Here’s a useful way to think about the Gaza Strip. It’s a bit more than twice the size of the Bronx and has a greater population. It’s a bit more than twice the size of Staten Island and has four times as many people. It has about the same population density as Chicago, more people per square mile than Los Angeles and about twice the density of St. Louis and Oakland. So, the Israeli demand that Hamas political leaders and fighters somehow isolate themselves from the population, or that government offices not be placed in “civilian” areas, is simply a physical impossibility.
Gaza is not a region, a “place”; it is a city. And just as in all cities, the ability to produce enough food on-site for its population is non-existent. It has a power plant (like Staten Island, but not the Bronx), but, just as in all cities, fuel must be brought in, as must most daily supplies. So the idea that Israel is somehow being “humanitarian” in allowing UN food trucks through its checkpoints is absurd, since the alternative is actual starvation. As we know, the Israelis this week destroyed Gaza’s power plant, giving them the ability to turn power on and off at will. Providing electricity under these circumstances is not a humanitarian gesture, unless we have so devalued the term as to make it meaningless.
Our comparison with the Bronx is useful for another reason: it is easy to imagine setting up a blockade of the borough. Close the bridges, patrol the rivers, and build an electrified fence across the border with Westchester – voila. Now, the people of the Bronx are imprisoned. (Gideon Levy of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz has usefully compared Gaza to a prison where all the jailers are on the outside.) They may not leave, except with the rare permission of their jailers. All goods coming in are subject to inspection and confiscation. Sometimes the jailers allow export of some agricultural products (the Bronx, like Gaza, has some specialty greenhouse agriculture); other times, the tomatoes rot in the trucks.
Obviously, under these circumstances, the lives of the people of the Bronx would soon be reduced to misery and – perhaps even worse – perpetual uncertainty. Now imagine this state of existence dragging on year after year; since 2005, in fact. Almost ten years since the prison doors of the Bronx clanged shut. (Before this, the people of the borough had lived under military rule for forty years, but at least they were not completely imprisoned.) Note that we are not talking about the times when bombs are raining down on their heads; rather this is what life is like in the Bronx during the intervals of so-called peace. However, even in “peacetime” the jailers engage in remote assassinations – no trial, no presumption of innocence, no rule of law – which often kill random inhabitants as well as the targets.
Let us consider how the jailed people of the Bronx might raise their children. What type of aspirations and values might parents teach to them? Equality? Human rights? Justice? Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? What type of achievements or goals can these children hope for? I think it is impossible for any of us to truly understand the psychological damage sustained by the Bronx’s sixteen year olds under this continuing reign of terror. It must take extraordinary self-possession not to be consumed by hatred at those who are daily destroying your life and your life’s chances.
I wonder what type of self-government the people of the Bronx would establish under these circumstances, and what type of actions that government might take. Obviously, the overarching question is whether, and to what extent, to submit to the authority of their jailers, to accept the actual fact of the imprisonment. Here, I must leave our imaginary Bronx and turn to the real-life conundrum of Jewish leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto, but the Ghetto before 1941 (before the deportations to death camps began), who participated and cooperated only in their people’s imprisonment and enslavement. On any given day, the Judenrat of Warsaw, Lodz, and dozens of smaller ghettos rationalized their actions; perhaps another food truck was allowed in, or medical supplies; today, a few lives were saved by this submission to the Nazi authority. Jewish police patrolled the streets of the ghetto; militants, who “irrationally” advocated fighting back against the overwhelming power of the German state, were suppressed – their actions would certainly only lead to even worsened conditions.
Suppose the death camps had never happened, but the life of 1940 had simply continued year after intolerable year. I think, today, we would still condemn the Judenrat’s moral bankruptcy. Wouldn’t we advocate digging tunnels, to bring in supplies but also machine guns? Shouldn’t Warsaw’s fighters also go out through these tunnels to kill their oppressors, even knowing that it would bring further collective punishment down on the heads of their people? And if some went further and killed German civilians, even a few German children, wouldn’t we still be able to understand and even empathize with their wrath, if not their actions? After all, those civilians were largely complicit in the imprisonment of the Jews, as the civilians of Sderot and Tel Aviv are complicit in the decade-long imprisonment of Gaza. We might even expect that people and governments under such continuous pressure would sometimes act against their own “self-interest.” Many of those Warsaw Ghetto fighters – younger, stronger – might have survived Auschwitz. Perhaps they felt that principles, values, beliefs demanded that they resist oppression even at the cost of their lives. Of course, the fighters of the Bronx who engaged in such actions against us would be called terrorists.
Should we free the people of the Bronx, who have undoubtedly built up enmity against the rest of us? After all, many Enlightenment philosophes who were ideologically opposed to slavery, resisted actually freeing slaves, believing their condition had transformed them into brutes, unfit for living in society. They contrived elaborate schemes for freeing only those under a certain age, or decades of pre-freedom training in “civilized” behavior. We can understand that they were wholly wrong about any delay even while acknowledging that generations of servitude and oppression did have long-standing cultural impacts on the newly freed. Similarly, we can acknowledge Israeli fears about the consequences of what they have wrought without in any way finding their failure to act, to immediately open the prison gates, acceptable.
Finally, a word about us, the jailers, who have imposed this collective punishment on the people of the Bronx. What rationalizations do we use to explain to ourselves the killing of a random five year old as the “peripheral damage” of an assassination, or the routine imprisonment of 30,000 twelve year olds, whose lives we are destroying in slow motion? Clearly, these people of the Bronx must be savages, or sub-human in some way, not worthy of feeling or emotion, for what else could justify our actions against innocents? And having degraded them (and thus ourselves) to such an extent, what will we be capable of next? It is we, after all, in our pride and power, in our ability to choose how to act, who have lost all moral sense and all morality.