Want to know when I post?
Add yourself to my "followers" list -- scroll down and look on the right side of the screen. Or, drop me an email at ilana@post.harvard.edu and ask me to add you to my alerts list. You'll get an email each time I post.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Future

This is the seventh and final post in a series that build on each other. Each post of the series can stand on its own, but if you want to read them in order you can use these links:
1. Celebrating Israel   2. Middle East, not Middle Earth   3. Sayid  4. The Security Wall  5. Ethnic Struggle  6. Borders

Professor Johnny Aumann has a long white beard, sparkling eyes, and a warm smile.  He is an old friend of my parents, and -- incidentally -- a Nobel prize winner in economics.  Johnny once had five children, each one brilliant and kind, until his son Shlomo -- whose name derives from the same root as shalom or salaam -- was killed in 1982 while serving the Israeli army in Lebanon.  For as long as I can remember, an 8x10 photo of Shlomo's smiling face has been sitting on the piano as the centerpiece in the Aumann's living room.  

Since receiving his Nobel prize in 2005, Johnny has been speaking publicly on the Arab-Israeli conflict, and he has become known for his right-wing views.  I can remember a conversation already at least fifteen years ago, in which he told us that the conflict with the Arabs will never end.  We must keep fighting and accept our losses, for that is the cost of living in Israel.  Those who cannot stomach the cost should leave, he said. 

Johnny's views seemed extreme to me at the time, and deeply depressing.  I find them no less depressing today, but unfortunately they are no longer extreme.  Most Israelis seem to have given up hope of achieving peace with the Palestinians.  Many who once saw themselves as lefties have now moved to the right.  They see no choice but to continue in this struggle indefinitely.  For the first time in history, Israel's coalition government is composed exclusively of right-wing parties.  And I believe Prime Minister Netanyahu's angry reaction to President Obama back in May reflected the fatalist attitude of Israelis in general -- the feeling that we have no options left, but must put our heads down and keep fighting.

But the left has not disappeared entirely, and I have been privileged this year to meet a different kind of leftist from those I know back in America.  On the subject of Israel, left-leaning American Jews often seem motivated by shame. "My people are not living up to my standards," one rabbinical student said to me.  Jewish Israelis (with some notable exceptions) are committed to Israel in a much deeper way.  They put their lives at risk serving in the army.  They have placed their lots here, and their criticisms of Israel's right-wing government emerges not from a place of shame, but from a conviction that Israel's future demands peace.  

Both President Obama and President Shimon Peres have recently warned that the conflict cannot continue indefinitely.  A citizenship of 7 million cannot sustainably control 2.4 million people who are not citizens.  Eventually, God forbid, if the conflict cannot be resolved the Jewish state may disappear, either in an explosion or by the slow, painful crumbling of her resources.

The price of the fight is extremely high.  

My son spent his third grade year in an Israeli public school, and he was miserable.  The children spend hours each day at their desks copying from the blackboards, because the teachers have an inadequate photocopying budget.  Israel pours so much money into defense, too little is left for education.  (Interestingly, Israel's socialized medicine is actually quite good, perhaps because doctors' salaries are extraordinarily low -- and yet many of the best Israeli students continue to choose medicine.)  Even more so, my son was overwhelmed by the classroom culture: loud and aggressive, a poorly controlled microcosm of the worst of Israeli culture.  The moral costs of the conflict are higher yet than the financial ones, as 18 year old boys are trained to kill, and then live out their lives -- marrying, raising children -- with the psychological impact of those experiences. 

Golda Meir famously said in 1969: "When peace comes we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons."  I wonder how many Isarelis still feel that way?   
During each of the so-called pilgrimage holidays -- Pesach (Passover), Shavuot and Sukkot -- thousands of Jews flock to the Western Wall to remember the Holy Temple that once stood there.   The municipality sets up a stage in the square just outside the Old City, and when I was there during Pesach a boys' choir was singing traditional Hebrew songs over loud amplifiers.  As I arrived on the scene, they were bellowing out הקדוש ברוך הוא מצילנו מידם, The Holy One saves us from their hands.  I cringed, conscious of the Arab vendors standing 50 feet away, trying to make a living off of the seeded bagels they sell from pushcarts at Jaffa gate.   Israel still has dangerous enemies.  Gilad Shalit's family knows this with excruciating certainly.  But the words of that song were written to describe a different kind of enemy: powerful kings and nobility that tossed Jews about like so many chips on a playing board, or armed mobs that could descend without warning on a defenseless shtetl.  That song, and quite a few like it, seem deeply inappropriate amidst the complex reality of Jerusalem.

When the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, we entered a new stage as a people.  On that day, Moses and Miriam lead us in creating a new song, שירה חדשה שבחו גאולים לשמך על שפת הים.  

I believe we have again entered a new stage.  We have been redeemed from exile, we are back in our own land, under our own rule.  If the peace with Egypt and Jordan is a cold one, it is nonetheless peace and full-scale war is very unlikely.

It is time to leave behind the victim mentality.  It is time also to leave behind the aggressive mentality that is the immediate backlash to it.  It is again time for a new song.  

When Yitshak Rabin zt"l was shot, in his pocket  were the words to this song: 

Allow the sun to penetrate                          תנו לשמש לחדור 
Through the flowers                                           מבעד לפרחים
Don't look back                                               אל תביטו לאחור
Let go of those departed                                   הניחו להולכים

Lift your eyes with hope                             שאו עיניים בתקווה
Not through the rifles' sights                              לא דרך כוונות
Sing a song for love                                       שירו שיר לאהבה
And not for wars                                                  ולא למלחמות

Don't say the day will come                         אל תגידו יום יבוא
Bring on that day -                                             הביאו את היום
Because it is not a dream -                              כי לא חלום הוא
And in all the city squares                                  ובכל הכיכרות
Cheer only for peace!                                      תעירו רק לשלום

Thursday, August 11, 2011


This is the sixth in a series of posts that build on each other. To view the earlier posts in the series click these links:
1. Celebrating Israel   2. Middle East, not Middle Earth   3. Sayid  4. The Security Wall  5. Ethnic Struggle

My landlady has been a good friend to Sayid for many years – in that uneven way that I was his friend this year.  In response to my recent blog posts, she shared with me a piece of his story that shifts my perspective.  When the Palestinian Authority first became established as a semi-autonomous government, civil service jobs were available to uneducated people like Sayid.  My landlady encouraged Sayid to apply for these jobs, but he refused.  The pay was too low.  Sayid, you see, has an entrance visa for Israel because he brings his daughter for treatments at Hadassah Hospital.  That entrance visa must have seemed like a lucky lottery ticket.  How could he possibly waste such a gift?  But that lottery ticket turned out to have been fool’s gold.  The bus rides to Jerusalem cost Sayid what would be the equivalent of a half-day’s wages if he were working on the West Bank, and many days he arrives to find no work waiting for him.  Now poor Sayid is trapped in his mistake.  The civil service jobs are gone, and he still has seven mouths to feed.

I am told that Ramallah is a modern town, with cafes and smoothie bars and an educated public.  But if Ramallah is the capital of Palestine, it is the capital of a third world country; for Sayid’s village, and hundreds of others like his, are truly third world.  It’s not just that the wages are so low and residents live in poverty.  The culture is also from another era.   Sayid once tried to explain to me that West Bank Palestinians are more progressive than their Jordanian counterparts.  For example, Palestinians no longer allow גואלי הדם, blood vengeance.  I was familiar with the term “blood vengeance” from studies of Bible and Talmud, but I was shocked to learn that it is still in practice today, if not in Palestine then in Jordan.  But no, if a murder occurs in Palestine, the murderer is brought to justice in court rather than left to the hands of the victim’s family.  In fact, Sayid said, it happened recently in their village that a young woman fell in love with a young man and her uncle did not approve of the match.  The uncle drowned the girl, and the courts gave him only ten years in prison.  The girl’s family did not pursue the uncle with violence, but instead they are pushing for a new trial and a longer sentence.  They showed this restraint despite the fact that an autopsy revealed the girl to be a virgin.  By implication, her virginity somehow made the crime more heinous.

As Americans know from our relationship with Mexico, first world and third world countries do not make easy neighbors. 

On the third world side of the border: poverty is hard enough, but living in poverty with an awareness of another possibility must be excruciating.  That first world temptation drives people to tremendous risk -- crossing through scorching desert and dodging patrolmen's guns to live as an illegal alien in a country that doesn't want you, or turning down low-paid work on your side of the green line in order to walk the streets in hopes of higher-paid work on the other side.

On the first world side of the border: angst about sealing that border, and about controlling the thousands who leak across anyway, can drive a country into conniptions.  

But in the Palestinian territories, first and third world are tossed together like cucumbers and tomatoes in one Mediterranean salad.

When I first saw a color-coded map of Israel indicating Palestinian- and Israeli-controlled areas, I gasped at what I had known and not really known.  How to draw a reasonable border with this impossibly intermixed map?   

The naive answer seems to be: don’t draw a border.  The peoples are too mixed together, make it a free country for all.  But remember that Palestine was a third world region before the state of Israel arrived on the scene, and third world does not become first world overnight.  Equality in politics does not automatically bring equality where it really matters, and where the real resentment brews: education, earning potential, vision, and respect.  Nor will the stamp of citizenship erase the ethnic tensions I described in my last post.  I fear that removing borders will only increase the violence, both of Arabs towards Jews and of Jews towards Arabs.

What's more, neither side is particularly interested in this solution.  The Palestinian leadership would be violently opposed to Israel annexing their territories.  And for most Israelis, the thought of making their national elections vulnerable to another 2.4 million voting Arabs is unthinkable.  As a percentage of the population, this would be equivalent to the United States granting U.S. citizenship to the entire population of Mexico.

Secular Israelis feel they are fighting a two front battle, and their frustration with ultra-Orthodox Jews often outweighs any frustration they feel towards Palestinians.  The ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim -- literally, those who tremble -- intentionally live in the past.  In a typical Haredi boys' school, all secular education ends in the fourth grade.  Girls receive somewhat more secular education, in part because they are banned from the holy subjects most valued by their communities, and in part because many of them will need to earn a living to support their husbands’ Torah study. Israel's parliamentary government has a proportional representation system, which gives organized minorities an inordinate amount of political power.  As a result, the Haredi rabbinate has managed to retain control of all marriage and divorce in Israel, subjecting families to a deeply sexist system that should have been outdated 100 years ago.

The contrast with the Israel I love is striking.  My husband spent the year visiting at the Weizmann Institute of Science, a premier research center that welcomes graduate students, post-docs and visiting faculty from around the globe.  In my husband’s field of semiconductor nanoelectronics, the Weizmann has perhaps the best facilities in the world.  The Hebrew University is the world’s center for critical analysis of Jewish sacred texts, and Israel's archeology is unsurpassed.  Tel Aviv has a thriving gay community.  One of my good friends this year, a lesbian and an American citizen, moved to Israel ten years ago because she and her wife – who is not an American citizen -- could not live together in America.  In Israel they have full rights of domestic partnership (albeit not recognized as a marriage by the Haredi family courts -- but really, keeping the Haredi courts out of your marriage is usually a good thing!) and her wife was able to adopt the children she bore.

At ~10% of the population and rising rapidly, the Haredim are a serious internal problem.  But the Palestinians are a far more serious problem for Israel, and they are neither internal nor external.  Even in areas where Palestinians have some autonomy, like Ramallah and Gaza, contiguous regions are too small to support a real, independent government or economy.  For anything but the most local matters they are under Israeli rule. 

Neither solution, one state or two, is a simple one.  And every time I think I understand something about Israel or Palestine, I discover a new piece of information that exposes a whole new layer of the story.  But I believe an essential element in finding a resolution is to fully explore the complexity. 

As with any complex problem, the way out is never easy.  The solution will require compromise, even sacrifice and, let's face it, some serious unpleasantness.  But I believe Israel and the Palestinians will find a solution, and in the long run peace and prosperity will emerge for all the inhabitants of this beloved land.    

To continue to the next and final post in the series, click here