Lessons about telling the truth come early. They rarely include warnings about the consequences.
A particularly memorable lesson found me when I was about 8 or 9. I was in the car with my mom, on the way to the grocery store. The road we were on was semi-rural but unexpectedly snarled with traffic. A long, long line of cars, with no visible end, barely moved in the summer heat. Suddenly, a motorcycle cop wheeled up to my mother's open window and told her to stop crowding the car in front of her. No ticket. Just a warning.
That was my first encounter with a policeman—especially one on a motorcycle—so at the dinner table that night, I described it to my dad. His reaction was forgettable; my mother's wasn't. When I carried my dirty plate into the kitchen, my mother was instantly behind me. "I don't like you any more," she hissed into my ear.
In the grand scheme of things, my mother's words weren't the most earth-shattering of consequences. But to an 8-year-old, the threat was overwhelming. So, the lesson was duly noted. Truthtellers, no matter how innocent, risk hatred, even by those who are supposed to love them. Of course, my mother's behavior was immature—something I can see with years of distance—but so are many reactions to truth that are registered in the larger world.
The dangers of truthtelling have been brought home to me, forcefully, by the tragedy in Gaza. For years, we have been warned by outspoken, prominent Jews that the Israeli narrative about Palestine was not the truth—men like scholars Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein, historian Ilan Pappé and journalist Max Blumenthal. They have had the courage to tell the world that Israeli policies amount to a colossal grab of Palestinian land as well as a cleansing of its Arabic inhabitants and that Palestinians have a right to self defense and resistance to occupation (go to the links for details). For their efforts, they have been branded liars, traitors and 'self-hating Jews'. Norman Finkelstein's warnings cost him his job. Ilan Pappé's writings earned him death threats that forced him to move from Israel.
Vindication has come with the rise of social media. The world can see for itself that there is a powerful disconnect between the official Israeli line and what is actually happening on the ground. Non-Jewish voices are also telling the tale, such as journalist and commentator Chris Hedges and others bravely giving eye-witness accounts of Gaza's traumas. Their tales are the same as the earlier warnings, but with visual evidence to back them up. The attacks on Gaza, including the latest, are not about the self-defense of Israel. They are a human rights violation of massive proportions.
I am astonished at the courage of those reporting. The vitriol that is hurled toward them could make lesser beings buckle—has made lesser beings buckle, especially among heads of state. The truthtellers are accused of being allies of Hamas and of being in league with terrorists—even though Rabbi Henry Siegman, a German-Jewish refugee and former head of the American Jewish Congress, says about the situation:
The difference between Hamas and Israel is that Israel is actually implementing [a destruction policy] — actually preventing a Palestinian state which doesn’t exist. Millions of Palestinians live in this subservient position without rights, without security, without hope, and without a future ...
If you don’t want to kill Palestinians, if that’s what pains you so much, you don’t have to kill them. You can give them their rights, and you can end the occupation. And to put the blame for the occupation and for the killing of innocents that we are seeing in Gaza now on the Palestinians — why? Because they want a state of their own? They want what Jews wanted and achieved? This is a great moral insult.The human striving for peace and contentment is sometimes paid for by ignoring other people's pain. After all, there is comfort in embracing the familiar, in not looking at other perspectives. How many times have we seen this willful ignorance in America? To name a few of our own historical crises: the civil rights struggle, the fight for equal rights for women (still not achieved), the labor movement.
All of the above resulted in the death, imprisonment, and vilification of the courageous truthtellers who dared to confront injustice. All of the above were preceded by a self-satisfied contentment on the part of those who chose to tell the biggest lie of all—the lie to the self that says everything is all right with my world and my perceptions, no matter who else is suffering or how much.
We all strive for peace, especially internally—at least, if we're sane. To look at the truth, and especially to tell it, brings discomfort, at a minimum, and sometimes much more. It brings others whispering in our ears that they don't like us or shouting from the rooftops that we are traitors. They neglect to mention that the treason is to their own perceptions or their own secrets or their own lies.
But peace never grows out of lies. The journey to peace begins in one place only—in the telling of the truth, regardless of the consequences.