During the 1979-1980 academic year students at Queen’s University organised a conference on Human Rights and Social Responsibility. While Chile was a major focus of our discussions, there was a panel on Palestine. To the surprise of many present I called for a return to the pre-1948 boundaries of Israel. Many people from the traditional left felt this was an impolitic statement—not something they disagreed with necessarily but a stand not voiced publicly. It was felt to bear more than a hint of anti-Semitism. My comment wasn’t based on solidarity with the Palestinians. I wasn’t really aware of them. But I saw the existence of Israel as a statement of our shared shame. The Jewish people needed to build a homeland because no place else on earth proved to be safe for them. The existence of Israel let us off the hook; we didn’t have to truly confront our own anti-Semitism.
Over the years I learned more about what was going on in the middle east. I read statements calling for the expulsion of the Palestinians. I saw pictures from Sabra and Shatila. I talked to trade unionists and church people who lived and worked in the West Bank. I also talked to people from Israel. I talked to survivors of Nazi death camps and dissidents from the Soviet Union. I read more about the history of Israel and the liberation struggle of the Jewish nation in Diaspora. I talked with people from the Palestine Liberation Organisation and learned more about the liberation struggle of an fragmented people. I heard similar dreams and aspirations from two claimants to overlapping territories.
Very recently I had the chance to visit Jaffa, Jerusalem and Bethlehem. I had an opportunity to meet with dreamers and practical people seeking ways to sort out the many issues but mostly I came into contact with people just wanting to get on with things.
Going directly from Yad Vashem to Bethlehem, passing through the divisive wall between the West Bank and Israel, was an exposure to two shocking realities. Yad Vashem makes it clear that the holocaust didn’t arise in a vacuum. There were ghettos and restrictions in advance of mass murder. There were pogroms and other violent attacks on the Jewish community. The genocidal attack on the Jews of Europe was a culmination of centuries of hatred. One could leave the museum with a sense of despair. Yet when one leaves the main exhibits at Yad Vashem you exit to gaze out over a wonderful and welcoming land. The promised land is there as a haven in a world of hate.
And yet the promised land isn’t safe. Thousands of rockets have been fired from the south. Suicide bombers have found their way into the safest of community spaces. There is hope in Israel but also fear than this struggle for a safe and secure haven may never end. One can’t help becoming a Zionist after this experience.
And yet a few miles away the world looks different. The promised land isn’t just a haven. There is evil growing on what should be sacred land. People are being forced away from their homes. Humiliating and discriminatory practices abound. Communal punishment is common. What often appears as random outbursts of violence from Israeli authorities and settler communities makes it hard for anyone to know how to guarantee personal and family safety even if one wants to avoid political struggles. It is easy to draw parallels between the experiences in the occupied territories and the experience of the European Jewish community in the lead up to the holocaust. One can’t help becoming a supporter of the national of Palestine after seeing this.
And then I went to spend several days in the old city of Jerusalem.
Imagine a Saturday towards sunset in the square in front of the Wailing/Western Wall. There is the blowing of ram’s horn announcing the end of Sabbath. Woven into this is a Muslim call to prayer. And, as a part of this tapestry, there are church bells. Even in a place of tension, the children of Abraham all have a voice.
Or imagine sitting in a square eating a bagel with cream cheese. The square has seen the murder of the Jewish people by Romans, Christians and Muslims. But around you today are Christians and Jews and Muslims. Cats come up to you looking for a little something. A busker is playing ‘It’s a wonderful world”. There is something a little out of time going on, as if there is a chance for a better world to come to life in Zion.
I don’t have an easy solution to all the problems in the Middle East.
But I don’t think adding yet more nation states is the solution. There are in place across the many boundaries and barriers civil society organizations and visions that exist independently or parallel to major political apparatuses that already find ways to share ideas, resources and visions. Whether found in efforts such as anarchists against the wall or in multifaith dialogue initiatives, common ground is being woven together despite the best efforts of the state. It is from common ground that hope for peace grows.
There is still a real need for Jews to have a homeland. Everyone needs a place where they can feel rooted. And there is a need for those whose ancestors moved into the middle east over the centuries who are not Jewish to feel that their lives aren’t uprooted. Maybe what allowed the Jewish people to survive through the many centuries of the Diaspora—being a nation without a state—contains the best solution for both people of the Palestine and the people of Israel.