A Changing Landscape

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January 3, 2013
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Paul Scham

In the midst of November’s Gaza War, I sat down to write about my relationship with and understanding of Israel as a work-in-progress. This was not the first time, nor will it be the last, I’m sure, when I am angered and perplexed by Israeli behavior.

Like an entire generation of American Jews, my first impressions of Israel were inspired by Leon Uris’ epic potboiler, Exodus, when it first appeared in the late 1950s — though I didn’t get around to visiting the country until 1979. My views remained conventionally and unreflectively supportive of Israeli policy until a few months into the First Lebanon War of 1982. At that point, I came to realize that my vehement arguments in favor of the war were contradicting my own values and they weren’t convincing me, whatever effect they might have had on others, that the war was justified.

After my 1979 visit, I found myself hooked on Israeli politics and history, and my developing identification with Israel’s moderate left almost obsessed me. In 1983, I went to Israel on an open-ended trip that lasted two years. Since then, I have made aliyah, lived in Israel for extended periods, spent years working on joint Israeli-Palestinian research projects at the Hebrew University, returned to the United States, and become a professor of Israel studies. Thirty years later, I feel just as perplexed and torn up by the questions I ask of Israel:

  • Why can Israelis not understand and come to terms with Palestinian anger?
  • Why can Israelis not accept that the Nakba (the “Catastrophe,” the Palestinian term for the events of 1948) was real, as real for them as, l’havdil, the Holocaust is for Jews (as fundamentally different as the two are)?
  • Why can they not realize that Israel no longer has to prove its mettle to the Arab world, but that it does have to prove its humanity?

Although I can explain these and many related questions fairly convincingly, at least on an academic and pedagogical level, I remain unconvinced in my soul. Much of my academic work consists of studying and explicating Israeli and Palestinian historical narratives, and I devoutly believe that these narratives hold the key to understanding many of the contradictions in Israeli and Palestinian behavior. But I wish I could write about this as history without once again concluding that Israel could have had what it will likely get after a war, without a war. I believe that Israel could have brokered a deal with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat without the Yom Kippur War in 1973, and might have been able to make peace with Lebanon now had it not invaded the country in 1982; Israel currently could probably make peace with the Arab world were it willing to explore the Arab Peace Initiative, in which all 22 Arab countries promised peace with Israel and normal relations with it in 2002 and again in 2007, before its shelf life eventually expires.

I continue to explain Israeli fears and hesitations to my classes and in many meetings with Arabs and Muslims. Many are still amazed to find an American Jew who is both supportive and critical of Israel. I know the politicians and generals of Israel and I can quote their fights both historical and political. I can point to the trauma of the Holocaust and to the mixed blessings of Holocaust education. I see connections and turning points. And I take immense pride in Israel’s achievements; I am, after all, nominally an Israeli citizen.

But, in addition to explaining all of this, I have to understand it. And though once I think I did, I really can no longer understand, at a fundamental level, why Israel resists taking available chances for peace: why its governments refuse to test proposals that have been on the table; why Israel continues to regard the Arab narrative of the Nakba as such a threat; why Israel won’t, in Abba Eban’s words, take yes for an answer.

I want Israel to survive. I think it will, despite the settlers who build illegal outposts and refuse to acknowledge they live in occupied territory; despite the ultra-Orthodox who tear at the fabric of Israel’s civil society; despite the ultra-right-wing political parties, such as the National Union and Habayit HaYehudi, who endanger Israel’s existence by their contempt for Palestinian rights; despite the violence and terrorism of Hamas and al-Qaeda; and despite the many organizations and people who are harming the country by either loving it or hating it too much.

Of course, I ask myself: Am I wrong? Am I naïve? As a historian, I believe that studying history confers some wisdom. And yet I know that every historian ends up with his or her own conclusions, so we can’t all be right. As I review the trajectory of my own analysis, my own feelings, my own extrapolations from history, I repeatedly realize that many of Israel’s decisions — especially those of life and death — make no sense to me; they seem comprehensible only in light of the other historic mistakes that are so much a part of what I study.

However, I am absolutely convinced that Israel’s current path is fundamentally unsustainable. It is not that moving toward peace guarantees a peaceful outcome, nor do I necessarily trust that Palestinian promises will be kept. However, although I acknowledge that Israel faces real and serious dangers, I believe that many of the country’s apprehensions are largely a vestige of fears that were appropriate and realistic in ghettos and in the 1930s, but that must be overcome in a period of unprecedented Jewish strength and power. Israel is not invulnerable (none of us are), but it must come to terms with its own strength.

In 2013, I no longer believe I will witness “peace” as I understood it in the 1990s. The Oslo Accords could have worked; it is beyond unfortunate that they did not. Today, I continue to write and teach the history of Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I try to remain hopeful; I feel dubious about the fulfillment of that hope. I try to understand peace in different ways, and I try to imagine alternative possibilities for a political future and its landscape.

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Paul Scham is a professor of Israel studies at the University of Maryland and executive director of its Joseph & Alma Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies. He is co-editor of Shared Histories: A Palestinian-Israeli Dialogue (2006), which explores the role of Israeli and Palestinian historical narratives in the conflict, and of a forthcoming book, Shared Narratives. From 1996 to 2002, he coordinated Israeli-Palestinian joint research projects at the Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace at Hebrew University. Since 2010, Scham has been managing editor of the Israel Studies Review.

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