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MIDDLE EAST CONUNDRUM:
Gonna Still Be Quoting Emerson When They Lock Me Up
Israel has gradually found itself morphing into a dark caricature of its original idea of itself, foredoomed by its displacement and exclusion of anyone “not us”: a tragedy for everyone concerned.
(Israel/Palestine, May 2010)—When I first came to Israel from New York nearly half a century ago, a youngster in search of my “Jewish roots,” the scariest thing to deal with here was the occasional hot war with the neighbors. But teenagers think they are immortal, so it seemed like no big deal, apart from all the guys who didn’t come back and their shattered families who would never be the same. The suffering and despair of the folks on the other side were barely even blips on my radar back then.
Today Israel is a much more frightening place, while I am more or less the same person I was when I first got here, except older: still clinging stubbornly to the basic worldview I acquired as a child in the public schools of suburban Westchester County, New York. One person, one vote; equality under the law for all; due process; habeas corpus; no taxation without representation—all that good old revolutionary stuff, however imperfectly implemented. Meanwhile, too many Jews who immigrated here from Western democracies, subsequently traumatized by the seeming intractability of “the situation,” have been pushed or pulled in the Israeli context away from that worldview, toward a hard-edged Jewish supremacist mentality that to me feels—I can’t help it—completely un-American. Few of them, I would guess, stop to ponder how far they have strayed from the pluralist credo they once lived by. Deep down, they must be aware that Israel has gradually found itself morphing into a dark caricature of its original idea of itself, foredoomed by its displacement and exclusion of anyone “not us”: a tragedy for everyone concerned. Mainstream Israelis are clueless, hostile and defensive: Why is everyone picking on us? Circling the wagons and digging in can seem very logical, but it leads nowhere.
Very few Israelis can envision any alternative shared future for Israeli Jews and Palestinians that would not soon swallow up the Jewish collective national-cultural presence in a Palestinian-Muslim-majority country. This poverty of the imagination insures that any and every Palestinian or other Arab expression of a readiness to live together will seem like a trick to seize the mantle of control over the whole enchilada, pure and simple. To Israeli Jews, the other side’s most forthcoming offer (the 2002 Saudi-sponsored Arab peace initiative endorsed by the Arab League in 2007) looks like a Trojan horse, period. We’ll let down our guard and they’ll move in and take over, is what most Israelis seem to expect, and this bitter expectation could easily become self-fulfilling unless there is a transformational course correction. All of that, of course, is only an explanation, not an excuse.
Meantime, after successive Israeli governments have invested huge resources in promoting fractures in Palestinian civil society along religious, political, and ideological fault lines, in a classic but misguided attempt to stay safe by confusing the opposition, the other side is in terrible disarray. It’s a real mess, but at least it’s our shared mess. Or as the mystics say, the problem is also the solution.
When you get to know “them,” you come to realize that war is really stupid because the other folks are just like us in every way that matters.
In the last decades I’ve been privileged to make friends with a goodly number of Palestinians—mostly but not exclusively middle class professionals like me, people with similar interests and enthusiasms . . . and with their children. After a certain amount of ordinary social and vocational interaction with “them,” you come to realize that war is really stupid because the other folks are just like us in every way that matters, while different enough to provide a valuable opportunity for mutual learning and discovery. Even before the walls and the checkpoints, during the years when the barriers were mainly psychological rather than physical, most people here were too afraid to venture into close personal contact with “them” (and vice versa), so they never discovered what they were missing.
* * *
Back in my college years in Manhattan circa 1970, the progressives’ push for “one secular democratic state in all of Palestine” struck me as a cynical strategy dreamed up by “the Arabs” to take back, from the brave pioneering embattled Jews of Israel, the new homeland they’d won for themselves at such great cost. The post-1948 “Arab boycott” of Israel seemed viciously unfair and prejudiced and cruel. How dare they try to steal back what we won fair and square in a good old-fashioned war? Today all that looks very different to me. Astonishingly different.
One state? Two states? Parallel states? The galloping fascism in Israel’s legislature and in its public discourse nowadays; the erosion of civil liberties in Gaza; the prevailing Israeli preference for nation-building by continually importing more of “us” and relentlessly hounding (instead of making common cause with) “them”; rampant corruption in high places on both sides—all this certainly suggests that the road we are on is unsustainable. Today, one secular democratic state for all its citizens sounds quite attractive by comparison to what we have now. And those are only the old ideas; consider the newer ones: Numerous forward-looking blueprints that propose neither one state nor two states, but a more creative third way, are available on the web; for one example among many, see my “Parallel Sovereignty” essay (2002) or a subsequent restatement, “Calling All Semites” (2006). Many other people in different fields have been writing independently about similar proposals as these new paradigms proliferate and are shared around, elaborated and tweaked. Just recently (April 2010) there was an eloquent new call for parallel states in the Christian Science Monitor, by two authors with truly impressive international credentials. A summary of dozens of other creative approaches makes interesting reading, as in this 2008 paper by Howard Cort.
Boycott? As my Palestinian friends in the West Bank and Gaza sink deeper into depression, watching their lives ticking away without the chance to give their kids (never mind themselves) a wholly free and dignified place in the sun, the Palestinian-led BDS movement for boycott, divestment, and sanctions doesn’t look to me like a nefarious “Arab plot” anymore. Now, with international energy behind it, it seems like the last best hope—both for Israelis and for Palestinians. Maybe the BDS campaign will really develop enough heft to counter Israel’s overwhelming military advantage, by upping the economic and social cost of self-defeating supremacist-separatist policies . . . until even total equality for Palestinians might begin to seem like the less scary alternative!
Deciding to endorse BDS was not something I have come to out of hatred for Israel, despite what the talkbacks will say. I live here, after all; I’d like to see this country get a life. Everything else has already been tried, and my friend Sam and his family are still locked up in Al Bireh and my friend Maha and her family are still locked up in Gaza City and I cannot, in good conscience, sit here in my pleasant little village near Jerusalem in silence and play it safe while they and millions of other Palestinians sit in their respective cages. I’m not an ideologue and I can’t say I much like the basic idea of boycotts: they are nonviolent but they run on a kind of negative energy (don’t buy, don’t sell, don’t invest, don’t visit . . . ). On the other hand, the relentless, intensifying dehumanization of people I love and respect would seem to leave me no choice. Inaction is not an option.
Note that the BDS strategy targets, not Israel itself or Israelis as such, but rather Israeli transgressions of international law and the Israeli authorities and institutions that drive those transgressions and the Israeli cultural icons who refrain from denouncing them and the Israeli universities that cooperate with them. As a law-abiding Israeli, I am not in favor of Israel’s (or anyone’s) transgressions of international law and therefore I must not support them with my silence. When I realized that the only thing still keeping me from publicly and prominently endorsing BDS was my fear of punishment (losing friends, losing a job, losing my personal freedom if the BDS activism here is finally, thoroughly, criminalized), I understood that it was time to speak out.
* * *
People I’ve known all my life seem to have forgotten that human rights are either universal or they are meaningless.
As Israel’s dissidents and human rights activists are targeted by the authorities while freedom of thought is likened to treason; as ultra-nationalists dictate the public agenda and ultra-fundamentalist “religious” Jews attack the civil freedoms of ordinary Israelis; as ultra-xenophobic legislators work to eject African and Asian migrants, even their Israeli-born children who might dilute the brand; as new bills are crafted in the Knesset outlawing any Israeli organization that calls on international tribunals to try suspected war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed by Israel’s government or armed forces; as most of my old Anglo friends turn their backs on our shared heritage of pluralism and civil rights, their terror of “the Arabs” blinding them to the reality that, however painful the cost of a paradigm change for Israelis, nonetheless Palestinians are equally entitled to freedom and justice; as people I’ve known all my life seem to have forgotten that human rights are either universal or they are meaningless—I sat down one day and asked myself this question: What happened in the last 40 years that could account for the difference between the way I saw reality in New York in 1970 and the way I see it here, now?
The answer was not long in coming and it is not complicated. This is what happened: Unlike most of my old friends here or abroad, I found ways to get to know ordinary Palestinians personally, face to face: by living among Palestinian folks in Palestinian towns in Israel, first as a community service volunteer on assignment, and more recently as just an ordinary tenant renting an apartment in a Muslim village; by engaging socially with Palestinian friends and neighbors and inviting them to my home and being welcomed into their homes, where I have played with their children and watched TV with them and cooked and baked with them and broken bread with them; by working with Palestinian professionals as equals, in joint Jewish-Palestinian social-change organizations and in Palestinian Arab civic organizations; by exchanging jokes and book reviews and birthday cards with Palestinian friends by email; by informally “adopting” a few forty-something Palestinian friends from the West Bank and Gaza who are the age my biological children would be today if I hadn’t waited so long to have kids; by listening as my Palestinian friends share their hopes and dreams and troubles and aspirations and frustrations. That’s the difference.
I learned soon enough that Palestinians are not the faceless, anonymous, scary “Arabs” I was led to fear in my youth. I know they are not the enemy. I know they are not dispensable. They are us, and we are them. I will go to jail, if necessary, rather than sit here passively while their lives are further blighted and more generations of children are cheated, on both sides. I know that our basic civic, economic and environmental burdens must be shared and that there is no way to shoulder them alone. We will prosper together or we will sink together—not driven by philosophy or ideology, but because nothing else works. The simple, empirical, pragmatic outcome of getting to know the other side personally is that I discovered that I am them and they are me. Now I know. That’s why the old-fashioned approach—Rule by Testosterone—just doesn’t make sense any more. It can’t take us to a secure shared future for All Our Children, because the admission tickets to that future are sold only in pairs: us and them, together. Emerson knew. He said: The only way to have a friend is to be one.
Deb Reich (email@example.com) is a writer and translator in Israel/Palestine.
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This story was published on May 18, 2010.