Tuesday, April 1, 2008

A "Scholar for Peace" in the Middle East

In Gaza, Hamas’s Insults to Jews Complicate Peace - New York Times:

"The chairman of the Palestinian Scholars League, and a Hamas legislator, Mr. Abu Ras is popularly called “Hamas’s mufti,” because he is ready to give religious sanction to Hamas political structures.

Last month, he criticized Egypt for closing the Gaza border at Israel’s request. He complained, “We are besieged by the sons of Arabism and Islam, as well as by the brothers of apes and pigs.”

... “The Israelis can’t accept criticism. They overreact, like any guilty person.” ...

Then he spoke of his son, who tried to volunteer to fight the Israelis at 17. “I convinced him to wait, he had no weapon, until 20,” Mr. Abu Ras said. “Now he’s a member of Qassam,” the Hamas military wing, “and an example for young people.”"

Very sadly, Israel has its warmongers and its racists, as do most peoples of the earth. Some are found among the rabbinate and the extreme religious observant community. They have a greater role in Israeli political life than I would prefer. But they do not speak for the majority of Israelis, or of Jews, and their blood curdling cries for generational or genocidal warfare, to the limited degree to which that may exist, is not celebrated by the wider culture. Indeed, explicitly racist ultranationalist political parties have been disqualified from participating in Israeli elections.

I have been a supporter of the Israeli peace camp for nearly forty years. I have always believed that Palestinian Arabs, like Jews, should have the opportunity for democratic national expression on some part of their historic homeland. I see the century-long turmoil in historic Palestine/Eretz Israel as a battle between two rights, in which some form of compromise, with both sides giving up some part of their maximal aims and historic claims as the only morally acceptable and politically achievable solution.

The challenge to Israel's peace camp is that the Arab World, including but not limited to the Palestinians, will never accept a permanent non-Arab, non-Muslim society in their midst. On this view, Arab offers of compromise are purely tactical, in the service of eventual subjugation, expulsion, or worse, of virtually all Jews, and any form of Jewish sovereignty, from Eretz Israel. Not just from Jenin, but from Jerusalem. Not just Hebron, but Haifa. And Jaffa. And Acre. And Tel Aviv. Proposals for territorial compromise (various formulations of "land for peace") avoid the enduring reality of implacable hostility to a Jewish sovereign presence, and mistake a temporary ceasefire for the prospect of enduring peace, under less advantageous geo-political and military terms.

Steven Erlanger's richly reported piece in today's Times fills in some of the realities underlying these fears. Many in the West prefer to blink, to avert their eyes from this unpleasant piece of the truth. Erlanger makes that avoidance somewhat more difficult, shoving some grim realities before our face.

The problem, I think, is that an exclusive focus on this piece of the truth--a focus characteristic of both some Jewish political groups (such as ZOA and AIPAC) and some scholars (such as Daniel Pipes and Ruth Wisse, author of the recent Jews and Power)--is that they leave supporters of a secure and flourishing Jewish and democratic Israel with no place to go, with no positive vision, with no basis for hope, for change, for constructive action toward a better future for both Jews and Arabs in their shared historic homeland.

Perhaps that is the reality, and there is nothing to be done about it.

I prefer to believe that some change is possible--but certainly not guaranteed. Over forty years of post-1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, both Israel (as the occupying power) and the Palestinian leadership have done far too little to nurture the delicate seeds of growth toward a shared vision of a shared land, one in which parents do not train their children for lives as martyrs, or glory in their "heroic" deaths, on battlefields or in schools or restaurants.

A stable and enduring peace will require dramatic changes in attitudes and behaviors that will take generations to flower fully, not merely the drawing of lines on maps or the signing of formal documents. It is way past time to embark on such commitments, and for political and cultural and religious leaders to look past the tactical considerations of the moment to the transformational efforts that will be necessary. Anwar Sadat understood this, as did Yitzhak Rabin. Their assassinations cut short promising efforts in the right directions, and powerfully reminded us of the brutal obstacles posed by religious and ultranationalist zealotry, that must be overcome if either people is to live in peace.

If not now, when?

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