August 27, 2014

End of the Month Controversy- Israel and Palestine

street art by Banksy

Once upon a time, civilization emerged in what we call Mesopotamia.

Mesopotamia means "land between rivers," and the rivers it refers to are the Tigris and the Euphrates, in modern day Iraq.

Many civilizations emerged there. many cultures and religions. Many more emerged nearby, each spreading deeper into the three continents that Mesopotamia bridged.

One of those culture and religion is my own. Five thousand years ago, the Jewish people were nomads, wandering through the deserts that surrounded Mesopotamia. Four thousand years ago, they became the dominant culture in land at the edge of the Mediterranean Sea, to the west of Mesopotamia. Three and a half thousand years ago, they were conquered, and their country fell, and they once again became wandering nomads. They wandered to Egypt and were enslaved.

Or at least, some of them were. But a great many Jewish people remained in the former Israel, farming and shepherding, living under the rule of other peoples. So many, in fact, that for another thousands years or so, they remained the dominant culture. Part of what kept them so dominant was the assistance of another nearby people- the Persians. After Xerxes (known in Hebrew as Ahasuerus) took a Jewish girl named Esther as his queen, the Persian Empire was one of the first places and times in human history where Jews were allowed to live as they pleased- worshipping their own God, controlling their own commerce, and existing in their own communities. The Persians even allowed the Jews to rebuild Jerusalem. But the land that was once Israel was on the border of another two continents, and constantly at play in the wars of other people.

It was around that time that the Romans, living to the north of Mesopotamia, took over what was once a desert belonging to no-one, and then a Jewish country called Israel, and then the property of Assyrians and Persians and other assorted middle eastern peoples. Within a few hundred years, Jesus was born, and the number of Jews living in the modern day middle east began to become a number of Jews and a number of Christians, and even more numbers of people of neither faith or heritage. A tribe of Jews wandered off into Africa and became lost for millennia, the Christians moved farther north into Europe.

Half another thousand years after this, Mohammed was born and an empire began growing around him, in the land to the south of Mesopotamia. This new culture pushed north into Europe, and east into Asia, and west into Africa- through the land that previously belonged to the Romans and the Assyrians and the Persians and the Jews and nobody.

So now Israel was part of the massive empire of the Caliphate, which covered all the northern part of the African continent, modern day Spain, India, and Turkey. It was a massive empire.

And the Holy Roman Empire fought with the Caliphate, and the land that was once Israel and had belonged to dozens of passing tribes over the past four thousand years traded hands many times.

The Holy Roman Empire didn't only fight against Islam. It also fought against Jews, now living in Europe. They were tortured and killed, and many fled. Some wandered deeper and deeper into Europe, some went back through the former Mesopotamia into India, and some went to their former territory, the former Israel, because they believed it to be their homeland.

When the Ottoman Empire came, that land once again traded hands, and still the Jews who had decided to remain there after the fall of the Jewish country, and the fall of the Persian Empire, and the fall of the Romans, etc. etc., lived in that place- with the slowly accumulating European Jews, and all the other peoples who had come and gone, building their shrines and temples, and taming the desert.

Meanwhile, persecution against the Jews continued in Europe. The Jews wandered farther north, farther east, and as pogroms grew in frequency in Russia, many European and now American Jews embraced a new philosophy- Zionism- and began immigrating to the land to the west of Mesopotamia in larger numbers. In the decade before World War 1 alone, forty thousand Zionist immigrants landed on the shores of what they knew as Israel. And tensions between the Jews and Arabs, which had always been fraught, began to rise.

With the first world war, the Ottoman Empire was cut into pieces and distributed as spoils to the victors- assorted European powers.

The British took what they called Palestine, and kept it under their direct control. European and American Zionists continued moving back to the desert, planting apricot groves and building settlements and cities.

And then came the Holocaust.

When World War II ended, the new United Nations agreed that in order to prevent another Jewish genocide, the Jews needed a home. The British offered Palestine, where many of the Jews were going anyway, and gave it to them.

There were already Jews there. What overnight became Israel again was already home to hundreds of thousands of Jewish people.

America was hostile to Jews. Europe was hostile to Jews, with the exception of a several Scandinavian states who had welcomed Jewish refugees as early as the sixteenth century. Nobody wanted to offer their protection, but Britain had a sliver of land that happened to already be home to more Jews than almost anywhere else on earth, and only having owned it for a few decades, they figured they wouldn't really miss it when it was gone.

But as we know, Jews weren't the only people in Israel. The two thirds of the non-Jewish population in the territory was made of all sorts of people. There were Muslims, who had been living there for half a thousand years, since the Caliphates spread up from what was now Saudi Arabia.

There were Christians, who had been living there since the Roman Empire.

There were dozens of other tribes, with their own religions and their own cultures, who had been living in the land to the west of Mesopotamia since before history.

So the great powers of the world agreed- send the Jews to Israel, a country the size of New Jersey, and the problem is solved. Within a year the Jewish community grew from 30% to 80% of the populations.

The day after the British left, every Arab neighbor attacked the new state. Miraculously, Israel survived. Twenty years later Egypt announced plans to "destroy Israel,"and Israel went to war with its neighbors again, this time expanding territory into the Sinai and the West Bank. After that, the Arab neighbors met and announced their conditions: No recognition of an Israeli state, no peace, and no negotiations. It's an attitude that has continued in Hamas.

And so, despite the existence of a modern Jewish state, there have only been three places in the history of Judaism where Jewish people could live essentially in peace.

The first was Israel as it was four thousand years ago, in its half millennia of autonomy and prosperity.

The second was Persia, when Jerusalem was returned to the Jews to administer as they saw fit.

And the last is the United States, in the last half century, after the struggles of the Civil Rights movement suddenly changed the perception of Jews in America from a maligned "other" to "white." (Ironically, American persecution of Jews had gained momentum during the Civil War, when Ulysses S. Grant issued orders evicting Jews from American territory.) But as the government of Israel continues to grow more and more conservative and aggressive in its fight with Hamas, even America is less welcoming.

There are 8.3 million Jews living in America, spread out through all 50 states. There are 6.3 Jews living in Israel- a territory the size of New Jersey. There's another three million scattered across the world. That's all the Jews on earth.

Everywhere but here and Israel, Jews are a persecuted minority. Hate crimes against Jews continue in France, the country with the third highest Jewish population. Hate crimes against Jews continue in Russia, where they aren't given citizenship.

And Israel's neighbors continue to threaten its total and absolute destruction.

Israel's government is in a position that most of us cannot begin to comprehend. Vastly outnumbered by enemies who take every opportunity to attack, but still they MUST abide by expectations of far distant allies.

And in this situation, the Israeli government has done very, very bad things.

The way Israel treats the peoples of Gaza and the West Bank is unacceptable. The hardships they inflict are often compared to apartheid, and not without reason.

But each time Israel eases the restrictions they place on Palestinian territories, Hamas responds with attacks.

This does not excuse the actions of the Israeli government.

Many Jews (even in Israel) are not Zionists. Many Jews don't believe a Jewish state is a good idea. Many Jews don't believe the Jewish claim to the land that is now Israel but was once Palestine and Roman and Ottoman and Persian and Assyrian and just a desert to the west of Mesopotamia is a valid claim. Some Jews interpret the Torah in such a way as to forbid a Jewish state in Israel.

But Many Jews feel compelled to support Israel, because nearly half of the Jews on earth are there, and part of being Jewish is the constant awareness that somebody is coming for you. Somebody is coming, bent on destroying the entire Jewish people. And Israel is a damn fine target for those people who want to destroy the Jews.

Nearly half the Jews in the world live under the constant threat of annihilation from their next door neighbors, who explicitly demand their destruction. Nearly half the Jews in the world spent the last two months running for their bomb shelters over and over again as Hamas fired rockets. Nearly half the Jews in the world are faced daily with a choice to live in the land where their people have lived for five thousand years, or to flee alone into a world that despises them.

THAT is what's happening in Israel.

There is no doubt that the Israeli government is doing criminal things. But that is not the same as the Jewish people.

Yet, because Israel is THE Jewish State, and because Jews, as all minorities are, find themselves compared to and represented by the most visible entity with the same label, the rest of the world takes out its frustration at the Israeli government on "The Jews."

That's why Jewish students at American universities are being assaulted on campus. This is why random Jewish couples in New York City are being attacked by strangers on the street. That's probably why a 65 year old historian was beaten to death this month in Philadelphia. Because all across the world there was already a nasty streak of anti-semitism, and it is being fed by fury at Israel. The factions of people already attacking Jews has adopted the same language and set of complaints used to attack Jews a century ago.

It is much more complicated than a country ripped from the hands of one people and given to another.

It's more complicated than Jews versus Muslims. The majority of Jews in Israel are not religious, but the ultra-orthodox members of the Knesset have passed laws excusing ultra-orthodox Israelis from their mandatory military service. In what is, for Israelis, not a religious war, the Jews with religious motivation have eliminated themselves from the lines.

It is even more complicated than Jews having their own country to run as they see fit, because the increasingly conservative and violent government of Israel is making it harder for non-Israeli-born Jews to become citizens.

And it is more complicated even that that- because American Evangelical Christians are founding and promoting charities with the sole purpose of moving more Jews out of Europe and into Israel, with the hopes that when ALL the Jews are in Israel it will bring about the second coming of Christ, and the world will end.

But it also serves to convince the growing Anti-American movements in the Middle East, like offshoots of Al Qaeda, that America is connected with the Zionist movement, creating more hatred towards Israel and Jews, and funneling more rockets and fighters into Gaza.

THAT is how complicated the situation is.

Hamas and Israel agreed to another ceasefire yesterday. After fifty days of death and destruction, mostly in Gaza, another shaky attempt at peace is here.

When it fails, as it probably will, be careful in where and how you assign the blame. It is not anti-semitic to be anti-Zionist. Just remember that a people and a country are not the same.

Remember that if the Israeli government wanted to kill Palestinian civilians, they'd all be dead already.

Remember that if the Palestinians weren't oppressed, they wouldn't accept Hamas.

Remember that the people living in Israel, people living EVERYWHERE, have only ever wanted to live free from persecution, regardless of which Empire erased or redrew the borders last time around.

All of this fighting- it is all based on invisible lines in the sand. The same sand we've been fighting in for five thousand years.

Remember that five thousand years is a long time. And remember that we can't change history to suit our needs. It is not black and white, good and evil, right and wrong.

It's a series of events that occurred, and if we are careful, we can learn from them.

And maybe, then, we can build a lasting peace.


  1. This is an excellent analysis of a very complex problem. It's a very thorny issue, and I think you've done a great job of explaining without getting into some of the impassioned but not necessarily informed rhetoric that surrounds it. Thank you!

  2. "There is no doubt that the Israeli government is doing criminal things."

    I know that there is a much larger point to your piece than this, but this is where you lose me. Hamas is not a quirky little thorn in Israel's side; it is a terrorist organization that will accept nothing less than the eradication of the Jewish people and the complete destruction of Israel. That hides missiles under the buildings where their children go to school, leaves its civilians out in the open during air strikes and sends their commanders down to the bunkers, urges its own people to act as human shields to ratchet up the body count, and spends millions of dollars building a complex network of tunnels into Israel for the sole purpose of launching unprecedented terrorist attacks on Jewish people while the civilians in Gaza are mired in poverty. This is what we are dealing with, so what would you have Israel do? Stop defending itself and power down the Iron Dome so that Hamas missiles could pound the country and even out the body count? Lift the blockade so that Hamas could import even more weapons and fighters? Give up the West Bank so that Hamas could have yet another stronghold from which to attack Israelis? There are children and civilians dying in Gaza, and that is a tragic thing. No sane person disputes this. But I think we need to be clear on who is the blame for those deaths. Israel has done what it needs to do in order to ensure its survival and the safety of its people. Any other country would do the same, but any other country wouldn't be - and hasn't been - critiqued and maligned the way that Israel has been.

    1. Absolutely. I agree with everything you say. That said, I think Hamas is playing a long game here, and a diabolically smart one. By hiding their rockets in schools and hospitals, by essentially forcing Israel's hand when it comes to bombing UN targets, Hamas is doing the one thing it can to really assure the destruction of Israel- alienating it from its allies.

      Israel has, over the last decade, done things that are simply beyond excusing. Using white phosophorus, for example. Which doesn't excuse the actions of Hamas.

      The same way that the actions of Hamas don't excuse the actions of Israel.

      What I'm trying to say is that everybody is a bad guy, here. That I support the right of the people in Israel to live, period. And honestly, that I fear there is simply NO solution. The more aggressive Israel is, even by necessity, the more alienated they'll be by the international community. And the more alienated Israel is by the international community, the worse the situation will become.

      It's not a happy thought.

  3. I really appreciate your nuance. I have been very alienated by the discussions on facebook. Thank you.



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