Not surprisingly, in contemporary Jordan there's an actual location along the Jordan River which tradition names as the location of this event. And it's a tourist attraction which we visited a few years ago.
A path leads through "wilderness" which turns out to a thicket of low bushes.
There's not much river. Syria, Jordan, and Israel all draw water from it.
Multiple layers of tourist amenities, from ancient stone steps to contemporary National Park-style shelters, line the banks -- or where the banks have at times been.
Finally the river, supposedly the site of the awesome event. Tourists edge down cautiously to touch the waters.
Across the river in what the U.N. calls the Occupied Palestinian Territories and what our media calls the West Bank [of the Jordan], sits an Israeli fortification.
Jordan is at "peace" with the state cross the river. Unlike Syria or Lebanon, it has an internationally recognized, agreed border with Israel.
The conquered Palestinian people living under Israeli occupation have no such status. Nor does the occupying power want them -- their number already more or less equals the Jewish residents of Israel and is increasing rapidly.
So what is Israel to do with this living, breathing, population of unwanted people?
- Israel could opt to become a modern democratic state in which political and human rights are not determined by religious or ethnic identity. That would be the end of Israel as a Jewish state. Not likely.
- Israel could remove its fortified settlements (think pioneer stockades in the American West, only filled with Brooklyn accents), pull back to its 1967 borders, and co-exist with a Palestinian state, at peace with its Arab neighbors. Since 2002, some version of this has been, and still is, on the table. This is apparently politically impossible for Israeli governments, especially so long as they are propped up by U.S. support.
- The Palestinians currently within Israeli borders could be ethnically cleansed, murdered or expelled somewhere (there are no apparent takers). Successive Israeli governments periodically go some ways along this path, as they are presently doing in Gaza. It is not clear how much of a massacre might lead the rest of the world to intervene -- it is possible that no atrocity would be too great, though one hopes not.
That banner is what brave antiwar Israelis said should be done about Israel's existential dilemma at a demonstration in Tel-Aviv yesterday. They know they don't have the option of looking away.
What, if anything, can we, who are far away onlookers, do about any of this?
In the United States, we have a direct, particular responsibility to get our government out of the business of enabling Israeli atrocities. At present our Congress is cheering and we're delivering the bombs to pound Gaza.
The thoughtful Professor Juan Cole says that street protests don't do much.
He's right ... and I also think he's wrong. A culture of protest that assumes that Israel is the bully on the block is a prerequisite for any more effective political action. It can't keep Gazans alive today -- they'll die horribly until Israel chooses to stop -- but an end to giving Israel a pass on the basics of civilized behavior is a start. The shift that is happening is a lot like the generational attitudinal shift on gay rights: we are coming into a generation which is not confused either by the notion that gays are "unnatural" or by the myth that Israel with its army and nukes is a victim-state. As with gay rights, most of the "western" world is leagues ahead of the United States on all this. As the culture of protest takes hold, then an effective inside strategy can be created. J Street makes a start in Washington, even though for many protesters it will seem too little, too timid.
Is there anything that the Palestinians now being slaughtered can do? Probably not, but a commenter at Al Jazeera in English offered a vision [I have not corrected the English]:
Jesus was, of course, a Jew. And a very low status resident of what was Palestine and is now Israel. And, so we're told, he was loved by God, got dunked, and thereafter went about doing God's business.
The powers of his day found Jesus so threatening they tortured him to death. But it turns out that wasn't enough to make an end of him. In fact, it just started something.
Is there any way that contemporary unmerited suffering can start something? Perhaps.