How to live next to persecutors and break even

Polish communists joined Soviet communists in their grief that Hitler failed to kill all European Jews. The Palestinian Nakba is a tragedy because in 1948 the Arabs failed to kill the Jews, both those who came to Palestine from antisemitic Europe and those who had lived there from time immemorial.

How to live next to persecutors and break even

By Andrzej Koraszewski. Cross-posted from Lucky Saint George

Translation: Małgorzata Koraszewska and Sarah Lawson

Zbigniew Herbert wrote that Saint George was lucky because from the knight’s saddle he could well assess the forces and movements of the enemy. Those who know this poem also know that Mr. Cogito’s monster emerges from the fog. The myth of Saint George is interesting. Some say that there has never been such a figure, but in Israel, in Lod, there is his grave. We also know his biography, and even several versions of it. April 23, 303 is given as the date of his martyrdom. Supposedly, he fought a dragon, but we can certainly consign that to fairy tales. Some say he was born in England, others say he was born in what is now Turkey.

What was he doing in Lod? Apparently his mother was Jewish and came to Lod with little George. Some say he was brought up in the Christian faith, others say he converted. Suppose there was such a figure, and that it is true that his mother emigrated from the Hellenised area of present-day Turkey to Palestine. Over the centuries, it was common for Jews to flee the Diaspora to Eretz Israel. Thus, we can assume that if there is a grain of truth in this legend, the mother of Saint George was one of the hundreds of thousands of Jews who have returned to their ancestral lands throughout history. Saint George, however, was a Christian, which at the turn of the third and fourth centuries was probably due to conviction rather than opportunism. Opportunism was indicated by his joining the Roman legions, i.e., the occupying army. Was his Christianity some absurd form of rebellion against the Roman invaders, or was his Jewish identity barely traceable, and the Christian identity was the one he brought from the Diaspora? How to settle among powerful persecutors and how to maintain dignity, even in the form of silent opposition?

There was no dragon, but Mr. Cogito’s monster was quite real. These were times when a Jew was punished by death for entering Jerusalem, the Temple of Jupiter stood on the site of the destroyed Temple, and Jerusalem itself was now called Aelia Capitolina. There were still many Jews in Palestine, and there were occasional revolts, and every more lenient emperor was met with pleas for an alleviation of persecution. The easing of persecution led to waves of returns, and the return led to persecution and more massacres. In 362 Emperor Julian even allowed the Jews to rebuild the Temple, but he soon died and nothing came of it. Pagan Rome was dying; the persecution of the Jews, those in Palestine and those in the Diaspora, was now organized by the Christian hierarchy. Escapes from persecutors and returns to Eretz Israel have continued up to our times. Mr. Cogito's Jewish monster is tormenting those who live in the Diaspora, as well as many of those who have made aliyah. As a poet would say: “it is difficult to describe, it escapes definitions”. The question is difficult, how to live next to persecutors and break even?

An American film director who once left Poland because Polish communists joined Soviet communists in their grief that Hitler failed to kill all European Jews writes about the Palestinian Nakba, which is a tragedy because in 1948 the Arabs failed to kill the Jews, both those who came to Palestine from antisemitic Europe and those who had lived there from time immemorial. The director does not seem to know that in 133 the Romans did not manage to expel all the Jews from Israel, which was rechristened Palestine, he seems not to know that for centuries Jews returned to Eretz Israel whenever the occupiers’ bans were weakened, that they were there again and again murdered by the thousands and that in 1948 they were promised to be slaughtered to the last one, so he feels deep empathy for the Nakba, or tragic failure in the intended genocide of the Jews. From a psychological point of view, the thing is astonishing, although a certified psychotherapist could probably spend years explaining it for the right fee.

The author writes that as a child he was occupied by the Germans in Warsaw, and therefore, out of sympathy for the Palestinians occupied by Israel, he decided to make a film about two nations. Why out of sympathy for the Palestinians and not out of sympathy for human beings? Is he ready for an honest conversation and would he be willing to try to explain which Palestinians are occupied?

Gaza has magnificent hotels, imposing avenues, palaces of millionaires and neighbourhoods of very wealthy people. (There are also neighbourhoods of carefully cultivated squalor that are reservoirs for terrorists and a nightmare for their inhabitants.) Gaza’s billionaires live in Qatar and Turkey. Are those Gazans who are skimming the cream out of international aid being occupied? It would have to be a long conversation about whether comparing Gaza to the Warsaw Ghetto is justified and how these two places, distant in time and space, differ. The Palestinian Authority is also reportedly occupied. Again, the question is whether the dictator of the PA Mahmoud Abbas and his sons are occupied? How exactly does this American-Polish author define the word “occupation”? Why does he carefully avoid definitions of the terms used? Maybe it’s because he’s an artist, and art is supposed to evoke emotions without bothering with burdensome details.

The film director will make a film “about two nations which, according to any logic and their own interests, should have lived in peace and cooperate economically for years, while politicians of both countries have been unable to find a way to resolve this conflict for 65 years.” I wonder what this author means by “any logic”, the classical logic of building sentences that can be said to be true or false? What is the difference between “any logic” and classical logic? It is hard to resist the impression that “any logic” is definitely more frivolous. It doesn’t care about any true/false stamps. It does not devote itself to the study of facts, it likes stories and feelings.

Presenting to us his idea of the planned film, the film director writes about a “legal but derelict” piece of land, which (as we can guess) was occupied by Jews. We may wonder about the question, in what sense is it legal and in what sense is it derelict? Do we in Poland have the right to Wrocław, Opole, Szczecin or not? Were the decisions made by the victorious powers after the end of the First World War legal?

Narratives can be different. The concept of legality can be meticulously scrutinised. Statutory law is not divine law and we can sometimes question it, either on the basis of classical logic or on the basis of “any logic”. So we learn from this article that “in self-defence, Israel must occupy Palestine.” The author does not define the borders of Palestine, does not show ancient maps, does not remember that after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, “Palestine” meant the area of ancient Israel corresponding approximately to the borders of the Mandate for Palestine, i.e., it included today’s Jordan (78 percent of Palestine) and the remaining 22 percent, i.e. the area “from the river to sea”, i.e., Israel minus the Palestinian Authority and minus Gaza. So what is Israel occupying and how does it do it?

According to what we understand by international law, Israel was legally established, just as Poland, Jordan, and dozens of other countries were legally established after the end of the First World War. Various institutions have tried to define the boundaries of the “national home of the Jewish People” in the land of their ancestors. We have the League of Nations entrusting Britain with the Mandate for Palestine, we have the San Remo Conference, we have the 1947 UN General Assembly proposal. Just like in Poland and in dozens of other countries that were granted the right to independence, diplomatic border disputes turned into armed conflicts. “The misshapen bastard of the Treaty of Versailles”. This is how the USSR foreign minister questioned the legality of Poland’s existence in October 1939. Earlier, Adolf Hitler questioned the legality of the existence of Czechoslovakia in a similar way, and today, the legality of Ukraine is being questioned by President Putin. They all invoked “any logic” while rejecting the rules of classical logic.

Changes in borders, the emergence of new states are often the consequences of wars, in which the concept of legality of territorial losses can be discussed. In general, it is considered legal for states that started and lost offensive wars to lose territories. These changes are always dramatic, accompanied by population shifts, a sense of injustice, and often also civil wars in the newly created states.

In the case of Israel, Arab countries have questioned the very idea of its revival from the beginning.

The American film director does not mention population shifts during the creation of Poland after the partitions or after the end of World War II or the dramas of India and African countries. What is the difference between the removal of several million Germans from Poland and the Recovered Territories, and the departure of 500,000 to 700,000 Arabs for a week (i.e. until the expected purging of the former Syrian province of Jews) in response to the call of their own leaders and commanders of the attacking armies? (I use the term “former Syrian province” here because the Arabs accepted the term “Palestine” only after 1965). The author does not remind us that we brutally expelled the Germans, and that Israeli Jews, when the armies of five Arab states invaded one-day-old Israel, asked the local Arabs to be neutral and stay put, limiting the displacement to places where local Arabs actively participated in the fighting. Perhaps the film director does not know that a significant part of the Arabs fleeing the war zones went to the countries from which they had recently arrived in the Palestinian Mandate (hence, the specially created UN agency, UNRWA, defined as a “Palestinian refugee” every Arab who had lived in the Mandate area for two years or longer.)

The column is basically a story about the author’s trip to Israel, which is combined with the planning of the film. We learn that there are taxis and minibuses called sheruts at the airport and that taxis are a Jewish business and sheruts are a Palestinian business. And here’s the problem, because Israeli Arabs rarely define themselves as Palestinians, so even if a specific Arab driver would describe himself as such, certainly talking about this “Palestinian business” indicates either poor discernment or a conscious blurring of the problem that the director wants to make a movie about. The co-passenger of the minibus is Turkish and, as we learn, she gets off at the checkpoint at the entrance to the Palestinian Authority. The border checkpoint in this Polish text is a check-point (written in English), the Palestinian Authority is West Bank, and a British friend is waiting for the Turkish woman, “who flew in to help rebuild a Palestinian house demolished for lack of a permit (again, the author is using an English word instead of a Polish one) by the occupation authorities.”

Mr. Cogito’s monster emerges from the semantic fog. The Palestinian Authority is a temporary entity that was created as a result of the so-called Oslo Accords. The contracting parties divided it into three areas A, B, and C. Area A is under the exclusive control of the Palestinian Authority, Area B is an area of joint security control, Area C is recognised in these agreements as a disputed area to which both parties have claims and which remains under Israeli sole control until negotiations are concluded. What is the difference between occupation and mutually accepted control by the contracting parties? In short, it’s huge. In areas A and B construction permits are issued by the Palestinian administration, in area C by the Israeli administration. It comes from contracts, and just like in America or in Poland, building a house or a road without a permit entails legal consequences. The film director does not write about the demolition of illegally built houses by the Palestinian authorities in Gaza or in Areas A and B under the PA, nor does he write about the demolition by Israeli authorities of illegally built houses by Jews in Israel or in area C. Why does he use the English term “permit”, and why is he not surprised that the demolition of a house built without permission attracts a British and a Turkish woman to the Palestinian Authority, and probably a few or a dozen other people? Maybe he decided that when we write about the required permission using English word permit, the Polish speaking reader will think that no one except these “occupiers” requires such a thing.

Words are important, even in a column. The West Bank was the name of Judea and Samaria after it was annexed in 1948. Jordan did not intend to create any Palestinian state there, it annexed the area to itself and called it the West Bank. Only Britain and Pakistan recognised the annexation. The idea to use Palestinians as dogs of war first appeared (probably in Moscow) as early as the mid-1960s, but it became a doctrine only after three failed attempts by the combined armies of the Arab states to liquidate Israel and exterminate the Jews living there. Previously, they were also the vanguard of a perpetual war, but now the idea of an Arab-Jewish conflict, in which 22 states were to destroy little Israel, has been abandoned and a narrative about the war of a small and poor Palestinian nation against the Jewish power was introduced. Now the Palestinians were no longer just spearheads, but a sympathetic David fighting a Jewish Goliath. The fight against the Jews was to be their only goal and the only sense of their existence. For this struggle, they received the support of the Muslim and Western world.

It does not even occur to the American film director to ponder the question of how and why the Arabs hurt the Palestinians.

Would a film about how the Arabs hurt and continue to hurt the Palestinians have any chance of being financed by anyone in America? I don’t know, I’m not an American film director. No permit is necessary for this, but it is difficult to make a film in a distant country without money and without the hope that the interest in such a film will pay back the outlay. This may be the reason that the film director seems to be completely oblivious to the fact that more than half of Israel's Jewish inhabitants are refugees or descendants of refugees from Arab countries. It gets worse. He also fails to notice that there are camps for “Palestinian refugees” in the Palestinian Authority and Gaza. These are not camps organised by some Israeli occupier. These are the camps where the Palestinian rulers keep their second-class subjects for generations. The story of the plight of the Palestinians would not be well received in America. But this is not the only reason for such a vision of the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

The American film director writes about his sympathy for the Palestinians, but does this sympathy reach so far as to learn their language, or at least to look for ways to talk without guardians, gain the trust of interlocutors, escape from sponsored tours of the “West Bank”? He himself spent over 30 years of his life in a totalitarian country, he may know something about the fear of security forces, distrust of strangers, about how a society works in which a person can pay dearly for careless words. And yet the terror in Poland after 1956 was child’s play compared to the one experienced by the Palestinians. Being invited for an interview at the Mostowski Palace was not the same as being taken to a prison in Jericho, not to mention “conversations” with Hamas officials.

We read a description of how at the bus station in Beersheva, “where the dynamite of Palestinian suicides once exploded”, the author was one of the few unarmed persons. Even if one in ten people in the crowd is in uniform and armed, it can be a shock for a newcomer from a peaceful country and may legitimately lead to the question of why there are so many armed people around. There are attempted or successful attacks in Israel almost every day. Jews die, Israeli Arabs die, tourists die. These armed men also protect American film directors and Palestinian sympathisers. The unexpected attacker may be a Palestinian teenager with a knife or a gun, a passenger-car driver, a construction worker who got a work permit in Israel. These are the people whom peace-seeking Palestinian politicians told that this is the way to “Palestine free from the River to the Sea”, a way to Paradise, and the only peace (a peace without Jews) they are ready to accept.

The author writes that he wants to be a self-proclaimed peace negotiator. This is a serious ambition. I cannot count all the previous self-appointed negotiators of this conflict. Some had astronomical financial resources and the power of governments and large institutions behind them, others had the support of non-governmental or religious organisations. It seems that they all made the same mistake. They were not interested in the fate of the Palestinians at all, nor were they interested in other conflicts that had been going on for decades where there were a hundred times more victims. Billions of dollars have already been spent on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many suspect that this continuous solving of the conflict perfectly perpetuates and strengthens this conflict. The American film director may have heard an Israeli politician say that the day the Arabs lay down their weapons there will be peace, but the day Israelis lay down their weapons Israel will cease to exist.

Perhaps it is worth considering that perhaps this is not an Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or even a Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but perhaps we are dealing with the monster of Mr. Cogito, an effect of looking for an answer to the question “Why can’t Jews have peace with Arabs?” without a shadow of pity for those whom we supposedly sympathise with.

Mr. Cogito’s monster “like fumes fills houses, temples, bazaars, poisons wells, destroys mental structures, covers bread with mold…" The poet recommends avoiding sudden movements and violent speech. We have to breathe shallowly, pretend we’re not there.

I’m sure that the announced movie will be made, but for some reason I’m not interested in it. I’ve seen it so many times.

My favourite poet also wrote another poem, about “The Game of Mr. Cogito”, it’s a beautiful poem about imagination. The poet takes on various roles when describing Kropotkin’s escape from prison. He describes a conversation with a guard at the prison gate. This conversation is both close to, and far from, the truth. The poet writes:

Vanya, ever seen a microbe?


and this beast is crawling on your skin

can’t believe your lordship

and it crawls and has a tail

a big one?

two or three versts

then the fur hat

falls on the sheepish eyes

In fact, the real escape had been planned for the day this particular guard was supposed to be on duty at the gate. The organisers knew that he was an avid science lover and that the story that a new model of microscope had been brought to Moscow might keep him so busy that he would forget about the whole world. The poet may not have known it, ignorance is not a sin, we are all ignorant. He could have been careful, if only to protect his honesty. He was drawn to the poetic temptation of shallow stereotypes and contempt in order to display his own nobility. Mr. Cogito’s monster has so many faces and none. Saint George was in a better position.