Gaza crisis: Ghost dances

Bury my heart at Jabaliya

Reconciliation assumes that hostilities have ended, that it is time to heal wounds and unite enemies. Such moments are sacred. But not every moment is like this. When something bad is going on, merely to accept it is craven. Attempting to justify it is worse. But refusing to understand it is monumentally stupid.

I am writing at the moment of the Gaza bombings. My heart is cradling its grief, remembering its visit to that desolate place (on an Fellowship of Reconciliation delegation) in 1998. At that time, the Jews in our party dared not remark above a whisper what the passage inward reminded them of: some thoughts are forbidden. These days I recall 19th century Indian reservations, the Trail of Tears. It seemed then that things could scarcely get worse. But they have, they have.

Hope depends on the notion that there is a bottom you can touch, a point at which the cycle must begin to reverse. But Israel/Palestine seems sometimes an infinite descent into Hell. When the object is extermination, there is no reciprocity to reach for, no reasoning together, no way out, nowhere to go but down. Hamas’s wish for the obliteration of Israel is explicit. But who is actually obliterating whom?

Many Israelis live in fear, and bitterly resent it. They want to go about their business undisturbed, which is one definition of peace. Every sort of violence is condoned in pursuit of this peace. Elimination of the Palestinians is not precisely mentioned: some thoughts are forbidden. But unless you manage to wipe out your enemy entirely, the long-term usefulness of violence in obtaining peace of any kind is exactly zero.

Thus spoke Prophet Zechariah, whose words were being read during Hanukkah when the bombings began: Not by power nor by might but by My spirit, saith the Lord. God’s sovereign truth. But many Israelis are disinclined to trust in God, for God did not protect them. They think they can do a better job themselves.

Last April, Israeli President Shimon Peres visited the site of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, where a desperate, valiant insurgency sought to push back approaching murder. It came to nothing, inevitably, and the population vanished into Treblinka. Yet standing at the site with an honor guard of IDF soldiers and members of Israeli youth groups, Peres announced, “”If we had had these soldiers and young people then, this would not have happened to us, and it will not happen to us in the future. We will not let the beast go crazy again” (Ha’aretz, 4/16/08). An extraordinarily strange and revealing statement, full of conflict about the past. Those gentle ones failed. But we shall succeed!

IDF chief Gabi Ashkenazi was in Warsaw at that time, too. “It is fitting that the IDF soldiers learn the story of this uprising, and that’s why we came to admire and salute the heroes who – despite the reality and the balance of power, and the fact that they were untrained civilians – got up and took action and fought. That is what we call ‘principles’ today. … They knew they had no chance of winning, and they fought nevertheless,” said Ashkenazi. “That is bravery.” (Ha’aretz 5/1/08).

It may have been futile, it may have been crushed, but at least it was noble. Better to fight! No notion here about today’s relative strength of forces, or where untrained civilians who “got up and took action and fought” might be found just now. The Arabic word is intifadah.

Jews should know as well as anyone just how hard it is to wipe out a people entirely. Despite the monstrous worst efforts of Hitler, they are still around. Yet the ghosts of the millions who went silently to their graves haunt Israelis, who wish more had fought back – who see themselves, indeed, as fighting back in European Jewry’s place, revenging themselves on phantom Nazis, now hallucinated in Palestine.

Many Palestinians live in despair, denizens of a nightmare. When you are in despair, the options are limited. By far the most widespread choice is brute endurance: don’t think, don’t feel, just go on (Waiting for Godot should be staged in Gaza). But sometimes one can endure no more: then there’s insanity. Because any action feels better than none; insane hope feels better than no hope at all. Throw a few pointless missiles, feel like a man, and hope God will reward you. Death is coming either way.

When the US Cavalry was wiping out or walling in the Indians of the Plains (who deserved it, of course, as attackers of peaceful settlements and notorious savages), a new spiritual movement sprang up among the broken and defeated. Called the Ghost Dance, it taught that a return to ancestral values and ritual observance among Indians would lead to an apocalyptic failure of the whites’ project, with the eventual return of Indian ways and the natural order. The religion’s founder, Wovoka, envisioned himself as a peacemaker. But his restorationist vision terrified the settlers and the federal government, who did all that they could to suppress the “backward, violent” religion.

After this great movement was underway, certain Lakota warriors, followers of Wovoka, independently decided that his visions implied that the whites could be militarily uprooted. They concluded that certain consecrated garments, known as “ghost shirts,” would protect them against bullets, and dreamed of pushing their enemies into the sea. They held on to a few pitiful weapons. And they died like flies during the massacre at Wounded Knee, on December 29, 1890, 118 years ago. God did not protect them, either.

For a moment, though, it felt good again to be alive. Native Americans survived, and may resurge. White America needs them badly. In their absence, we have unloosed environmental destruction that may very well cause our project to fail: Prophet Wovoka spoke true. The Ghost Dance religion survives too, slowly building the strength of Native people even without ghost shirts.

Today Hamas wears the ghost shirts of the Islamic resurgence. “Who will be an army to assist you beside the All-Compassionate?” asks the Qur’an. But we all have such trouble understanding our prophets. When anyone’s intrinsic value is denied, the question is not whether to fight, but how to fight. Not by power nor by might but by My spirit, saith the Lord. What that might really mean for a just struggle is of the profoundest importance. Because it is only the All-Compassionate who does not end up, like Voltaire’s cynical God, on the side of the big battalions.

The big battalions, though terrifying in their day, vanish into history like dust. But the servants of the All-Compassionate transcend the bitterness of time. Not one of us is guaranteed protection, let alone victory, at any moment. But in the end, God is not mocked. None of these stories is over.

(Photo: Amir Farshad Ebrahimi via flickr under a Creative Commons license)

Rabia Terri Harris is an essayist, editor, and peace activist who founded the Muslim Peace Fellowship in 1994 and currently serves as its coordinator.

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