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Dr. Catherine Chatterley


By Dr. Catherine Chatterley, posted June 29, 2015

Reprinted from the Huffington Post, June 18, 2015

The human rights-interfaith dialogue rhetoric employed by U.S. President Barack Obama on May 22, 2015 at the Adas Israel Synagogue in Washington DC was wonderful and made people feel warm inside. It made us believe, for a moment, that everything will be alright because we all want the same things and everyone can come together and agree on these basic ethical principles. This type of rhetoric is, in fact, messianic -- it is for tomorrow, for a time when there is no more war. 

That day has not yet come, I am afraid. And to speak as if it has is very dangerous.

Instead, we continue to witness horrifying violence, stark inequalities, and abject suffering across the planet. The treatment of women and children, especially, is quite literally unspeakable in too many places. The never-ending cycles of self-destruction continue unabated in communities of the dispossessed, from urban ghettos in the U.S., to reserves in Canada, to refugee camps, to the banlieues (suburbs) of Paris.

The President's understanding of Israel and its history is also messianic. Israel was not established to repair the world, as he suggested in his remarks last month. The Jewish state was formally established through international sanction at a time when the Jewish people had been obliterated in Europe and needed a place to survive. The world had done nothing to save the Jewish people in Europe and larger humanity -- an abstract concept anyway -- was hardly the concern of Jews leaving displaced persons camps in Europe.

Obama admits that his view of Israel offered him an inspiring example as a young man. Many people feel this way, and share his idyllic, romantic view of the Israel of Labor Zionism and kibbutzim. Flowing from this, however, is his belief that Israel has a unique moral authority and responsibility, which also means that his expectations for Israel are the same as those for the United States. 

Neighbours like Canada and Mexico present very different realities than do those of Daesh (ISIS), Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas. The possibility of coming to peaceful terms with Israel's neighbours is unlikely, which simply doesn't jibe with the thinking of President Obama and many American Jews. And, unfortunately, the frustration over this reality is too often directed toward Israel and not toward its neighbours. 

The President paid lip service to the reality of anti-Semitism as one more form of injustice in the world that we all have to resist. But, there was no connection made between the very real anti-Semitism animating the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people. The President explained anti-Semitism as a "threat to broader human values" when in fact it actually is a threat to Jews. 

The problem of Iran and its goal of building a nuclear arsenal was touched on by the President. But again, very little reality informs this important conversation. The two biggest problems with the U.S. administration's comments on Iran are the so-called "snapback" of sanctions if the Iranians deceive the international community, and the belief that the Ayatollahs are rational actors who simply use anti-Semitism as a way to manipulate populations. 

The sanctions against Iran took decades to install and were particularly challenging to achieve in Europe -- they will not "snapback" into place. Anti-Semitism is a core-component of the ruling ideology in Iran and delusions about "Jewish-Zionist conspiracies" have now infected the minds of Arabs and Muslims living across the Middle East and in the West.

President Obama's administration has inaugurated a retraction of American power from the Middle East and this seems to have the support of many people who are frankly exhausted by the military and financial burden of fighting wars that do not further American interests or create democratic outcomes for the region. 

There are good arguments to be made for this dramatic reconfiguration of American foreign policy, but there will also be costs for this change. The most dramatic example is the debacle in Syria, where over 250,000 people have been killed, millions made refugees, and chemical weapons used on civilians. The most significant repercussion of American inaction, however, is the dramatic and barbaric rise of ISIS.

Unfortunately, the ideals of peace, justice, and equality are very, very rarely consistent day-to-day realities in human history. War, poverty, and inequality are the norms of our history regardless of time and place. Peace, justice, and equality have been imposed upon people, usually after much conflict, and then preserved by legal and military means. Any historian knows this hard and ironic truth.

One of the troubling ironies of today's political-cultural landscape is that most of the people who advocate for peace, justice, and equality are also pacifists, non-interventionists who believe that these placid conditions can simply appear out of thin air, or be brought into existence by rational conversation, better known by the new buzzword "dialogue." 

Productive dialogue is sometimes possible but in cases of serious, intractable conflict, especially where civilians are being targeted and even slaughtered en masse, those same advocates for justice and peace must be prepared to engage militarily to protect the innocent. 

The post-Holocaust adage of "Never Again" is a meaningless platitude without military force behind it. The people who commit mass rape, torture, and murder against unarmed civilians are not rational actors, nor are they ethical or to be trusted. These types prey on their neighbour's indecision, cowardice, weakness, and strategies of protective self-interest; they push boundaries and test red lines.

One of the significant divides today between people in the post-911 West is the profound difference in perspective between realists and idealists, between those committed to using military force to protect and defend the innocent, and our ideals of peace and justice, and those who are not comfortable engaging in armed conflict, in almost any circumstance, and instead place hope in rational conversation. At the end of the day, realists and idealists want the same positive results but their methods are at complete odds, and that is where today's mutual hostility thrives.


Catherine Chatterley is a modern European historian, an award-winning writer, and a frequent lecturer in Canada and the United States. Dr. Chatterley has taught history at the University of Manitoba and the University of Winnipeg, and she is the Founding Director of the Canadian Institute for the Study of Antisemitism (CISA).


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