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Truth Without Borders 

Conversations with Grandpa about Israel and Palestine

Wednesday, Aug 7 2002
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“So, what revolutionary future do you see for Israel today, Joshy?” That’s my grandfather Abe talking; I called to wish him a happy 84th birthday. “Are they all packed for Texas?” He‘s still stuck on an errant comment I made some years back that the Israelis could all move to the U.S., maybe Texas. After all, I said without much thinking, there’s more room there. That is not, in fact, my political outlook on the region, but I do have a much more nuanced view on the Arab-Israeli conflict than my grandfather, or anyone else in my family for that matter, and the gap between us is widening.

For them, the wagons are circled: Israel is besieged by a ruthless, insatiable enemy and must defend itself. Any talk of Israel pulling out of the occupied territories arises less out of moral concern than a notion that unilateral withdrawal might be necessary to keep the bad guys fully at bay. Some of the remarks they‘ve made I wouldn’t want to repeat. My grandfather, Abe, tends to be more careful. When he is grouchy, he likes to add flair: About his condo in Florida, for example, he‘ll say: “They oughta give this place back to the Seminoles!” or on my upcoming trip to New York (his home town), his comment was “Let the Dutch have it!” But when it comes to Israel, he doesn’t joke, and these days, he reflexively supports Israel‘s policies.

That isn’t too surprising -- he is, after all, a lifelong Zionist. But he was also a union organizer, a left-wing kibbutznik, a strong advocate of social justice, and his biggest complaint with “the world today” is that people continue to be unkind to each other, both personally and on the grand scale of geopolitics. Why, I‘ve asked him on occasion, does this ethos of respect and fairness not extend to the Palestinians, many of whose nationalist aspirations are not all that different from his own? Although his comments are worded more sharply since the second Intifida reached fever pitch that fateful first night of Passover, the answer tends to be the same: We have no choice. It’s Us or Them, unfortunately. And besides, he says, we fight honestly; but they -- they hit below the belt.

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I can understand this attitude because I sometimes feel it myself. It is direct and straightforward, an easy way to order what is in truth an immensely complex reality. It‘s the kind of gloss on detail you might expect from someone who’s believed in one ideal above all others for most of his life. It is also a gross solipsism, a willful, parochial delusion that infects both sides, now more than ever -- the kind of self-serving image that discourages dispassionate discourse and has plunged the region back into a vicious blood feud.

“What do you have against Israel?” is the kind of thing I get from my grandfather‘s friends or neighbors when the topic inevitably comes up. Although he doesn’t always speak up for me, my grandfather knows it‘s an unfair question. I am neither Zionist, nor anti-Zionist, although I am familiar with the topic and the place. I wrote my thesis on the mid-nineteenth century birth of Jewish national identity. (“I just read Leon Pinsker’s Auto-Emancipation, in the original German,” I told my grandfather once; “you and all the other yekkes,” he retorted.) I‘ve enjoyed a lot of time in Israel, much of it at an archaeological excavation, knee-deep in the dusty, ochre layer where Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the biblical city Ekron, shortly before he moved on to sack Solomon’s first Temple. And, as my grandfather understands, since I‘ve interviewed him at length about it, I have a certain pride about his days as a Chalutz -- a settler and kibbutz pioneer in British Mandatory Palestine.

Both my grandparents were members of Hashomer Hatzair, one of many offshoots in the tangled taxonomy of Jewish nationalism that sought to fuse Zionist aspirations with revolutionary Marxism. They met in “the movement” as kids: Abe was 11, Dotty, my grandmother, 12. It was 1929. Eighteen years later, they boarded the Marine Carp together from pier 81, at 49th Street on the Hudson side of Manhattan, and set sail for Palestine, where they joined a kibbutz on the fertile coastal plain and set about, they believed, rebuilding themselves and the Jewish people through agricultural work and national revival. They heard David Ben-Gurion declare independence on the radio, stood watch with rifles at the kibbutz’s edge in the ensuing war, and lived to celebrate the Armistice declaration. Although they returned to New York because of their infant son‘s poor health, Abe and Dotty worked for the movement the rest of their lives. I’ve always found their story quite heroic -- what conviction to have at age 12! -- I now see it in greater relief: The birth of Israel was not purely valor versus evil, and people like my grandparents were blind to the fact that their great victory was the beginning of a tragedy for another whole people.

It‘s a blindness that carries over today. “They don’t want peace,” my grandfather says. “They‘ve said so since the beginning. Then we gave them the farm at Camp David and they throw it back in our face.” “Camp David wasn’t ‘the farm,’” I point out. “It may have been a bold offer for an Israeli leader to make at the time, but that doesn‘t mean it was a great deal. It left a quarter million Israelis sitting on premium Palestinian land, controlling the water, and between them all the service roads that cut the place into tiny pieces.”

He counters: “If they’d have taken the [U.N.] partition in ‘47, they’d be better off today.”

True, but irrelevant -- and so it goes. This is how not just my own, but virtually all discussions about the Arab-Israeli conflict transpire now. The blame is always somewhere else. Valid points are deflected by adducing the other side‘s faults. This is why I wind up defending the Palestinians with my family and defending Israel with my Arab or political activist friends. It’s also why most commentary about the region, from both perspectives, is so empty, a laundry list of ad hominems. Each side has withdrawn totally behind its own narrow narrative. They would kill us if they could. They‘re on our land. They pass out candy to celebrate suicide bombings. Their army is barbaric. The Arabs are all terrorists. Zionism is racism. We can’t live with them. No, it‘s we who can’t live with them! a

It‘s what my former professor, David Myers, calls an “epistemological chasm”: There are two parallel, and perfectly discrete narratives, like wagon ruts, and no one is willing, as he described, “to accept that there might be more to the story, more than one truth, more than their own truth.”

Politically, this mindset is very limiting. With both sides unwilling to take the moral high ground, it is a classic case of what political theorists call the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Two parties, fates bound, are trapped in the one outcome where they both suffer the most because they‘re afraid of what the other one might do. It’s kind of like bitterly feuding spouses, unable to negotiate a ceasefire of frying pans and vases from behind opposite couches -- “I‘ll stop if you stop;” “you first;” “no, you first” -- and so they stay where they are, looking around for something to throw. In Israel, the situation is unlikely to change with the current configuration of leadership and public opinion, because real conflict resolution requires not only creative leaders but also a basic honesty in negotiation that has all but disappeared from the conversation.

As examples, take Arafat and Co.’s useless bombast about the Gestapo Israel Defense Forces (IDF), or the Bronx cheer Paul Wolfowitz, most hawkish of Bush‘s hawks, received at a recent big pro-Israel rally when he briefly mentioned that some of the Palestinians killed in the occupied territories might be innocents. And it’s the same when Israelis or American Jews endlessly repeat the Camp David myth or Palestinians indifferently chalk up the suicide bombers to the “despair” of occupation -- they are saying the same thing: “This is all your fault.” It‘s accusation without reflection.

“You can’t talk to people who kill innocent civilians!” insists my grandfather during one recent conversation that turned, again, to Israel. “There are dead Palestinian civilians too, you know,” I say. “But their population supports the terrorists,” he replies. “And the Israelis support an army with some very questionable tactics,” I suggest. “But it‘s not the same.”

Trying to quickly get past the sticky question of moral equivalency, I point out that I’m not equating the IDF with Hamas, or anyone, for that matter, whose express purpose is to kill civilians. “Some people,” I say, “always bring up the old bromide that one man‘s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter --” “That‘s a bunch of crap,” he interjects. “Well, I was saying that there is a distinction. I don’t refrain from calling terrorists evil. But the terrorists and the IDF have violated human rights and committed war crimes. Scale and intent aside, that‘s what they share.”

“But why criticize Israel at a time like this?” he asks. “Maybe because it’s the most difficult time to do so,” I say. “Israel is making moral mistakes.” “Oh sure, Israel‘s mistakes!” -- he’s getting a little agitated -- “It‘s the Palestinians who are making a mistake with the bombings!” “That may be,” I say. “There is plenty of condemnation to go around. So condemn! But be consistent. Why is it that criticism of Israelis and Palestinians should be somehow mutually exclusive? Why not point at both? Why pretend the conflict is Manichean?”

I am trying to appeal to my grandfather’s intellectual honesty. He‘s had a natural distaste for demagoguery since the Communists infiltrated his unions and the Stalinists almost drove him out of Hashomer Hatzair. But it’s not working. He pauses and says: “Sometimes you have to overlook family feuds and close ranks.”

This shows how the current crisis distorts opinion, winding it tightly around opposite poles. My grandfather would not have been shy about criticizing someone like Israeli Prime Minister Sharon before. The political movement he comes from was, for decades, often more suspicious of the Israeli right wing than the Arab world. (Ben Gurion, for example, refused to utter the name of Menachem Begin, the right-wing leader who later served as prime minister, on the floor of the Knesset.) For the Left, social progress was equally important as national revival. The right wing, it believed, knew only narrow-minded militarism, and compromised the idea of Zionism by resorting to violence.

“Tell me this,” I ask him. “Is this what you wanted back when you were milking cows and dreaming of Palestine on the training farms in New Jersey? A thirty-year military occupation? Controlling the destinies of millions of unwilling people?” I remind him about Chaim Weizmann, who told the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 that the Zionists did not want to colonize Palestine “like Prussian Junkers.” “And look what‘s happened,” I say. “The Israelis have become conquerors. Did you ever think you’d be throwing your hand in with a guy like Sharon, who offers no way out but more bloodshed? Is this really what you wanted?” After some silence, he answers, with a little hesitation: “No. This is not what we wanted.”

When my grandfather was working as a machinist in Rochester in the 1930s, he went to the foreman for help, and a German nearby on the shop floor, upset by Abe and his frequent questions, muttered under his breath, “‘Was will der faule Jude?’” -- “What does this lazy Jew want?”

“That‘s what we have to remember,” he says, referring to the long history of anti-Semitism. “Let me say I agree with you on principle. The current situation can’t continue. Something has to happen. And the settlements are a big part of the problem. I opposed the settlement policy from the start, I‘ll have you know! However,” he adds, “your viewpoint is entirely analytical. It sounds good. But I have to be more emotional. I’ll admit that up front. There will always be someone to hate us. And we have to stick up for ourselves. You weren‘t there. You don’t know how it was.”

My grandfather, like many Jews, tends to see the future as another potential chapter of Jewish victimization. His view is shaped by direct, unpleasant experience: taunts in the streets, reports of pogroms in the old country, the German in his machine shop, the Holocaust. And he‘s right -- I wasn’t there; I don‘t know how it was. But I think it is precisely this kind of emotion we need to overcome when looking at the political fate of Israel and Palestine. It is a difficult argument to make, especially since the Holocaust figured so centrally in the birth of Israel, and the two events together are the central components of cultural identity for many Jews.

Still, I make it: Understanding the Holocaust means more than shaking your head in the Museum of Tolerance or watching Schindler’s List. The meaning is larger than Jewish suffering. As I told my grandfather, I‘ve engaged the Holocaust intimately, as a student, a Jew, and a proponent of human rights. I chronicled the commemorative culture of the Holocaust in Europe for months, seeing memorials, interviewing survivors, and writing extensively along the way. I stood in Prague’s Pinkas Synogogue on Yom Hashoah, where the Rabbi read, from the walls, the names of all 77,297 murdered Czech Jews, and got weak in the knees when he intoned the terrible names of the places where they were destroyed -- Ve-Terezin . . . Ve-Mejdanek . . . Ve-Osvetim. That last one is the Czech term for Auschwitz, a word that represents not just the nadir of Jewish history, but has also become synonymous with the human capacity for monstrous injustice. It is in the memory of Auschwitz that much of modern human rights law was created. And for Jews today, Auschwitz should not be a call to the ramparts, but rather a call to fight oppression and injustice around the world, even in their own back yard.

To this my grandfather is quiet. I know it‘s asking a lot, I say, to reconcile the two main Jewish imperatives: taking up the cause of social justice and not underestimating one’s enemies. “If you can set aside passion,” I suggest, “Jewish experience demands being critical, of both Palestinians and Israelis. Isn‘t that the idea behind so many biblical stories -- to learn from how we were treated?”

Remember the story, I ask, where God chastised the angels who laughed when the Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea? Those are my people, too, He said. “Israel,” I add, “is like a kid who learned karate to fight off bullies and then winds up victimizing his classmates. I like the idea of Jews defending themselves, and I’m proud of you for that,” I say. “But I don‘t want the Jews to be occupiers. Both sides need to put the gloves down, and why not lead the way?”

I could tell my grandfather was listening intently, because it got so quiet I could hear him smoking. “You might have a point somewhere in there,” he says.

In recent days, there have been some slight movements in the direction of critical introspection. A group of 55 Palestinian intellectuals and politicians recently signed a document that, without the usual “yes, but . . . ,” opposed suicide bombings specifically on moral and not only tactical grounds -- an important step. And even Bush, in a speech several months ago, while not going nearly far enough, acknowledged that the settlements are the biggest physical obstacles to peace. (He asked the Israelis to stop building them.) As for my grandfather, he’s come around a bit, too. The last time Israel came up, he was not intent on arguing. “I‘m saying a prayer for Israel,” he says. “But maybe they should give the whole thing back . . . but who deserves it? Maybe the mosquitoes and the camels. They’ll treat each other better.”

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