29 October 2023

Collected aphoristic thoughts and quotes on Palestine

All thoughts are my own unless quoted otherwise.
I honestly think that for most people, they simply parrot [about the conflict] what their favoured media outlets tell them to, and CNN, Fox, MSNBC, NYT, WaPo and WSJ all tell them the same thing... with some surface-level permutations based on domestic political / cultural / tribal alignment. God forbid we should read actual books about each region’s history and the roots of each conflict, instead of just regurgitating easily-digestible headlines, op-ed columns and talking-head takes.
One thing that Vladimir Solovyov got very much right in War, Progress and the End of History, is that there is a kind of falsehood, a deep moral obscenity, in those who preach non-violence to the powerless, from a position of safety and security.

The argument between the General and the Prince in the first conversation was over the Armenians in the late 1800s, but equally so I think it could apply to the Palestinians today.
Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English, or France to the French.
We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.
It’s tragic that so many people are made unable to tell the difference between “explanation”, “justification”, and “apologia”. Often, those things are conflated on purpose with the help of the media to prevent/shut down any civilised discussion around certain subjects.
A few assorted thoughts. Not all of them are completely consistent with each other, but so be it.
  1. All war is bad on all sides.
  2. Some casus belli are more just than others.
  3. Few conflicts have stable solutions (this side of Parousia).
  4. Still fewer conflicts have obvious solutions.
  5. That does not mean we (individually and collectively) shouldn't look for solutions.
  6. No one who isn't in a position of power should be expected to have the solutions.
Imagine engaging in abstruse academic debates about dogmatic vs. hopeful universalism as Gaza burns.
To have empathy is not to assert power or to take revenge. It is to feel broken with those who have been broken—and if you are a follower of Jesus, which, de facto, we are not, is to be broken with them.
My hope and prayer is to be a source of light, and not darkness. Let’s be honest: this pain we’re all feeling isn’t specific to this moment; it’s ongoing. The truth is that for me, for my family, for Palestinians: this is life.
Enough oppression against the Palestinian people! Peace does not come from the bodies of children, killed people, innocent people, and women. Peace comes when the decision-makers in this world realize that our people have dignity, as all the peoples of the world. We are not advocates of war, we reject violence and killing, and we are seekers of peace, but at the same time, we seek justice and have a right that we will not give up.
In the Middle East, the net effects [of European cultural hysteria] are:
  1. that Europe is burdened with the heavy baggage of interventions that inflame Muslim hostility toward the West, and
  2. to create the psychological imperative to find some way to assuage their own sense of guilt by finding, and magnifying, the sins of their victims.
Moral discourse in the West has degraded so far that even the most basic calls for justice and humanity are considered to be Marxist, subversive or terroristic.
The descent to evil. “Do unto others what you would like them to do to you” has increasingly been replaced by “Do unto others the evil they did to you”, and even by “Do to others the evils before they might do it to you.”
As an Orthodox Christian leftist with Semitic ancestry, I have two questions.
  1. By what moral logic are the Arabs supposed to shoulder 80 years of responsibility, at the cost of their lives and their homes, for the crimes of Hitler?
  2. By what moral logic are Palestinian Christians supposed to shoulder responsibility, at the cost of their lives and their homes, for the recent crimes of Hamas?

Neither Fordham nor Montanika, pt. 2

The émigrés and samizdat thinkers of Soviet Union, including the ones of the ‘liberal’-left who have most deeply inspired me (Nikolai Berdyaev, Fr Sergei Bulgakov, St Maria Skobtsova, St Ilya Fondaminsky, etc.) saw their task as being the overthrow of a monolithic, impersonal, totally-mobilised system which completely constrained thought and freedom of the spirit.

But in the wake of that system’s collapse, what took its place was even worse—an anarchic free-for-all hellscape in which those who could not help themselves were brutally trampled underfoot, or left to rot through starvation, or homelessness, or drink, or drugs, or hopelessness. Among the internal critics of the Soviet Union, all but the most ideologically-blinkered neoliberals were left aghast by the human waste and wreckage that took its place.

And now, in the absence of the Soviet system, we are faced with a very different monolithic, impersonal, totally-mobilised system which completely constrains thought and freedom of the spirit... though it masquerades itself underneath the banners of ‘freedom’. This is a system of monopoly, of endlessly-volatile finance-capital, of techno-dystopian nightmares which dissolve the barriers between person and machine, of destruction (not even truly ‘creative’ anymore, if indeed it ever was) with the military-industrial complex as the vanguard of concentrated wealth.

The task which is before us, now, as before the Soviet émigrés of a prior age, is the utter demolition of the spiritual roots of this hateful, faceless, godless system.

If I am critical of Fordham, it is because not only have they abandoned this task—they have taken up a position as the handmaidens of this anti-personalist, hyper-capitalist system... in the very name of personality! Witness how they attack the outward enemies of finance-capitalism when they are, or appear, strong (Russia, China), and wholesale ignore the victims of finance-capitalism when they are weak (Palestine, wherein the only three Fordhamite articles on offer are afterthoughts over two years old and provide nothing but weak-tea platitudes based on outdated Clinton-era political thought).

And if I am critical of ‘Montanika’ / Patristic Faith / Ludwell Fellowship, etc., it is because they have misconstrued this task of our age entirely. Clinging to the tattered rags of white émigré politics and homebrew backlash-political ressentiment, they are still fighting rearguard battles of a war which has already been won (or lost, depending on your perspective). They are still looking for enemies on the outside, when in fact the enemy has already taken the castle, and is issuing their orders for them.

The haute-bourgeois academic Fordhamites may occasionally make pious noises about standing up for the victims, but Catherine Liu straight-up has their number. They are currying and hoarding ‘virtue’ (or rather, what passes for it in our age), while at the same time seeking the cosy embrace of tech-bros and Wall Street finance, particularly Teradata and CitiBank.

And the petit-bourgeois YouTube personality-cultists, profiteering pedlars of an older brand of Whiggery, street preachers and psychological charlatans which make up the ‘native opposition’ within Orthodox Christianity are... well, perhaps they are not as close to being antichrists as the Fordham types are. At least they are sincere. But they are still cultural and political sectarians. They are raskolniki and Old Believers in their spiritual ‘type’, and as such they are pitiable and deluded. And they draw people in--idealistic, lost, ‘angry young men’ in particular—with the exact same lures and promises that the German, Dutch and northern French Reformers did in the 1500s and 1600s.

I don’t know how else to describe my position here. I find Anglo liberalism, particularly in its ‘woke’/rainbow-flag/ersatz-radical form, utterly repugnant. But Anglo conservatism has no draw left for me. Neither political ‘pill’ can cure the disease that afflicts us all—including myself. All I am left to say here is: эй, приди, Господь Иисус!

28 October 2023

A plea for peace in Palestine

Another ‘tolle, lege’ moment here, in the wake of recent events in Gaza. This is excerpted from the Epilogue to Fr Paul Nadim Tarazi’s book Land and Covenant:
In the 19th century, with the rise of nationalism in Europe, anti-Jewish sentiments were on the rise, especially in Russia and France. Some leading European Jews realised that the mood presented an opportunity for them to establish a ‘Jewish homeland’. The culmination of their efforts, and especially those of Theodore Herzl, a Viennese Jew, was the First Zionist Congress convened in Basel, Switzerland in 1897. Until 1905, Argentina and Uganda were considered as possible sites for the establishment of a ‘homeland’. So, the idea of a ‘return’ to Palestine and Jerusalem was not as essential then as it is presented nowadays. Even when the choice eventually tilted toward Palestine, this cannot be taken, per se, as a proof that it was a de facto realisation of a perennial dream or even triggered by the ‘obvious’ understanding of ‘Next Year in Jerusalem’ and the ‘aliyah. If Jews were genuinely interested in the ‘return’ to Jerusalem for religious reasons, they could have done so over past centuries. They did not do so because they fared well or preferred to stay, for other reasons, wherever they were dwelling. [...]

From the beginning of the 20th century, governments that supported the establishment and later the policies of the state of Israel did so and still do for political reasons. Their interest then and now lies in the control of that region for its geopolitical and oil-related economical importance. But, here again, while Jews and superpowers look to their interests, which can be explained on a human level, it is the religious factor that complicates the matter in an unprecedented manner. The introduction of an unwarranted divine element makes the situation of the Middle East even more complex. The most pernicious aspect of this factor is that it is affecting policy making for and in the region. Such an attitude becomes dangerous when people believe they have figured out God’s ongoing activity on the historical realm from the perspective of their specific group or nation, their collective. In doing so, they create a monster, if not an idol, to which they chain God. But the biblical premise, as I have repeatedly shown, is that history is still trailing along not because of man’s realisations, but out of God’s mercy and longsuffering.

The earth--every earth--is the Lord’s as are
those who dwell therein. The Middle East, as any other part of the earth, is the patrimony of those who have lived there for centuries. It is their duty, regardless of their religious affiliation, to make it a better place for the upcoming generations. More specifically, the earth of Palestine is the patrimony of the Palestinians, and they alone have the last word in its future. Others are welcome to help, but not to dictate. This scriptural teaching does not apply solely to the Middle East. Our entire planet would be a better place if that rule was applied in every earth on our planet.

Whether Palestine will prove to be a ‘holy land’, is up to God, and him alone, to decide when he comes to judge the living and the dead. The nations of the world and, more importantly, the Christians of the West, are to extend a helping hand for the purpose of committing the Palestinians to the Lord’s peace. They are not, through their self-serving policies and attitudes, to force Palestine into a bloodbath and then use the situation they create as a renewed opportunity to intervene. To live in peace, the Palestinians need to be left in peace!

15 October 2023

Baran: a working-class romance with Biblical themes

I had the pleasure of watching Majid Majidi’s film Children of Heaven some years ago, and I liked it so much that I decided to go back and watch some of the other notches on his directorial belt. I managed to pick up a used DVD copy of Baran at Half Price Books some months back, and finished watching it yesterday. Watching this movie turned out to be a thoroughly serendipitous choice, as it helped me to illustrate a portion of the Bible study group at St Herman’s Orthodox Church, for which I was the discussant. I was discussing the early life of the righteous patriarch Isaac, the son of Abraham.

Baran is a romantic melodrama, but it is much more than that. It is deeply specific: it involves an Iranian construction worker who falls in love with a crossdressing Afghan refugee who is trying to earn money to support her injured father. But for all of that specificity, it carries all the weight of a fable—a tale with universal importance and appeal. And, Majidi being a religious director, there is also a spiritual significance to the film, and the references and appeals to Scripture were probably not at all unintended.

Lateef (a name which means ‘gentle’ in both Arabic and Farsi) is a young Iranian who works on a construction site. Actually, he has it fairly easy. He’s the tea boy, and his job is to boil tea and carry it on a platter to the other workers on the site. His boss, Memet, in order to get his construction work done faster and cheaper, hires on the down-low Afghan migrants and refugees from the Taliban, who do back-breaking manual labour for cents on the dollar (dinars on the touman?) compared to their Iranian coworkers. One of these, a man named Najaf, falls and breaks his foot; he has to be trucked home. But this incident attracts the attention of government inspectors who question Memet about his illegal hiring of Afghans.

Najaf’s replacement, brought by his brother Soslan, is a young boy named Rahmat (whose name means ‘mercy’ or ‘graciousness’)… who is actually a girl in disguise. After Rahmat has an accident herself and spills half a bag of cement on a fellow-worker from two stories up, Memet assigns the Afghan ‘boy’ to do Lateef’s job—and Lateef to do real construction work.

Lateef, who is money-grubbing, lazy, hotheaded and more than a bit arrogant, holds a grudge against Rahmat and tries to undermine ‘him’ and play pranks on ‘him’ at every turn: including dumping dirty water over ‘his’ head from three stories up, and trashing the kitchen where ‘he’ works. But as Lateef is plotting yet another scheme against ‘him’, he discovers—as the wind wafts away the curtain from the kitchen area and Rahmat is doing up ‘his’ hair—that ‘he’ is actually a she.

Lateef’s attitude toward Rahmat changes, and he begins to observe her more closely. He discovers that she is in fact not an opportunist or greedy at all, and in fact lives up to her name. She does her best to give good tea and bread and cigarettes to the workers, and she takes the scraps and goes up to the third floor of the construction site to feed the doves with them. Lateef observes all of this in secret, and begins to help Rahmat both secretly and in the open. The story is really one about Lateef repenting, about his character changing. He gradually goes from being a grudging, arrogant, pugnacious lout—to also living up to his name.

There is a lot in the story of Lateef that is Jacobean… that is to say, that reflects the story of Jacob as he labours for Laban to win the hand of Rachel. Lateef’s labours for Memet and his acts of kindness toward Soslan and Najaf—and his disappointments when these go astray or unnoticed also reflect this story (as when Laban tricks Jacob into marrying his elder daughter Leah). But there is one scene in particular which reminded me more strongly of Isaac and Rebekah.

There is a scene close to the end of the film, where Lateef is helping Rahmat (whose actual name is Baran, or ‘Rain’) pick up some vegetables that she spilled on the ground. The two of them make eye contact. Their expressions change. It is clear—despite Rahmat-Baran’s character not saying a single word throughout the entire film—that Baran returns Lateef’s feelings for her. But then she puts on her niqâb in front of him. All the time, she does not break eye contact with him, even while the truck which is taking her back to Afghanistan is driving away. But Lateef smiles as he watches one of her footprints being washed away by the rain.

This scene seems to be a direct reference to the passage in Genesis where Rebekah is approaching Abraham’s camp from afar, and notices Isaac at a distance. She questions Abraham’s servant about who he is, and upon learning that this is her intended husband, she leaps down from her camel and veils herself before him, presenting himself to her as a bride. The emotional poignancy of this scene is enriched by this parallel to the Hebrew Scriptures.

Again, this is such a sweet, beautiful, wholesome, heartfelt film that its appeal becomes broadly universal despite the deeply Central-Asian particularity of its setting and characters, and the barriers of language and class and sexual mores that divide the two protagonists from each other. The cinematography is also amazing… Majidi has the ability to create a film that has a certain weight, using natural lighting and long static shots in order to mimic the same effect that American movies had from twenty years before (but have since lost). I highly, highly recommend Baran as a film with both deeply human and deeply spiritual significance.

14 October 2023

A prayer for peace, from a Christian of Gaza

Today, the fourteenth of October, is the feast-day of Saint Kosmas the Poet of Gaza. It is worth remembering Saint Kosmas today, when his fellow Arabs, including Christian Arabs, are under siege in the very place where he reposed, by a hostile army of nationalists following a deluded messianic vision. As I write this, the Gazans—over one million people—are in their literal eleventh hour, having been given a twenty-four hour ultimatum to evacuate Gaza in an order that the UN has deemed ‘impossible’. This is in response to a brutal attack by Hamas on several Israeli settlements bordering Gaza. There can be no real, cogent moral defence of such a surprise attack targeting civilians. But instead of producing a rational and thoughtful response as to how we got to this juncture, the war machine is gearing up once again to grind down, not only Hamas, but Palestinians outside of Hamas who are already helpless and already without defence. This includes the Christians of Saint Porphyrios Church in Gaza, who have requested our prayers. They face a true martyrdom: sacrificial suffering on account of a crime in which they had no part.

There are few who seek understanding of this conflict. But for those who are interested, I would recommend two books in particular: the work of George Antonius, The Arab Awakening, and William Dalrymple’s travelogue From the Holy Mountain. The latter is not about the history of the Holy Land per se, but intimates many things which are relevant to the present state of affairs. The autobiography of Iraqi statesman Adnan al-Pachachi, Living to Some Purpose, may also be of some interest to readers on this question.

The land which is called ‘holy’, is crying for peace, yet peace is very far from its grasp. I find myself in deep grief for those who have lost their lives on both sides already. And I find myself deep in anger, not only at Hamas, but also (and more so) at the Israeli state and leadership who failed to prevent this attack, and who will now wreak a vengeance that will target the innocent along with the guilty. There can be no true peace without justice; and justice can only be arrived at, when the rightful claims of the Palestinian cause are acknowledged, and when the security of the Jewish people everywhere, not just in the Holy Land, is assured. I can only add Rev’d Dr John Mason Neale’s English translation of the hymn for peace from the Christmas Canon, which was authored by the holy Palestinian of Gaza whom we commemorate today:
Father of Peace, and God of Consolation!
 The Angel of the Counsel dost Thou send
To herald peace, to manifest Salvation,
 Thy Light to pour, Thy knowledge to extend;
Whence, with the morning’s earliest rays,
Lover of men! Thy Name we praise.

’Midst Caesar’s subjects Thou, at his decreeing,
 Obey’dst and was enrolled: our mortal race,
To sin and Satan slave, from bondage freeing,
 Our poverty in all points didst embrace:
And by that Union didst combine
The earthly with the All-Divine.

Behold! The virgin, prophecy sustaining,
 Incarnate Deity conceived and bore;
Virgin in birth, and virgin still remaining,
 And man to God is reconciled once more:
Wherefore in faith her name we bless,
And Mother of our God confess.

09 October 2023

Archbishop Theodosios (Hanna) of Sebasteia speaks

His Eminence the Archbishop Theodosios (Hanna) has some words to say about the recent bloodshed in Palestine, to which I can add only, ‘tolle, lege’:
We do not advocate war, violence and murder, but at the same time we are not neutral about the issue of our Palestinian people. We are with our oppressed and beleaguered people, who have the right to live freely in their homeland, like the other peoples of the world.

Palestinians will not surrender to occupation, oppression, exploitation and besiegement. And Palestinians will not surrender to any policy of repression, blackmail or [political] pressure aimed at eliminating the Palestinian issue.

Our people are living persons who love life, freedom and dignity, and we say to the authors of the slogans of peace to place the first and foremost emphasis on justice. In no way should the executioner and the victim be placed in the same category. Our people are victims of the occupation that will surely disappear, and we as Palestinian Christians stand with our people in this cause. It is our cause, and these people are our people. God help the people who face conspiracy upon all sides, but the Palestinians will not raise the banner of surrender.

Greetings to the souls of the martyrs and greetings to all those who associate and defend these lands, its sanctity and sanctities.

To this world that claims to be civilized and rich in democracy and freedoms, we say that you bear a certain degree of responsibility: because you witness the dangerous violations in Jerusalem and other Palestinian sites, and you ignore the unjust practices of the [Israeli] occupation.

The images of destruction, death and blood hurt us. And we will remain, as we were, advocates of peace based on justice, not on surrender. Peace is one thing and surrender is another. And I believe that the message of the Palestinians to the whole world is that we will not surrender no matter how much they attack us, no matter how much they conspire against our holy places and our people.

We feel sorrow and pain for every drop of blood that flows, especially that of civilians and innocents. We are not advocates of violence and murder. But we are advocates of right and justice, of the defence of the Palestinian people and their legitimate rights to live in freedom and dignity.