By Marji Mendelsohn
July 30, 2014
Sandy Tolan’s 2006 book, The Lemon Tree, a true story about the human costs of the formation of the state of Israel, is an important work which demands a reading—or re-reading—as we recoil in horror at the latest Middle East catastrophe. Using real voices, Tolan shares the history of a Palestinian family displaced in 1948 by Bulgarian Jews who had fled the horrors of the Holocaust. With Gaza once again in rubble, old-school politics must be set aside for the sake of responding to the fierce urgency of the moment.
Back in February 2009, Mr. Tolan wrote in The Christian Science Monitor about why the window for a two-state solution was then soon to close. Now, five years later, that window appears slammed shut as the Middle East finds itself in this grim and historical moment.
When rogue Palestinian actors kidnapped and brutally murdered three Israeli teens this past June, no one could expect Israel to sit still. But rather than focus solely on the crisis at hand, Israelis—and Palestinians, for that matter—needed to determine the root cause(s) of the perpetual enmity between peoples, an enmity that didn’t always exist.
Once upon a time, there were no suicide bombers in Israel. Arabs and Jews coexisted in peace and often friendship. But that was before World War II and the genuine existential threat of annihilation of the Jewish people. Unfortunately for the Palestinians who had nothing to do with Hitler or Goebbels or Goering, they were the ones to pay for what the Third Reich wrought, and they did so with their own homes and land.
The complexities of self-justification, tribalism, the ’67 war, and a rather fundamentalist devotion to biblical literalism joined together to create what ultimately became a permanent state of war and hate between the two peoples. As hatred begets hatred, eviction and ghettoization beget a lust for revenge. In 2009, Daniella Weiss, then the mayor of Kedumim, a large Israeli settlement near Nablus in the West Bank, told 60 Minutes correspondent Bob Simon, “I think that settlements prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state in the land of Israel. This is the goal. And this is the reality.” Mayor Weiss’s words seem to foreshadow Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recent statements, and the outlook for peace in this critical region is bleaker than ever.
On July 11, in a little ballyhooed policy shift, Netanyahu made clear that he “could never, ever, countenance a fully sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank. He indicated that he sees Israel standing almost alone on the frontlines against vicious Islamic radicalism, while the rest of the as-yet free world does its best not to notice the march of extremism. And he more than intimated that he considers the current American, John Kerry-led diplomatic team to be, let’s be polite, naive.”
Intentionally complicating the situation is the sinister, often unseen hand of Christian Zionist groups like John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel (CUFI) and their American Orthodox Jewish counterparts such as Yechiel Eckstein’s International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. Together, these religious ideologues from opposite sides of the messianic fence continue to wreak unspeakable harm, using the millions of dollars coaxed from gullible followers to destabilize the region.
For very different reasons, Christian and Jewish fundamentalists are doing everything possible to ensure that the disputed territories remain peopled with Jews ready to fight for their God-given land. With the continued growth of such settlements, it has become increasingly less possible to imagine the contiguous piece of land that is necessary fora two-state solution. Add to this provocative settlement growth the kidnapping and murder of those three Israeli teens, and the fuse was lit on what has become an all too familiar spiral of fear, militarism, displacement, and hate.
As easy as it is for right-leaning Israeli politicians and John Hagee to cry out “Never Again,” the real issue is whether “Never Again” has come to apply only to Jew as victim, and not as victimizer. Though it remains painful for Americans to take an honest look at the ugly chapters in our own history, the passage of time has eroded our motivation and ability to practice critical self-examination. Up until now, that had not been the case in Israel.
Circumstances that previously had turned the mirror upon Israelis each time a civilian was killed, a home razed, or a new checkpoint added, seem no longer to trigger Israeli self-examination. It seems that with this latest round of terror-based aggression, Israel’s mirror has not just cracked; it has been shattered by the very bombs that now fall upon Israel.
Who’s to say what anyone of us might do under the same circumstances? While human nature propels us to do anything at all to ensure safety, humanity asks something much more challenging: that we turn the other cheek and push through the ‘incidents’ for a lasting, diplomatic solution.
In a January 2009 New York Times op-ed, author Tom Friedman wrote, “It’s five to midnight and before the clock strikes 12 all we need to do is rebuild Fatah, merge it with Hamas, elect an Israeli government that can freeze settlements, court Syria and engage Iran—while preventing it from going nuclear—just so we can get the parties to start talking. Whoever lines up all the pieces of this diplomatic Rubik’s Cube deserves two Nobel Prizes.”
It is now two minutes until midnight. Fatah and Hamas have merged, giving Israel, in Abbas, its best possible partner in peace. Heartily rejected by Netanyahu, Israelis stand to lose what might be their last, best chance at co-existence.
While we are engaging with Iran, it is not without fierce resistance from U.S. Neo-conservatives and Israel’s hard-right government. Settlements continue to go up as the ‘occupied territories’ expand. And although President Barack Obama was given a Nobel Peace Prize at the beginning of his first administration, he has yet to earn the peace, though not for lack of trying. Alas, war and hate prevail while the herculean imbalance of power maims, murders, and begets ever more enemies.
Because we stand yet again with one foot on the edge of the precipice, it is our responsibility as world citizens to reject the prevailing nihilism. Although AIPAC, the Neo-cons, and Christian Zionists will continue to pressure Barack Obama to come down on Israel’s side, he, and the Democratic Party, need to hear our rising voices—voices demanding the kind of tough love it will take to resist those who remain invested in Middle Eastern hostility. The only question that remains is: Can today’s horrific bloodshed crack open the window for one last chance at peace? If not, woe is Israel, woe is Palestine, woe is humanity.
Marji Mendelsohn is the author of Being Christian: A Novel. She’s written about the intersection of fundamentalist religion and politics for Salon.com, AlterNet, Al Jazeera English and other publications.