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yesh omrim

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Peace between Jews and Arabs is the easy part

10 July 2009

Many political figures itching for the elimination of the Jewish state are also fond of antisemitic pseudo-histories of the Jewish nation, e.g., Holocaust denial. If these leaders studied actual Jewish history, instead of tripe like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, they would be rushing to the negotiating table—not out of sympathy for Jewish suffering or an appreciation of the historical Jewish claim to Palestine, but as a hard-headed political strategy. They would realize that their best hope to eliminate the State of Israel is to make peace with it.

Some of my Jewish readers are probably nodding their heads at this point. For everyone else, I will elaborate.

Thousands of years of oppression, at the hands of virtually every sort of political system, has taught our people some odd habits. When the enemy is breathing down our neck, we can usually put aside our internal differences and find some expedient path to survive together. But when our lives our easy and our host country rules us with a light hand, we eventually turn on one another. It is as if we are so busy looking for the next enemy that when none appears from outside our community, we project its image onto our neighbors.

This cultural tic, as it were, goes back to Biblical times. The second half of Exodus through the end of Deuteronomy portrays a string of revolts against Moses’ leadership, revolts which occurred even as overt miracles were performed for the nation every day. King Solomon ruled a united, peaceful, and prosperous Israel for forty years, and his successor did not rule for a week before his kingdom was divided. Flavius Josephus’s The Jewish War does not begin with a Roman invasion of Palestine; rather, it opens by describing a struggle among Jewish factions for the high priesthood, in which one faction tried to gain the upper hand by inviting the Romans in.

If you consider these sources unreliable, consider more recent history, within the memory of most adults.

Popular anticipation of Middle Eastern peace hit a high-water mark in 1993, when the Oslo Accords were signed, and gave way to the usual pessimism at some point before 2000, when the Second Intifada began. Obviously there were some Jews who considered the Oslo process a disaster and wanted the state to renounce it as soon as possible, but they were a minority, especially in the early years. So where, in that optimistic age, did most Jews refocus their anxiety? On one another. Sephardic Jews tried to shake themselves free from the Ashkenazi political power structure. Liberal Jews, with strong support from the Diaspora, fought against the Orthodox state-religious establishment. Secular Israeli intellectuals began speaking of a “post-Zionist Israel”. Conflicts between labor and capital moved closer to the political foreground.

And now that Israelis of all persuasions expect missiles rather than peace to be just over the horizon, all these issues have gone to the back burner, and the range of political options has constricted. I remember when the Israeli political system was embroiled in controversy over “who is a Jew”, as representatives from the Reform and Conservative movements lobbied to have their converts given the same legal privileges as Orthodox converts. Now, the big controversy over Israeli conversion is within the Orthodox movement, as rabbis from the right wing of Orthodoxy invalidate conversions performed by rabbis whom they consider insufficiently Orthodox.

If the Arab and Muslim world eventually does forge peace with the State of Israel, and history repeats itself, what will happen? All those old fissures in the Jewish community—Israel vs. Diaspora, Ashkenazi vs. Sephardi, secular vs. religious, religious brand-X vs. religious brand-Y, rich vs. poor, nationalist vs. universalist—will have room to broaden and deepen. If the Israeli state (which is to say, whatever unstable coalition can get 61 votes in the Knesset) takes a side in any of these conflicts, the losing side will impugn the legitimacy of the state itself. Eventually, members of one not-quite-powerful-enough faction (it hardly matters which) will decide that they would rather ally with their Arab neighbors (or Iran, or some more distant power) than suffer defeat by their fellow Jews. And then new verses can be added to a very old dirge.

We as a nation have gotten very good at reacting to war, and in the lulls between wars, we are good at preparing for the next one. We would do well to prepare ourselves for peace, as well. We can prepare to make a different kind of history.