The Third Rail
Can we talk? The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is as difficult, painful, divisive, and ugly an issue for the American left, such as it is–even here in provincial ol’ Texas–as any I have ever known. The civil rights movement was relatively easy: There were assholes and not-assholes, and then, if you were a standard Anglo Texan, there were the assholes in your own family. You either had to learn how to talk to them or learn what you absolutely could not talk about or just permanently lose them. Many of us did all three. Vietnam, too, split families and old comrades in arms. “Lyndon’s War” here on the home front was about political disloyalty and patriotism and class and who went and who didn’t and who was willing to do how much to stop it–endless divisions. I recall the plaintive wail of many a hostess in that era: “O God, let’s not spoil the party by talking about Vietnam!”
And now there is another tragedy, dividing liberals from radicals, Jews from non-Jews, Jews from Jews, friends from friends, people who have been fighting for freedom together for over 50 years from their old comrades in a thousand fights for justice. I would say it’s heartbreaking except, like everyone else who cares deeply in this country, I have enough sense to realize that our quarrels and hurts and divisions on this subject are pinochle compared to where it’s really going down, in the Middle East.
One of the things I know about the discussions we have to have is that none of us can afford to add so much as a single twig to the flame. Not one more iota of hatred, not one more shred of rage, not a single drop more of blame, not one more ounce of self-righteousness. The intensity of the 50-year history of overlapping injustices in the Middle East is enough to awe even the Irish, who have been killing one another for 800 years. But the Irish have reached a settlement. As the Greeks and the Turks reached a settlement on Cyprus. And the French and the Germans and the Afrikaaners and the blacks … the first thing, the very first thing we need to concentrate on is that this is a do-able deal. The only sin is despair. There is no military solution but there is a political solution. Everybody involved already knows what the answer looks like. It’s the two-state solution. Now, how do we get from here to there?
I could pretend to be even-handed about this horror. But I have a dog in this fight. I am pro-Israeli and much of my distress is because I think the soul of that country is being slowly poisoned.
Do you remember that classic sociology class exercise where all the blue-eyed students are assigned to be prisoners and all the brown-eyed students are assigned to be guards? And within the time-frame of a single class, the blue-eyes start to hate the brown-eyes and the brown-eyes treat the blue-eyes with ever-escalating contempt and cruelty. Hideous fate has put the Israelis, the last people on earth who should be playing the role of oppressor, into the role of the brown-eyes. Recognizing the helpless, hopeless horror of the Palestinian situation does not make one an anti-Semite. In the longer view of history, the Israelis are clearly ahead on previous discrimination, persecution, and genocide. Having been subjected to 2,000 years of Christian mercy, they’ve got bonus points. On the other hand, as a Palestinian woman here in Texas said to the Observer’s Charlotte McCann in the course of one of those Jewish-Arab dialogues: “How long do my people have to pay for your Holocaust?”
Trust me, the solution does not lie in this direction. All the recognition of all the suffering, all the respect that all that pain on both sides demands is necessary but not helpful. As a bleeding heart liberal, I have no trouble at all bleeding for the pain of Israelis and Palestinians simultaneously–what happened to their grandparents, what happened to their parents, what has happened to them–I mourn, I grieve, I curse the sadness of it all.
But frankly, I think we need to be less concerned with who suffered how much at whose hands and more concerned with the children. We cannot change history, but we can save their lives. A thousand apologies for being so trite, but it is not the suffering of the past that needs to engage us so much as freedom from suffering in the future.
I know both Jews and Arabs in this country are accusing the media of bias. But you don’t have to be a journalism scholar to notice that the mass media in America are pro-Israel. And the Israelis still look terrible: You can’t keep invading a territory that has no army without looking like bullies. This is not good for the Jews. Nor does it excuse the suicide terrorists.
The Observer recently printed an article distinctly pro-Palestinian, and there was nothing wrong with it factually. It was justifiable as news coverage–given the Texas angle and the fact that the Palestinian point of view is so rarely heard in America. But it left the Observer terribly imbalanced in its effort to rectify a larger imbalance in the other direction. Maybe that’s what gutsy little papers should do. But it troubled me, because in this fraught situation, to argue the wrongs of one side without acknowledging the wrongs done to the other is tantamount to adding more fuel. From there it’s a short step to–”Anyone who criticizes Israel is an anti-Semite” and “Anyone who fails to speak up for the Palestinians is a racist.” Gets us nowhere.
What I would like to do is start in the Observer a discussion about how we can talk about the Middle East without hurting and angering one another. I don’t want to see this one tear the left apart–there aren’t enough of us to have a split. So let’s talk.
Molly Ivins is a nationally syndicated columnist. Her book with Louis Dubose, Shrub: The Short But Happy Political Life of George W. Bush, is out in paperback.