Monday, May 4, 2015

Palestine and Israel, 10 Points to Remember

Religious belief leads to bad policy, but remembering when we were slaves in Egypt might work

I've blogged about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict 38 times during the past six years* and I keep repeating (I think, I hope) pretty much the same fundamental points. Particularly these:

1. It is unproductive to insist that Hamas has to stop firing largely ineffectual rockets or drop its propagandistic opposition to the existence of Israel before real peace and justice are achieved. To get to such a state, Israel must negotiate with enemies.

Further, it is not merely unproductive, but fundamentally unethical to argue that Hamas' feeble rocket attacks on Israel somehow justify Israel's lethally disproportionate attacks on Gaza, which cause thousands of civilian casualties.

2. The record of the last 65 years suggests that Israel's survival cannot be secured by force of arms unless the Israeli government intends to annihilate the Palestinians. This, of course, would completely destroy the moral integrity of the Jewish faith (even though Israel and Judaism are not at all the same thing).

3. Other than continuing upheaval, which creates mortal danger for themselves, or complete surrender (and, barring an improbable, nearly universal, non-violent, sit-down strike in both Palestine and Israel), Palestinians are not in a position to lead the way. It is Israel, the occupying force in possession of a nearly absolute monopoly on power, that must move the furthest, must make the most changes and the frankest confessions, before peace and justice and real security come into being.

But until Israel decides to change, to transform itself dramatically, in the interests of true safety and security for Israelis, the best thing Palestinians can do is to be ungovernable.

4. It makes no sense to blame the Palestinians for "never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity" for peace (or a Palestinian state, or whatever). No true peace can be achieved that doesn't include an acknowledgement that many Palestinians living in the West Bank or Gaza today were pushed out of their homes or off their land in Haifa, or Jaffa or elsewhere, as part of the process that created the Israel we know today. Acknowledging such a fact doesn't create an insurmountable barrier out of a "right of return." It creates a basis for negotiation, and compensation, and a removal of some of the settlements to which many Israelis are understandably attached.

A stable peace will require that Palestinians get a state with borders as contiguous as possible, a state with borders guaranteed and secured by something other than overwhelming Israeli force, a state which shares equally in the regions resources (like water and arable land and efficient and unobstructed access to the region's transportation resources).

5. The claim that Israel acts only in self-defense deceives no one, except perhaps Jews in Israel and around the world who would like to believe it. Given the absolute certainty that noncombatants will die, bombing Gaza isn’t self-defense. It is assault on a civilian population. It does not make Israelis safer. It creates more enemies, more enemy combatants, perhaps more suicide bombers.

6. Palestinians must acknowledge that Israeli Jews are justified in their fear for themselves. The perception of Arab hostility to Israel's survival is rooted in reality. But it does not make much sense to compare Israeli fear to the status of Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories. By every measure of suffering—combatants killed, innocents killed, homes demolished, families separated, family members imprisoned, jobs and businesses lost—the consequences for Palestinians are intense, pervasive and unrelenting.

But Israeli suffering is also real. The psychological and physiological damage Israelis suffer from tensions and explosions and hostility and deaths and and military call-ups and jobs lost and sleep interrupted shortens lives and causes illness.

As it becomes clearer and clearer that the cycle is both self-replicating and intensifying, Israelis (and American Jews) must begin to recognize that ending the cycle will take a complete reassessment and positive moves by Israel. When that reassessment comes, full Israeli recognition of Palestinian grievances will be a huge step toward peace.

7. Palestinians living in Israel will need more than de jure guarantees of equality, they will need de facto equality. A Jewish state that legalizes a “right of return” for Jews who never lived there and refuses to acknowledge a right of return for Palestinians who lost homes and property must stop privileging Jews at the expense of Palestinians. How long it will take to get there is a wide-open question, but it will be very, very hard. It will require that at some point Israel cease to be a "Jewish" state and become a more inclusive democracy. When that point is finally reached (100 years, maybe? 200? never?), Israel and Palestine might find themselves a single state, a true light unto the world.

8. The biblical story of the Exodus undergirds the argument in favor of the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine.

One summary phrase from the Passover service expresses the hope that the seder will be held "next year in Jerusalem." Indeed, these last many years a good number of seders have been held at various locations in Jerusalem (one wonders how the phrase is turned when the seder is, in fact, in Jerusalem).

Stories that Jews tell each other for religious reasons, during ritual meals and otherwise, are not a good basis for making policy. Establishing a theocratic state on land occupied by others based on a history of events that didn't actually happen was, and is, an undemocratic and unethical way to proceed. (More on this in my essay "Monotheism and the Accidental God.")

9. All the available archaeological and documentary evidence places the development of Jewish states in the area somewhere between 1500 and 1200 BCE. These states, Israel and Judah, were descended from hill tribesmen who may have called themselves Ibaru (Hebrew) and who, over time, exerted increasing political control over the relatively barren highlands in the area of present-day Jerusalem. The northern state of Israel, larger, more prosperous and more cosmopolitan than Judah, was smashed by Assyrian conquerors around 800 BCE.

After the disappearance of Israel, scribes in Judah, in the service of a likely real-life Judean king by the name of Josiah, wrote what would become the Book of Kings, a story attributing the destruction of Israel to the failure of the Jews there to properly honor Jehovah, a particularly intolerant and demanding god who found himself unable to abide the proximity of other gods.

Telling a story about how the northern state of Israel broke faith with Jehovah, with the added implication that Judah had kept faith, made for good propaganda [at the time].

As it happens, Biblical accounts of such things still make good propaganda.  Almost 3,500 actual years after the supposed events of the Exodus, the justification for the establishment of Israel and its maintenance as a Jewish (theocratic) state is frequently based on the notion that the Jews were promised the land of Canaan.

10. Yes, Jews have lived in the area a good, long time. But their presence there was as a small minority (sometimes only a few hundred families) among a much larger and diverse population, who also regarded the area as their own ancestral homeland. The historical presence of Jews in the Middle East is a legitimate basis for a "right of return" for Jews in much the same way that history justifies a right of return for American Indians and Armenians and Tibetans and Palestinians. But it does not justify the establishment of a state that privileges Jews on land most recently occupied by Palestinians.

Passover seders should be reminders that "next year in Jerusalem" has arrived, and some of us are celebrating religious feasts on land and in homes taken from Palestinians by force. We are also commanded to "remember that we were slaves in Egypt.” However legendary the memory that we Jews were once enslaved and oppressed by a mighty and pitiless enemy, it ought to expand our understanding of "never again."

*No one should read them all, but what would be the point of maintaining my own blog and not linking to myself once in a while?