The former chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov explained this week why he won’t run for president in Russia. “In chess you have fixed rules and unpredictable results,” he said. “In Russian politics it’s the opposite.” The Israeli/Palestinian conflict, which may now be the whirling toward a full-on regional war, is the opposite as well. The rules are changing daily, but the outcome seems drearily predictable. And, I think I might know why.
There’s nothing new to say about the latest crisis or what led up to it. Since the failure of the 2005 Gaza withdrawal and the disaster of the 2006 Lebanese war, and with the growing risk that Iran will build a nuclear bomb, Israel has become governed more and more by its right-wing and religious groups, and has become more heedlessly aggressive toward its neighbors. Since the election of Hamas in 2006 and the rise of Islamist governments in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and elsewhere, the Palestinians have been emboldened. War may have not been inevitable, but it sure isn’t a surprise.
Neither is there anything convincing to say about who is at fault in the latest kerfuffle. Israel might reasonably argue that it is shelling Gaza only to destroy the mechanisms by which Gazans are lofting rockets over the border; but that argument doesn’t explain the hundreds of bombs being dropped on Gaza, wiping out entire families to eliminate one Hamas commander. Hamas may claim that bombs are its only currency in fighting Israeli oppression; but that’s a difficult rationale, and ignores the extent to which bombs are a cause of that oppression rather than the solution to it.
I do have my own perspective, though, on the nature of this conflict.
My perspective comes from my being a secular American Jew. “Secular Jew” is the sort of oxymoron that should mean nothing at all. After all, what is a “non-religious Christian”? Oddly, however, it means something very specific: It means a person who was born Jewish, who does not go to synagogue or practice the faith, but who feels a kinship and loyalty to the Jewish community worldwide. We love Sholem Aleichem stories. We cry at Fiddler On the Roof. We eat deli. We feel a guilty pleasure when crackpots talk about Jews being in charge of international finance and world media. In other words, when religion is removed from Judaism, what remains is a familiar sort of ethnic tribe. (Heck, we are THE “Tribe”). And, it is this same tribalism that is at play in Gaza today.
As with many secular American Jews (and Christians for that matter), virtually all of my religious training took place when I was in grade school. Jewish history, as taught to young Jews, is painted in broad caricature: We Children of Abraham are a big-hearted, downtrodden people. God promised us the land between Egypt and the Euphrates. We were forced out of that Promised Land, and since that time we have been inexplicably persecuted by monstrously evil bad guys. Our lessons were a roundelay of Hellenization, Blood Libels, Crusades, and of course The Holocaust.
So, when it came to contemporary Middle Eastern politics, my Hebrew School lessons were very simple. We are entitled to the Land of Israel, and we have defended it valiantly against our rabidly Jew-hating neighbors (at that time, mostly Egypt, Jordan and Syria). We are the good guys, and we always win, no matter the odds, because God is on our side. Pass the challah.
My feelings about Israel remained chiaroscuro for decades. As with many American Jews, although I identified with the sufferings of the oppressed, this did not extend to the Palestinians, whom I considered to be vacant-eyed mobs of violent fanatics, ganged up against the good-hearted Israelis. In my mind, the Middle East was like a Phillip Roth novel.
Then, in 2005, I visited Israel.
It was August 15, 2005; the day that 250,000 Israelis stormed the streets of Jerusalem to protest Ariel Sharon’s plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.
I watched the protest from a street cafe in the Old City.
It was in Israel that I realized two critical things. First, the Arabs were not vacant-eyed mobs of violent fanatics, nor were they good-hearted victims. Second, neither were the Israelis.
As I wandered through Israel in 2005, I was astounded at the way Arabs are treated there. Unlike the wide boulevards and charming shops in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the Arab communities like East Jerusalem and Bethlehem are dirty, crowded, and poor. Although a large percentage of Arabs are Israeli citizens, they are treated as second-class citizens at best. In the few places where Jews and Arabs coexist, for example in the Old City of Jerusalem, the anger and hostility between Jews and Arabs is palpable. Like blacks in the Jim Crow south, Arabs are pushed into the poor quarters of the country, harassed by always-present police, and held in constant suspicion.
I was also surprised at the Israelis I met. They were nothing like American Jews. They were hard-edged and aggressive to one another, though very protective and gentle toward their own families. It seemed to be a “me-first” culture. The shopkeepers were ruthless bargainers. Jews made no secret of hating and fearing Arabs.
In other words, and despite my Hebrew School notions, what I saw in Israel were two Semitic tribes, playing out a tribal battle of class and territory. The Israelis and Palestinians were so alike in their fierce tribal identities, in their hard bargaining, in their sly way of arguing, that they could just as easily have been cousins. Their conflict was not the good-hearted Jews against the fanatic Muslims, nor vice versa. It was a blood-sport turf war between haves and have-nots, not much different from similar wars in Northern Ireland or Sudan or Kosovo. Like those conflicts, the Israeli/Palestinian turf war is clothed as religious strife. It isn’t. It is yet another Stone-age tribal feud, made even more so because Israelis and Palestinians are almost identically hot-blooded, vengeful, and wily tribes.
When I look at the Middle East this way, I can’t be optimistic about peace. Like Saddam Hussein, who brought about his own demise rather than admit to his neighbors that Iraq no longer had weapons of mass destruction (or, even more characteristically, like the Iraqi Information Minister who denied that Americans had entered Baghdad), the Israelis and Palestinians do not seem likely to negotiate honestly, put aside old hatreds, or consider their own futures in the way that we Americans expect. The moves in this chess game may change, but the outcome – stalemate – seems fixed.