From the Editor

John Turner

A reader has requested that I state my own opinion about what has become the central focus of this magazine, that is, the Arab-Israeli conflict. I've been reluctant to do it because it is an intensely emotional topic, and therefore to say anything balanced about it is a ticklish matter. But, since I've been asked, here goes.

First, I wish the Arab-Israeli conflict were not the central focus of the Harvard Square Commentary. This is not to say that it's not an important issue. Clearly it is. But there are other important issues also. The development of militarism around the world, the human impact on our natural environment, the inequality of wealth and poverty, the difficulties and problems of education, the interaction of religion and politics, the health of democracy in the United States, the nature of popular culture are all issues I wish would receive more of our attention than they do. However, I am not in a position to be a dictatorial editor. The people who write for us write about what interests and moves them. And I don't censor anybody unless what he or she writes becomes an insane rant.

As for my stance on the Arab-Israeli conflict I say first that I refuse to get involved in moralizing. When two populations have been doing horrible things to one another for many years, to say that one of them is more horrible than the other strikes me as being like counting the angels prancing on a pinhead. And the attempt to resolve the conflict by establishing, once and for all, who is right and who is wrong, I regard as the pinhead solution.

Now, having made all my friends mad at me, let me say a few other things.

Israel's situation in the world is a product of events that began in the 1880s AD and not in 1800 BC when Abraham is reputed to have decided to move his flocks in a southwesterly direction. Whatever happened when David met Goliath in the valley of Elah in 1020 BC (or thereabouts) should have nothing to do with how people live in the land of Palestine today. I understand that myth does intrude into history, sometimes in heartening ways  and sometimes destructively. But to argue that Israel can base itself on events that took place more than a millennium and a half ago impresses me as being not only destructive, but fanatical.

The state of Israel came into being as the result of two complex and hideous world wars. Anyone who wants to know how Israel was established should study the impact of those wars on the Middle Eastern region. It is a fascinating story.  But the outcome of the story is that the state of Israel exists among huge populations that believe it should not have come into being. One of the problems of that region now (but certainly not the only one) is to decide what to do about that existence.

My stance on the basic solution is clear (in my own mind, at least). Israel should continue to exist, not because it is an outpost of democracy in an undemocratic region, not because it is bringing the so-called blessings of modernity to a backward people, not because God wants to have a Jewish state in Palestine so he can hurry along his little plan for the ending of humanity, and not even because Jews around the world need a place to go if things get unpleasant where they are (everybody needs that and the solution to the need is not to establish havens for particular brands of people). Rather, Israel should continue to exist because there are millions of people within its borders who need to live  in decent, humane and secure conditions. Most of them call themselves Jews. About a fifth call themselves Palestinians. As far as I'm concerned,  that's secondary to the ability of  all of them to get up in the morning, love their companions, enjoy their breakfasts, and look forward to a beckoning day.

You might say they could do that even if there were no state of Israel, and I would reply that it is not  likely, given where the region finds itself at the moment. For the people in greater Palestine  to pursue their happiness without the state of Israel would require an intervening period of immense bloodshed. And, I'm against bloodshed.

What I want for people in Israel is what I want for people everywhere, that they should live with as little political interference and as little economic oppression as possible. That, for me, is a just social order.  I'm not concerned with promoting mythological, religious or nationalistic grandeur.

It doesn't seem to be the case that the two peoples claiming the land of Palestine can work out their differences without assistance from others. The hatred between them has become too venomous. There are members from each side who are trying to reach an equitable solution. I applaud them as the most courageous people in Palestine. But they have been overwhelmed by the haters and fanatics in their midst. So, outside help is needed.

The United States should take the lead in organizing that help, but should not expect to dictate either its nature or its outcome. It's obvious that the leaders of Israel and the Palestinians should be negotiating with one another all the time, under auspices established by an international forum. Refusal to participate in those talks because fanatics do things designed to undermine them is childish.

I don't know what the outcome of continued and successful talks might be. I suspect it will resemble  the solutions that have been offered up till now -- two states in the land with definite borders drawn between them.

Establishing those borders and defending them will be the big problems. There are many people on both sides who do not want borders but who want what they call victory, which is the elimination of the other people from the land. If they are allowed to drive and control the majorities who want peace and security, there will be no settlement. The conflict will go forward for decades, with much loss of life and property on both sides. That's what the fanatics on both sides want. They have become addicted to their hatred and their desire for revenge, and can think of no purpose in life greater than satisfying their murderous passions. And, there's nothing to guarantee that the conflict won't go on indefinitely. Humanity has had century long wars before and this one may add to the number.

One thing is certain. If the war continues endlessly, Israel will be less and less the country it has said in the past it wishes to be. A perpetual warfare state cannot be a liberal democracy.

I doubt the borders can be made secure by the two countries involved. The temptation on both sides to overreact to fanatical attacks is too great. International help will be needed in keeping the borders firm. I wish it weren't so.  But events of the past sixty years tell me it is. I'm aware of the difficulty of establishing an international border-keeping operation. But I think it should be tried. Both sides will say it is interfering with their sovereignty, which is true. But people who don't want it should say what the alternative is.

The Palestinian people right now are not in a situation in which they can rationally voice their own desires. They need help in reaching that condition, and that help will have to include a lot of money. There are those who say people shouldn't be bribed not to be terrorists. But I say I would rather spend money, for any purpose, than to spend blood and lives.

The Israelis do have the ability to choose what they will do, and the basic choices confronting them are whether they want to rely primarily on negotiations aimed at reducing violence or on military reaction to fanatical attacks. There will, of course, continue to be some of both.  But the serious question is which one will dominate. Reliance on military force can work for a time and to some degree. But if that's the choice the Israelis make they should do it knowing that it will rapidly transform them into the leading pariah nation on earth. It's not a condition I would want for myself, my children, or my country. But, it's their decision not mine.

The problem in greater Palestine is violence and killing -- killing by whomever for whatever reason. If the  killing could be reduced to infrequent and limited outbreaks of fanaticism, the existing hatred could gradually subside to mere dislike and contempt. That's the best I can imagine for the region over the next twenty or thirty years. After that, there might be small steps towards grudging respect, and then, later, who knows? Maybe even friendliness. But that's for later generations. Right now the job is to reduce the killing to the lowest levels possible by any devices anyone can think up.

I know there are innumerable objections and exceptions to what I've said here. I might even agree with some of them. But recall, I set out not to be definitive but to sketch my stance on the Arab-Israeli conflict. This is about as well as I can do in a short essay.

Send me your thoughts.

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Harvard Square Commentary, February 12, 2007