Joseph Stalin’s widely known observation that “a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths are a statistic” — which he reportedly made to highlight the American military’s tendency during the Second World War to attribute more significance to a “single” casualty if that casualty were American than to the “million” civilians who may perish if they were non-American — is absurd.
The observation, clearly arch in its intent, is not to be taken seriously in a sane person’s moral paradigm. In that compass, a single death is seen as a tragedy and a million deaths are clearly seen as a million tragedies.
As of Thursday, according to the Palestinian health ministry 3,478 Palestinians have been killed and more than 12,000 injured in the past 11 days — and still counting. Hospitals, packed with the wounded, have warned that thousands more will die when, on Wednesday, they run out of fuel, medicine and other basic supplies needed for emergency generation.
Along with all that, around 750,000 were displaced after they were “ordered” by Israel to evacuate their homes in northern Gaza and seek refuge in ... well, somewhere, south of the strip, maybe. (The figure is a tragic reminder of the 750,000 other Palestinians who fled or were expelled from home and homeland in what was then called Palestine in 1948.)
How does the mind deal with such unspeakable mass suffering?
I have wondered about that suffering since the outbreak of the war last week. I wondered about the passive response to it by the mainstream media here in the US and about the loathsome comments made about it by some politicians (“I say level the place” was senior US senator Lindsey Graham’s advice to Israel about what to do with Gaza).
Every life is precious
And I wondered why, in a culture where we, here in the United States, are socialised to believe that “every life is precious”, that every life is equal in value — whether that life is lived by a human being from Nicaragua or Bangladesh and from Japan or Canada, along with every other place in between — we do not attribute the same preciousness to Palestinian life as to an Israeli life.
The reason for that, one hazards to guess, is that Americans, or more accurately a majority of Americans, prefer to see the conflict between the peoples of Israel and Palestine in black and white, focusing on its plain text while ignoring the nuances in its context.
The public discourse over the subject has been trivialised to a point where discussants fear, in this case, to contextualise Hamas’s dreadful acts in southern Israel on Oct. 7 — say, by referring to Gaza as occupied land, an open-air prison more than half of whose population are refugees or the descendants of refugees who in 1948 were made to flee or were expelled from their homes in what is now Israel — lest they be accused of using context to to exonerate Hamas or divert attention from what the terrible acts the group committed that day. (Reports of “beheaded babies” were part of the fake news in social media that Gulf News and other publications warned readers last week against falling for.)
In short, those engaged in that discourse prefer to safely view the Gaza-Israel war, indeed the Palestine-Israel conflict as a whole, in isolation, for example, of how many Palestinians were killed by Israeli troops in the West Bank this year (last week alone 54 Palestinians were killed and as many as 1,100 were injured there in demonstrations), or how many large chunks of Palestinian land were expropriated by Israel for its colonists, messianic and often violent zealots one and all, to settle.
They prefer to see it even in isolation of the transgenerational trauma Palestinians feel as an occupied people who for well over half a century have had to live with an occupier’s boot over their collective neck.
A discourse then that effectively asks us to grieve less — or not grieve at all — over the passing of a Gazan’s life and more over that of an Israeli because a Gazan life is a discourse that lacks not only an intellectual but a moral compass as well. For, trust me on this one, contrary to the value system of Israel’s defence minister, Palestinians are human beings not “human animals”.
Look, those in Israel who believe the struggle over national rights in historic Palestine is between Jews and animals had better rein in their base emotions and come to realise that the struggle in Palestine in reality is between two peoples who share their humanity, if not yet a consensus on how to resolve their dispute.
Scads of studies have been conducted by psychologists and other social scientists on how the act of demonising “the other” points to a degradation of the demonizer’s human being and to that being’s total alienation from the values that guide the world we all inhabit together.
Muslims and Jews, along with Christians, had lived together amicably, harmoniously, equitably for close to 800 years in Al-Andalus, the territories in the Iberian Peninsula and southern France, then controlled by Muslim Arabs between 711 and 1492 — the only time in history when the peoples who embraced the three Abrahamic faiths did so on the European continent.
The efforts by several Arab nations in recent years to reach out to and normalise relations with Israel were aimed at recapturing precisely the ethos of that golden age in our time.
Sadly, Israel’s invasion of Gaza — imminent as I write this — which without a doubt is likely to result in mass suffering and massive destruction, will undermine that vision and impede similar efforts by other Arab nations to follow suit.
— Fawaz Turki is a noted academic, journalist and author based in the US. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.