Thinking about the Middle East is a sure-fire way to induce a headache — and, if you’re more than a disinterested witness, a heartache, too. Wise people will, therefore, seek to avoid thinking, will instead take such new information as comes their way and immediately squeeze it into familiar categories, categories that we have, over the years, come to take pretty much for granted. These convenient file-folders of our minds offer us substantial benefits not only of time but also of intellectual and emotional composure.
What are some of the more common things American Jews take for granted when dealing with the Middle East, more specifically with the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians? Some are so familiar as to be banal: The Jews are entitled to a secure state of their own; the Arabs have been hostile, often murderously hostile, to a Jewish state; Israel is a robust democracy, where civil rights and civil liberties are well-established; Israel truly wants peace, but Palestinian extremism and Palestinian disarray have meant that it has no partner for peace; exercise by the Palestinians of their right of return would doom the Jewish state, would mark the end of Jewish sovereignty; the Israel Defense Forces are constrained by a strict code of ethics, live within a doctrine called tohar ha’neshek, the “purity of arms;” Iran poses an existential threat to Israel.
These are not idle propositions, picked up somewhere along the way. There is at least some truth to all of them and there is much truth to most of them. They add up to a neat and even convenient picture. Often, they go together with the conviction that until the next cataclysmic event, the status quo is acceptable; that the nations of the world, including the Europeans, have little use for Israel; that much of the popular criticism of Israel is rooted in antisemitism; that Israel is too often judged by a double standard; that Israel needs American Jews to speak out resolutely — and in one voice — in its defense. Together, these add up to a truth so familiar it resists re-examination, to what seems to suffice as a whole truth. (That, by the way, is the main reason conversations and debates on Israel/Palestine are so very boring: It’s all been said already.)
The difficulty is that there is no whole truth. What there is is an uneasy truth, a shifting truth, a messy and disruptive truth. It is not a familiar and convenient truth.
Take Jerusalem, for example. Jerusalem is today a divided city. To speak, as we have for so many years now, of Jerusalem as “eternal and undivided” is to pretend, is to make the wish father to the claim. Or take the status of Israel’s Arab citizens, more than 20% — one in five — of Israel’s population. The government itself has time and time again acknowledged the very significant discrimination they experience, has time and again promised (and failed to deliver) urgent efforts to repair the gaps. But the gaps remain, providing daily insult and injury to the Palestinians, challenging Israel’s claimed robust democracy.
When you’ve created what amounts to a closed system, it is easier not to acknowledge information that challenges what you believe — especially when what you believe is neither foolish nor false. And when your closed system is lavishly endorsed and supported by prestigious organizations, it becomes harder still to accept that the truth is actually complex, that all its pieces do not fit easily together. If this is true regarding fairly esoteric issues such as whether Jerusalem is in fact a united city or whether Palestinian Israelis are getting a fair shake, it is all the more so when it comes to the core issue of peace.
Over the 42 years that Israel has occupied the West Bank and Gaza, its quest for peace has run hot and cold and lukewarm, too. Israel includes some number of people who oppose any withdrawal from the West Bank and a much larger number of people who find the current status quo tolerable — and if tolerable, then preferable to the uncertainties that any peace agreement would necessarily entail. No sane person endorses “peace at any price,” but there are many people who oppose a peace of inherently uncertain price. Among these last is Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has now offered a settlement freeze that was melting at birth, the freeze of an ice cream cone on a broiling July day. Neither the liquefied freeze he has put forward nor the peace negotiations he has proposed enhance Israel’s security, advance an end to the conflict.
To say that is not to say that the Palestinian Authority (much less Hamas) is angelic; far from it. Wrongs and rights tumble all over each other in Israel and its next-door neighbors. Together, these add up less to a whole or even a coherent truth than to a persistent tragedy.