Monday, April 18, 2011

Neither justice nor peace in the Holy Land

A few months ago a well-informed U.S. Jewish friend earnestly approached me: "I know I'm not getting what I need to understand this. Everything I read seems incomplete somehow. What should I read about Israel and the Palestinians?"

I unhesitatingly recommended Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978, Kai Bird's memoir of growing up in Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon. I still would point to this book in answer to the same question from anyone from the United States.

But thanks to a friend who shared how disturbing and enlightening she found it, I now have another recommendation to make: The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East by journalist Sandy Tolan. The book traces the lives of the al-Khairi family of al-Ramla, Palestine (now Ramla, Israel) -- and of the Eshkenazis who escaped Hitler's plan to exterminate Jews in Bulgaria during WWII and emigrated afterwards. The Eshkenazis fetched up living in what had been the other family's house after the establishment of the Israeli state. The 1967 war, in which Israel seized control of West Bank and Gaza -- the Occupied Territories -- created the pre-condition for the two families to encounter each other in the house so dear to both of them. They met and continued to exchange hospitality for some 40 subsequent years. They achieved a bit of understanding and even a kind of warmth, but no agreement about the meaning of their shared history or any resolution. The personal stories run parallel to the bloody history of the conflict. I'll say no more except read this book.

One observation about both this history and about Mandelbaum Gate: neither volume casts the conflict as a religious war, Jews against Muslims. The earlier stages could be (and were) understood as about Zionists and Arabs, about competing nationalisms articulating themselves on the same land. Over time, the language (and the reality on the ground) has morphed to describe an Israeli state that oppresses stateless Palestinians who have no rights. Though there are religious elements in the ongoing situation, this is not a religious conflict. The struggle is about power and the abuse of power, about resistance and sometimes the abuse of resistance.

And it is heart-breaking and not near resolution. The United States has consistently thrown down with the stronger party, the Israelis, and is part of the problem, not part of the solution. On the present trajectory, it seems inevitable there will be more blood shed, mostly of the blood of innocents. Neither justice nor peace seems likely in the land called "holy."

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