Publisher's Note — July 17, 2014, 12:36 pm

A Jerusalem Education

“It gradually dawned on me that since 1967, I had made very little progress in seeing Arabs or empathizing with their plight.”

This column originally ran in the Providence Journal on July 17, 2014.

The renewed violence between Israelis and Palestinians began, coincidentally, while I was hosting a forum in Jerusalem that was intended to foster understanding between the opposing camps. Just days before the participants sat down around a table in the YMCA building on King David Street, three hitchhiking Yeshiva students were kidnapped, presumably by Arabs who wanted to make a statement about Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. The country was in an uproar, and my Harper’s Magazine colleagues and I were right in the middle.

On Sunday, June 15, while our event was taking place, about 25,000 Jews gathered before the Wailing Wall to vent their anguish and rage. And yet, with all the hue and cry over the missing teenagers, our four Israelis showed up as expected, and our three Palestinians managed to pass through military checkpoints to arrive at the appointed time and place.

I was so pleased to have accomplished what I came for that I initially avoided something crucial — something about the deep anger and alienation in the air. In spite of our forum’s urgency and pertinence, and so immersed was I in my first-time visitor’s fascination with Jerusalem, that I underestimated the kidnappings and its probable consequences.

Not that I was Candide in the Holy Land. I’ve been reading about Israel-Palestine — who’s right and who’s wrong; who’s the victim and who’s the perpetrator — since the 1967 war, which is when I really started reading the news in newspapers. In those days, everybody, including me, seemed to be pro-Israel. In the Chicago suburb where I lived, Israelis were the heroes of the Six-Day War and the Arabs the villains, especially Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. I knew Jews but I certainly didn’t know any Arabs.

Years later, when I went to college at Columbia, I came under the influence of Edward Said, the brilliant literary scholar, writer, and champion of the Palestinian cause. I befriended Vietnam War dissenter George Ball, who was also an arch-critic of America’s special relationship with Israel. Eventually, I would publish Ball and Said in Harper’s. I had come a long way from the automatic pro-Israel sympathies of my childhood and from the influence of Skokie, Illinois, a village with many Holocaust survivors. By my twenties, I was firmly in the camp of Palestinian sympathizers.

But when I got to Jerusalem, I realized something was wrong with my position, though not necessarily about the political realities of the situation. Many Israelis are more vociferous in support of Palestinian rights than I am. Reading the excellent Israeli newspaper Haaretz was a revelation. Columnists like Gideon Levy write incendiary attacks on Benjamin Netanyahu — and on the settlers movement — that would never appear in a mainstream American newspaper. While lamenting the kidnappings, Haaretz clearly blamed the Israeli Occupation for what had happened to the unfortunate high school students.

My ignorance of Israeli–Palestinian relations is born mostly of my ignorance of Arabs and Arab culture. In Jerusalem, I could have it both ways — liberal publisher and critic of Israel — while very much enjoying the benefits of Israeli security and culture. I had a lovely time eating dinner in the German Colony, a lush and upscale neighborhood that reminded me of Key West. I ate delicious baladi and drank very good white wine grown on the Golan Heights. I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the Old City at sunset and mixed, not uncomfortably, with the orthodox Jews at the Wailing Wall. I walked from the Jewish Quarter, through the Muslim Quarter, all the way to the Damascus Gate, knowing I was well protected by the heavily armed Israeli soldiers stationed along the way. Taking the Via Dolorosa past the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I felt myself in complete safety and noted the somber faces of the Arab merchants only in passing. When I took pictures of Arab women selling vegetables in the street I could ignore their objections.

It gradually dawned on me that since 1967, I had made very little progress in seeing Arabs or empathizing with their plight. It was easier to be with Israelis, in New York or Israel — they’re so less different from me than Arabs. Easier to experience the suffering of Palestinians through Jewish eyes — Ari Shavit’s book My Promised Land or Simha Flapan’s The Birth of Israel — than take the trouble to read an Arab version of what happened to the Palestinians.

Charmed by my new Arab acquaintances from the forum we convened, and by the left-wing Israeli who came to dinner afterward, I began to feel uncomfortable about my free ride in Jerusalem. The next day, on the way back to the airport, I asked my cab driver to show me the wall that separates Israelis and Arabs in the Occupied Territories.

If you take Route 443 instead of the main highway west toward Tel Aviv, you can easily see the huge wall with its gates wide enough for Israeli tanks; Arabs queuing to cross the highway on barred pedestrian bridges watched closely by the military; Arab villages far away. Too bad, said my driver. You used to be able to visit these towns and buy things from the Arabs.

Yes, and it’s too bad I hardly know any Arabs.

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  • frph

    what is your point?

    • eott

      I can’t speak for the author, but I imagined that he was encouraging self-reflection via the humanisation of both sides of the conflict, or vice versa. Or both.

  • Anna

    Very little is written about the psychological roots of our biases concerning this conflict. Thanks for your honesty…a reminder of how the suffering of others only becomes “real” to us once we do the imaginative (and moral) work of empathy.

  • Jane

    Any democratic country would allow anti-government activists to voice their opinions. You were with them, that’s all. You are still ignorant of Arabs as many of us are. Next time instead of lamenting your ignorance, I hope you show us your insight about this issue, please.

  • Dean Jackson

    The incessant, never-ending dueling between Hamas and Israel will be used by Arab governments to implement the next stage of their proxy war with Israel (and used to get rid of Hamas) …

    And everyone forgets the 1974 Turkish occupation of Northern Cyprus (the 40th anniversary being Sunday, July 20 ironically enough, as tens of thousands demonstrate in European cites citing the evils of Israel), a real occupation, where Greek Cypriots were driven from their homes. In the case of Gaza and the West Bank, Israel never gave up her claim to those territories when the 1949 armistice was signed with her Arab neighbors. In fact, the term “Palestinian” was resurrected in 1963* by Arab governments as a means to continue the war with Israel via proxy, since Arab nations could never again wage a war of annihilation against Israel due to Israel’s acquisition of the atomic bomb that year.

    To operationalize the new Arab strategy, Israel had to acquire Gaza and the West Bank, hence the explanation for the intentionally botched Arab governments’ Six-Day War (1967), where, now get this, Egyptian land forces cross the demilitarized Sinai all the way up to Israel’s border and stops in its tracks there, waiting for the inevitable IDF response! For those not attuned to military tactics, that’s called intentional sabotage for the purpose of losing the war, thereby allowing for the implementation of a more subtle strategy to defeat the “Zionist entity”. Every time I hear that phrase I have to chuckle. Arab governments need new script writers!

    So, what’s next you ask? Watch for “Palestinians” renouncing a ‘two-state option’ for a ‘one-state option’, the excuses given (1) that they’re tired of incessant conflicts that only results in massive numbers of “Palestinian” deaths; buttressed by (2) the sudden memory recollection that, in fact, they are also Israeli citizens! Of course, a ‘one-state option’ will mean the electoral defeat of the Jewish state, exactly what the new Arab strategy was implemented for!

    However, there is one card Israel holds that can nullify the Arab governments’ new proxy strategy vis-a-vis Israel, and that is Israel affording world Jewry the right of Israeli citizenship! This should have been policy back in 1948, but maybe Israel was holding in reserve this checkmate move until it was really needed.

    By the way, the 40th anniversary of Turkey’s invasion and occupation of northern Cyprus was the 20th of last month (20 July – 18 August 1974). The silence of (1) the Arab media; and (2) the media in the West was deafening.


    *History of Palestine:

    It was Emperor Hadrian who renamed the area Syria Palæstina, after the Second Jewish Revolt in 135 AD, merging the Roman provinces of Syria and Judea with several other formerly nominally independent territories…

    Before 135 AD, what is today Israel consisted of the nominally independent Jewish territory of Galilee and the Roman administered province of Judea, contradicting Arab governments’ propaganda that those areas were ever called Palestine.

    The Roman Latin word ‘Palæstina’ means Philistia, the arch enemy of ancient Israel, whose people, defunct by the 7th century BC, inhabited the southwest corner of what is today Israel…

    Knowing the historical accounts of the animosity between the two peoples, Israelites and Philistines, Hadrian chose the disagreeable name ‘Palæstina’ as a slight against the Jews for their revolt against Rome, which is why the name of the Palestine Mandated home for the Jews, Palestine, was changed to Israel upon the territory’s declared independence on May 14, 1948.

    With the fall of Syria (inclusive of the region east of the Mediterranean Sea, west of the Euphrates River, north of the Arabian Desert and south of the Taurus Mountains) to the Ottoman Sultan Selim I in 1516, we have one province (though divided into various administrative districts by Selim I), where the citizens before the conquest of Selim I already call themselves Syrian…

    There never was a “Palestinian” nationality in the Ottoman Empire (“Palestinian” was a new nationality created by the League of Nations for the Jewish Homeland when the area was carved out of Ottoman Syria). The area of Ottoman Palestine was a part of the Ottoman province of Syria (akin to Central Park in New York City), where the inhabitants called themselves Syrian. That’s why after World War I Arabs living in Palestine wanted to merge the area with Syria…

    “The First Congress of Muslim-Christian Associations (in Jerusalem, February 1919), which met for the purpose of selecting a Palestinian Arab representative for the Paris Peace Conference, adopted the following resolution: ‘We consider Palestine as part of Arab Syria, as it has never been separated from it at any time. We are connected with it by national, religious, linguistic, natural, economic and geographical bonds.’” — Wikipedia, “Palestinian People”.

    The “Palestinian People” of today are a fiction, officially created at the first Arab League summit held in Cairo, Egypt in January 1964, where the Palestine Liberation was also created. The acquisition of the atomic bomb by Israel in 1963 spurred Arab governments to hold not only the league’s first summit in January of ’64 (the Arab League was founded in 1945), but its second summit that September in order to regroup and implement a new strategy towards Israel…

    After World War I the Allies/League of Nations demarcated areas of the former Ottoman Middle East for national homes of the various ethnic groups residing in the region. Arabs received what’s today called Syria, Iraq and Jordan; the Druze were provided with the defunct Jabal al Druze; the Alawites were provided with the defunct Alawite State; the Jews were provided Palestine (which territory under the Ottoman Empire was also composed of the southern half of Lebanon, ending just south of Beirut. After World War I the southern Lebanon portion was given to France, and Ottoman southern Syria was given to Britain and merged with the Palestine Mandate for the Jewish Homeland. One month later the British remove from the Jewish mandate the area of Palestine east of the Jordan River–Ottoman southern Syria–giving the area to Saudi Hashemites instead.); the Maronite Christians were provided with Lebanon. The Kurds and Armenians too were allotted their national homelands, but before the League of Nations could legalize the mandates, Turkish military forces moved back into those territories. Those Arabs living in the new mandated homeland for the Jews–Palestine–called themselves SYRIAN, and wanted to merge Palestine into the newly reconstituted nation of Syria; they detested the concept of a “Palestinian State” for Jews and Arabs, because the new “Palestinian” nationality included Jews who would have the upper hand, naturally, in the future new Jewish nation.

    As the successor organization to the League of Nations, the UN initially followed the League of Nations Palestine Mandate of 1922, and the territory of Palestine under the mandate includes Gaza and the West Bank. The non-binding 1947 UN Resolution 181 sought to divide Palestine into two states, one for the Jews, and one for the Arabs, which the Jews accepted, but Arab governments rejected…

    Note: Arab GOVERNMENTS rejected, not Arabs living in Palestine!

    Note that UN Resolution 181 mentions a state for the Jews and a state for the Arabs. Nowhere in the document does it mention a state for the “Palestinians”. Why? Because there was no indigenous Arab Palestinian ethnic group, simply the existing new Palestinian nationality that was created by the League of Nations in 1922 for the Jewish Homeland…

    “Independent Arab and Jewish States and the Special International Regime for the City of Jerusalem, set forth in Part III of this Plan, shall come into existence in Palestine two months after the evacuation of the armed forces of the mandatory Power has been completed but in any case not later than 1 October 1948. The boundaries of the Arab State, the Jewish State, and the City of Jerusalem shall be as described in Parts II and III below.”

    UN Resolution 181 mentions “Jewish” for the ethnic Jews of Palestine, but not Palestinian for the ethnic Arabs of Palestine. It calls Arabs–Arabs, and the League of nations created many Arab nations in the former Ottoman Middle East after World War I, where Gaza and West Bank Arabs can move to if they don’t like Israel. That’s precisely why so many nations were created by the League of Nations in the Middle East after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire–to act as a remedy for persecuted groups. Why would Arabs living in Gaza and the West Bank want to be persecuted and killed in large numbers there, when they can move to neighboring kindred Arab nations? Oh, I forgot. Those kindred Arab neighbors won’t allow such relocation, because that would (1) be a recognition of Israel’s right to exist; and (2) make Israel stronger.

    • jonabark

      There never was a “jewish” ethnicity either. Nor was there a forced expulsion of Jews from the region. And the rulers of the region have historically included a range of canaanite languages( such is Hebrew, really just a local dialect) and peoples along with occupations by other imperial forces( Egypt, Persia,Greece, Assyria) . The genetic mingling of regional peoples along with religious conversions make the idea of a single people impossible to defend.The paranoia of this writer about vast coordinated Arab plots reaching thousands of years back into history to create a fictional Palestinian people is ahistorical and laughable.

      • Dean Jackson

        “The paranoia of this writer about vast coordinated Arab plots reaching thousands of years back into history to create a fictional Palestinian people is ahistorical and laughable.”

        Where in my comment did I say a conspiracy existed dating thousands of years back into history to create a Palestinian state today? I mention the year 1963. As I wrote, “In fact, the term “Palestinian” was resurrected in 1963* by Arab governments as a means to continue the war with Israel via proxy, since Arab nations could never again wage a war of annihilation against Israel due to Israel’s acquisition of the atomic bomb that year.”

        You conflated my classical review of Palestine, and where that term first came from, with the post World War I analysis.

  • PlantinMoretus

    “When I took pictures of Arab women selling vegetables in the street I could ignore their objections.”

    That is very bad manners, no matter what country you’re in.

  • TheSkeptic

    Don’t need to read anything past, “three hitchhiking Yeshiva students were kidnapped, presumably by Arabs who wanted to make a statement about Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.”

    Murder is a little more than a statement. This author is an imbecile.

    • steve

      Maybe it is. So? That doesn’t mean the kidnappers shared your deep and sensitive cosmology. I think the author is exactly right.

      • TheSkeptic

        What about the dead boys?



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