History Repeats Itself
History Repeats Itself
Muslims and Jews: Common Ground
By Robert Eisen
Tuesday, May 9, 2006; A23
It’s been often noted that a key reason for the intractability of the conflict between Jews and Muslims in the Middle East is that both sides operate with a mutually exclusive set of assumptions about the history of the dispute.
Jews view the state of Israel as the triumph of a dispossessed people who waited 2,000 years for a return to their homeland. If violence has accompanied that return, it is solely because of Arab intransigence; Jews were willing to settle peacefully among their Arab neighbors, but the latter were hostile to a sovereign Jewish entity in the Middle East and declared war against it from its inception.
Muslims view the state of Israel as the most egregious example of Western colonialism and imperialism, a foreign body inserted into the Middle East for the purpose of furthering Western domination. Any violence is solely the fault of the Jews and their Western allies. The Jews were able to take possession of the land by violently displacing its inhabitants, and they have succeeded in holding on to it with the help of Western military support.
What has been lost is the fact that both Jews and Muslims have a great deal in common in the way they perceive their respective histories. Each community has an understanding of its history that is much broader than that defined by this conflict, and we gain much insight into the nature of the dispute by comprehending those larger frameworks.
First the Jewish side. To understand modern Jews and their attachment to Israel, one has to remember that the Jewish people have been around for 3,000 years and that for the majority of that time they have been ruled by foreign powers that have often persecuted them. In biblical times Jews were dominated by a series of empires, and their kingdom was destroyed twice. In the Middle Ages they lived in Christian lands and were frequently subjected to violence.
In Muslim countries, Jews were treated much better — as a protected minority. But they were never equal to Muslims, and medieval Jewish literature often expresses feelings of humiliation because of Jews’ lack of power in Muslim lands. And even there, Jews sometimes experienced violence.
The ultimate violence, of course, came in 20th-century Europe with the Holocaust. Jews created the state of Israel in the belief that they would finally be able to live in security and dignity. It is a project that has succeeded only in part. Certainly, Jews now have sovereignty in their ancient homeland, as well as a powerful army. But Israel is surrounded by tens of millions of Muslims, many of whom oppose its existence. One must keep in mind that there are only 14 million Jews in the world, and almost half of them live in Israel.
One might argue, then, that the creation of Israel has actually made the Jews less secure. The fear now is not just violence but annihilation. Much of this helps explain why Israelis deal so harshly with their Palestinian adversaries. Jews are sensitive to every provocation that threatens Israel because of their history of vulnerability. They will perceive Palestinians as a threat as long as they commit acts of violence against Israelis and refuse to recognize Israel’s legitimacy — even if Palestinians don’t have an army. Every Palestinian teenager lifting a stone to throw at an Israeli soldier will be viewed by Jews, in light of their bloody history, as a threat. I should emphasize that what matters here is Jewish perceptions of reality, not necessarily the reality itself, because it is perceptions that cause people to act regardless of what the reality is.
Turning to the Muslim side, we see a strikingly similar pattern. Muslim identity in the modern period has also been shaped by the bitter experience of foreign domination and humiliation. For the past 200 years, the Muslim world has been victimized by Western colonialism and imperialism. Many Muslim countries eventually have won their independence, but the power of oil has kept the West deeply involved in the Middle East. The advent of the state of Israel has been understood by the Muslim world as a symptom of the continuing Western attempt to dominate it.
Just as with the Jews, Muslims have turned to violence because they see it as the only way to defend themselves. In the absence of military power, some Muslims have resorted to terrorism as the only avenue to independence. Here, too, perceptions have made it difficult to differentiate between different types of threats. American peacemakers who travel to Iraq are being killed alongside American soldiers. Again, it is the perceptions that count, not necessarily the reality.
Getting each side to acknowledge the perceptions of the other, let alone sympathize with them, is no easy task. Some Muslims I have spoken to balk at the notion that Jews or Israelis feel vulnerable and argue that any suggestion to this effect is manipulative and designed to evoke sympathy: After all, Israel has a powerful army and Jews are highly influential everywhere in the world. Some of my Jewish friends are equally discomfited by my analysis. They object to any equation of Jewish suffering with Muslim suffering, because the Muslim world has never experienced the kind of persecution the Jews have.
What both sides miss here is the critical point that, again, what count are perceptions. Each side genuinely feels its vulnerability and humiliation and sees the other side as more powerful, and that is all that matters. After all, it is those perceptions that motivate each side to kill. Yet there may be hope for dialogue on the basis of these perceptions. I have shared the arguments outlined here between Jews and Muslims, and some have been intrigued by the parallel between their histories — particularly Shiite Muslims, whose sense of humiliation at the hands of West has been compounded by the humiliation they have experienced from the Sunni Muslim majority throughout their history. In this regard they share a great deal with Jews.
Another point: The ones who respond most positively to my thinking are Muslim clerics. In my experience with interreligious dialogue in the past few years, it has become clear to me that clergy are far better than the politicians at baring their souls and sharing their emotions when talking with their enemies. They are therefore more likely to discuss the fears and insecurities motivating their respective communities to violence.
What this suggests to me is that it’s time the clergy be given a more central role in the peace process between Jews and Muslims. For decades politicians on both sides have argued over where to draw borders but have brought us no closer to peace. The clergy have been excluded from such negotiations because of the perception that religion is the problem, not the solution. Yet so much of the conflict between Jews and Muslims has been tied to religion that it’s hard to imagine a settlement without the clerics. Perhaps with their help, Jews and Muslims can address the real issues between them so that a new relationship can emerge.
The writer is a professor of religion and Jewish studies at George Washington University and for the past several years has been extensively involved in interreligious dialogue between Muslims and Jews.
© 2006 The Washington Post Company
Down the Memory Hole
Israeli contribution to conflict is forgotten by leading papers
WASHINGTON – July 28 – In the wake of the most serious outbreak of Israeli/Arab violence in years, three leading US papers—the Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times—have each strongly editorialized that Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon were solely responsible for sparking violence, and that the Israeli military response was predictable and unavoidable. These editorials ignored recent events that indicate a much more complicated situation.
Beginning with the Israeli attack on Gaza, a New York Times editorial (6/29/06) headlined “Hamas Provokes a Fight” declared that “the responsibility for this latest escalation rests squarely with Hamas,” and that “an Israeli military response was inevitable.” The paper (7/15/06) was similarly sure in its assignment of blame after the fighting spread to Lebanon: “It is important to be clear about not only who is responsible for the latest outbreak, but who stands to gain most from its continued escalation. Both questions have the same answer: Hamas and Hezbollah.”
The Washington Post (7/14/06) agreed, writing that “Hezbollah and its backers have instigated the current fighting and should be held responsible for the consequences.” The L.A. Times (7/14/06) likewise wrote that “in both cases Israel was provoked.” Three days and scores of civilian deaths later, the Times (7/17/06) was even more direct: “Make no mistake about it: Responsibility for the escalating carnage in Lebanon and northern Israel lies with one side…and that is Hezbollah.”
As FAIR noted in a recent Action Alert (7/19/06), the portrayal of Israel as the innocent victim in the Gaza conflict is hard to square with the death toll in the months leading up to the current crisis; between September 2005 and June 2006, 144 Palestinians in Gaza were killed by Israeli forces, according to a list compiled by the Israeli human rights group B’tselem; 29 of those killed were children. During the same period, no Israelis were killed as a result of violence from Gaza.
In a July 21 CounterPunch column, Alexander Cockburn highlighted some of the violent incidents that have dropped out of the media’s collective memory:
Let’s go on a brief excursion into pre-history. I’m talking about June 20, 2006, when Israeli aircraft fired at least one missile at a car in an attempted extrajudicial assassination attempt on a road between Jabalya and Gaza City. The missile missed the car. Instead it killed three Palestinian children and wounded 15.
Back we go again to June 13, 2006. Israeli aircraft fired missiles at a van in another attempted extrajudicial assassination. The successive barrages killed nine innocent Palestinians.
Now we’re really in the dark ages, reaching far, far back to June 9, 2006, when Israel shelled a beach in Beit Lahiya killing eight civilians and injuring 32.
That’s just a brief trip down Memory Lane, and we trip over the bodies of twenty dead and forty-seven wounded, all of them Palestinians, most of them women and children.
On July 24, the day before Hamas’ cross-border raid, Israel made an incursion of its own, capturing two Palestinians that it said were members of Hamas (something Hamas denied—L.A. Times, 7/25/06). This incident received far less coverage in US media than the subsequent seizure of the Israeli soldier; the few papers that covered it mostly dismissed it in a one-paragraph brief (e.g., Chicago Tribune, 7/25/06), while the Israeli-taken prisoner got front-page headlines all over the world. It’s likely that most Gazans don’t share US news outlets’ apparent sense that captured Israelis are far more interesting or important than captured Palestinians.
The situation in Lebanon is also more complicated than its portrayal in US media, with the roots of the current crisis extending well before the July 12 capture of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah. A major incident fueling the latest cycle of violence was a May 26, 2006 car bombing in Sidon, Lebanon, that killed a senior official of Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian group allied with Hezbollah. Lebanon later arrested a suspect, Mahmoud Rafeh, whom Lebanese authorities claimed had confessed to carrying out the assassination on behalf of Mossad (London Times, 6/17/06).
Israel denied involvement with the bombing, but even some Israelis are skeptical. “If it turns out this operation was effectively carried out by Mossad or another Israeli secret service,” wrote Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s top-selling daily (6/16/06; cited in AFP, 6/16/06), “an outsider from the intelligence world should be appointed to know whether it was worth it and whether it lays groups open to risk.”
In Lebanon, Israel’s culpability was taken as a given. “The Israelis, in hitting Islamic Jihad, knew they would get Hezbollah involved too,” Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a professor at Beirut’s Lebanese American University, told the New York Times (5/29/06). “The Israelis had to be aware that if they assassinated this guy they would get a response.”
And, indeed, on May 28, Lebanese militants in Hezbollah-controlled territory fired Katyusha rockets at a military vehicle and a military base inside Israel. Israel responded with airstrikes against Palestinian camps deep inside Lebanon, which in turn were met by Hezbollah rocket and mortar attacks on more Israeli military bases, which prompted further Israeli airstrikes and “a steady artillery barrage at suspected Hezbollah positions” (New York Times, 5/29/06). Gen. Udi Adam, the commander of Israel’s northern forces, boasted that “our response was the harshest and most severe since the withdrawal” of Israeli troops from Lebanon in 2000 (Chicago Tribune, 5/29/06).
This intense fighting was the prelude to the all-out warfare that began on July 12, portrayed in US media as beginning with an attack out of the blue by Hezbollah. While Hezbollah’s capture of two Israeli soldiers may have reignited the smoldering conflict, the Israeli air campaign that followed was not a spontaneous reaction to aggression but a well-planned operation that was years in the making.
“Of all of Israel’s wars since 1948, this was the one for which Israel was most prepared,” Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, told the San Francisco Chronicle (7/21/05). “By 2004, the military campaign scheduled to last about three weeks that we’re seeing now had already been blocked out and, in the last year or two, it’s been simulated and rehearsed across the board.” The Chronicle reported that a “senior Israeli army officer” has been giving PowerPoint presentations for more than a year to “US and other diplomats, journalists, and think tanks” outlining the coming war with Lebanon, explaining that a combination of air and ground forces would target Hezbollah and “transportation and communication arteries.”
Which raises a question: If journalists have been told by Israel for more than a year that a war was coming, why are they pretending that it all started on July 12? By truncating the cause-and-effect timelines of both the Gaza and Lebanon conflicts, editorial boards at major US dailies gravely oversimplify the decidedly more complex nature of the facts on the ground.
entitle you to shoot Jews, Mr Haq!, even though the Jewish Federation sponsored a rally in support of Israel.
That was a crime you committed, and you should repent.
Gunman kills one at Jewish centre
A gunman has opened fire at the offices of a Jewish organisation in the US city of Seattle, killing one person and injuring at least five others. The suspect reportedly burst into the offices of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle saying he was an American Muslim angered by Israel.
He gave himself for arrest without a struggle, police said.
Security has been stepped up at the city’s synagogues and buildings used by Jewish organisations.
Police said they had also increased security at the city’s mosques to prevent possible attacks in retaliation for the shooting.
‘Crime of hate’
The Jewish Federation was one of the sponsors of a rally this week in support of Israeli attacks against Hezbollah in Lebanon.
From Israel to Lebanon
Please go to http://julywar.epetitions.net and sign the Save the Lebanese Civilians Petition and forward this invitation to your friends.
Lebanese civilians have been under the constant attack of the state of Israel for several days. The State of Israel, in disregard to international law and the Geneva Convention, is launching a maritime and air siege targeting the entire population of the country. Innocent civilians are being collectively punished in Lebanon by the state of Israel in deliberate acts of terrorism as described in Article 33 of the Geneva Convention.