Galilee Diary: Peace talk III - Living with history

June 9, 2009

by Marc Rosenstein
(Originally published in
Ten Minutes of Torah and Galilee Diary)

tmt-bug.jpgWho is the mightiest of the mighty? ... Some say: he who is able to turn his enemy into a friend.

-Avot d'Rabbi Nathan version A chapter 23

One of the obstacles to the creation of a political future shared by Jews and Arabs in Israel, as discussed in the last entry, is perhaps the fact that we don't share an understanding of the past. And the fact that the story told by the Other casts doubt on the truth of the story we tell about ourselves consistently makes us so angry that we can't continue the conversation.

We know: We once lived in this land and ruled it as a sovereign kingdom, in which Judaism was the state religion and worship centered in the Temple in the capital city, Jerusalem. Refusing to acquiesce in foreign conquest, first by the Babylonians and later by the Romans, we rebelled; those rebellions were put down with violence, our sovereignty was lost, and most of the people were forced (by the conquerors or by conditions resulting from the conquest) to leave. For two millennia we lived as an often persecuted minority, remembering from generation to generation our "good old days" and longing for a return to the land and restoration of our sovereignty. Modernization did not improve our lot in Europe, and from the beginning of the 20 th century we began to try to return and reclaim our land and re-establish our state. The Holocaust made clear our vulnerability without a state. The world accepted our claim, and the United Nations voted to allow us to establish a state in a portion of our historical domain. The Arabs who had moved in in our absence rejected our claim and the UN decision, and did whatever they could to thwart our efforts, up to and including war. Thus, the only way we could in fact attain - and maintain - sovereignty was through force of arms.

The Arabs know: While the Jews may (or may not, depending on your acceptance of the Bible as history) have once had a sovereign state here, they left of their own accord, while we continued to live here, a life style and a culture rooted in the soil, generation after generation. The Jews who began to immigrate at the turn of the 20 th century did so in the context of European colonialism, believing it was their right to take over the lands of the non-European world for their own benefit. The Jews forced us off our land, having bought the land from absentee landowners. They introduced a foreign culture and made it clear that they wished to create a European-style state run by them. They claimed that the Holocaust somehow gave them the right to claim this land, but we were not responsible for their troubles in Europe and refused to see why they should be compensated at our expense. The world, dominated by Europeans, rejected our right of self determination in our ancestral land, leaving us no option except violence.

This zero sum game is self-perpetuating, for if either side grants any credit to the story of the other side, it gives up its status as helpless, persecuted victim and maybe even the moral justification of its claim to full ownership of the land. A variation on this game is for the Palestinians to insist that the Jews are a religion, not a nationality, thus having no claim to a state; to which the Jews respond that the Palestinians are not an authentic nationality but a 20th century invention, created as a tool against the Jewish state.

There can be no conversation (that is not just simultaneous screaming) until each side is prepared to step up and say, "I admit that to some extent, at least, I am responsible, I perhaps could and should have behaved differently, the situation is more complicated than the story I have kept telling." Of course, why should I say that until I hear the other side say it? Well, maybe that's the only way out. Or maybe that will just lead nowhere - which is, it seems, where we are already.

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