Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Cunning of History, Now

There was a very interesting little book, published around the time of the Nixon Administration's fall, called The Cunning of History, by Richard L. Rubenstein. It was about the Holocaust during World War II. It talked about the responsibility for the mass extermination of Jews, but not just from the efficiency of the Nazi killing machine. The book expanded the blame beyond Hitler and the prison guards.

If Rubenstein had written the book today he'd have a lot more data at hand to draw from. His chapter "Mass Death and Contemporary Civilization" would have had so many more recent parallels to compare, from Cambodia to the AIDS epidemic, for example. In 1975 there wasn't common knowledge of, say, IBM's complicity and how the Nazis used IBM punchcards in order to keep track of the Jews in Germany. His chapter "The Modernization of Slavery" after examining how the Nazis worked people to death could have compared that process to the global sweat shops under "free trade". And while he pointed to the collaboration of British and American figures of state in allowing the Holocaust to run its course while justifying their failure to intervene, Rubenstein had no clue in 1975 that America's most prominent political family in the second half of the Twentieth Century, the Bushes, had the foundation of its modern fortune built handling Nazi investments on Wall Street. Nor was it common knowledge then how graciously fascist and Nazi residua had been welcomed into Western intelligence services after WWII.

An article by Robert Fisk, who's been reporting in the Middle East for years, reminded me of a chapter towards the end of Rubenstein's book, "The Victim's Response: Bureaucratic Self-Destruction". Rubenstein wrote:

Regrettably, those who avoid objective reflection on the Jewish response add to the confusion concerning what took place. Every assault requires at least two actors. Even the most innocent victim is part of the process of his own undoing by virtue of the fact that he did not or could not take protective measures. The very helplessness or ignorance of the victim is an indispensable part of what takes place.

In reality, we know that the leaders of one of Europe's most numerous Jewish communities, the Hungarian, had accurate knowledge of what was taking place, yet they were as little capable of resistance as any of the other Jewish communities. From 1942 to 1944, while most of Europe's Jews were being killed, the Hungarian government, one of Germany's wartime allies, resisted German attempts to take charge of Jews who were Hungarian citizens. The Hungarian government was willing to hand over to the Germans Jews settled in non-Hungarian regions under its control. It was not willing to permit the extermination of its own citizens, although it did subject them to harsh, anti-Semitic measures.

The situation of Hungary's Jews changed radically when the Germans occupied Hungary in March 1944 and began making their own arrangements for the "deportation" of the Jews. According to Dr. Rudolf Kastner, a controversial wartime leader of Hungary's Zionist organization:

In Budapest we had a unique opportunity to follow the fate of European Jewry. We had seen how they had been disappearing one after the other from the map of Europe. At the moment of the occupation of Hungary, the number of dead Jews amounted to over five million.... We knew more than was necessary about Auschwitz.... We had, as early as 1942, a complete picture of what had happened in the East with the Jews deported to Auschwitz and the other concentration camps.

Yet, in spite of what was known, Adolf Eichmann was able to convince the community's leaders in a single session that they had nothing to fear as long as they cooperated fully with the SS. The cooperation involved Jewish supervision of enforced ghettoization, confiscation of real and personal property, and finally deportation for "labor service" in Poland. Although these were the same measures used by the Germans everywhere to ensure the smooth functioning of the extermination program, Hungarian Jews permitted themselves to accept Eichmann's word that this time the process would stop short of the final step. Apparently, the horror that awaited them was so great that they chose to grasp at the most pathetic delusion rather than face it. That the delusion was self-imposed can be seen in one of the most extraordinary letters ever written by leaders of a community in modern times. On May 3, 1944, at the height of the savage deportation process, The Central Jewish Council of Hungary wrote a letter seeking an audience with Andor Janosz, the puppet minister of the interior who had been hand-picked by the Germans to facilitate the deportation of almost 1,000,000 Jews.

"We emphatically declare that we do not seek the audience to lodge complaints about the merit of the measures adopted, but merely to ask that they be carried out in a humane spirit." There was to be no protest about mass extermination, only discussion of how to make the deaths easier for the victims. It was actually easier for the Germans to exterminate the Hungarian Jews than it had been for them to kill those who had previously been exterminated.

It reminded me of Flannery O'Connor's short story, "A Good Man Is Hard To Find". If you've read it, you'll understand the reference.

More Rubenstein:

During the Holocaust, there was some sporadic resistance to the Germans, the most spectacular instance of resistance being the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of Jews did not resist. They had been conditioned by their religious culture to submit and endure... Such submission was the last chapter in the history of a cultural and psychological transformation begun by the rabbis and Pharisees almost two thousand years before.

I could go further and suggest that all religions, at their core, demand a submission of the self to the higher being and that the nature of being religious puts the individual at risk to the whims of the powerful who always insinuate their business plan into God's will. Religions become 12-step programs where the individual must admit his failures, foibles and powerlessness and then do what is supposed to be God's will, which usually gives the powerful more power and wealth at the individual's peril. Religions eventually tend to shake out as hierarchies. And states justify themselves as a part of His Will, thus the State assumes the cloak of God, even states that claim a separation of church and state.

The first century philosopher Seneca wrote: "Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful." While you chew on that one, take a look at the Mideast again.

It was this Robert Fisk article to which I previously referred:

There was a day when we worried about the "Arab masses" – the millions of "ordinary" Arabs on the streets of Cairo, Kuwait, Amman, Beirut – and their reaction to the constant bloodbaths in the Middle East. Could Anwar Sadat restrain the anger of his people? And now – after three decades of Hosni Mubarak – can Mubarak (or "La Vache Qui Rit", as he is still called in Cairo) restrain the anger of his people? The answer, of course, is that Egyptians and Kuwaitis and Jordanians will be allowed to shout in the streets of their capitals – but then they will be shut down, with the help of the tens of thousands of secret policemen and government militiamen who serve the princes and kings and elderly rulers of the Arab world.

Egyptians demand that Mubarak open the Rafah crossing-point into Gaza, break off diplomatic relations with Israel, even send weapons to Hamas. And there is a kind of perverse beauty in listening to the response of the Egyptian government: why not complain about the three gates which the Israelis refuse to open? And anyway, the Rafah crossing-point is politically controlled by the four powers that produced the "road map" for peace, including Britain and the US. Why blame Mubarak?

To admit that Egypt can't even open its sovereign border without permission from Washington tells you all you need to know about the powerlessness of the satraps that run the Middle East for us.

Open the Rafah gate – or break off relations with Israel – and Egypt's economic foundations crumble. Any Arab leader who took that kind of step will find that the West's economic and military support is withdrawn. Without subventions, Egypt is bankrupt. Of course, it works both ways. Individual Arab leaders are no longer going to make emotional gestures for anyone. When Sadat flew to Jerusalem – "I am tired of the dwarves," he said of his fellow Arab leaders – he paid the price with his own blood at the Cairo reviewing-stand where one of his own soldiers called him a "Pharaoh" before shooting him dead.

The true disgrace of Egypt, however, is not in its response to the slaughter in Gaza. It is the corruption that has become embedded in an Egyptian society where the idea of service – health, education, genuine security for ordinary people – has simply ceased to exist. It's a land where the first duty of the police is to protect the regime, where protesters are beaten up by the security police, where young women objecting to Mubarak's endless regime – likely to be passed on caliph-like to his son Gamal, whatever we may be told – are sexually molested by plain-clothes agents, where prisoners in the Tora-Tora complex are forced to rape each other by their guards. Imagine how clearly what is happening in Gaza, and in Israel, Egypt and the capitols of Islam, and in Washington, DC (or in Mumbai or Lhasa) would be if motives weren't concealed under the mantle of religion?

Imagine if every Israeli incursion weren't dipped in its religious "right to exist" over other's property rights (God as The Great Real Estate Agent In The Sky), or if every Qassam weren't launched in a vain holy fervor?

I think most people who find their way to Dead Horse have an appreciation of the immorality of Israel bombing the infrastructure of Gaza into smithereens while taking out civilians along the way. And Dead Horse readers can understand that creating mass starvation is, well, evil. But can anyone honestly say that lobbing rockets into Israel has benefited the Gazans one iota? Although Palestinian rocketry hasn't killed many Israelis, it's the thought that counts. If it's a symbol of resistance, then it is a symbol that gives Israel the figleaf to do what it has done and will do again. It would make more sense for unarmed Palestinian men, women and children to march on the gates of Israel, shout out, "You are starving us," and let the Israeli machine guns mow them down. That would remove the ambiguity that Qassam rockets provide. Either Israel's worst ambitions would finally be exposed to even the strongest supporter of Israel or it would end the Gazans' suffering and we could move on to other things about which to wring our hands. Instead we have this continuous bloodbath that never resolves meted out over the years.

Hamas wraps itself in the cloak of its own true religion. It uses its own true religion to motivate its population. While intellectuals in the West discuss the moral issues of this carnage Hamas justifies itself as the agent of Allah's good intentions. To that end it is no better or worse than Israel, except that Israel has bigger and better weapons and so Hamas knows it goes into every military engagement with the likelihood of producing many more martyrs than Israel can ever hope to have. But that's good for Hamas because they have a bigger reserve of unemployed and martyrs are a fine way to earn points for going to Heaven. And it strengthens the religious bonds in which the people of Gaza are held. Because religion answers the age-old question: What is the reason for all this shit?

And, of course, if we zoom out we can see that Hamas gets enough aid from corrupt Middle Eastern allies to continue the deadly dance. And the U.S. helps to keep its dancer, Israel, on the dance floor. It's enough to continue this without pushing it to the endgame where Israel becomes so endangered that it unleashes its nuclear arsenal and makes Islam glow from Tangiers to Jakarta.

If Hamas intends for its population to be martyrs, then line them up and let the killing begin. But I suspect that the continuation of Hamas the political organization requires martyrs to be doled out over time. In that way they are an improvement over the Jewish leaders in WWII Hungary who had no long-term goals, just a need to keep the process dignified. Any admission by Palestinian leadership of Israel's inevitability will end up in their replacement by others who are willing to continue the fantasy of Jews drowning in the Mediterranean at some point in the hazy future.

The most discouraging point of all this was that after the Israelis withdrew from Gaza Hamas held rallies proclaiming that they had "won" the war. How about that? That is a guarantee that the promise of martyrdom and the hope of an imaginary victory over Israel has a stronger pull on the population than the grim reality that sags around them. As you read this there is undoubtedly a sixteen year-old in Gaza City mulling the irony of using a piece of sheet metal from the wreckage of Israel's invasion to make a rocket to shoot back over the border.

At some point the drunk in the bar who gets punched out by the bully and then gets back up to be punched in the face again owns his broken nose. The followers of Hamas are drunk, on religion.

Set me up, bartender.


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