I was brought up Jewish. As a child I went to temple regularly, went to Sunday school (It was a Reform temple, so we had Sunday school–and I’m sure some people will say that’s where I started going wrong!), was confirmed at 16–declined Bar Mitzvah because I couldn’t, with a straight face, say “Today I am a man!” at the age of thirteen….
As a teenager, I started having radical leanings early. I recently found an essay I wrote at the age of fourteen, in 1962, decrying the emptiness of suburban life in America. lBut still, I saw the kibbutz movement in Israel as a wonderful, living embodiment of utopian democratic socialism, and thrilled to the action in Leon Uris’s Exodus as the brave Jews battled the dastardly British and the ignorant Arabs to establish a homeland where they could create their dreams and live in peace.
But a doubt started eating at my unquestioning support of Israeli policy, a doubt that sprang from a seed at the heart of Judaism. One of the most highly regarded Jewish scholars of all time, Moses Maimonides, was asked, somewhat in jest (because we Jews are known for our loquaciousness) if he could tell somebody the essence of Judaism while standing on one foot. The great Maimonides took his foot off the ground long enough to say “Treat other people the way you would like them to treat you.”
The more I have learned about the Palestinians, the more I have sighed and cried about my fellow Jews. I cannot reconcile the way the ostensibly Jewish state of Israel has treated the Palestinians–from the getgo, from before Israeli independence. There has always been arrogance, insensitivity, and a sense of entitlement. “We’re coming back for our promised land, so move along, now.”
The situation is full of ironies. First of all, we have to understand who” the Palestinians” really are: they are the descendants of the original Jews of the Bible. It’s true that many Jews left after the various unsuccessful revolts against the Romans, spreading Jewish practice and communities from England to India. But many Jews, probably the poorer, peasant ones, also stayed in Palestine, and were there when Mohammed’s armies swept out of the desert and made Islam the preferred religion. By a process of what you could call spiritual osmosis, many of those who had been Jews became Muslims, just as the Buddhist populations of Afghanistan Pakistan, and central Asia became Muslim under similar circumstances.
Jews spread out from Palestine after the rebellions of the first and second centuries,. but apparently not very many reproduced. DNA studies reveal that most European Jews seem to have descended from just four “women of Middle Eastern descent” who arrived in southern France around that time.
Then, there is the case of the Russian Jews, most of whom have no genetic tie to Palestine. They came to their religion when the Khazar kingdom of southern Russia officially converted to Judaism around the year 800 CE. Of course, this was not accomplished without some input, doubtless genetic as well as spiritual, from originally Palestinian Jews who settled in the ports of the Black Sea as Roman and Byzantine influence had penetrated in that direction and Palestine had become not such a good neighborhood–”too much gangs and violence,” as we might say now.
The irony starts to thicken when we look at one of the central issues that hangs up Israeli-Palestinian negotiations–the “right of return” that the Palestinians insist on, the right to return to the areas their (by now) grandparents were forced out of in the struggles of the late forties and fifties. This, of course, would produce a state with a non-Jewish majority and so is consistently and understandably rejected by the Jews, who nevertheless insist upon their “right of return” after an absence of a mere eighteen hundred years (or, in the case of Russian Jewry, no historical presence whatsoever).
Then there’s the inter linked questions of imperialism, racism, and sustainability. I had long criticized the goat- and sheep-herding practices practiced by native Palestinians (and everybody else in the Mediterranian basin)as the major cause of the erosion and desertification of the Mediterranian basin, but after reading my fellow Jew Starhawk’s reporting on Palestinian culture, I began to understand that what we were looking at was a native, land-based, long term culture (the Palestinians) that, by itself, could be tweaked into sustainability–except that it has been overwhelmed by a very westernized, economically-oriented society that has no deep roots and apparently no sense that it is responsible for the long-term welfare of the whole planet and not just a small circle of friends and relatives. Yet, at the same time, Jewish culture is very vital and precious and nourishing to those who live in it. What does anybody, ultimately, really want besides a sustainable, deeply rooted culture? Even if you are too alienated to know what you really want, which most of us are, to some extent, that’s the only thing that will satisfy you.
But I digress…what we have, historically speaking, in Israel/Palestine, is a trickle of Europeans turning into a flood and overwhelming native resistance, not unlike what happened here in America, or what the Chinese have done to smaller cultures on the fringe of their homeland. In the case of the Jews’ entry into Palestine, we were encouraged, first by our own history and mythology, and then by the sympathy of a world horrified by the genocide of the Jews of Europe in the thirties and forties.
That awful crime certainly demanded redress and restitution…but why did it have to come at the expensive of the Palestinian people, whose plight increasingly resembles that of the Jews of Nazi-occupied Europe? What difference is there, really, between Gaza and the Warsaw Ghetto? What is the point, and what is the result, of allowing more and more Jewish settlements in supposedly Palestinian territories, of checkpoints and travel restrictions, arbitrary arrests and detainments, “targeted” assassinations that take out dozens of bystanders and maybe the object of the murder? Is it because somehow guaranteeing Lebensraum for the Jewish people is a holier cause than guaranteeing Lebensraum for the German people?
No, the Palestinian response to the oppression inflicted on them by the Jews has not been morally perfect, but neither was the establishment of Israel. When Menachem Begin became prime minister of Israel, it was conveniently forgotten that his methods of operation had been described by Albert Einstein and many other leading lights of the late forties as
closely akin in its organization, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties, (inaugurating) a reign of terror in the Palestine Jewish community
…as well as the Palestine Arab community, where they committed at least one major massacre of innocent civilians.
So, the Palestinians protest their oppression with suicide bombers and rinky-dink rocket attacks. But who faults the Jews of Warsaw for the pinpricks they inflicted on their Nazi tormentors? And let us not forget that part of the “crime” for which Jesus was crucified was his attempt to throw the money changers of out of the temple. It was a small act of insurrection, but it was enough of an excuse for the Romans to take action. Like the modern-day Jews, The Romans had superior firepower and an unswerving conviction that they were doing the right thing. Jesus was a Palestinian; today, instead of one special representative being singled out for torture and slow death, we have the painful prospect of millions of people herded into a small area that then serves as a shooting gallery for another group of people. If this is still treating others the way we would like to be treated, the Jews of Israel are setting themselves up for a lot of pain.
So, what’s a “Green” solution to this mess, this clash of opposing forces with different, mutually exclusive agendas for the same small piece of turf?
This is not a problem that can be solved merely by agreements among leaders, any more than civil rights in the US was “solved” by the Supreme Court. The solution to this conflict will start with an agreement between leaders, but it will then need to be solved by millions of people listening to each other and talking with each other in small groups where everyone can be heard. Reconciliation is not abstract. It is intensely personal. We need to put an end to the cycle of vengeance. We have to initiate a new cycle of agreement , mutual consideration, and mutual aid, and we need to set an example here in the US first.
This is not an easy task, and the downward momentum of this conflict, which has been going on in one form or another since modern humans spread out of Africa and encountered Neanderthals in the Eastern Mediterranian, may be impossible to overcome. If that is the case, then the prognosis for this planet and its people is grim. If the Israel-Palestine conflict continues to be a black hole, it will drag us all in, and that, along with the the climate change we have been too busy fighting to avert or prepare for, will be the end of our aspirations for a peaceful, sustainable future.
“Treat other people the way you wish to be treated.” If we allow the Palestinian crucifixion to continue, can our own crucifixion be long in coming?
music: Steve Earle, “Jerusalem“