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Israeli Sins and Jewish Redemption 

 

How is it that the experience of death and desolation in the Holocaust, the great Jewish redemptive tradition of justice, has not propelled more, far more, Israelis to speak up on the treatment of the Palestinians?

 

By Issa Khalaf

06/10/03: (Information Clearing House) At the ripe old age of nineteen, in the summer preceding my junior year at university, I had a mission.  Driven by youthful idealism, I read all I could on the Holocaust with the intention of writing a book.  I needed to understand this event, if for no other reason than to glimpse the possibilities for Palestinian-Israeli coexistence.  At summer’s end, some twenty books and articles later, I wrote my “book,” titled “Man’s Inhumanity to Man,” one hundred pages of synthesis and summary really, of the Holocaust.  It was my brief encounter with a part of Jewish history.

 

Several years ago, my wife, two children in their early teens, and myself watched on video Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List.”  At film’s end, my son and daughter were outraged and horrified, wondering why and how this could be allowed to happen.

 

We are a Palestinian-American family, I having left my native Ramallah for the US at the age of eight.  Our reactions to injustice and barbarity were visceral, a characteristic of all humans whose ultimate wellspring, I believe, is a universal divine source.  We can’t understand others’ suffering; we can only feel it.  Here I am, numb at the unfolding calamity of the Palestinian people, my children wondering how and why the Palestinians’ torment and dispossession could be allowed to happen, writing with forlorn hope that Israelis would hear and listen.

 

I know, striking at our innermost vulnerability, there is nothing more primeval than terror in stirring a frenzied reaction of existential fear, hate and violence, of profound personal loss, perpetuating Israelis’ deep-rooted sense of siege and suffocation, silencing all but the most intrepid voices of reason.  I know, too, the humiliation and degradation, the organized physical, cultural, economic, and psychological violence and terror, the massive violations of human rights, committed by the Israeli state against the Palestinian civil population, giving rise to the nihilist despair that is the suicide bomber.

 

Disturbing is the silence in Israel, the apparent lack of self-awareness, of a chronic Jewish incapacity to emerge from self-absorption.  How is it that the experience of death and desolation in the Holocaust, the great Jewish redemptive tradition of justice, has not propelled more, far more, Israelis to speak up on the treatment of the Palestinians?  Do Israelis even know, or care, about the full extent of the outrage?  Perhaps there is something deeper with historic lineage here, that of the dark side of the Zionist encounter with the indigenous Palestinians, the one that refused to acknowledge their existence or treat them with anything but cruelty and disdain.

 

Certainly the self-image of an Israel forever pursuing peace while its enemies wished only to destroy it is comforting.  But this is not true, not in its absolute formulation.  Israeli leaders have also used war for territorial aggrandizement even when their neighbors were not a threat and actually pursued peace.  From Ben-Gurion onwards such leaders have been clever in manipulating the existential fears of an unquestioning Israeli population.  Surely militarism and war, accompanied by dehumanization of the Palestinians and degradation of Jewish values, and certainly of the soldier, have become deeply embedded in Israeli culture and society, finding their ultimate logic in Mr. Sharon’s solution: absolute violence.  

 

Israelis have gotten their state, their flag, their army, their national anthem, and their nuclear weapons.  Where is Sharon going at such a frenetic pace, expropriating land, constructing a Wall, not along the green line but at many points deep inside the West Bank?  Will Zionism forever remain in a state of ideological creation, its raison d’etre, thus existing in a continual state of expansionist justifications?  Will this momentum not come to rest until all of Palestine is annexed and Palestinians expelled?  If not genuine independence and sovereignty for the Palestinians in the occupied territories, what?  Expulsions into Jordan—an “option” openly talked about throughout Israel—and decades of more war with Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims? 

 

The solution’s essentials are easy: evacuation of the territories with minor territorial adjustments and guarantees of Israeli and Palestinian security, including an unarmed Palestine, and the sharing of Jerusalem.  Getting there is impossible, however, for I, as a Palestinian, see what most Israelis do not: the state’s ideological momentum has not yet arrived at inertia, its appetite for all of historic Palestine not yet whetted.   

 

And this is the heart of the matter.  Israel has remained in a stagnant territorially and ethnically voracious nationalism, rejecting the more humanistic and liberal voices of Jewish national renaissance represented by historic figures such as Ahad Ha’am, Nahum Goldmann, or Judah Magnus.  Wars of subjugation, of extirpating the voices of those intruded upon, is not the answer.  Acknowledgment of historic sins, releasing oneself from the burden of having done wrong, embracing the Palestinians as genuine partners in peace and coexistence, allowing the Palestinians to live and plan their lives, these are the guarantors of Israel’s long term security, its embrace in the region, and elimination of terrorism.  This is the context Abu Mazen needs to take on extremists.  Otherwise, it’s just a civil war that Mr. Sharon so wishes to sit back and watch.

      

There is no innocence lost here, on either side, only the differential levels of mutual violence and pain dictated by the awesome asymmetry of power between Israel and the Palestinians.  Israel has this final chance to pursue wise policies that will lead to what Jewish Israelis and Palestinians deserve: to live and breathe life fully.  If the current Sharonian vision succeeds, from which no viable Palestine can materialize, the eventual alternative is bleak: no state, no society, can forever exist by the sword.

 

Khalaf, political science professor at Loras College (Dubuque, Iowa), is author of Politics in Palestine

 

Copyright 2003 Issa Khalaf

 


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