Between Right and Right?: A Twice-Told Tale
Liberal-left Israeli essayist and novelist Amos Oz has a book called Israel & Palestine, Between Right and Right; and says that "You no longer have to choose between being pro-Israel or pro-Palestine, you have to be pro-peace."
Since most people are imperfect, ordinary, venal but decent, just trying to live their lives, and more or less safely, and not get shot at, it seems that most conflicts are basically the same kind, at least insofar as they have this in common -- involving people who are imperfect and live in this imperfect world and are in need of both giving and getting love, and giving and getting forgiveness.
Conflicts involve different narratives for the various sides, in this case basically the Arab and the Zionist. They will be difficult to interconnect, but it is at least important that each side be assured its narrative is sympathetically understood, or at least just understood.
How can we tackle a conflict like the Arab-Zionist? Through abstract moral equations, balance sheets, with pluses or minuses on each side, going through history? Partially we have to. Because these comprise the grievances and narratives of each side.
1. We begin with the Palestinian narrative.
The Zionist movement claimed the borders of the Kingdom of David and Solomon which lasted 73 years. But populations inhabited Palestine for 9000 years. Palestinians come from the Canaanites, the earliest recorded inhabitants and the Philistines. Much of the land Zionists claim as exclusively theirs was predominantly populated by Jews for less than 1% of its history. From AD 70, when Roman emperor Titus destroyed the Jewish Temple, the Jews in Palestine almost ceased to exist until Muslim conqueror Saladin retook Jerusalem around 1200 and allowed their return.
More than 20 invading powers including the Jews later occupied parts of it but were all defeated by the Palestinians or other invading powers. The Palestinians never left the land. The Jews came in 1186 BC and the last Jews left in 135 AD after the Romans defeated them.
In early 1900s illegal Jewish immigrants started coming. Later Palestine came under British mandate and more illegal Jewish immigrants were allowed in Palestine. British rule ended in 1948. Jewish gangs attacked Palestinian towns, massacred families and massacred the inhabitants of the town of Deir Yasin in a clear attempt at ethnic cleansing. By 1949 more than 400 Palestinian towns were destroyed, thousands of Palestinians were massacred and 750,000 Palestinians fled to safety in neighboring countries. The Jews occupied 77% of the total land of Palestine. They changed the name from Palestine to Israel. They refused to allow the Palestinians to return. In 1967 Israel attacked and occupied the remaining 23% of Palestine. More Jews from all over the world came to occupy the land and homes of the Palestinians. Despite the UN Resolution giving the right of return to the Palestinian refugees, Israel continues to deny them that right. In the 1990s Israel brought in more than 1 million soviet Jews despite its claim of inability to let return from exile and refugee camps the people who actually lived there, in accordance with fundamental recognized international human-rights agreements and basic law.
Erich Fromm said: "It is often said that the Arabs fled, that they left the country voluntarily, and that they therefore bear the responsibility for losing their property and their land.
Just because the Arabs fled? Since when is that punishable by confiscation of property and by being barred from returning to the land on which a people's forefathers have lived for generations?"
"Thus the claim of the Jews to the land of Israel cannot be a realistic political claim. If all nations would suddenly claim territories in which their forefathers had lived two thousand years ago, this world would be a madhouse."
In February 1919, Britain's Lord Balfour wrote Lloyd George that "the weak point of our position is that in the case of Palestine we deliberately... decline to accept the principle of self-determination. If the present inhabitants were consulted, they would give an anti-Jewish-- [i.e. anti-Zionist] --verdict."
Sami Hadawi sums up that the action of Britain and the United Nations "conflicted with the basic principles for which the world organization was established, to uphold the right to self-determination. By denying the Palestine Arabs, who formed the two-thirds majority of the country, the right to decide for themselves, the United Nations had violated its own charter."
And David Ben-Gurion first Prime Minister and founder of Israel made clear that his support for partition was only as a stepping stone for a complete conquest:
"[I am] satisfied with part of the country, but [only] on the basis of the assumption that.... following the establishment of the state we will abolish partition and expand into the whole of Palestine."
When Ben Gurion announced the creation of Israel in 1948 he refused to say what its boundaries would be.
Joseph Weitz, director of the Jewish National Land Fund, wrote: `It must be clear that there is no room for both peoples in this country . . . There is no way besides transferring the Arabs from here to the neighboring countries, to transfer them all... We must not leave a single village, not a single tribe.
How would we feel if it was us who were expelled from the United States, and told we could never go back? This is the plight of the Palestinians. In sum, according to the Palestinians, the conflict is frequently described as complex, but Ismail Zayid notes that ultimately "in the words of a simple Palestinian farmer in Jericho: 'our problem is very *simple*. A foreigner came and took our land, took our farms and our homes, and kicked us out.'"
2. The Jewish narrative is that the conflict may look simple, but is actually *complex*.
Amos Oz notes:
The worst conflicts are often those that break out between those who are persecuted. ... The Europe that abused, humiliated, and oppressed the Arabs by means of imperialism, colonialism, exploitation, and repression is the same Europe that oppressed and persecuted the Jews, and eventually allowed or even helped the Germans to root them out of every corner of the continent and murder almost all of them. But when the Arabs look at us, they see not a bunch of half-hysterical survivors but a new offshoot of Europe, with its colonialism, technical sophistication, and exploitation that has cleverly returned to the Middle East -- in Zionist guise this time -- to exploit, evict, and oppress all over again. (343, Tale of Love and Darkness)
He notes that "if there had been no Zionism, six and a half million would have been dead rather than six million, and who would have cared?" he said. "Israel was a life raft for a half-million Jews."
When asked if "Zionism [had] been a mistake?" he said:
"I don't think there was any real practical choice. When anti-Semitism in Europe became unbearable, Jews might have preferred to go to the United States, but they had no chance at all in the thirties of being admitted to America." One of his grandfathers, in Lithuania, applied for French, British, and Scandinavian visas-and he was rejected every time. It was so desperate that, eighteen months before Hitler came to power, he even applied for citizenship of Germany. The Jews had nowhere to go, and this is difficult to convey today. People now ask, Was it good to come here? Was it a mistake? Was Zionism a reasonable project? There was no place else. There was a conference where the problem of Jewish refugees and Nazi persecutions was discussed. It ended with practically just the Dominican Republic expressing its readiness to accept one or two thousand Jews, and a couple of other countries. The Prime Minister of Australia said, In Australia we have no problem of anti-Semitism, thank God. But we don't want to encourage more Jews to come here." It was a time when "the world seemed to be divided into two parts-those places where the Jews could NOT LIVE and those where they could NOT ENTER."
So for the European Jews. What about Middle Eastern Jews? The great Tunisian-Jewish progressive writer Albert Memmi, author of classic anti-colonialist Colonizer and the Colonized wrote (in his book, "Jews and Arabs"):
The massacre at Deir Yassine is constantly throw in our faces. But we have undergone a thousand Deir Yassines! Not only in Russia, Germany, or Poland but also at the hands of the Arab people ... My own grandfather and father still lived in terror of the blows on the head which any Arab passerby could give them at any time. I myself, as a child, played in the streets and alleys of an Arab city. I remember only too well!
Please don't tell me that all that is the result of Zionism! That's another myth. Except during two or three periods, about which much nonsense has been said ... the Jews *never* had had idyllic life ... the Jews were not only at the mercy of the rabble but had a statute that legitimized their servitude ... In the best of cases, the Jew is protected like a dog which is part of a man's property, but if he raises his head or acts like a man, then he must be beaten so that he will always remember his status. We lived in the Arab countries amidst fear and humiliation. [A long] litany of ... massacres ... *preceded* Zionism ... Jews from the Arab countries were Zionists before Auschwitz. The State of Israel is not the result of Auschwitz but of the Jewish condition everywhere, including the Arab countries.
Need one only be born Jewish in order to be entitled to nothing, except to being condemned to eternally remaining second-class citizens, exposed to humiliation and periodic massacres? ... The Palestinian Arabs' misfortune is having been moved about thirty miles within [the place you claim to be] one vast nation. Is that so serious [compared with] ... [o]ur own misfortune, as Jews from the Arab countries? And today there are 1,300,000 of us, i.e., half the population of Israel."
The Mormons migrated to one place in the US that became the State of Utah.
More basically African Americans migrated from the South and its cruel Jim Crow conditions, to the North, and the Jews wonder what the difference is between black people migrating to freedom in the North, and them migrating to Palestine.
The day after Israel's creation, the Arab world declared war, violating the UN partition and all international peace and human rights laws, and warning the Jews that "if they dared to attempt to create a Zionist entity on a single inch of Arab land, the Arabs would drown them in their own blood," and the Middle East would witness horrors "compared to which the atrocities of the Mongol conquests would pale into insignificance." This to the Jews, three years after the end of the Holocaust-- well, what would you have thought if you had been the Jews?
And this was not a war to return Arab refugees, because there were no refugees, and was sworn to massacre them all, at least from the Jews' sensitive point of view right after the Holocaust. And the Jews wonder how the Arabs would have acted if it had been the Arabs who had just lost 1/3 of their population through systematic murder.
Amos Oz notes that the 1948 Arab war against partition was not so much between armies as between populations, though of course still most were noncombatants. But what were the Jews to do? They had been frightened by their treatment for 50 years, by massacre and conflict. Again, potential civil war or more massacre could have come from a huge combatant hateful population in their midst and in league with the outside. Just 5 years before was in the Nazi period and the Mufti of Jerusalem Husseini had gotten a plan approved by Hitler that if they had won he could wipe them all out in Palestine the same way as was done and almost succeeded in Germany, and the plans were already drawn up in some detail for the Gas Chambers, to be located near Ramallah. Nazi henchmen were finding post-war refuge in Cairo, Baghdad, Damascus. From the Jewish view, why should they let the population back immediately, when their first priority was their fundamental human right to survive? Amos Oz called Israel one big refugee camp.
Israel started the 1967 war-- Israel fired first -- preemptively destroying the Egyptian air force. But Arab rhetoric had been again at a boiling point, there had been years of border shellings of civilian villages and terrorist incursions in violation of human rights and international law, and Egypt's Nasser had blocked the Straits of Tiran in the Persian Gulf from Israeli shipping against international law, and Israel was again continuously threatened with destruction.
Most Jews thought Israel would be destroyed by the 1967 war. Many liberal Jews were deeply concerned there would be another Holocaust. So again thought Amos Oz. Eli Wiesel went to Israel to be with the Israelis to die with them in the Second Holocaust. The great liberal American Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, was also certain of the imminent mass slaughter and destruction. Almost no serious Jewish figure thought it was a bluff.
And then came the counterpoint -- the relief, exhilaration, understandable ecstasy, at Israel's daring preemptive victory.
The Jewish account is that Israel immediately offered to exchange all these lands for peace. And Arab leaders met and offered their three famous No's-- No to recognition of this United Nations state, no to peace, no even to negotiation. From the Israeli view, how could they immediately give back the land with the further contempt and close shave with total destruction?
And now the tragic conflict takes its present form.
What they should have done is temporarily kept only their Army in the recently taken land for defensive purposes until eventually there was peace. But unfortunately so close to their heritage they were like kids in a candy store. They began to settle it. And here the liberal secular Zionists, whose account I've tried to give here of their motives and excuses, run out of motives and excuses. They stop trying anymore. As the years went on, less and less did the Palestinian occupation victims have anything to do with or even remember the events of the Hitler regime and Holocaust, or the 50 years of strife in the British Mandate, or the 1948 Arab War. They have simply been living -- and often even born later than these events -- and suffering under a bitter and hopeless and humiliating and harsh Israeli occupation, and occupation by a country that now seemed to claim all their ancestral land, even down to the last 20% of it.
In any event, from the Jewish point of view, this change in the population of the future Israeli part of Palestine from a 95% Palestinian population to 80% Jewish is not the *simple* one that "foreigners came and kicked us off our land."
*But* because it is more complicated, does not make it the right one.
From the point of view of any Palestinian farmer or businessperson or householder or intellectual, why wouldn't the simple version be the right one--however much the simple version is intellectually and historically elaborated? After all, if the Zionist movement to Palestine had not happened, in a nutshell, there would be no Palestinian-Jewish conflict in Palestine, and the Palestinians would be peaceably enjoying their whole country, all of Palestine, the whole of it, from the Mediterranean coast to the Jordan River, and no Jews and no one else one would be condemning the Palestinians but just letting them enjoy the whole of their old historical land in pleasant and deep peace and quiet.
So --we are "stuck" in the present.
Everyone knows that the last century in that small area is endlessly controversial.
Both sides have cases, both have grievances. In the meantime, the innocent individuals caught up in the mess desire nothing more than to live and be with their families in relative happiness.
And just as two peoples have to co-exist in one land, the West has to understand that many perspectives have to co-exist about one land, which, for purposes here, in the context of what the west did to the Jews, and the Palestinians'. Both perspectives make sense. And this should be simple enough for sophisticated western post-modernists to be able to understand.
Is there comprehensively absolute justice, any more than an absolutely valid narrative? Madeleine L'Engle, in "Glimpses of Grace," says:
Cursing is a boomerang. If I will evil towards someone else, that evil becomes visible in me. It is an extreme way of being forensic, toward myself, as well as toward whoever outrages me. To avoid contaminating myself and everybody around me, I must work through the anger and the hurt feelings and the demands for absolute justice to a desire for healing.
Postscript on Qana:
If the US had fostered a cease-fire two weeks ago there would be 450-650 innocent Lebanese who are now alive rather than dead, such as the innocent children of Qana.
Israel needs to get out of denial and review its basic situation. There are Palestinian refugees in Lebanon as much as the West Bank and Gaza; Israel occupied much of Lebanon 1982-2000 just as it occupied Gaza 1967-2005 and still occupies the West Bank; and the refugees and occupation of Lebanon produced the anger and resistance organizations there just as elsewhere.
Suppose in 1948 it had instead been the Lebanese and Palestinians who partitioned Israel, drove 3/4 of the Israelis out, took over much of Israel, still occupied some of the remnant, and sporadically (in 1982-2000 and
1967-2006) had occupied many of the leftovers. Suppose also it had insteadbeen Lebanon and Palestine which had sent 450,000 settlers into Israel, occupied Israel 1982-2000, and this summer had bombed much of Tel Aviv and West Jerusalem into rubble and left hundreds of innocent Israeli children and other civilians dead.
Most Lebanese and Palestinians believe what Israel has done to Lebanon and Palestine to be one issue and not two.
Israel needs tough love. It went into the neighborhood, endangered others, and once again itself is in danger. It needs a truce without conditions, to get out of denial and then out of the territories, and to accept the Arab League peace plan before Abdullah and Mubarak are replaced by Jordianian and Egyptian Ahmadinejads who lead an integrated invasion and a Third Intifida and by then it is tragically long too late.
Articles may be quoted or republished in full with attribution
to the author and harvardsquarecommentary.org.