Israel and the Palestinians, in a letter to a younger French friend

September 20, 2020

Dear Brxxx:

Thanks for the article you sent me about Sheldon Adelson and his purchase of the former American embassy residence in Tel Aviv (le monde.fr). 

Your note pushes me to clarify my own view of this situation, as many others have done.  But writing this is important for me. 

As a Jew, I am fearful of the effects of current struggles on my fellows in Israel and of its  humanitarian impacts on the Palestinians and others. However,  I live within the safety (until now) and affluence of the United States and have no business dictating a solution to the parties involved.  To the degree that I have any direct influence (which I do not),  it should be with my own government.

I do not agree with the goals of the settler movement in the West Bank;  to me they and their supporters in Israel and the United States are extremist.  The notion that God gave us Israel, within its present, or at times larger ancient borders, is self-justifying and self-deluding, except in the general sense, which is that God gives and takes away everything and everybody.

The living conditions of the refugee Palestinians and their lack of prospects are untenable and unacceptable. These circumstances may continue for a very long time, but it is wrong that they should. 

That said, if I must choose between defining myself as a Zionist or an anti-Zionist, then I define myself as the former.  I must, although not a religious man, since I believe that Judaism plays an important role in human affairs, and its survival, and that of its adherents, is important to me.   

It has become common on the left to view Zionism as a European colonial enterprise and the Palestinians as victims of the Israelis.  This was actually from good luck or skill born of desperation, since the Israelis might have lost their independence or later wars with the surrounding Arab states, and the present narrative of exploiter/victim would now have been very different.  There is also some truth in it, since Zionism in its origins, is a European movement, and most of the early Jewish settlers were European.  Or perhaps more precisely, we had lived in Europe, after leaving ancient Israel, for approximately 2,000 years and intermixed, genetically and culturally, with European populations. 

But Zionism is the necessity of European antisemitism.  However much I love and am fascinated by Europe, our history there was untenable.  The refusal of our ancestors to convert to Christianity, and our refusal/and eventual efforts to assimilate, were not acceptable in Europe.  The Holocaust was simply the last chapter of 2,000 years of non-acceptance. In the context of 19th century European nationalism, Zionism was survival for a people who no longer had a geographic base.

Our mother and her family escape Europe on the Hamburg-Amerika Line
January 1939

Following the Holocaust and the Second World War, it was arguably the only solution, and since we had been largely eradicated in Europe, staying there was no longer safe or plausible, and entry to the United States and other countries was effectively closed. 

So many of the survivors came to Israel, and with great difficulty, joining the earlier settlers. The Palestinians feared our arrival in large numbers, eventually resisting the founding of Israel with the support of surrounding Arab states, but they failed.  And they failed again.  And the victims of this failure, in addition to the Israelis who have died, or who now live in a constantly-militarized state,  are the many descendant Palestinians now living in the West Bank, Jordan, Gaza and Lebanon, whose living circumstances are the current focus of attention. 

But whose victims really are the Palestinians?  Are they the victims of the Jews?  Most certainly, since we decided, after centuries of passivity, to protect and secure ourselves, and arguably joined the ranks of the oppressors. Are they the victims of the Arab states, many of whom admitted the most talented and successful Palestinians, but did comparatively little for the remaining refugees (while Israel, post-independence, absorbed approximately 600,000 Jews who were forced out of Islamic countries)?  Are they the victims of their own leadership, fragmented, and unable to negotiate realistically, unable to yield?  Or are they the also the victims of European antisemitism, and frankly European unwillingness to pay the price of its antisemitism?  (Just as we in America refuse to pay for what was done to our native American and black populations.) 

When I hear or read criticism of Israel, I am embarrassed and distressed that after two thousand years of reading and thinking and praying in Diaspora, we still define ourselves as Jews by control of a “holy land”, unable now to yield or share it.  That the Israelis have been unable and or unwilling to invest in Palestinians and integrate them more fully, and at a higher level, into mutual economic (if not political) interdependence.  That we view the Palestinians as inferior or irremediable, instead of simply affirming that we do not wish to be controlled or subjected to them (or anybody else). 


Ein Gedi, Israel

But I am also puzzled at those who cannot understand the satisfaction of a Jewish country in our place of origin, who cannot understand the relief of not having to accommodate a Christian or Muslim majority, and who cannot see the necessity of a safe refuge from those who despise, tolerate or fear us.  And who do not accept that we are no longer willing to be their victims. 

Europe, and not exclusively Germany, has an enormous debt to pay for what has happened in the Middle East.  (And of course, Europe and the United States, and generally the West, have other debts to pay.)  To every anti-Zionist, may I suggest, as partial solutions, a million dollars–preferably taxed from the rich, but not entirely so–a residence visa and free education for every Palestinian family who would like to resettle in Europe and a serious economic and educational investment in the Palestinian refugee camps.  And from the Arab countries, some of whom are very rich, a greater engagement, not only with Israel, which is economically advantageous, but with the Palestinians, to whom they owe a greater interest and a greater obligation. 

The plight of the Palestinians is arguably imperialist and colonialist.  But let us place the responsibility where it lies, in the context of a history that is still very recent and where there is plenty of blame to share.  As both the descendant of victims and the beneficiary of a privileged life in the United States,  I am willing to welcome a Palestinian neighbor and pay a Palestinian investment tax right now.  Are you?

Larry Sicular

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One Response to Israel and the Palestinians, in a letter to a younger French friend

  1. Miriam Herschlag says:

    Thanks for sending this Larry. And also for the link to your wonderful listening series.

    On the Zionism piece, your response is complex and ambitious, you do so much to thread the needle – and it’s not easy. There are different takes – different emphases – on how to present Zionism or the Palestinian story. I read a piece like yours with this kind of hyper alertness for missteps here and there. It’s not just my usual editor’s vigilance for a dangling participle, but something deeper, because on some level, this particular conversation isn’t just whether Israel’s birth was sinful or noble (quick answer: it was both), but whether Israel should be allowed to exist. At least that’s how I’m conditioned to think.

    It’s as if we’re still required to show up in 15th century Tortosa and have a scholarly disputation with the Christians about whether the Talmud is heresy or not, but the stakes of this polite academic argument are actually how many Jews are going to be burned at the stake. This happens when humans become symbols and causes and identity markers, flattened into caricatures, rather than full blooded people products of the conditions and ideas of their time, faced with horrific choices, arguing among ourselves, dying in droves on battlefields, buses and bars, embracing life, improving, backsliding, idealistic, pragmatic, post trauma, deeply funny. The flesh and sinew is absent from these conversations and articles. And yet we can’t not have them, and can’t not do our best to respond, so I admire how serious and thoughtful and thorough your response was.

    I do have some feedback re your comments about Palestinians. I think your “million dollars” idea, rather than being a practical or realistic proposal, works as a kind of “put up or shut up” argument that challenges privileged Westerners to acknowledge and pay for helping perpetuate a conflict that could have been resolved years ago. The outlines of a two-state solution are well known and obvious, but it has been politically more useful for states in the region and beyond to keep the conflict alive and killing. And of course there are also expansionists on both sides – the from-the-river-to-the-sea Palestinians, and the God-gave-this-land-to-me Jews – who are working to ensure there is no peaceful division of the land.

    Like the Jews, the Palestinians are far from monolithic, they are living throughout the world in a wide range of conditions. They are unemployed West Bankers navigating military roadblocks at 5am to sneak into Israel and take crap jobs to feed their families. They are mothers in Gaza craning their necks to see rockets and arson balloons fly one way, and Israeli drones and jets fly the other. They are distinguished judges and hospital directors in Israel. They are engineers in Dubai, denizens of UNRWA refugee camps in Jordan, a rep in the US Congress, academics in Europe, exporters in China. All Palestinians have agency, and a significant number have power and financial resources. Corrupt, dilapidated leadership is an issue. Despair is an issue, as are old clan rivalries, and clashing political and religious ideologies, and an antiquated machinery of rage and nascent, fragile dreams of hope.

    Which is all to say, again, that to know more is to be at once better equipped to understand nuance and less emboldened to offer simple solutions. But I do believe the starting point for peace is to recognize the dazzling diversity of lived human experience. We can’t afford to skip that step.

    Be well – Happy New Year, wishing you health!
    Miriam

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