Fresh Thought Needed for the Middle East


My wife, a Palestinian born soon after the Israeli army occupied her side of Jerusalem, likes to collect artifacts from pre-1948 Palestine. Among her favorite relics are coins from the British Mandate period (1922 – 1948). For me these coins are extraordinary because they have the word “Palestine” inscribed three times on them: in Arabic, in Hebrew and in English. I pass my thumb over the lettering and cannot fathom, after this year of Intifada, how the language of these two warring peoples could have ever found their way onto the same face of a national coin. I don’t know what life was like during the British Mandate; I don’t know whether or not these inscriptions suggest a falsely idyllic picture of the past, but I do know that for my wife they represent a symbol of what the future should look like. She is not alone, there are Jewish groups, (Junity – and Palestinian groups, (the Alternative Palestinian Agenda –, that share her vision of a working relationship between the Israelis and the Palestinians – a relationship based on a just resolution to past grievances.

As one might imagine, these groups do not have the blessing of the extremists, but their most formidable adversary is the American media. The mainstream American media seems to have a distinctly anti-Palestinian agenda; they repeatedly publish articles about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict that present a distorted picture of the two peoples. A recent example of this is a series of emails written to family and friends by California rabbi Daniel Gordis – they appeared in the New York Times Magazine. At first Gordis appears sympathetic: he makes the poignant observation that Israeli Arab students are forced to study Bialik and other Zionist poets but are not allowed to study Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian national poet.

I read on, thinking that the rabbi’s indignation at this injustice will lead him to do something about it. But in the next email, Gordis doesn’t know what to tell his daughter when she objects to organized meetings with Arab students from a local school. She has “nothing to talk to them abouté and they can’t stand us. So why bother?” Instead of reiterating (to us and to his own daughter) that the two communities know tragically little about one another and it is for this reason that they have nothing to talk about, Gordis wrings his hands and laments the truth of his daughters position.

He sites, as argument for this complacency, the “daily Israeli death toll” Another email arrives after a trip to Rabin Square where Gordis ponders Rabin’s unfortunate legacy: Oslo. He writes that, because of Oslo, “the Palestinians are armed, organized, legitimate,” and I have to wonder here if Gordis really meant to imply that Oslo invented Palestinians. Are there still American Jews who think, or want to believe, that the pre-Israel Palestine was a land without people? The current Intifada is not, according to Gordis, about the occupied territories. Rather, it is about the very existence of the Jewish people – the Arabs, in other words, are determined to push the Jews into the sea.

The image of waves of Israelis being literally driven into the Mediterranean by fictitious Arab armies is meant to horrify Americans with visions of the European Holocaust and to thereby distract them from the issues. This is precisely what Ariel Sharon is doing when he complains that the U.S. is now engaging with the Arabs in a way that he says is the kind of “appeasement” that led to World War II. This Holocaust card is the last ditch defense for the Israeli occupation. And Rabbi Gordis plays this card when he says that he fears the “whole enterprise” (Israel) will fall apart: “people leaving, the world turning against usé”

What I suggest to Rabbi Gordis, and to every Israeli who says they want peace, is this: if he is not willing to take a stand for justice, to insist, for starters, that the local schools teach Palestinian history and culture – if he is not willing to work toward a just solution for all those who people the land, then he should join the parting throngs and leave the grueling work of peace-making to those Jews and Arabs who are up to the task. They will eventually find a solution, and it won’t include anybody being pushed into a sea. But Oslo is dead and fresh recipes for peace and justice and fresh ways of thinking are needed. Any help from God or luck will also be welcome, but no matter how you toss the coin, the region will be peopled and shared by Jews and Palestinians.