The Germans call it in zwischen zwei Welten: between two worlds.
The image of participating in both, without being an intimate of either came to me as I pondered Barack Obama’s speech on the Middle East and North Africa, Bibi’s response, and the post-speech meeting between them. There will be other speeches by each in the coming days, so this story will go on into the future when actions on the ground join what people are saying.
I got into this mood before hearing the speech, when an American internet friend sat with me on the balcony, and tried to convince me of his reasonable suggestions for getting an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. The visitor is a county politician. His league is tiny compared to Obama’s, but they share a culture different from Israel’s, and much different from the community we could see from the balcony.
The half lifetime I spent in the United States allows me to understand the President and the county politician. The half lifetime spent here allows me to understand the Prime Minister, and to some extent the people of Isaweea.
Obama and my internet friend are reasonable people who think about concession and compromise. That is the language of business and politics that prevails in their culture. It does not always work, but it does most of the time, eventually. It is also a language of Israel. Almost all our political activists, religious and well as secular, play by rules of the game that resemble those of Washington and small town America.
The folks of Isaweea and beyond think in other terms and play by other rules. Concession and compromise are not as central. The bargaining apparent in their business dealings does not extend to issues with religious significance.
Of greatest importance in this category is the topic of refugees. The rights of those who left home in 1948 (whether fleeing violence, urged to depart temporarily by Arabs confident of victory, or pushed out by Jews), plus their descendants, has been a subject hammered at by politicians, teachers, and clerics for six decades. It has religious meaning associated with the rightful dominance of Muslims in the Middle East.
The artful phrases of Barack Obama cannot deal with this issue. Bibi’s response to the symbol of 1967 boundaries may have been too quick and too shrill, but it expressed the view that those boundaries are a long way from Washington.
The cultural divide between Israelis and Palestinians may be too great for agreement. While it is a western platitude that the unresolved status quo of Israel and Palestine cannot continue, the reality is that it has lasted since 1967. The future is never certain, but there are reasons to believe that it will continue beyond the careers of western politicians who say that it cannot.
Israel is stronger, economically and militarily than ever before. A million immigrants from the former Soviet Union have been integrated. The children of a hundred thousand Ethiopians appear in the universities and the IDF officer corps. It is no surprise that Russian speakers have integrated more quickly and successfully, but Ethiopians are also adding to our human resources.
The West Bank is going through another period of investment by overseas Palestinians and internal development. Life is improving for them, and giving them reason to avoid conflict with Israel. Palestinians have invited me to visit Ramallah, which they say is “just like Tel Aviv.” I would need a permit to pass through the IDF’s check point, and a reason to request a permit. The lynching that occurred in Ramallah a decade ago and the near lynching in Isaweea six months ago are keeping me from requesting a permit. I have told my Palestinian student teaching at Birzeit University that I would welcome an invitation to lecture to his class when the time is right. That time will not come soon, and perhaps not while I still have a capacity to say something worth hearing.
Palestinians have coalition issues that block compromise on the issues of territory, Jerusalem, and refugees, made even more severe by the reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. Israelis also have coalition issues, but they are not touched by threats of violence comparable to those seen among the Palestinians, and are more readily smoothed over by political acumen than in the case of Palestine.
The Palestinians have been supported in their nationalism and prodded to extremism by other Muslims since 1948. Palestine has served Muslim tyrants wanting to excite their populations, but that may no longer work as in the past. Those populations are now intent on dealing with their own problems.
Barack and Bibi acknowledge their differences. They share a political culture that allows them to agree to disagree. National interests and good sense lead them to express mutual admiration, or at least mutual respect or mutual tolerance. The American President tilts more than some of his predecessors toward the Palestinians, but he is enough of a westerner to recognize that the Palestinians are outside the cultural milieu that he shares with the Israeli Prime Minister. Thus, his comments that the Fatah-Hamas alliance is a stumbling block to negotiations, and that Palestinians must deal with some difficult issues more fully than until now.
Living on the borders of cultures has its attractions. I appreciate American as well as Israeli traits, and feel empathy for Palestinians.
Empathy does not extend to support for all their goals. Too many events continue the relevance the classic expression of self-defense that appears in the Talmud (Blessings, page 58 a)
בא להרגך השכם להרגוIf someone comes to kill you, rise early in the morning to kill him.
The point is not lost to Americans after 9-11. The pride of the President in having dealt with Osama bin Laden does not provide carte blanche to Israelis, but it does provide a basis of mutual understanding.