THE OTHER SIDE: A Response to Rivage-Seul’s “Report from Palestine”

Ben-Zion Ptashnik
Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Note: Ben-Zion Ptashnik is a supporter of the Center for Global Justice and a resident of San Miguel de Allende. Ptashnik was born in Israel, the son of two holocaust survivor parents who spent the war years as slave laborers in the Buchenwald Nazi concentration camp. Ben-Zion considers himself a progressive politically, and has been a political and environmental activist since the Vietnam era. He lived in Vermont for thirty years before moving to Mexico last year to start a solar energy company called Solar San Miguel International. Before that move he served for two terms as a Democratic State Senator in Vermont, USA.

Before I comment on Mike Rivage-Seul’s article, published in Atencionon August 25 under auspices of the Center for Global Justice, I should lay my cards on the table: I am a strong supporter of Palestinian statehood and would classify myself as a severe critic of the various Israeli nationalist and right-wing settler organizations that had turned the West Bank and Gaza into armed camps. I have also criticized the Likud party and the Israeli coalition administrations who implemented a policy of occupation in the Palestinian territories and twice invaded Lebanon. At the same time, I support the right of the democratic State of Israel to exist.

My understandings of the issues concerning the Arab/Israeli conflict, and the Jewish /Palestinian rivalry, are born of forty years of political study of the struggles in the Middle East. My grasp has been sharpened by robust debates with my father, who fought against invading Arab armies in the War of Independence in 1948, and with my many uncles and cousins, veterans of various Middle-East wars.

Israel is a polarized democratic society divided between left and right, nationalist and socialist, and between secular and religious communities. It is certainly not a monolithic single-minded society as portrayed by critics of the Jewish state. Some of my cousins are active members of Peace Now, who live on Kibbutzim that have red flags at the gate. Others live in West Bank Jewish settlements.

Nor are Palestinians of one monolithic political or cultural block, as portrayed by some critics on the Jewish side. One of the great coincidences of my life was when my wife’s sister married a Palestinian, and we all lived in Norwich, Vermont. He now teaches in a university in upstate New York. Where my relatives were all Holocaust survivors, his parents and family were refugees who lived in the West Bank. In most ways he reminds me of my Israeli cousins; he is passionate, loves his family, and despite a seemingly tough exterior, is a soft hearted and gentle man. He certainly was not what my parents would have expected.

So it was with a great measure of discomfort that I read Mike Rivage-Seul’s short-sighted and rather naive polemic, which essentially demonized the Israeli side of this conflict. I have over the years come across many versions of the history of Palestine/Israel, written either by myopic Jews or myopic Arabs, each trying to prove that the other side was the devil, and dismissing as trivial the faults and culpability of their own side.

Unfortunately Rivage-Seul’s logic falls victim to this trend towards polarized revisionism. He put forward a one-sided interpretation of the Middle-East debate; a fairly standard Palestinians-as-victim, Israelis as perpetrators mono-view. While his arguments are based on some truths, such as the relative strengths of the Israeli army and the Palestinian Authority, his premises are disturbingly pro-Palestinian, leaving out essential historical truths. For example he ignores the fact that despite the disproportionate strength of the Israeli army and Arab armies, the Israeli peoples’ sense of security is no longer based on nuclear arsenals or Sherman tanks, not after years of suicide bombings attacks in schools, cafes, and buses.

Take the struggle between the U.S. and Al-Queda, and imagine that instead of losses to one family in ten thousand in a population of 300 million, of someone near and dear, as Americans did on 9/11, it is one family in twenty, in a country of less than six million. Anyone who has ever been in Israel during a suicide bombing, and watched the TV news as the body parts were being gathered off the sidewalk, and then witnessed the funerals and grieving families for the next few days, would understand that the population of Israel has collectively undergone a mini 9/11 time and time again.

Rivage-Seul glosses over the fact that until recently, this sometimes daily sense of terror was lived by each Israeli as an effect of the stated goal of the Palestinian Authority: the destruction of Israel. To be sure, a few years ago the Palestinian Authority recognized Israel’s right to exist. But then, also ignored by Rivage-Seul, the fundamentalist Islamic Hamas party gained control of the Palestinian government in a democratic election. And Hamas is dedicated to the destruction of Israel. In a nation largely populated by survivors of the Holocaust and their families, this is a threat taken very seriously.

The reality is that Israelis and Palestinians have been victimized by each other for decades. In this struggle both have become extremely adept at promulgating elaborate constructs and myths to prove that their side is the true victim. With regard to Israel’s founding in 1948, for example, Israelis tend to focus on the invading Arab armies whose aim was to drive them to the sea, while virtually ignoring the fact that the Palestinian majority, instead of joining those armies, merely fled in fear.

Many Israelis have ever since used this construct, which conveniently lumps Arab Palestinians together with Arab armies from hostile neighbor nations, to rationalize brutal occupation policies, i.e.; “many of those Palestinians were sympathetic to the Arab invaders who wanted to drive us into the sea, therefore they deserve neither our compassion nor the civil rights we enjoy.” And the Holocaust, which resulted in the birth of Israel, is too often used as an excuse for any policy that suppresses Palestinian rights.

But that’s only the start. Underlying and renewing the Jewish/Palestinian conflict is the fact – passed over by Rivage-Seul – that for various historical reasons, each side has been torn by internal cultural and political conflicts that have thwarted all attempts at reconciliation and final settlement. Mistakes and failures by both parties have been abundant.

For example, Yasser Arafat blew his chance for Palestinian statehood, out of fear that if he made peace with Israel, he might lose control of the Palestinian Authority to militants from Hamas, or worse, be assassinated like President Sadat of Egypt for settling with Israel. Fearing fundamentalist Arab reaction, Arafat refused to accept the deal for Palestinian statehood offered to him by then Prime Minister Ehud Barak, a deal so generous that Barak was for his part driven from office by outraged Jews.

Many Palestinians and their supporters also ignore the well documented fact that the Arab nations blatantly refused for the most part to assimilate Palestinian refugees in the aftermath of the 1948 Israeli victory over invading Arab armies. These nations preferred instead to keep the displaced Palestinians as desperate martyrs in refugee camps in Gaza, Lebanon, and the West Bank of Jordan, in order to enflame Arab sensibilities, and bolster the political pan-Arab consensus to deny Israel’s right to exist.

And Israelis, for their part, have never quite resolved the decades-old dispute over whether to have a standard democracy, the desire of most secularists, or a Jewish state, as sought by a large minority of religious Jews. This unspoken conflict, focused on questions like whether to allow Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, has simmered for decades. Most secularists preferred to partition off the West Bank and let the Palestinians have a state of their own. After all, the demographics of Palestinian birthrates showed that in a standard democracy the faster growing Arab population in the occupied territories would eventually outvote the Jews.

But Jewish religious fundamentalists, joined by many secular Zionists, have refused to give up the West Bank, which was traditionally the land of the Jews in biblical times. As a result, Israelis have been chronically unable to reach a consensus on which direction to take: a democracy with or without the West Bank, or continuation of the concept of a “Jewish” state. This division among Israeli Jews created decades of indecision which prolonged an increasingly unjust suppression of Palestinian rights and autonomy. The indecision exacerbated tensions between Jews and Palestinians, and eventually led to the Intefada, which was the Palestinian refusal to comply with the brutal and dehumanizing occupation.

Israel’s political indecision manifested itself in the illegal Jewish settlements in Gaza and the West Bank that were permitted under right-wing Israeli governments. And exasperation on the part of Palestinians led to continued desperate acts of violence including suicide bombings, resulting in yet heavier suppression of Palestinian rights by progressively more hostile and right-wing Israeli governments. Jews and Palestinians descended into a vicious cycle of an eye-for-an-eye.

Conclusion: As I have argued, no less than both sides of theIsrael/Palestine dispute are needed in order just to make sense of recent Mid-East history, much less to begin settling the conflict. This is why one-sided treatments like Rivage-Seul’s cloud the issue precisely where clarity is needed. And such one-sidedness is not excused by saying: “well, the Israeli side is heard all the time.”

Peace-making calls first for honesty by all parties in admitting past mistakes and internal conflicts, and then it calls for constant willingness to embrace compassion, and to be attentive to the human needs and sensibilities of the other side. It is an axiom of politics that demonizing of one’s enemy will almost never lead to a dialogue of peace. Political demagoguery breeds nothing but stalemate.

In the decade before the Soviet empire collapsed, and before the cold war ended, a song by the artist Sting dominated the pop charts for many months. The song had a chorus line, an important message which was repeated many times. It said “the Russians love their children too” . It was the perfect message of conciliation in a decade of nuclear saber-rattling.

The reality is that for decades Israelis and Palestinians have alternately been saber- rattling and victimized by each other. And during this struggle both have become extremely adept at promulgating elaborate constructs and myths to prove that their side is the true victim. Such rationalizations have only led to intransigence and continued violence.

Israeli Jews say “Shalom Alechem” , while Palestinian Muslims say “Salem Aleikem.” As Rivage-Seul aptly points out, both are Semitic people, the sons of Abraham. When the Jews can say that the Palestinians “love their children too,” and the Palestinians can say that “Jews also love their children”, then the cycle of “an eye for an eye” can end, and the possibility for true and lasting peace will be at hand.

But that direction towards peace requires an honest approach by both sides. That means, instead of arguing as to who has a better claim to victim-hood, embracing compassion and a true willingness to recognize each other’s humanity. Nothing short of that effort will ever bring Peace.