The Fate of the Jewish State
WEST BANK, PALESTINE
I have just returned from my eighth trip to the Middle East in as many years. I had read news reports to the effect that conditions in the West Bank had improved since my last visit to Palestine – that the Israelis has reduced checkpoints and made travel easier in the West Bank, and that the Palestinian economy was improving – and I wanted to see for myself.
But as my wife Rabia and I spent a week traveling in the West Bank – visiting and talking with Palestinians – we found conditions to be much the same: young, exhausted-looking Israeli soldiers guarding checkpoints, roads blocked with mounds of rocks forcing Palestinians to take long, round-about journeys just to get to a destination a few kilometers away, the separation barrier dividing villages from their olive and almond trees, young Palestinians prevented from attending university and sick people prevented from getting to hospital because of the difficulty of travel.
When I said I had heard there were less checkpoints, the typical response was that the Israelis had dismantled some permanent checkpoints but replaced them with more “flying checkpoints” so ease of movement was not improved. People spoke often of joblessness and fatigue, and a bleak future. But in case we might think they were defeated, they would emphasize their determination – what they call samoud: “steadfastness and resilience” in the face of the Israeli occupation.
Nearly every Palestinian we spoke with told stories of humiliation at the hands of Israeli soldiers. We stayed one night with a Palestinian family in a village outside of Nablus. I slept in the empty bed of their 19-year old son, Ahmed, who – exactly one year previously – had been shot dead by Israeli soldiers because he was throwing stones as they arrested one of his friends. Ahmed’s portrait hung prominently in the parlor – a fresh-faced young man with mournful eyes who, his mother said, had planned to study medicine. His mother cooked us a delicious traditional meal, with the whole extended family showing up afterwards – little children climbing on the knees of aunts and uncles, a pregnant daughter-in-law, grandmothers sitting quietly. The conversation often turned to the limited life-options for the children and their parents.
The most frequently mentioned insult people reported was the expansion of Israeli settlements. Ahmed’s mother took us out on the terrace in the morning and pointed to a large cluster of buildings on a neighboring hill.
“Do you see that settlement up there?” she asked. “Two years ago it was just three small trailers. Now look!”
As we traveled the settlements were repeatedly pointed out to us: heavily built apartment blocks – whole towns with red roofs on the hilltops – served by new roads only the settlers could use. According to the U.N. there are currently 191 Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
“Their roads divide the land – we have to drive 15 kilometers here to cross over and then return just to get across this little valley.”
We were shown maps of the settlement expansion, settlement roads, the barrier, and areas of the West Bank prohibited to Palestinians, similar to this one made by the UN two years ago (the white areas are the land actually accessible to Palestinians.)
Any pretence of a “two-state solution” is given the lie by these facts on the ground. There is no cohesive land area for a Palestinian state. And yet renewed calls from Palestinians and from the international community for a pluralistic one-state solution, or some kind of bi-national state, are met with scorn from the Israeli side as an abdication of the ideal of a Jewish state.
The Palestinian population now living between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River is growing at three times the rate of the Israeli population. If Israeli settlements are not stopped and dismantled there will be no possibility of a two-state solution, and one day – sooner or later – the two peoples living on this land will have to come to an accommodation and join in a common polity. This would be the end of the Jewish state.
Tear Gas Makes You Cry
One Friday we traveled to Bil’in, a village to the west of Ramallah. For over three years the inhabitants of Bil’in, along with visiting internationals, have held a nonviolent demonstration every Friday against the Israeli barrier that divides the villagers from their olive orchards (visit: www.bilin-ffj.org/). We had tea at the home of one of the leaders of the demonstrations, Eyad Bornat, a calm and dedicated man in his mid-thirties. He showed us videos of previous demonstrations – the most chilling documented a demonstration earlier this year when a tear gas shell struck a man in the chest and killed him, and a rubber bullet (actually a metal shell surrounded by hard rubber) hit an American in the head and permanently paralyzed him.
At the demonstration we attended that afternoon a crowd of about two hundred Palestinians and Europeans gathered on the Palestinian side of the razor-wire barrier. After ten minutes of chanting slogans led by Eyad and others, four Israeli soldiers ran down the hill from their post in full riot gear, helmets and body shields, and began firing tear gas shells at the crowd over the wire barrier. More shells were fired from the post at the top of the hill.
We dodged the shells as they came raining down, metal canisters the size of softballs spewing smoke. Fear of being hit flooded up in me, and then the thought: “What am I doing here?” Clouds of teargas choking my breath and burning my eyes. People running, falling, helping each other up.
Suddenly I realized what I was doing there. I was crying. Crying for the people of Bil-in and their marginalization, crying for Eyad’s four year-old daughter watching the video in his living room for the tenth time of the man being killed, crying for Ahmed and his mother, crying for the young Israeli soldiers shooting at us from the other side of the fence, crying for the whole crazy mess caused by people demanding the dominance of their identity over the identity of others.
I was helped away from the smoke. A young American Jewish woman – an activist – handed me half an onion. “Here,” she said, “Breathe this. It helps.” For a moment in the confusion I crossed paths with Eyad – he touched his hand on my back as we passed. I didn’t see him again.
The Sad Rabbi
A few days later in Jerusalem I shared a meal with an old friend, a rabbi, a former director of Rabbis for Human Rights. I asked him, “What is a Jewish state anyway?”
“There is no Jewish state,” he said. “That’s a fiction. We have to stop pretending it’s real. It’s an idea of a Jewish identity that’s based on exclusion – us versus them. The whole notion of Israel as a sanctuary for only Jews is a poison that in the long-term is toxic for our security. The best protection for Jews is to focus on producing sensitive, caring human beings. Instead we are practicing being mean in an attempt to survive. This meanness…”
He broke off and looked away, sadness in his eyes. After a while he continued, “Jews established this country by being strong and self-assertive, a change from our past. We said, ‘Never again!’ But we turned into the same kind of bullies we suffered from. We’re the ones with the weapons now and our weapons are destroying us. Violence is the corrosion of the Jewish character.”
The power of his last sentence stopped our conversation. I was taking notes, and as I wrote down that sentence I felt it was true for every perpetrator of violence, no matter what nation or religion.
The rabbi continued in a quiet voice. “This sanctuary issue – Israel as a sanctuary for Jews. It’s based on the idea that anti-Semitism is incurable. Consequently Jews must have preferential treatment. But why is this? We are simply human.”
Two States? One State?
Toward the end of his book Palestine Peace Not Apartheid, President Carter quotes two voices, one Palestinian, one Israeli, about “what needs to be done”:
Jonathan Kuttab, Palestinian human rights lawyer: “Everybody knows what it will take to achieve a permanent and lasting peace that addresses the basic interests of both sides: It’s a two-state solution. It’s withdrawal to 1967 borders. It’s dismantlement of the settlements. It’s some kind of shared status for a united Jerusalem, the capital of both parties. The West Bank and Gaza would have to be demilitarized to remove any security threats to Israel. Some kind of solution would have to be reached for the refugee problem, some qualified right of return, with compensation…
Dr. Naomi Chazan, professor at Hebrew University and former deputy speaker of the Israeli Knesset: “I don’t think any difference now remains between the majority of Israelis and Palestinians in understanding that there has to be some kind of accommodation between both people. There are two possibilities on how to do it. To acknowledge and then to implement the Palestine right to self-determination, and to make sure that a two-state solution is a just and fair solution, allowing for the creation of a viable state alongside Israel on the 1967 boundaries, and if there are any changes, they are by agreement on a swap basis. And on the Israeli side, there is a need to maintain a democratic state with a Jewish majority, which can only be achieved through the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
But with the current facts on the ground, as we have seen, the likelihood of the formation of two states is increasingly remote. There appears to be no will on the Israeli government’s side for it, and the Palestinians are ever more pessimistic that there will remain sufficient territory for a state of their own.
And one state? What would that look like?
Six years ago, on Christmas Eve, 2003, Rabia and I wrote a Letter from the Road from Bethlehem contemplating just that question. It is even more relevant now – you may wish to read it this Christmas Eve: LETTER FROM THE ROAD #25, “A Dream from the Holy Land.”