Origins of the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict

By Schafer, David | The Humanist, July-August 2002 | Go to article overview
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Origins of the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict

Schafer, David, The Humanist

When a problem gets so vast and so complex that it's hard to see how it can ever be resolved, it's perfectly natural to ask ourselves whether there was a time when, with sufficient foresight, it might have been prevented. If only we knew how to anticipate such problems, we tell ourselves, maybe we could avoid them in the future. So, applying that reasoning, let us ask how the seemingly intractable mess between the Palestinian people and the state of Israel ever got started?

We could blame it on Sarai, wife of Abram. According to the story in Genesis 16, it was Sarai's idea, when she was still childless in her late seventies, for Abram to have a child by her Egyptian handmaid, Hagar--so he did, and named the son Ishmael. But thirteen years later, according to Genesis 21, Sarai (now renamed Sarah) herself gave birth to a son by Abram (now Abraham), and this son was named Isaac. Sarah's actions led to rivalry between the descendants of Abraham's sons. According to traditions, Isaac became the progenitor of the Jews and Ishmael of the northern Arabs. Both sons were circumcised at God's command, but Hagar and her son were exiled to the southern desert. And exile is a major theme in both Hebrew and Arabic stories. Hagar is from the same Semitic root for emigrate as the Arabic hijra--the Hegira, Muhammad's emigration from Mecca to Medina in 622 CE., which is considered the starting point of Islam.

Or we could blame it on Pope Urban II, who in 1095 CE instigated the first Crusade. The next spring, according to Karen Armstrong in Jerusalem:

   A band of German Crusaders massacred the Jewish communities of Speyer, 
   Worms, and Mainz upon the Rhine. This had certainly not been the pope's 
   intention, but it seemed ridiculous to these Crusaders to march thousands 
   of miles to fight Muslims--about whom they knew next to nothing--when the 
   people who had actually killed Christ (or so the Crusaders believed) were 
   alive and well on their very doorsteps. These were the first full-scale 
   pogroms in Europe. 

The word pogrom means "devastation" in Russian, and there were many pogroms in nineteenth-century Russia. When Ariel Sharon addressed soldiers of the Israeli Defense Force at Jenin in April 2002, he reminded them that their struggle had begun "120 years ago." This could only have referred to the pogrom that followed the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881, when one of the plotters was found to be a young Jewish woman. The first aliyah ("going up" to Israel) of Jews began the very next year with the arrival of fourteen European immigrants at Jaffa in Palestine. This was an insignificant number compared to the mainly Sephardic (Spanish-Mediterranean) Jews already in Palestine and Syria (around 25,000 in 1800), some of whose family roots had been there for a long time. However, the first aliyah continued until 1903 and was followed by many more.

Or we might, if we choose, even blame the present troubles on Charles Darwin, whose promulgation of the idea of natural selection in the mid-nineteenth century was immediately picked up and twisted by "Social Darwinists" to support the notion that Aryans were inherently superior to the Semitic peoples and to justify anti-Semitic campaigns throughout Europe. It is important to remember, though, that whether such anti-Jewish discrimination took the form of pogroms or something less violent, it was carried out not by Palestinian Muslims but by European Christians. Those Jews who chose to emigrate to Palestine clearly saw it at the time as a better and safer place to be.

As far back as the 1860s a German Jew, Moses Hess, had advocated the formation of a Jewish "national home" in Palestine. At that time most Jews in western Europe did not take such an idea seriously. Many of them, emancipated by eighteenth-century Enlightenment ideas, had become successfully integrated into their societies and were comfortable where they were.

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