last updated 12/14/2003

A letter arrived that I thought deserved a response, nay, an essay. First the letter, then the essay...
(And as a helpful aid, I've added a map to the very bottom of this page.)

From: joseph s.
Subject: Israel
Date: Sat, 11 Jan 200

Why is it that the left feels an obligation to constantly malign Israel? The notion that Israel kills children in order to maintain control over Gaza and the West Bank is ridiculous. Israel offered ALL of the West Bank and Gaza to the Palastinians, but were met with the current Infatida. Let's be clear, Arafat rejected the offer not because the offer of land in Gaza and the West Bank was insufficient, rather he insisted on the right of all Palastinians to return to Israel and for additional land in Jerusalem. The right of return would obviously lead to the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state and Barak offered compensatory land for the land in Jerusalem. Whether Israel has the right to exist as a Jewish country could, I suppose, be debated. For those of us old enough to have studied the Holocaust, to raise the issue seems to demonstrate a complete lack of history. For Hamas, of course, Israel does not have the right to exist and suicide bombings of any Israeli is any appropriate tactic. In fact, at the meeting in╩Egypt, the issue was whether to bomb all╩Israelis or╩only those╩in the settlements.╩╩As an aside, if I were to start a new country, the last people I would want to expel would be the╩educated middle class, precisely the group Arafat wants to eliminate in an attempt to render his╩proposed county Judenfrei.╩As for Jerusalem, it is the third holiest sight for Muslims, but THE holiest sight for Jews. I wonder if Yemen will hand over Ur, the birthplace of Abraham or if the Palastinians will give up Hebron, the sight of the Tomb of Abraham? Probably not, I think. We won't even go into what the Jordanians did with the Wailing Wall when it was within their control. But let us return to the question of killings. Golda Meir said, "I could forgive the Arabs for killing our children, I can't forgive them for making us kill theirs." That is the overwhelming view of most Israelis and most Jews. The celebration over the death of children only occurs in the culture of the enemies of Israel.
Joseph S.


I think this letter does a pretty good job of representing the standard pro-Israel line in America and so is worthy of a WastedIrony response.

Let's begin by laying out where I'm coming from on the issue of Israel. I find anti-Semitism to be a loathsome ideology. My Jewish grandfather came to this country in 1938, escaping from Nazi Germany. My half-Jewish father and uncle were still in Germany during the Kristallnacht, only escaping with my grandmother later that same year (my grandfather had come earlier to help pave the way for his family's arrival). Even without my personal background, I would detest anti-Semitism, just as I detest all other forms of racism. I lay out these facts, my bona fides, because all too often critics of Israel are labelled racists or anti-Semites by their opponents (although the above letter writer did not stoop to that kind of slander). I'm trying to derail that sort of reaction.

Second, any sane person recognizes that there are rights and wrongs on both sides of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. There are few saints and many villains in both camps. I do not see myself as pro-Palestinian or anti-Israel.

Ok, now on to the issues.

Israel exists as a monument to injustice. The first great injustice is the persecution of the Jews that escalated during the late 19th century, built on a foundation of medieval anti-Jewish attitudes, fed by the pseudo-scientific ideas of European racists, and encouraged by power-hungry and cynical politicians. As a result of this persecution, Jews in Europe, particularly in Eastern Europe, felt desperate. At the same time, European Jews, as Europeans, were exposed to that great 19th century ideology: nationalism. It was only natural that some Jews, denied national roots by racists, should argue that the Jews needed their own nation, a place to call their own, where they could be safe from persecution. And so, at the end of the 19th century, the ideology of Zionism was born (which is simply the belief that the Jews need a state; Zionism = Jewish nationalism).

Zionist intellectuals encouraged Jews to immigrate to a new homeland, Palestine. But there was a problem. Palestine was a) a territory owned by the Ottoman Empire and b) occupied mostly by Arabs who had lived there for more than a thousand years. So in attempting to establish a homeland in Palestine, the Zionists were essentially targeting the homes of Arabs. No matter how you slice it, it is impossible to have a Jewish state in an area with a majority of Arabs unless you a) get rid of the Arabs or b) bring in a lot more Jews.

This is the moral flaw undermining the foundation of Israel, a flaw which has troubled many Jewish intellectuals. Fleeing persecution, and seeking national safety, Jews put themselves on the road to denying another people control over their own land. (And please don't suggest the Jews had no other choice: my city, New York, is proof that Jews could and did go elsewhere and thrive.) If you want the roots of Arab resentment, you need look no further.

Furthermore, the very idea of creating a "Jewish" state has disturbingly racist undertones. What is supposed to happen to Arabs who happen to live in this state. In today's Israel, not counting the occupied terroritories, 20% of Israel's population is Arab. These Arabs have long complained, justifiably, about being treated as second class citizens. By defining itself as a Jewish state, Israel has told 20% of its people that they don't really belong. Where is the moral justification for this?

With the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s, Jewish immigration to Palestine increased. In this atmosphere of persecution, Jews were understandably ever more eager to escape Europe. In the aftermath of the Holocaust itself, the need for a Jewish homeland seemed obvious to many (although there were always those Jews who doubted the need, or the advisability, for the creation of Israel). Furthermore, the Holocaust gave the Jewish desire for a homeland a moral weight on European and American consciences. After all, the Allies had done little to stop the mass extermination, the least they could do is support the creation of a Jewish state. Never mind what the effect might be on Palestinian Arabs.

The struggle to create a Jewish state was a violent one. Both Jews and Arabs used terrorist tactics against each other and against the British who (since the end of WWI) now controlled Palestine. (In 1946, for example, Jewish terrorists, under the leadership of Menachem Begin, blew up the King David Hotel, killing 91.) The Arabs wanted the Jews out, the Jews wanted a country, and both sides used brutality and terror to gain their ends. Trying to apportion blame during this messy war seems largely pointless.

When the dust cleared in 1948, the Jews had won. Most of Palestine was under their control. Most of the Arab population had fled, leaving the area with a Jewish majority. The fleeing Arab population ended up in Jordan, Egypt, and Lebanon, living in refugee camps where anger and hatred towards Israel festered. (Camps whose existence was used and perpetuated by unscrupulous Arab leaders as a political tool in their ongoing conflicts with Israel.)

In 1967, another Arab-Israeli War broke out. Both sides bear some blame, but it seems it was mostly Syrian and Egyptian moves which made the war inevitable; however, it was the Palestinian Arabs who suffered the most. Israel won the war, and in the process occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, both areas containing large numbers of Palestinian Arabs, many of them refugees from the 1947-48 war that created Israel. So then, and still today, Israel won control of a large number of Arabs who did not want to be controlled. Israel claimed to be willing to give back the territories if they could achieve real peace; Arabs waffled between unwillingness to even grant Israel's right to exist at all and distrust of Israel's sincerity in being willing to make territorial concessions. And so today Israel still controls the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Complicating the situation was the decision of Israeli governments to allow Jewish "settlers" to move into the West Bank and Gaza. These settlers had varied motivations, but a large number of them were moving into these areas in a blatant attempt to guarantee that Israel would never leave either the West Bank or the Gaza Strip. These ultra-Zionist settlers wished to create an Israel that stretched from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, and they could care less what happened to the Arabs living there. Protecting the lives of these settlers required large numbers of Israeli troops, check points, patrolled roads, and the turning of the West Bank and Gaza into zones where local Arabs had to show ID merely to visit family or go to their jobs. There are now more than 200,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank. (If one counts the Jews living in formerly Arab areas around Jerusalem, the number is more than 400,000.) One should also not ignore the inequitable distribution of resources. Settlers, for example, make up only 10% of the West Bank's population yet they get 63% of its water; settlers make up less than 1% of Gaza's population yet have sole control of 40% of its beach front (figures from Sept 20, 2001 New York Review of Books article). Similar ratios can be found in everything from access to arable land to employment figures.

So who is in the wrong here? From a Palestininian point of view, the Jews seem bent on annexing all of the West Bank, and every settlement is proof of this desire. (The apocalyptic attitude of many settlers hardly helps matters.) From an Israeli point of view, the Palestinians will never agree to peace, and simply want all of Palestine (i.e.-Israel) for their own. Rational outside observers can understand where these attitudes come from (as can rational Palestinians and Israelis), even while they deplore them.

My letter writer, like many Americans, takes the hard-line Israeli line. (I emphasize the label "hard-line" because, of course, there is a sizable and vocal Israeli peace movement which does not share the hard-line world view; scroll down for an example.) He claims that Israel offered the Palestinians all of the West Bank and Gaza, but that Arafat rejected this offer. This is a myth. Reports by reliable American observers at Camp David II (July 2000) say that Ehud Barak offered Arafat only partial control, insisting that dozens of settlements remain under Israeli authority and protection, along with the guarded roads and checkpoints which allow them to survive. In other words, Arafat was offered an apartheid Palestine and rejected that offer. I'm no fan of Arafat, but I can understand his decision.

Moreover, blaming the intifada on Arafat and the Palestinians ignores a history of Israeli provocations, most notably the deliberately inflammatory decision of Sharon to take a walk on the grounds of the Mosque of the Dome of the Rock (Sept 2000), sacred to Muslims, backed by hundreds of Israeli policemen. Sharon clearly wanted a reaction, and he got one, and won his election in the process. There was no reason for Sharon to make that walk except to start trouble, and he got the intifada.

The sad thing is that extremists like Sharon and the leaders of Hamas are in a perverse partnership to sabotage peace. Neither side wants to negotiate. Hamas wants the Jews out; Sharon seems to be on the road to annexing part or all of the West Bank; and both sides are helped by the extremism of the other. It is moderate Palestinians and Israelis who are caught in the middle, losing supporters each time some extremist blows up a bomb or orders another curfew.

Again, there are wrongs on both sides, but it is clear who has the most power, and therefore, in my mind, the most responsibility for the current madness. Israeli troops and tanks control the West Bank. It is the Israeli government which encourages settlements that make peace seem impossible. To maintain those settlements, Israeli soldiers stop and search Palestinians at checkpoints, impose curfews, bulldoze homes, all of which creates more resentment and feeds the desperation that leads to suicide bombings (a practice I cannot condemn enough, by the way).

The letter writer put it pretty well, I thought. He opens up saying "The notion that Israel kills children in order to maintain control over Gaza and the West Bank is ridiculous." But then he concludes with "Golda Meir said, "I could forgive the Arabs for killing our children, I can't forgive them for making us kill theirs."" In other words, yes, Israeli does kill Arab children to maintain control, but it's not their fault. The Arabs made them do it. There is some logic to that kind of argument, but it also begs the question: If your policies require you to kill children, even if those children's parents are partially responsible, might not it be a good time to reconsider those policies?

Israel needs to make a real offer to pull out of ALL of the West Bank and Gaza, abandoning all of the settlements. Until then, the violence will continue. And blood will be on all their hands. As well as on ours in America who refuse to look closely at this messy moral quagmire (while we continue to supply Israel with billions of dollars in aid every year).

And for a second opinion, here's an essay from an Israeli, translated from the original Hebrew and printed in October 1 2002's New York Times...

October 1, 2002, Tuesday, Late Edition - Final

Fictions Embraced by an Israel at War
By David Grossman
David Grossman is the author, most recently, of "Be My Knife," a novel. This article was translated by Haim Watzman from Hebrew.

DATELINE: JERUSALEM

A dangerous and deceptive plot line has become superimposed on the story that Israeli society tells itself about its conflict with the Palestinians. Since the outbreak of the current intifada two years ago, it is as if the Israeli mind has turned to a new page in the chronicle of the conflict and, at the same time, erased many of the pages that preceded it.

It's as if the 33 years of repression, occupation and humiliation that Israel imposed on the West Bank and Gaza between June 1967 and September 2000 vanished with the wave of a magic wand. The majority of Israelis take comfort today in believing that the horrifying deeds committed by Palestinian terrorists in the last two years somehow "balance the books" for those long years of subjugation and that all the guilt for the current state of affairs rests on Palestinian shoulders. Furthermore, they believe, the suicide bombings, and the broad support they have received from the Palestinian population, have revealed things about the Palestinians that ex post facto justify the injustices of the occupation. In a contorted way, many Israelis believe that the new wave of Palestinian terrorism has granted their country absolution for its problematic past. Of course, the Israeli occupation is not the entire story. During those 33 years the Palestinians contributed their share to the march of blood and folly by being intractable in their positions and murderous in their actions. And we must not forget that the Six-Day War was not a war that Israel wanted. Yet, despite this, the historical story that Israel chooses to tell itself is astoundingly obtuse and superficial.

The story that now reigns nearly unchallenged in the media and political discourse obliterates more than 33 years of roadblocks, thousands of prisoners, deportations, and killings of innocent people. It's as if there were never long months of closures in cities and villages, as if there had been no humiliations, no incessant harassment, no searches of houses, no bulldozing of hundreds of homes, no uprooting of vineyards and olive groves, no filling up of wells and, especially, no construction of tens of thousands of housing units in settlements and large-scale confiscation of land, in violation of international law.

The new narrative leaps back through the manipulative fog created by the prime minister and his cabinet, his supporters and his various spokesmen straight to the Six-Day War, our pinnacle of justice. And looking forward from that point in 1967 there is a kind of desert devoid of history, devoid of responsibility, devoid of blame, until we suddenly emerge from the miasma right at the Oslo accords, the proposals that Ehud Barak made to Yasir Arafat at Camp David and, after Camp David, like thunder on a bright and sunny day, the second intifada.

According to this story, the Palestinians suddenly exploded in September 2000 in an uncaused natural eruption, spewing out lava and ash and igniting the entire region. They had no logical reason for exploding and there was no prior Israeli provocation. Ehud Barak made them a generous offer, and they betrayed him with an outburst of violence -- because they, by their nature, are motivated solely by destructive, irrational forces that make impossible any future compromise with them.

This theory is also the basis of another right-wing claim that now seems to be accepted by the majority of Israelis. It is that the Oslo accords, and their supporters, were what in fact caused the second intifada. In other words, it wasn't the intolerable conditions in which the Palestinians lived for more than three decades. It wasn't the tacit support that most Israelis lent to the ongoing occupation, all the while persuading themselves that it was such an enlightened occupation that it was barely an occupation at all. It wasn't the refusal of every Israeli government before the second administration of Yitzhak Rabin to try to reach a true, if painful, accommodation with the Palestinians. It wasn't the doubling of the number of Israeli settlers in the territories in the years after Oslo. Nor was it the way in which Ehud Barak conducted the Camp David talks, presenting to Yasir Arafat as ultimatums proposals that, while they were generous compared with Israeli positions in the past, were entirely insufficient in Palestinian eyes.

None of these factors are now viewed as sufficient reason for a popular uprising by a subjugated and despairing people. No, it's the Oslo accords that are to blame, as if in the absence of Oslo the Palestinians would have come to terms with the Israeli occupation, accepting it tranquilly, even lovingly, to this very day; as if the Oslo agreements were a match, not a fire extinguisher.

Obviously, one of the reasons this story line has gained acceptance is that it seems to give a logical structure to a chaotic and threatening reality. Along the way, it also seems to justify the use of massive and unrelenting military force against the Palestinians.

But this view of reality is fraught with danger because it is simply not realistic. It's true that the Palestinians have committed serious errors and war crimes in the last two years. It also may well be true that, had they acted otherwise, they would have a state today. But if Israel is interested not just in punishing the Palestinians but also in extricating itself from the trap it's in, it must wake up and reinsert into the tragic story of the conflict those parts that have been expunged from its consciousness during the last two years. If we do not replant the recent intifada in its historical context, no chance of any minimal mutual understanding will sprout. And without context, we will never be truly cured.


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