Stephanie Dorwick | Author | Your Name Is Not Anxious
Gaza: “Othering” is humanity’s original sin

You might want to argue with U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres’ view expressed in November 2023 that the Gaza Strip was even then a “graveyard for children”. An unimaginably small area (365 square kilometres; Greater Sydney is 34 times its size), it is – perhaps was – the most densely populated area on earth. As relevant, half the population of Gaza is under the age of 18.

But as I write these words multiple blockades of essential food aid to Gaza add new horror to the near-complete obliteration of public infrastructure, places of work, worship or learning, and homes. “There’s not much left of Gaza at this point,” said Trump’s son-in-law and former Middle East ‘adviser” Jared Kushner on 8 March, adding that, “the waterfront property could be very valuable.”

“It’s a little bit of an unfortunate situation there, but from Israel’s perspective I would do my best to move the people out and then clean it up.” Jared Kushner

The children already dead or dying from starvation add to the 35,000-plus women, men and children already known to be killed, and the immeasurable number maimed, or lost to sight under rubble.

One hundred per cent of surviving Gazan children are suffering emotional trauma that ranges from extreme to life-threatening or life-ending. How could it be otherwise? We witness a horror intermittently that for them never ceases.

In 2022, UNICEF was already reporting that one in three children in Gaza needed long-term care for conflict-related trauma resulting in significant levels of despair, self-harm, suicide and profound anxiety. That was well before Israel launched its “self-defence” response to the appalling deeds of the Islamic militant group Hamas on 7 October 2023.

How have we come to this? “Under conditions of tyranny it is far easier to act than to think,” wrote the brilliant secular Jewish philosopher and political analyst, Hannah Arendt. And it would indeed appear that precious little “thinking” is being done by the cabinet ministers whom former Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Ahmet, calls “messianic hallucinators” (Haaretz, 22 February 2023) – or by current Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu whose rabid nationalism – inherited from his father – plus desire to save his own skin are so intense that no sacrifice is too great of others’ lives, including the Israeli hostages still held by Hamas.

Serious, self-interrogating thought is a tough ask when bombs and tanks are in abundant supply. And when the munitions industries are free to lobby politicians globally and locally, as well as “flourish”.

Serious thought needs to include frank, even heroic questioning of one’s own motivation and what values this demonstrates. (Fanatical nationalism and extreme race hatred are not “values” – whoever is demonstrating them.) Such thinking demands humility, too, that rarest of virtues.

We are also entitled to ask what “thinking” is being done by leaders of the Western countries continuing to enable this most intimate, gruesome and unequal of conflicts.

Famine or being bombed? Dying of exposure, or of disease? These are not choices in any sense. The absence of care for their populations by leaders on all sides directly involved, and the pathetic timidity of “care” from the West with a few noble exceptions including Ireland, speaks volumes. It should terrify us. Children are losing their lives, their limbs, their minds, their future in Gaza at a speed unprecedented in the post-war period. Why?

The inescapable answer is that they are seen by the Israeli government and IDF – and the Western governments that supply arms, bombs and increasingly implausible excuses – not as children but as an abhorred abstraction called “Palestinians”. Or as “Arabs”. Or “Muslims”. Yes, in the same way, any child harmed or killed by Hamas on 7 October 2023, or held in brutal captivity since, was not seen as a precious, irreplaceable human being, but as an equally dehumanised “Jew”. And we tolerate it. For we, too, include some and exclude others in our orbit of concern in ways that are far from neutral, often far from “fair”. It is an inescapable fact, after all, that the human mind is most thoroughly influenced by whatever ideological, tribal (nationalistic) and/or religious conditioning it is most consistently exposed to. This includes the way we determine acceptable “sameness” as well as unacceptable “difference”.

Your mind is no exception. Neither is mine. Whatever the Jesuits had to say about “Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man [sic]…”, this doesn’t mean your earliest conditioning is fixed for all time. However, the more certain your enculturation is, and the less you are encouraged or permitted to enquire closely and think for yourself, the harder it will be to shake beliefs that seem as self-evidently superior to all others as they are fundamental to your identity.

This has been long recognised by those who think most about thinking, including Hannah Arendt, quoted above. But it is Athenian philosopher Plato who is attributed with the insight, “When the mind is thinking it is talking to itself.”

The language we draw upon for such innermost “talking” accurately reflects time and place, and the most intimate as well as broader social circumstances of our birth. How we are trained to perceive ourselves, others, life, affects every aspect of our being. It shapes the biases and prejudices that may be barely conscious even while they are overwhelmingly influential.

Whatever attitudes and behaviours you are most familiar with will always come to feel “natural”. You may also learn to see them as “superior” to what others believe, or how they behave.

If your persistent conditioning is overtly theistic, then you may absorb the added dimension that your belief system and the behaviours that flow from it accurately reflect God’s directions or will. When it is particularly strict or enclosed, you may genuinely see others and their way of life as “offensive” not just to you but to God. (Sexuality comes in here, though not, apparently, exploitation of the vulnerable, gun-ownership, war or state-sanctioned violence.)
Conversely, in an overtly secular society and family you might be raised to regard all theistic belief – even in its most liberal and least exclusive expressions – as absurd. Quaint. Laughable. Those convictions, too, are learned. Your secularism may also bring a version of superiority (Religion as the “opium of the masses” as Karl Marx believed).

Whether your certainties are ideological, aspiration driven, fiercely idealistic, determinedly cynical, or despairing, they are affected by social and cultural forces including mass media, that most accurate of mirrors as to what we genuinely care about, and how far (or not) we have come.

Only the most fortunate are free from an early age to explore and question their conditioning: free to test it against lived experiences and the wisdom those experiences generate. However, this takes a willingness to think almost as hard as Plato did about “thinking”. And about the emotions that drive the incorrectly named “rational” mind.

It is easy to scorn belief systems that make total sense to others, though not to “us”. Certainly, some belief systems – those that support harm or drive injustice, for example – should be scorned and strenuously exposed. But how about when we trip into regarding some lives as “worth living”, but not others? Or some lives as worth protecting, but not others?

“Othering” is humanity’s original sin.

Examples will come to mind. You could focus on what most familiarly causes your outrage meter to rise. Yet it may be as or more useful to consider instead the recent history of Ireland, both the UK-affiliated Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland (Poblacht na hÉireann). The former was for centuries resolutely Protestant, the latter was for even more centuries resolutely Roman Catholic. (It is the Republic of Ireland that stands consistently against Israel’s actions in Gaza.

On either side of a man-made border on this island nation, among people who would be indistinguishable physically at birth or in death, strictly indoctrinated differences of belief, dogma and all-embracing “culture” were great enough to obliterate whatever those on either side of the border surely had in common. This religious indoctrination was also powerful enough that hundreds of thousands of people were willing to die, or to kill, to prove the “rightness” of their views – and the “wrongness” of those who believed (had been conditioned to believe) differently from themselves. From a distance this could seem insane. Up close, it would seem self-evident – or tragic.

So when exactly did the Irish “Troubles” end? The answer is not 1898, it is 1998. And the indoctrination that preceded this horrendous period? This went back at least to the 17th century when Protestants came from Scotland to settle in a largely Catholic country “conquered” by Normans on behalf of the English King in 1169 and becoming a Free State (in the South) only in 1922.

“…jingoism, racism, fear, religious fundamentalism: these are the ways of appealing to people if you’re trying to organize a mass base of support for policies that are really intended to crush them.”  Noam Chomsky

Meanwhile in Britain and Europe at the very least, wars were fairly unceasing through recorded history – ostensibly in the name of religion, more truthfully in the pursuit of earthly and material power. Always, always, with race supremacy as a factor. For, as Chomsky points to in the quote above, it is also an inescapable fact that populations can best be controlled and persuaded to act against their own interests when a timely version of religious, tribal or nationalist fervour is successfully evoked, uniting those same people against those who believe (are conditioned) differently, even at the risk or cost of their own lives. Or the lives of those they know best.

What I am describing is not just propaganda and the confected fables that support it. It’s more powerful, sinister and endangering than that. Particularly when – as In Australia today – thinking seriously about thinking is structurally and emphatically discouraged. Indeed, thinking seriously is discouraged, trivialised, scorned; feared when it most needed.

As social beings, your need and mine to belong is life-supporting and arguably lifesaving. Perhaps some degree of tribal thinking is inevitable. Nonetheless, as conscious beings, living in an endangered world that’s shockingly unjust in its distribution of resources, could we not now question the notion that some of “us” are more entitled not just to “our” ideas, but to life, health, wealth, safety and a degree of protection blithely and cruelly denied to others?

“That which is hateful to you, do not do to another.” Rabbi Hillel

The three major theistic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – each provide irrefutable evidence of the power of conditioned belief. Each offers exquisite, ennobling enlightenment expressive of the Golden Rule. From Rabbi Hillel when asked to sum up the Torah (the first five books of Hebrew Scripture), “That which is hateful to you, do not do to another,”; from Jesus of Nazareth, “Behave towards others just as you want them to behave towards you.” (Jesus is also attributed with the revolutionary idea that people would be known as his followers by how loving they are to other people, especially those on the margins.) From Islamic scholar and poet Jalal al-din Rumi, “There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” Or this true pearl: “Out beyond ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing, there is a field. I will meet you there.”

Yet, in their most rigid, dogmatic forms, each faith also teaches an interpretation of life that shocking in its arrogance, built on claims that “God” affirms “them” at the exclusion of all “others”. Whichever the faith, this fundamentalism is unwaveringly racist and misogynist. It is anti-intellectual and profoundly sceptical and disparaging of the arts as well as science. It is also obsessively self-protective. To “marry out” – even to someone from an equally strict sect within the same faith group – is as unacceptable as homosexuality is. Or questioning dogma is. Or risking “pollution” by mixing with non-believers is. Dogmatic fanaticism wins every time over compassion, care, and common sense.

A commitment to conformity in dress, diet, lifestyle and behaviour, as well as belief, go with the territory. So does a sense of “belonging” that can be powerfully attractive. “Specialness” comes with it that is explicitly exploited through powerful reminders that “our” lives have an inherent value that others do not. All of these traits are evident in right-wing political movements also. Trumpism is a chilling example. But even with confected hysteria on a massive scale, political movements cannot offer rewards that extend, apparently, into eternity.

We must call out harm to others wherever we see it. Excusing wrong-doing because it is done by “us” betrays our common humanity, and destroys our personal integrity.

In Australia, racist rather than religious bigotry stirs the primal wound, ruthlessly exploited by mainstream conservative parties and their lapdog media to heighten a sense of “belonging” in those most “like them”, at the terrible expense of those deemed “other”, including Australia’s First Nations and those escaping the wars that ideological and religious fundamentalism spur and feed upon.

But as Noam Chomsky points out in the quote above, a glance at human history tells us that where any version of exclusive (excluding) religious identity is used to bolster nationalistic ambitions, or to justify brutal harm, the dangers to human and all other forms of life increase exponentially.

Claims for Christian superiority in interpreting the will of God have “justified” barbaric empire building for centuries, not least in Australia. Yet “Christian” efforts to “save” the “unsaved” have not prevented them from turning on each other, not just Catholics and Protestants as in Ireland and elsewhere, but within Protestant sects that bristle with one-true-faith claims that to outsiders can only seem delusional. So, as we parse and judge the most extreme voices in Israel/Palestine, or those of their supporters, we must at least consider what “Christians” have been capable of – and continue to act out.

Christian persecution of Jews (secular as well as observant) plus wilful ignorance of the variety and depth of Islamic and Arabic cultures, has allowed Europe to build empires on lies, bigotry and slaughter.

Christian persecution of Jews culminated less than one hundred years ago in the hounding, herding and murder of six million human beings for being Jewish. Not for being religiously observant; not for refusing “conversion”; not for anything but an entrenched race-hatred that allowed fascist governments to murder on an unprecedented scale with public consent. (Those who protested joined their Jewish sisters and brothers in the death camps. “Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp, was built in March 1933 to imprison political opponents.” Dissenters included socialists, communists, and trade unionists.)

“Othering” is humanity’s original sin. Yet, for the first time in recorded history, we are direct witnesses to what we cause one another in the name of religion, racism and/or political ideology. Witnesses, too, to what we “cause” when from relative safety we respond with boredom, cynicism, indifference, hatred – or the delusion that extreme behaviours “typify” this group or that. But not “us”.

Our responses cannot end there. The most urgent challenge facing our human family is to call out evil wherever we see it, strenuously resisting our conditioned inclinations to excuse or even forgive what “we” do…and to see injustice, evil – and the greatest of wrongdoing – only in what “others” do. The world’s children need saving NOW from the terrors of the past living on in the terrors of the present.

It is not Plato but the historical Buddha who is attributed with the earth-shaking teaching: “We are what we think. With our thoughts, we make the world.” The “making” of our world, of our minds, must change. It must change now. We must change now. There is no Plan B for failure, not in Gaza, not in Israel, not anywhere.


Rev Dr Stephanie Dowrick lived in Israel and visited Gaza in 1967. She also lived in Europe for 16 years. Decades later, she studied at an Interfaith Seminary in New York City founded by Rabbi Joseph Gelberman, a Holocaust survivor. She was ordained as an Interfaith Minister in 2005. Her many books include Seeking the Sacred: Transforming Our View of Ourselves and One Another, as well as Heaven on Earth, a book of universal wisdom and prayer.


This article has also been published in an earlier version on Pearls & Irritations, Australia’s leading public policy journal: