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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

1 comment:

  1. I'm glad that you're optimistic, it's really the only way to be! You should have come to our branch of Rami Levi for some chizuk before you left, we're doing a pretty good job with the coexistence in that one shopping mall :)