Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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The Gadfly Bytes -- November, 2001

"The Holy Land"

Ernest Partridge, The Online Gadfly

Published in The Online Journal, November 25, 2001 

(See also: "Warriors of the Lord")

Long ago, an Israeli friend remarked to me that the Israel-Palestine conflict was especially tragic, "because both sides are right." That observation goes to the heart of this ongoing calamity.

On behalf of the Israelis, one can only be amazed at how the Jewish people have managed to maintained their identity throughout two-thousand years of diaspora, amidst numerous cultures and tongues, and despite persistent persecution. After all that, and in particular, after the unspeakable horror of the Holocaust, how could the community of nations deny these people a homeland? Furthermore, against overwhelming odds, the Israelis have valiantly defended their new state throughout a series of conflicts launched by a surrounding cluster of hostile states.

"A land without a people, for a people without a land," proclaimed the Zionist motto. Unfortunately, this was a half-truth, for the land contained a people: the Palestinians – Jewish, Christian, and predominantly Moslem. At the time of the partition in 1947, there were 600,000 Jews and 1,300,000 Palestinians in the region. (Encarta, 2002). Whatever rhetoric might arise from this conflict, that fact remains and must somehow be accommodated. And there is another stubborn fact: To the Moslems, as well as the Christians and the Jews, this is sacred land.

The People of the Land. Friends and allies of the Israelis overlook what the Moslem world will never forget: the land of Palestine was populated by people who had lived there for centuries and for many generations. This point was made vivid to me by my late father, who was for a time the President of the Near East Foundation. He told us of the day he stood on a hillside on the West Bank with a Palestinian gentleman. Looking west across the valley and the boundary line, the Palestinian said, "do you see that olive grove over there? That was once owned by my family for hundreds of years; it is the place where I grew up as a boy and where our family prospered. It was taken from us in the last war, and now we live over here in poverty." That story can be repeated, thousands of times over, by similarly dispossessed individuals.

Israelis will reply that the Palestinians left "voluntarily" – a controversial claim to say the least of it. Moreover, it is pointed out that those who fled were not permitted to assimilate into the neighboring Arab states, Jordan excepted. Palestinians will reply that to accept residence elsewhere would have been to forfeit their claim on their ancestral lands. "Give up our land, that we tilled and built upon for generations, and in which our forefathers are buried? Would you?"

The Covenant. Orthodox Jews will tell us that the land of Israel was given to them by God, through the Lord's covenant to Abraham: 

And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.

And God said unto Abraham. Thou shalt keep my covenant therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations.
(Genesis 18:8-9)

From the point of view of secularists such as myself (not to mention a large portion of Israeli citizens), this is from a text of uncertain origin and authorship, much more myth and tradition than history. But no matter. For those who take this text to be the literal word of God Himself, there is a serious problem: "The seed of Abraham" includes the Arabs – through the lineage of Hagar and Ishmael.

So from both a secular and an orthodox religious point of view, the Palestinians are entitled to their land, and can only justly relinquish it voluntarily and with fair compensation.

But the orthodox will reply, "This is our land, God gave it to us. And if the other side says God gave it them, then they are just mistaken, and worse, their dispute is not with us, it is with the Almighty." Of course, those same words are spoken by both sides. Bring the Lord God Almighty into a political dispute, and there is no possible solution – only endless conflict. The founders of the American republic recognized this, and thus ratified the first amendment. From the perspective of this neutral and secular observer (I am neither Jewish, Moslem, nor in the theological sense, Christian), the only solution is mutual respect and tolerance: "I disagree with your religious views, but I respect them mindful that you adhere to your faith as devoutly and sincerely as I adhere to mine." This is an attitude equally absent from both suicide bombers and Israeli settlers on Palestinian lands, and as long as this attitude prevails on both sides, there will be no end to this conflict.

The face of "the enemy." Students of the psychology of warfare have noted, time and again, that the first principle of warfare is the depersonalization of "the enemy." The enemy is regarded as a species apart, who has no right to life, and who surely does not respond or have the emotions that "we" have.

This mind set is vividly exemplified in the endless cycle of violence that we find today between the Israelis and the Palestinians. "Our side" is convinced that if "their" act of violence is met with retaliation, "they" will be deterred from further violence. On the other hand, if "our side" suffers violence, then we will never be deterred, on the contrary, we must and will retaliate.

Both sides believe this – in this respect, they are identical. Yet both sides are deceived by the contrary belief that "we" are fundamentally different from "them." "They" will be deterred and eventually give up, while "we" will never be deterred and will never surrender. Fifty years of unvarying refutation fails to budge this dogma, as every act of violence results, not in deterrence, but in further violence. Did the Israelis really believe that the targeted assassination of the Hamas leaders would not be answered? And when Hamas replied with the assassination of the Israeli Tourism Minister, did they really think that would be the end of it? Apparently so, and experience and logic have nothing to do with it.

And so it continues, with no end I sight.

The rut of violence is compounded by the demand that "the other side" must end all violence, if retaliation is to end and negotiations resume. Thus the Sharon (or Arafat) government appears to believe that Arafat (Sharon) can, by personal decree, put a total and complete stop to all acts of violence. But suppose that both leaders and 98% of their respective populations devoutly desired an end of all violence. Even so, a defiant small group, or even a single fanatic, can sabotage the peace. Thus, by demanding that the other side "end all violence," Sharon (or Arafat) in effect relinquish their leadership. Will there be peace? The issue is under the control of a small coterie of independent fanatics, and we already know their answer.

As my Israeli friend observed, the tragedy is that "both sides are right." The Palestinians have at least a plausible claim to their land, and a reasonable case that they have been unjustly treated, both by the Israelis, and by the constant allies of the Israelis, the Americans. But however just their claim, the Palestinian tactics have been deplorable, and I speak here less of the morality of those tactics than the practicality thereof. The Intifada and the suicide bombs have not accomplished their objectives, and there is no reason whatever to believe that in the future they will yield any desirable results. Stones vs. bullets, and suicide bombs vs. tanks and helicopters can only produce the mismatched casualty figures of which we are all aware. And as we have noted above, there is an unvarying historical record to prove that the Israelis will not submit to violence. They have not done so in fifty years – they will not suddenly do so next week. Meanwhile, all this violent résistance has transformed the image of the Palestinians in the Western media, from that of aggrieved victims to fanatical thugs and terrorists. In the Islamic world, as we have seen, it is the Israelis that are so regarded.

And yet, almost contemporaneous to the establishment of the State of Israel and the beginning of the "Fifty Years War," the wiser course of action found fulfillment in the establishment of the State of India. Mohandas Gandhi's Satyagraha – non-violent "soul force" – had triumphed over the full military might of the British Empire. And then again in the United States, in the civil rights struggles of the Sixties. In both these cases, the public and international support of the non-violent oppressed became irresistible. 

Would a Palestinian Gandhi or a King have had similar results? I dare say that it is more than likely. However, it is difficult to imagine that the attempt would have had more disastrous consequences than those which followed from the cycle of violence that has scarred and desecrated that unhappy Holy Land.

It is never too late to try the non-violent approach. 

Copyright, 2001, by Ernest Partridge

Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .