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“A human being is part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
This 1954 quote from Albert Einstein hangs on the wall in my house. It seems to me truth distilled down to its most humble and indisputable essence. The more I read it, the more fundamental and inescapable its wisdom seems.
While we feel like “a part limited in time and space,” that sense of being apart is, Einstein says, a delusion upon which collectives, nations and empires are built. And, by extension, how wars are fomented and maintained.
We all naturally gravitate to these delusional human prisons. To a certain extent, they’re unavoidable. In my mind, they dovetail with the classic definition of tragedy as a case of someone or some group meeting a destructive or fatal end rooted in their own decisions. “[T]hey die and are not happy through their own efforts ? as a condition contained in the effort,” says Oscar Mandel in A Definition Of Tragedy.
Humans gather and foist notions upon themselves that they are “exceptional” or “the chosen people” or “beloved of God” or just richer and more powerful and more deserving than some other people whose prison is constructed of very different delusions, in some cases based on being victimized. Religions are notorious for maintaining delusional prisons in this respect.
A few weeks ago I was accused by a left-leaning, pro-Palestinian activist of spouting simplistic, “new age” ideas. Certainly Einstein’s view of humanity’s place in the universe can easily be ridiculed as New Age. And, like anything, Einstein’s idea might even be used to create a separate clique of superior initiates ? a secular-humanist cult.
The fact even Einstein might be the root of some delusional prison does not mean the point Einstein is trying to make in this quote is not serious and is somehow out-to-lunch. To me — a 25-year veteran peace activist ? what he says is the crux of all serious peace-making in the world. It’s also the bane of intractable international conflicts like the one in the Middle East.
My relationship with Israel and its policies reaches back to late 1967 following the June Six-Day War. I remember standing outside a bunker in a firebase west of Pleiku, Vietnam, discussing with a Jewish soldier in my unit the wisdom of the Israeli settlement movement being established in the just-conquered West Bank. As best I can recall, the conversation went like this:
“That land belongs to Jews and to Israel,” he said. He may have referred to the West Bank area as the Biblical Judea and Samaria.
“It also belongs to the people who live there,” I said.
“They were about to attack Israel, and they lost the war. Israel has the right to settle the area.”
“Sending in settlers is nuts. You know down the line it’s all gonna come back and bite Israel. It’ll end up just like here ? an occupation.”
My Jewish friend would have none of it, of course. Like many Jews, he was locked deep in that Einsteinian prison of delusion that says Jews and Israel are justified in doing whatever they do because of security and because of the holocaust in Europe and their long, terrible history of being oppressed and fragmented as a people. Israel is about being tough and no longer being a chump in the world. Plus, Zionist Jews made the desert bloom.
The right-leaning Jewish playwright David Mamet recently told an interviewer that the world has historically treated Jews such that “we’re human beings only when it suits the world to treat us as human beings.” He advocates a hard line devotion to the Torah and Jewish ritual. He disdains the study of sociology, anthropology and other “liberal” wastes of time. Mamet would no doubt ridicule the implications of Einstein’s statement.
The fact is the Einsteins and the Gandhis of the world are about Truth versus Power, and they, thus, tend not to be an armed party and they belie the notion “you’re either with us or you’re against us.” Clear opposition to Israel’s policies does not mean the Palestinian position (be it that of Fatah or Hamas) is correct or even honorable, since these entities, for their own historical reasons, have created their own delusional prisons.
A peace-maker asks that the parties consider letting themselves out of their delusional prisons long enough to recognize the humanity of the other.
But this kind of posture tragically seems out of the question now. War seems a better bet for the future. The arrogant stubbornness of right-wing Israel has succeeded in bringing Fatah and Hamas together in a shaky coalition. And due to the abject failure of Israel and its US ally to allow for anything like real sovereignty for a State of Palestine, Palestinians are looking to the very same international institution that recognized Israel in 1948 ? the United Nations. In September, a newly unified Palestinian political force plans to seek formal recognition from the UN General Assembly for a State of Palestine based on the 1967 borders, to include part of Jerusalem. The US will certainly veto such a request in the UN Security Council, something that will further damage US credibility in the Middle East. But the US is only one vote in the General Assembly.
Israel-related politics here in the US are now more bizarre than ever. First, the President Of The United States ? a genetic African-European who many on the far right choose to see as less than an “American” ? makes a speech hewing to the pre-1967 borders as the basis for talks on a Palestinian State. Then, the President of Israel — a genetic European and virtual “American” who spent much of his time as a youth going to school in a wealthy Philadelphia suburb ? speaks before a joint session of Congress and is given 29 standing ovations for a rigid position defending occupation that amounts to a kick in the teeth directed at the US President.
With the Middle East in turmoil, the whole mess seems to be devolving into a future state of war. One can easily see the Arab Spring as an historical instance of the breaking down of Einsteinian delusional prisons and the forging of new political realities that fit better with nature. It does not seem to be a good time for rigidity. Yet that is exactly what the Netanyahu government seems to be about.
For my Jewish friends who tend to be apologists for Israel, the real issue is Hamas, a designated “terrorist” organization that does not recognize Israel. (Although the other day on NPR, I did hear a Hamas representative say Hamas does recognize Israel.) Hamas, in turn, accuses Israel of “state terrorism” and damns it for not recognizing Hamas. My friends don’t find this at all hypocritical.
Ari Shavat, in the left-leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz, seems to have it right: “It is not peace with the Palestinians that Netanyahu is losing. Netanyahu is losing the Israelis’ next war.” His point is that Netanyahu’s hard-headed policies are not only alienating Palestinians and Arabs but also the rest of the world and, even, Israelis themselves.
What Shavat and others seem to be saying is that the security and future of Israel depends on pulling back from the prison of delusion that insists Israel can exist as a conquest-focused, western, militarist state in the midst of the Middle East at a time of US withdrawal and decline. Security is one thing; domination is another. Aware of its own history, Israel seems frozen by the fear of lifting its boot from the neck of Palestine.
Can Israelis find the courage and the humility to jettison their rightist leadership and open themselves to at least a bit of Einstein’s view of life beyond the delusions of rigid separation? And can they do it before they get to the last act of the tragic play they seem to be lost in?
Once the Arab Spring shakes out and more of the Arab distrust of Israel find its voice in the years to come and after the UN recognizes a Palestinian state that Netanyahu’s Israel has effectively declared war on before it even exists, what will the US do?
The next war against an intractable Israel may be much worse than those in the past. Israel, of course, has nuclear weapons to defend its separate, very western identity.
When it really hits the fan over in the Middle East thanks to the delusional prisons people have made and feel they must defend at all cost, will our illustrious members of Congress give standing ovations then?
Someone should read President Benjamin Netanyahu the riot act before it’s too late.
JOHN GRANT is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, the new independent, collectively-owned, journalist-run, reader-supported online alternative newspaper just starting its second year of daily publication.