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The thing about the saying, "whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger," is it's often not true.
The neighborhood bully been driven out of every land
He's wandered the earth an exiled man
Seen his family scattered, his people hounded and torn
He's always on trial for just being born
He's the neighborhood bully
This is one of the many verses in Bob Dylan's explicitly pro-Israel song, "Neighborhood Bully." It's not one of Dylan's more metaphor-filled compositions, it has very little of his characteristic brilliant imagery, it just makes its pro-Israel point directly and clearly. He recorded the song in 1983, while the blood was still drying on the alleyways of the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon, where Israeli troops had protected a fascist Christian militia as they raped and murdered three thousand Palestinians, mostly women and children.
Bob Dylan, that iconic songwriter known for being one of the most famous people on Earth and for penning such antiwar classics as "Masters of War" and such antiracist classics as "Only A Pawn In Their Game" is also an ardent supporter of Israel, at least according to my interpretation of his song lyrics (other verses in "Neighborhood Bully" make his stance much more obvious).
Dylan is far from alone as a person known for his otherwise progressive views who has extremely regressive views when it comes to the question of Israel, and the longstanding practice of apartheid enforced there by the state with the army in which Palestinians are not welcome, in which Palestinians have been dispossessed, at gunpoint, of 92% of their land (so far), with the rest of it under Israeli military rule.
Many people will point to Dylan's apparently contradictory political views and call that ironic. How can a person who so eloquently supports equal rights for Black people in the US have such a blind spot when it comes to the blatant dispossession and oppression of Palestinians? How can someone write such blistering verse in opposition to the American war machine, while at the same time (or technically about twenty years later) embracing the country that is the biggest recipient of US military aid?
Dylanologists might say his politics evolved over time. As a bit of a Dylanologist myself, I'd argue against this theory, but I'm not actually going to write an article about Bob Dylan's politics, so I'll just leave that question there. My point here is Dylan is not alone in having these obvious contradictions in his worldview, he's one of many.
But Dylan explains this apparent irony in his song, which is why I think it's such a good song, though I also find it so profoundly disagreeable. Those who are bullied don't automatically or even usually become lifelong advocates for all of the oppressed people of the world. More often, they lay low and try to avoid the bullies for the rest of their lives. Perhaps just as often, they become bullies themselves.
Anyone who has known other people on this planet can probably easily agree with what I'm saying, from your own life experience. Did everyone you know who was bullied as kids become anti-bullying activists for the rest of their lives afterwards? No.
By my observation of the 25 countries I've spent much time in, and by my reading of history, it's very much the same with societies.
Politics and history are complex and there are many explanations for why things play out differently at different times in different places. But taking the example of what they called the refugee crisis in Europe in 2015, when a lot of non-European refugees were trying to escape the war zones of Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea, etc., the countries where refugees seem to have received the warmest welcome have been some of the countries in Europe that have at this point experienced generations of prosperity and are some of the most egalitarian societies on Earth today, such as Sweden and Germany. By contrast, in places like former Yugoslavia, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, all places with a much more recent history of bloodshed and forced migration, the largely Muslim refugees were decidedly less welcome.
Of course, the welcoming of Ukrainian refugees throughout eastern Europe since February, 2022 has been nothing short of amazing, with millions of Ukrainians absorbed into neighboring countries, staying in people's homes, without even the need for any refugee camps to be set up. When the refugees are being oppressed by a country you also identify as an oppressive regime, they look and act more like you do, they feel like they're a part of your broader tribe and not from outside of it, and most of them are women and children rather than young men, it's obviously a different situation.
We all love the stories of people opening their doors and their hearts to the Other, and living out the kinds of values that are cherished at least somewhere along the line by all the religions that I've ever heard of (represented for the Christians in verses like Matthew 25:35). But by my observation, the saying, "whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger" often isn't true.
It has often been observed that there seem to be a disproportionately large number of people of Jewish lineage represented in the ranks of the left -- among those who are known voices or organizers within movements to stop war, welcome refugees, build labor unions, and institute progressive policies of all kinds, in the US, the UK, and lots of other countries with significant Jewish populations. There are once again complex reasons why this is the case, but certainly a good part of the explanation might sensibly be understood to be that this kind of solidarity orientation is the result of centuries of oppression.
In my own travels around Israel, my experience with most of the Israelis of Jewish lineage that I met was of a people who had a wide variety of views on everything, most of them progressive. I met many Israeli citizens who grew up in the US, the UK, or Australia, and who had been involved with the same antiwar and antiracist movements that Bob Dylan sang about.
And when it came to the question of the Palestinians, I also met Israelis who were all over the place politically. I met many Israeli anarchists and other radicals who were regularly putting their lives on the line to oppose the ongoing annexation of more and more of the West Bank. I know many Israelis who left the country in order to avoid serving in a military enforcing policies they couldn't support.
But when the Second Intifada started in September, 2000, most of the Israelis of Jewish lineage that I had met previously condemned me for my sympathies with the uprising. It became abundantly clear to me from personal experience that where the progressive views of so many Israelis end is where Palestinians, Iraqis, or other Arabs are concerned.
When we examine the history of the twentieth century and also consider what we know of how humans may behave under the influence of unspeakable oppression, it becomes easier to understand why we are witnessing the horrors we are now watching unfold in Israel, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, and especially Gaza.
I wrote a recent essay contrasting two hugely important events that took place in different parts of the US in the year 1921. Both involved many thousands of working class veterans of the First World War. In Oklahoma, where the very influential Working Class Union had been violently repressed by the state years earlier, there was a racist pogrom, with an entire Black neighborhood burned to the ground by a white mob. In West Virginia, where the United Mine Workers of America were a dominant force, tens of thousands of people participated in a multiracial armed uprising against the coal barons, to free their imprisoned comrades being held indefinitely without charge. Both events overwhelmingly involving white working class American veterans of the First World War, both in the same country, in the same year, but so radically different from each other, due, in my view, to differing circumstances.
When the vegetarian from Vienna took power in Germany, and soon the army under his command occupied most of Europe, the genocidal slaughter of Roma, communists, Russians, and so many others, especially Jews, had an impact that would not be limited to Europe.
The Zionist movement -- the movement to populate Palestine with Jews -- had been going on since the 1890's, but it was not all that popular. The vast majority of the world's Jews were not joining, preferring rather to stay where they were, or move to somewhere more hospitable, like New York City.
But with the combination of the US, Canada, and other countries European Jews wanted to escape to preventing them from emigrating throughout the 1930's and well into the 1940's, those who wanted to escape genocide often went to Palestine and South America because they could get visas to go to those places.
This pressure from US immigration policies combined with the horrors of the gas chambers ended up changing a lot of minds when it came to the question of the Zionist movement. The idea of leaving genocide-ridden Europe, and the idea of Jews gathering together to look out for each other, gained a lot of traction. The "never again to anyone" lesson that we're all supposed to have learned from the European experience of fascism was not a universal lesson. Whether we like it or not (and I sure don't), the lesson many people drew from the experience was "never again to us."
The idea of the state of Israel committing genocide against Palestinians is only ironic if you assume that the Nazi holocaust taught all of those who survived it that universal love and the brotherhood of man was the only way forward. Some people, and national leaders of many parties, came to very different conclusions, and received untold amounts of military aid and political backing from the most powerful countries in the world to continually bolster the worst kinds of expansionist, settler-colonial policies.
Rather than being ironic, Israeli fascism is much more a consequence, or at least a knock-on effect, of the experience of German fascism, which itself had its own roots in the German experience of the early twentieth century, the aftermath of the Great War, and how the many contradictions in society then played out. Which is not to suggest that either German fascism or Israeli fascism were inevitabilities! But they both came into existence with many forms of encouragement from both within and without.
In Israel's case, at almost every juncture where outside pressure from backers like the United States could have potentially brought about the mythical two-state solution, the US just sent more military aid instead, this way massively supporting the agenda of the Israeli far right, and massively undermining any more nuanced elements of Israeli society, and of course massively and constantly undermining the interests of all of the Palestinians.
And now here we are, with the western countries sending solidarity and aid to the army that is in the process of annihilating a densely populated, besieged and walled ghetto with a million children in it, in the name of eliminating the closest thing to an elected government Palestinians have ever had, who the Israelis denounce as terrorists, even after Israeli bombardment has killed close to a thousand Palestinian children just in the past few days, and they're only the latest thousand children in Gaza to be killed by Israeli bombs and sanctions.
Just as we can explain the influences that have led to a fascist regime bent on genocide in Israel, we can explain the disdain for human life exhibited by, say, Islamic State. We can make good sense of why they grew out of a place like US-occupied Iraq. By the same token we can explain the development of the genocidal regimes that have for so long been in power in places like Guatemala or El Salvador. And of course it's easy, in context, to explain why Hamas militants would take civilian hostages to exchange for the thousands of Palestinians held indefinitely in Israeli prisons on no charges.
For the moralistically-inclined among you, dear readers, I am trying to explain how fascism, and state-sponsored genocidal initiatives, can take hold in a society, as it has done in Israel, as it did in Germany, and as it has done in other societies. Explaining is not justifying. I have no interest in justifications or condemnations, they're so useless. What we need is to understand realities as they are, and to change reality, which can only be done by first understanding it, and how it got this way.
For something to be ironic, there is an implication of mystery. That is, something isn't as we think it should be, therefore it is ironic, and therefore it is mysterious. There's a danger for people to just throw up their hands in the face of mysterious things we don't understand. But there's no real mystery here, if you face the horror of what's happening now, what's been happening for years and decades as this Israeli regime has been committing daily killings of Palestinian youth and so many others, and if you follow the horrors of the history that preceded these massacres, in the places where those willingly or unwillingly participating in the Zionist project over the course of the past century or so came from.
The Palestinians had nothing to do with the Nazi holocaust, but they have been perpetual victims of the consequences of the redrawing of so many of the world's national borders in the wake of the First World War, along with the immense multigenerational traumas inflicted on so many people and peoples around the planet in particular from the Second World War. Traumas, it seems to me, which have remained raw for the past 75 years of the failed settler-colonial project on Palestinian land which has produced so much violence and discord, most especially for Palestinians, but also for so many innocent Israelis who happened to be sitting on a bus that had a soldier on it and who were blown up along with the soldier, or who died in so many other equally horrific circumstances, such as by getting mowed down while running away from machine gun fire after spending the night dancing at a festival.
If my words could change anything I would say that we have to stop this genocide that is currently underway in Gaza, and which seems to be set to get much more violent. But no one from the Israeli Knesset or the Pentagon seems to read my blog, and no one in the Knesset or the Pentagon seems to be listening to the masses of people around the world currently in the streets calling for a cessation in the bombing.
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