The Israel Problem (Israel: Part 5)
I recently came across a book I had to have. (I’m always coming across a book I ‘had to have.’ I recently quit a job at a bookshop for a few reasons, but one factor was that I didn’t make any money: all my wages went back to him because of books I ‘had to have’.) It is called The Palestinians and it is a beautiful, cloth-bound book from the late 1970’s, with words by Jonathan Dimbleby and photographs by Donald McCullin. In the introduction, Dimbleby talks of how, in formulating the situation as ‘the Palestinian problem’, we reflect our own biases and prejudices about the conflict. So, whilst I also believe that we see what we want to (which is why the world exists in multiples), I truly think there is an Israel problem which manifests itself quite peculiarly in the nation’s inability to view anyone as human, its citizens included. There is such an overwhelmingly obvious self-fulfilling prophesy going on there: you hate us, and we hate you for hating us, so we will abuse you before you can do so to us. This also seeps over into the way they deal with each other, as I am aware that a lot of the bad treatment we received wasn’t personal, it’s just the way they are.
Imagine you have forced someone to watch whilst you hack up their children into small pieces, fry them in butter, and then pop them in a bagel with some cream cheese for a swift lunch time munch. Imagine too, that when you are brought to trial, you are acquitted and allowed to walk free because fate is just like that sometimes. Imagine then, that instead of leaving the area, you stay in town and perform the same crime, with the same outcome, again and again and again until you have eaten 85% of everyone’s children. To add insult to injury, imagine that you manage to get a restraining order on the whole town, so they can stare in hatred, but they cannot touch. I say this because I am certain this person must exist, and that I look the double of them, since this is exactly how people stared at me when I was en vacance.
Mostly the feedback I have had to these missives has been really positive; people have thanked me and asserted their desire to go and see for themselves. That’s all I want. But one response, from someone calling themselves a ‘real Zionist’, was to agree that there was no Palestine, that there never was and never will be. They also said that all ‘Nazi Arab Scum’ should die. That’s a paraphrase of course, because it was a comment on an IMC site where these words have been posted, and from which I navigated away immediately, flinching. When I went back a few hours later, the comment had been deleted. But it did remind me of the graffiti near the Jaffa Gate, on the way into the new city of Jerusalem: ‘Death to Arabs’ scrawled over and over. And it did prompt me to write this entry. Until then I had been unsure if I wanted to say what I say here, if it needed to be said, but that ‘real Zionist’ ensured it did.
From that graffiti memory, I am reminded of the guy who called us terrorists. From there, I remember us walking home, laughing and happy after a nice meal, and a man shouting at us in Hebrew and then English, with the proclamation that we would be dead by morning. I remember the guy who spat at us as we sat eating our falafel, and the other one who shouted and spat at me, after I made the stupid mistake of saying thank you in Arabic and not Hebrew. (I was in the Christian Quarter and so hazarded a guess incorrectly.) I also remember all of the other ones who spat at us as we simply walked by. And all the other people who never did anything with their mouths, except to silently twist them, and merely sent an overwhelming amount of hatred our way. There was so much hatred constantly levelled at us that when someone was merely rude, I was delighted. I can’t imagine how difficult it is to constantly live with that much atmospheric oppression, but suddenly it makes perfect sense that the fantastically beautiful (Christian Palestinian) man who worked at the hostel, with the big, oceanic, blinking eyes and wide, wide smile, never left the sanctuary of his workplace.
Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem) is an amazing place and I would urge everyone to go. You zigzag from room to room through a long, thin building and at the end, with your heart full of all the pain that we, the Europeans, inflicted, the building opens up into a terrace overlooking a great valley. Very literally the walls of the building open out like a funnel, and you feel a huge release of emotion as you follow the lines of the building and allow it to channel out all of the awful sadness you picked up inside of the museum. Afterwards, you feel so fragile from it all, you feel such a great surge of empathy for one of the greatest tragedies of modern history. But then you look up and notice that one of the soldiers over there has his hand on his gun, much like some men grab their penis for support, and he is looking at you like he wants you to die. Suddenly everything you felt before is gone.
J said that Israelis don’t want my sympathy. The Israeli mindset, according to J, is that they can live alone and be completely independent. This is, of course, a false idea. No one can be entirely independent, and if an individual can not, how on earth can a nation? Especially not an industrialised one; for starters, where do they get their oil? But then too, they have the ‘invisible’ support of the Americans, which makes it easier to believe that they can wall themselves in and stand alone. J says there has been a massive investment in the idea of the ‘New Jew’, that they wanted to get away from the idea of Jewish people as being somehow weak. This over-identification with military thinking is something Yitzhak Laor articulates wonderfully in a recent article for the LRB. The problem is that if you don’t invite someone to care about you (which is what treating everyone really badly means), you lose friends and make enemies. Or, at best, you lose friends and make people entirely indifferent to your cause.
A part of me used to be troubled by my inability to be able to fully support the Israeli cause. An angry Jewish ex once screamed at me that I always champion the underdog, which whilst being a fair comment, is not the reason why I have always had Palestinian sympathies. The other night L cooked a thank you meal for J as we all gave her thank you gifts for taking us. Later, when just the three of us remained, L, J, and I got into yet another discussion about it all. I suddenly realised why her justifications and reasoning were familiar: it’s the rhetoric of colonialism with an extra helping of ‘Manifest Destiny’ for the overly acrid taste. I realised that I can’t support Israel because Israel is the last overt remnant of colonialism. I either have to say I think it is okay to invade another people’s land and establish a new country, or I have to say that it isn’t.
And I don’t care if there was not an actual land called Palestine nor people called Palestinians. What there was, was a land full of people who had lived there for generations. That Native Americans didn’t ‘own’ the land in a European sense doesn’t mean they didn’t live there, didn’t belong, didn’t exist. That South Africa is a modern, European invention doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been occupied since the dawn of time, long before Europeans ever came across it. I don’t care if the Palestinians were serfs exploited by rich overlords, the point is that they were there, and they were living, and they are bound by their own history to that land. It is theirs by way of actual lived experience, because those bleached, white mountains contain the blood and the bones of their immediate ancestors, and there is no thousand year gap between the dates on the graves. They have lived and died there for a very long time, and that is enough.
(Although it shouldn’t be necessary to say this, I feel obliged to emphasise that I am not arguing against the creation of a space for Jewish people; what I am arguing against is the way it was created, and the way it has behaved ever since.)
A few months back, I got into an enormous argument with an Islamic Fundamentalist who goes to my university. I will eternally thank her because she unintentionally helped me to draw the line where liberal, cultural relativism absolutely must stop. Some things are just wrong, regardless of how they are couched and justified with the ‘culture’ argument. And so, if I am to continue to condemn the persecution of religious minorities by Muslim states, how am I not to do that to Israel? And so, if I think that Iranian Jews should be given equal rights in their country, how am I not to feel the same way for the religious minorities that exist in Israel and the land it occupies? Either I find something to be true or I do not.
An Israeli reader of my recent journey said it is naive to hope for one state in which Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze, and so on live together in equal status. That may be the case, but the creation of Israel was also naive. He said, ‘You can’t just stick people together and hope for the best.’ But what was the creation of Israel if not that? I’ll take a tenuous, naive hope over an oppressive nightmare, however real and more eternally likely the latter might be. And I know the Israelis don’t want my pity, but let me tell you that you don’t have to live in such an abyss of hatred. Remind yourselves that you concocted that reality, and in remembrance of that construction, try for a better one. It is possible.