Can victimhood be restrictive regardless of suffering and pain? At what point do larger circumstances revoke one's status as a victim? And to what extent do those circumstances deny universal rights to an individual or group?
These are not abstract questions. Their answers reflect our understanding of core beliefs and ideals; they reflect our humanity.
This week has seen an upsurge in violence between Israelis and Palestinians. In 24 hours, 79 rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel. Condemnation of the rockets was largely muted.
In a provocative essay in response to the silence on the rockets falling, Arsen Ostrovsky asks, "My country is under attack, do you care?" The responses to his piece have been disturbing.
Many have excoriated Ostrovsky for trying to draw attention to danger of rocket fire from Gaza without alluding to Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands, the humiliation and suffering it brings, as well as Israel's partial siege of Gaza (I say partial because Gaza now has an open crossing with Egypt).
It is almost as if we can only suffer together.
This space does not need to be a lesson in international humanitarian law, otherwise known as the laws of war, or of international criminal law. But let there be no mistake -- the deliberate targeting of civilians by rocket attack is a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions and a war crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. This conclusion was endorsed by the Goldstone Commission of Inquiry into the 2008-09 war in Gaza.
There is no provision in the Geneva Conventions or the Rome Statute to the effect that one's position as an occupying power comes at the expense of the protection afforded to civilians under international law.
I am a liberal. I am a vehement supporter and defender of international human rights and dignity, and of self-determination. I have written publicly and critically of Israel's treatment of Palestinians; commitment to beliefs and ideals demands I do no less.
Thus, in one sense, I share many sympathies with those who have reacted critically to Ostrovsky's piece. On the other hand, we differ greatly. For my beliefs apply to all peoples. Israelis living under the threat of rocket attack from Gaza, Russians in and around Chechnya, ethnic Sudanese living in Darfur, and others, are no less deserving of rights and protection than are you and I. Those who refuse to accept this, and insist on viewing the world along a continuum of rights and dignity demonstrate a dangerous intellectual cowardice and hypocrisy that threatens to undo an already-stressed foundation of rights and dignity. Two wrongs can exist independent of one another.
Israel's occupation of Palestine is wrong. But a denunciation of illegal-Palestinian rocket attacks on Israeli civilians need not be prefaced by a resuscitation of each ill that Israel has inflicted on Palestinians. Unearthing violations of the basic rights and dignity of any group must be a standalone exercise, not an academic symposium.
Our world has become too obsessed with balance. The result has been the neutering of objectivity and abandonment of the rigours demanded by honesty. This fixation on qualifying everything undermines the absolute nature of the rights and dignity that are meant to protect not just Palestinians and Israelis, but also you and I.
Situations as complex and nuanced as Israel-Palestine demand critical engagement and thoughtful analysis. Ostrovsky's piece ventures into the political, and I don't always agree with what he says. However, affirming the right of children to go to school without rocket fire does not require the same level of intellectual curiosity as does pinpointing the 'biggest' impediment to peace.
Attempting to showcase one's penchant for true understanding, by misappropriating nuance -- as do the many who attempt to justify the rocket fire and ignore its illegality and consequences, by rooting it in Israel's occupation, only makes one come across as intellectually primitive and ideologically vindictive. Sometimes there is no grey zone.
Victimhood must be inclusive. To suggest otherwise opens a Pandora's box of physical and intellectual consequences that are unacceptable if we truly believe what we think we do.