What I’m about to share is not so much a personal journey, but some thoughts about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I come from Israel, born and raised there, and lived there until I was about 28, when together with my wife, Dafi, I went to Oxford to do a PhD in philosophy. I later got a position as a visiting scholar at the University of Chicago, where I spent a year, and then taught at Auburn University in Alabama for four years, before I came to Lexington two years ago to teach philosophy for VMI.
I feel very much Israeli—I live in Hebrew, listen to Israeli radio, and watch Israeli TV. But historically speaking, Israel is a very recent thing. Israel became an independents country only after WW2, in 1948. And even though it may feel to me as if Israel was always there, my ancestors all come from different places. Only one of my grandparents was actually born in the territory that is today called “Israel”—that’s my father’s father. My mother’s father immigrated alone to what then was Palestine right before WW2. He lost his entire family to the Nazis. His wife, my mother’s mother, was captured in France, and was about to be sent to Auschwitz as a Jew, but because she happened to be a British citizen, they managed to exchange her at the last moment for some German Templars who were captured by the British forces in Palestine, and saved her life. My father’s mother immigrated to Palestine when she was a toddler in the 20’s from Persia, today Iran. They made most of the way on the backs of donkeys.
Let me say a bit more about myself, and my credentials. Besides growing up in Israel, I was also a soldier in the Israeli Defense Force for three years. Mandatory service. I was not a combat soldier. I was rather with the IDF’s Civil Administration—a military branch which manages the practical civilian day-to-day bureaucratic functions of the Israeli occupation in the West Bank. I did most of my service as a computer operator, and had almost no contact with Palestinians, civilians. The military base I was stationed in was a concrete fortress surrounded by barbed wire, and well-guarded. We would go in and out of the base in bullet proof buses. We very much felt, or assumed, the area was hostile.
This is the reality even today in Israel, where security arrangements are very tight everywhere. Military bases and settlements in the West Bank are typically surrounded by electric barbed wire fences. But even in shopping malls in Tel-Aviv or Jerusalem, don’t be surprised if as you go in, a security guard (usually, an underpaid, middle aged contract worker) will make you walk through a metal detector, and ask to look in your purse, or bag, to make sure you are not carrying any weapon. This is what normalcy is like in Israel. Everywhere is a bit like an airport.
Okay, enough credentials. Let me say some things about how I see the conflict—the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
I would like to start by saying that most difficult dilemmas perhaps are the ones in which we have to decide between evils—where correcting one wrong can only be achieved by committing another.
I’m saying this because some people at least think that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might be such a case—with the resolving of the “Jewish problem” after the Holocaust coming at the expense of the Palestinians.
I don’t have much of substance to say. I don’t have a solution for the conflict to offer—I don’t even know today how to imagine a realistic scenario that will lead to a solution—and I am rather pessimistic. What I can do is say some things about how the situation is organized in my head, and that will partly explain my pessimism, and why I don’t have much of substance to say. I hope I will not depress you too much.
It is difficult to tell the facts of the case. This in part because there are two main-stream ways of telling the facts of the case—the Israeli and the Palestinian—and both mainstream ways are distorted by all sorts of ideologies and fears. Now, our fears are perhaps the one thing that we are most attached to. What we are afraid of is a deep ingredient in the identity of each and every one of us, and if so, it is unlikely that those mainstream Israeli and Palestinian stories I mentioned will change, and become more open and objective. Being Israeli, I am more aware of the Israeli fears and ideologies. But that doesn’t mean that the Palestinians are objective. That someone is the underdog, or is suffering, does not guarantee their objectivity.
Nevertheless, here are some facts that I think I know, and take at least some of them to be important:
- There is an ongoing Israeli occupation in Palestine.
- There is not just Israeli military in the West Bank, but also Israeli settlements.
- The Israeli government is officially funding the building of new settlements.
- The Israeli government considers the settlements legal, in defiance of international law.
- The Israeli government hasn’t stopped the building settlements in the occupied territories even during the last round of negotiations.
- The settlements take about 10% of the West Bank. There are no settlements or military today in Gaza, but Israel is effectively controlling what commodities and people go in and out of Gaza.
- The settlements are not located in one corner of the West Bank, but all over (putting the prospective territorial integrity of a future Palestinian state in question)
- The evacuation of all those settlements is estimated to costs billions of dollars.
- There are about 300,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank.
- There are about 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank.
- There are additional 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza. (It is one of the most densely populated places on earth.)
- Gaza and the West Bank are not territorially connected, and they have two separate (Palestinian) leaderships—the PLO in the West Bank, and the more militant-Islamist Hamas in Gaza.
- Led by Mahmud Abbas, the PLO today (although not historically) favors non-violent opposition to Israeli occupation. Hamas in Gaza, on the other hand, has established a kind of “cold war” with Israel, which every once in a while escalates into usually small-scale armed conflict, and then de-escalates back into cold war.
- Israeli International borders today are relatively secure. Beside the occupation in the West Bank, the most volatile Israeli border today is the border with Lebanon, which is controlled on the other side not by the Lebanese government, but by Iranian-supported militia of Hezbollah. These days, Hezbollah is involved neck deep in the civil war in Syria.
- Israel receives about $3 billion annually in foreign aid from the US (more than most other third world countries, and Israel is not a third world country)
- The Israeli defense budget is about $15 billion annually.
- Israel has nuclear weapon, and other WMDs.
- Israel gets additional tens of millions of dollars annually in private donations from Americans, including Christian evangelists who give about $20 million annually in charities which mostly go to people in need—Israelis, not Palestinians.
- There is a very strong pro-Israeli lobby in the US, led by AIPAC, which regularly meddles in US politics—helps pro-Israel congressional candidates and so on.
- Sheldon Adelson (who gave $90 million dollars to republican candidates in the last elections) today owns three large Israeli newspapers. One of them “Israel Today” is openly aimed at protecting the political interests of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
- The Palestinian economy is to a large extent dependent on foreign aid (most of which they get from the European Union, from Arab countries, and from the United States)
- To a large extent, the Palestinian economy is that of a third-world country—so are the infrastructure, the hospitals, the transportation system, the education system, the legal system, and so on. The situation is somewhat better in the west-bank than in Gaza.
- Being occupied, the Palestinian authority in the West Bank needs to coordinate its activities with the Israeli military—which is the legal sovereign in the West Bank.
These are some facts that I think I more or less know. But I know relatively little. I’m not myself an expert, and as usually in cases like this, the data gets distorted by ideologies and fears—and by words like “terrorism,” and “anti-Semitism,” and “apartheid.” Alongside the mainstream ways of telling what the facts are, there are many non-mainstream ways of telling the story, and some of them are probably better than others. But I admit that I don’t have enough patience to try to figure out the details.
So I have little to say that is about the facts—little of substance. What I think I can do, for what it’s worth, is to draw attention to the importance of what the two people tell themselves—even as these stories are contaminated by ideologies and fear. These stories, contaminated as they are I think, are important—because they tell us how the imagination of the people is shaped. It tells us, that is, not what the facts are, but what people tend to make of the facts. And that too is important.
One of the reasons why it is important to know the subjective and distorted stories that people tell themselves is that by knowing this, we may also get some insight into what they consider in the realm of possibilities, so to speak—how they think it is possible for the conflict to be resolved: their cosmology of the conflict—the way it is organized, its internal makeup. The fact that the main-stream imagination is shaped in certain ways means that there are solutions that people—Israelis and Palestinians—today do not consider possible, solutions that are not even on the table as far as these people are concerned.
Now, I said I wanted to draw attention to both the Israeli and to the Palestinian narratives. And I do. But I know more about the mainstream Israeli cosmology of the conflict than about the Palestinian. I actually know very little about the Palestinian story of the conflict. I know that it exists, and that it is important. I should know more. I wish I did. In any case, I am not qualified to talk about the Palestinian imagination. So I’ll only say things about the Israelis. I am thus leaving a big chunk of the story—half of it—out.
So how is the Israeli imagination shaped? What is the Israeli story of the conflict? – Perhaps the most important solution that is not even entertained in mainstream Israel today is the single state solution. I’m not saying that no one is talking about it. There are some who do. But culturally, they are marginal, they are treated as somewhat eccentric, they are often derogatorily called “post-Zionist” or something like that, and they are not taken seriously. My sense is that there is more talk about a single state solution on the Palestinian side, but again, I do not have a good enough sense of the shape of the Palestinian imagination.
In Israel, the mainstream view is tied to a very particular narrative of the Jewish history. There are all sorts of versions of this story, but in the main, the sensibility is that a Jewish state is a necessity—a state that protects Jews against persecution, a shield against a second Holocaust.
The Jewish identity is here an important part of that shield: the Hebrew language, the bible (the old testament, not the new), the culture—both religious and secular—the belief in the fact of anti-Semitism, the Zionist narrative which justifies the existence of the state of Israel in its present form, and as a consequence allows people in Israel to think about a lot of what is being done in the West Bank and Gaza as regrettable but inevitable. All these are important ingredients that shape the Israeli imagination, and they are also part of what mainstream Israel is trying to protect. Letting go of even some of those things is tied in the mainstream Israeli mind to the annihilation of Israel.
Many Jews—this is a version of the mainstream story—genuinely think that the only thing that stands between them and annihilation is a Jewish state. Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, said (4/28/14) on the last holocaust memorial day in Israel that the state of Israel is a tombstone for the holocaust. Some in Israel are worried that identifying Jews as eternal victims like that is dangerous, and that Israel should be about life, and not just about the memory of death. But fear and trauma are stronger. This, I think, is also what’s behind Netanyahu’s apparently inconsequential, and therefore apparently strange, demand in the last round of talks that Mahmud Abbas will recognize that Israel is a Jewish state—a demand that Abbas rejected. Netanyahu, in effect, was asking Abbas to recognize Israeli phobias as truth. (Netanyahu is currently trying to pass a declarative law in Israel—the so called “nation law”—defining Israel as a Jewish State.
And please don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying that Israeli fears are completely irrational. Fearfulness tends to lead people to shape the reality in which they live in a way that perpetuates fear. For instance, in the US people are afraid of each other so they buy guns. This, in turn, creates a genuinely scary reality. And now what should we say: is the fear rational or irrational?
Going back to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the consequence of all that Israeli fearfulness is that a single state solution is unthinkable to mainstream Israelis: For them it means death—national, cultural, and also individual.
Even if we take individual deaths out of the equation for a moment, trying to imagine a single state solution, for mainstream Israelis, is to imagine a deep change in culture. Imagine a large portion of the culture you’re living in now changing, and becoming Russian, or Chinese, or Pakistani. Imagine the language around you changing, the music, the sports, the food. Imagine your kids in school studying things that you have no knowledge of, about the history of other people in foreign countries. Imagine going to the doctor’s and having to explain yourselves to them in a foreign language. In the imagination of mainstream Israelis, a single state solution would be like that. It would be like living in a different country—not at home, or actually without a home.
So this is why mainstream Israelis do not even entertain the possibility of a single state. Backed by AIPAC, and J-Street and Adelson, the Israelis get to keep their fears.
Let’s make a temporary summary: The facts seem to suggest that it would be practically impossible to implement a two-state solution. The AIPAC supported fearful imagination of my people Israelis, seem to make it impossible to have a single state solution. As a result, the occupation continues. And this is part of why I’m pessimistic.
But this is only part of the reason why I’m pessimistic. Another part of the reason is because I don’t think the current situation is stable and viable. Occupation comes at a cost. And the cost is also moral. I have a friend back in Israel, Yehuda Shaul, who is collecting testimonies from Israeli soldiers who served in the territories, and did all sorts of occupation maintenance tasks. He himself was such a soldier, and did some terrible stuff, and when he was discharged, having served his three year mandatory service in the IDF, he founded an organization, which he called—“Breaking the Silence”—and began collecting testimonies.
The testimonies Yehuda collects include stories about, for example, how soldiers kicked families outside of their houses so that the soldiers would be able to watch a soccer game, of how soldiers stole cigarettes and food from local stores, and took bribes from civilians so that they’d let them cross a checkpoint. They include stories about how Palestinians detainees are humiliated, and how soldiers keep photographs of slain bodies, how people were used as human shields, and how grenades were shot indiscriminately into civilian neighborhoods, and much more.
Over time, Yehuda says that for the soldiers who maintain the occupation, the Palestinians stop being people and become objects.
Many of the testimonies Yehuda collected are from more violent times, and there is less violence today. “Only” about 60 Palestinians were killed during the last round of talks. But even though I don’t know what the reality of the occupation looks like today, I can’t imagine it is being very good. And I hear about what is becoming of the people—how more and more Israelis turn into what Sari Nusseibeh recently described in a recent article as “scientifically skilled colonialist group of self-serving thugs, bent on self-aggrandizement, capitalizing on world-guilt for past pains and horrors suffered, and now hiding behind a religious fiction to justify all the pain and suffering it does to my own [the Palestinian] people, our heritage and culture.” And this occupation has its heavy moral toll on Palestinians too.
Given this rot, It is hard for me to believe that over time the situation is sustainable. Some people in Israel believe that maintaining the current situation—they call it “managing the conflict,” or “containing the conflict,” as opposed to solving it—is the lesser of all evils. But it is not a very stable situation.
What’s going to happen next? When I try to imagine something, I mostly draw a blank. I used to imagine a two state reality, but even though this is presumably the presumption of the latest round of talks, I just have no idea how they think they can pull it off. Giving the current spread of the settlements in the West Bank, and the political reality in Israel and the US, I just can’t see it happening. It more and more seems like a dead horse.
The alternatives are a single state solution, and the perpetuation of the conflict. And these will either require a deep change in people’s imagination, or lead to great violence. And perhaps the two things are connected. Perhaps, that is, the only way to chance people’s imagination goes through great violence—maybe a civil war.
It is hard for me to imagine such a change in people’s imagination happening out of good will and generosity. As I said, people—particularly my people, the Israelis—are very much attached to their fears. They don’t believe they have the resources for such generosity, as they are fighting for their lives.
So my fear is that the required change in the Israeli imagination will happen violently—my worst fear is of an all-out war in which lots of people die, and everyone is reduced to such level of miserableness from which a single state, or some other viable situation, will look like the better option. But a war is not something to hope for—even if one could guarantee that it will lead to something good, and one cannot guarantee such a thing.
If I really force myself, I can also imagine a change in the imagination of people happening less-violently, over time. But here I’m probably moving from imagination to fantasy. It will probably take a lot of time—perhaps decades. And it’ll probably not happen smoothly. As I imagine it, during this relatively non-violent time, the occupation will be managed, contained. People will still kill and be killed here and there, people will be humiliated, but there will not be an all-out war, rounds of talks will be held, but without a viable agreement, and during all that time subtle cultural processes and developments will take place—none of which I can really imagine in any detail. The end result of all this—in my fantasy—will be something like a gradual merger of the Palestinians into Israel. This is the best I can fantasize. And it is not a lot.