Sitting in Allenby Square in Jerusalem by a monument to the 60th (London) Division which captured the Holy City from the Ottoman Turks in December 1917, my wife, an immigrant to America from Israel, took exception to my latest remark. I was relating what a Palestinian refugee woman from Bethlehem had said to me the day before about the current view by one influential segment of Jews here that this land was given to them by God. “That was thousands of years ago,” the woman from Bethlehem had said, “ I want to live in peace, now!”
“People need to get over ancient history,” I said to my wife as we sat on the bench at the spot where the Arab mayor of Jerusalem raised a white flag and surrendered Jerusalem to the British after seven centuries of Muslim rule, beginning Act One in a drama that still has the world on the edge of its seat exactly a hundred years later.
“Nonsense,” my wife said, “people do not ‘get over’ their history, two thousand years or all the way back to the beginning of present civilization. That’s our karma, it follows us,” and she paused, “unless we finally understand what we are doing.”
For the past month here, “understanding what we are doing” has never been far from my mind as I listened to people from across a spectrum of political and religious viewpoints. The following are a few of the viewpoints I heard.
My aged father-in-law’s caregiver, a pleasant young woman living in an orthodox Jewish community in Hebron, told me that she believes in a “miracle” which will just make all the Palestinians “vanish” from the land which God gave to his people, the Jews.
The owner of a fine restaurant in Ramallah, the West Bank seat of the Palestinian Authority, expressed profound frustration with the failed Oslo Accords of the mid-’90s which were to lead toward a two-state solution, but have resulted in a loss of Palestinian territory to religious Jewish settlements, illegal even by Israeli law.
Furthermore, virtual apartheid conditions in the West Bank have kept outsiders away and nearly bankrupted him, he says.
A 92-year-old veteran of the Palmach, the elite fighters whose courage helped bring about the state of Israel in 1948, said he’s disgusted with the policies of the current ultra right government, his wife adding that things started to go downhill in 1956 (when Israel invaded Egypt during the Suez Crisis).
A young Palestinian woman whom I interviewed in Ramallah who’s studying criminology and sociology in London deplored “the use of any religious ideology to justify actions,” and proposed a one-state solution with three steps: no borders, cease oppression, return refugees home. She called for mutual forgiveness.
The daughter of parents who left England with youthful enthusiasm at the time of statehood said in their old age that if they had known what Israel would turn into, they wouldn’t have given their lives for this idea.
Modern Israel is the kind of country we all want to live in, beautiful, prosperous, with socialized caring of citizens from cradle to grave; except for one thing: the state rests on the military oppression of another group of people, Palestinian Arabs.
A Jewish man who emigrated from the U.S. to Israel, and whose daughter is married to a Palestinian, shared a telling, real-life story. Three religious Jews were going on and on about their grievances and ill-feeling towards Arabs (I heard such talk from both sides during my visit), when an Arab man landed in front of their house in a broken-down car.
What was the first thing they did? Walk over and ask him if they could help.
The refugee woman from Bethlehem is afraid for her son, and so is my sister-in-law for hers. “This hurts women and children most. Men are the problem,” she says making a stabbing motion in the air with her hand, “that’s men,” meaning men on both sides, I gather.
A former Israeli air force navigator showed me on a high resolution map of Gaza the location of a just-discovered tunnel used by the Hamas government of Gaza to bring in weapons from Iran. Every day, hundreds of trucks travel between Gaza and the West Bank, he said.
Clearly, the Palestinian Authority has some responsibility for creating the environment for an acceptable peace.
Revisiting our earlier discussion at the Allenby monument, my wife read me a quote from the obituary of the writer Ursula LeGuin: “If you cannot or will not imagine the results of your actions, there’s no way you can act morally or responsibly.”
Until the Israeli party in power eschews the trap of tribalism and prohibits Jewish settlements in the West Bank, or is replaced in power by liberal thinkers representing the majority desire for peace, there will be no chance of peaceful coexistence between the approximately six million Israelis and the six million Palestinians in the region, only a “baby” competition for uneasy dominance in the future.
John Olin lives in Fishers Ferry.