Religion and Conflict

“Killing an Arab”: Reflections on Loyalty to Humanity

Published on: December 14, 2023
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Killing an Arab
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The title of this essay is taken from the classic song by the seminal alternative rock band, The Cure, which in turn is taken from Albert Camus’s landmark novel, The Stranger. The lyrics have been swirling in my head for weeks now. They hit me hard when I was a teenager, but they take on an even more intense gravity now:

“Standing on a beach
With a gun in my hand
Staring at the sea
Staring at the sand

Staring down the barrel
At the Arab on the ground
To see his open mouth
But I hear no sound

I’m alive
I’m dead
I’m the stranger
Killing an Arab

I can turn and walk away, or I can fire the gun
Staring at the sky, staring at the sun
Whichever I choose, it amounts to the same
Absolutely nothing

I’m alive
I’m dead
I’m the stranger
Killing an Arab”

(As music is meant to be heard and not read, you can listen to the song here.)

I have structured this essay to show how the The Cure’s lyrics, the legendary novel they are based on, and the life and views of Albert Camus himself relate to key dimensions of the present humanitarian crisis.

Meanwhile, The Cure has faced controversy since the song’s release in 1978 due to the public’s ignorance of it referencing a piece of classic literature—an ignorance that mirrors the public’s ignorance of the history of Palestine over the past two centuries. Finally, I will conclude by arguing that the lyrics “Whichever I choose it amounts to the same: absolutely nothing,” and “I’m alive, I’m dead” capture the darkest realities of the end result of this century-long conflict, if we continue to approach it with ignorance, lack of empathy, and failure to address its root causes.

Antisemitism and Orthodoxy

Camus’s novel (which revolves around a French Algerian settler and nihilist who senselessly kills an Algerian Arab whose sister had been abused by another colonist) became immediately popular with the anti-Nazi French resistance who were dedicated to fighting antisemitism. The reasons for this are too complex to unpack here, but they point us to an important and tragic reality about the Orthodox Church: its antisemitism problem. This problem is wide-ranging and uncomfortable for Orthodox to talk about, but it must be spoken about frankly before moving on to any critiques of militaristic Zionism (yes, there are forms of Zionism that are not militarist or ultra-nationalist.) I will only mention three of the most salient aspects of the wide-ranging nature of this Orthodox antisemitism. It includes: (1) Holy Week hymnography that makes use of antisemitic tropes of charging “the Jews” with “deicide”; (2) saints who not only promoted antisemitic conspiracy theories but were Nazi collaborators; and (3) the ongoing attempt by neo-fascists to infiltrate and “baptize” fascism into the Orthodox Church.

Regarding the first point concerning Holy Week hymnography, the Catholic Church has taken steps to address this. Why can’t we, a Church that proclaims its conciliarity and living tradition, take similar action? For context on these hymns that help clarify why there is no reason they cannot be addressed, please see this article by George Demacopoulos and this very thoughtful OTSA panel on the subject. What of the antisemitic saints? Yes, we have St. Maria Skobtsova of Paris, who is also recognized by the state of Israel as one of the “righteous among the nations” for her work saving Jewish people in occupied France and her martyr’s death in Ravensbrück concentration camp.

But we also have another saint who was a contemporary of St. Maria and had very different views and actions.

As a comparative theologian and religious studies scholar, I was thrilled when I discovered St. Nikolai Velimirovic’s short text The Agony of the Church, in which he openly praises figures from Islam, Hinduism, Confucianism, and other religions, unequivocally calling them saints. I even used this material in a sermon about what Orthodox can learn from Martin Luther King’s Protestant Christianity and in my edited volume on comparative hagiography (lives of saints) in different religious traditions. I didn’t take note at the time that St. Nikolai didn’t name any Jewish saints. Horrifyingly, this is directly connected to the reality that he was not only a promoter of antisemitic conspiracy theories like the spurious Protocols of the Elders of Zion, but also praised Hitler and collaborated with Nazis. The tragedy of St. Nikolai is highlighted by how his progressive and inclusive thinking on other cultures and religions is utterly undone by his active disdain for Jews. Like many social justice refrains like “Patriarchy hurts everyone, including men,” Velimirovic’s internal contradictions demonstrate how antisemitism dehumanizes everyone, including the antisemites themselves.

Perhaps most pressing of all is that neofascists are making a concerted effort over the past decade to infiltrate and influence the socio-political landscape of the Orthodox Church. Fortunately, vibrant “Orthodox” neo-Nazi groups like Golden Dawn in Greece have been dealt serious blows in recent years. There are numerous reasons for the overall rise (especially in America), including how tsarist and authoritarian tendencies in some Russian Orthodox circles appeal to neo-fascist totalitarianism, the Orthodox national church model appeals to nationalist separatists, and that much of the Orthodox world leans anti-Zionist in solidarity with Palestinian Christians, but this anti-Zionism provides cover for and bleeds into genuine antisemitism very easily if one is not vigilant.

As will become clear, I am ardently anti-Israeli racism and oppression of Palestinians and stand for full Palestinian rights, but I cannot ignore or condone how often anti-Zionism bleeds into antisemitism, given the absolutely stunning antisemitic slurs, Holocaust denial, and even Hitler-sympathy I have heard out of laity and clergy of all ranks (!) during my 22 years in the Orthodox Church.

Consistency of Human Dignity

Let us return now to the life and activism of Albert Camus, the man who inspired the lyrics to “Killing an Arab.” While he grew up in poverty, he still enjoyed the privileges of being a first-class citizen in Algeria, in contrast to the Arab and Berber populations subject to second class status in colonial Algeria. Camus joined the communist party to promote equality in Algeria, but soon left it due to its affiliations with Stalinist totalitarianism. Although he joined another socialist party, he was eventually kicked out for his consistent anti-authoritarian stances. Yet Camus never stopped pushing for full human dignity, even though his drifting to anarcho-syndicalism as his anti-authoritarian leftist philosophy of choice (the same position endorsed by Noam Chomsky) led to his loss of friendship with Jean-Paul Sartre and many others.

I bring up these biographical details about Camus to illustrate one portrait of what consistent stances for justice look like, and, like it or not, ultimately cost those of us who are, in Camus’s words, willing to be “neither victim nor executioner.” Again and again, Camus stood with groups fighting against fascism and racism, but he also maintained the integrity to leave or be kicked out of these groups when he found them violating the principle of universal human dignity. Horrified by train bombings that targeted civilians in the cause of Algerian liberation, Camus was often misquoted as saying that “I prefer my mother to justice.” But as many have noted, his concern was that killing civilians for “justice” is unacceptable. The quote is better rendered, “If that is what justice looks like, I choose my mother.” Justice, for Camus and for me, cannot look like the slaughter of civilians.

My point is that any position on Israel-Palestine that is not grounded in a consistent stance will lead one to make grave errors. Standing with all Palestinian liberation groups indiscriminately will lead one to alignment with groups with an explicitly antisemitic ideology (such as Hamas) and/or who explicitly and despicably target civilians. At the same time, a person concerned with the horrors of Hamas’s activities, but who does not remain consistent, likewise can become an unreflective supporter of the atrocities committed to found and maintain the nation-state of Israel. Consistent commitment to justice cannot include support for the Israeli government’s racist laws and policies (more on this in the next section), its military’s indisputable willingness to target civilians (including those hiding for refuge in one of the world’s oldest Orthodox churches), or the audacious and repeated claims (of some of the highest ranking Israeli officials) that there are “no innocents in Gaza”—a vile claim that is not new and has now been repeated for years.

What then should we do? Reject the binary of picking a team and then justifying their crimes. Stand with Christ. Stand with the Gospel. Stand with humanity and the least of these no matter what it costs, including friendships—and more. If this seems too costly, I assure you the alternative is far more devastating.

Ignorance and Pseudo-Justice

As Mark Twain pithily put it, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble, it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” Which brings me to my next point on “Killing an Arab.” As I mentioned earlier, The Cure has had to deal since 1978 with controversies about their song due to an ignorant public who, not knowing the novel, believed it was promoting racism and violence against Arabs. Likewise, I have at times wanted to pull my hair out frustrated with the historical ignorance that allows American Christians to justify the ongoing atrocities towards the civilians of Gaza (and the oft-forgotten West Bank). Ignorance is my charitable reading of the situation, as the only other plausible alternative is conscious or unconscious racism—an implicit attitude that Palestinian Arab lives simply don’t matter as much as Israeli lives.

I choose the charitable reading, and I continue to choose education over mudslinging. The widespread ignorance of the plight of Palestinians both in the decades prior to the foundation of the state of Israel, and in the history of the Israeli state is staggering, but explicable due to the selective focus of both the American education system and our corporately owned media outlets that regularly manufacture consent. I aim here to provide a short narrative of the shocking reality that Israeli governmental policy and law are becoming increasingly authoritarian and racist with each passing decade, with full American governmental support.

Perhaps the single most important factor promoting rampant ignorance is also a key talking point of American and Israeli media and government officials. I speak of the drive to decontextualize conflicts and focus on selective elements of shock and horror for political ends. As with 9/11, we are being told time and again that to contextualize the history of this situation is “whataboutism” or victim-blaming. We are told that now is not the time to contextualize and historicize the inexcusable atrocities committed on 10/7. Some even try to argue that contextualizing the events of 10/7 is an antisemitic justification of what happened. No, we are told again and again: context is irrelevant, what matters is swift and aggressive action.

There are catastrophic dangers with this approach and rhetoric.

Focus on action that cares nothing for the history of a situation, or for the analysis of cultural conflicts, is a defining hallmark of fascist political philosophy. Hence the widely misattributed—sometimes to Hermann Göring, Joseph Goebbels or Heinrich Himmler—but genuinely Nazi refrain of “When I hear the word culture, I reach for my revolver.” The quote is, in actuality, modified from the Nazi playwright Hanns Johst’s work in which a German student is rejecting the idea of the study of culture and ideologies in favor of action—specifically violent action to defend a homeland.

Decontextualization and dehistoricization pave the way for “men of action” to do horrifically unjustifiable things, fooling the populace into thinking they have the answer, when the root causes that would solve problems lie precisely in the knowledge of history and cultural contexts. Most Americans have no knowledge of how the U.S. government funded the mujahideen, elements of which morphed into the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other Islamist groups in Afghanistan, how the U.S. and the U.K. overthrew a grassroots democracy in Iran in the 1950s (for oil contracts) only to have it result in the theocratic Iranian revolution two decades later, that a leaked Defense Intelligence Agency memo indicated that the U.S. and many of its Gulf State allies wanted the destabilization of Syria to occur (resulting in the Syrian Civil War) in order to produce an ISIS-like state that would divide Syria from Iran (wish granted!), or, most relevant to the issue at hand, that the Israeli government admits (with U.S. support) to funding Hamas in order to promote an Islamist alternative to the largely secular and politically progressive Palestinian rights groups that preceded Hamas as part of a “divide and conquer” strategy against Palestinian unity. Most Americans don’t know these things; I definitely didn’t know most of them until I began aspects of my doctoral research, which shocked me again and again, even when I thought I couldn’t be shocked any more.

This information matters deeply in understanding the root causes of the hostilities of the U.S., Israel, and their most loyal Western allies, against nations like Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and with Islamist organizations like the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and Hamas. And, in turn, understanding root causes is essential to effective policy that respects human dignity and strives to find lasting solutions.

Disabusing ourselves of the ignorance imposed on us concerning the nation-state of Israel likewise has the power to transform our attitudes towards what we perceive as the root causes of conflict. As I was educated in evangelical Protestant schools (that aggressively taught Christian Zionism) from K-12 grade, I can attest it was like shock therapy for me to learn these facts. I grew up being told (even more aggressively than most Americans) that (1) Israel was “the only democracy in the Middle East,” (2) that it was surrounded by countries that wanted to destroy it purely because they hate Jews, and (3) that Jewish people had the right to the land as they alone were indigenous to it. 

Yet with just a little educational effort, it is easy to discover that all three of these points are either flatly untrue or profoundly misleading. One simple yet important example is that 70 years prior to the creation of the nation state of Israel in 1948, an Ottoman census of the region showed the citizen population to be 87% Muslim Arabs, 9% Christian Arabs, and 3% Jewish inhabitants. Put differently, it shows that all three groups have indigenous claims to the area, but that Jewish inhabitants were less than one third of the Christian Arab population. These percentages remained quite stable until World War I, after which British and French colonialism claimed large amounts of the Ottoman Empire as their spoils of war, resulting in the creation of “Mandatory Palestine” by the British. As a result of the Balfour Declaration declaring Britain’s support for a “national home for the Jewish people,” and due to European Jewish people understandably fleeing European atrocities including (but not exclusively) Russian pogroms and the Holocaust/Shoah, by 1945 the demographics had shifted to 60% Muslim Arabs, 8% Christian Arabs, 31% Jews (mostly of European descent). Despite these percentages, in which Arabs still outnumbered Jewish inhabitants by more than a 2:1 ratio, the U.N. adopted a partition plan that granted 56% of the land to a proposed Jewish state.

Naturally, almost all Arab groups inside and outside of Palestine rejected such a land distribution as unfair. More surprising to anyone unfamiliar with the history, however, is that the Irgun, a Jewish paramilitary group that had carried out terrorist attacks against the British, Arabs, and even non-Zionist Jews, also rejected it for not giving enough land to the new Jewish state. The Irgun’s practices were so reprehensible that in an open letter to the New York Times, Albert Einstein and Hannah Arendt, along with many other prominent Jewish figures, denounced the Irgun, its leader Menachim Begin, and his new political party, as the “latest manifestation of fascism.” They bluntly declared it “closely akin in its organization, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties.” Dissatisfaction with the partition plan caused civil war in 1947-1948, resulting in the formation of the new nation state of Israel now comprising over 70% of Palestine.

In the process of this war, over 750,000 Palestinian Arabs fled for their lives, lost their homes, and were never given the right to return. This event is known to this day as the “nakba”—Arabic for catastrophe. Learning these basic facts rocked me, utterly disabusing me of the notions that Jewish people were the only indigenous people to the land, and that Arab anger toward the state of Israel was purely due to rank hatred of Jews.

But what of the other element I was miseducated to believe with so many other Americans, that Israel is the only egalitarian democracy in the Middle East? Indeed, Israel is a parliamentary democracy, and many of its flaws are shared by Western democracies. But many of its laws and policies are largely unknown and shocking to present-day Western conceptions of democracy. Freedom of religion? Not if you consider that it is currently illegal to perform an interreligious marriage in the state of Israel. Freedom of speech? Not if you realize there are significant restrictions on commemorating the nakba in Israel. Equal rights for Israeli Arab citizens? Not if you understand the “admissions committee” law requiring Arab citizens of Israel to go through cultural compatibility screening before moving to a new area, while white “Afrikaaner” South Africans can convert to Judaism and move to these same areas unimpeded. These same Arab citizens have seen their language and status further downgraded by the “Jewish state law” of 2018.

Surely, at least, Albert Einstein (who was himself offered the Israeli presidency in 1952), was able to secure a condemnation of the Irgun and its leaders as fascists? Quite the opposite, Menachim Begin became prime minister, and Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the Irgun’s co-founder, has a national holiday.

Is Israel a settler-colonial state and apartheid state? It was the last state supporting and dealing arms to apartheid South Africa, even after the United States finally stopped doing so. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have issued comprehensive reports in the affirmative (which I encourage everyone to read in full), based on a staggering number of human rights abuses. Essential to these claims are two disturbing realities. First, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are citizens of nowhere—that is, they are stateless—and yet are controlled by the IDF and dependent upon the Israeli government for their access to resources. Second, over the past two decades, in violation of international law, the Israeli government has been creating settler colonies throughout the West Bank to the point where the Israeli citizen population (enjoying full rights) now numbers over 600,000. Moreover, these Israeli settlers frequently commit acts of violence against Palestinians residents (and left-wing Jews!), who are powerless to fight back, while the Palestinian Authority’s police are forbidden to intervene. This undermines the more moderate Palestinian Authority’s credibility and increases support for militant groups that will fight back.

At this point, I could continue by citing polls that demonstrate the mounting racism expressed by the Israeli populace. I could also trot out the most anti-Arab racist statements of far-right Israeli politicians. Of course, I could do the same with polls of the Palestinian populace and Palestinian leaders concerning antisemitism. Doing so, however, would focus on surface-level symptoms and not the root of the problem itself. In the words of former CIA interrogator Amaryllis Fox Kennedy concerning the failures of the War on Terror, “As long as your enemy is a subhuman psychopath who is going to attack you no matter what you do, this never ends. But if your enemy is a policy, however complicated, that we can work with.”

Killing an Arab: Nihilism and the Dehumanization of the Oppressor and the Oppressed

I have attempted to disabuse us of ignorantly following the fascistic call for decisive action while refusing contextualization—especially when the decisive actor holds an incalculable asymmetry of power. Such decontextualization has proven again and again to produce unfathomable crimes against humanity and mass death and displacement—resulting ultimately in a nihilistic dehumanization of everyone involved. In America’s case, 9/11 was used to pass the repressive Patriot Act, justify the 20-year war in Afghanistan (which killed over 200,000 human beings), and the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq (which may have killed over 1,000,000 people according to some estimates).

In both cases, to return to The Cure’s lyrics to “Killing an Arab,” we could have “turned and walked away” or we could “fire the gun.” What did it amount to? “Absolutely nothing.” For a vast number of Arabs and Afghanis (and many coalition soldiers), it amounted to the nothingness, with respect to this world, of death. But there’s at least one other level on which the lyrics “Absolutely nothing” apply: a lurking nihilism in our mentality that suggests that finding actual meaningful solutions is, ultimately, irrelevant. The only options our dehumanized minds appear to be able to consider are either to ignore the problems or to resort to mass violence. Once we’ve tired of the situation—like Camus’s Meursault who kills the Algerian Arab on the beach out of his own exhaustion—we move on as though none of it mattered in the first place.

Which brings me to a concluding rumination on the dehumanization captured by The Cure’s lyrics, “I’m alive, I’m dead. I’m the stranger, killing an Arab.” This rumination can help us understand how we can have just witnessed more bombs being dropped on an area the size of Philadelphia in one week than were dropped in any single year in Afghanistan (the size of Texas). It can help us contextualize how more civilians were killed in the first month of response to 10/7 than in the entire 21-month ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine. It helps us see how decontextualized action, dehumanization, and nihilism has killed twice as many U.N. officials (101 as of this writing) as mid-level Hamas commanders (50 as of this writing).

This rumination is on Moshe Dayan’s little-known (to Americans anyhow) eulogy for Ro’i Rothberg, which has been described as Israel’s “Gettysburg Address” in terms of its brevity (two paragraphs) and its impact on collective national memory. Rothberg was a 21-year-old Israeli patrol officer for a new settlement near the Gaza strip in 1956, who was brutally murdered in an ambush. Particularly jarring in Dayan’s eulogy is his honesty which initially humanizes both the Jewish Rothberg and his Arab killers—only to rip away this seeming empathy, leaving us with only devastating brutality in the most literal sense. That is, it lowers everyone from humans to the level of brutes.

Dayan, the child of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants to Palestine, begins by painting a beautiful and tragic picture of Rothberg and the bright beautiful morning on which he was killed. He then moves on to say that the blame should not be laid on his killers, explaining, “For eight years they have been sitting in the refugee camps in Gaza, and before their eyes we have been transforming the lands and the villages, where they and their fathers dwelt, into our estate.” It would seem he has real empathy for both Rothberg and the Arabs whose homes were stolen and who were forced into refugee camps. But Dayan continues by asking, “How could we fail to see ‘the destiny of our generation’?”—a destiny which he explicitly refers to as “brutality.” What appeared to be empathy instead turns out to be Dayan’s call for a policy of ruthless repression of Arabs—Arabs whose land he openly admits Israel stole. He calls on his fellow Israelis to see the hatred directed at them so that it strengthens their own and declares that they must enforce this theft with the “steel helmet” and the “cannon’s maw” lest the “sword be stricken from our fist.”

But perhaps, most tragic of all, Dayan laments that Rothberg was “blinded by the light in his heart” and his “yearning for peace.” In other words, what killed Rothberg was his humanity.

And so, Dayan, the child of European immigrants who admits to land theft and ethnic cleansing, calls on his countrymen to embrace a mentality in which they each individually become someone who accepts “I’m alive. I’m dead. I’m the stranger, killing an Arab.”

How Shall We Then Live?

Subtly but disturbingly symptomatic of the ignorance imposed on the American and Israeli populaces alike is a recent article by Israeli diplomat and media analyst Alon Pinkas, which cites Dayan’s eulogy nearly in full with one notable ellipsis—the four sentences of Dayan’s honest (at least) admission of land theft as the root cause of the ongoing enmity. In Pinkas’s version, the erasure of the Palestinian is complete; by three simple dots (…) the reader is kept from knowing the only redeeming portion of Dayan’s eulogy.

Is this the fate of our generation? Ignorance, dehumanization, and creeping fascism in every corner of the globe?

I refuse to consign ourselves to this abyss. To return to Einstein once more, “In the last analysis, everyone is a human being.” The internet and social media can propagate misinformation, but they also allow us to see in real time what is happening in the world like never before. Real information is readily available if we learn where to look . For that reason I have also compiled a short reading list on the subject that can be accessed here.

We still can choose to educate ourselves and others. We still can choose to practice empathy for everyone. We can still choose to stand against injustice and demand equality anywhere and everywhere, even when the stakes seem too high.

And so I implore my reader once more:

Stand with Christ. Stand with the Gospel. Stand with humanity and the least of these no matter what it costs, including friendships and more. If this seems too costly, I assure you the alternative is far more devastating. It will cost you your soul.

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

About author

  • Rico G. Monge

    Rico G. Monge

    Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of San Diego

    Rico G. Monge is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of San Diego. His doctorate is in Religious Studies from the University of California at Santa Barbara, and his research and teaching specializes in comparative Christianity and Islam, theory of religion, and co...

    Read author's full bio and see articles by this author

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

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