il portale dell'ebraismo italiano

OPINION Simplicity and Complexity in Times of Bellic Strife

mascettiBy Yaakov Mascetti*

I am not an orderly man, I am rarely unswerving, and certainty is not my cup of tea. So in all the chaos of these days, in all the violence and senseless anger, I think that I’ll allow myself a Joycean synthesis of events that took place here in the last three weeks. Three Jewish adolescents kidnapped and killed with merciless conviction, one Arab Israeli adolescent kidnapped and brutally tortured and burned alive, a mob rebellion in the Shoafat neighborhood (actually it’s a Palestinian village) of Jerusalem, a Jewish mob manifesting through the streets of Jerusalem on the day of the funerals of the three adolescents and crying “Death to the Arabs!”, rockets shot from the Gaza strip onto Israelis cities, forty thousand reserve soldiers called up for emergency duty, tanks ready to roll into Gaza, sirens, people running, Iron Dome, “surgical” air strikes on the city with the highest population density on the planet, almost 150 Palestinians dead in Gaza.

Now – all this for what? For land? For a country? Our country? The country they yearn to build? I am seriously confused, and I know that this confusion will make people angry. Roberto Calasso wrote in his “I Quarantanove Gradini” that “the action to which adults devote themselves with deadly seriousness is for the most part a pathetic and sclerotic repertory of gestures, practiced for years.” People, he noted, will make coffee a hundred times, “go to bed with someone, mistreat someone else” and construct in a cosmos of chaotic lack of meaning a network of routine-based acts, performed “with little variation and, ultimately, with little pleasure.” The fear that these acts are meaningful parts of a meaningful universe leads individuals to behave in irrational ways – “in order to maintain the illusion of acting, [sometimes] people kill themselves,” or, in a climax of “pettiness” and need “to convince themselves of the importance of what they do” some will kill, annihilate, destroy the other. For, Calasso concludes, the pettiness of this fear and the profound need to meaning “stops at nothing” and eventually, in this distorted system “killing is often no more difficult than lighting a match.”
I have lived in Israel for 18 years now – it never gets any easier. Actually, the feeling of confusion is more acute now than it was in 1996. Looking at the reality around me, a reality made up of angry people, ideologically certain people, religiously firm people, people who are convinced that killing three boys of 16 and 19 years of age will help the cause of the Palestinian nation and can sing right after having shot them, people who can watch a 16 year old innocent boy burn to death and enjoy the scene, people who can throw stones at the Israeli police, people who can cry at the top of their voices that “Rav Kahana was right!”, people who look at all this violence and strife and take a firm position – looking at this reality I feel a disconcerting sense of detachment, of disgusted detachment, confused detachment. It hurts. It really hurts, because from where I stand, from the eyes that I have, from the sensitivity that my religious and secular teachers have helped me build, it’s all a blur. The radical skepticism with which I approach any concept, or belief, inevitably leads to the conclusion that, as one of my teachers once wrote, there cannot be any “theoretical resting place on the route to epistemological nirvana.” This means that it’s never about being right or wrong, but understanding where things are coming from, and seeing absolute simplicity of meaning fall apart under close scrutiny, as “relationship, place and contextual significance” take its place.
This is not merely philosophical bla bla bla. These are rules for a healthier approach to a reality in which strife, simplicity, opposition, dichotomies, polarities, anger, death, missiles, more death, and more missiles, are the daily ingredients for the construction of ethnic identity. And if you ask me, a boy is a boy, a man is a man, and a mother is a mother. And the more violent some people get, the more they cry out for violence, the more they shoot and burn and tear apart others in the name of some religious or national ideal, the more they are, in my eyes, nothing but insecure, terrified individuals, unwilling or unable to face the fact that it’s all useless. Not simply because at the end of the day we all die – no, I’m not in a Qohelet mood. Quite on the contrary – to say it with Giambattista Vico’s words “verum esse ipsum factum,” truth is the fact itself – truth is what we create, truth is the essence of what we do, truth is the fashioned product of human action. To all those who, right now, right here, are eager to tear each other apart in order to demonstrate to the other side what truly is reality, who is truly right and who is truly wrong, to those who burn with the desire for vengeance, I humbly present with a universe in eternal motion, a long history of people who fought and died before them, a continuous return of humanity to the same mistakes, a never changing reality of human behavior. Killing may be easier than lighting a match – but the life that you end will not give more meaning to who you are, to what you are doing, to your culture and tradition. I know, it’s never that simple – but specifically because it is never simple, and always immensely complicated, that we are required to refrain from senseless actions and acquire a stance of humility. Not only because tautologies are all that we can actually state with certainty (what there is, is what there is), but because the Other, that disturbing presence that challenges us, that Other is our only hope for salvation. Killing the other exemplifies a need for simplicity, for univocal stability, and fixed truth – but in truth, all that we have is the moral duty to acknowledge the lack of truth, the lack of meaning, the eternal mutation of things, and the obligation to embrace that neighbor, that other and face his / her diversity.

*Ph.D., Department of Comparative Literature, Bar Ilan University