Recently, New York–based academic Ken Chitwood wrote an article on the latest outbreak in the Israel-Palestinian “dispute” that was republished on Asia Times under the headline “Why Al-Aqsa Mosque has often been a site of conflict.” The piece earned some pushback, with critics claiming it was “unbalanced” because if failed to mention Hamas’ rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza.
To some, any plea for “balance” in reportage on the bloodshed in Palestine and Israel is laughable. Chitwood’s article was an attempt to put the violence in historical context, both recent (protests against the eviction of Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah) and long-term (the importance of Al-Aqsa, and Jerusalem itself, to Muslims worldwide).
The “boys with toys” side issue of Hamas bouncing its tin-pot rockets off the Iron Dome while the IDF fires precision-guided missiles into civilian apartment buildings would have been an unneeded distraction, these observers say. According to that view, anyone failing to see this is hopelessly blinkered.
But on the Israel question, aren’t we all “blinkered”?
By “we all,” I mean those of us in the world shaped, if not defined, by the three main Abrahamic monotheisms. While educated Hindus and Buddhists are certainly aware of the sectarian conflicts in West Asia, they are not philosophically influenced by that awareness to any significant degree.
It’s a bit like the difference between Western and Eastern emphases on the history of World War II. Every once in a while Westerners wring their hands over a display of Hitler dolls or swastika T-shirts in Thai shops, failing to remember that in this part of the world, the Nazis were irrelevant, and folks like Adolf Hitler who have become part of the Eurocentric (and American, by extension) psyche as Satan incarnate are largely seen here as clowns.
For those of us raised and educated in a Western or Muslim country, it is next to impossible to hold an “objective” view on the State of Israel. Many believe that the establishment of that state, or more precisely the location of that establishment and the ethnic cleansing that made it possible, were disastrous mistakes, but so what? It happened, Israel exists, and it legally enjoys the rights of statehood, end of argument.
Besides, leaving aside the reality of centuries of persecution that inevitably engendered a hunger for a Jewish state, the world in the year 1948 bore almost no resemblance geopolitically to the world of 2021. Old empires that had not been obliterated by the great wars of the 20th century (Austro-Hungary, Ottomans, Germany, Japan) were in their death throes (British, French, Portuguese), while the new kids on the block (US and USSR) were preparing to dominate the next decades, and define its conflicts.
For those and other reasons – such as the rise of the oil-enriched Arab monarchies – the birth of Israel, and the consequent struggles, injustices and bloodshed that have been the hallmark of the “Holy Land” ever since, was probably inevitable.
The march of time
Even the year 1980, when I made my own first and only trip to Israel, was very different from today. That winter, which I spent on a socialist, or “collective,” kibbutz in the northern Negev, was an eventful time in an eventful region.
I was not very politically aware back then, and although my experience as a laborer had shown me the common sense of a strong union movement, the kibbutz’ socialist philosophy was not of any particular interest to me, and certainly did not influence my choice of that one over one of the more conservative ones. It just worked out that way.
Still, the three months I spent there had a profound influence on me. I had been brought up as a Baptist, but was becoming more and more uncomfortable with the racism and intolerance infesting fundamentalist Protestantism. I found the “religion” of that kibbutz much more to my liking. It was strictly secular, for one thing. The foreign volunteers, most of whom were not Jews (or indeed adherents of any religion), were treated as equals.
But the times they were a-changing. Menachem Begin had been in power since 1977 and was shifting the country to the right. He authorized Jewish settlements in Gaza and the West Bank. The Histadrut labor movement and the kibbutzim, blamed rightly or wrongly for rampant inflation, were sapped of strength, in favor of “free market” economics.
Not far away, America’s puppet Shah had been deposed and Iran reinvented as an Islamic Republic; the US Embassy was invaded and hostages taken. Partly in response, Ronald Reagan was elected president of the United States in November 1980. One of the wags on the kibbutz remarked, “Keep your eyes looking east, to see the mushroom cloud rising over Tehran.”
Then, perhaps most telling of all, John Lennon was murdered that December. “Give Peace a Chance,” it seemed, was overtaken once and for all by “Greed Is Good” and “forever wars.”
Still, in Israel itself, its remaking in Begin’s image was not yet certain. There was still reason for hope for peace. The kibbutz’ loudspeakers played Lennon’s music non-stop the day after his death.
Outside the kibbutz, I spent some time in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, occasionally meeting educated young Palestinians who I found had many of the same aspirations as young leftist Jews. I dared to believe that as both groups acquired political clout in their respective communities, their shared values would prevail.
Naive? Probably. Such hopes put too little stock in the powerful forces, at home and abroad, that were forcing Israel and Palestine toward the insoluble conflict we see today.
But before leaving this subject, one more observation. My experience “in Israel” was by and large artificial. The kibbutzim, especially the secular, leftist examples like the one I was on, had evolved in their own way – or, some would say, failed to evolve in a world that increasingly shunned collectivism. The modern state’s abandonment of them and their pacifist philosophies was, like the original establishment of that state in 1948, perhaps inevitable.
Both Israelis and Palestinians hold very high their perceptions of their own heritages. But the reality is that neither community looks anything like any of the various cultures that dominated the region on the east shore of the Mediterranean between Phoenicia and Egypt in ancient times – millennia before the modern notion of “nation-state” even existed.
That’s the dilemma of tribalism; go back far enough in time, scientists tell us, and we are all Africans, not Eurasians.
Modern Israel itself, created mostly by refugees from anti-Semitic Europe, looks and feels a lot like Europe, especially cities like Tel Aviv and even parts of Jerusalem. I daresay it is largely for that reason, not so much “respect for its right to exist” or even its importance in the history of Christianity, that enamors Westerners to Israel, and less so to neighboring lands – including Palestine – with their fierce imams and shrouded women.
And so there we have it. Peace and tolerance in the “Holy Land” may be a lost cause. The best we can do, perhaps, is show tolerance and respect to those whose “blinkered views” differ from our own – and celebrate our shared humanity.
David Simmons is a Canadian journalist living in Thailand. He has worked for newspapers and news websites in four countries, three of them in Asia. He holds a bachelor’s degree in linguistics from the University of British Columbia and a diploma in journalism from Langara College in Vancouver.