A blog by Barry Edelson

Pity and Futility

Even the Murder of Children is Not Enough to Soften
Hearts in the World's Most Intractable Conflict

Photos accompany a story in The New York Times today about two small boys—one Palestinian, one Israeli—being treated in the same hospital ward for wounds inflicted by the other child's "side". Bandaged and unconscious, the two victims of the world's most hopeless conflict look as helpless and indistinguishable as civilian war casualties everywhere.

There is an enormous temptation to dwell on the ironies of the situation. The hospital's chief even calls it "a theater of the absurd." But that is precisely the one thing this scenario is not: there is nothing remotely absurd about medical doctors treating the wounded of their enemies. It happens in many armed conflicts and is merely an expression of human decency in the midst of a disfiguring inhumanity. What is absurd is the pointless conflict itself, and the dreadful, dark places it forces the human soul to traverse.

The futility of the ambitions
of both sides has been
evident for generations.

I use the word "pointless" deliberately, because the futility of the ambitions of both sides has been evident for generations. The Arabs are not going to drive the Jews into the sea, nor is the Jewish state going to succeed in evicting the Arabs from what they insist are their premises. They both want the same bit of land all to themselves, and they can't have it. There, that's it: all the other arguments—political, religious, historical, sociological, racial—are window dressing. Viewing history from the perspective of millennia, they both imagine that they can wait the other side out, but the survival of both peoples since the days of scripture ought to be evidence enough of the stupidity of this strategy. I believe it was the humorist Dave Barry who once predicted that, a billion years hence, when nothing was left of life on Earth but bacteria, the Israeli bacteria and the Palestinian bacteria would still be fighting over their precious strip of desert.*

The reaction of the two boys' families highlights the unforgiveable gulf between their respective sides. The Israeli child's parents refused to have the children photographed together. Worse, they self-righteously reiterated a familiar Israeli talking-point: while the Israeli army only hurts Palestinians unintentionally, the Palestinians "rejoice" at the injuries they inflict on the other side. Even if this were true, what can one say about someone whose child is fighting for his life in the hospital, and who uses the occasion to score a political point against the enemy? You can say that the conflict has inflicted the most horrible casualty of all: its victims have forgotten how to be human. The sight of these two pathetic children may cause distant, foreign readers of The New York Times to be struck by their common humanity. But, as the article makes clear, Palestinians have long been routinely treated in this Israeli hospital, and peace has not exactly broken out all over.

To Israel-boosters who are no doubt itching to point out that the expensive emergency treatment provided for this Palestinian boy proves the moral superiority of the Jews, I say forget it. All that proves is that the Israelis have the superior medical system and can afford to be generous with it. The painful and unavoidable reality is that the Palestinian boy is in the hospital as the result of Israeli actions, and the Israeli boy is there because of Palestinian actions. Each side can point all the fingers it possesses at the other, and reach back to the origins of the universe for justification, but the failure of either side to take responsibility, in the here and now, for the horrific results of its own resort to arms is a colossal moral failure from which neither side can possibly emerge unscathed.

A belief in purity is the very
definition of immorality.

Anne Michaels, in her novel "Fugitive Pieces", writes, "There is nothing a man will not do to another; nothing that a man will not do for another." The book is a haunting story about a Jewish boy and the Greek geologist who first saves him from the Nazis and then raises him after the war. That we are each capable of extraordinary acts of kindness as well as breathtaking acts of cruelty in itself guarantees nothing. The boy in the novel and his guardian have a complex and troubled relationship; the initial act of goodness that binds their lives together cannot heal all their wounds, any more than the trauma of their experience can eradicate their decency. Human interaction is too difficult and convoluted for either good or evil ever to be "pure".

In fact, a belief in purity—in the hideous aspect of tribalism, in the certitude of one's own destiny even at the expense of another's—is the very definiton of immorality and a retreat from humanity. There will never be peace as long as both sides of a conflict are incapable of acknowledging that their mutually exclusive claims to posterity are figments of their respective imaginations.

February 13, 2008


* The exact quote is: "They can hold all the peace talks they want, but there will never be peace in the Middle East. Billions of years from now, when Earth is hurtling toward the Sun and there is nothing left alive on the planet except a few microorganisms, the microorganisms living in the Middle East will be bitter enemies."
— Dave Barry, 25 Things I Have Learned in 50 Years

PHOTOS: Rina Castelnuovo for The New York Times; Dan Bality/Associated Press

Go to top of pageReturn to home page

Send an e-mail

All writings on this site are copyrighted by Barry Edelson. Reprinting by permission only.