Thursday, January 1, 2009

What We Do Today And Tomorrow

Israel's attack on the radical Islamist group Hamas in the Gaza Strip is in its sixth day. These details from a New York Times report help underscore the cultural gulf between the combatants in this heartbreaking New Year's war, in which about 400 have died so far (between a tenth and a quarter of them civilians):
The Israeli air force on Thursday afternoon bombed the house of Nizar Rayyan, a senior Hamas leader, killing him along with two of his wives and four children, Palestinian hospital officials said. Mr. Rayyan was the first high ranking Hamas figure killed so far in the Israeli campaign.

The Israeli military confirmed the strike and described Mr. Rayyan, who was 46 and lived in Jabaliya, north of Gaza City, as an extremist who had helped plan suicide bombings and had sent his own son on a suicide mission in 2001.
Rayyan was a polygamist who sent his son to die in a suicide mission and purposely exposed other family members to death today. I don't write that to call him names. They're the bald facts of the life he chose to lead.

Tolerated or encouraged in most of the Islamic world, polygamy is countenanced by the Koran and is thought to have been practiced by the prophet himself. It is said that after his first wife died, he took others to protect them from economic privation. While the practice has its proponents in the West (I was surprised to learn that the Utah ACLU opposes the LDS's ban on multiple wives), it's inconsistent with modern principles of equality and mutuality among free individuals. The Koran, it should be noted, does not permit women to take up to four husbands. Polyandry was never a Mormon practice, either.

By devaluing women, polygamy seems to encourage the kind of deep-set thinking whereby a military leader is excused and even celebrated by others in his culture for keeping his family close to him even when he's being targeted by an enemy, as Rayyan has known to be the case since the Israeli bombardment began. Instead, the Times recounts, he refused to leave his home, and even took reporters up on the roof to to call further attention to himself (and of course the women and children living downstairs). Had he survived, as the wording of the article suggests, he had even more women and children to offer as martyrs. After all,
Mr. Rayyan was known in Gaza a popular Hamas preacher who openly extolled and championed the idea of martyrdom.
Women such as Rayyan's wives are victims both of historical circumstance and the males in authority in their culture and families. As long as they are willing to keep following orders and give their lives for the sake of destroying Israel, the war will go on.

In fairness, something similar (but not the same) can be said about those who are willing to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces. All wars ultimately depend on the willingness of soldiers to fight. But that is as far as the moral equivalence goes. Whatever Israel's own sins or excesses, Hamas is getting exactly what it wanted this week. The purpose of its missile attacks on Israel was to provoke a disproportionate response that would emasculate the Palestinian Authority's president, Mahmoud Abbas, who heads the more moderate Fatah party in control of the West Bank. Protesters filling the Arab street are playing their parts as well, condemning an attack on Hamas that Hamas did everything it could to bring about. This wasting circular logic will continue until someone, or a preponderance of someones, finally says, "Stop."

As I wrote in March 2008 after Al Abu Dhaim's murderous attack on a seminary in Jerusalem:
The operation fit perfectly into Hamas’s plan to promote chaos by provoking Israel and ultimately discrediting Abbas in the eyes of his people. It’s what violent extremists so often do — destroy hope by attacking the center and by exposing everyone residing there to the temptation of becoming violent extremists themselves in their grief, rage, and sheer frustration.

So how can the world’s responsible voices not join in support for Olmert and Abbas, Bush and Rice? How can we not keep faith with the hope that Israel and Palestine will someday live in peace, side by side? How do we keep extremists from wresting control of events from those who are committed to peace? Palestinians I know seem prepared for this work..., prepared to live into the truth that God wants them to share the Holy Land. Last summer I spent over a week in Al Abu Dhaim’s own east Jerusalem, albeit in the cloistered grounds of St. George’s Cathedral, seat of Jerusalem’s Episcopal bishop. Bright young Arab Palestinian Anglicans (better read that twice) working, studying, and worshiping at St. George’s reminded me of Cold War-era Muscovites in that they were capable of sitting up until after midnight one night after another talking about politics. Their brief against Israel is as heartfelt and seemingly cogent as Israelis’s against them. One is tempted to choose sides and then compelled not to, both by a newcomer’s humility as well as the feeling that Israelis and Palestinians could play they-did-it-first all the way back to Abram and the Amalekites without resolving anything. In the end, all that matters (this is admittedly a theological statement more than a sophisticated political position) is what we do today and tomorrow.

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