Last week, on business in New York, I phoned home to learn that
Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the United Nations the General Assembly on September 23, 2011 in New York City.
two of my daughters – thirteen and ten – had not gone to school. The build-up to the September vote on Palestinian statehood at the United Nations, Israel’s deteriorating relationship with Turkey, the attack on the Israeli Embassy in Egypt, an IDF General’s statement that the likelihood of an ‘all-out war’ with non-conventional weapons is increasing, had put everyone on edge. After a regimen of ‘readiness’ drills in school the previous day, a bomb-scare in a nearby rabbinical college, and growing fears of confrontations between settlers and Palestinians, my girls decided to stay home.
At the Sabbath dinner table on my return, when talk turned to the Palestinian application for member status at the United Nations, one of my children blurted out uncharacteristic, but still shocking, words of prejudice against the Arabs. My wife and I exchanged glances: Was she our offspring, the daughter of New York liberals?
Whatever virtues of open-mindedness we live at home, the Mideast nurtures what the late Palestinian nationalist Edward Said calls ‘othering’ – thinking in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Where rockets rain down on family relations in Be’er Sheva – ‘it is very far away,’ I reassure my younger children, “more than an hour drive!” – and neighbors killed in suicide bombings, stories of “othering” flourish. For my children and some adults as well, hating the other makes a complex reality seem simple.
There are many Israelis who want to abandon such simple-story telling; but the speeches by Israeli and Palestinian Prime Ministers last week at the UN did not help the cause. Though Netanyahu did not dwell on the Wannsee Conference where the Final Solution was orchestrated in 1942 as he did in a similar UN speech in 2009, he did not miss the opportunity to give a history lesson, this time going back to a signet ring dating to King Hezekiah, but then taking the predictable path through the Ukraine and pogroms, and finally to the holocaust – Nazis circling the Warsaw Ghetto. The speech ended with an image of light, suggested by, an unlikely source for the UN audience, a Hasidic Rebbe: the single candle, overcoming the darkness of the holocaust, the evils of the UN itself and militant Islam (with which the Palestinians themselves are obliquely associated), transforms finally into a messianic light shared by the children of Abraham.
Abbas’s story, not based on the Bible, still has religious overtones, but not surprisingly, with Palestinian, not Jewish, suffering foremost: Israel is ‘the occupying power,’ the settlements ‘horrific,’ the policy of ‘ethnic cleansing’ pushing Palestinians away from their ‘ancestral homelands.’ At the center of the story of ‘criminal actions’ and occupations, of ‘exile and Diaspora,’ is the original sin of modern Middle Eastern history, Al-Nakba or simply ‘the catastrophe,’ marking the beginning of Israeli Statehood in 1948 and Palestinian suffering. In this story, Israel, Abbas says, ‘is the one obstructing our whole destiny.’ ‘All this is unilateral,’ Abbas affirms, for Israel is set on obstructing the path of ‘truth, freedom, justice, law.’ Netanyahu’s prophetic inclusiveness may have been disingenuous – playing both to the Christian right in America and stalwart religious Zionists at home – with his real intentions about peace negotiations writ large in the combative face of his Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. But for Abbas, there is not even a gesture of inclusiveness: the Holy Land may be the place of the ascension of Mohammed and the birth of Jesus, but Israelis only exist to obstruct Palestinian ‘destiny.’ Abbas deplores Israel’s policies of ‘war and eliminating the other,’ but at the UN, the language of ‘us’ and ‘them’ returns, with the Israeli the evil other.
Many Israelis acknowledge, even as they may be privately moved by the prophetic message of Netanyahu’s speech, the irrelevance of messianic stories to current political realities. For there are thoughtful Israelis, across the spectrum who want a peace based upon compromise and negotiation – post-Zionist and pragmatic, in abandoning the aspiration for ‘Greater Israel,’ in embracing political realities instead of religious dreams. Those in Israel who do not want peace are happy to revert to stories of ‘othering,’ cultivating that childish tendency – and are likely grateful to Abbas for keeping the debate in familiar territory (with the implied competition of who has suffered most).
Having “different histories,” as President Obama said last Wednesday, means acknowledging that “peace is hard.” In the “imperfect world” we inhabit, there are complex stories, relating only imperfectly to one another, and so never made fully real. Moving beyond the simplistic allegories fueled by suffering to pragmatism – negotiation and recognition of mutual need – may be the only hope for the Middle East, and for children, Jewish and Arab, who may, one day, looking beyond their own suffering and fear, and the accompanying lethal dance of “us” and “them,” find an alternative to hate.
William Kolbrener is a professor at Bar Ilan University in Israel.