28 June 2006

tel aviv.

After spending the day in Israel proper, I feel even more confused about this entire situation. Is it possible to disagree with both sides of a two-sided conflict? I think it just may be. We spent the morning at the Peres Center for Peace and the enclosed Yitzhak Rabin Center meeting with Ron Pundak, the executive director of the Peres Center and a major player at the 1993 Oslo Accord negotiations. Pundak made some interesting points, and I was particularly impressed with his brutal, often self-deprecating honesty about the failures of Oslo and Camp David. There's a lot of demonization of the "other" on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and while he had little love for the Palestinians, I respect his ability to recognize the flaws in his own nation. He opened the discussion by stating that the Israeli sentiment that the creation of Israel as "a people without a land moving to a land without a people" was an outright lie. He solidly acknowledges that the Palestinians have ties to the land and a rich heritage dating back to well before the creation of Israel. Everything I've ever heard in this vein from the Israeli side is "God promised Jews this land," end of story, so I was impressed to see a prominent Israeli admit that two distinct groups had legitimate claims to the land. In his view, Oslo failed because of arrogant Israeli policy and Arafat's mistakes - both equally. Yesterday, the Palestinian leaders predominantly attributed the failure to Israeli hypocrisy (settlements, continued occupation, etc), so it's refreshing to hear someone admit that no one was (or is) innocent.

Even more provokingly, Pundak expressed that "the strongest side of the equation should always be the most generous, and we weren't." I was speechless after hearing this - the Palestinians are clearly the underdogs, at least in my view, so I grow tired of hearing Israelis paint themselves as the victims (more on this later). Peace is in the best interests of both parties, and I respect that Pundak realizes that peace is a compromise and a process. It's similiar to social contract theory - we trade some of our freedom in exchange for protection. Both sides give up part of what they want to meet in the middle, and everyone goes home happy and living in peace. It seems so easy to me as an outsider, and it's frustrating that both sides will refuse to budge over seemingly innocuous trivialities. I suppose it's always easier to solve problems when you have no personal investment in the outcome, but it's obvious to me that 50 years of stubbornness hasn't solved anything, so maybe it's time for new tactics. Pundak believes that there is increased support for change today, and that both sides are increasingly understanding of one another and willing to make concessions to acheive peace. The newly elected Hamas government in Palestine may destroy this new support, but it's too soon to tell. He clearly disapproved of Hamas's election, but I still can't shake the feeling that everyone is being hypocritical about Palestinian democracy. There were free and fair elections in Palestine, and that should be valued regardless of who won. Israel values democracy - Pundak was quick to express his disapproval of Sharon's unilateralist policies and disengagement because he believes that peace will come through a joint process - so why don't they value Palestinian democracy? In his view, unilateralism indicates that one side has stopped caring about the interests of the other, resulting in an overall loss of hope and direction for a future viable peace. I agree - one side deciding the future of the other isn't peace, it's domination. That can never work in the long run, and I think it causes more harm in the short term as well. As difficult as it is to negotiate and compromise, that's the only thing that will ever work.

Since I've been completely behind the notion of a one-state solution since I discovered it yesterday, I was interested to hear Pundak's perspective on it. Sadly, this is where I lost my awe for his open-minded honesty and heard an expected biased response. He said it would never work, and that Israelis wouldn't even consider it. For him, Jews feel a connection to the land and their state through their heritage - history, language, tradition, religion, etc. - and even for secular Jews, the Jewish character of Israel is sacred. He said outright that he (and most Jews) didn't want "one state for two peoples." I take serious issue with this, as it values uniformity over diversity. I can't swallow the idea that a state would be better off if everyone thought within a narrowly defined range. Part of what I love about being an American is that my friends can come from all backgrounds, religions, political persuasions, etc., and we can still get along and revel in what we can learn from each other. A state founded on such narrow parameters completely loses any semblance of balance and diversity, and that feels too much like 1984 for me.

Which brings me to my second major issue with today's discussion. After Pundak finished, we attended a lecture/discussion about Israeli identity and democracy with some of the Education Department of the Rabin Center. We brainstormed what we think of when we meet an Israeli, and we threw some ideas out there, gradually venturing into negative stereotypes as times passes, as such things go. Someone suggested "defensive," and as the woman wrote it on the board, she huffed a little under her breath and said "we have to be." I realized that that is the attitude that has always rubbed me the wrong way about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the reason I've been hesitant to support Israel. While I can never deny the historical victimization of the Jewish people, I struggle to swallow the idea that Israelis are somehow the underdog. Yes, they are victims of Islamic extremist suicide terrorism, but the use of suicide attackers illustrates just how desperate the enemy is. With no money and no power, human smart bombs are a cost-efficient (as callous as that sounds) way to fight. Israel may be a Jewish state surrounded by 22 Arab countries, but no one's forcing them to be there. If you're choosing to move to and live in your homeland despite opposition, you can't also play the victim.

Speaking of 1984, I need to vent some frustrations about the notion of a "Jewish Democratic State." In our discussion of Jewish identity, we watched a film entitled "The Deli" about the multicultural tensions that exist in Israel - from immigrant and native Israelis, orthodox to secular Jews, Israeli Arabs and Jews, and so on. The basic plot entailed a Russian immigrant selling pork in his deli, a vandalism incident, and a very angry orthodox old man. Other characters brought the other conflicts into the storyline. We stopped halfway through to brainstorm solutions to the impending confrontations, and my immediate response was "secular democracy." When religious law becomes state law (as in this case, where the deli owner couldn't report the vandalism because he sold pork in violation of a local statute), I don't understand how you can in good faith claim democratic principles. For me, a fundamental trait of democracy is freedom of worship. State-sponsored religion is inherently undemocratic for non-believers. The two people leading the identity discussion talked about the wealth of ideas and cultural diversity of Israel and how hard it is to compromise with so many views. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing, and I don't think any truly democratic state would want to limit its views to the narrow range of one people. Democracy is founded on discourse - I can accept a Jewish state, and I'd prefer a multicultural democracy, but I think a religious democracy is an inherent contradiction in terms.

There are a few more pictures posted, but admittedly few because I was too lazy to take my camera out of my bag, and we sat in the same building all morning and frolicked on the beach in the afternoon. And yes, the ones on this page are essentially irrelevant to the topic, but I think pictures break up the monotony of text. For you news-watchers out there, Israel is invading Gaza in response to the attack on and kidnapping of an IDF soldier. I'll post more tomorrow on what it's like to be here for that, but for now, just know it probably looks more exciting from your end. Tomorrow is an Israeli/Palestinian day and a evening meeting with an NPR correspondent, so get excited.

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