It’s ironic that the Israeli assault on Gaza started just as Defiance was opening in movie theaters around the country. Defiance is the fiction film version of a true story of a group of brothers who saved Jews and attacked Nazis (and sympathizers) in Eastern Europe during WW II. Defiance is just the latest in a history of pop-culture story telling which is largely ignored by the Israeli government as it goes about its policy of tightening its noose on Gaza.
The Biblical story of the Jews’ escape from bondage in Egypt recites events which are said to have taken place thousands of years ago. But the story remains relevant to Jews today, providing inspiration for their definitions of who they are, what their religion means, and what lands were dedicated to them by God.
Among the most revered sites in Israel are the “Wailing Wall” and the Masada fortress. The Wailing Wall marks the location of the Second Temple, razed by Roman legions in 70 c.e. Masada (now a national park) is the site of a mass suicide of Jews, in 73 c.e., who refused to submit to Roman rule.
These stories and sites commemorate acts of self definition and defiance against tyranny thousands of years ago. They remained symbols for Jews though centuries of diaspora, after the Romans made it illegal for Jews to live in Jerusalem. Every year, millions of Jews around the world sit at Passover Seders and recite, with hope and conviction, “next year in Jerusalem.”
Stories from the Shtetls honor those who fought back against the feudal rulers, the Christian bigots, the Cossacks. The descendants of immigrants to the new world were always proudest of the uncles who fled to here after killing some Cossack rapist in defense of a Jewish sister, over there.
And now Defiance joins stories of the Warsaw uprising and nameless partisans and groups striking back where and how they could. Always outnumbered. Always outgunned. Always underfed and with inadequate medical care and resources.
If there is any lesson to be learned from the centuries, indeed from the millennia, of resistance to Romans, to Russians, to Nazis, it is that people who believe in their rights are unlikely to abandon their beliefs or their self definition under an onslaught of military might or economic oppression.
If we are to believe the traditional stories, the oppression is not merely theological. It always has an economic component. Egyptian rulers didn’t simply slaughter the Jews – they used them as slave laborers. The suicides at Masada were motivated, in part, by resistance to enslavement by Rome. Those conquered by Rome weren’t always put to death, but were, rather, made slaves to serve others. The feudal lords of the Russian steppes did not forbid Jews from practicing their religion. But they held them in debased poverty, restricting their rights to education, property ownership, even to engage in many skilled crafts.
Throughout medieval Europe, Christian governments permitted Jews to be Jews. Again, restrictions were placed on land ownership and what trades Jews could practice. Jews were exploited, but not forcibly converted or slaughtered.
Even in the 12th Century, when the Inquisition started, the focus wasn’t on converting Jews to Christianity or wiping out Europe’s Jewish population. The targets of the Inquisition were those Christians who defied or merely disputed the Church. The Jews who were targeted was that minority which had “converted” to Christianity, but then done things to make the Church suspicious of their sincerity.
As with other oppressive regimes in history, even the Nazi treatment of Jews started out as economic exploitation, and only morphed into “The Final Solution” as Germany started losing the war. Initially, Jews were deprived of civil rights, property ownership, skilled trades. They were rounded up and lodged in concentration camps. Concentration camps concentrated the Jewish population where they could be controlled, exploited, worked as slave labor. The killing came later.
Defiance tells the story of one group of resistors. One of many. It reminds us of the complete imbalance in equities between the exploiter and the exploited. The enslavers and the enslaved. It condemns the violence of the Nazis and forgives the violence of the victims.
We leave the theater’s fictional story and find real news on our televisions and internet. We hear about the Hamas missiles raining down on Israel and the disruption they cause. We hear about the hundreds of Palestinian civilians killed by the Israeli troops, and the disruption that causes. For the first two weeks of the assault on Gaza, there was a disconnect in the death tallies. Israel proudly bragged about the number of deaths it was inflicting in Gaza, but didn’t mention the number of Israelis killed in the months of Hamas missile fire.
It turns out that there was a reason for this. When independent researchers finally got around to it, it turned out that the Hamas missiles had not killed a single Israeli in the months before Israel’s assault. Israel’s assault against Hamas’ “deadly weapons of terror” was as factually flawed as Shrubya’s war to stop Iraq’s WMDs.
But this inconvenient truth was buried under an avalanche of propaganda from all manner of “concerned” experts around the world (or at least around the Washington Beltway), loudly proclaiming Israel’s right to defend itself from terrorist attacks. None of these defenses of Israel’s assault on Gaza mentioned that the Hamas terrorism hadn’t killed a single Israeli.
Also not mentioned by the defenders of Israel was any mention of Israel being the first party to break the six-month truce that had been worked out between Hamas and Israel. The truce was actually a formal agreement, with agreed terms. One term was that Israel would relax its decades-long blockade of Gaza, to allow Palestinians to develop infrastructure, import food and medicine, go out from Gaza to work.
This was a term agreed to by Israel. And it made sense. It would permit Palestinians to develop economically, to develop self sufficiency. It would permit Palestinian farmers to compete with Israeli farmers and Palestinian tradesmen and craftsmen to compete with Israeli tradesmen and craftsmen.
OOPS! That term of the truce agreement would end decades of economic oppression and exploitation of Palestinians. To grant Palestinians such rights would force Israelis to compete for business in Gaza. Israel agreed to this term of the truce, but never implemented it.
We are taught to believe that the struggles in Northern Ireland were religious fights between Protestants and Catholics. But we were not taught about the laws which denied Irish Catholics the legal right to vote, to practice certain trades, to hold certain government positions. But English ruled Northern Ireland had those laws. And eventually the Catholics rebelled against them.
We are taught that our national history is filled with racial strife between whites and blacks, whites and Indians, whites and Asians, and most recently, whites and latinos. But we are taught less about the laws that forbade blacks and Indians to go to school, that forbade Asians from pursuing certain professions and trades, that today penalize Latinos from organizing unions and reward employers who deduct withholding taxes from Latino’s paychecks but then don’t pass those taxes on to the government. Blacks, Indians, Asians and most recently Latinos have rebelled against systematic oppression.
If the Jews resisted and rebelled in Egypt and the Irish rebelled and resisted in Ireland and the Afghanis threw off the British and then the Soviets and now U.S., and various groups have resisted through our own national history, why do any of us believe, for even a moment, that the Palestinians won’t continue to resist, to fight back, to assert the human rights that so many other groups, in so many places around the world, have fought and died to assert?
The Palestinians will do what oppressed people have always done. They will resist. They will fight for human rights. They will die in the effort to create a better world for their children. And they will model the behavior of those who bark orders at them but refuse to converse with them.