#95: For Israel, For Palestine, For Peace

Please let me preface this with a personal note: This is my current perspective on the matter. I may be biased, but I am always willing to learn. I have known people from both sides, and I know that the truth always lies somewhere in the middle. The clearest bias that I am willing to defend, though, is a bias towards peace, cooperation, and shared humanity. Maybe we need to think more in the now than in interpretations of the past.

(I)

Israel has been the undeniable homeland of the Jewish people for millennia. Throughout its existence it has been the target of outside imperial aggressors. Over the centuries, the land has been occupied by a succession of forces, some more than others obsessed with the eradication of every last trace of Jewish life. The Persian, Macedonian, Roman and Byzantine empires, various Islamic caliphates and Crusader states, the Ottoman and finally the British Empire all laid claim to the territory. With the continued presence of antisemitic pogroms in Europe, and the weakening of the Ottoman occupation force, a return of the Jewish diaspora to the homeland became possible and led to the movement known as Zionism. Its mission became even more urgent during the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust. The United Nations finally resolved in 1947 to create the state of Israel, and partition the area known as Palestine accordingly.

Since the re-establishment of the state of Israel as the Jewish homeland, the new (and old) state has faced constant aggression by other factions newly released from Ottoman rule. The Jerusalem Riots initiated by the Arab Higher Committee of 1947 led to a Civil War. Israel was finally officially founded in 1948. Immediately, against UN intentions, Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq launched the Arab-Israeli War, with other states joining in. That effort failed. Jordan and Egypt annexed Palestinian and Israeli territories. As the result of the riots and the war, the majority of Palestinians who had remained in Israel left the land or were forced to leave, but some remained and became Israeli citizens. The circumstances of the escape or expulsion of the Palestinians are of some debate, but in the end, the non-Jewish population lost their home due to a mixture of voluntary relocation, pressure or outright force. Several Israeli leaders have always criticized this expulsion or, as it is also known, catastrophe, or naqba.

After years of anti-Israel terrorist attacks, in 1967, Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq attacked Israel, but after Six Days, Israel won and captured the West Bank, Gaza, Sinai and the Golan Heights. The so-called “Occupied Territories” were lost due to this attack. Terrorism continued, and in 1973, Egypt and Syria again attacked during Yom Kippur, and lost again.

Since then, the peace process has seen a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1979, and an uneasy peace between Israel and the Palestinians in the territories administered by Israel. The Jordan peace treaty followed in 1994. In 2000, Israel offered the return of Gaza and over 90% of the West Bank. Jerusalem was supposed to be the joint capital of both Israel and the Palestinian State. The offer was rejected by the Palestinian leadership. Nevertheless, in 2005, Israel granted independence to Gaza, hoping for the peaceful establishment of the core of a Palestinian state, and yet, Hamas has continued its campaign of terror to this day. The Palestinian people are not occupied primarily by Israel but by a leadership controlled by or allied with terrorist organizations whose solitary aim is the destruction of the Jewish homeland and its people.

Every other state on the planet has the right to exist. Yet somehow, it is seen as acceptable to problematize the very existence of Israel. “Zionism” means nothing else but the legitimate claim to the land of Israel as the Jewish homeland, and yet, it is seen as acceptable by an odd alliance of extremists on the far right and far left to approve of the label “antizionist.” When any other state in the world defends itself against aggressors and holds control over their territories, won after the attacker loses, this is seen as an acceptable victory, and yet with regards to Israel, it is called “occupation” and “settler colonialism.”

(II)

Nevertheless, the land is also home to the Palestinian populations. These dual claims are both legitimate, which complicates the fact. Who was where and when at which time in history is a question for the history books, but who is where now is a question for politics.

Certainly, Israel needs to find a way to work together with Palestinians who have lost their home, and who suffer daily from the terrorism unleashed or tolerated by their leadership. This terrorism is the cause for the Israeli security state and the deprivations imposed on innocent Palestinian civilians. If the terror stopped, peace would be possible, and what is called “occupation” could be shaped differently.

Criticism of specific policies of the State of Israel, and specific forms of settlement is always legitimate. But if the criticism is mounted at Israel in a way that treats it as essentially different from any other nation on the planet, then this is clearly anti-Semitic. Just as Anti-Zionism is just another code for Anti-Semitism, “criticism of Israel” is code for the denial of the legitimacy of the Jewish homeland.

Debates about territory are not helpful. Historically, every single state sits on the territory of someone else. Relitigating history typically leads to nothing but newer pain. We do need to put every conflict in perspective, and how we talk about it. For instance, do we call Turkey’s possession of territories gained after the genocide of Greeks and Armenians “occupied territories”? Do we call Tibet and Xinjiang province “occupied territories”? How about Crimea, South Tyrol, Northern Cyprus, Kashmir (by all sides), Northern Ireland, and the entirety of the Americas? Examples abound. What does that mean for the future of Israel and Palestine?

(III)

Consider the continent of Europe: Centuries, if not millennia of warfare have left no stone untouched. Every single border is drawn in blood. Yet the brilliant idea of European integration has brought peace: Focus on the economy, focus on the people, make borders matter less, and conflicts that were centuries or longer in the making will matter less and less.

Maybe the idea of a two-state solution has not been the right answer. Maybe a federal model with some form of shared leadership would work. I could dream of two states with a joint government, joint Israeli-Palestinian government departments, a collegialism enforced throughout institutions. But the solution has to be developed in Israel and Palestine itself.

Both belong together. Both represent the indigenous heritage of the area. They are intertwined, and both cannot tolerate much more pain.

One thing above all though: The solution has to be negotiated by the people on the ground. This is about how to make people see each other again as neighbors, as possible friends, as colleagues, as partners by fate and circumstance. Take the pressure out. Let foreign interests cede. Let truth speak, and let us hear both sides, but let us speak peace, salam, shalom.

#68: We Do Not Need Enemies

We are seeing increasing tension in the world again. There were a few years, namely the 1990s, when the world seemed to be growing more closely together, overcoming differences and seeking understanding over division (with a few painful exceptions). Then, 9/11 happened, which brought new wars. The transatlantic alliance was put under strain, globalization brought out new players, strengthened older ones, and a slow shift began to recalibrate the power dynamics on a planet that in its current path towards global climate change could need cooperation more than antagonism. The West appears more fractured than ever in the last decades, China’s dictatorship is making gains, Russia, Turkey, Iran, India and Pakistan are flexing their muscles, and only in the Middle East are some signs of hope (how ironic!).

While a global pandemic is still out of control, and other challenges await, we are entertaining the luxury of having arch-enemies again. This is not how civilizations survive, it is how they end.

I grew up under Soviet rule. I have little patience for theoretical discussions over the value of real-existing socialism or communism. As a German, I deeply loathe and oppose any form of fascism and national socialism. There is no value in extremism – on either side, if those are even sides. Between the extermination camps and the killing fields, I fail to see the difference. But these were ideologies run amuck, and people and countries fell succumbed to their spell. Our fight is with the kind of ideas that want to radically remake the world politically, exert absolute power, and create the new man, to cast out the old in the process, mercilessly. But our enemy is not the people themselves, neither the countries.

I may have had to learn Russian at grade 5, which was the language of our Soviet occupiers. The Soviets, as needs mentioning, had a hand in defeating National Socialism together with the West, and in liberating the Germans from a toxic idea, sadly, enabling another toxic idea, but that does not take away from the Soviet sacrifices made to rid the world of Hitler and his ilk. The Soviet Union as an idea and organization also oppressed its people, and their ideas. When learning Russian, I learned about the people and their culture, and I know that without Russian music, I would feel majorly deprived.

We need to see people first, systems second. If we don’t, we enter the domain of arch-enemies and perpetual wars. France and Germany were enemies for so long that it seemed genetic almost, but European integration changed this unhealthy and deadly dynamic completely. This brings hope also to Israel and the Arab world, to Cyprus and Greece, to Armenia and Azerbaijan, to the Congo, to Kashmir, etc. Peace is possible, but it has to be made with great effort. It needs cooperation, shared institutional frameworks, and most of all, a shared conviction that your benefit will be mine also.

Surely, differences and problems need to be addressed. Dictatorships are wrong because they never work in the long run, as they never can allow the development of the full potential of their peoples. For that, it would need absolute free speech and free criticism, and dictatorships are intolerant of that. Once we can make clear that we want peace and cooperation, above all, and that – while we are prepared for war – we will never seek it unless in defense, and that we take a genuine and sincere interest in helping each other face the challenges of today and tomorrow, then things can change.

I have had students and colleagues from all continents, from dozens upon dozens of countries, from every race, color, gender and creed imaginable. We are all the same. I know that sounds preachy, hippie-esque, too optimistic, whatever. It has to be. Hope starts inside, and once we recognize each other, their face, their value, their humanity, their being alive, we can see that what divides us can be overcome. Read Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving, and Martin Buber, I and Thou.

These days, any of our outdated conceptions of who an enemy is will stand in the way of saving the best parts of our way of life, saving our planet’s living beings, and ourselves. The stakes are high. We are also seeing new opportunities out there. A galaxy with more planets than ever thought possible. Sky’s the limit.

Maybe I have just watched too much Stargate. I just finished re-watching an episode dealing with Americans and Russians working together on interplanetary travel. It is a show from the 1990s. We could dream it then, and we should be dreaming it now.

Happy New Year!

#27: What is Peace?

Peace is not just the absence of war, it is not just the absence of violence, it is not just the absence of strife, it is not passivity. Peace is the active practice of a state of mind that is at peace, that seeks peace, that acts in peace. That excludes violence both in action as in words. For that to happen, it needs peace at heart, it needs compassion, it needs humility, it needs grace.

Peace is not easy; it is the hardest thing to ever achieve and maintain. It requires strength, perseverance, and constancy. A peaceful person does not give in to negativity, does not yield to temptations of aggression, does not diminish others, even if they are wrong.

Peace can only be the goal if it is the path. That does not imply pacifism, but it means that even if you have to fight an enemy, you should do it with the goal of peace in mind. Any enemy of today will have to become a friend as soon as possible. We should never make reconciliation nor forgiveness impossible, but see them as the path out of the conflict. Every war is a war with ourselves, as we are all one. If we reject that unity, we have already lost; and once inner peace is lost, outer peace cannot be gained.

Gandhi knew that, King knew that, Thoreau knew that. Black Elk knew it, according to John Neihardt: “know the power that is peace”1.

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1 Black Elk, John G. Neihardt, Raymond J. DeMallie. Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux, the Premier Edition. SUNY Press, Oct 16, 2008. 27.

#4: How We Win

We can only win – in the long run – by setting a better example. We cannot aim to play the game the enemy is playing, we cannot criticize or condemn criminal behavior and then behave the same way, or in a way that can be seen the same whether we like it or not. If we cannot – in the Kantian sense – make the way we live an example for others, then we cannot expect others to follow our lead.

Peace brings peace, war brings war. It’s not that easy, sadly, as sometimes the wrong peace can allow for war, and the right war can create peace. Nothing is quite easy. Pacifism is not always the answer.

Yet it is how we do things that matters. How war is declared, waged, and ended, that’s the key. How peace is waged matters just as much.

If we are seeing ourselves on the side of reason and truth and justice and the best possible way forward for all of humanity, then we need to live these standards in the ways we are doing what we do.

Only then can we keep the moral high ground. Only then can we win hearts and minds, ours and those of the former enemy. Needing an enemy is not civilized behavior.

post scriptum

I have written this after the assassination of an Iranian general who has, by all we know, been involved in fostering non-peaceful causes, to say it mildly. He surely was not an innocent person, and yet, are such executions by drone really what communicates the best course of action? Similarly, are threats of retaliation by an Iranian government that has already promoted terror and war in the region the response of a party that would similarly seek peace? The above written text should apply to all. Let’s see – who will seriously be able to commit to peace? Let us pray, probably.