Tuesday, February 20, 2024

On Gaza

I am the child of Iranian refugees who lost everything, even their children, to Islamists like Hamas. My ability to write these words is a defiance of the horrors of Hamas and Islamism, which I consider one and the same. The victims of Hamas’s terror, the victims of all Islamist violence including my family, deserve my voice and I’ll always speak up for them.

My grandparents converted to a religion even more marginalized in Iran, Baha’i, for whom it is illegal to practice, inherit property, or attend university. Whether courageous and savvy, or bold and lucky, my grandma sent my dad to school in England, paving a path out of soon-to-be Islamist Iran. They left behind all property and savings, including my optometrist grandpa’s glasses factories, to pursue a life better than pariahs born on the wrong side of the fence. I still remember getting glasses every birthday despite being the only Adell with 20/20 vision.

My mom relinquished custody of my half-brother and half-sister to escape an abusive child marriage and moved to the US while my siblings endured the Iran-Iraq War. During the Iran Hostage Crisis, the US revoked my mom’s visa and deported her to the UK, where she was visiting her Baha’i boyfriend. The UK granted her asylum and she married that boyfriend, eventually reuniting the family in the US many years later. She documented her story in “Leaving Darkness”, her indictment of Sharia law.

I was born of conflict, and everything I know about conflict, I’ve seen reflected in the Middle East. I’ve long understood that the Middle East is the ultimate test of whether we can transcend conflict, or whether conflict can unwittingly subsume even the most inoculated of us and fragment our humanity into something smaller, weaker, and inhumane.

“Before one studies Zen, mountains are mountains and waters are waters; after a first glimpse into the truth of Zen, mountains are no longer mountains and waters are no longer waters; after enlightenment, mountains are once again mountains and waters once again waters.” So it goes with my Middle East major at UVA, my trips to Israel and Palestine, my work in refugee camps and now as Chair at Children in Conflict.

While the history is complex, the answer to this test is not. It’s as obvious as a mountain, unseen through narrow geology or selective focus, but by beholding each story in this mountain of suffering equally. How we answer this test depends on whether we can unlearn our subhuman categories and see cruelty of any color as simplistically as it should be seen – whether we can reimagine this conflict through the eyes of a child – and recognize that neither Hamas’s horrific attacks nor Israel’s brutal response can ever be justified.

Now on the outside looking in, I’m reminded why my family can count itself far more fortunate than the countless families reeling from loss today. So what was it that allowed my family to defy what Islamism would have me be?

What saved my family and truly defied the Islamist worldview was a framework that recognized our humanity, categorically and without category, as more than an expendable means to a messianic end. Without the humanists who fought for secular, multiethnic liberal democracies, and the humanitarians who painstakingly built universal international institutions like asylum under the Refugee Convention, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, I’d be as trapped as Gaza’s children are today.

It’s those who help the victims, not those who hunt the victimizers, that truly undermine brutality. We should be helping families like mine and children like me defy what Hamas would have them be. Instead, we are unwittingly endorsing Hamas’s sectarian worldview and reenacting their script with a mirrored brutality that can be just as ugly. With each kidnapped, strip-searched, orphaned, dead or dismembered child – with every rebuttal to aid and protection for each and every child – we are failing, and Hamas’s brutality is winning.

Still, I maintain my hope that our community can stand apart and transcend this conflict rather than be subsumed by it. I hope we can reimagine this conflict through the eyes of a child, through which none of these horrors can be justified. Only adults impose subhuman categories that rationalize murdering, kidnapping, burning, bombing, and burying children alive, which is why through the eyes of a child, there are two sides far more consequential than our conventional “two sides”: those who agree that no child should be a part of war, and those who rationalize otherwise.

I know where Hamas stands, and sadly, I know where some purportedly anti-Hamas stand – curiously compatible in disparately weighing dead children as a means to an end. Make no mistake, protecting future generations from the horrors of Hamas is a righteous end. But if you wouldn’t supply these means by sacrificing children you know, then it’s time to confront whether Hamas has successfully shut your eyes to the equal value of human lives.

Still, I hope that even the most vindictive perspective, when confronted by the suffering of a child, can be persuaded to recall the lessons humanists and humanitarians have painstakingly enshrined in international law: collective punishment, starvation as a weapon of war, and indiscriminate attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure are crimes no preceding brutality or lofty goal can justify. Regardless of history or adversary, we must not compromise on a redline that protects each and every child: No whataboutism, no excuses, no recriminations – no child should be a part of war.

Gaza is home to over 2 million people – more than Manhattan – almost half of whom are children. Over 1% or 28,000 have been killed and 3% or 67,500 injured, 70% of whom are women and children. 85% are displaced and all are under “complete siege” with an unreliable safe zone of 8 barren square miles – roughly the section of Manhattan containing Central Park.

Most have no home to return to, with 70% of homes and 20% of agricultural land damaged or destroyed. The World Food Programme (WFP) reports over 50% have severe levels of hunger and over 90% have inadequate nutrition. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports virtually all Gazans skip meals daily, and in half of households, family members go full days without food. Adults are starving so children can eat.

The senseless deaths become truly staggering when we consider the deaths we can’t count, as public health scholars estimate indirect deaths can outnumber direct deaths by more than 15:1. With some simple math, if 40% of the 24,620 deaths are children, then at 100 days into the conflict, even a 2:1 ratio would make the WHO’s warning of a child killed every 10 minutes a grim underestimate.

I’m a pedantic economist who loves nothing more than quibbling over statistics, but in this case, that would be a distraction designed to obscure the obvious: Children are dying in numbers that defy comprehension, and we are failing to protect them. And if none of this crosses your redline, then it’s time to ask yourself if you have one.

Through the eyes of a child trying to make sense of this suffering, history may be a sensible explanation but it’s a nonsense excuse, because there is no excuse. Through my family, education, and work, I’ve learned something about those who “rationalize otherwise”, and about the cycles of violence that unify the innocent victims of Hamas, Lehava, and all stripes of supremacists, white, Islamist, and Jewish alike.

Three successive dispossessed generations of my family – Jews, bourgeois, and Baha’is – weren’t victimized by warring tribes. They fell prey to victimizers that were blinded by the lie of warring tribes, and were subsumed by the primacy of some subhuman category below our shared humanity. My family and countless others fell victim to the lie that human rights – peace, freedom, and security – can be sustained exclusively rather than universally, and by one category’s supremacy rather than transcendence above categories.

And therein lies the ultimate compatibility of Hamas with every stripe of supremacist, from Gaza to Lydda to my alma mater in Charlottesville, Virginia. Supremacists prioritize their category instead of humanity, contrive opposing categories, and counterbalance disparately weighted dead children, all in the name of messianic delusions that are somehow never satisfied. Supremacists’ opposing categories – their primacy, oppositionality, and even ontology – are a lie. The wisdom of a child – a wisdom within ourselves – can see through that lie, but with each dead child, we are killing that wisdom.

Sadly, we are all victims of that lie, a lie we’ve all heard and may have even felt compelled to tell precisely when its adherents have harmed us most. As Yuval Noah Harari explains:

Homo sapiens is a storytelling animal that thinks in stories rather than in numbers or graphs, and believes that the universe itself works like a story, replete with heroes and villains, conflicts and resolutions, climaxes and happy endings. When we look for the meaning of life, we want a story that will explain what reality is all about and what my particular role is in the cosmic drama. This role makes me a part of something bigger than myself, and gives meaning to all my experiences and choices.

The supremacist story fits the bill but blinds us to the truth. And the truth is that there are no conflicting categories, no “two sides” more salient and enduring, more predictive and explanatory, than the two sides of any and all conflict the world over: universalists and supremacists, humanitarians and sectarians, humanists and dehumanizers.

Confronted by this collective realization, conflict as we know it cannot survive. This radical reframing puts too many of us on the same side and leaves too few to perpetuate the lie. This is why opposing sides will rally like allies against the threat of a new narrative, and why the most shocking attacks come not at the height of war, but at the precipice of peace.

This is why an Islamist killed Anwar Sadat, a Zionist killed Yitzhak Rabin, a Hindu nationalist killed Mahatma Gandhi, and the Nation of Islam killed Malcolm X. This is why Baruch Goldstein attacked to undermine the Oslo Accords, why Hamas attacked to thwart Saudi-Israel normalization, and how supremacists depend on each other to defend their lie.

If not for this well-versed final act, starved of mutually reinforcing human sacrifices, conflict would simply wither and die. Yet somehow, despite this recurring glimpse into supremacists’ compatibility, interdependence, and reveal by fratricide of their true two sides, this final act so often scores an encore. And amid a resurgence of suffering that only supremacists wanted, amid collective disillusionment with another failed attempt for peace, supremacists notch another excuse for their ready rebuttal: “It’s complicated.”

I majored in Foreign Affairs of the Middle East. My advisor was an architect of the Camp David Accords and literally wrote the book on the Peace Process. Sure, it’s complicated in that there are a lot of names, dates, and events. You can study a lifetime and still only learn a fraction of them. But despite what ethnic cleansers tell you about how little you understand, there’s no threshold of names and dates where you realize thousands of dead children makes sense.

It’s not complicated. That’s an obfuscation meant to keep you silent and complicit. It’s not complicated, especially not for children. “It’s complicated” is the chosen narrative of supremacists to indoctrinate children into roles as jailers and prisoners in a real-life Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes meets Stanford Prison Experiment, and to answer the obvious childish question: “Why?”

It’s not complicated when you see the narrative for what it is: a sham. The two sides aren’t Israel vs. Gaza, Israeli vs. Palestinian, or Arab vs. Jew, and by design, you’ll never gain moral clarity with that narrative because it’s a false narrative. No particular two sides will ever provide the moral clarity and simplicity of conflict’s true and enduring two sides: those who defend human rights for all, and those who rationalize otherwise. If you hate Hamas for being the latter, be wary you don’t mirror their supremacist lie.

Universal human rights, the equal value of human lives, and aid and protection for each and every child – these reflect a morality compatible with the innocence of a child, through whose eyes all rationalizations for inflicting pain essentially look the same. We all recognize there’s something special about a child. Children are born with an innate sense of morality, but a child is not born thinking in tribes. A child precedes the notion of a tribe.

For a child, difference is more likely to prompt curiosity than revulsion. Children haven’t yet accumulated the baggage of national myths. They’re not just more innocent than us; they’re smarter than us. That’s why, when eight-year-old Abdullah Jabr says “War is stupid, and I want it to end”, we should listen to him. And I think we’re all in this community because we agree.

No one, not even an eight-year-old, is so na├»ve to think pacifism will work in a world with ISIS, Hamas, Lehava, or Kahanism – a world with Islamist, Jewish, or any other brand of supremacist. But we need to stand with Abullah Jabr, defend his childhood, and agree with his anti-supremacist premise as our shared goal: “War is stupid, and we want it to end.”

So how do we help Abdullah Jabr? And just as important, how do we help the Israeli children trapped in Gaza like four-year-old Ariel Bibas and the youngest Hamas hostage, 10-month-old Kfir Bibas? You can donate so Children in Conflict and War Child can provide psychosocial support and child-friendly programs. But more importantly, you can do your part to make the whole world a child-friendly space: Say loudly and proudly why you donate.

While our partners are calling for a ceasefire, I personally think “ceasefire” is just another word without nuance that a condemned child will never know. Just say what you believe: Call for a hostage release, call for an end to Hamas, but please, call to protect the children. If I’ve convinced you of anything, I hope it’s that there is no conflict in speaking for Gaza’s children too. Call for something, anything, compatible with what you’d wish for your own children, because we know it’s not this. Prioritize your shared humanity, demand human rights for all, and call for an end to collective punishment, starvation as a weapon of war, and indiscriminate attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure – crimes no preceding brutality or lofty goal can justify.

Reframe the “two sides” to what gravely matters for all children: those who agree that no child should be a part of war, and those who rationalize otherwise; and thus recognize that neither Hamas’s horrific attacks nor Israel’s brutal response can ever be justified. Reject disparately weighted dead children as an acceptable means to an end, refuse to let conflict subsume your humanity and shut your eyes to the equal value of human lives, and never compromise on a redline that protects each and every child: No child should be a part of war. Ever.