The Holy Land’s deadly conflicts are like the twisting and turning streets of Jerusalem’s Old City. They can lure a tourist into a cul-de-sac. So it is with the wars between Palestinians and Israelis. Knowing only the latest chapter of a convoluted story leads to an intellectual trap.
Like the philosopher George Santayana said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
The saga stretches from 637 when an Arab army captured Jerusalem to the recent 11-day exchange of missiles. But let’s pick it up in 1948. That year, the Israelis won their war of independence, which the Palestinians call the nakba, their catastrophe. In Germany, 175,000 Holocaust survivors were stuck in refugee camps.
Some survivors tried returning to Poland and were killed in pogroms. The U.S. and other nations didn’t want them. Some tried slipping into Palestine, then a British possession. Those who got caught were interned behind barbed wire in Cyprus.
When the United Nations voted to divide Palestine between Arabs and Jews, five Arab nations invaded, proclaiming their intention to destroy Israel. It seemed a David and Goliath rerun: well equipped Arab armies versus an improvised Jewish militia with hand-me-down guns.
On my way to Hebrew school, I faced a gentile-boys chorus that was certain that Israel would be stillborn:
Sons of Chiam and Abie/ Join the Jewish navy/ Fight, fight, fight/ For Palestine!
I cite that because while I try to be objective I can’t guarantee it. Especially because once the 1948 war began, those Holocaust survivors had somewhere to go. As they landed in Israel, some were handed rifles and sent into battle.
Other Jews were expelled from territories occupied by the Jordanian and Egyptian armies. Many Palestinians were forced out of the land that Israel won. Others left when the fighting came their way, and the Palestinian refugees greatly outnumbered the displaced Jews.
Palestinians and their supporters say that ratio means they’re the aggrieved party. But using arithmetic to make moral judgments is tricky.
For instance, some Palestinians stayed, so currently over a million Israeli citizens are Palestinians. And when Israel won the war, the Arab nations pressured and persecuted their Jews. Iraq already had a pogrom during World War II.
More than 600,000 Jews from Morocco, Libya, Tunisia, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and Syria found refuge in Israel. That’s roughly the number of Palestinian refugees.
Does that ratio suggest a draw? Or, even that Jews were the aggrieved party — if we add the Algerian Jews who ran for their lives when that French colony won its independence?
But in those numbers I only hear pain. My brain crashes when tasked with offsetting one person’s suffering with another’s.
That calculus became even trickier in 1967. Five Arab nations again massed their armies on Israel’s border, and Iraq’s president announced: “The existence of Israel is an error that must be rectified.”
But Israel struck first and captured the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Any hope of swapping them for peace was dashed when the Arab League nixed negotiating or even recognizing Israel.
Instead the West Bank became an undeniably segregated society. Israeli settlers use roads denied to Palestinians. But didn’t Arab nations offer a master class in apartheid by expelling their Jews?
In 1978, President Jimmy Carter nudged Israel and Egypt into a peace agreement. In 2000, President Bill Clinton nudged the Israelis into offering the Palestinians a state. Chairman Yasser Arafat rejected it without making a counter offer.
When I recounted that on a Public Radio broadcast, the host said it was because Arafat objected to the map he was shown.
“There was no map,” I said. "
On that note the interview ended.
In 2005, Ariel Sharon, a tough-guy prime minister, tried a unilateral approach. He pulled 8,000 Israeli settlers plus security personnel out of Gaza. Two years later, Hamas forced the Palestinian Authority out and has been shelling Israel ever since.
Yet amid terrorist attacks and reprisals there have been acts of human kindness. On the eve of the recent exchange of missiles, the viewing stands collapsed during a religious celebration in northern Israel. Palestinian villagers brought water to survivors, descending mountain roads after dark.
That’s the ethical imperative of the desert: A stranger must be welcomed to your well. If there was more of that, I might see a route to peace.
But all I can offer is something between a wish and a prayer. It came to my lips when saying farewell to a Palestinian family in Hebron, 40 years ago. I had an overnight stay there, to the delight of the father, a teacher of English. We talked about favorite authors, Steinbeck and Hemingway, and his daughters giggled.
I said: “May all our children live in a world of peace.” Ever since, I’ve silently repeated it when thinking of all those martyred and made homeless in Palestine and Israel.
I don’t do that thinking they hear me. But because I hear them.
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