On the eve of Prime Minister Sharon’s much-touted Gaza disengagement (wherein the IDF pulls out, locks the door on the Gaza ghetto, and throws away the key), I cannot share in what seems to me to be the naÃ¯ve optimism of just about everyone else. The quagmire of misunderstanding in Israel and Palestine seems more hopeless than ever, if you listen carefully to ordinary Palestinians for a change – but no one ever does. They know the Bantustans are coming, in fact, are here -” the walls are already in place – but no one seems to care. Pax Americana uber alles.
So I have that impulse-¦ you know: J’accuse-¦. But WHOM shall I accuse?
My adopted second homeland, my ancestral homeland of Israel, ate 25 years of my life and spit the shell of me out again, back where I came from, back to the USA. I left behind, on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide, close friends and colleagues and, on the Israeli side, one of my sisters and her family. I left them there, left them with their dilemmas, their pain, their bereavement, their despair -” because my native Israeli children and their native Israeli dad refused to live there anymore. “We want to get a life,” they said.
Thanks to the privilege of dual citizenship, the choice to leave was ours; most Israelis and Palestinians don’t have that choice. I speak now with a hybrid voice that’s part American Jew, part Israeli Jew, part pan-Semitic; that last part comes from a profound empathy for all the sisters and brothers and cousins, an empathy that has taken root and expanded in my heart over the years and now permits me no rest.
I have no other country, goes a well-known Israeli pop lyric by Ehud Manor. Ain li eretz aheret, it says in Hebrew, sounding its lament from what most Jews loyally continue to view as the Jewish state -” even though more than a million of its 6.5 million citizens are not Jewish. Three generations after Hitler, this song became for several years almost an alternative national anthem for Israeli Jews. Once, at a big peace rally in what is now Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, someone at the microphone sang the refrain in Arabic-¦ making an important point. Few Americans realize, and Jewish Israelis often prefer to forget, that one out of every five or six citizens of Israel is a Palestinian Arab – not to be confused with the Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza (who also have no other country, but who have no civil status whatever in Israel) or with the exiles in the Palestinian diaspora. “I have no other country,” came the refrain in Arabic, from the podium where Yitzhak Rabin made the last speech of his life. Ma indi balad thani. What more can one say or do?
Alas, Jews in Israel and abroad often behave as if Palestinian Arabs are present in Palestine/Israel purely as some kind of devilish provocation -” to deny us the fulfillment of our dream of a return to Zion. As if the hundred-year-old olive trees of those long-suffering villagers on the West Bank are standing there only to create make-work for IDF bulldozers and keep our dedicated Army Corps of Engineer boys from getting home in time for dinner. It’s always about us, and we never fail to judge ourselves by our best intentions while busy judging them by their Baruch Goldsteins.
J’accuse-¦. whom? Either we are all guilty, or none of us is guilty. Governments and partisans and ordinary citizens and religious leaders and followers on all sides of the conflict, back to Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar, have certainly made mistakes and made themselves part of the problem. But most Israelis and Palestinians alive today were born after the state of Israel came into being, so they aren’t responsible; and none of us was alive when the Zionist movement was born in the late 1800s in Europe, so that’s not our fault either. Most were not around when Haj Amin al Husseini sided with Hitler in WWII, so they can’t be blamed for his choice. Most of today’s Israelis were not around when Prime Minister Golda Meir made her notorious pronouncement – “There are no Palestinians!” -” and so cannot be blamed for that, either.
Virtually all Israeli Jews today know very well that over three million people are being savagely suppressed just down the road from Tel Aviv, but they have no clue what to do about it; perhaps they think it’s the only alternative to losing their country, when they permit themselves to think about it at all. They’re in thrall to what we could call the “Omigod I have my boot on the collective Palestinian neck and if I remove it, I’m in deep sludge, so let’s order a pizza and watch some TV” syndrome.
So, whom shall we blame for this mess? Shall we accuse the human condition? The psychology of homo sapiens? History?
CONFESSION AND HEALING
All this blaming is useless, even destructive. There’s plenty of blame to go around and everyone is entitled to a share, but what is the point? Once it’s been apportioned to everyone’s satisfaction (or not), what have we gained? Elsewhere, I’ve called this exercise “peeling the onion of blame.” The successive layers of historical analysis are stripped away by commentators and counter-commentators while everyone weeps, because the situation is so terribly painful and sad — and in the end, all that’s left is a pile of smelly onion peels and an ocean of tears. Is that all we think we deserve?
The South African model has shown us at least this: The only blaming that can be transformative is to point the finger at oneself, within a broadly consensual context of reconciliation, and say: I have contributed to this mess in reprehensible ways (citing the relevant nauseating details) and now, having transparently been part of the problem, I want to be part of the solution. That’s what the emergent Israeli movement called “Breaking the Silence” is doing: Young IDF army veterans are speaking out about terrible things they have done to Palestinians, mainly unarmed civilians, and many of them children. The process calls for the other side to listen and then to say: Okay. You should not have done those things; we may not be able to forgive you entirely; but we respect you for owning up to them. You need to make restitution, and then let’s try to live together like human beings.
But is it possible?
I witnessed this phenomenon myself, in real time, at an interfaith encounter weekend at a retreat center in northern Israel circa 2002. A devout young Muslim Palestinian woman, a professional in her twenties from East Jerusalem, whom we shall call Noor, sat facing a thirty-something Israeli army veteran who had been a settler and a devoutly Orthodox Jew; let’s call him Yossi. A year or so earlier, Yossi had renounced the dream of Greater Israel and the ultra-Orthodox way of life and embarked on a quest to find a different path. That quest had led him to the Galilee and this moment of truth. The rest of us sat in a circle around them and observed the encounter.
The air crackled with tension. Yossi the ex-soldier described a confrontation in Gaza in which, as a reservist on duty at a checkpoint, he’d participated in killing an innocent Palestinian civilian in a car and been pressured by superior officers to lie about the circumstances afterwards, which he then did. (The official story was that the Palestinian man had refused an order to stop and had tried to run down the soldiers with his car, so they shot him; the only part that actually happened was that they shot him.) The memory had haunted Yossi ever since; he wanted to confess it all to Noor and receive absolution, or at least the relief of catharsis. Noor was angry and upset and concerned about being manipulated, being used by him, by the group, by the sponsoring organization-¦ But she looked him in the eye and said she admired his courage in speaking out and moreover said she had more respect for him than for most of the rest of the participants in the weekend event, hiding behind platitudes and courtesy and improbable dreams of Reconciliation Lite, without sacrifice. She meant me; I knew that. We were roommates for the weekend. She wanted me and the other participants to know that a Palestinian patriot can’t forgive too glibly; the wound is too deep, too fresh. I understood.
The easiest way for an Israeli Jew to infuriate a Palestinian is to suggest that, okay, we’ve done bad things and we recognize that fact; so now let’s make a clean break with the past and move on -” turn over a new leaf together and begin again.
It’s not that simple. The injury and dispossession have been going on for too long, the damage is both too longstanding and too immediate, too searing. Right this minute, millions of West Bank and Gaza Palestinians are still being dispossessed, brutalized by young Israeli soldiers who will be sorry afterwards or by settler thugs who believe they have God on their side and may never be sorry. Palestinians are still being starved, watching their homes being razed, being locked up without benefit of lawyer or trial, humiliated at checkpoints, denied freedom of movement and education and medical care, right now as I write this and as you read it. Do you know how many Palestinian prisoners are in Israeli prisons right now? About nine thousand, mostly young men, mostly there for the double crime of having been born Palestinian and then living long enough for testosterone to outpace their common sense. The Sharon government just released 400 of these hostages to the reigning unreality (from among some 9,000 Palestinian detainees in Israeli prisons) – a gesture so insulting to Palestinians as to preclude any serious response. So here we go again-¦ any day now.
I tell you it’s not going to be enough to confess our mistakes and make anemic gestures of good faith; we need to forge ahead to rehabilitation, restoration, and reparation. Can we do less for those whom we have harmed in our passionate quest for our national place in the sun than modern Germany has done for us since the end of WWII?
STOP SHOUTING AT ME
Yes, yes, stop shouting, I hear you. It’s not nice to play the Nazi card; we’re not like the Nazis; we may have engaged in “harsh measures” to “teach them a lesson” and the Palestinian towns behind the wall may be starting to remind us of the Warsaw Ghetto in some respects, but -” bully for us! – we haven’t systematically gassed anyone or burned them in ovens. And yes, tragically, it’s very true that militant Palestinians have harmed innocent Israelis, too -” abducted, tortured, bombed, ambushed, blown up unarmed civilians, including infants and children, as well as soldiers in uniform; Palestinian resistance goes almost as far back as the birth of Zionism. Yet there is absolutely no symmetry here. We may not relish playing Goliath but we haven’t been David for several decades now. We have to get real and acknowledge the asymmetry. Who is sitting in whose jails? Who is standing in the hot sun or the pouring rain for hours at a time waiting to pass through whose checkpoints? Who is having babies on the ground alongside roadblocks in the middle of the night, watched callously by ignorant nineteen-year-olds with assault rifles?
Jewish tradition teaches that if we save one life, it is as if we had saved an entire world. Imagine the transformative potential if we could save all nine thousand of those Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails and give them back some kind of meaningful life with dignity and a future. Not to mention their mothers and wives and fiancÃ©es and sisters and brothers and aunts and uncles and children. Millions of mitzvahs, just waiting to happen.
One thing that too few Americans know is that some of the most driven and fervent peacemakers in Israel and Palestine are bereaved family members of those who have fallen in the conflict -” parents and siblings and spouses and children of Palestinians shot by Israeli soldiers, of Israelis killed in bombings and drive-by shootings and abductions, even parents of some of the young Palestinians who perpetrated suicide attacks. All are united in their too-dearly-bought certainty that violent conflict is a dead end, and that only reconciliation and cooperation can bring a future worth working toward – too late for their dead loved ones, but better late than never.
Thanks to the extensive research by modern medical science, there is actually a physical template, a blueprint, an Open Sesame for reorienting ourselves toward a more constructive shared future. Researchers have known for some time now that unhappy, angry people secrete chemicals internally that make the body more susceptible to the growth of malignant tumors. Conversely, cheerful, optimistic people secret substances internally that give the body better protection against cancerous growths. The two diametrically opposed chemical maps have been diagrammed, in color, by the latest medical imaging. Moods, of course, are not the sole determinant of who will get cancer or who will survive it, but genetic and environmental factors do not lend themselves to immediate individual control by an exercise of will, whereas attitude does.
The lesson for us is clear. The Israeli and Palestinian national movements and their supporters around the world have been jockeying for position using a flawed operational model, competing for the coveted prize of Most Injured Party by focusing almost exclusively on all the evil that has been and is still being perpetrated by the other side. This is a blueprint for continuing regional deterioration – because anger, blame, hatred, depression and despair simply generate more pathology, more destruction.
The toolbox is not empty, however. The tool we have been seeking is to turn our faces away from violence and victimhood; to seize a positive perspective and permit it to secrete constructive chemical messages to the regional body politic, thereby creating a new climate far more conducive to regional health and wellbeing.
This is certainly hard to do in the current circumstances; but what is the alternative?
TRY A LITTLE ROLE PLAYING
Increasingly, American Jews (if not their official spokespersons in major Jewish organizations) are opening up to a more sympathetic understanding of the Palestinian perspective on the conflict-¦ which is what, exactly?
Since I’m not a Palestinian Arab, I can only role-play on that one, but I’ve spent a lot of time doing so. Here’s my best improvisation:
Imagine that you’ve been living on a certain block (say, the 2000 block of Desert Springs Boulevard) in a certain neighborhood (say, the South Side or the West Side or whatever you like) for quite a while. It doesn’t matter if your parents moved there when you were a baby, or your grandparents moved there, or even their grandparents: From your point of view, you’ve been living there long enough to consider it home. It’s your street in your neighborhood in your city.
Now imagine that one day, these other people start buying up houses on your block. Call them the Blue Muffin people -” it doesn’t especially matter who they are. They leaflet the streets with notices that they are planning to move a lot of Blue Muffin people to the area and set up a Blue Muffin gated neighborhood for the collective benefit of Blue Muffin people. Basically, they are planning to throw a big block party, on your block, on your street, in your neighborhood, in your town-¦ but (here’s the catch) YOU ARE NOT INVITED. They will sing, dance, feast, celebrate right there in front of your eyes, but the party is by invitation only, and you are not going to receive one, no matter what you do. You can be nice, even ingratiating, or you can sulk, or even try sabotage, but an invitation will not be forthcoming. You’re not a Blue Muffin.
Now tell me, dear reader: In terms of how this makes you feel, does it matter if the Blue Muffin people bought your neighbors’ houses fair and square through an established realtor, or acquired them in an auction of foreclosed homes, or were given the houses in some kind of dirty deal with a wealthy foreign industrialist or received them as part of a federal witness protection program? Or simply stole them outright? The details are irrelevant, because you are being excluded and you are going to feel left out and abused, no matter what.
Someone is throwing a huge party, on your turf, and you aren’t invited.
You may give up and go away, driven out by the hostility or the noise or the fear of a physical confrontation. Some of the new neighbors may “encourage” you to leave, with their fists, or by burning crosses on your lawn, or whatever. Your kids will cry; your spouse will bemoan the situation 24/7 until you’re tearing your hair out. Your kid brother might get a gun somewhere and try taking matters into his own hands.
NOW YOU KNOW
Well, now you know something about how it felt to be an Arab in or near Palestine once the Zionist enterprise really got going in the early 1900s. Zionist theorists were writing inspired tracts about ending centuries of lethal anti-Semitism, via the ingathering of the Jewish people. European Socialist Zionist visionaries were writing monographs about the importance of Jewish labor (when we have our own country, no one can forbid us to own land like they did in Christian Europe all those centuries, and we can be farmers again, honest laborers, get our hands in the dirt-¦) It was a seductive, romantic vision, and it seduced a lot of people. And part of the plan was to avoid hiring Arabs, because working the land, and engaging in all the other trades that normal people do in their normal countries everywhere else, was to be a kind of national occupational therapy, reserved for the newly gathered-in Jews; the inherent unfairness of that program to Arab working people was secondary. It was all about our national rebirth; it was all about us.
Philanthropists like Benjamin Rothschild were donating fortunes to enable Jewish organizations in Israel or abroad to buy (fair and square) large tracts of land in Palestine so that Jews could be plucked from their sometimes reluctant host countries all over the world and given a renewed collective identity in the ancestral homeland. In America, Jewish kids were putting coins in blue Jewish National Fund tzedakah boxes to pay for planting trees in Israel. The lands the trees were planted on were often purchased from upper-class Arab owners; no one was asking for permission from the ordinary people working that land. The Ottoman (Turkish) empire had been running Palestine for a long time, and not all land was formally registered in the Tabu (land registry); sometimes the aim was to avoid taxes, sometimes a village notable registered land in his own name while, by tradition, it belonged to the villagers who worked it and was parceled out according to an accepted formula based on how many people a family could put to work in the fields. At least, this is my understanding of recent scholarship on this subject; go and Google it yourself if you want citations with chapter and verse.
What is fairly clear to any unbiased observer is that, in due course, the new land acquisitions for Jewish immigrants, while changing the ownership of only a small percentage of what is now Israel, managed to alter radically an entire preexisting social structure; the new owners didn’t know or didn’t care. Numerous scholars have written volumes about how ordinary Palestinians were dispossessed in the first decades of the 20th century; do the details really matter? Then came the 1948 war, which the Israeli Jews call the War of Independence and the Palestinian Arabs call the Catastrophe, and a lot more land changed hands by force, while around three-quarters of a million people became refugees, a community now numbering several millions dispersed among the various continents. Our ingathering of the exiles led to their Babylonian exile, while according to reliable scholars more than 400 Palestinian villages were erased from view, though not from memory.
But things could be different.
To begin with, we American Jews could let go of this persistent fantasy that Palestinian Arabs somehow beamed themselves down from Mars onto our beloved ancestral homeland ON PURPOSE to ruin our dream of national revival. I once read, in an op-ed piece published in Jerusalem by a well-known Israeli Jewish woman of the settler persuasion, the following incredible sentence, penned in earnest:
“The problem is that we were absent from our land for 2,000 years and while we were away, someone else came and stole it from us.”
I hate to say so, but we Jews began our love affair with the land in question when we arrived there from somewhere else. Our own scripture tells us that we came to the land from elsewhere and took possession, on divine authority. We said it was ours because God gave it to us. Duh, that’s what the new arrivals always tell the unfortunate folks who happen to be living where they’ve decided to live. God gave it to us. How convenient. Sadly, the just grievances of the dispossessed seem obvious to us in the case of South Africans or even Native Americans, but where Israel and Palestine are concerned, we Jews find ourselves defending the indefensible. We would love to prove conclusively that today’s Palestinians aren’t the descendents of the people who lived there when our ancestors arrived; we’d love to demonstrate that we got there first, way back then-¦ And if we can prove that – what then?
“A land without a people for a people without a land” was a great slogan for the Zionist enterprise. Too bad it was only half true; the half that wasn’t true is what got us into the mess we’re in today. We’ve gone ahead and thrown our Blue Muffin block party every year for the last 56 years and have steadfastly refused to invite the neighbors to party with us. Isn’t it about time we woke up and smelled the pitas?
“J’accuse” is a waste of time, people. I won’t play that game anymore. What we need now are creative scenarios for a different kind of future, and the watchwords are truth and reconciliation and reparation. We need to stop pointing the finger and begin trying to point the way forward. And we need to ask the cousins for help with this challenge, because we’re not going to find the way forward all by ourselves. But first we have to take our boot off their neck.