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Gaza as Sarajevo

Posted on Jul 23, 2014

By Lawrence Weschler

AP/Lefteris Pitarakis

Strange the things that stick in the craw.

After the publication earlier this week of my Truthdig commentary about Israel’s repetitively compulsive and rabid behavior (“Israel Has Been Bitten by a Bat”), I got a lovely note from a dear longtime friend who was in general and quite anguished agreement with much of what I’d written. But, perhaps not surprisingly, given that he is considerably more of a Zionist than I’ve ever been (a longtime theme in our relationship), he took particular umbrage at my suggestion that the nearly 2 million Palestinians bottled up in Gaza were living in what was for all intents and purposes a concentration camp—not a death camp, mind you, but hardly different from the notorious sorts of conditions Japanese-Americans had been subjected to in World War II, or Boers during the Anglo-Boer wars, or Sowetans under apartheid, or (and this is clearly what got to him), for that matter, the kinds of conditions Jews and gays and gypsies and the like were subjected to at Dachau and Theresienstadt in the years before the Nazis themselves settled on their Final Solution.

Several others, after the publication of the piece, had commented that a fitter analogy might be to the Warsaw Ghetto (a hideously overcrowded, enclosed and besieged space regularly subject to lethal tank sweeps), but my friend Joel weighed in:

You yourself have commendably drawn a distinction between a death camp and a concentration camp. But you need to take note of a further distinction: between a concentration camp and a besieged urban population living in a two-way (even if still asymmetrical) military confrontation.

Now that I reread his note, that characterization might well equally apply to the Warsaw Ghetto, but in response at the time, I wrote back, “So you mean something like Sarajevo in the nineties?” It was a parallel with which, he in turn, was willing to concur, going on himself to note how this was hardly “a happy analogy.”

Indeed. That exchange, and some television footage later the same afternoon of Israeli tank columns safely ranged on the periphery of Gaza methodically lobbing in round after round of supposedly precision-guided munitions (precision, that is, give or take the odd 25 person civilian family huddled together for the breaking of their Ramadan fast), sent me whistling back to my own time in Sarajevo, after the lifting of the siege there in the wake of the Dayton Accords in late 1995.

And in particular to the peculiar late night conversations I used to have with Nikola Koljevic, the vice president of the Bosnian Serbs, in his dilapidated makeshift fastness up there in the little cow town of Pale in the mountains high above Sarajevo, which had served as the capital of the Bosnian Serbs and from which they had supervised the relentless shelling of their onetime hometown, prone and prostate there in its steep valley down below, through the nearly 1,500 days of the siege.

“Siege!” he would thunder mawkishly, downing yet another draft of sour red wine. “What siege? We were the ones under siege. They kept boiling up from out of the valley to attack us at every point. They had us surrounded 360 degrees!” A neat piece of mathematical jujitsu, that, and in turn reminiscent of the way so many Israelis nowadays characterize their Palestinian counterparts. (What is it with these guys? Why do they keep attacking our clenched hands with their tensed up neck muscles?)

The thing about Koljevic that so used to bewilder the visiting reporters during the months of the gruesome siege when he would hold court up there in Pale is that he was hardly anyone’s standard image of a partisan thug (which is doubtless one of the reasons the Bosnian Serbs liked parading him before the cameras). On the contrary, back in the days before the war, he’d been a distinguished Shakespeare professor at the University of Sarajevo (hell, he’d even served a stint as a Fulbright scholar at Wayne State University!) and he used to love entertaining his late night visitors with extended recitations from his No. 1 favorite Shakespeare play of all time, which was, I shit you not, “Romeo and Juliet.” Completely, but completely, oblivious to the peculiarity of that specific choice in that particular context.

And indeed it took a while for me to come to understand that far from being some bizarre tic in his formation, Koljevic’s passion for Shakespeare was a key to his understanding of what he’d been doing up there in Pale lo these many years. The whole war, for him, had been a desperate last ditch stand to save the future of the possibility of Shakespeare for a Europe, as he saw it, under siege from the massing Muslim hordes (of which his largely secular onetime fellow citizens down below he considered merely the first lappings of a steadily advancing tide). Much as Israelis too like to fancy theirs as a bastion of Western cosmopolitan democratic civility and culture in a sea of fanatically barbarous anti-democratic menace lapping all about them, notwithstanding the fact that the Palestinians too, at least at the outset, were by and large among the most secularly mild of Muslims (the ones that are Muslims, since many are in fact Christians): hence the relentless need for their own tough, and tougher than tough, vigilance and response.


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