Sunday, December 20, 2015

Israel -- the Forgotten Hot Spot

This week, my older daughter heads to Israel, where she will be a leader of a Birthright group.   I will be heading to California, where I will be reading a recently-published book that a friend wrote about Israel.   You all remember Israel, right?   It’s in the Middle East.  It’s not controlled by Isis.  Nor is anyone counting on it to wage war against Isis.  That means that it’s off of the American radar screen these days.

In fact, with all the attention that’s given to Islamic extremism these days, Israel is off of a lot of people’s radar screens internationally.  My guess is that the same Europeans who were leading the calls to boycott, divest from, and sanction the Jewish State a year or two ago have turned their attention to other topics.  You might say that when it comes to the outside world, things are “All Quiet on the Israeli Front.”   The violence within its borders continues, but it’s barely getting reported outside of Israel or Palestine.  Somehow, Israel is becoming just another tiny place on the globe. 

This has got to be welcome news on the streets of Haifa and Tel Aviv.  Whenever I speak to Israelis, I am moved by the extent to which they’d just like to be left alone to live normal lives.   They don’t seem to be especially hopeful about making peace with the Palestinians.   In fact, they take it as a given that the status quo – mutual alienation with frequent, albeit limited, acts of violence – is as good as Israel’s ever going to get.  Israelis want to be able to go to beaches, nightclubs, or museums without worrying about ethnic tensions.   They choose to get on with their lives with as little fear as possible and, for the most part, with clear consciences.   Their goal isn’t to be freedom fighters or justice seekers.  They just want to be left alone.

I doubt, however, that the same perspective is shared in Hebron or Ramallah.   From the Palestinian perspective, the “Occupation” (as the Israeli status quo is known) is a monstrosity that has to stop, and their job is actively to resist it.   My Palestinian friends seem to take it on faith that they will win their struggle, for the international community will not tolerate Israeli injustices much longer.  Palestinians can agree to disagree about whether the result will be two states, one state, or some creative binational arrangement – or whether acts of violence against Israelis are acceptable means of furthering a just outcome.  But to a person, they refuse to believe that the Occupation will continue and refuse to allow the Israelis to live their hoped-for “normal” lives until justice is served.   In short, they contend that the world must treat Israel as a pariah state, and Israelis must be scared or shamed into doing the right thing. 

So there you have it -- two peoples with altogether different aspirations and perspectives living on the same tiny piece of land.  Internationally, we used to call it the Holy Land.  Then it became known as a war zone.  And now it’s just a place that most people would just as soon not think about – it’s neither threatening nor depressing enough to compel our interest.  

In 2015, everyone in my nuclear family will have travelled in Israel – some for extended periods of time.  I can’t tell you how proud I am that one of my daughters is leading a group of American Jews on their first trip ever to their ancestral homeland.  Is Israel a perfect place?  Do its leaders treat their Palestinian population with respect and dignity they deserve?  Or pursue all appropriate paths to reconciliation?   Sadly, I am forced to answer “no” to each of those questions. 

But damned if I am going to stop supporting the Jewish State.   And damned if I am going to hold the Israelis to higher moral standards than other peoples are expected to attain.  If the Palestinians want peace, they too must do their part.  They’re going to have to treat Israeli aspirations with respect.   They’re going to have to recognize that the Israelis have their own historical claim to “the Land,” and that this claim didn’t start in the 1940s … or for that matter, the 1890s.  Finally, they’re going to have to live with the fact that as long as Palestinians support only a strategy of “resistance” rather than compromise and reconciliation, the Israelis will just go about their lives paying the bare minimum of attention to the prospects for peace. 

The Israelis have the power, so they’re the ones with the clearest opportunity to make peace.  But it’s precisely because they have the power that they can’t be expected to seize that opportunity unless and until the Palestinians make it worth their while.  So far, because neither side wants to go out of its way to reconcile with the other, we have a seemingly intractable status quo marked by a self-delusion on both sides.  The Palestinians narcotize themselves with their senses of victimization and hope in a “just” future, and the Israelis pretend that everything is peaceful and secure (meaning that the only alternatives they can imagine are even less so). 

As for the American Jews, we can continue to visit the State of Israel, all the while basking in her historical landmarks, her natural beauty, and her incredible economic and military accomplishments.   But as a pilgrimage, it’s not quite what it used to be when I first traveled to Israel in 1981.  That was just a few years after the Camp David Accords were signed.  There was reason for optimism.  If Israel could make peace with Egypt, why not the Palestinians?

I still can’t answer that question.  Maybe my friend’s book will explain to me that peace with the Palestinians is not possible (that perspective is all the rage these days), but I’m hoping he’s going to take a different approach.   I’m going to continue to pray for peace, whether it’s possible or not.  In other words, I’m going to continue to pray for reconciliation and compromise.  You see, I don’t see Israel as “just another country” where people fearlessly swim in the sea and hike in the hills.   I see Israel – and Palestine -- as the home of several of the world’s great religions.  It’s not enough to aspire for such a place to be “normal.”  We must aspire for it to be a land of righteousness.   And that begins with at least some measure of justice for all its inhabitants.  Then, and only then, can we live secure lives at peace with ourselves and our neighbors.

(Note -- due to my trip to California, I expect to return to blogging on the weekend of January 9th/10th.   In the meantime, have a Happy Holiday Season!)

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