Israel and Palestine, revisited

Israeli home damaged by Qassam rocket attack

Israeli family members survey damage to their home by Qassam rocket from Palestinian territory

One reader, responding warmly to my previous post on this subject, nevertheless reflects on his own ambivalence on that question as an American Jew. “For a balanced, pro/con discussion of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict issues,” he therefore writes, “you might refer your readers to this link”:

I am happy to oblige. (And for the site that I then recommended, if you missed it, see also my July 15 posting at this site.)

Israeli settler burns tires; Israeli soldier watches

Israeli settlers burn tires in Palestinian neighborhood while Israeli soldier passively watches

Clearly, given all the Arab and Palestinian hostility for so many years against the very idea of a Jewish State, the origins of Israel’s peculiar mix of defensive and aggressive posture is not difficult to understand. In my own historical memory, the assassination of former Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat for his negotiation of the Camp David Accords, with Israel’s Menachem Begin and U.S. President Jimmy Carter, was especially traumatic. I was 18 at the time of the negotiation, 21 at the time of the assassination, and regarded Sadat as a hero among the Arab nations for his bold move for peace. As for Jimmy Carter, I came to think of his work on that accord as the highest achievement of a troubled but honorable Presidency.

But the example surely bespeaks the extremely precarious nature of any such peace that we might establish. It would be irresponsible then to assume at this time when Hamas, for example, has as far as I know still not formally denounced its opposition to Israel’s right to exist, and when however remote its actual nuclear threat Iran does undeniably present a real and potential danger to a historically embattled Israel – it would be irresponsible to assume that all of the present evil exists on Israel’s side and all the good with the Palestinians.

Sadat, Carter, Begin at Camp David

Anwar Sadat, Jimmy Carter, and Menachem Begin at Camp David in August, 1978

I hope, given my lengthy introduction by way of my own journey through Jewish literature, that no one took my meaning as hostile to Israel’s existence or to the basic project of its intended reparative enterprise. Though I do object to the notion that the present evil is wholly on the side of the Palestinian opposition and all the good on the side of Israel’s most virulent defenders. Some of whom may well risk becoming – against which Nietzsche advised – the monster they have hoped to destroy.

My reader’s ambiguous feelings put me in mind, anyway, of a few lines of verse in Yehoshua November’s very good book called God’s Optimism. The book, a major accomplishment by a young Jewish American poet, is the winner of the 2010   Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award. It was also a finalist for the L.A. Times Book Prize.

God's Optimism, by Yehoshua November(For information about his book see its page on the publisher’s website:

The poem, “The Eternal Communists,” begins by calling out a part of the intellectual wing of Israel critics, some with “short pointy beards” and others, university professors, with longer ones. “From their mouths,” he writes, “bloom eloquent arguments / about oppression and poverty. / They speak as though they would tenderly give / half their beds to refugees, / though they can’t even live / with the women they love, / and they don’t know / the history of the war / or that the refugees have explosives / hidden in the fillings of their teeth.”

This constitutes the only overtly political message in the book. And at the time I wished there were some rejoinder, some acknowledgment of the humanity of the other side who themselves are not all suicide bombers and among whom some might even be quite holy – as made explicit to me by an anecdote from another book by an ecumenical and nonpartisan religious Christian, who had lived and worked for some time in Israel.

poet Yehoshua November

Poet Yehoshua November

But Yehoshua November is no facile sentimentalist, and the images in all his poems are precisely drawn and based in an undeniable reality. On the whole the overall impact of the poems is refreshingly redemptive, wholly lacking in cynicism. In the title poem, for instance, he speaks of a teaching of “the inner Torah” that since the world was created from nothing, it remains in motion only so long as God wills that motion. He writes, addressing his words to the Norman Maranz of the poem’s dedication: “Think of the optimism of God, then, / how, every second, He recreates our lives – / I who have not served Him honestly, / and you who believe you have never served Him.”

“And the rock-throwing Palestinian youth,” he might have added, “allied like David against the perceived Israeli Goliath.” (Leaving aside an Israeli self-perception of being that very David, surrounded by the Goliath of the combined weight of Arab nations.)

Just a few more words, in any case, will perhaps help clarify what I hope is my not too simplistic thinking on this Israeli/Palestinian question. I am drawing on a late passage in an essay I wrote in graduate school, on the subject of competing modernist and postmodernist tendencies in Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America. In this passage I am likewise drawing on an essay, “The Linguistic Turn Along Post-Postmodern Borders: Israeli/Palestinian Narrative Conflict,” by Nancy Partner, published in 2009 in the journal New Literary History (available online, for anyone interested in probing deeper, at the following address:

Partner’s essay confronts the fact that while each dominant culture (in this case Israeli) has its official history, so does the “Other” (Palestinian) that exists as a contrapuntal entity. “And these histories,” I paraphrase in my paper, “take the form of ‘narratives’ that, while revolving around a single pivotal event, such as the year 1948 in the history of Israeli/Palestinian conflict, are often violently opposed to each other.”

But trying to get each side to really hear the other’s narrative, and to recognize each other not as monster but as feeling and thinking human being, is often a matter of great difficulty, perhaps near impossibility. In my essay I quote John Donne, who in his book Time and Myth expresses the point that
“there is some profound link, it seems, between the story of a man’s life and the story of his world. The story of the world is his myth, the story in which he lives.” Any view that seems to threaten that myth is thus suspect, and the conflicts that emerge particularly thorny. The chance of both sides gaining a common understanding of their intersecting histories, one upon which they can reach assent on the terms that would allow them to live henceforth together with mutual understanding, acceptance, and tolerance, seems at best not too likely an occurrence.

The challenge between Israelis and Palestinians, then, becomes not to create a shared national narrative that brushes over points of difference but rather, as Partner expresses it, this: “Until each side recognizes the validity of the other’s narrative – until conditions exist that permit a mutual, cross-national examination of the opposing narratives – conditions conducive to a reduction of conflict, or to delegitimizing the quality of the existing conflict, will not emerge.”

Tragic, I would say, if such conditions cannot be established. Because surely both narratives contain enough of a common humanity from which a reasonable if imperfect peace – even a precarious peace; which surely must be preferable to perpetual war – might be established.

Imagine a world in which no one tries.

Don Quixote, Sancho Panza, windmill

Impossible dreamer Don Quixote,
tilting at windmills


2 responses to “Israel and Palestine, revisited

  1. Ronald Pies MD

    Hi, Brett–Thanks for an intelligent and balanced discussion of an incredibly complex issue, and also for posting the pro/con website link. I always try to keep in mind (as a Jewish American) that I do not live in the region under discussion–and so, I probably have a very limited understanding of either the Israeli position (or rather, “positions,” since there is a lot of diversity of opinion there) or that of the Palestinians. And, with so many clever arguments on both sides, I try to keep in mind the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel:
    “When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.”

    Ron Pies

  2. That’s a wonderful statement that you close with, Ron. Thanks for that thought.

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