Along with many others, I've been forced to think a lot these days about Israel and Palestine, which are and always will be permanent neighbors. Occupation, terrorism and war tend to get one thinking. Especially as an American Jew, a progressive, a human being, I do so with a very heavy heart. Both sides and their supporters are responsible, even if not equally so, and both sides and their supporters are acting irresponsibly. The death and destruction on both sides remind me why we so desperately need a comprehensive peace agreement after a truce.
Palestine is now a non-member observer state at the United Nations. Palestine will continue to be recognized as a state and will, at some point, have its independence. This is inevitable.
Israel and Palestine both have legitimate concerns (e.g., independence, safety, justice) but have been using illegitimate methods (e.g., dehumanizing and demonizing the other, violence against civilians, collective punishments). So while I strenuously oppose the violent and brutal methods of both sides, I'm entirely sympathetic to the legitimate concerns, fears, grievances, security and, of course, the hopes and aspirations of both sides.
Although people rarely take me up on this offer, I ask people, especially Jews, to imagine themselves as ordinary Palestinians in Palestine, perhaps living and working in Ramallah, and to think about how they would feel. I likewise ask people, especially Muslims, to imagine themselves as ordinary Israelis in Israel, perhaps living and working in Tel Aviv, and to think about how they would feel. Just imagine. I wish more people would.
Violence Is the Past; Peace Is the Future
The people of both countries deserve to live in peace; both sides deserve to have their children grow up safely and happily; both countries deserve to be free and secure; both populations deserve to be active participants in their collective destiny rather than subjugated by their authoritarian power-hungry leaders - while both countries are losing key people due to death, severe disability and brain drain. The status quo is untenable as it means continuing fear, anxiety, suffering, death, misallocation of resources and instability on both sides.
The Israeli occupation and military incursions are illegal and immoral, against the Torah and against international law, not to mention counterproductive. (As terrible as it is, though, it is not a Holocaust or genocide, as some erroneously allege. The Israeli military is physically capable of killing many more than it does, and if it were so inclined would be doing so.)
I believe it's true that Yasser Arafat was corrupt and had been encouraging and facilitating Palestinian violence against civilians (e.g., he referred to suicide bombers as "martyrs," not murderers, employed the word jihad knowing how it was being received and interpreted and at least nominally directed the terrorist Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades associated with his party and faction), although he didn't necessarily have the power or the legitimacy to fully stop it. The vitriolic and virulent anti-Jewish (not just anti-Israeli) speech and actions of many Palestinians, including Palestinian politicians, media and clergy, have frightening, dangerous and deadly consequences. (Cf. www.memri.org for English translations of the Arabic and Muslim media.) Long dead, Arafat at least can no longer be used as an excuse by either side, though the current Palestinian leadership is still problematic.
I believe it's true that Ariel Sharon was a war criminal responsible for a variety of horrible crimes and, instead of being in jail where he belonged with other war criminals, went on a new war path. The vitriolic and virulent anti-Muslim (not just anti-Palestine) speech and actions of some Israelis, including Israeli politicians, media and clergy, have frightening, dangerous and deadly consequences. In a persistent vegetative state since 2006, Sharon at least can no longer be used as an excuse by either side, though the current Israeli leadership is still problematic.
Further, with popular uprisings throughout the Arab world, the killing of Osama bin Laden, the official support for a two-state solution from U.S. President Barack Obama, and a reconciliation pact between the major Palestinian factions Fateh and Hamas, there are fewer excuses for not pursuing peace in the region. In fact, continued occupation and terrorism, with the prospects for war, should provide further impetus for a comprehensive peace agreement. Violence is the past; peace is the future.
Ending the Violence Is Both Sides' Responsibility
According to the detailed policy statement issued by the Boston Study Group on Middle East Peace, entitled Israel and Palestine: Two States for Two Peoples: If Not Now, When?, a two-state peace agreement is "the only realistic prospect for lasting peace and attainable justice for Israelis and Palestinians." It would also deliver multiple benefits:
For Americans, a two-state solution would eliminate one of the grievances that feed radical extremism throughout the Arab and Islamic worlds. ... For Palestinians, obtaining their own state means an end to more than four decades of occupation, acknowledgment of their past suffering, the fulfillment of their national aspirations and an opportunity to shape their own destiny at last. For Israelis, a two-state solution ends the demographic challenge to Israel's character as a Jewish-majority state, removes the stigma of being an occupying power, enables a lasting peace with the entire Arab world and eliminates a critical barrier to full international acceptance.
Too many of the leaders (or misleaders) of Israel and Palestine have been militaristic and murderous. Each side is all too effective at provoking, blaming and demonizing the other. As usual, ordinary people suffer. As historical and religious cousins, in addition to being neighbors and potential partners, Jews and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians, need to find ways to discuss, debate and disagree with, and unfortunately even to hate each other sometimes, without descending to verbal abuse and violent attacks against each other, thereby debasing and demeaning themselves and their religions in attempts to damage or destroy the other. In doing so, they might also find that they sometimes agree with and even like each other. It is worth reflecting on the fact that these peoples and countries will be neighbors forever.
Both sides have been, and currently are, engaging in terrorism, and Israel's is being materially and ideologically supported by the United States (with many billions of dollars in aid and full diplomatic support), while Palestine's is being materially supported primarily by Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar (which provides tens of thousands of dollars to the usually impoverished families of the suicide bombers) and diplomatically and ideologically supported by most of the Muslim countries, which incessantly extol the Palestinian cause and demonize "the Jews" and "the Zionists," largely to distract from their own authoritarian and corrupt systems.
Both sides are committing war crimes, as Amnesty International and other independent organizations have detailed, and other immoral acts of violence against civilian and religious targets. Importantly, both sides are not only inflicting damage on the "Other" but also on themselves. Both sides are killing children - the other side's as well as their own, poisoning their cultures and countries, perverting their histories and futures. Both sides, clearly, are not living up to the ideals of their professed religions and ethics, debasing them instead.
As we should know, the means do not justify the ends; the means create the ends. I sincerely believe that Israel should end the occupation, stop collective punishment and humiliations, dismantle the settlements, remunerate refugees and treat Israeli Arabs (and other minorities within Israel) equally and fairly, which is clearly the just and fair thing to do. This would alleviate many of the problems, but it would not necessarily end all the violence.
Palestine also has responsibilities, most notably the sincere condemning and actual stemming of violence. The other Muslim nations likewise have responsibilities, not least of which should be politically and financially building and developing Palestine rather than verbally attacking Jews and worse. Further, the Palestinian group Hamas, which rules the government in Gaza, wants all of Israel and Palestine to be an Islamic country ruled by strict Islamic (Sharia) law, presumably similar to a Taliban-like, Iranian-type or Saudi-style clerical Fascist dictatorship. This is dangerous and destabilizing, but it doesn't have to be. Terror groups like Hamas are much more likely, historically speaking, to be co-opted than conquered.
Through a Trauma Lens
It should also be noted that even before Israel was a state, during World War II, some top Palestinian leaders sought to ally themselves with Hitler to pursue a final solution against Jews. Their dream/nightmare continues unabated. That said, Israel (and the U.S.) encouraged Hamas, after the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, as a counterweight to the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and its Fateh faction. (During the Oslo negotiations, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated by a right-wing Israeli two years later, called that a "fatal error," while the CIA calls it "blowback," the unintended consequences of an undercover operation that returns with a vengeance.) In any event, all sides need to live up to their highest ideals, rather than their highest phobias, which is also in each of their best interests.
Some have asserted that the issue of Jewish historic suffering is "entirely irrelevant to the present-day circumstances." However, it is relevant and still vitally important because Jews have been singled out, blamed, demonized, maligned, slandered, libeled, threatened, physically attacked, ghettoized, bombed, tortured, killed and mass-murdered for thousands of years, all over the world, continuing into the present and unfortunately very likely into the future, mostly by Christians but also by Muslims. Many Jews who are traditionally liberal and even progressive often are or become right wing around these issues due to the legitimate historical, present and future fears of deep and pervasive anti-Jewish hatred and violence.
For many Jews, with the tragic history of multiple genocides (i.e., enslavement in Egypt, the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and the Nazi Holocaust, in addition to uncountable pogroms, persecutions and military and civilian attacks around the world), and with so relatively few Jews in the world (i.e., only about 15 million in a world of over 7 billion people), any attack against Jews is seen in the context of group survival and continued ethnic existence. Not to mention bullets and bombs, when Palestinians (almost exclusively young men and boys) throw rocks, they are symbolically stoning the "infidels" (i.e., Jews and all other non-Muslims, in addition to gays and lesbians, rape victims though not rapists, women adulterers though not male ones, atheists, those who exercise their free speech in unapproved ways, other non-conformists, et al.), symbolically enacting and exacting the death penalty, thereby playing on the all-too-realistic fears of Jews, secularists, progressives, dissidents, minorities and others. It is in this light - or perhaps shadow, in this case - that many perceive the creation of Israel in May 1948 as an act of "global affirmative action" for the Jewish people in the wake of the Holocaust. To some extent, both Jews and Palestinians suffer from a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, easily affected in painful ways.
Mirrors Instead of Bullets
It is hard for me to fathom why so many people, especially those on the left, consider the suicide/homicide bombings, missiles and other terrorist attacks against civilians understandable (aside from in a social scientific sense, even if not "excusable"), inevitable or the like. Why would it be "inevitable" for Palestinians and not for African-Americans, South Africans under apartheid, Native Americans and other indigenous people, Tibetans, Romani, Basques, Dalit, Kurds, Acehnese, Western Saharans and many other poor, occupied or otherwise oppressed groups of people? Like all others, Palestinians make choices, even if those choices are constrained by their culture and environment, and it is unfair to rob them of their agency. There are always alternatives, as certain people and movements throughout history amply demonstrate.
To my mind, better than rocks and rockets, bullets and bombs, tanks and terror, with more death and destruction, would be for the Palestinians and the Israelis to use mirrors. Yes, mirrors, both literally and figuratively: to see the ugliness within themselves, yet also to reflect the ugliness of others back at themselves. We also need to listen to the concerns and complaints of others, many of which are legitimate. Good and evil run through each of us and we often hate most in others what we hate in ourselves. From these realizations, perhaps, beauty can eventually emerge.
As I have long believed and advocated, the Palestinians would be much more effective against the Israeli injustice of occupation if they engaged in a relentless mass movement of nonviolent civil disobedience (including marching into and around Jerusalem/al-Quds in the hundreds of thousands, among other powerful nonviolent activities) - with or without mirrors. The entire might of the Israeli military, with all its massive U.S. funding and high-tech weaponry, would eventually be virtually powerless against this most potent, peaceful weapon. U.S. and world public opinion, the "second superpower" according to the New York Times, would be more firmly in the Palestinian camp, as would many more Israelis and Diaspora Jews. Furthermore, this would help build Palestinian civil society alongside the fight for a Palestinian state, instead of damaging the successful prospects for both.
Israelis also need to increase their civil disobedience campaign to end the occupation and to reduce the militarization not just of Palestine, but of their own society, ensuring their security through the positive peace of development and justice, as Martin Luther King, Jr. described it, rather than the negative "peace" of militarism, occupation, repression, checkpoints, fences on occupied land and humiliation.
Likewise, Americans in particular, but others as well, need to pressure their government leaders to pursue a just peace. Prior to the latest intifada, and before both Sharon and George W. Bush became leaders in late 2000, there was single-digit support for Hamas among Palestinians, while they now enjoy much larger support. Support for violence is not a given, but it's way too often taken.
Against the Policies, Not the People
Within Palestine, and throughout the Muslim world, one continues to hear the same set of grievances against the U.S. - and it's not against "our freedom" and "our way of life". Instead, it's against U.S. foreign policies: U.S. "one-sided support in favor of Israel and against Palestinian rights" (including well over $100 billion in aid since Israeli independence as well as loan guarantees, advanced weaponry, UN vetoes, moral and political support and other sources of aid), U.S. support for corrupt dictatorships (nearly "every possible anti-democratic government in the Arab-Islamic world," including, of course, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain), the U.S. sanctions regime against and the occupation of Iraq (killing at least a million people combined), and the stationing of U.S. troops near Muslim holy sites (particularly in Saudi Arabia, commencing before the first Gulf War). As the Defense Science Board, a Pentagon advisory panel, wrote in December 2004, "Muslims do not 'hate our freedom', but rather they hate our policies," echoing earlier U.S. government reports from the 1950s on. Various other reports, as well as public polling, continue to reveal the same findings.
As it should be in all circumstances, legitimate grievances need to be listened to, addressed and remedied. Those who seek military victory without addressing both real and perceived social problems offer nothing but "unending war," according to various former heads of Israeli security and military intelligence (e.g., Yaakov Peri, former director of Shin Bet; Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Israela Oron; Maj. Gen. Yehoshafat Harkabi, former chief of Israeli Military Intelligence; Gen. (Ret.) Uri Sagie; Ami Ayalon, former Director of Shin Bet; and Avraham Shalom, former director of Shin Bet; Yuval Diskin, former director of Shin Bet; et al.), among many others. Indeed, five former leaders of the Shin Bet, Israel's top domestic anti-terrorism agency, equivalent to the FBI, who were in charge for terms between 1980 and 2011, have stated that Israel would be more secure if it ended its occupation of the West Bank. Harkabi, for instance, suggested long ago that the "solution to the problem of terrorism is to offer an honorable solution to the Palestinians respecting their right to self-determination." Major General Giora Eiland (Ret.), former head of Israel's National Security Council, "[t]he Israeli government will need to make political compromises in order to reach a security arrangement that will ensure the end of rocket fire from Gaza into Israel." One can assume that these former chiefs and generals are not naïve.
Peace Is with the Enemies, Not Friends
We of course know that even just offers won't persuade clerical extreme fundamentalist groups, such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and al Qaida any more than moral arguments for civil and human rights persuaded the racist KKK in the American South. A major goal, however, is to create macro-, meso- and micro-conditions that undercut their support by reinforcing the conditions that bolster the forces of peace, reconciliation, reconstruction, hope, cooperation, development and prosperity. Fascist groups don't have to become peacemakers to create peaceful co-existence - though we can always hope for miracles! - but they must at least become so marginalized and weak as to become minor players with little and declining influence, like the American KKK.
Tragically, the misleaders have so far been choosing the tactics of force and violence rather than negotiations and diplomacy to try to achieve their illusive ends. These actions support the right-wing hard-liners on both sides, further polarizing and inflaming the situation. While force and violence may rule the moment, causing terrible damage on all sides, ultimately only negotiations and diplomacy will lead to lasting peace, security and prosperity for Israel, Palestine and the region - a choice that could have been made many times before, but was instead ignored, snubbed or cynically manipulated for domestic political purposes by both sides and their "supporters."
Sharon's enforced evacuations of settlements in Gaza in 2005 were the right move for the wrong reasons. While it is not productive toward peace to leave Gaza to more effectively expand settlements in the West Bank - which have much more than doubled since the Oslo agreement - it at least sets the precedent that illegal Israeli settlements can and should be dismantled and that occupied Palestinian land can and should be unoccupied.
It has become increasingly clear through the disastrous U.S. war in Iraq and the Israeli war in Lebanon, as well as the latest flare up between Israel and Gaza, and is explicitly stated in the Baker-Hamilton Commission Report, that there is no military solution to these problems and that a failure of politics leads to further violence and casualties on all sides. There has to be a negotiated settlement. When Rabin was once criticized for negotiating with enemies, those who seek Israel's destruction, he wisely responded that "[w]e make peace with our enemies, not with our friends."
The solution for the basic problem between Israel and Palestine has been known for quite some time: two recognized states, physically secure and economically viable, separated by the (1967) international border with "minor and mutual adjustments," including mutually agreeable, often one-for-one land swaps, and with full diplomatic and economic regional relations, possibly enforced by NATO for some period of time. Most recently, this type of arrangement has been codified in the (as yet nongovernmental and therefore "unofficial" Israeli-Palestinian) Geneva Accord, the Saudi plan (unanimously endorsed by the 22-nation Arab League), and other similar proposals. Worthwhile in its own right, of course, a just peace between Israel and Palestine would also likely lead to greater peace in the entire region and perhaps beyond, likely ushering in region-wide stability and prosperity. As one of our Yiddish proverbs says, even "a bad peace is better than a good war."
It was Mohandas Gandhi who declared that he was a Muslim, a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Christian and also a Jew - "and so are all of you." More than simply being pro-Israel and/or pro-Palestine, or pro-Jewish and/or pro-Muslim, we have to be pro-peace and pro-justice. Polls show that the majority of Israelis and Palestinians are willing to make peace. "We can't wait for peace," said a member of the Parents Circle - Families Forum, a multi-ethnic, multi-religious group comprised of people who lost family members in the struggle between Israel and Palestine. "We have to work for peace." As we have long been saying in movements for social justice, if the people lead, eventually the leaders will follow. We need to lead them to shalom/salaam/pax/peace with justice in Israel, Palestine, the U.S. and beyond.<