I didn’t know what to think about Israelis and Palestinians. I was brought up to believe that the creation of Israel was the best possible response to the Holocaust, that Israelis had created a remarkable and successful democracy in a difficult area of the world, and that Israel deserved the support of Jews everywhere else. I believed Israelis to be my distant siblings.
That message was promoted by every Jewish organization in America, from the local synagogue down to mah-jong games among Jewish women, and up to a spectrum of national Jewish organizations. All forms of media agreed with that message and reported as if it was an obvious truth. Palestinians came to public notice only when they committed acts of terror.
Then that uniformity of belief and message eventually began to change. Led by President Jimmy Carter from the White House and Paul Findley from within Congress, our government tried to negotiate peace by raising the status of Palestinians from a terrorist society, which was always only a tiny minority, to a national people with just grievances and demands. This “peace process,” which had begun much earlier, has never succeeded in solving the cold and hot wars between Palestinians and Israelis.
Opinion polls have shown a similar uncertainty in the American public. In a 2012 poll just before the election, most Americans were unsure what kind of policy they wanted in the Middle East. Although more than two-thirds agreed that Israelis and Palestinians are “equal people with equal rights”, about half were unsure about the earlier Clinton peace plan, a Palestinian right of return, the status of Jerusalem, or the role of Jewish settlements.
One small segment of public opinion, American Jews, have been gradually lessening their support for Israeli policy. Younger American Jews tend to believe that the Israeli government is not making a sincere effort to find peace. Few believe that building settlements contributes to Israeli security.
I was fortunate to be able to spend a week in Israel and in the West Bank in earlier this month. I was able to talk with many knowledgeable people about the conflict between Jews and Palestinians. Most important I was able to see with my own eyes Jewish settlements, Palestinian cities and refugee camps, military check points, and the ubiquitous walls.
It is easy to fault Palestinian political organizations for engaging in tactics of terror against civilians and for not being willing to accept the existence of Israel as a state. It is easy to fault the Israeli government for military tactics which kill civilians and for continuing to seize Palestinian land for expanding Jewish settlements on the West Bank.
It is not easy to develop a strategy toward peace. Most of the people I spoke with offered thoughtful analyses and opinions about the current situation, but did not talk of peace. Their hopes were much smaller: some progress in reducing tensions and the cycle of violence.
How difficult that will be was demonstrated by a political moment at the Miss Universe contest in Miami last week. Miss Israel, Doron Matalon, posted on Instagram a smiling photo of herself together with Miss Lebanon, Saly Greige. That prompted some Lebanese officials to demand that Greige be stripped of her title for consorting with the enemy. Lebanese are not allowed to visit or even call Israel, and Israeli products are banned there.
Apparently Matalon chased Greige for several days trying to get a photo together. This minor incident at a beauty contest not only shows the obstacles to any reconciliation. It also illustrates the differing situations of Arabs and Jews: Matalon could do what she wanted without worry, while Greige was necessarily concerned about reaction back home.
Is there a solution? I will try to sort out my impressions of one of the world’s most intractable political problems in the coming weeks.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, January 27, 2015