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Israel and the Arab Freedom Protests

This new peace and freedom movement sweeping through the Middle East might bode badly for Israel. No matter what the outcome, whether democracy is adopted quickly or slowly by the Arab countries, I can easily see the arrow of change going against Israel. If the divide between the Arab countries and Israel widens, it won’t be good for anyone who desires peace and freedom.

Yet if the pluralistic spirit that is sweeping through the Arab streets can include a change toward the way the Israeli Arab conflict is viewed, not necessarily among the Arabs, but throughout the world, then there might be hope for the Israelis and Arabs to live in peace and harmony. After all, the Arab peace and freedom movement has been inspired by political notions from outside of the Islamic world; perhaps their views on Israel could also be shaped by ideas coming from outside the Islamic world. But the polarized views held today by most people in the world on the Arab Israeli conflict will not be helpful to any youth.

It has become increasingly difficult for the Arabs and Israelis to understand one another’s problems, and to have empathy for one another. It’s as if they’re speaking different languages. And in a way they are. The same phenomenon regarding the Arab Israeli conflict is happening all around the world. As a friend of mine, who teaches the subject, said, “The Israeli Arab conflict is one of those tainted subjects that can no longer be discussed.” Those who are against Israel see the Israelis as imperialist bullies who are using their power to victimize a weaker people that has just as much right, if not more, to Israeli lands. People who are pro Israel think that the Palestinians have passive-aggressively made themselves into victims, refused every decent opportunity for independence and self-determination, and have a hidden agenda to drive the Jews off Arab lands.

The truth is that the vast majority of Israelis and Palestinians want to live in a peaceful, stable environment, but critics of both sides are concentrating on the 15% to 20% who are extremists, Islamic and Jewish fundamentalists, and allowing that minority to overwhelm the discussion. The Jewish fundamentalists want to build settlements on what is considered Palestinian lands. The Islamic fundamentalists use missiles and bombs to achieve their ends. Neither group of fundamentalists wants the peace process to work; they think that they have god-given rights to the land.

I don’t, however, get the sense that the youth demonstrating in the streets of Arab countries believe in the hocus-pocus of god-given lands. Yet they don’t like Israel, and they especially don’t like the fact that the autocrats whom they want to overthrow were more-or-less bribed by the west to be friendly to Israel. In other words, Israel is associated not just with the western powers who propped up these corrupt autocratic regimes, but with the whole notion of western imperialism and colonialism.

The problem for Israel, however, is that the longer this conflict goes on, the wider and deeper Arab resentment against Israel will become. As the older generation of Arabs who lived through wars and political shifts, and who witnessed mistakes on both sides, die off, their place will be taken by a youth that only knows Israel as the oppressor. Because of this, on the Arab side, at least, the 15% to 20% of extremists will be increasing with the passing of their more moderate older generation. And although the Arab youth might become more open with each other, mending Sunni and Shiite rifts, right now they are not likely to become more open toward Israel. In the eyes of these young Arabs, Israel is one of the most blatant examples of western imperialism and colonialism: they are European occupiers.

To return to my earlier point about the Israelis and Arabs speaking two different languages, it is pretty much impossible for the Israelis to see themselves as colonialists, imperialists or occupiers. We must keep in mind that Israel has only been a state for about sixty years and their tragic beginnings are still fresh in Israelite’ minds. If it were not for Hitler, there would be no Israel. It would not be populated by the millions of Jews escaping European death camps, and the United Nations would not have carved out a part of Palestine as a Jewish state. Jews did not go to Israel to colonize land or abscond with Palestinian wealth; they went there literally to save their lives. How could they possibly see themselves as colonialists, imperialists or occupiers? In their minds they are victims who held on by the skin of their teeth.

Although the Arab leaders who fought against the formation of a Jewish state on Arab lands considered Israel an enemy, they were at least aware of the tragic circumstances of the Jews fighting against them. When Sadat and Begin sat down to sign the Camp David Peace Accord, I believe they faced one another with the respect of old warriors. In the back of their minds they both realized they could be killed by their own people for their “betrayal” of their respective nations, and that act of bravery made them all the more noble.

The Camp David Peace Accord was signed as a result of the Yom Kippur War in 1973. By that time Israel had a clear military advantage over their Arab neighbors, and it was obvious to all parties concerned that the Arabs would not be able to “drive the Jews into the sea,” as their leaders had promised. Yet I think that the Peace Accord was also a turning point in how the world would perceive Israel. Because Israel had become so strong and seemingly invincible, ever so slowly the Israelis were no longer seen as victims but as victimizers. Today, virtually all of the Muslim world, and a fair percentage of the western world, sees Israel as occupiers who victimize their neighbors. Yet the Israelis still see themselves as an imperiled people living on a sliver of land that could be overrun by their enemies in a matter of days.

Still Israel’s “occupation” does seem to be the focal point of complaint against the Israelis. Technically, when people speak of the Israelis as occupiers, they are referring to settlements in Jerusalem that the Palestinians consider to be their territory. Although, today the borders between Israel and the Palestinians are defined by the United Nations and based on the outcome of the 1967 war, in a way the boundary lines are hazy. If you were to look at the 1948 map created by the United Nations of what lands were supposed to be Israeli and what lands were supposed to be Palestinian, you would quickly realize that that crazy quilt never came into existence. War has carved out Israel’s borders. In 1948, the United Nations had planned on Jerusalem being an open city, belonging to neither side. Jordan won Jerusalem in the first rounds of the Arab wars against Israel and then lost Jerusalem in the 1967 War. In any settlement between the Arabs and Israelis, the fate of Jerusalem has always been up in the air.  For this reason the Jewish settlers do not see themselves as occupiers as they build housing developments in Eastern Jerusalem.  Yet the fact that most of the world does see them as occupiers adds to Israel’s bad press, which is one of the last things the Jewish state needs right now. 

To many Israelis the term occupier also has resonances beyond physical Israeli settlements in what are considered Palestinian lands; resonances that are often unspoken. Despite the fact that the Arabs are resigned to living with an Israeli nation too powerful to overthrow, Israelis are suspicious that most Arabs (which to all intents and purposes refers to the youth on the street) don’t really believe that a Jewish country belongs on Arab lands. In other words, in a pluralistic, democratic Arab nation, anti-Israeli sentiment might very possibly become stronger.

We must remember that the Arab youth running these peace and freedom movements are mostly under thirty. They were born after the last war between Israel and the Arabs in 1973. Most of them know very little about the tragedy surrounding Israel’s birth, nor care. I have often heard Arab youth compare what the Israelis are doing to the Palestinians with the Holocaust. Perhaps in their minds the immediacy of their Arab neighbors’ plight compares with that sketchy, distant historical event, (even more distant to them because it occurred long before they were born). Israelis, however, cannot relate their actions against the Palestinians with the Holocaust, and are very likely to marginalize anyone who would dare to say such a thing.

As Arab and the Israeli perceptions toward the conflict become more divergent, they almost literally have no language with which to discuss resolutions to the situation. That’s why the United States and other brokers have had to step in to help. The hope is that if the Israelis and Arabs could at least agree on a tactical separation, borders, water rights, etc., that eventually they would learn to become good neighbors. Yet now, with a the peace and freedom movement sweeping over the Arab countries, the formula might have to change. One of the sentiments of the Arab youth is that Mubarak was a western stooge who blindly supported the peace treaty with Israel. If autocrats like him are overthrown, there is a good likelihood that the stability between the Arab countries and Israel will be on shakier ground.

Is there an answer to this dilemma? I think it would be a bad answer for all of us, even if we are sympathetic to Israel, not to support the peace and freedom movements in the Middle East. The suppression of populist thought by western-backed autocratic regimes has only served to aggravate the resentment of the Arab populist toward Israel. I am not sure that in the present climate, in which the Israelis and Arabs cannot begin to fathom one another’s reality, that those parties will be able to come together and understand one another’s suffering and make peace; let alone make friends.

The Arab populist movement has been highly influenced by ideas and political concepts from outside of the Arab world. Although they resent the U.S. for propping up autocratic regimes in the area, they still look to us as a model of democratic values. In regards to the Arab Israeli conflict, however, they get the same message from the western world that they get at home. Either they get Israeli supporters who parrot the Israeli line or pro-Arab supporters who reinforce their own thoughts. I don’t think that any of this kind of thinking is going to help the Arabs or Israelis change their view of the situation. And until they can find a common reality and a shared language, I am very skeptical that they will be able to work things out.

For that reason, I am going to try to put forward a different, hopefully objective (if such a thing is possible) view of the Arab Israeli conflict. If my view can change the views of others outside of the Middle East, if I am one of many people who begin to view this conflict without taking sides, then perhaps in our new open world, this view will begin to influence how the Arabs and Israelis see themselves.

If anyone is to blame for the Israel Arab conflict, it is western Europe. Although blame is not a very useful or relevant concept at this point. Yet taking responsibility for the historical events that caused the Israeli Arab conflict might be helpful, especially if the European powers would convey to the Middle East that they regret what they have done there.

Let me explain. Much of Europe was complicit in the killing of the Jews. Many countries quite willingly rounded up their Jews and handed them over the to Nazi killing machine. They might claim ignorance and say they had no idea what was going to happen to those Jews; yet, after the war, when everybody knew about the Nazi genocide of the Jews, the western nations turned away millions of refugees, washing their hands of the situation, as if it had nothing to do with them.
There was only one place for these Jews to go: Palestine, which had been declared a Jewish homeland by the British after their conquest of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. Thus Jewish refugees came to the Arab lands, first fighting the British who were trying to restrict the numbers of refugees and then the Arabs who felt that Europe was dumping its “Jewish problem” on them. In fact, from one point of view, it can be looked upon that way. Europe had been dominating and controlling Arab countries since World War I. Why shouldn’t this new European Jewish state on Arab soil be looked upon as further European disrespect for Arab nationalism?

Unless, of course, you were a Jew whose life was in peril. Then you wouldn’t have cared if you were going to Arab lands or African lands or South American lands. These Jewish refugees had found a place to stand and fight, and fight they would; they defeated the Arabs in four wars, much to the surprise of the Arabs and the rest of the world. If one believed in God and destiny, the Jewish victories might have seemed like a real miracle. In retrospect, however, I call it a tragic confluence of history with an ironically bitter twist: a group of European refugees running for their lives from their European brethren were attacked by their Arab hosts because they were Europeans, and the Arabs had had enough of European colonialism, imperialism and occupation.

Tragic is what I call the strange historical trajectory that brought the Jews onto lands surrounded by hostile neighbors. The Arabs didn’t object to having Jewish refugees per se (although it has evolved in that direction) in their midst, they objected to a western-controlled United Nations, which unilaterally set up a European nation in the middle of the Arab sub-continent.

All the events that have taken place subsequently, all the actions and reactions from one side or the other, have only deepened the tragedy. It really doesn’t matter what Arabs or Israelis say about each other. Neither trusts the other and their mutual vitriol is so deeply ingrained, it is nearly impossible to get a clear picture of events from either side. They took our land. They attacked us and forced us out. They are terrorists. They are Nazis. They are Nazis. Everybody is a Nazi. Everybody is a terrorist. The two sides are like embittered Montagues and Capulets forced to live next door to one another. Yet the hatred between the Jews and Arabs is not nearly as long as most clan rivalries. Prior to 1948, there was no great animosity between Jews and Arabs. How deep can it really have gotten in such a short period of time?

What makes the tragedy worse is that the rest of the world has gotten caught up in the bitterness of the squabble. Try getting into a discussion about Israel and the Arabs at a party and you will very soon regret it. It’s as if the entire world has become either Arabs or Israelis. How can the bereaved parties settle their differences surrounded by rabid spectators goading each side on?

My different and hopefully objective view of the Arab Israeli conflict is first that the rest of us extricate ourselves from the vitriol. The whole thing is a damned tragedy, that is what it is. It’s a bad joke of history. If there is a God, he is either testing us like Job, or laughing in our faces. But for now let’s leave God out of this, because we’d have to deal with two of them, Yahweh and Allah, and that would take us even further down the rat hole of fuzzy quantum politics, in which it is impossible to know what happened where.

Getting back to the Arab youth’s peace and freedom movement, youth from all around the world seems to be in contact through new digital media sources like Twitter and Facebook. They seem to soak up currents of thought. If everybody not directly involved in the Arab Israeli conflict would back up and begin to see the whole thing as a tragedy, as opposed to self-righteously picking a right side and a wrong side, perhaps that current of thought would begin to permeate the media and the Arabs and Israelis could eventually begin to see the situation for what it is. They are two fighting cocks put into a fighting ring by amoral historical forces that have shaped the world. If the Arab youth can reject those amoral forces now in charge of their own countries, perhaps they can reject their situation with the Israelis as being a product of those same blind forces.

To my brother and sister Jews in Israel I have this to say: Israel was founded because of the Shoah. Although Shoah means destruction or obliteration, for me it has always had the overtone of “shame.” Out of the shame of the European death camps rose a proud people that founded Israel and refused to feel shame for any of their actions for self-preservation. However, I say it will be one very big, bad, damn shame if Israel loses its identity because of being blind to the tragic situation it has found itself in. I think that from the wisdom of the Bible to the wisdom of the Greeks, we are taught that tragedy is a terrible thing, but not to recognize tragedy is the greatest shame man can experience.

There are two ways that Israel can lose its identity: first, by not recognizing and adjusting to ongoing political realities, the country can literally cease to exist; second, in a bid to exist at any cost, the tragic cost might be that Israel loses her identity as a democratic refuge for people in peril.

For the rest of us, we must not judge Israel or the Arabs. We must recognize the tragic circumstances in which they find themselves and communicate the fact of this tragedy to one another and hope that eventually both parties get the message and begin to see themselves embroiled in an impossible situation. If we can get out this message, perhaps someday in the near future we will see Israeli and Arab youth out on the streets twittering to one another to join in a demonstration against their aging leaders who are entrenched in bitter fight that can only be won by looking up at the sky to whatever God they believe in and laughing and shaking their fingers and saying, “We’re on to you, you old devil!”

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