous episode, Stewart had done a relatively tame bit snarking the proportional level of violence between Israel and Gaza, which triggered the predictable backlash. So on Monday, he feigned an attempt to open the show with news about the conflict. "We'll start tonight in the Middle East, where Israel..."

On that cue, a mob of Daily Show staffers surged up from under Stewart's desk, shrieking buzzwords into his ear. Stewart cowered. He tried again, to the same result. "Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this issue," he said, after the tongue-lashing faded. "But just merely mentioning Israel, or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel's policies, is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas." At this, the mob surged up from under the desk again.

So it goes, for those who do not subscribe to one ideological side: silence, often. Furtive retweets on Twitter, tentative declarations of "it's just so awful." When my partner and I joined a rally last Saturday in solidarity with the people of Gaza, at first I told no one. Not ashamed, but afraid: afraid of being accused of things I do not believe. Afraid of hurting friends who might, through a lens of polarity, interpret my grief as a euphemism for an attack on their own identity.

That fear was confirmed shortly thereafter, when my partner Tweeted a simple picture of the rally's march down Main Street. "Anti-Semites on parade," was the first and only comment, as if anyone could know the hearts and minds of hundreds of diverse people known only through a passing photo.

That person did not see the warm applause for Daniel Thau-Eleff, an acclaimed Winnipeg playwright and member of Independent Jewish Voices, who gave a searing and deeply moving speech. "I'd like to extend an open invitation," he said, in closing. "I think it would be also great to have things like panel discussions, where we can sit down in a quieter setting, and really engage on a deeper level and share our experiences and the knowledge we have about this conflict."

Yes. Respecting the complexity of the situation in Gaza requires respecting complex positions. Some elements of those discussions, particularly how Israeli and Palestinian experiences of collective generational trauma are woven through this conflict, are ones in which outsiders ought to simply listen. But in order for the people of the world to be any ally whatsoever in working towards a just peace, we have to agree to open and defend spaces to both listen, and just... speak.

Because it is dangerous for the world to behave as if there are only two streets, both requiring some sort of tacit or overt alliance with one faction, or one ideology. If all observers must fall into line only behind slogans and flags, then there is no room to develop free thinking that is centered on compassion. There is no way to help clear paths forward that are guided foremost by the rights and survival of all civilians.

That is a tragedy of its own, wherein the theory of collective punishment is able to be given serious play, and enforced polarization rules the day.

It is possible to believe, based on a rational interpretation of facts and events, that this cycle of violence and the economic stranglehold on Palestinian people is neither just, nor in the best interests for Israel's long-term security. And it is possible to believe that the public discourse about these acts cannot (and should not) be narrowed to simple assignation of blame, but must be moderated by the legitimate questions of power and proportionality.

Even if you don't believe those things, it must be possible to at least speak them without being shouted into silence.

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 26, 2014 D3

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