The difficulty of solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict stems from more sources than one can comfortably count, but surely one of the most significant is our inability even to discuss it. The emotional intensity of so many people’s investment in their own self-justifying story line censors the effects of any potentially upsetting fact.
For instance, I thought it a pretty significant problem for Israel’s unquestioning defenders when Peace Now revealed that nearly a third of the land currently occupied by Israeli settlements was actually listed as private Palestinian land. In other words, these so-called “facts on the ground” rest on exactly the pattern of illegal seizure that critics have long alleged and successions of Israeli governments have sought to cover up. But I’ve yet to read a word from those dedicated to defending any and every action by Israel explaining how this new information affects their arguments.
Similarly, the apparently never-ending deadly violence between Hamas fighters and the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades in Gaza–to say nothing of the murderous hatred both sides openly profess toward all Jews–ought to provide considerable cause for pause among those who demand an immediate end to the Israeli occupation, security concerns be damned. And yet from those who hold that position, one hears precious little about Israel’s entirely understandable worries about the prospects of being asked to live alongside a failed, fanatical and heavily armed Islamic state.
Personally, I deal with this problem by refusing to discuss the conflict with anyone, anywhere, assuming that the likely result of any face-to-face dispute is almost always personal fury rather than intellectual enlightenment. As it happens, though, I accidentally undertook a controlled experiment on the topic. On May 2, I attended a fascinating discussion at the New York-based Center for Jewish History in celebration of the recent publication by Schocken Books of Hannah Arendt’s The Jewish Writings. At one point the book’s co-editor, Jerome Kohn, made what struck me as a shocking contention that the only people who found fault with Arendt’s political judgment are those whose personal or material interests she opposed. My admiration for Arendt’s life and work is nearly boundless, but I can’t help thinking she made some serious mistakes of political judgment.
Through the combined magic of BlackBerry, Google and Wikipedia, I was able to come up with exactly the text I needed to make my case. In the May 1948 issue of Commentary (!), Arendt stuck to her rhetorical guns on behalf of a binational alternative to the Zionist proposal for an independent Israel. “The independence of Palestine can be achieved only on a solid basis of Jewish-Arab cooperation,” she argued. “The real goal of the Jews in Palestine is the building up of a Jewish homeland. This goal must never be sacrificed to the pseudo-sovereignty of a Jewish state.” Whatever one thinks of the morality of this contention, it cannot sensibly be said to rest on any notion of pragmatic political relevance. When these words were published, the 1948 war was already under way. The idea that Arab inhabitants of Palestine and the surrounding nations were going to invite the Jews to “build up” their homeland cooperatively without the protection of a Jewish state–and that state’s army–was about as likely as the Jews there deciding to convert en masse to Islam. That Arendt was still pining for this hopelessly utopian vision this late in the process demonstrated, I argued, her lack of political judgment.