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Published: Saturday, 10/21/2000

Americans can't fathom chaos in Middle East

How can you fix what you don't understand? As civilized life in the accursed Middle East deteriorates into utter chaos fueled by unfathomable rage, U.S. mediators try to make things right in a region beyond repair. With hand-holding, arm-twisting, hastily arranged summits, and pleas for a return to at least calm if not peace, American diplomats, including the President, cajole and confront inflamed enemies seething with crushed hope.

But how can you fix what you don't understand? We Americans are so far removed physically from the Middle East that its world of suicide bombers, bullets flying through the streets, and an absolute need to avenge an eye for an eye is incomprehensible. We know only what we read in the newspapers or see on television concerning the Middle East and form judgments based on our assumed western way of reasoning.

In the United States there is an undisputed bias toward Israel. We annually give the Jewish state more in foreign aid than any other country on the planet. As the leading democracy in the world, we have to support the only democracy in the Middle East. The politically astute Jewish Diaspora in the United States would settle for nothing less from the American politicians it aggressively courts, supports, and elects.

To many Americans, Arabs are terrorists. Period. They are zealots armed with fanatical religious fervor that sporadically takes aim at crowded marketplaces and other strategically picked targets to inflict the most harm and attract the most publicity worldwide. The rest of the world has to interpret the resulting bloodshed on its own terms. We Americans see teenagers throwing rocks and ducking live fire. We see bloodied soldiers dropped into the hands of a frenzied mob waiting to tear the corpses limb from limb. We see a gaping hole in a U.S. warship and American sailors going home in flag-draped coffins.

And we make judgments based on our western reality of right and wrong. When our President angrily chastises the Palestinian leader for unbending stubbornness after Camp David and extols the bravery of Israel's prime minister for unheard-of compromises, Americans can't help but sympathize with Ehud Barak, who looks and dresses like us instead of Yasser Arafat, who with his headdress and military garb looks different and is perceived as difficult.

Therein lies the futility of conclusions often reached through the western prism of black and white, justice and injustice. The depths of our cultural unknowing rarely faze us when debating the conflicts in the Middle East. We break the dilemma down, like everything else, into simple, straightforward terms. To our way of thinking Jews and Arabs have to sit down and negotiate how to live side by side without killing each other. You'd think both sides, weary of losing sons and daughters, husbands and wives, would embrace a peace process as a means to prevent further funerals.

You might think that if you lived a world away from the boiling caldrons of places that are just names on a map. You might think that if you've never known war up close and personal or had to fight tooth and nail just to live on what you believe is rightfully your land. There are two vastly disparate cultures at war in the Middle East - Israeli and Arab - that Americans cannot possibly fathom because they have nothing in common with those in fierce combat for sovereignty and security in places like the West Bank or Gaza Strip or Ramallah or the highly contested Jerusalem.

But while our western experiences limit our appreciation of the mindset of those willing to make martyrs of their sons as well as those willing to sacrifice peace for land, we can understand the universal sadness that comes with burying the young. Countless lives that should have held such promise have been abruptly ended before they ever began. We can empathize with the inconsolable grief of the mourners left behind, wherever they live, whatever their circumstances.

Some things, you see, traverse cultures to find human common ground. It is tragic that pervasive, passionate hate blinds sworn enemies to that reality in the ongoing vengeful, deadly struggle over property rights to the Holy Land.

Marilou Johanek is a Blade editorial writer. E-mail her at mjohanek@theblade.com.

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