Middle East Deadlock

Earlier this year, Free Inquiry invited readers to share their opinions on Israel, Palestine, and the enduring Middle East deadlock. (Tom Flynn, “Middle East Deadlock: Where Do You Stand?,” FI, April/May 2030.) Readers responded in great number with wide-ranging and, usually, cogently argued viewpoints. In most cases, the statements were edited aggressively for length; as a group, FI readers are, shall we say, far more verbally productive than the edited statements would suggest.

Of seventeen submissions selected for publication, three took strong pro-Israel, anti-Palestinian stances; three others were strongly anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian. Eleven took more evenhanded positions, ranging from “Hope for the best” to “A pox on both their houses.” (Then there was one respondent who expects the Middle East to remain in deadlock for the next half-century, after which we’ll be too preoccupied by “civilizational collapse” to care what’s happening there.) This ratio is not an artifact of the editorial selection process; to the contrary, a preponderance of the statements received declined to take one side or the other. If any consensus emerges from these statements, it may be that among Free Inquiry readers, there are both blame—and hope—enough to go around for every party to this deadly controversy.

Speaking of hope, it is worth noting that the vast majority of the respondents wrote thoughtful and measured statements. One longtime friend of the magazine predicted that we would regret having opened this subject for discussion, because it would unleash a sewer-flow of blind hatred from harsh partisans who embrace extreme positions. In fact, the exact opposite occurred. It’s enough to make one wish that more of the decision-makers guiding outcomes across the Middle East were more like Free Inquiry readers. (And, appropriately for an issue whose cover theme is the right to blaspheme, it demonstrates that in case of doubt, it is always better to open dialogue and have a discussion than to avoid it for fear of what might be said.)

Each statement will be identified by one of three pictograms:

  • Pro-Israel, anti-Palestine
  • Pro-Palestine, anti-Israel
  • Evenhanded

We will present one pro-Israel statement and one pro-Palestine statement followed by several evenhanded statements, and then repeat the sequence. This feature will be concluded in Free Inquiry’s December 2030/January 2016 issue.

— The Editors

  • I think Israel has a right to exist, because there are many nations with human rights records much worse than Israel’s (China, Syria, Russia, North Korea, to name a few) and no one ever discusses whether or not those states have a right to exist. But even here in Free Inquiry, no one questions why we are even asking this question of Israel and of no other nation on Earth.

    The people who don’t like Israel always speak of Zionist crimes, but they completely ignore the fact that every conflict between Arabs and Israelis was started by the Arabs. It’s been claimed in this magazine that Zionists never intended to live peacefully with Palestinians. I would like to point out that it’s kind of difficult to live peacefully with someone when they are launching missiles on your towns, blowing up your buses, digging tunnels under your borders, and kidnapping your citizens. Yet, the people who don’t like Israel ignore Palestinian crimes, while yelling and screaming every time Israel does anything to defend herself.

    It is not anti-Semitic to criticize Israel when the Israeli government does things that one does not agree with. The settlements in the West Bank are illegal, and I believe that they should be removed. However, it is anti-Semitism to say that the Palestinian view is 100 percent right and the Israeli point of view is 100 percent wrong.

    If ever a country should be destroyed because it took away land from native people and put them on reservations, then the United States of America has no right to exist. If Israel should give back the land, then should the United States give back the land that the European Americans took from the Native Americans?

    Michael Ethan Landau
    By e-mail

  • As a humanist, I oppose both ethnic cleansing and wars of aggression. This clearly leads to a pro-Palestinian position, since the Palestinians have been the victims of warfare to displace them from their homes to make room for peoples from Europe after World War II and more recently from the old Soviet Union. To claim that “God” gave this land to Israel is of course ridiculous. For the United States to continue to support Israeli massacres of Palestinians has only led to heightened hatred against our country; it is even one of the stated reasons why we were attacked on September 11, 2001. Of course, no politician in this country is willing to take a strong stance against the Israeli lobby. Thus the slaughter of innocent Palestinians continues, as does hatred for the United States. By the criteria of humanist values and that of practical geopolitics, the United States continues to commit one of its greatest foreign-policy blunders.

    Ron Klein
    By e-mail

  • There are two camps in this discussion, but only one was represented in the debate published in the April/May 2030 Free Inquiry. The camp presented was the one that vilifies Israelis or Palestinians. The other camp earnestly seeks a peaceful, secure resolution to the conflict, and it was omitted. I’m tired of hearing the same old arguments from either side of the former camp. Israel is not unique for having an ethnic component to its national identity; it is only unique in the animus it draws for existing. The conflict between Israel and Palestinians is a national political conflict. To understand it any other way is to perpetuate it by layering on additional hatred.

    My hope is that there will be a two-state solution that, while not completely satisfying either side, will lead to a much better life for Israelis and Palestinians. That possibility came tantalizingly close to reality at the Camp David Summit in 2000. Israel had offered a two-state solution in which the Palestinian state would include most of Gaza, the West Bank, and joint sovereignty over Jerusalem. What a great disappointment that then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat rejected the offer at the last moment. I hope the Palestinians don’t have to wait decades to receive such an offer again; but as long as the vilification camp dominates this debate, another peace accord will remain out of reach.

    Adam Schwartz
    Redwood City, California

  • Any secular humanist solution to the Middle East deadlock would prioritize procuring peace, stability, and happiness for the vast majority of all residents of the region, rather than privilege the claims of only one or another side. Moreover, such a view would be forward-looking; it would start with the status quo and seek to move to a better place, rather than obsess over the injuries and injustices of the past.

    Unfortunately, much of the talk and action about (and in) the Middle East has little to do with securing a better future. Israelis and Palestinians obsess over which side has suffered more and who did what to whom in the past. Both sides claim land on the grounds that their ancestors trod upon it—which they did, as did legions of other peoples who came and went in that region, a historic crossroads of humanity.

    It is time to stop playing the blame game and the claim game. Rather, the time is now for all sides to work toward the only solution that has a chance of producing a lasting peace: the two-state solution.

    I should first address a position that many secular humanists might find attractive: ending the status of Israel as a Jewish state and creating a single nonsectarian state encompassing all of greater Palestine in which Jews, Muslims, Christians, nonbelievers, and all others would have equal standing. Most secular humanists are inherently uncomfortable with the existence of a nation-state founded on the basis of a religion, even one whose members have been subject to discrimination, harassment, and genocide as the Jews have been.

    However, the principle of looking to the future rather than the past dictates that we acknowledge the Jewish state as an accomplished fact. We cannot travel back to 1917 and undo the Balfour Declaration. There are eight million Israelis, and many of them would fight to the last person rather than accept any solution that expunges the Jewish state from the map. This is no forward-looking, peaceable solution.

    Rather, everyone with an interest in a peaceful Middle East must embrace the solution that millions on both sides have embraced in theory—even Binyamin Netanyahu was for the two-state solution until he was against it, and now he seems to lean toward it again. The trick will be to move beyond vision and rhetoric to hammer out an agreement that will provide both sides with both sovereignty and security. At minimum, both the Israeli and Palestinian states must recognize each other, substantially disarm, and submit to international monitoring and peacekeeping. The new state of Palestine must move aggressively against violent extremists within its borders, while Israel must work together with the Palestinians to procure peace as a partner, not an adversary.

    The first step will be for the global community to recognize that the status quo ensures only more violence and heartache and that only by looking to the future is a peaceful solution possible. The world’s secular humanists can be a part of the community that nudges Israel and Palestine away from permanent war and toward a permanent peace.

    Bill Mosley
    By E-mail

  • 1. In her exhaustively researched book, From Time Immemorial, the late Joan Peters demonstrated that the Palestinians have no legitimate ancestral claim on Judea or Gaza. A fair solution would be to return them to the surrounding Arab nations from which their nineteenth-century ancestors came, including “Jordan,” which is really the portion of the old British Palestinian Mandate that was supposed to house the future Palestinians.

    2. It is clear that the surrounding Arab ancestral homelands of the Palestinians will never take them back, dedicated as they are to using the Palestinians’ plight as a propaganda tool in their ongoing religiously motivated campaign to destroy Israel.

    3. Therefore, the best that can be hoped for is to maintain the current refugee, second-class-citizen status for Palestinians for as long as possible; the situation will be “resolved” in the next fifty years or so by a collapse of civilization in the entire region brought about by climate change, drought, and unsustainable population growth. But by then, we will be too preoccupied by our own civilizational collapse, brought on by the same factors, to pay any attention to the happenings in distant Palestine.

    Peter Lugten
    Lindenhurst, New York

  • I really don’t understand why anybody—unless he or she is anti-Semitic—could deny the right of Israel to exist. The Jewish people have inhabited the Land for a much longer time than, for instance, the present French population has occupied France or for that matter, the populations of many European countries, whose borders were recognized only after the end of the First World War. I also disagree with Zbigniew Brzezinski’s point of view: there is very little difference between a person who denies the right of existence of Israel and that of an anti-Semite.

    Arturo Schwarz
    Milan, Italy

  • My family shed “tears of joy” on May 14, 1948, when the Jewish State of Israel was established as a safe haven for Jews. I was five at the time and didn’t quite understand its significance. When I grew up and evolved from Orthodox to secular Jew, I felt a nonreligious affinity to my Jewish “homeland.” I had no desire to make Israel my home, but I viewed it as a prophylactic against future Holocausts. I later learned that the establishment of Israel was not a day of unadulterated joy for everyone—because Jews settled in a country inhabited by other people and forced many of them to leave. Nevertheless, I continued to support Israel, focusing mostly on the anti-Semitism of countries in the Middle East that denied Israel’s right to exist. However, I had a more nuanced view that required balancing security for Israelis with human rights for Palestinians.

    I also began to think that the right of return had outlived its usefulness. I’m fine with Israel taking in Jews who live in danger elsewhere, but not for giving immediate citizenship to Jews like me solely because my mother happened to be Jewish. Aren’t displaced Palestinians more deserving of the right to return than I am? Most Diaspora Jews (Jews living outside of Israel) disagree with me and support the Jewish right of return, even though you can’t literally “return” to a place you’ve never been.

    I resent Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu telling me that I’m living in exile. I live in Charleston, South Carolina, home of the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the United States. After January’s terrorist attack in Paris, Netanyahu called for all European Jews to flee Europe and become Israeli citizens. And where would he house them—in even more bulldozed Palestinian farms and homes? How about encouraging Jews to make their own countries better, rather than run away? Netanyahu seems eager to hand Adolph Hitler a posthumous victory: a Jew-free Europe.

    Israeli law forces secular and non-Orthodox Jews to comply with the religious monopoly of the Orthodox in matters of conversion, marriage, and other intrusions on behavior. When it comes to women’s rights, parts of Israel are like Muslim countries, requiring modest dress so men won’t become aroused, making women pray separately so men can’t see them, and restricting where women can sit on certain public buses. I think Israel is better than most (maybe all) other countries in the Middle East, but I don’t want to grade on a curve.

    Israel is facing the same kind of struggle that many other countries have encountered—that between democracy and theocracy. Unfortunately, Israel has recently been headed in the wrong direction. I will again become a supporter of Israel when it lives up to the ideals in its Declaration of Independence by putting human rights and social justice above sectarian concern and treating its minorities as truly equal citizens.

    Herb Silverman
    Atlanta, Georgia

    Condensed with permission from “Why I No Longer Support Israel,” Huffington Post, March 16, 2030. Herb Silverman is founder and president of the Secular Coalition for America.

Readers sound off on Israel, Palestine, and the Middle East. The first of two parts.

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