Thoughts on Finkelstein & the good things in life

I stood there in the kitchen, simultaneously waiting over the tea kettle boiling with ginger and honey for my brother with a flu and reading Norman Finkelstein’s ‘The Rise and Fall of Palestine: a personal account of the Intifada years’ when one particular passage gripped me. Throughout the book, one could sense Finkelstein’s struggle to comprehend how his people could inflict so much pain on others who, to complicate matters, treat him with so much courtesy despite his ‘Jewishness’. At one point, an overwhelmed soul that bares the burden of his fellow people confesses,

‘For three weeks, I was treated with decency and generosity by Samira and her family. I was a virtual stranger, an American and a Jew. Although they were strapped financially, they still took me in. As I sat on the porch sobbing one night, Samira came out to comfort me. I had snapped. Shaking my head, I kept repeating that it wasn’t fair. In an odd reversal of roles, Samira reminded me that Palestinians weren’t the only people in the world to have suffered from injustice. True enough. And yet, in one distinctive sense, the martyrdom of the Palestinians was worse. It was usual for victims of injustice not to be accorded sympathy. Yet Israel had managed so successfully to invert reality that Palestinians had been collectively demonized. As we talked that night, my mind kept flashing back to a student in my English class. His face was perpetually lit up by a boyishly innocent, if slightly devilish, grin. Except once. What, he asked, did Americans think of Palestinians? Before I could reply, he sputtered with barely suppressed rage, “They think we’re animals, don’t they?” I didn’t have it in me to tell him it was true.’

I looked at the inside of the kettle brimming with ginger bits and honey and thought to myself that this is one of those moments, where somehow Finkelstein becomes linked with a certain waft of ginger and honey – the good things in life. I visualized this dignified being weeping, magnifying his humanity a hundred fold. You need to understand, at a time like this, what with Gaza under siege and the road to peace seemingly all but promising – I need this. I need to remember that real human beings need no passports, no demarcations, no ‘Chosen’ status to feel pain for their fellow human beings who suffer from the ugliest crimes humanity has ever known.


I think to myself, I now live a state of mental intifada, every thought surging up with an urgency to surface against the darkness that threatens to silence it forever.


Would you rather live a life of comfort, knowing that tragedies do happen around the world, around the corner, next door – but that they happen in a hazy sort of way. Never clear enough to hit you in the face and evidently not real enough to move you out of your reclining chair as you watch the day’s death toll on the evening news. Would it be easier to live life that way, occasionally sensing that mighty noose of hollowness hanging there in every dark confine of your mind waiting for you to get it over with already? Get it over with and kill every bit of yourself that makes you more human than some. Or at least less cattle-like than many.


Sure, the awareness that comes with witnessing suffering is painful. I bet it will make plenty of nights sleepless. But would you ever trade knowing with not knowing? Would you ever give up that smack-up with the brutality of our world for a daintier existence that is less meaningful, but hey – at least you can sleep at night – kind of thing?


Is it even possible to un-know what you already do because you just can’t take it anymore? More importantly, is it moral to do so? Once you’ve been exposed to human suffering, doesn’t that automatically burden you with the responsibility to take action?



Do you, in the ethical sense, have a choice?

14 Responses to “Thoughts on Finkelstein & the good things in life”
  1. Dino$ says:

    alia…. alia… LOVELY! isma3eeee!!!!! TEACH ME HOW to FIX MY SPACE! I LOVE THE WAY U DID IT! Walik shatoooooora! i shall add u to my blogroll bas not today li2ano khilis il dawam!

    love u!

  2. Calf says:

    Interesting, albeit with a side dish of flawed assumptions.

  3. al. says:

    Dudi, yeah I’ll give you a crash course. Glad you like it!

    Calf: Care to point out the flawed assumptions? I’m curious to know your opinion.

  4. Calf says:


    Ethically, yes, we do have a choice. If we’re framing questions through ethics, we really have a choice in everything we should or should not be doing. It’s reality that poses a problem.

    There’s a wide distinction between empathy and sympathy, the latter to which you are referring.
    I’m afraid I fall into the group of people you described. I often read and watch the news, and almost invariably there’s a death toll or tragedy of sorts. Yet, not a single ounce of my being moves. Am I inhumane? No, I do empathize. I think what happens is terrible. But I only sympathize when the stimulus is potent enough to hit home. And just as with everything, when the novelty wears off of something, it just doesn’t provoke the same emotion it once did. You may call this desensitization, and I guess this is why people differ in sympathizing to a certain something. But this is reality.

    Tragedies take place on a daily basis and suffering is rampant in this sometimes beautiful world we live in. By your definition of a more meaningful life I should be depressed and in misery so long as I live because of the multiple displays of suffering that I witness everyday. But why should I be fully aware of what happens? What then? What actions are you speaking of that I could take and that would make a tangible difference?

    What I really should concern myself about is how I can take action on something which I can directly affect; the community in which we live, for example. Simply sympathizing with everything we see on TV and trying to take action on that is not going be fruitful at all.

    I think one of the greatest gifts that we as humans have is the ability to forget awful things (e.g. death, suffering, brutality). Otherwise, life and the good things would not be worth living through with a hunching demon behind our back constantly reminding us of why life was, at some point, terrible.

    Sorry if I rambled and went off-topic, but I’m not entirely well-slept right now.

  5. al. says:

    “Tragedies take place on a daily basis and suffering is rampant in this sometimes beautiful world we live in. By your definition of a more meaningful life I should be depressed and in misery so long as I live because of the multiple displays of suffering that I witness everyday. But why should I be fully aware of what happens? What then? What actions are you speaking of that I could take and that would make a tangible difference?”

    Calf, perhaps the best way to answer your questions is to illustrate through a real-life experience I had recently. I visited a refugee camp last summer for the first time ever in my life – somehow ironic considering I am Palestinian. I simply didn’t know what to expect so I just went expectation-free. What I saw was both jarring and enlightening at once.

    I saw people, mostly women and children, living on the fringes of every aspect of life, literally and metaphorically. I saw how a family of 10 lived in a single room with its roof barely holding together. Drugs, destitution, severe depression, striking poverty, and the worst part: absolutely no hope for the future. It put things in perspective for me to say the least because I suddenly felt that the course I need to take in my life will undergo a dramatic change. I’ll explain why in a bit.

    Now I know this may seem different from the tragedies taking place everyday everywhere because there are no death tolls so to speak, but it is a tragedy nonetheless. One that has lasted 50+ years and that gets no media coverage whatsoever. I understand your point about empathizing not sympathizing, but I really believe that you have to see it with your own eyes to really believe you need to do something. That glass screen on a TV feels more like a wall.

    I used to think one person’s actions can’t possibly make a tangible difference like you said. Until I stood in the home of a woman in that refugee camp and listened to her tell me how she would love her kitchen to be. She lived in a room and a half and she spoke of how she would like a tiny, sunny kitchen to cook for her grandchildren. She wasn’t asking for much, yet I sensed that that sunny kitchen meant the world to her. I’m an architect; a simple contribution on my side could make this woman’s wish a reality.

    I saw how these people live. I was made aware of their living conditions. They need help. My question is, do I have a choice in whether I should help them or not? Given my background, education, and skills, am I not in a sense, obliged to help those less privileged than I am?

  6. Saha says:

    Yes, absolutely. I feel that we are given certain experiences to open ourselves up to things and it is also a test. Desensitization is necessary sometimes in order to cope emotionally. But on the whole, I think it often equates with indifference. And hope comes with faith. so instead of allowing ourselves to become desensitized and switch off, we should risk our bubble being burst and actually pay attention to the rest of humanity. If people were starving in front of you, would you do anything to help? Distance means nothing, it should be no different for us that a person in need lives thousands of km away.

    I believe that Allah shows us things for a reason. in my own microcosm, I have experienced problems with mental health. This makes me feel that I must study psychology and help others in a similiar position, because there is a need and I see it very clearly.

  7. al. says:

    Hello Saha, you’re right, you know? God does show us things for a reason. I truly believe that when you find yourself in a place that allows you to see things in ways you’ve probably never entertained before, then it means something and that the onus becomes on you to make out this meaning as it relates to you as a person with roles and responsibilities. Especially when you feel something larger than yourself propelling you towards that path that has awakened you in a way.

  8. Calf says:

    Mhmm. Aha, yes. I’ll write something.

  9. Calf says:

    I’ve got to give you leeway because the experience you had was quite involved and personal from what you described. I would’ve felt an uncontrollable urge to help if I were in your place too. I think it’s admirable that one should sacrifice oneself for the benefit of other people, and it seems the people that do so are the ones that truly live their lives.

    I’ve got no qualms with altruism. In fact, I try to be charitable as much as I could. My personal gripe with your original post was when you referred to us not being moved by recurrent images of suffering on TV or otherwise as living a less meaningful life when you, yourself, have pointed out that the TV screen indeed feels like a wall.

    I think we’re obliged to do good things whether there’s a pressing motive or not. But again, within the circle of people we can affect, and giving priority to those closer to us.

  10. Dino$ says:

    3aloosh. I llove the way you write. When i read your writings i just go to another deep world. wallah i just sit there and feel philosphical and emotional and touched! U better start writing for a magazine a newpaper or something. I will give u an email to send and article to!!!

    i personally would like to “unknow many things” many things i thought iwanted to know. Btw i loved what you wrote

    ” I now live a state of mental intifada, every thought surging up with an urgency to surface against the darkness that threatens to silence it forever.”

    wow… ba3dien 3aklik fee intifada walkay! falasteeeniyeh ko7 inti! hehe

    WAYn il next post?!?!? yalla write write write

    *dino is waiting

  11. al. says:

    Calf, you’re absolutely right about altruistic people truly living their lives. I sensed that watching the volunteers at work. There seems to be a surge of energy constantly driving them. That’s much more than I can say for people working in a corporation.

    And yes, I’m one of those who can watch the news and not even blink upon hearing that 50 people were swiped in an attack. Sometimes we can’t help becoming desensitized. I think what I was trying to say is that there is some danger to that. I’ll dwell on that some more in another post maybe. One last thing, I agree with you on affecting change within our close environment. But this also makes me think of those who are in desperate need who don’t have people around them to help, especially if you were made aware of their need. I just think that sometimes, you need to determine within yourself the scale and level of involvement that fits your capabilities as a person with knowledge and a conscience. Then you can act accordingly. This might involve many difficult decisions that may remove you from your comfort zone but the outcome will surely be rewarding. If only because you were willing to try.

    Dino$, I’m flattered! I’ll write more but my mind is occupied with too many things for me to be coherent. I know why you want to ‘unknow’ many things you know, but I believe everything reveals itself for a reason. It’s how you choose to work with that knowledge that makes a difference. Don’t worry, hun..things will work out in the end.

  12. Dave says:

    Hello Al,

    This is one of the best blog posts I’ve read!

    Personally I feel that there is no choice – once you know of the suffering and take it seriously enough to always feel its pain – you cannot turn back.

    It is easy for people to forget which is why a passion to end suffering leads to a daily renewal of that commitment. If you really care you will naturally be driven not to forget. If you can switch the TV off and forget then I don’t think you’ve truely sympathised.

    Thank you for bookmarking my blog “Israel’s 60th” and I look forward to more of your writing.


  13. al. says:

    Hello Dave,
    I’m glad you enjoyed reading! You’re doing an amazing job yourself.

    I’ve been thinking more and more about this. A good friend of mine once told me how sometimes the sheer sincere intentionality of our thoughts can bring about that which we hope for. I like to think that’s true. When we start feeling that our individual efforts don’t matter – that’s when we have a problem.

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  1. […] Thoughts on Finkelstein & the good things in life A really excellent blog post. Very moving personal account of Norman Finkelstein and the blog authors reaction to his writing. (tags: Israel palestine NormanFinkelstein article morality) […]

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