The Bronze Bull: Understanding The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Video Clip

(The Daily Show, September 22, 2011 – West Bank Story – Challahfax vs. Halalifax)


We begin with a poem by Jane Hirschfield, entitled “An Earthly Beauty”:

Others have described
the metal bull placed over fire,
it singing while the man inside it died.
Which emperor listened, in which country,
doesn’t matter, though surely
the thing itself was built by slaves.
An unearthly music, all reports agree.
We – the civilized – hearing this story,
recoil from it in horror: Not us. Not ours.
But why does my heart look back at me,
reproachful? Why does the bull?

That’s the poem, which reminds us of a real invention: the brazen bull, or bronze bull, or Sicilian bull, created by an ancient Greek as a way of executing condemned criminals, and used by Romans as well. The condemned were locked inside and slowly roasted, and their screams would be caught up in the complex and ingeniously crafted system of tubes and stops in the bull’s head and transformed into a sound like the bellowing of an infuriated bull. Thus the poem’s title, ironic and perverse: “An Earthly Beauty.”

Every war is like that bronze bull. Every war that ever was, in its capacity to inspire the creation of increasingly sophisticated weapons, to move people into deranged mentalities and behaviors, to maim bodies and shatter the structures of human civilization. The bronze bull symbolizes all of that and more. An “earthly beauty.” But as the poem suggests, we recoil from it in horror. “Not us, not ours.” We disown it. Yet the wars continue, and the bull never stops looking back at us, reproachfully.

Today we explore a particularly egregious example of the bronze bull: the conflict between Israel and Palestine, simmering ever since Great Britain captured, in 1917, part of the Middle East, including Palestine, from the Ottoman Empire, and sought to create a Jewish national home there. Simmering—and then boiling over with the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 and the simultaneous creation of thousands of Palestinian refugees, moved off their historic lands to make room for incoming Jewish settlers; boiling over with the founding of the Palestinian Liberation Organization in 1964 which carried out terrorist attacks against Israel; boiling over with the Six Day War of 1967; boiling over with the first Intifada (“Intifada” literally means “shaking off,” a popular uprising of Palestinians against Israeli power); boiling over with a second Intifada; boiling over with suicide attacks and official strike backs; boiling and boiling and boiling over…. Between Sept. 29, 2000 and Oct. 31, 2011: 7,238 Palestinian casualties and 1,096 Israeli casualties. This is the bronze bull, and its unearthly music is devastating. It looks at us, reproachfully, and our job today is to refuse to look away. Our job is to seek to understand.

Let’s jump right in with a parable—it comes from scholar Jerry Adams Ph.D. The “Parable of the Family with an Orphan”:

A large family takes in an orphan. The house is already crowded so the orphan must share an attic room with a child too weak to protest the intrusion. The parents give each of the two children half of the room but ask each child to share a beautiful cabinet, treasured by both. The parents take a long trip, leaving their strongest son in charge.

When the parents leave, other children in the family attack the orphan and try to get him to leave. The weakest child, in particular, fights unfairly. He waits for the orphan to sleep and then attacks him. The orphan wakes up each time and hurts the weak child; he also takes over more of the room, including the beautiful cabinet.

As the orphan continues to take over more of the room, the weak child continues to take revenge. The strongest son tries to bring peace and sometimes succeeds for short periods. The basic problem, however, is that each child believes that he should have the entire attic room to himself.

That’s the parable. The “large family” represents the United Nations, sensitive to how Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people and very aware of their status of “orphan”—in the sense of having been, for so long, vulnerable around the world to one injustice after another, especially the Holocaust. But “the house is already crowded”: Palestinians have lived there since biblical times too. They see most Israeli Jews as foreign colonizers who began arriving within the last 100 years. Both count themselves as children of Abraham, even though they give God different names: either Yahweh, or Allah. But they are finding it impossible to share. Especially the “beautiful cabinet”: that’s Jerusalem. For Jews, it serves as a symbol of “the historic existence of a people hunted, humiliated, massacred, but never despairing of the promise of its ultimate restoration” (Zwi Werblowsky, PhD). For Muslims, Jerusalem is sacred because of its association with figures like Abraham, David, Solomon, and Jesus—all prophets revered in their tradition. Jerusalem also played a key role in the spiritual development of Mohammed.

The parable goes on to mention how the other children in the family attack the orphan, once the parents leave. This touches on the fact that the Arab nations surrounding Israel from the beginning refused to accept its right to exist. “Israel,” said Bashar Al-Asaad, the current President of Syria, “was built on aggression and the rejection of peace, and nothing changes.” He said that in 2006, but it could have been equally said back in 1948, when the state of Israel was founded—and it was definitely the kind of rhetoric that led to the events of the Six Day War in 1967, when Egypt formed a defense union with Syria, Jordan, and Iraq and massed a large number of troops along the Israeli border. Israel attacked in June 1967 and conquered the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Desert from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria, and the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan—and initially Israel was willing to return most of these territories in exchange for peace, but the Arab countries refused to negotiate peace and repeated their goal, at the Khartoum Conference, of destroying Israel.

So Israel kept the conquered territories. Of course! And suddenly, one million Palestinians found themselves under Israeli rule. Accordingly, the Palestinian resistance effort shifted to liberating the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, through acts of horrible terrorism. It’s the parable again: The weakest child, in particular, fights unfairly. He waits for the orphan to sleep and then attacks him. But the orphan is far stronger—he wakes up each time and hurts the weak child; he also takes over more of the room. This last part brings to mind the settler movement: Israelis who build—from the perspective of the United Nations, illegally build—towns on Palestinian land inside the West Bank, Israelis whose settlements are well-served with roads, water, and security, in stark contrast to what life is like for Palestinians. Hanan Watson writes, “try to imagine life in these settlements and around them. When settlers need to go to another area for work, school or medical care, they travel on roads built specifically for them. When Palestinians need to travel, they’re not allowed to use these roads and have to go through checkpoints manned by the Israeli army. Stories abound of women in labor giving birth in cars, and emergency medical conditions not promptly treated as Palestinians wait for hours at these checkpoints.”

I could go on and on—there are so many factors causing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which is a family fight, a vicious fight within the family of Abraham. Israel and Palestine both being recognized as valid nations with a right to exist; agreeing on legitimate borders; equitable sharing of water and other resources; equitable sharing of Jerusalem; the legitimacy of the settler movement; Palestinian freedom of movement; what to do with all the Palestinian refugees, dispossessed of their land. Even the “strongest son” of the parable is a factor in the conflict. The strongest son is America. The strongest son tries to bring peace, but to the Arab world he is clearly biased in favor of Israel. Three billion dollars a year goes to Israel, as well as advanced weaponry; far far less money and no weaponry to Palestinians.

It’s the bronze bull of the poem. This is what it looks like. The Rev. Bill Breedon puts his finger on it when he says, “[Since the 1967 war and the occupation of the Golan Heights and the Gaza Strip, we’ve seen] a state of constant violence and the impoverishment of the Palestinian people, while at the same time [an increase in] the insecurity of the nation of Israel. Ironically, Israel, the self-proclaimed Jewish homeland, has become the most dangerous nation on earth for Jews.”

If this is not human screaming transformed into unearthly music, I don’t know what is.

But even as we’ve tried to enumerate the practical, nuts & bolts causes of the conflict, as many as possible, I still feel the bull’s reproachful look. I still feel the weight of it. Can you? As if we’ve not penetrated the issue deeply enough… As if mere clarity around practical causes stops short of true understanding and can’t take us all the way into healing and peace.

This is the belief of depth psychologist James Hillman, in his profound book entitled A Terrible Love of War. Listen to what he says about another family conflict—the Civil War—how it could apply equally to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “We cannot understand the Civil War by pointing to its immediate cause—the firing on Fort Sumter in South Carolina in 1861—not by its proximate cause—the election of Lincoln in the autumn of 1860—nor by a list of underlying causes, i.e., the passions that riled the union: secession, abolition, the economics of cotton, the expansion westward, power contest in the Senate … ad infinitum. Nor will a compilation of the factors of that war’s complexity yield what we seek. Even the total sum of every explanation you can muster will not provide meaning to the horrific, drawn-out, repetitive butchery of battle after battle of that four-year-long war.” That’s James Hillman … and then he quotes Albert Einstein to make his point crystal clear: “Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.”

I can’t help but agree, as I think of all the failed negotiations, resolutions, peace talks, and bridging proposals we’ve seen in the whole history of Israeli-Palestinian situation. It’s just as comedian Jon Stewart suggests: “Another day in the Middle East. Obviously the cease-fire fell through, talks fell apart, they lasted about two hours. Even the O.J. jury managed to meet longer than that.” (This is our comic relief moment in this sermon, folks—it’s hard to be funny with a topic like this…) it’s all because problems are trying to be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.

To truly understand, to truly move towards healing and peace, we’ve got to go deeper than practical factors…. we’ve got to go to a place that helps explain not just the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Civil War but all wars, all conflicts. A place that helps us understand the bronze bull, no matter where and when it manifests…. Perhaps that’s when it will stop looking at us reproachfully…

For James Hillman, this path of understanding truly begins when we set aside our “civilian disdain and pacifist horror” of war. It echoes precisely what Jane Hirschfield’s poem suggests:

We – the civilized – hearing [the story of the bull]
recoil from it in horror: Not us. Not ours.
But why does my heart look back at me,
reproachful? Why does the bull?

The bull does this because the bull is very aware of how war, side by side with its brutality, also immerses people into a sense of the utterly transcendent. After World War II a Frenchwoman said to philosopher J. Glenn Gray, “You know that I do not love war or want it to return. But at least it made me feel alive, as I have not felt alive before or since.” And then there is this quote from historian Jeremy Black’s thorough study,Why Wars Happen: “The techniques of diplomatic management can help in some crises, but others reflect a willingness, sometimes desire, to kill and be killed that cannot be ignored.”

From all this, James Hillman concludes: “Ares is ever present; he belongs in the scheme of things.” Now by that word “Ares,” Hillman is invoking the ancient Greek god of battle and slaughter and war and blood. He’s employing a figure in ancient mythology to make a point about how there is, in human nature, an entire style of potential existence, an archetype, that is primed and ready to go—and once it gets triggered, it’s on like Donkey Kong. It is. It’s why war can immerse us in feelings of aliveness and ultimate meaning—why war can reduce us quicker than anything to utter inhumanity and insanity. Two sides of the same coin.

Just listen to the echo of this in the words of a man names Hassan, who is a senior Hamas operative (Hamas is a Palestinian terrorist organization). Does Hassan feels any remorse about the lives of the young men that were lost when Hamas carried out suicide attacks against the Israelis? And he says, “The terrible things that have happened to the Palestinian people are far bigger and far stronger than feeling sorry or guilty. As a Palestinian, I feel that my people and I have been murdered in the soul by the Israel occupation. The feeling stays with me in every situation. There is a big difference between murder and killing to defend his country—attacks against Israelis … are the latter kind of killing, not murder. You must understand the difference between Hassan the person and Hassan the Palestinian” That’s what Hassan the Hamas operative says. Once the Ares potential is triggered in people, Hassan the person is transformed and becomes something else—a weapon. A bronze bull.

And it can happen to us all. Ares potential within us all is easily triggered. Hermann Goering at his trial in Nuremburg was chillingly plain about this. “The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. This is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country.” That’s Hermann Goering. Create an enemy, create an urgency, insist that patriotism means unconditional obedience to what the authorities say, and all of a sudden: the fog of war. Suddenly the Ares that was hidden in our hearts takes center stage and we start to think like Ares, we start to behave like Ares, and it is go time, it is war.

But now listen to a passage from the oldest text describing the specific characterizes of the ancient Greek gods and goddesses, the Homeric Hymns. This passage comes from the hymn to Ares:

Hear me,
helper of mankind,
dispenser of youth’s sweet courage,
beam down from up there
your gentle light
on our lives,
and your martial power,
so that I can shake off
cruel cowardice
from my head,
and diminish that deceptive rush
of my spirit, and restrain
that shrill voice in my heart
that provokes me
to enter the chilling din of battle.
You, happy god,
give me courage,
let me linger
in the safe laws of peace
and thus escape
from battles with enemies
and the fate of a violent death.

What do you think about that? Isn’t it amazing, how the speaker here asks for Ares to bless him with courage so he might “linger in the safe laws of peace”?

That’s the hymn to Ares, and it is so clear about how “deceit, cowardice, and the headlong rush to war are all of a piece.” James Hillman goes on to say, rightly, that in this headlong rush “No one has the courage to retreat from the brink; everyone is afraid of appearing cowardly. The fog of war spreads through the mind, stupefying, desensitizing, long before the battles begin.”

So you, happy god
give me courage….

The solution is this courage which is restraint in the presence of shrill voices from people and from the press and from leaders who perceive an enemy and push for a fight by any means necessary. The solution is a willingness to be genuinely curious about the supposed enemy, willingness to walk in their shoes for a time, willingness to start over, begin again. The solution is refusal to label this kind of empathizing as anti-Israel or anti-Palestinian. The solution is resistance to the kind of thinking that would transform Hassan the person into Hassan the Palestinian, that would make any of us into a mere tool of abstract ideology.

Help me Ares, shake off
cruel cowardice
from my head,
and diminish that deceptive rush
of my spirit, and restrain
that shrill voice in my heart
that provokes me
to enter the chilling din of battle…

There is wonderful irony here. The solution to Ares the bloodthirsty warmonger is Ares’ courage and power of restraint. We have to look at the bronze bull square in the face, to gain the wisdom that enables us to step back from the one that’s already boiling over, with all its old unresolved resentments—or simply to cease in the creation of new ones. Israel and Palestine need to do that—and so do we, in whatever battle WE find ourselves.