This Holy Land is My Land

As a freelancer, I like to think that I can write about anything.  And yet, I somehow have a problem writing about Israel.

It’s not because I have a dog in the fight.  It’s because I don’t.  I too easily see both sides of the issue and sympathize with them, and that makes it awfully hard to take a stand in one direction or the other.  And if you don’t have a strong point of view, what’s the point of opening your mouth?

Except that I suspect most Americans—nay, most citizens of the world—also see the nuances in a contest that has brewed for several thousand years, and have likewise made the decision to keep their views to themselves.

The result, as with so much else, is a debate that has existed mostly at the extremes—namely, between those who think Israel is always and forever morally in the right, and those who think the opposite.

And in the rare moment when someone does introduce complexity into the mix—say, when Secretary of State John Kerry makes the obviously true statement, “Today’s status quo absolutely […] cannot be maintained”—that person is roundly condemned as a stooge for either the pro-Israel or pro-Palestine lobby and, for good measure, tarred as anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, or any other undesirable that would effectively disqualify him from the discussion.  (President Obama is regularly called all of those things at once.)

Further—and here is the main cause of my reticence to engage—once one does attempt to take a long and wide view of the clash between Israelis and Palestinians—or, if you prefer, between Jews and Muslims—one cannot help but be overcome with a sense of Sisyphean futility.  Here seemingly is a conflict that, almost by design, can never be solved.  It just keeps going around and around, accumulating fresh hatreds and injustices (and corpses) with each turn.

Certainly, the present battle in Gaza between Israel and Hamas is insoluble by definition, since the one condition that each side considers non-negotiable is also the one condition to which the opposing side will never, ever agree.  Namely, Israel’s demand to be formally recognized and Hamas’s demand that Israel cease to exist.  Since Israel isn’t going anywhere and Hamas is not about to alter its charter, this particular skirmish can only be resolved through the disempowerment of Hamas, a group that, while designated a terrorist organization by five countries (including the U.S.) and the European Union, is a democratically-elected body.

And that only concerns the events of the past three weeks.  Even if Hamas disbanded tomorrow, we’d still have a few thousand years of unfinished business to tend to.

On the $64,000 question—“How can Israelis and Palestinians coexist peacefully?”—we are met with one of the great paradoxes of the age:  In this challenge, with its bottomless well of complexities, the answer is both simple and obvious.

“The first thing to strike the eye about the Israeli-Palestinian dispute,” the late Israeli diplomat Abba Eban is supposed to have said, “[is] the ease of its solubility.”  With two groups of people credibly laying claim to the same piece of real estate, Eban continued, the only possible course of action is to divide the land equally, with one state for each group, so that everyone will have a place to call “home.”  Easy peasy.

Why didn’t this happen, say, 50 years ago?  Why, despite the world’s best efforts, has it continued not to happen in all the time since?  Why does it appear so unlikely to happen today or, indeed, ever?

It is always around this point in the conversation when the blame game begins.  The point at which everything is reduced to “It’s the Jews’ fault” or “It’s the Arabs’ fault.”  And of course, both of those statements are true.

It is true, for instance, that several former Palestinian leaders have passed up perfectly reasonable and mutually beneficial peace deals, essentially out of a mixture of spite and stubbornness about the “Israel’s right to exist” canard.

It is also true, for instance, that the Israeli government has spent the last many years building up and expanding its occupation of the West Bank—against constant protests from all corners of the globe—for no practical purpose except to poke its critics in the eye at precisely the moment when it ought to be shoring up goodwill and trust from both within and without.

We could go on like this all night, deeding yet another generation a lifetime of existing in a state of hatred and perpetual insecurity.  (Amidst the present carnage, it is encouraging to see the occasional appearance of ordinary Israelis and Palestinians who are sick of the whole thing, and who actually do coexist peacefully.)

We could also note (possibly in vain) the clear culpability of religion itself in the matter—a force that leads one to view a common land dispute not merely as a legal or culture issue, but as a matter of divine imperative.  After all, once you think you have God’s permission to seize and control a chunk of property from now until the end of time, why should some paltry earthly law get in your way?

We could sit back and allow the squabble to play itself out, hoping that, as in places like Northern Ireland and Yugoslavia, the two parties will essentially exhaust themselves into a reconciliation.  In the meanwhile, we Americans could wash our hands and breathe easy at the fact that it is not, finally, our problem to solve.

And, in any case, we can look forward to the glorious day when the stars perfectly align, and both sides of the dispute realize that sometimes human life is more valuable than land, and perhaps even more valuable than justice.

Will that day ever come?  It sure would be nice to think so.

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