30 November 2023

Six Walks in a disappearing wilderness

Cross-posted from Silk and Chai:

I just finished reading Palestinian Walks—a poignant and tragic memoir by human rights lawyer, author and Palestinian activist Raja Shehadeh about his work in the Holy Land over the course of nearly four decades. Shehadeh, who is an ethnic Palestinian Christian, makes numerous Scriptural references owing to the simple fact that he lives where Scripture was written, and where the events of Scripture took place. But his spirituality is not of an overt, apologist or confessional nature; indeed, his attitude toward organised religion in general is self-avowedly ‘cynical’. Living in a land which is riven by communal factionalism and self-serving zealotry on the part of the settlers, does understandably tend to leave a bad taste in the mouth when it comes to theological questions. But rather, we can see that spirituality most clearly in his meditations on the shifting ecological balance and the fragile disappearing landscapes he loves so dearly. He is very much so a lover of the land and its people, a fact which comes through painfully in every chapter. Glimmers and moments of his faith in Christianity do emerge, however—particularly in his visit to the Monastery of St George Choziba in Wadi Qelt.

To get a good grasp of the tenor of the book, it’s necessary to quote Shehadeh at length about the nature of these walks he would take. Here is his description of the sarḥa (سرحة), which is the term he uses for the sort of walk he would do:
It was mainly young men who went on these expeditions. They would take a few provisions and go to the open hills, disappear for the whole day, sometimes for weeks and months. They often didn't have a particular destination. To go on a sarha was to roam freely, at will, without restraint. The verb form of the word means to let the cattle out to pasture early in the morning, leaving them to wander and graze at liberty. The commonly used noun sarha is a colloquial corruption of the classical word. A man going on a sarha wonders aimlessly, not restricted by time and place, going where his spirit takes him to nourish his soul and rejuvenate himself. But not any excursion would qualify as a sarha. Going on a sarha implies letting go.
Shehadeh’s evocation of the sarḥa rather mirrors the false etymology that Henry David Thoreau posits for ‘saunter’ (from ‘sainte-terre’) as a sort of pilgrimage, though one without a fixed aim. I have little doubt that this choice was intentional on Shehadeh’s part, even if it’s left unsaid. Shehadeh demonstrates a firm command of English-language literature regarding his home country, and an enviable degree of appreciation for its artistry—even as he chides figures like WM Thackeray, Herman Melville and Mark Twain for their unappreciative, imperialist’s-eye view of his country and his people.

Shehadeh describes a landscape in which every ridge, crest, rock, dry riverbed and hill-slope has a name—in Arabic, most commonly, but with the occasional Canaanite and Aramaic epithet arising. He describes an austerely exquisite panorama, not to everyone’s tastes, but with life and vibrancy enough to one trained in the ability to look for it. His careful—yet lively—descriptions of the geological features, of the local plant and animal life, and the ways in which his fellow Palestinians (and their goats, their grapevines and their earthen houses) came to a modus vivendi with their near-desert surroundings, all bear witness to the personal stake he has in the well-being of this place.

Yet despite this naturalist, travelogue feel, Palestinian Walks is very much so a memoir, a personal text. He describes the effort his maternal uncle, Abu Ameen, put into constructing a qasr, essentially a cottage, in the wilderness of Harrasha—and the quirky romance he enjoyed with his hardworking bride, Zariefeh, as they spent their honeymoon hauling rocks and setting them into place. We get to see some of the family dynamics, too. Raja Shehadeh belongs to that educated class of Palestinians, who were drawn into the British administration at Jaffa… although they all hailed from Ramallah. He describes the differences in attitude between his two uncles: one who went off to Jaffa to become a ‘successful’ administrator; and the other who stayed behind and lived stubbornly in the desert hills outside of Ramallah, neither knowing or needing any other kind of life.

A personal streak runs throughout each of these sarḥât. Raja describes one of the first land cases that he took up on receiving his law degree, defending the title of a certain Palestinian named François Albina (who was referred to as ‘the Christian’ landowner by his Muslim neighbours in Beit ‘Ur, in contradistinction to another large landowner nearby whom his neighbours called ‘the Jew’). He details much of the history behind this case, including how the Israeli settlers—with the entire machinery of the Israeli legal system and seemingly bottomless foreign pockets behind them—resorted to practically every trick of legal chicanery and sleight-of-hand in order to undercut Albina’s claim to the land… and even essentially blackmail him into abandoning that same claim by demanding compensation for its use. Raja also describes how this served as an almost perfect test case: the defendant was an independent landowner who was not a Muslim. Yet the Israeli judiciary, despite being forced at every turn by Raja’s argument to acknowledge that Albina had an incontestable and continuous presence on and claim to his own land, ultimately decided on an expansive interpretation of an Israeli military order that gave the go-ahead for settlers to take it and build on it anyway.

Raja’s description of the wall that went up, straight through Albina’s property, is heart-wrenching. Instead of a gentle hillside shaded by pine trees, there was a garish, sixteen-foot concrete wall separating a nestle of villas in a gated community for Israeli high-tech IT employees, with a highway running to the coast, all lit by electric floodlights, overshadowing what remained of the Palestinian community in Beit ‘Ur. He describes both the intrusion of the built space, and all of the architectural choices which accompanied it, as perfectly keyed to stir up animosity and hatred between the two sides, assuring that violence would become an issue later. This point is driven home as, later, in the same vicinity, Raja and his wife Penny end up being shot at by Palestinian militants (Raja doesn’t say Ḥamâs specifically) even after calling to them in Arabic to stop.

Raja Shehadeh makes no bones about the fact that he refuses to consider violence as a legitimate tool. His weapon of choice is the law. His reasons for this are not religious at all, but primarily secular and practical: he knows full well that the Palestinians will not be able to outgun or outkill the Israelis; and he also understands that no peace arrived at through bloodshed is capable of being permanent. He also takes a long-term, generational view of the conflict… though to what extent this view is the product of hindsight in view of the Oslo Accords (which undermined practically all of his legal work defending Palestinian land claims) is unclear.

The Oslo Accords loom large in Shehadeh’s narrative as a kind of classical nemesis. In his view, the Palestinians who came to Oslo were essentially lulled into a false sense of security by the theatrics of hospitality put on by their Norwegian hosts, while the Israelis essentially walked away with the legal rights to the proverbial lock, stock and barrel. Although Shehadeh clearly, and for very good personal reasons, shuns and deplores the violence of the militants, still he views the political opportunism and low cunning of Fataḥ and the PLO more generally in still-bleaker terms: having sold out the patrimony of their people in exchange for aid money and pats on the head from Western governments. (In this, he echoes a sentiment I’ve heard repeatedly in Antiochian and Palestinian Christian circles, particularly with regard to Mahmoud Abbas.) One sees a lot of this frustration in his third sarḥa down to the Dead Sea, which he takes in the company of a young PLO member who talks about the Oslo Accords with a nigh-intolerable rose-tinted naïveté. Here he also describes with alarm the disappearing biome and impending ecological catastrophe which can be observed in the lowering line of the Dead Sea, as Israeli interests divert the fresh water of the Jordan.

In another rare flash of religiosity, Raja Shehadeh describes his pilgrimage to the Monastery of Saint George Choziba in the chapter which follows. He is more comfortable, it seems, referring to figures of the Old Testament (like King David and the Prophet Isaiah) than to the figures of the New—but given where he lives and what his context is, perhaps this is not so strange. Again: his attitude toward religion in general is a negative one. Given what he has described of the overt religiosity of the Israeli settlers, which somehow coexists with callous disregard for neighbour, with casual violence and with absolute comfort in the one-sided and prejudicial use of the machinery of law… this is understandable. And yet he approaches the monastery, sixteen centuries old, with its fortified walls, its dark incensed cloistered interior, its candle-lit icons, with an attitude of deep respect and admiration, if only in the sense of inspiration for the ordering of one’s own life, or the attitude which a people under siege need to adopt.

Raja Shehadeh’s cloister of choice was a modest home with a courtyard in Ramallah… though even this was not inviolate of Israeli brutality, as he learned the hard way when his town came under siege and later occupation. More to the point, perhaps, is that writing became the discipline through which he could manage the defeats, the insults, the violence and the hopelessness which had become the common lot of his people. He discusses, in the context of a sarḥa which the two of them took together, the long friendship he has with Dr Mustafa Barghouti of the PNI Party, and the differences which their lives took. Raja Shehadeh began as a lawyer and ended up as a writer; Mustafa Barghouti began as a medical doctor and ended up as a politician. Yet the two men share a conviction that the Palestinian struggle must be waged in civil society and in terms of generations rather than intifadas.

The final chapter is a harrowing one, but it’s one which I think Shehadeh relates masterfully, simply from a literary standpoint. He describes getting lost right around Dolev, where he grew up—not because of his failing memory, but because the landscape itself had changed so much as to be unrecognisable to him. He ends up finding his way back to Ramallah by process of elimination: all the places which are blocked off to him by Israeli settlements, border walls or checkpoints. He describes a tense encounter with a young, armed Israeli settler who has snuck out of Dolev in order to smoke hashish. The conversation between the two is narrated excellently: a confrontation between two views of the same place that have been shaped by different values and different realms of knowledge. Placing this conversation at the end of the book, after we have been given this personal history of legal struggle and attempts to conserve some semblance of legal consideration for both the landscape and its original inhabitants, was a shrewd choice on Shehadeh’s part: we can see the clear delineation between his view and the ‘settler’ view. Shehadeh is a conservationist and a believer in the rule of law; the settler he encounters is a believer in material progress and victors’ justice. Yet in the end the two of them come, if not to an understanding, then at least to an uneasy truce over the nargileh (punctuated poignantly by the sounds of distant gunfire—whose ‘side’ it is, neither can tell).

Palestinian Walks is a book that I would strongly recommend as a means of understanding the (both literal, figurative and historical) lay of the land in the Israel-Palestine conflict, as well as the common experience that shapes the convictions of the Palestinian side of that conflict. The author—a nominal Christian and a functional pacifist—is nonetheless an authoritative voice for a people who are predominantly Muslim and who are committed to a resistance which can turn, as we have seen, violent. It’s also valuable as an English-language travelogue. However he might chide and wag his finger at the likes of Melville and Thackeray and Twain, what Shehadeh has given us could easily be placed alongside them as a companion-piece, painting in intimate colours the intricate but endangered desert ecology and human communities of the West Bank.

One last note. My own view is that it’s a grim necessity, in these days, to engage in such intentional book-reading as a counterpoint to the prevailing media narratives over the recent conflict. You are not going to get the truth about this or any conflict abroad from CNN, from Fox News, from the New York Times or from the Wall Street Journal, which are all mouthpieces for the State Department and committed to a singular liberal ideology and historical myopia which colours their entire editorial perspective. The benefit of reading books like Shehadeh’s, is that such reading can help someone who is distant and removed from the conflict gain a sense of context, a sense of historical grounding, which is not otherwise available in our information landscape. Although Shehadeh is somewhat self-deprecating about his chosen means of coping with political defeat and the disaster befalling his people, his writing does serve this very needful and, dare I say, God-pleasing purpose.

Raja Shehadeh

25 November 2023

Russia, Palestine and ‘moral equivalence’

With regard to the war in Ukraine, I’m in a relatively strange position. When the most recent phase of the war began in February 2022, I was firmly opposed to Russia’s incursion, though I reserved a series of criticisms of the Ukrainian government with an eye to the injustices against Russophone Ukrainians and ethnic minorities in places like Bukovina and Transcarpathia which preceded it. My reasons for opposing the Russian war effort were, in retrospect, perhaps a trifle naïve. I thought the initial attack by Russia against Kharkov was inhumane and inexcusable, given that Kharkov was the site where Russophone Ukrainians first came under violent attack from the Ukrainian SBU back in April of 2014.

Later events and revelations caused me to significantly revise my stance. Whereas before I was critically pro-Ukraine in the current conflict for principled anti-war reasons, I am now critically pro-Russia… for principled anti-war reasons. I still think that the Russian armed forces have made significant strategic errors and tactical bungles in the prosecution of the war, and that the political leadership has been… inconsistent. But several factors caused me to change my view. Firstly, there were the revelations from Swiss intelligence officer Jacques Baud that western nations were conducting military exercises in the Black Sea and that the Ukrainian military were ramping up attacks on Donbas before 24 February 2022. Secondly, there were the Russian peace proposals in April of 2022 that the Western bloc, and the United Kingdom in particular, did their level best to scupper. Thirdly, there were the striking admissions by high-ranking European and American officials such as Angela Merkel and François Hollande, that the West never intended to abide by the Minsk Agreements but instead use them as a time-buying pretext to arm Kiev for war.

Although none of these three reasons by itself constitutes a valid casus belli for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (at least, in light of Western Christian just war theory), when taken together as a pattern, they cast Russia’s actions in an entirely different light. Russia was acting in response to a series of premeditated, offensive provocations from the West. And Russia had attempted numerous times to come to a diplomatic resolution to the conflict. These factors convinced me that Russia’s actions were in fact defensive rather than offensive, and that the Ukrainian nation as a whole had been grievously abused by the Western bloc, and made to serve as a catspaw to advance Western plans to weaken and compromise Russia’s political process and territorial integrity. Basically, everything the West accused Russia of doing to Ukrainian society, the West was actually doing (or planning to do) to Russian. I think it is fair to say that my previous critically pro-Ukrainian position was already being revised by July, and was already critically pro-Russian by January of this year.

I can still understand and sympathise, to a limited degree, with the attitude of anti-war moral outrage over the February 2022 Russian incursion. After all, I shared in it! But, as the great British economist John Maynard, Baron Keynes, is often famously credited with saying: ‘When the facts change, I change my mind, sir—what do you do?’ Just as the first impressions of Elizabeth Bennet of Mr Darcy and Mr Wickham had to be revised as enough of the facts became known to her and pointed to an entirely different interpretation and colouring of events and circumstances, so I too all but had to revise my position concerning the events of February 2022.
I also began to notice, in the prosecution of the ‘special military operation’, that Russia’s tactics and overall military doctrine were aimed not at territorial conquest at all costs, but instead at the degradation of Ukrainian military capacity and the protection (insofar as possible) of civilian lives. This was clearly not owing to Russian military weakness and strategical stupidity, but owing to an active choice on the part of the Russian chiefs of staff. Inexcusable high-profile incidents such as Bucha notwithstanding (and in the awareness that a full-scale impartial investigation has yet to be conducted), the Russian armed forces have taken great pains to remove civilian populations from positions of physical danger, and direct their attacks as exclusively as possible at military targets—most of these being along the line of contact.

As of four days ago, the UN Human Rights Office has reported that over the past 20 months, 10,000 civilians have been killed in the Russo-Ukrainian War. This sounds like a lot, and indeed there can be no moral excuse for such death as in any modern war. But for a modern armed conflict, Russia is actually incurring a comparatively low rate of civilian deaths. For comparison: the Iraq Body Count project (which is in fact probably a severe underestimate of civilian deaths) showed that American servicemen were responsible for over 20,000—twice as many—confirmed Iraqi civilian deaths across a similar period of time. (And the Iraq War was in fact a war of choice, and no such tragic conflict of two nations’ defensive claims as the Russo-Ukrainian War is!)

It is also worth noting that there is no active armed resistance to speak of against Russian rule inside the territories that Russia is occupying. There are a handful of far-right neo-Nazi Russian paramilitaries and criminal groups associated with the so-called ‘Irpin Declaration’ in armed opposition to the Russian government. But these seem to operate exclusively out of Ukrainian-controlled territory and enjoy practically zero support in Russian-controlled Donetsk, Lugansk, Zaporozhzh’e and Kherson oblasts. A critical thinker is forced to wonder why this is. If Russia really were behaving as the brutal, imperialistic, homicidal territorial aggressor so commonly portrayed, then why are the civilians in the territories it controls acquiescing to Russian rule so passively and meekly? Why not take up arms against the oppressor?

This context also formed in large part my attitude toward the current war being waged by Israel against Gaza. To engage in any analysis of this conflict is to step into a rhetorical minefield. This is because the Cold War-relic snarl-phrase of ‘moral equivalence’ is again being bandied about with great abandon over the past month and a half, notably by Sam Harris, Bill Maher, Jonathan Tobin, Alan Dershowitz and other such liberast luminaries. Condemnations of ‘moral equivalence’ in this context are very nearly equivalent to a ‘how dare you!!’ non-argument. It’s almost an emotive reflex, to the effect of: How dare you liken us enlightened ones, us democratic and human-rights-respecting heroes, to those unspeakable and irredeemable villains, terrorists, baby-killers and death-cultists over there?

The first and foremost philosophical problem with condemning ‘moral equivalence’, in fact a huge problem on its face, is that all moral reasoning relies to some degree on drawing analogies between disparate situations such that certain equivalencies can be meaningfully derived. Practically all systems of ethics in Western thought going back to Plato and Aristotle rely at their basis on analogical arguments and reasoning. Plato in particular was famous for using analogies (‘the divided line’), parables (the Charioteer, the Cave, the Man chained to a Lion and a Many-Headed Beast) and even myths (Atlantis, the Ring of Gyges) to draw the characters of his dramas—and with them, his readers—into a deeper understanding of the particular point of virtue or knowledge that he was exploring. Plato’s discursive methods were formalised into a system by his student-cum-rival Aristotle.

In a very real sense, all serious moral thinking in the West is an exercise in drawing equivalences, and the ‘how-dare-you’ demand to cease drawing such analogical equivalences is tantamount to demanding that we turn off our brains and toss out the very fundaments of Western ethical thought. In this case, a fortiori, the need for meaningful analogies, and a cogent language for evaluating such analogies, is paramount. For example: I note that these same talking-heads condemning ‘moral equivalence’ seem to have no objections to the rather spurious moral equivalence of Palestinians to Nazis that the Israeli authorities are wont to engage in.

Now, it should be obvious from this example that some analogies are better, closer and more cogent than others. The benefit of accepting equivalency and analogy as a valid method of moral reasoning, is that we are better equipped to say which equivalencies and analogies are invalid. The Germans during the Second World War were in command of their own state, for one thing. The Palestinians have no state. And they have a ‘government’ only in the most risibly loose of senses. The Germans had control over an entire financial sector, an entire industrial war machine, a command structure, including an air force, that the Palestinians completely lack. And, probably most importantly, the Germans were also driven by an ideology of racial superiority and social Darwinism, which, for reasons which should be obvious, holds no endogenous currency whatsoever among the Arabs of Palestine.

Regarding the neologism of ‘Islamofascism’, a coinage which circulates promiscuously among the same people who snarl against ‘moral equivalence’, the following must be said. We must speak of the Ikhwânism of Ḥamâs on its own demerits, and these are very real. It is disgusting beyond words that the Ḥamâs leadership lives like kings in places like Dubai and Doha while the Palestinian constituency they supposedly govern gets bombed to hell. But, while Ikhwânism may bear comparison to fascism in some respects, fascism is in a very real sense secular and nationalistic, in a way that even the most brutal and death-loving forms of Islamism are not.

But, having established foremost the need for ‘moral equivalencies’ (in the most basic sense of simply having an analogical method for ethical comparison), I think it may be possible to begin to discuss the parallels between the Russo-Ukrainian conflict and the Israeli-Palestinian one a bit more cogently. Hopefully a more convincing case can be put forward than Biden’s senile and inchoate conflation of Russia and Ḥamâs as fellow-dastards and enemies of all that is good and decent.

Three such equivalencies, between Russia and Israel, do rise immediately to the surface.
  1. Fraternal conflict.The Israelis and the Palestinians, much like the Ukrainians and the Russians, are quite literally brother-peoples.

    Israelis and Palestinians have been shown by objective genetic studies to share recent ancestry. Both Palestinians and Israelis are largely Semitic peoples with roots in the Levant.

    Likewise, all of the East Slavic peoples—Ukrainians, Belarusians and ethnic Russians—share ‘almost identical proportions’ of Caucasian and Northern European genetic material, making them incredibly close kin simply from the standpoint of heredity.

  2. Defensive justifications. The Israeli case for war is, on its face, similar to the Russian one—insofar as it is justified on the basis of self-defence and security against not merely local but also regional foes.

    In Russia’s case, those regional foes are the eastern European nations which are members of the NATO bloc; while in Israel’s case, those regional foes are the Arab nations with which it hasn’t yet come to a modus vivendi.

  3. Territorial occupation. It must be mentioned that in each case, Russia and Israel in the prosecution of their respective wars hold and occupy territory that, under international law, does not belong to them.

    Russia occupies much of the Donetsk Basin, Zaporozhzh’e and Kherson in defiance of international law. Israel occupies the West Bank and Gaza in defiance of the same international laws.
However, there also arise a number of dissimilarities between the two conflicts; mostly historical in their import, though not irrelevant to the current situation in each country.
  1. Religious significance. Palestine is very literally holy ground to all three of the major Abrahamic religions. The Temple Mount, the Tombs of the Patriarchs, the site of Christ’s Nativity, the Holy Sepulchre, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Mount of Olives—all exist within the borders of the present Holy Land. There has historically been massive contention over these sites, both among Christian confessions and between Christians, Jews and Muslims.

    The Pontic territories under dispute do contain religious significance for Orthodox Christians. Sevastopol in particular is a place sacred in Russian Orthodoxy, as the site of the baptism of St Vladimir. But there is nothing in Crimea or elsewhere in the territories under dispute between Russia and the Ukraine, which qualitatively resembles in character the holy sites in Palestine.

  2. Settler colonialism. The presence of Russophones in the Ukraine is not, in overall terms, the result of a deliberate concerted policy of colonialism or settlement—even though Tsarist Russia, and later the Soviet Union, did have deliberate policies of colonial settlement in numerous other places. By contrast, Israeli history is very overtly and self-consciously colonial and settlement-oriented: the main organisation for Jewish settlement was literally called the Jewish Colonisation Association; Theodor Herzl and Ze’ev Jabotinsky both explicitly framed their project in terms of colonisation.

    Ironically, the use of ‘postcolonial’ discourse to describe modern Ukrainian reality is not endogenous but rather a postmodern (and post-Soviet) borrowing from the West… and this discursive strategy is, to put it mildly, broadly unconvincing to the actual former subjects of Western colonial governments, who (not without reason) see this discursive strategy as self-serving and driven by ulterior interests.

  3. Social segregation. The people who now live in the Donetsk Basin are, by and large, the descendants of the same Don Cossacks that had independently lived among and intermarried with the locals since the seventeenth century. Rates of intermarriage between ethnic Ukrainians and ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine have historically been high enough that Russians and Ukrainians in the Ukrainian East are functionally the same people. No formal segregation policies have separated ethnic Ukrainians from ethnic Russians in the past, neither under the Tsars, nor under the Soviet government, nor under the current Russian Federation.

    By contrast, segregation in Israel has been legal and formalised since its founding. Intermarriages are vanishingly rare between Israelis and Palestinians, and the Israeli state actually erects legal barriers as well as physical ones in order to prevent it.

  4. Economic disparity. There has historically been very little difference between residents of Ukrainian territories and residents of Russian territories in terms of wealth, even going back to Tsarist times. Certain politically-charged famines notwithstanding, Ukrainians were overall about as well-off as Russians throughout most of their history together. The recent disparity between overall Ukrainian wealth and overall Russian wealth has more to do with the policies chosen by their respective governments after the collapse of the Soviet Union. After the disastrous shock-therapy of the 1990s, Russia turned toward a mixed economic policy based on self-reliance and food security; while the Ukrainian government largely remained mired in Western neoliberalism with all its attendant ills.

    The marked disparity between Israeli wealth and Palestinian wealth, by contrast, is the product of deliberate design rather than negligence or happenstance. The Palestinians were not only driven off the land they had once owned, but they were directly plundered of their resources of all sorts, by both legal chicanery and outright burglary, under Israeli administration. This was the case both in the 1948 Nakba, and in the wake of 1967.

  5. Violent resistance. Both Ukraine and Palestine do have histories of violent resistance, though these are different in character. Ukraine has witnessed sporadic uprisings against Tsarist rule; it resisted incorporation into the Soviet Union during and after the First World War; and Ukrainian nationalists fought in the Nazi SS against the Soviets during the Second World War. Ukrainian resistance to Soviet rule was largely politically rightist and middle- and upper-class in terms of class base, being motivated largely by nineteenth-century nationalist ideas.

    By contrast, there has been armed resistance to Israeli occupation of Palestinian land practically since the very beginning. Palestinians of all social classes began fighting back against the expropriation of their land and the expulsion of their people almost immediately after 1948, and again repeatedly through the Intifadas. The Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation and displacement has been ideologically diverse: ranging from left-wing Marxist-Leninist (PFLP) through secular-liberal (Fataḥ, Third Way) to right-wing Islâmist (Ḥamâs).

    Currently there is no real resistance movement to speak of against Russian rule inside the territories it occupies. (The aforementioned Irpin-aligned groups operate within Ukrainian territory and with Ukrainian state support.) Though one may (and should!) deplore Ḥamâs’s ideology and its methods, the fact of its very existence points to the adverse conditions under which Palestinians live, and the continued determination of Palestinians to resist their occupiers. Clearly these conditions of life are not mirrored in Donbass, Zaporozhzh’e or Kherson.

  6. Avoidance of civilian casualties. In the present conflicts, there are clear distinctions in the treatment of civilians in war. The best UN estimates of civilian death toll in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict since February 2022 sit right around 10,000; 545 of whom are children. This is over a time period of 20 months. These deaths are not to be minimised in terms of the moral harm done; however, as noted above, Russian forces have been demonstrably willing to sacrifice territorial gains and forward momentum on the battlefield precisely in order to avoid placing civilians in harm’s way.

    By contrast, over the past 7 weeks, Israeli forces have already killed 13,000 civilians; about 5,300 of whom are children. This comes from a deliberate military policy of targeting civilian areas and humanitarian infrastructure with shells and air strikes.
In drawing these parallels, and showing points of similarity and dissimilarity between the conflicts in Gaza and in the Ukrainian East, it is not my primary intention to make a simple and straightforward case of ‘Russia good; Israel bad’—even if one of my secondary intentions was indeed to complicate President Biden’s (and the US State Department’s, and that of the ‘moral equivalence’-shouters) narrative of ‘Russia bad; Israel good’. I have neither the desire nor the inclination to hide or hedge about my sympathy for the Palestinian cause… or my comparative lack of sympathy for the Ukrainian one. But I equally have no desire to fall into a ‘how dare you!!’ trap of my own. There are numerous complexities and tragic historical contingencies to both conflicts that render any such Manichæan interpretation analytically worthless.

In the case of Palestine in particular, no historical reckoning can be complete without a thorough accounting for Western Europe’s colonial designs on the region after the Ottoman collapse, or for its inexcusable and genocidal crimes against European Jewry during the Shoah which lent new urgency to the Zionist plea. And in the case of the Ukrainian problem, one has to navigate the disparate experiences of the Galician west, the maritime south and the industrial Russophone East, and the attempts they did make to live together in peace in the wake of independence. There one also has to navigate the problems of debt politics and the legacy of the same European genocide.

In leaving off this analysis, I think the only truly proper thing to do is to lift it up to the Most High, in Whose hands justice is complete and not partial, and in Whose ultimate reckoning all things will be given their proper place and due, and before Whose Truth I hope I dare not exalt the fruits of my own reasoning or prejudices as rivals.

23 November 2023

Giving thanks today

There is good reason to be thankful, first of all, that a holiday exists in American public life upon which gratitude—not merely a sentiment, but a virtue indeed—can still be, and is expected to be, expressed. Gratitude, which presupposes contentment with the good things one has, and which excludes by its nature expressions of covetousness and of entitlement, is a virtue completely alien to the ideology and the ethos of hyper-capitalism and hyper-individualism which suffuses the vestiges of the American public sphere. If this isn’t good reason to be thankful that Thanksgiving still exists, I quite frankly don’t know what is.

I am grateful, firstly, to God for His manifold blessings, for His creation, for His tireless labour through which creation exists, for His Sabbath rest (undertaken not out of His need but out of ours). I am grateful that God precedes us all and yet still loves us; I am grateful that God chose that we should exist, rather than that we should not. I am grateful to our Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, for whatever hope I have left in me. I am grateful to my parents, without whose love and support I would not be here, sustained me when I was hospitalised and still sustain me now. I am grateful to my ancestors of whatever country they come—English, Welsh, German, Jewish, Illyrian and Scythian.

One reason why this Thanksgiving is special, is because my parents-in-law have arrived here from China for an extended visit. Their arrival is timely and deeply appreciated. Because I am their son-in-law and they are my parents-in-law, it’s to be expected that we don’t see eye-to-eye 100% of the time. However, I can already tell that my wife is happier because they’re here. I can already tell that my children are happier because they’re here. And they are already making our home a more complete one while they are present. My parents-in-law have been an inestimable help to my wife and me, in getting us physically and financially established in our living situation here in the Twin Cities metro area, and in assisting us with various aspects of our life here together. I am and will continue to be grateful to them for as long as they live and as long as I live.

This reflection on the Chinese side of my extended family, prompts me to undertake an examination of my own weak spot for the Arab cause. The root of the matter is this: my family would not be here with me in the United States, if it were not for the sustained Herculean efforts of the Arab-American community in Pawtucket, Rhode Island prevailing against the legal inertia of the DHS and immigration services. In particular, I want to give thanks for Fr Elie (Estephan) of St Mary Antiochian Church, whose own efforts in helping Syrian and Lebanese refugees find support and shelter here from war and deprivation at home, equipped him to address my own (much less dire) family situation.

In 2015 and 2016, Fr Elie assisted me with a list of contacts and advisers as well as his own introductions and good words, including with Ms Susan Saliba (an immigration attorney in Massachusetts) and Mr Albert Mokhiber (an immigration lawyer in DC), who afterward assisted me pro bono with completing the paperwork and navigating the ‘grey areas’ necessary for my wife and kids to join me here legally and in a timely way. For this reason, ever since that time I have always felt a need to pay it forward. Those same war refugees, who are the main beneficiaries of this legal and financial and physical assistance, and in much greater need than I am, I have come to see in a very real sense as my own family by virtue of our common situation. This is what underlies, to a significant degree, my sympathy and support for the cause of Syrian peace, and for the cause of Palestinian peace.

I am grateful to St Alexander Nevsky Church in Saimasai, Kazakhstan, for introducing me to the Orthodox Christian faith. I am grateful to Fr Sergey (Voronin), one-time rector of Holy Dormition Church in Beijing, China, for educating me and guiding me gently into that faith, and chrismating me. I am grateful to St Herman’s Orthodox Church, and to all of my friends and fellow-parishioners there, for continuing to assist in my salvation. I am grateful to them for putting up with my eccentricities, and for encouraging me to continue learning the Russian language.

I am grateful to the school I teach at, and to the Saint Paul Federation of Educators for being a source of community belonging and a source of strength for me. (Pray that we get a just contract!) I am also grateful to the students I teach—even the ones who misbehave occasionally!—Hmong, Karen and Vietnamese; White and African-American; Ojibwe and Hispanic. I learn as much from them as they learn from me, and I hope that in my classroom at least, they get as many chances as they can to explore how much they have to offer, and to exercise the reserves of strength and wisdom they possess.

And I am grateful indeed to the Ojibwe and Dakota nations whose guest on this earth I am. I am grateful that the Ojibwe and the Dakota are still here and still speaking and still active, and that they continue to bear witness to the sacredness of things like clean drinking water and healthy land. (And if this sentiment is somewhat subversive of the civic mythology of Thanksgiving: so much the better! I was always a bit of a Mary Dyer at heart; that’s something I come by honestly, and am also grateful for.)

To all I wish a Thanksgiving filled with love and gratitude: for the good things that we have been given, and for the one Good One that is given us to expect at the end of the season, through the prayers and labours and faith of our Lady, the Most Holy and Most Pure Birthgiver of God and Ever-Virgin Mary.