There’s a feeling, when it comes to the Israel-Palestine conflict, of always having walked in during the middle of the story, so long is its length and so vast is its complexity. There’s even a feeling, when writing or speaking about it, of not knowing how or where to start.
A functional beginning is between 66 and 136 AD, when the Jewish-Roman wars took place. Until this time, ancient Israel had a majority Jewish population. But an onslaught of violence and expulsion on the part of the Roman Empire spread the Jewish population around the world, yielding them a minority everywhere they went.
Until about 1,800 years later, in 1948, when, after the Holocaust, they were able to return with international support (namely the support of the British Empire, which controlled the land) and establish the State of Israel. In the many years in between, however, the region had come to be occupied by Palestine. But in 1917, through Britain’s Balfour Declaration, a Jewish nation was set to be established in Palestine.
As the State of Israel came to be in 1948, 700,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes. Later, in 1967, Israel went to war with Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. It was here when what is called “The Naksa” (meaning “setback” or “defeat” in Arabic) happened, as all that was left of the Palestinians’ homeland was taken over by the Israelis.
Israel took over Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem, and has for 56 years now exercised military control over these territories. In recent years, an increasing number of parties have begun referring to Israel as an apartheid state, as it’s overseeing a situation in which between 4 and 5 million Palestinian people exist alongside them without basic human rights. In the occupied territories, unemployment rates run near 25%. Food is scarce. Water is unclean. Conditions are crowded. Children are prone to anemia and other health issues. Arbitrary detention, even for kids as young as age 12, is common, with a presumption of guilt very standard, along with torture, beatings, and food and sleep deprivation on the part of Israeli authorities.
Since 2005, the Gaza Strip has been subject to a land, air, and sea blockade by Israel, following the Battle of Gaza. In that conflict, the militant group Hamas took control of Gaza from Fatah (formerly the Palestinian National Liberation Movement). Seeing Hamas (as the United States does) as a terrorist organization, Israel has kept the blockade intact, citing security concerns.
It has been difficult, particularly in the past few years, for Jews around the world to reckon with some of the facts in the above-few paragraphs. To be Jewish is to be part of a scarce ancient minority, well-accustomed to oppression and brutality throughout human history, and often weathering hatred from various political factions. It is hard to wrap our minds around the fact that our Jewish nation (I say “our” because I am Jewish, not because I have been to or have a connection to Israel) could be labeled an apartheid state or accused of war crimes. The Jewish psyche is sensitive to oppression, often motivated to help minorities, and hard-pressed to conceptualize itself as the oppressor.
In addition, Israel has sound reasons to maintain a solid moral self-conception amidst this long-running calamity. Hamas’ original charter, written in 1988, calls for jihad against all Jews and the obliteration of Israel. Negotiation with Jews is expressly prohibited; only the total elimination of Israel is an acceptable outcome for Hamas within this conflict. In the meantime, over the decades, Israel and the United States have presented a string of good-faith peace proposals to various Palestinian leaders, none of which have been accepted. This pattern has existed for so long that it has accrued the term “Palestinian Rejectionism.”
Israel faces in Hamas an enemy that seeks no negotiation and desires only the Jewish state’s total destruction. The horrific attacks on innocent Israeli civilians by Hamas last Saturday clearly bear out Hamas’ position. Hamas murdered more than 900 Israelis and kidnapped more than 100. As of this writing, as the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) hammer the occupied territories with force, Hamas has begun to murder its hostages, and is threatening to kill more if the onslaught doesn’t stop.
But it’s all just beginning. And yet it’s never-ending. Our souls grow weak and sick as we contemplate the violence. And it’s not enough to say that words fail. Reason fails. We’ve reached the limits of our understanding. We’re in an encounter with our own bare-naked hypocrisy and madness. People far and near pray for solutions while consistently showing an inability to offer any. It feels like, at this moment, the end of history: a nightmare zone where conditions transcend the ambiguous and paradoxical, moving into the psychotic and apocalyptic.
Why write, then? Why try to share or explain? Why bother with the “conversation”? Which is to say, why bother with the inevitable encounters with other ego states which cannot abide the points of emphasis of your own?
To stay human, I think. And to stay a Jew.
Jews are an ethno-religion. I do not practice the religion, but I am a Jew. And although I cannot speak for all Jews, I can say that as a Jew I feel a deep fidelity to the causes of truth and justice. Likewise, I feel a call to speak out for the oppressed:
The Palestinian people are oppressed. This is a fact that can only be erased by the act of looking away. We’ve looked away for too long. It is not Jewish to look away. It is not human to look away. Every day they spend imprisoned by the Israelis is a day that calls into question Jewish people’s character before the world.
But it would be a profane error to mistake the above paragraph for a statement of alignment to the terror, the ugliness, and the barbarism of Hamas, an organization which does not speak for every Palestinian (they haven’t been polled on the matter since 2006, but many of them openly express the wish to move onto peaceful and productive lives) and which in its own atrocious ways violates the spirit of truth and justice.
I weep for the victims in Israel. I weep for the murdered, kidnapped, raped, tortured, and traumatized Israeli Jews. I weep for their families. On Saturday, I lusted for the blood of the Hamas terrorists.
But I cannot betray my own humanity. In wars, there is the loss of life, but there is also the loss of heart. People part from their innocence. Eyes grow narrow; souls turn to ash.
We cannot give away our hearts. That is as good as dying. I choose, then, my flawed pursuit of truth and justice. I choose to see the Palestinians, and the plight of their present, while holding hope for the freedom of their future. And I choose to see all my fellow Jewish people around the world, who know, in their mastery of ambiguity, and in their everlasting creativity and self-awareness, what it is to be oppressed, and how important it is to win not just the short-term fight for their survival, but the long-term fight for everyone’s humanity.