The issue of Palestinian statehood is heating up again, with an upcoming vote scheduled in the UN. The US is doing all it can diplomatically to persuade Palestine to postpone the vote. As things currently stand with Israeli relations, it cannot afford to vote in favor of it. But it doesn’t want to inflame Arab-American relations either by voting against statehood.
For anyone interested in Israeli-Palestinian relations, I highly suggest seeing the brilliant 2005 film Paradise Now. It tells the story of two Palestinian suicide bombers, who have a change of heart en route to their mission, one deciding to go back, and the other following through with the terrible mission. It’s a gripping drama, frightfully realistic, and deeply humane.
It was a very controversial film, mischaracterized as anti-Semitic by many critics who didn’t like to see terrorists portrayed as something more than inhumane monsters. But the psychology of terrorism is not so easily dismissed, not so black and white as we would like to admit. I once heard a psychiatrist interviewed on NPR who had studied murderers for years, and who found that most all murderers display psychopathic disorders. However, terrorists don’t display any psychopathic disorders whatsoever. They check out perfectly normal. Fanaticism, it turns out, is a common, very typical human trait. The evil of fanaticism lies not in the individuals, but within the culture of deception and blindness that surround these otherwise normal people.
It’s easy for us in the West to recognize the evil of terrorism, the immorality of shedding civilian blood, and the futility of the constant cycle of revenge. But you get a much more nuanced portrait from the inside. In the film Paradise Now, the suicide bombers come from homes ravaged by war and death. The land is engulfed in an oppressive poverty and hopelessness. There is a constant, gnawing hatred for the Israelis, who are seen has having taken away their freedoms, killed their friends, and refused to acknowledge their humanity by granting them statehood. They feel it is better to die than to live with such humiliation, such indignity. They say, “if we had planes, we would fight with planes, but all we have is our bodies, so we fight with them.”
Of course all these perspectives are clearly misguided, but not from the narrow perspectives of these forgotten souls, lost in a depressed and abandoned wasteland of hatred and anti-Israeli propaganda. The girlfriend of one of the suicide bombers, herself an orphan of Israeli retaliation, continually pleads with them not to return bloodshed with more bloodshed. She tries to reason that a constant cycle of revenge does no good, and doesn’t serve the Palestinian cause at all.
Paradise Now is a tragedy. But not principally the tragedy of the innocents killed by terrorism. Instead, it is the great tragedy that terrorism and a culture of revenge has inflicted upon the Palestinians themselves. The tragedy of the Israeli victims is one that is obvious and apparent. But this film shows that there is another, even deeper and more profound tragedy going on within the hearts and families of these hopeless terrorists, who live in a perpetual state of dark hatred, unable to forgive, to let go of the past, and to accept humiliation and defeat at the hands of their sometimes brutal superiors.
Glen Beck said in his recent Restoring Courage Rally: “In Israel, there is more courage in one square mile than in all of Europe. In Israel, there is more courage in one Israeli soldier than in the combined and cold hearts of every bureaucrat at the United Nations.” I would suggest that perhaps something is missing from Glen Beck’s vision of courage. In my mind, the greatest courage is not the courage to retaliate swiftly and brutally for every wrong. It is not the courage to be uncompromising and always take a militaristic stance. True courage is the courage of a Palestinian or an Israeli to turn away from revenge, and to forgive, to love your enemy. True courage is the courage to give your enemy a second chance, to put down your arms. To talk and talk, till you can find agreement and compromise, even if it takes years, decades.
I hope, for the sake of Arab-Israeli-American relations, that this vote in the UN can be postponed, and that Israel and Palestine can have the courage to sit down together and face the compromises necessary to make the two-state solution a reality. Films like Paradise Now show that we are never too far apart from each other, and those things which bind us together as humans are greater than those which tear us apart.