Chapter 17. History and memory


It is amazing to see how compassion for those who settled on the land
and “cultivated it for seventy-eighty years”
does not cross the ethnic divide and encompass Arab farmers
who cultivated the same land for a thousand years.

Meron Benvenisti
Sacred Landscape


We feel in England that we have treated you (the Irish)
rather unfairly. It seems history is to blame.

James Joyce, Ulysses


Those who seek freedom must learn to forgive

Rabbi Jonathan Sachs,
Covenant and Conversation



Israeli Jews and Palestinians tend to interpret their current situation in light of their respective histories. In both cases, the similes they make between their present and their past are deeply misleading. Most Israeli Jews –and many Jews in the Diaspora–, often see Palestinians as the latest incarnation of the peoples who have historically persecuted the Jewish people. The Palestinians are Haman, Amalek, the Romans, the Christians, the Spanish, the Germans. They view Israel as a small and weak state surrounded by Jew-hating gentiles. They cannot see that Israel is a strong state and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza a weak developing country fighting for independence or that Palestinian Israelis are a minority suffering many of the same discriminatory practices Jews had undergone in the Diaspora.

Palestinians, on the other hand, view Jews as the latest in a series of colonizers who stayed for some time until they calculated that their Palestinian colony was not worth keeping and left. In Palestinian eyes, Israelis are the latest incarnation of the Crusaders, the Ottomans and the British. They do not realize that, for Jews, Israel is not a colony, but home. Israeli Jews, unlike the Crusaders, the Ottomans and the British, do not have another “home” to go back to and, therefore, they have no intention of letting go of their country –no matter what. Until each side realizes that this episode of their history is utterly unlike any other, a sane future cannot be built on this land.

Our memory and theirs

Jewish culture and religion are based on collective memory. As the People of the Book, this culture is cemented and reflected in writings spanning over four millennia. This memory is built on a three-dimensional concept of time, harking back to the roots of the people, pointing to the Messianic future and passing through a present which is often seen as a mere bridge from origins to destiny. Collective memory is of the utmost importance. It forms the bedrock of our religion and culture and, hence, of our sense of selves.

We will often, however, not accord the same right to historical collective memory to others. As a Palestinian academic told me: “Jews often accuse Palestinians of looking back to history too much. This is a strange accusation for a people who are so deeply rooted in history themselves.” He is not the only one to have realized that inconsistency. In order to stress it, some Palestinian intellectuals are applying Jewish symbols and expressions to their own context and claims. I thought of this conversation as I was strolling through Ramallah and saw a banner announcing the planned 2009 celebrations of Jerusalem as the Capital City for Arab Culture. “Next year in Jerusalem!” read the sign. This is the chant with which Jews end the reading of the story of Passover. I wondered how many Palestinians understood the source of their motto and how Israeli Jews would feel if they saw it. I also remembered my conversation with the insightful Palestinian academic when I heard of the Palestinian version of the Jewish program which takes Diaspora Jews to Israel to strengthen their attachment to the land. The Palestinian program, which similarly brings Diaspora Palestinians to Palestine, like the Jewish program, is called “Birthright.”

Abraham’s land and the Arabs

John is a senior citizen originally from the United States who made alyah a few years ago. He has a PhD and has been a researcher throughout his life. I was speaking to him about his experience in Israel so far and we got to the topic of the West Bank. When I mentioned the Palestinians he said in disbelief, “That is the land of Avraham! There are Arabs there now?” I was amazed. I could have told him that Arabs were the descendants of Ishmael, Avraham’s seed and our cousins. Instead, I answered him, slightly tongue-in-cheek: “Avraham was a while ago, you know? A lot has happened since then and, yes, there are Palestinians there now. Actually, they have been there for quite a long time.” “I would like to go and see that” John said to his credit.

However, the fact that an educated American Jew would not know of the existence of the Palestinians speaks volumes about the degree of denial some of the Jewish community is in regarding the history and the current reality of Israel and the occupied territories. It also reflects the myth that gets perpetuated in the minds of many Jews throughout the world as well as in much of the western world—the continuum between the two-millennia-old abrupt end of Jewish history in the land of Israel and the establishment of the modern state. What was in between is a morass that does not matter much and, to the extent that it does, is the history of the conquerors of the land, especially the crusaders and the Turks. The Arabs who have been living and continue to live in what is today Israel and Palestine, somehow, do not exist. They are something to be ignored (are there Arabs there?), a blotch to be endured and minimized in the new world being created, a ”disease” to be carefully controlled (hence the constant focus on their demographics) or removed –for those advocating deportation and, indirectly, those supporting the expansion of settlements or the exchange of territories with the Palestinian authority. Until there is honesty about Israel’s origins and history, in the country as well as in the Diaspora, the wounds between Jews and Arabs in Israel cannot even begin to heal.

This is temporary!

I had organized a joint break-the-fast for Yom Kippur and Ramadan at my home and Sami had just arrived to join us. Sami is a charming Palestinian American man in his fifties who has come back to live in Palestine after spending most of his life in the US. As I was accompanying him up the stairs of the “Arab” house where I live, I told him, “This house, like much else in Israel, used to be yours of course.” He looked at me and told me with a smile, “What do you mean used to be? It still is! This is temporary!” Sami was joking and he was not joking. I realized I had heard similar comments and hints before. The conception of Israel as “temporary” and the passage of time as something that, in and of itself, by some Deus ex machina, will solve the pristine status quo ante –whatever that may be given the passage of British, Turks, Crusaders, etc.– is something I have encountered before. It was also implied by Hamdi, a staff of the American Colony Hotel. One morning during Ramadan, Hamdi was working by the gorgeous breakfast buffet and I asked him whether it was not hard to stand by the buffet while fasting. He gave me a knowing look and answered, “We are Palestinians. We can wait.” He was not speaking only about food and he knew that I knew what he was saying.

The “shit happens” approach to Palestinians

I was having dinner in Jerusalem with a European Israeli I had previously met in the US. I knew he was a conservative on Israel issues, but we had never discussed them in depth. That day, we started a conversation about Israeli Palestinians and, to my chagrin, I discovered what he really thought: “The expulsion of Arabs during the 1948 war was a good idea. War is war and these things happen. It is too bad we did not do more of it, though, because there are still too many Arabs left in Israel and they are a problem. Now, in peace time, we cannot do such a thing any more. It is too late.” I am embarrassed to say that, since I moved to Israel, I have heard time and again people use the excuse of war and “the need to build a nation state” to justify ethnic cleansing. I think these views come from the combination of a distorted view of what a “normal nation state” looks like (as if it required ethnic homogeneity) and what can be described as the “shit happens” approach to Palestinians. The content of this approach can be summarized as: “Shit used to happen to us; now, shit happens to them. That is history!” Aside from its disastrous implications for Palestinians, for the morality of the Israeli state built on its consequences and for the individual ethics of those who espouse these views, this approach retroactively justifies the discrimination, persecution and expulsion of Jews from other countries. In doing so, it blemishes the memory of centuries of Jewish suffering and draws the exactly wrong conclusions from it.

Finishing the job of 1948

When I think about the policy of settlement expansion that Israeli governments have pursued since 1967 regardless of political party, I cannot make sense of its objectives. This is particularly true if one believes the official position of the center and left that Israel seeks peace, which will require the dismantlement of these settlements. One right wing European Israeli, however, was very straightforward about it: “We are finishing the job of 1948. The end needs to be a fully Jewish state from the Mediterranean to the Jordan and all Palestinians need to move to Jordan” he explained calmly.

What Israel is not

I believe it is important for the Jewish community to realize what Israel is not as much as what it is. It is not the Biblical Kingdom of Israel and it is not the Israel of the time of the (Jewish) Messiah. Rather, it is (or should be) a normal democratic state run according to the principles of international law. This difference has important implications. Because the state of Israel is not the same as the Biblical land of Israel, this means that the country’s borders should not be those of Biblical Israel, but those determined by international law. Similarly, because the contemporary state of Israel is not the Israel that Jewish sources foresee for the time of the Messiah, direct inferences cannot be made from biblical and Talmudic sources on how the contemporary State of Israel should be run. For instance, it should not be a state run by Jewish law, but a normal, secular, democratic state. In short, the modern State of Israel is not the Israel of the (Jewish) past nor is it the Israel of the (Jewish) future. Rather, the Israel of the present time should be a different thing altogether—a normal democratic state run according to international law.

You are always taking part in crimes you don’t even know of

I was seating in a coffee shop with a friend in West Jerusalem. Next to us was a mixed group of Israelis and Diaspora Jews in the midst of an animated discussion. I was not listening closely and do not know what the overall topic of their conversation was. Something a young woman said, however, jumped out at me. She said: “You are always taking part in crimes you don’t even know of.” The sentence really struck me. I thought back to it on many occasions while living in Israel as it very much reflected how I felt living there. Starting from my home. I chose to live in the same Jerusalem neighborhood my best friend from the US who had made alyah lived in. It was a neighborhood taken over by Israel in 1948 and from which its original Palestinian inhabitants had fled after witnessing the expulsions from neighboring areas and the approaching Israeli troops. My apartment is a completely new apartment. However, it is built on top of an original “Arab house” which used to have a Palestinian family living there –a family who are now refugees in some far away corner of the world or are just living next door in East Jerusalem. From the beginning, I knew I could not live in an apartment from which its original inhabitants had fled or been expelled, but I also felt that if I was not willing to live in an apartment which was built on top of prior Arab property, there were not many places where I could live in Israel. I told myself that, as long as my apartment was not refugee property and it was within the 1967 borders, it was fine. And despite this rationalization, I felt I was taking part in crimes I did not even know the full extent of.

This heightened awareness of trying to draw boundaries between the acceptable and the unacceptable was part of my daily life in Israel. I would watch my water consumption carefully in a way I had never done before because I knew that, if we used too much, the water supply of Bethlehem or of some refugee camp in the West Bank would be cut off. I would not take buses that were going to a settlement in order to reach a neighboring Arab area even if it was convenient, but I decided I would take buses within the city of Jerusalem even if the line started or finished in a settlement (in part because otherwise I could hardly take any). I was careful about accepting invitations to events to check out who was organizing them and what they were commemorating since so much celebrating organized by the Jerusalem municipality was connected with the “40 years of reunification” of the city. I would ask where people lived and looked the town or neighborhood up on my settlements list before extending or accepting an invitation. I felt I constantly had to check the facts, assess the ethics and make decisions, even at a very basic everyday level, because I realized that, as the lady at the coffee shop said, “you are always taking part in crimes you don’t even know of,” especially in Israel.

Sacred Landscape

Sacred Landscape is the title of a wonderful book by the Israeli writer Meron Benvenisti. It documents the systematic process of physical erasure of the Palestinian landscape from the historical land of Palestine and the imposition of a new Jewish-Zionist landscape atop it. Benvenisti was the son of a distinguished Zionist geographer who travelled throughout historical Palestine drawing a new map of the land that would erase any remnants of Arab landscape, physical and human, and transform it into the new Israeli state. The book is brilliant in its frank acknowledgment of the determined and premeditated nature of the project, its iron will to erase any signs of Arab presence in the land and its unbending objective of literally burying one thousand years of Arab presence under a new Zionist world with a Biblical topographical veneer. The book also acknowledges how the fact that the accuracy of the Biblical topographical names was often shaky or even clearly wrong was overlooked for the sake of the political task of renaming the landscape. This process of burying the Arab presence to lay claim over the landscape of Israel and Palestine while unearthing any remnants of historical Jewish presence continues to this day in a febrile attempt of Israelis to forget their long absence from the land as well prove –to themselves as much as to the world— that the Arabs, in reality, never were there.

I say hello to your family every morning

Francine and her husband Claude are a Belgian couple in their seventies. They made alyah to Israel a few years ago. They are what is called “hidden children,” namely children who were hidden during the holocaust by gentile families to spare them from deportation to the death camps. Their families were slaughtered by the Nazis. Though I do not know the details of their story, it is clear that, at one point in their lives, they became observant Jews. They are both PhD scientists. More importantly, they are some of those people who make you wonder where they get their strength and optimism from. They are kind and gentle and always have a smile on their face.

One day, after services in synagogue, Francine shared with the congregation the experience of her recent trip to Germany. She went to Berlin, in particular to the street where her family had lived before being deported. It was her first time back there and, understandably, an emotionally very difficult time for her. The German government had held a ceremony and put a plaque in the street commemorating her family, with the names of all the family members killed in the death camps. A few days after the ceremony, Francine went back to see the plaque. A Canadian woman who lived just across the street stopped by to speak to her. She told Francine, “Don’t worry. You can go back to Israel now. I will take care of the plaque. Every day, I stop by to say hello to your family.” Francine was deeply moved by the empathy of that stranger with no relation to either Jews or Germany, just a human being capable of feeling with the pain of another and willing to extend her hand and her heart to her. I felt that, in some strange small way, this was an act of cosmic healing. A story that had started with the tragedy caused by the evil and indifference of strangers was in some way coming to a close with the empathy and compassion of another stranger.

We are all refugees

One of the dimensions of the Palestinian predicament for which I have found the least sympathy in the Jewish community is the plight of Palestinian refugees. The most prevalent attitude I encountered can be summarized through the sentence a young American Jewish woman used when discussing Palestinian refugees: “We are all refugees” she retorted. Her point –which I have heard in very similar forms from many Jews—is basically that we as Jews have been refugees many times, from many countries, at many points in time. In the view of these people, Jews, as opposed to Palestinians, simply adapted to a new country, became part of it and “moved on with it.” The implication is: “why all the fuss about Palestinian refugees?” The fault is theirs –Arabs should never have started wars against Israel and, once they did and ended up causing the refugee problem, they should have absorbed Palestinian refugees in their own societies. Of course, there is a lot that can be said to counter this simile. There are no Jews in any country today that are refugees –namely that have no nationality and no country (as is the case of Palestinians today) and who are not allowed to go back to their country of origin. In addition, we never did move on with it in the case in which our country was destroyed –we remembered it for two thousand years and made it the basis to found the modern state of Israel. Perhaps most poignantly, though, we Jews have fought tooth and nail –and rightly so—so that Jews who have been expelled and expropriated from any country can be compensated for what they lost –so, why shouldn’t Palestinians?

Imagined continuities

I was in Jerusalem having a conversation with Martha, a Catholic European acquaintance. We were discussing my teaching at Bethlehem University and, inevitably, we started discussing the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. For some time, we had quite a congenial conversation. At one point, though, our paths parted. Martha started speaking about the Israeli re-occupation of Bethlehem in 2002. She said in horror: “The Israelis surrounded the Church of the Nativity…Jews surrounding the Church of the Nativity!” and looked at me for assent. I just had a blank look. I had no idea what she was implying. My concerns in the re-occupation of the West Bank by Israel are for the Palestinian lives that were taken, the enormous material destruction that the Israeli troops left behind, and the lost decade of oppression and death that followed. But it took me some time to understand why the specific image of the Church of the Nativity surrounded by “Jews” was so horrible for Martha.

I had the fortune of not growing up with Christian anti-Semitism, which explains my initial innocence to her perspective. As I reflected later, though, I understood. Despite the fact that in reality it has been Jews who, for two millennia, have suffered at the hands of Christian persecution, in the Christian anti-Semitic worldview, it is Jews who are seen as aggressors. This perception is grounded on the perception of Jews as culpable for the execution of Jesus and of all Jews throughout history as the descendants of those Jews. Since my conversation with Martha, I have noticed her same mental historical connection in some other Europeans. In that imagined continuity, Jews are always the bad guys: Jews are the bad guys in the New Testament narrative; Jews continue to be the bad guys in the Middle Ages (through the old stereotypes of money-lending); and Jews are still the bad guys today in Israel and Palestine. I believe it is these imagined continuities that are the basis of the anti-Semitism that pervades some European and other Christian critiques of Israel.

Zionism and the settlements

I attended a lecture at the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem about a recently published book on the settlement enterprise. The author, a well-known left-wing Zionist Israeli, was arguing that the settlement enterprise was a radical departure from and was destroying Zionism. His basic argument was that Zionism was a secular ideology that was very flexible on how much and which land it would take in order to create a Jewish state. He was right on that and could have added that its ultimate goal, consistent with Judaism, was to save Jewish lives. Instead, he argued, the settler movement is a fundamentalist religious movement combined with extreme nationalism. It is also willing to sacrifice Jewish lives in order to attain its millenialist goals. The presenter was right regarding the first Zionists such as Herzl. Indeed, Herzl was a secular statesman without a state looking for a piece of land, wherever it may be and as small as it may be, so he could avert what he presciently saw as the destruction of Europe’s Jewry. He also wanted the Jewish people to be able to build a normal state. It is also true that there are important differences between both enterprises, the key one being that the original pioneers were largely working within the boundaries of legality, including international law, and the settlers are not.

As it was implemented, however, Zionism was never the building of the “normal state” envisaged by Herzl and referred to by Ben Gurion. In reality, its character was, from the beginning, very similar to the current settler enterprise. It was exclusivist –a Jewish-only enterprise. The means of operation of the two movements are also strikingly akin. They both seek to take as much land for Jews and reduce Arabs to as small a space as feasible. Settlers use facts on the ground and government support just like Zionism used the occasions of the wars in 1948 and 1967 as well as land policies, urban demarcation, building permits, residence and citizenship limitations to take as much land from Arabs as possible. Although the author was trying to prove the opposite, what he made me realize was how great the continuity from the original Zionists to the contemporary settlers was. No wonder the settlers see themselves –and much of the Israeli public perceives them as—today’s incarnation of the original pioneers and of the Zionist movement. This would also explain why all Israeli parties have without exception supported, encouraged and indeed led the settler enterprise. They are two faces of the same objective.

A world without context

Sometimes when I am reading Jewish history, I feel I am reading about a world without a context. I read about the Jews of Catalonia with the word Catalonia barely being mentioned or there being any reference to the economic, social, political and cultural context of the Catalonia of the time. All the references about context are Jewish –the Jewish communities of other parts of the world and Jewish history. But no context of the society in which Catalan Jews lived. The same is true for a lot of Jewish history –whether books or education. Jewish students study world history and Jewish history separately, as if they were two parallel worlds which did not communicate except when the gentile world rose up to strike the Jews. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. I read a wonderful book about the “Yiddish Civilization” which followed the exact opposite path –and the one I believe it would be most helpful for Jewish history to follow –one that placed Jewish communities in the context of the world in which the Gentile world they lived in, spelling out what they learned from that world and what they contributed to it. It was a book that provided enormous insight into how Eastern European Jewry developed throughout the centuries, carefully spelling out the plentiful exchanges that took place between the Jewish and the Gentile world, all the positive interactions between them, as well as their tensions and conflicts. I hope one day Jewish history and world history will be inseparable, as it is in that book and in reality.

You can build your own settlement here!

Monika is a very special German woman. She is spending two years in Israel/Palestine working with both peoples in some of their most traumatic experiences. She volunteers at Yad Vashem (Israel’s Holocaust Museum) as well as at Israeli organizations investigating human rights abuses against Palestinians in the occupied territories. One day, she was working at Yad Vashem and asked her supervisor whether she could change her schedule because she needed to do something urgent for her other job. The supervisor asked her what her other job was and Monika told her. His face changed and he stopped talking to her. When she came back a day later, he had moved her work-station to a side desk and told her dismissively, “You can build your own settlement here!” Monika, getting the message, went about finding a new position at Yad Vashem. She found it, working for a supervisor who has a different view of the compatibility of simultaneously working for Yad Vashem and for the protection of the human rights of Palestinians and is an active member of Peace Now herself.

We were doing fine then!

Some people on both the Palestinian and the Jewish sides have an interesting vision of what the ideal state of affairs was in the co-existence between the two peoples. Neither of these two visions, however, takes any account of how the other side lived and felt under the circumstances they describe as ideal for themselves or offers a good road map to the future. Some Palestinians will say, “We were living so well before the declaration of the state of Israel. There were Jews and Arabs here and we all lived peacefully side by side.” This is an understandable Palestinian perspective, but it does not take account of the feelings and wishes of the immense majority of Jews. Only a small group among the ultra-orthodox and the tiny extreme left would agree with such an assessment of the pre-state days as a golden era and fewer yet would consider it a plan they wish to replicate in the future. After 2,000 years of alien sovereignty ending in the holocaust, the great dream of the Jewish people was to have a state where Jews were finally the majority and they have no desire to be submitted once again to alien sovereignty.

Some Jews have their own version of the one-sided ideal of co-existence. It is the post 1967 and pre-intifada period. This view is harder to understand and morally and legally impossible to justify. “Things were great then!,” some Jews will say, “there was one open country, everyone could go back and forth for work or visits. It all got ruined by the intifada.” When I hear this argument I try to re-phrase it for whoever has made it: “You mean that, after Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza, took more and more land in the occupied territories for settlement construction every day, did not give its people any citizenship rights, used them –at will—as cheap labor and they did not rebel things were good, right?” Sometimes people will get my point and sometimes they will not.

Though there are significant differences between these two utopias, both sides need to realize –and most people on both sides do—that the only feasible way forward at present is a two-state solution where each people is a majority in its own country. Neither the pre-Israeli state utopia of Palestinians nor the post-occupation pre-intifada dream land of Jews were the ideal situations their proponents make them out to be nor are they repeatable in the future.

They hate us

One of the most common statements of Israeli Jews about Arabs is that they “hate us.” The way in which this statement is formulated is, at first sight, surprising. It is said as if it were something both incomprehensible and in front of which we, as Jews, were totally powerless. When people say it, it sounds as if this state of affairs is just the way things are –Arabs hate us. I heard this statement from a large number of people, many of whom were trying to convince me either not to engage with Palestinians or to justify the policies of the Israeli government. My interlocutors seemed to believe there was no reason why Arabs hated us or anything we could do about it.

I finally realized what was happening. It was in a conversation with an ultra-orthodox girlfriend. She made it explicit: “The Arabs hate us. This is the way it has always been and that is the way it will always be. The goyim (the gentiles) hate us no matter what we do.” She was pretty right historically speaking. For millennia, Jews have been persecuted across the world, no matter what we did. When we were rich, we were envied for being rich and “controlling the world.” When we were poor, we were despised for being poor and our misfortune was attributed to divine displeasure of us. When we kept apart, we were criticized for not integrating and when we integrated we were resented for “taking over the system.” I agree with my friend that, when one looks at Jewish history, her statement is an unfortunately correct generalization. Jews are often hated no matter what we do, out of no fault of our own, and there is little –if anything—we can do about it.

The situation in Israel, however, is completely different. We are no longer a persecuted minority, but an oppressing majority. Despite this, I have been constantly surprised at how patient, reasonable, open-minded and generous Palestinians are given the circumstances they are forced to live in. The feelings described by Israeli Jews, however, are probably a good enough generalization. “Arabs” (specifically Palestinians)–unfortunately, again—have many reasons to hate us and we keep on providing them with more reasons every day. Anyone who studies the Israeli-Palestinian conflict objectively can easily see the manifold reasons why Palestinians would hate Israeli Jews. This is a not a good thing (hatred never is). What I am saying is that the reasons why it happens are obvious for anyone looking at the situation with open eyes and, hence, that it can be dealt with at a rational individual behavior and policy levels.

The thousands-year-old history of Jewish persecution, however, together with mainstream Zionist rhetoric about the conflict, would make it sound as if the current feelings of Palestinians are just a new reincarnation of traditional anti-Semitism. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is also a dangerous untruth because it is disempowering and it exculpates Israeli Jews of responsibility –if they hate us just because of who we are and not because of what we do, we are not at fault and there is nothing we can do to make things different. We are not at fault. They are.

The Palestinian Peasant

It was a beautiful Sunday morning in the springtime and I had decided to join an American friend who was in Jerusalem for work in visiting a photography exhibit in the old city. She told me it would be particularly interesting because our guide would be the same Palestinian artist and intellectual who had taken the pictures and put together the exhibit. It was indeed a fascinating experience. The exhibit focused on rural life in an area of the West Bank called the Southern Hebron Hills. Our guide, a member of one of Jerusalem’s distinguished old-time families, is not just an artist, but also an amateur anthropologist. He is keenly interested and deeply immersed in Palestinian culture. This interest does not only extend to Jerusalem “high culture,” but also to the culture of rural Palestine. As we proceeded through the exhibit, I realized that his research is focused on trying to prove the deep and long-standing roots of Palestinians in the historical land of Palestine. Through the traditions, linguistic expressions and popular pre-Islamic religious practices of Palestinian peasants, he is trying to trace the origins of contemporary Palestinians to the Biblical Canaanites –the people who inhabited the land before the arrival of the Israelites. This is an intriguing exercise and an art more than a science. It is also, of course, highly political. At one point in the tour of the exhibit, our host turned to us and said: “See, many different peoples have been through this land, but, at the end of the day, all that remains is the Palestinian peasant.” I thought that, in his mind, the contemporary political implications of that statement were probably obvious.

This is the Wailing Wall?

Ibrahim had asked me to go to some Jewish sites in Jerusalem with him. He was born in East Jerusalem, but he does not know west Jerusalem or Jewish sites well. He does not feel comfortable going there on his own and was not even sure whether he was allowed to. He told me he would like to go to the Wailing Wall and to Yad Vashem. I told him that I would be very happy to go with him. One Sunday morning, we strolled around East Jerusalem and went to the Wailing Wall. He stood at some distance and looked incredulously at the wall. “Is that it?” He muttered. “What do you mean?” I asked him, somewhat taken aback. “I mean, is this it? This is the Wailing Wall?” he repeated. “Yes!” I said emphatically. “It is so small. So much fighting, so much…for this? I imagined something much bigger” he continued. I had to think twice before replying. I wanted to tell him that no war had been started over this wall, but decided instead to try to convey why it was so important to the Jewish people in a way that he could understand.

I have never been impressed by large buildings, whether political or religious. I am always suspicious that the powers who build them are trying to awe the bystander and dull his judgment instead of appealing to his reason. For Jews, after the Temple was destroyed, the tradition has been not to build great, imposing structures, but rather modest, functional ones where praying, learning, and community-building take place. Personally, one of the reasons I love synagogues and feel so comfortable in them is precisely that they are typically not imposing. But I tried to put myself in Ibrahim’s place. The Muslim world has wonderful architecture, including and especially religious architecture and is very proud of it. In his mind, Ibrahim was probably comparing the Wailing Wall to the Dome of the Rock or the Al Aqsa Mosque behind them. I am also not attracted to stones as religious symbols. They always seem to take priority over people, especially in the Holy Land.

The Wailing Wall, however, is special. Precisely because it is small and old, intimate, unfinished and imperfect, like our world, and battered and awaiting redemption, like ourselves. I told Ibrahim that, even for Jews who are not attached to any other sites, the Wailing Wall is of the greatest religious and emotional importance. That it is all we have left of our Temple, that we mourned it for two thousand years of Diaspora and that it took on even greater dimensions in our hearts because we were barred from getting close to it during long periods of time and, in recent history, from 1948 until 1967. When you love something and you can’t have it, I told him, it looms larger in your imagination and you grow fonder to it in your heart. “Just like Jerusalem for Palestinians” Ibrahim said. “Yes, just like Jerusalem for Palestinians,” I answered.

The Holocaust Gap

I had a group of Spanish and Palestinian friends over to my home for dinner in Jerusalem. One of them –Ahmad– is a Muslim Palestinian intellectual involved in the field of fostering dialogue between Jews and Palestinians in Israel through education. One of my Spanish friends asked Ahmad what he thought of the trips that are organized for Palestinians to go and learn about the Holocaust in Europe and visit concentration camps. “It is a Christian thing,” Ahmed said dismissively. “What do you mean?” I asked him defensively. “I mean that it is Palestinian Christians who are interested in this.” I do not remember exactly what else Ahmad said, but I do remember that he simply could not relate. More than that, I felt his hostility to the initiative. As a Jew, I realized there was a great gap between us. Someone who cannot sympathize with us on the Holocaust can never come close to understanding us as a people. I had a similar conversation with Yusef, another Palestinian academic. Spain had just given the prestigious Principe de Asturias award to the Yad Vashem (Holocaust) museum in Jerusalem. “Again!” was Yusef’s reaction. We Palestinians are tired of the Holocaust being brought up all the time to remember the suffering of Jews in the past. “What about our suffering now?”

None of these two men were claiming that what was happening in Palestine now was genocide or were even comparing the two situations. They simply felt –and they are not the only ones—that the former is being used to justify or to dull criticism of Israel’s role in the latter. What is seen as the political use of the Holocaust together with the ongoing suffering of Palestinians prevent them from mustering the psychological openness to try to understand and empathize with the history that brought Jews back to Israel. Not all Palestinians share these feelings. I also have friends who do have this ability and even the interest to go and visit Yad Vashem (including Palestinian Muslims). However, I believe that this interest, openness and generosity of spirit can only become a majority attitude once there is a sovereign Palestinian State and, within Israel, Palestinians are treated as full citizens. For the moment, sadly and worryingly, remembrance of the Holocaust is seen by most Palestinians as a political ruse to justify their suffering today with the suffering of Jews in the past.

Who’s on first?

The single most unhelpful argument in Israel/Palestine can be seen as a version of the American children’s game “Who’s on first?” I was once speaking to the daughter of a university professor, a bright and loquacious teenage Palestinian girl from Jerusalem. She told me about a peace program in which she had participated that brought together Israelis and Palestinians. I asked her how it went. She told me that everything went well until the Palestinians told the Israelis that they needed to understand that they –the Palestinians—were there (in Israel/Palestine) first. The Jews answered that they were there first and had been expelled only to be able to come back two thousand years later. There was just no way to agree on that issue which brought great dissent among the students. I heard a similar story from a Jewish friend who works at an NGO which organizes inter-religious dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis. She told me that the exchanges among participants are very fruitful –though not always easy–, but that the most problematic issue is getting Palestinians to understand the Jewish attachment to the land of Israel. I think she meant that Palestinians do not understand the Jewish attachment to a land in which only such a small number Jews had lived for two thousand years and the conversion of that attachment into a political right.

I strongly believe that “understanding” on such issues is unnecessary to reaching practical solutions to the region’s most pressing problems and that, for the moment, they are best left alone. I do not think we –Jews– can expect Palestinians (with the exception of particularly open-minded intellectuals) to understand the two-thousand-year-old Jewish attachment to the land of Israel while in exile. It is difficult for any outsider to understand. For Palestinians, added to that general difficulty is the additional psychological barrier of being asked to “understand” an emotional attachment which has de facto been used to justify their dispossession. Right now, the most fruitful arguments are those that are practical and discuss policy issues within Israel itself and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These are arguments based on international law and democratic principles. Understanding each other’s histories and memories are probably the long-term job of joint Jewish-Arab schools in Israel and of intellectuals on both sides. Moreover, I believe that a real rapprochement between both sides on such charged issues can only take place when the flagrant injustices of the present –the occupation and the exclusionary nature of the Israeli state– are resolved. For the moment, it sounds too much like asking the oppressed to understand the motives of the oppressor.

DNA and culture

It was a couple of months after my return to Washington D.C. As I was having a conversation with Laura, a World Bank colleague, the memories from my experience in Israel and Palestine were still fresh. Laura is European –like myself—. When I recounted to her that I had just come back from two years in Israel/Palestine, she told me that her husband was Jewish and we started discussing the Middle East. Though she agreed that Israel had serious problems, especially as regards Palestinians, Laura was optimistic things would change: “The Jewish people are so steeped in learning and social justice” she said eagerly. Her enthusiasm reminded me of myself before I went to Israel. I was happy to meet a European who was so genuinely fond of Jewish culture and its contributions while at the same time I could not help thinking that she had had little exposure to what had happened to that culture in Israel. I told her that things were very different there. She agreed, but insisted that all those good Jewish characteristics were still there, even if latent –“It’s in their DNA” she said only half tongue-in-cheek. “No” I told her in all seriousness “That is precisely the issue. These values are not embedded in DNA (none ever are). They are embedded in culture and culture can change.”

I believe it is indeed the case that Jewish values were deeply embedded in the social environment of the Diaspora, in Jewish education and in Judaism. These three elements, though, are fundamentally changed in Israel and are conspiring to eradicate the pride in intellectual achievement and passion for justice that was the hallmark of four thousand years of Jewish history. There are some in Israel who realize this danger and are engaged in activities to try and counter it. Unfortunately, however, they are a small minority in the midst of a hardened Zionist mainstream that is highly hostile to Diaspora Jewish culture, traditional Judaism and the values they embody. What is even more worrying, I realized months later after my return, Diaspora Jews themselves do not use the same standards of social justice they use on other issues as far as Israel and Palestine are concerned. They are blind to them.

The Naqba and time

I have met some Palestinians who feel that their communities are overly focused on the Naqba. When I first heard such an argument, I was taken aback. I come from the other extreme perspective –the Jewish world—in which we never explain what Zionism, the establishment of the state of Israel and its consequences meant for Palestinians. As a result, I strongly feel that the Naqba is a central element of any honest narrative of Palestinian-Israeli history and conflict. My Palestinian friends do not disagree with this view. What they believe is that, in their community, there is such an exaggerated emphasis placed on the Naqba narrative that it takes on a quasi-mythical dimension. As such, it dominates the political discourse, overshadows the present and does not allow for an honest discussion of real options for the future. I once read an eloquent article on this subject written by a Palestinian intellectual. His view was that Palestinian intellectuals had elevated the Naqba narrative to such a status that it was almost “holy.” In the world he describes, those academics and politicians using the socially accepted narrative of the Naqba and the Palestinian past are automatically validated while being relieved of the need to address Palestinian contemporary reality, its tragedies and its failures and, most importantly, of the critical task of planning for the future.


I believe one should always be careful in using historical parallels to contemporary situations. This is particularly the case when those parallels are heavily loaded. This is very much the case with the epithet “Nazi.” Unfortunately, there have been many dictatorial and racist regimes in the history of the world. There have also been a number of totalitarian governments of various stripes. The Nazi regime, however, was particularly atrocious. Not only did it single-handedly start a World War, but it carried out the most comprehensive and systematic genocide in history –the extermination of European Jewry in the holocaust. Because of this, the Jewish community is justifiably critical when the term “Nazi” is used lightly to refer to other regimes, let alone when it is used to attack the Israeli government.

It is precisely because of this that I was so appalled to hear elements of the settler community use the term “Nazi” so liberally. Indeed, they use it frequently to refer to the Israeli government and the Israeli army as it relates to them. Whenever an initiative is launched to remove some settlers from an “illegal” outpost, the army is berated by the offending settlers as “Nazis.” Perhaps it is this, as much as the settlers’ physical attacks on Israeli soldiers and their resistance to government authority that have led even the mainstream of the Israeli establishment –who had been quite happy to ignore settler abuse of Palestinians for decades– to finally identify the ideological settler community as a danger to the State of Israel.

Men who grew up in the sand

I was talking to Mikhail, a Russian-Israeli friend, about the discrimination that seemed to exist in Israel against Russian Jews. I had noticed they were easily blamed for all sorts of things –for not integrating enough into the country, for keeping Russian-speaking networks, for being too secular, for not being really Jewish, for milking the country—among others. Some of these generalizations may be true, but so are they for other groups. I felt there was something else behind these arguments and that they hid a particular eagerness to berate Russian Jews. I was also struck by the protestations of Gaydamak, the Russian-Israeli candidate to mayor of Jerusalem in 2009. I attended a presentation made by the four mayoral candidates to an English-speaking audience and was saddened to hear Gaydamak say repeatedly that he was as Jewish as anybody else in Israel and that he belonged in the country as much as other people. To me, that was obvious and went without saying. It was also clear to me that a French or an American Jew immigrating to Israel would not have felt the same need to justify himself.

So, I asked Mikhail whether my assessment of discrimination against and of Russian Jews’ sense of vulnerability in the country was right and, if so, why it existed. He told me that I was right that the discrimination existed and the accusations I recounted were common. Russians, when they come to Israel, Mikhail explained, like to keep their roots —their names, their language, their culture and their social networks. Israeli sabras strongly frown upon that. “They want to pretend they are men who grew up in the sand” he summarized. I though that was a brilliant summary of the enormous pressure which Zionism places on new immigrants coming into the country. They are encouraged to forget where they came from –change their names, stop speaking their languages (whether Yiddish, German, or Arabic), change their culture (from Jewish European or Jewish Arab/Sephardic to “sabra”), and “integrate” into the country rather than keeping networks from back home. Everything from the Diaspora is dismissed and new arrivals are expected to become, as Mikhail aptly pointed out “men who grew up in the sand.” Russians refuse to follow that norm and, as a result, they are sternly resented.

Us and them

Throughout Jewish history, there has always been a creative tension between our focus inward, on us as a community, and our focus outward, toward the rest of the world. Some groups –typically the more liberal, less ritually observant Jews—have focused more on outward action and social justice in their country and in the world at large. These were the Jews who were involved in trade union and socialist movements in Europe, the civil rights movement in the US or the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. They were also the Jews who came and fought in the international brigades in the Spanish civil war –which included a disproportionately high number of Jews—when the rest of the world was happy to witness the demise of the Spanish democratic republic from the sidelines. More ritually observant Jews typically focus on the Jewish community and have helped provide an extremely impressive network of education, health, social welfare and community support institutions throughout history.

In Israel, I feel this balance has been broken, or is badly out of whack and in urgent need of repair. In fact, there are grave shortcomings on both ends. Israel’s almost exclusive focus seems to be inward, toward Israel and toward Israeli Jews. The focus outward is almost non-existent, to the point that even the connection to the Jewish Diaspora is weakening. There is a (very) small left wing of people involved in NGOs reaching out to Palestinians and to the rest of the world. Other than that, the immense majority of the country is thoroughly engrossed in itself. This inward focus, however, has not translated into a cohesive and equitable society. On the contrary, there are enormous rifts across ethnic and religious lines. Moreover, there has been a tremendous erosion of social expenditures and social safety nets and Israel is now –jointly with the US and Australia—the most unequal country in the developed world. It is true that the war-like circumstances that have surrounded the country since its creation go a long way toward explaining this inward-looking tendency. However, it is high time to begin opening up toward the Jewish Diaspora, toward Arabs and outward, to the rest of the world. It is also time to strengthen bonds –economic, social, political and cultural— within Israel itself.


A disturbing fact I came to realize while spending time in Palestine was the deep level of denial in which Palestinians are regarding Muslim fundamentalism and its terror activities across the world. I am not speaking about the Israel/Palestine context. Neither am I speaking about people who argue that American foreign policy encourages these activities, such as in the case of the US support for the Taliban or the Iraq war (both statements I would agree with). I am talking about people who simply deny that the phenomenon exists. This phenomenon is a reality in Europe, the US, India, Thailand, Pakistan, Russia, the Philippines, Kenya and Tanzania, just to cite a few countries. A large majority of Palestinian Muslims, however, deny this fact. This is supported by both my conversations with people as well as by opinion surveys in the Arab and Muslim world.

I have spoken to many Palestinians who say that September 11th was not carried out by Al-Qaeda, but rather by the US itself in order to have an excuse to invade Iraq. When one mentions the –many—countries where there is Muslim fundamentalist terrorism, the reaction is typically that this phenomenon is not really going on, that it is a set-up (in ways that are never specified). When one argues that the US, on the one hand, would not do such a thing to its own people or, on the other, that it has never needed an excuse to invade a country it wanted to invade, the reaction is shutdown. It seems to be something many people simply seem to have decided to believe. It is also a reflection of the poor quality of the Arab press and of the veracity of its information as well as of the enormous amount of conspiracy theories flying around in web-sites. It is an extremely disturbing fact revealing a profound gap between the reality of the Muslim world and its self-perception. Until that gap is bridged, no serious attempt can be made to address a trend that is a great danger to a vibrant and open Arab world, to the survival of other world cultures and to the dialogue between both.


There were times during my stay in Israel/Palestine in which I felt that my optimism on the future of these countries was simply based on faith. If one analyzed facts and policies on the ground, the political position of both sides including the progressive radicalization of their extremes and the disenchantment and loss of hope of the mainstream, reason seemed to predict a continuation of the conflict into the foreseeable future. And yet, I also believed that “things would eventually be alright.” Since the election of Barack Obama to the White House, I –and millions of others with me—have a rational basis for hope in the solution of this seemingly intractable conflict. Before his election, however, I simply had no rational basis for hope and, yet, I did hope. I summarized my attitude to a friend in saying that my inner conviction that things would eventually work out was more based on faith than on rational analysis.



Chapter 18. Outsiders

On the day you kill me
You’ll find in my pocket
Travel tickets
To peace,
To the fields and the rain,
To people’s conscience.
Don’t waste the tickets.

Sami Al-Qassim
Victims of a Map


Hatred for Israel rather than love for Palestinians

I had presented a proposal for a graduate course in international development to be taught jointly between Tel Aviv University (where I was working) and Al Quds University to a European aid agency in Palestine. I received a response that dismayed me. The proposal was turned down because it was too “Israel-focused.” I wrote back asking how a proposal that is prepared jointly by one professor at an Israeli university and two professors at a Palestinian university to be team-taught by professors from both universities for students at both universities was too “Israel-focused” and requested suggestions on how to correct this bias. I never received a reply as I knew I would not. The subtext of the message –as a European I can feel those attitudes quickly when I see them or read them—was that anything that involved Israel simply made the proposal unacceptable. I would have understood that position coming from a Palestinian university. However, if the objective of a donor agency is to support development in Palestine and a Palestinian university feels it can gain from developing and delivering a course jointly with an Israeli university and for students from both sides to discuss development together, why should a European agency not trust the judgment of the Palestinians? I felt strongly this was a case of what I have come to think of as “hating the Israelis more than loving the Palestinians.” This attitude is put to the test precisely when there is an initiative that can benefit Palestinians while also reflecting positively on Israel–if the key goal is to support Palestinians, one ought to support it; however, if the main goal is to undermine Israel, then one should not. It also reflects the condescending western view that we always know better than developing countries what is best for them.

Not a people

Ruba is an Arab professional in her late fifties whom I had briefly met in Washington D.C. She came to Jerusalem for a short assignment and we met for a coffee. We had never discussed the Israeli-Palestinian problem before. That time around, we discussed it a lot. On some issues –such as the treatment of Palestinians within Israel and the basic outline of a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, we had similar views. On others, however, we did not. One of her statements particularly shocked me and stuck in my mind. At one point in our discussions, she told me that Jews were not a people. I found the statement so absurd that, at first, I did not even know how to respond to it. My personal view is that the definition of a people is subjective. Any group who consider themselves to be a people are a people and there is nothing outsiders can do about it. Actually, the more they oppose the group’s view, the more they will feel like a people. The fact that anyone would question that Jews are a people, though, was particularly jarring to me. “How do you tell one of the most ancient peoples in the world, a group which has considered itself to be a people for four thousand years and has as long a written history and intra-group solidarity to back it up that they are not a people? If Jews are not a people, who in the world is?”

She insisted that Jews were a religion, not a people. I told her that we were first a people (we became a people through the experience in Egypt and the Exodus) and only later (through receiving the Torah at Sinai) did we become a religion. Even if one does not accept the Torah as a historical document, thousands of years of Jewish history prove that Jews have viewed themselves as a people, with a group solidarity which has crossed the religious-non-religious divide. The histories of Zionism and of Israel itself –which have brought together Jews from many countries and varied degrees of connection to Judaism- prove it. Most Zionists, moreover, were rabidly secular. They were acting as a people, not a religious group.

I got the sense that her argument was an accepted dogma in her circles and that she was unwilling to entertain a different view about it. I believe the canard of Jews not being a people is sometimes used in the Arab world to deny Jews the right to a country –peoples have a right to a country, religions do not. I find this not only false, but also a most unhelpful argument. Whether one believes Jews are a people or a religion, Israel exists. The key is to make it exist as a normal country. The argument to make Israel become a normal country is that no one has a right to exclusivity in any democratic state. We all need to share and so does Israel. Interestingly, I have not heard the argument of Jews not being a people from Palestinians. I believe they are more realistic than some of their Arab brothers. They realize that the key is to open up Israel’s definition as a country.

We will pay!

I was driving back from the West Bank into Jerusalem with my friend Jan, a northern European diplomat. As usual, we were discussing the Israeli-Palestinian problem. At one point, Jan stopped what he was saying and looked at me: “We are so tired of this conflict. Every time the European Council meets, the issue is on the table. Our leaders are just sick and tired of it. We just want an agreement. Anything. We will pay. We are ready to pay, whatever it takes.” It was interesting to hear him say that. I am European. I know exactly what he is talking about. It is true. The world in general and Europe in particular is “sick and tired,” as he frankly said, of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is not only taking an enormous amount of diplomatic effort, but it is also poisoning the political atmosphere in a Europe with increasingly large numbers of Muslim immigrants. European politicians just want the conflict to go away, as quickly as possible. They want the two parties to reach an agreement, any agreement. And they are ready to pay, almost anything. Just so long as the issue goes away, they can sleep in peace and turn to other matters. I can’t blame them.

The unreal airport

Some of the proposals outsiders tend to make for Palestinian economic development are severely out of touch with realities on the ground. They often assume a basic situation of peace or post-conflict which simply does not exist and try to link together two sides that want to be left alone to grow apart. Moreover, they tend to make Palestine ever more dependent on Israel. The customs union between both parties is an example. It has destroyed the Palestinian economy and made it utterly dependent on Israel for inputs, markets, access, work, energy –anything one can possibly think of. This extreme dependency, which is not good even in non-conflict situations, is strategically used by Israel at every turn. The same applies to joint industrial zones. Instead of fostering industrial cooperation between Palestine and other countries in the Arab world, the US or Europe, they allow a few wealthy Israeli Jews and Palestinians to make money hiring low-paid Palestinian workers.

The most outrageous example of a “joint project” I heard of was a proposed joint Israeli-Palestinian airport in Netanya (Israel). Having a joint airport is about the last thing each side needs or wants as well as completely impossible to implement. When I told an Israeli friend what she thought about the idea, she said: “Who will take care of the security?” When I told a friend from the West Bank, he asked “How will we be able to get there?” When I told a friend from Gaza, she simply could not stop laughing.

Zionism is racism

After two years of living in Israel/Palestine, I agree that Zionism is racist. Despite that, I continue to disagree with the UN campaigns on the subject. I disagree because Israel’s Zionist ideology is racist, but so are other many other countries and ideologies in the world. The detractors of these conferences and UN declarations are right –Israel is unfairly singled out. If one were to truly have a conference or a declaration about all countries in the world that have institutionalized racism, Israel would not be the only one on the list. Moreover, one should not stop at racism. Rather, one should include for detraction all countries that have institutionalized discrimination against women. After all, why should one only be concerned with discrimination against an ethnic group, but not a gender? If one were to follow this logical line of argument, the main group of countries that would suffer from public detraction at the UN would be those that point their fingers at Israel –the countries in the Arab world. There is a reason why the large majority of UN members believe that –short of the extreme case of genocide–, the agency should not interfere in the internal political make-up of countries. These are issues that are best left for countries to deal with themselves. Regarding Israel, the UN would be much more credible and arguably much more effective had it restricted itself to condemning Israel where it has jurisdiction –in the country’s violations of international law through its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Israel’s internal shortcomings –including the future of Zionism– are for Israelis to deal with.

Gaza and the Jews

I was at the home of some friends in Al-Arroub refugee camp between Bethlehem and Hebron. We were sitting down watching television. The TV was tuned on to some Arabic-language channel. It could have been Al-Jazeera, but I don’t remember. The program started with horrific scenes from the Gaza war –destruction, blood, death, terror. After that, it turned to interviews with a number of Arab and foreign experts. The focus was on “the Jewish lobby.” I could not understand much of what was being said, but I did see and understand enough to realize that a link was being made from Israel’s war in Gaza to Diaspora Jews and on to AIPAC, the main Jewish lobby in the US. The two American professors who are the authors of a recent book on AIPAC were interviewed. I cringed. This link between Israeli policies and Diaspora Jews is an important factor behind the recent escalation in the attacks on Jews throughout the world, from Europe to Venezuela.

The insanity and uniqueness of these attacks is striking. When passenger trains were blown up in Madrid by Moroccan fundamentalists, Spaniards were wise enough not to attack Moroccan residents of Spain or any Moroccan interests. Not even during the genocidal wars in the Balkans, Sudan or Rwanda did people in the world turn to attacking random Serbians, North Sudanese or Hutus. During an anti-Gaza war demonstration in Barcelona, on the other hand, the crowd attacked Barcelona’s two main synagogues. Similarly, violence against Jews and Jewish institutions across the world shot up. I find no possible rationale to explain this phenomenon except the fact that anti-Semitism is so strong and so prevalent that anything will set it off.

Books like that of Professors Walt and Mearsheimer on AIPAC, in addition to doing a disservice to the American government and to research, foster such anti-Semitism. The book deals neither with the overall causes of American bias toward Israel (which would include the evangelical lobby, America’s own ignorance and fear of the Arab and Muslim worlds and commonalities between Israeli and American history) nor with the multi-faceted problems of the American lobby system (which distort many areas of American policy and not just Israel policy). Instead, these professors focus exclusively on “the Jewish lobby,” which can explain neither America’s Israel policy nor the weaknesses of the US lobbying system.

As a result of this analytically indefensible and politically unhelpful focus, the book neither sheds light on the deep-seated problem of the American lobby system nor does it systematically explore the many causes of US pro-Israel bias. On top of this, their work was now being exploited to make a link between Israeli policies and Diaspora Jews, fostering the hatred and persecution of an always vulnerable minority. Even worse, those radicals across the world which attack Jews and Jewish interests not only commit an immoral act, but they do a disservice to the Palestinian cause. Rather than focusing on condemning the policies of the Israeli government, they simply reveal their fundamentally anti-Semitic bias discrediting themselves and their claims in the process.


Israel and Palestine are the prime destination of Christian pilgrimage. Thousands of pilgrims each year arrive in the Holy Land to visit the site of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, the places where he grew up and preached in the Galilee and where he died in Jerusalem. The immense majority of these pilgrims devote the entirety of their time to visiting sites and typically none to getting to know the Christian communities of the Holy Land –their suffering and their needs.

Jesus’ life and preaching were focused exclusively on people and, in particular, on the weakest and most vulnerable members of society. In line with the Jewish tradition, his focus was on justice, kindness, and charity. I believe it would be a truer testimony to Jesus life to devote at least some of the time of the pilgrimage to engaging in dialogue, giving charity and/or carrying out volunteer work. In this way, pilgrims would contribute to alleviating the actual suffering human beings living in the Holy Land today.

Just like women

The Israeli army had taken yet another “incursion” into Gaza wounding and killing hundreds of civilians, including women and children. I was watching television with a Palestinian family near Ramallah. They had their TV tuned on to Arabic Al-Jazeerah. I do not regularly watch Arabic-language media and the station’s coverage of the massacre was completely different from what it would have been in western news stations. Instead of reporting facts and analysis and showing a variety of images of the massacre, they kept on showing the same three or four images over and over again. These images were hair-raising. They featured bloodied corpses, wounded bodies on stretchers, and women and children crying in horror among their dead. These were all true images. However, the way of presenting them was unfamiliar to me. They were not accompanied by words, but haunting music and they were simply played time and time again. The objective of the coverage seemed to be to create an emotional reaction to the horror one witnessed. The presentation was followed by a panel of commentators. I could not understand what they were saying, but their tone would also have been unusual for western media. The volume of voices was high, the emotion intense. To me, it sounded like screaming. One of the members of the family I was with translated one of the commentators for me. She told me they were saying that the leaders of the Arab world were women for not acting, just like women. I was shocked. As horrible as the massacre was, it did not seem to me that the best way to react to it was incitement to retributive violence on the Arab side. More so, I do not believe this is the role of the media. Finally, I thought to myself that, if reflection and refraining from retributive violence was a woman’s reaction, the world could use more of women’s ways. I do not mean to say that the Arab world (or the rest of the world) have done enough for Palestine. They haven’t. But I do mean that retributive violence is not the answer, neither is the role of the media to foster it.

Missing Palestine

It was a beautiful summer day and we were lining up at a checkpoint in the West Bank. The buses I rode were normally used exclusively by Palestinians. That day, however, one of the passengers was a Western woman. She was standing next to me at the checkpoint and, since the wait can be long, we started up a conversation. She told me that she used to be married to a Palestinian man and live in the West Bank. She was now divorced and had moved back to Europe, but was in Palestine for a visit. “I miss Palestine” she said wistfully. Her statement could have sounded bizarre as we stood in the middle of a checkpoint with a large cement wall near us, Palestinians lining up and waiting and Israeli soldiers with machine guns walking around. I asked her what she missed. “The people” she told me. Her times in Palestine were among the worst. They included the peak of the second intifada with its constant Israeli incursions, sieges, shootings, curfews and shortages of almost anything one could conceive of. And yet, the human warmth of the Palestinian people made up for everything. “I really miss them” she said. And I understood her.

What surprised you?

I was having lunch with a colleague from India at the World Bank while I was in Washington D.C. for a visit. We were discussing my experiences in Israel and Palestine and my reactions to what I was seeing. She told me that she had a question a Lebanese colleague of ours had asked her to convey to me. The question was: “What surprised you?” It was an interesting question to which there is no simple or short answer. When asked, I focus on what surprised me most. I tell people that, even before I went to Israel, I knew the occupation was a bad thing and I disagreed with it. However, I had little understanding of what it meant in practice and how harsh the impact was on the day-to-day life of Palestinians. I also thought that all the Palestinians Israelis put in jail were “terrorists.” I did not realize Israelis put in jail an extraordinarily large number of Palestinians, for any and no reason, as a tool of the occupation. Before living in Israel, I would not have believed that Israeli soldiers shoot unarmed people for no reason. Now I have seen it filmed and reported on by Israeli NGOs. I also did not know how destructive the impact of the Oslo process as it was actually implemented has been on the Palestinian economy. I did not know there was a systematic process of expelling Arabs from Jerusalem in order to “Judaize” the city. I did not realize how racist many of Israel’s institutions, policies and society were. I knew nothing at all about Palestinian society except for the existence of terrorism. I was not aware of Palestinians’ openness, ability to self-criticize, warmth, solidarity and hospitality. I also did not know how wonderful and special it is to live in Jerusalem as a Jew and how important it is to make the state of Israel first a normal country and, afterwards, the model country we had dreamed of. A larger response to all the things I did not realize, however, is the content of this book.

Words and deeds

Being a professional of international development and a student of international politics, I am well-aware of the gaps that often exist between the words and the deeds of governments. This gap, however, seems to be particularly large in Palestine. The countries and groups that are Israel supporters are very good at delivering on their words –whether we are speaking of the Jewish Diaspora, the United States or Christian supporters of Israel. The countries and groups that call themselves Palestinian supporters, on the other hand, are much less good at supporting their words with actions. Arab governments are perhaps most to blame. The Arab League unanimously approved granting duty free access into their markets to Palestinian goods, but not one single government followed through on their promise. Arab governments are also the ones with the largest gaps between committed and disbursed funds to the Palestinian authority. Despite the oil-wealth of the Arab world, Palestinians do not receive subsidized oil from their Arab brothers, but rather have to buy it at a mark-up from Israel. These governments not only do not help, but sometimes they do not let their populations help either. When a group of Egyptian businessmen saw the opportunity to make some money in selling gas to Gaza while helping reduce the dependence of the strip on Israel, the Egyptian government blocked the project. Finally and perhaps most egregiously, except in Jordan, Palestinian refugees languish throughout the Arab world in refugee camps being denied citizenship and, in Lebanon, even the right to work. These governments, however, are adept users of the Palestinian cause for their own internal domestic purposes. Europe is not free of guilt either. Despite delivering high amounts of aid to Palestine, it allows the entry into its territory of products made in the settlements and continues to permit the investment of European firms into the settlements. It is high time an independent NGO start a website entitled: “The World and Palestine –Words and Deeds.” The website would track what the world promises to Palestinians and what it delivers.

They deserve each other

External observers to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be –grossly—divided into four camps: those who sympathize with Palestinians; those who sympathize with Israelis; those who sympathize with both; and those why sympathize with neither. Unfortunately, the fourth group has pretty swollen ranks. It includes those who (not totally without reason) find fault with both camps and have difficulty empathizing with either. Those outsiders who look at both peoples coldly –and some people do—feel, as I have heard it expressed that: “They deserve each other.” Perhaps because I do not look at either people coldly, I do not think they deserve each other. Actually, I don’t even think either side deserves the leaders they have had themselves. On the contrary, I believe that, after so much suffering and given their –sometimes hidden—great potential, both sides deserve better. Much better.

Those who have not killed

I think one reason why I enjoyed spending time with ultra-orthodox Jews and with Arabs is that they were people who had not killed. Because the whole Israeli population goes to the army, men and women alike, they are all accomplices if not direct perpetrators of the occupation. Many have been in combat units and some have killed. Among Palestinians, the tiny numbers among them who have been involved in violent acts are locked away in Israeli jails. In Israel, on the other hand, the soldiers who have killed thousands of Palestinians and other Arabs over the past decades are walking around freely in the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. This was a fact I became increasingly aware of and disturbed by. Just before my departure, I had a farewell party. The “server/waiter” I hired through an Israeli company was an Israeli man in his thirties. He had really short hair as is often the case with military recruits. The massive 2009-2010 war offensive on Gaza had just concluded. The man serving quiche in my apartment, I thought, could easily have been killing Palestinians just a couple of weeks ago. I felt I could no longer stay in the country and I was pleased I was leaving in a few days.


My favorite theory of international relations is called constructivism. According to that theory, states live in the international system that they build or “construct.” This construction includes our mental constructions or perceptions, including of security. Countries and regions that “construct” their neighbors as enemies create a self-fulfilling prophecy. On the other hand, countries and regions which view each other as allies and, in particular, who understand their security as being inextricably linked to that of their neighbors, create peaceful regions. The first example reflects most of world history. The second example is illustrated by today’s European Union in which, were one country to be attacked, others in the Union would feel their own security is at risk. Countries and regions with such perceptions build islands of peace in the world.

Israel, unfortunately, exemplifies an extreme case of “constructing” enemies. It is true that it has had many real enemies in the past and one could argue it still has plenty. However, it also has plenty of opportunities to turn those “enemies’ into, if not friends, at least “non-enemies.” This is the case of the countries of the Arab League, who have been awaiting a positive response to their peace proposal and offer of full normalization of relations since 2005. It is also the case of the Palestinian Authority, which has been ready for peace for many years now. Instead of seeing peace-making with Palestine and the rest of the Arab world as the basis of its security, Israel continues to bank on military power and intelligence. In doing so, it has wasted precious resources for years, including the invaluable resources of good will in the Arab world, the world Israelis chose to live in. In so doing, instead of constructing friends, Israel constructs and perpetuates enemies. In such a context, “security” will never be possible, no matter how many walls one builds.


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