Once upon a time a man lived in a good land. His family prospered, and in time, his children and his children’s children filled this good land. They had their own customs, faith, and rhythms of daily life.
But these good times did not last. Eventually many others sought to rob these good people of their land. Various kings and principalities invaded, one after the other.
The people resisted. They fought bravely, but often these foreign invaders divided to conquer. At times these good people found themselves at odds with one another. Eventually the invaders persecuted them. Their very existence as a people seemed threatened. But they had faith, and this faith will be rewarded. Their perseverance led them to outlast the forces of history, and so their history in the modern era begins right where it left off many generations ago.
In a post about the failure of the Treaty of Versailles I discuss my view of the importance of narrative in the field of history, whether we study the past or make “history” in the present. Analytical data or “rational” analysis about costs/benefits in the abstract will lead to wrong perceptions of reality. A narrative view gives us a more full understanding, and when faced with a problem, a much better chance at solutions.
It sounds odd to say that I really enjoyed Padraig O’ Malley’s * The Two State Delusion: Israel and Palestine — A Tale of Two Narratives. O’ Malley has little hope for peace if the “peace process” continues as before, and this gives the book a somber tone. But I enjoyed it because I felt that O’Malley must be onto something by focusing not on particular events, or even security for one side or the other, but on the idea of the narratives both sides bring to the table. One problem the two sides face is the distinct similarity in their narratives. The structure of the story remains relatively same for them both, with different characters.
The story I told above fits both sides of the conflict, and to some extent both sides use the above narrative.
- They gained possession of a good land, grew and prospered, reaching their ancient peak during the reign of Solomon.
- But soon after that, their kingdom fell prey to multiple invasions from the outside, be it Assyrians, Babylonians, or Romans. They had to scatter throughout neighboring lands, but maintained their identity and culture.
- They faced persecution from outsiders, culminating in the almost unimaginable horror of the Holocaust.
- But — their persistence and faith paid off. They returned, forged by suffering, and established themselves securely back in the land of their forefathers.
For the Palestinians . . .
- They dwelt peacefully in the land in small communities for many generations
- But — they fell prey to imperial forces, throughout time. We can date their unjust subjugation in the modern era with their occupation by the Ottoman Turks from the 16th century to W.W. I.
- At the turn of the 20th century they had independence promised them from another imperial power (the British).
- But when it seemed like they might have their land back once again, they were betrayed and occupied (by the British, who sponsored the return of Israeli’s).
- Eventually, a host of foreign powers (the U.N.) imposed another conquering people upon them (the establishment of Israel — whose military might is financed from the west). This new occupier fought a series of wars , scattering them from their homes in a host of illegal land grabs (Israel has routinely violated a varietyU.N. resolution and established settlements in occupied land).
- But — they have faith. Forged by suffering, their common bond to one another remains stronger than ever before. They believe that one day, the land will be theirs once again.
Their narratives remain starkly similar, with the main problem being that:
- For Israel, Palestinians are not often identified as average people, but as the next in a long line of foreign persecutors of Jews (i.e. PLO, Hamas, etc.)
- For Palestinians, Israel is identified as an imperial power along the lines of the Ottomans and the British.
O’Malley rightly hones in on the common thread of the suffering of both sides.
The suffering of the Jewish people hardly needs an explanation. Of course we have the Holocaust, but a lot of lower-level persecution existed before that for centuries throughout Europe.
What may be less obvious to us, and certainly seems less obvious to Israel, is the suffering of the Palestinians. O’Malley asserts, and I agree, that if we could find any kernel to the disastrous relationship between the two, it lays here.
The Palestinian population has suffered greatly indirectly or directly from the presence of Israeli’s. We could measure this in land lost to Israel, or in civilian deaths of Palestinians, which greatly outweigh those of Israeli’s due to terrorist attacks. There also exists what one cannot measure–the wholesale breakup of communities and families due to Israeli occupation and settlements, and the wholesale dismemberment of the Palestinian Church–something Christian supporters of Israel sometimes forget.
The reason why I think it forms the core of the problem is that Israel cannot seem to admit that they have caused these problems. Some of them one could plausibly ascribe to the “fortunes of war” or the “march of time,” but others, like the direct violation of U.N. resolutions to establish settlements, fall directly into their laps. But it appears that the Jews in Israel, who has suffered so much at the hands of others, cannot admit that they themselves cause so much suffering to others.
The Palestinians, for their part, want more than grants of certain territory or water rights, they insist on a repentant, contrite Israel. Having felt impotent and humiliated for so long themselves, they insist that Israel feel the same way. The Palestinians cannot accept half-measures in this regard. For example, Ariel Sharon released a statement along the lines of, “Israel regrets the suffering of the Palestinian people,” that the Palestinians found not just unacceptable, but insulting. They don’t want Israel’s sympathy, they want Israel to admit fault without equivocation. Nor can they see the above statement as a beginning of a process. Rather, for them it represents a slap in the face. “Ha! This is all you get!”
Formal peace negotiations put Israel in a bit of bind, and we must sympathize with their position. Who speaks for Palestinians as a whole? Who can negotiate for them? If none can truly speak for them, then what good is any particular deal? Why bother?
Israel complains that the Palestinians have not been able to absorb refugees and form stable, coherent political organizations. After all, they themselves (that is, the Jewish settler in Israel) started with nothing and have formed a modern first-world state. They absorbed thousands of newcomers and refugees from different countries. They speak truth in this claim. But, as O’Malley points out, why should the Palestinians have to form modern western political organizations? Things moved along nicely for them without such things before Israel arrived, and can continue to do. But it appears that history may overwhelm the Palestinians and force them into an uncomfortable mold, one which will put them at a disadvantage vis a vis Israel.
The relationship between the two has calcified to such an extent that O’Malley recommends that they cease the formal peace process itself, and instead focus on healing their own psychological scars. The peace process has also been initiated not by each other but by various American presidents looking to make their mark. Whatever the cause, O’Malley suggests that now “negotiations” serve as a platform for each side to vent grievances or talk to their respective political bases, and not each other. The peace process serves now to simply enable and confirm their already deeply held beliefs.
In one section of Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis talked about his impatience for how many make moral judgments. “War is a terrible evil!” some cried. “Yes,” Lewis agreed, but times exist when war is more morally justifiable than the current “peace.” Sometimes issues must be considered on a relative scale. He even mentioned dueling. Yes, dueling often involved murder, but he admitted that there might be some instances when even a duel to the death might be preferable to indulging in a lifetime of hatred and bitterness, and passing on that hatred, that would in time destroy one’s soul.
I thought of this section when reading this book. In this scenario both sides have their share of the blame. As purely personal opinion I give a slight majority of blame to the Israeli side. They are the stronger (though they don’t realize this), and they–as a formal nation with coherent leadership–have violated international law on numerous occasions. I distinguish this from Palestinian acts of terror, which I do not believe represent–or at least always represent–the whole of the Palestinian people. So I root for a Palestinian homeland, and feel that surely this cause has justice on its side.
And yet, the current situation destroys both sides, and there appears no end in sight. All O’ Malley can see in is a continuation of deep fear and deep hatred growing — hence the title of his book. A two-state solution simply will not work in the current psychological climate.
So would a “duel” of sorts be a preferable solution? What would that even look like? Should Israel just “get on with it” and exile the Palestinians? This would be cruel, but it would hopefully have the ancillary effect of forcing Palestinians to start over.
On the other hand . . .
Many Palestinians believe they are close to winning. This victory would not be physical in nature, but moral and psychological. Some feel that if Israel goes much further they will completely delegitimize themselves internationally, and rot themselves from within morally. They will then, as an act of atonement, give Palestinians a homeland at least to the 1967 borders.
I do not share this view, but see no other solution that will work in the current environment. The two sides share the same space and tell the same story, but with different characters playing different roles. I would guess that nothing will change until both sides tell themselves a different story.
*It sounds odd for an Irishman to write a definitive book on this subject, but his previous books dealt with Irish/English history and apartheid in South Africa.