Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The mystery we call the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and do nations have the right to exist by a divine decree?

A good friend of mine is half Jewish by birth, but has for the last 5-6 years been more aware of her Jewish identity. Recently I received an email from her after she read some of my latest blog postings. I felt that it may be worthwhile to share with you part of her email in blue (with her permission), and my response in red to it.

A major part of the wide gap between pro-peace Israeli and pro-peace Arabs is that despite being united by goal, they hardly understand each other. There is a lot of raw visceral emotions that influence how we feel about the Israeli-Palestinian (IP) conflict on all sides.

Many of these emotions are deeply rooted in history, religion, culture, upbringing and many other unexplainable influences. No matter how we try to understand the 'other', it always seems an incomplete understanding. We can never be in their shoes, not matter how hard we try.

So, here is her email commenting on some of my recent postings on the Israeli operation in Gaza, and how our politicians stood in line to please the pro-Israel crowd. I highlighted parts of the email that are relevant to this posting :
"Don't get me wrong, I completely got the joke and thought it was funny. I also agree with what you said. Some right wingers in this country scare the pants off me with their support of Israel because their line of thinking is that if Israel exists the Messiah will come. It will be the first time for the Jews and the Second Coming for the Christians. Truly a scary way to dream up foreign policy.

My point was that the concept of the Jewish state is so central to the religion of Judaism that it's hard to separate the two. I almost have to work at not being a Zionist. So making light of Israel is blasphemy for a lot of Jews.

But I think it's important to step back from the religious view of the state of Israel and look at ours and Israel's current policies because we live in the here and now and people are dying NOW."
The emphasized sentence is really the part that makes me wonder if a non-Jew can ever put themselves in the shoes of a Jew. That form of empathy is not a luxury. It is impossible to resolve long standing problems if you cannot even imagine yourself in the other person's shoes.

When you are unable to do that, anything harmful to you from the other side will always be attributed to their evil nature, and moral bankruptcy, because you cannot see the emotional pressure leading to that behavior toward you.

And the sentence below would help make my point clear as she states:
"I wish the Palestinians would stop lobbing rockets into Israel though. Hard to argue that Israel doesn't have a right to defend itself."
Our response to this argument is usually "with their land occupied, borders closed off, food in short supply, fuel running out, and nobody willing to listen to Palestinian concerns, what do you want them to do? If you imagine yourself in that position, you may do the same thing you are criticizing them for."

This is EXACTLY the point I was trying to make earlier. You and I, as Arabs or Muslims, will be trying to put our opponents (my poor friend in this case) in a position where they should feel like a Palestinian: occupied, oppressed and besieged. You are asking the other to put themselves in the Palestinians shoes.

My response to my friend puts emphasis on an earlier point in her message: the centrality of Israel and the Land of Palestine to Judaism and Jews. And here is my response:
"To me, it is simply not understandable that any religion would have political and military domination over a piece of land as a central issue of faith. When I talked in the past to a self-admitted 'atheist' Jew who still thinks that he or she is entitled to a piece of land there, it confuses me even more.

On NPR many months ago, an American man was talking fondly about his beautiful and cheap house in a settlement in the West Bank. The funny part was that the man was NOT a Jew till less than a decade before that. And, of course, he did not relinquish his home in the US, or his citizenship by converting to Judaism.

He just became entitled to another piece of land, and another home with no consideration for who was there before he 'decided' to adopt his new religion that came with the rights to someone's else land, and cheap housing.

That should not sound right, feel right, or judged to be right."
I doubt many, if any, of my Muslim or Arab readers would disagree with my statement, or find any logic flaws with it.

But I also know that very few Jews, if any, even amongst the most dovish and peace loving Jews would agree completely with me. They simply cannot see it through my eyes because, for them, it is a matter of faith, emotions, culture and upbringing.

And we, Muslims and Arabs, have to agree these are the same factors that shape our vision of what is right and what is just.

There is, of course, absolute truth and justice no doubt, but only God can be certain what they are. For us, mere mortals, we have to admit that truth and justice are always in the eye of the beholder. So, defending your position from the the angle of 'absolute truth and justice' leads no where.

Practical and pragmatic solutions will have to do, not absolute justice. And, that, as well got expressed by my good friend in her last sentence when she wrote
"But I think it's important to step back from the religious view of the state of Israel and look at ours and Israel's current policies because we live in the here and now and people are dying NOW. "
My final statement was more pointed:
"I do not believe that God gives land to people. Nations are political and historic entities that come and go, and using religion to assume control over a piece of land by some form of 'divine authorization' is not legitimate in my view, and regardless of what religion practices it."
But I also conclude that only practical and realistic solutions are the answer, not absolute positions.
"Israel is a de facto state now, and calling for its destruction is absurd. But so was the call for its creation.
Little can be done about it now, and reversing it is not an option, but that does not make the initial decision any more right or legitimate."
So I do not think Palestinians, or anyone, need to be brain-washed or re-programmed to accept that establishing Israel was legitimate or fair in order to qualify as peace partners. But also, calling for its destruction does not seem like a valid or even legitimate strategy either.

Israel would do itself a great favor if it acknowledges the historic injustices done to the Palestinians by its establishment, and even apologizes for the unimaginable harm it inflicted on Palestinians and neighboring Arabs for decades.

Palestinians and other Arabs, on the other hand, need not to forget what befell them, but need to accept Israel in its June 4 1967 borders, negotiate reasonable compensations and move one.

Anything else will just prolong the agony, and keeps the rivers of blood running.



  1. Hey Khaled,

    I have to fix something fundamental with this post. The concept of a Jewish state ISN'T fundamental to Judaism. Tankah (Jewish Bible) speaks to the Jews as a nation. The concept of nation state which consists of many equal different groups didn't exist yet. There were empires and tribes.

    Zionism and the State of Israel, were founded and led by a bunch of very secular Jews. To them, creating a Jewish state, where Jews could defend themselves as Jews, was a necessity because of the antisemitism in Europe. This wasn't a religious issue. It was a security issue. As for WW2, how can Jews survive in a world where countries were either killing Jews, or refusing to let Jews (fleeing for their lives) in? Creating a place where a Jew is welcomed and protected is not a religious issue.

    As for the settlers in the West Bank, at least those who are obsessed with the soil which they think was promised to them by God, it is a religious issue. This has nothing to do with the Zionism which Israel's founding leaders believed. As an Israeli, I think the settlers are scum. If it was up to me, if any settlers refused to evacuate after a peace deal is struck with the Palestinians which would result in a withdrawal to 67 lines roughly, I would let the settlers die by the hands of the Palestinians. For many Orthodox families, which many are poor, they just want cheap housing.

    As Arabs which have been taught that Zionism is evil, they can't distinguish between the Zionism which the State of Israel was founded on, and "religious Zionism" which the settlers follows.

    I wrote about my first encounter with a Christian Zionist here:

    Oddly, it was on election day. I said something sympathetic about the Palestinians and the woman (the Christian Zionist) questioned if I was Jewish. She started telling me about prophesies in the Bible that say that the Arabs and Russians are going to invade from the north. I just ignored her.

  2. Many Israeli historians such as Benny Morris have acknowledged what Israel did to the Palestinians in their books. I believe Barak offered monetary compensation as part of his peace offer earlier this decade. It might not have been the amount that they truly deserved but it is also important to note that a similar amount of Jews were expelled/fled from Arab/Persian countries out of fear of death and never got any compensation or property back. My own family fled Tunisia because of anti-Jew riots and fled with practically nothing.

    In the Jewish perspective, the call for Israel's creation in '48 wasn't absurd. No Jew questions whether Israel was the Jewish homeland. In the decades leading up to '48, Arab forces/leaders in the region weren't friendly to Jews. I don't know if any of the readers here are aware of what happened to the Jews in Hebron in 1929. Dozens of Jews died and all of them were expelled. The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, which is seen as the Palestinian leader at the time, was "friends" with Hitler. And Israel's neighbors were all dictatorships. How can a Jew live peacefully among dictatorships and Nazi sympathizers? I am not saying that contemporary Arabs are Nazi sympathizers but the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem in the 20's, 30's and 40's definitely were. The Arab rhetoric to the Jews wasn't friendly either.

    So how do we solve the results of our grandparent's grudges and wars? Like Khaled said - the two state solution.

  3. One more thing, Israel is still debating fundamental national questions. Such as whether to be a "Jewish State" or a "State of the Jews" as Avraham Burg put it. To be a society of Jewish Law, halacha, or to be a halachik state? It's kinda confusing and I'm too tired to explain it right now.

  4. I also would like to note that the creation of many of the Arab countries today were created by European powers. Out of nowhere, borders were formed and rival tribes were "united". By what right do these countries, such as Syria, have to exist? Of course the question is irrelevant today and we have to work with what we have.

  5. Thanks Michael for your active participation in this. I will try to be to the point with the several issues you raised, in order, I hope.

    - Religious vs. political Zionism, and Jewish nation in one land, vs\. Land controlled by Jewish nation: that goes to the point I made: different issues assume different importance for people even within the same religion. And if Jewish people have different opinions regarding this, one cannot expect others (Arabs or otherwise) to understand it any better.

    -apologies and compensations (by Israel in this case) would be good only if they come as a result of a national decision, but state and people, not by one or 2 historians. The riots of the 20 in Palestine is a fact, but that is still different from the drive to sequester land of Palestine (by European) to save Jews from further European persecution. But, as you said, this is past now. And we need to move on.

    - Borders of modern Arab political entities were set by colonial power, BUT there was no change in population or demographics. And there was no attempt to 'fill the land' with people from another part of the world, or restrict access to any piece of land or restrict it to certain ethnicity or religion.

  6. It is true that the Arab riots, like those in Hebron in the 20's, are not the same as a mass immigration of Europeans refugees into Palestine. But to Jews it wasn't really Palestine - it was the British Mandate of Palestine. It wasn't even a real country. British withdrawal from Palestine was expected by both Jews and Arabs. But what laid ahead for Jews once the British left? An Arab dictatorship. The land would have probably been divided between Syria, Jordan, and Egypt. Even if the British stayed, Arab riots would have continued. Perhaps the total ethnic cleansing of Hebron would have spread across the entire Mandate?

    Also, the British White Paper barred any Jew from coming into Palestine when refuge was most needed by the Jews.

  7. The mandate was an administrative assignment, not ownership of the land. All Arab 'provinces' at that time were part of the ottoman empire which was an establish political entity, even if many local tribal people in some provinces did not want to continue under ottoman control and their own local agenda to become the 'local kings, sultans and Emirs' of the scattered small emirates, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia etc.
    So it was not for the British to give, or promise. The needs of the European Jews are understandable, but that did not give any one the right to donate' land then did not own, and strip the rights of people who lived their to continue living there. The mere existence of Palestinians is denied by many Jews and Israelis, as if all the Palestinians we have today, and the refugees came from another continent! While the people who actually mostly came from another continent continue to claim the historic right to the land!!
    Trying to find legitimacy in that historic transaction is difficult (the British actually reversed their early decision soon after they issued the Balfour promise. So, legitimacy was actually suspect even by those who started the process. The initial promise was expedient, and at no cost to the British, something they came to regret afterward.
    This on going discussion simply supports my posting that it is not feasible to see things the same way. So, moving on is the only option.

  8. The Palestinians who aren't under Israeli occupation, such as those in Lebanon, will probably never get anything from Israel. If compensation is ever given by Israel, it would be given to a new established Palestinian government in the West Bank and Gaza. While there is room for Palestinian refugees to settle in the West Bank, it's probably not enough. Also, it is very hard to look at people as 3rd generation refugees. When my family fled Tunisia with practically nothing, the were refugees. They settled in France, got citizenship, and became culturally French. My family were no longer refugees in a matter of months or years - not generations. Refugees usually don't return to the country which they were kicked out of. Because of the Arab political atmosphere over the last 6-7 decades, the Palestinians were used as a "cause" manipulated by the Arab leaders to manipulate their people in the Arab states. If the Arab people look at Israel as the problem, when would the Arab look at the problems of their own regimes/dictatorships? When refugees flee their home country, they usually go to a better country such as those in Europe or North America. But because the "host" countries of the Palestinians were worse than Israel, especially as it developed, the Palestinian refugees wanted to return. One thing is for sure, stubbornness is a characteristic of all Middle Eastern tribes, Jewish and Arab.

    Does anyone have the numbers of Palestinians in"host" countries such as Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan?

    The reason some Israelis don't recognize Palestinians as a separate ethnic group other than Arabs or Jordanians is that in 1921, Palestine was broken off to create Trans-Jordan, later named Jordan. To some Israelis the Palestinians are no different than Jordanians. The Palestinians, and even Israeli Arabs, are divided into "clans". Israeli Arabs still vote along clan lines. I believe one of the clans in the West Bank is called something which translates as Egyptian. One of the Arab leaders in East Jerusalem even said that Arafat wasn't a legitimate leader of the Palestinians because he had an Egyptian accent. Of course Jordan is controlled by the Hashemite King but that's no different than Syria, Jordan, and Egypt. Many Arab countries are ruled by kings or dictators.

    I don't think anyone is looking at the Balfour Declaration as something legitimate anymore. It's what the Arabs offered the Jews, an Arab dictatorship and the White Paper, which the Jews couldn't accept which led to '48.

  9. Also worth pointing out is that Lebanon, and perhaps other host countries, "oppressed" the Palestinians by barring them from many occupations - no pun intended, for many years. In the 90's, Israel took almost a million Russian immigrants. The built many houses at the expense of the country. What did Lebanon (I'm not picking on Lebanon, just using it as example) do with the Palestinians? They put all of them in make shit refugee camps with the help of the UN. The UN never did so much for any other refugee group, definitely not for Darfurians. Perhaps this special care of the Palestinians by the UN hurt them by doing that? It let Arab leaders/dictators exploit the downtrodden Palestinians and their dreams of "Palestine" though to Israelis, the only "Palestine" there was is British occupation. Israeli Arabs, who are really just Palestinians, fared much better than any of the Palestinians in "host" countries.

    Anyway, that's my commentary on what ever we were talking about. Till next time ... Shalom Salaam Peace.

  10. Sorry, but your Lebanon/Israel caparison is flawed.
    Israel wanted Jews to leave their countries of citizenship to move to Israel. They offer financial aid, pay for tickets, subsidize housing etc. They would do anything to get Jews to move to Israel, and ton of millions of dollars are in funds to do just that.
    Lebanon, and other Arab countries dd not want the Palestinians to move into other Arab countries.
    Russians Jews moving into Israel were not refugees in Israel. They voluntarily left their countries on birth and citizenship to adopt another country.
    Palestinians in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan did not leave Palestine voluntarily, and do not want to adopt another country other than their native country Palestine, and place of birth, and place of memories and history.
    That is a very different situation.

  11. I wasn't really trying to compare the immigration of Palestinians to Lebanon with the immigration of Jews to Israel. I'm comparing the treatment of immigrants/refugees between these two countries.

    Some Jews were "rescued" from Arab (Yemen) and African (Ethiopia) countries and were refugees. It is true Israel wanted these immigrants and Lebanon did not. But why is it that no Arab country wants other Arab immigrants? Why don't they want Palestinians integrated into their society? I believe the reason is that they want to use them to fight Israel (less so now though, it is more Iran now rather than Jordan and Egypt). They don't want to improve the immediate situation of the Palestinians in Lebanon because then they will be integrated in rooted in Lebanon. The Palestinians are more willing to risk their lives fighting Israel if they are poor and have no future in their host country. The only "future" host countries offered the Palestinians is to fight Israel. The Palestinians can't lobby their host countries to help them improve their standard of living because they either aren't citizens or because they live under dictatorships.

  12. I would disagree with the quoted "rescue" in you comment, but I know not all perceptions are changeable.
    But, for a fact, Palestinians in Egypt has ALL the right and privileges of Egyptians without the nationality (almost the same situation was in Kuwait, UAE, Oman, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and few the north African countries). This was near unanimously the agreement between Palestinian leadership over time and all Arab societies to avoid the total loss of Palestinian identity.
    One more thing before I move on: the arguments you make about the 'non-integration' of Palestinian refugees in Arab countries, are almost never heard from Palestinians and almost always heard by Israelis and pro-Israel groups.
    Obviously, in there were no more 'stateless' Palestinians with the title refugee, stress in Israel would have been a lot less. That may tell something about the wisdom of the Palestinian and Arab strategy in this issue.

  13. Khaled, we both live in the US and we both know that these "rights and priveleges" don't mean much. Even compared to Israel, the right to vote, run for office, and free speech, is still lacking for these stateless Palestinians, not to mention all Arabs (except Iraq). Lebanon is a quasi-democracy. Their political system is so messed up, I don't even know where to start.

    When all the Arabs offer is dictatorship, what are Jews (who were in Arab countries) supposed to do?

  14. Sorry to disagree, but the right and privileges in those country are similar to what 'locals' have, for what is worth. When yo are looking for a job, education, and health care, you cannot call these rights and privileged "don't mean much".
    The discrimination against Arab Israeli in Israel is frequently discussed in terms of money for education, health care, job opportunities, has been documented very extensively by Israeli sources, governmental and non-governmental groups. Blacks men had the right to vote in the US before white women had the right to vote, and that does not mean that blacks were treated better than white American women. Political right are symbolic, and mean a lot less when your everyday life is subject to a different set of rules that the dominant group.

  15. I am well aware of the inequality of Israeli Arabs. Lets take the Jerusalem example. Infrastructure in Arab neighborhoods get a lot less money than in Jewish neighborhood. But why? I think something around 30% of eligible voters for Jerusalem elections are Arab. But how many of them actually vote? Practically none because they boycott the election. This is one of many other Palestinian policies which hurt them more than it helped them in the long run.