Arabs and Jews: Is There Any Light at the End of the Tunnel for Peace in the Middle East? or Is the Jewish-Arab War Condemned to Last Forever?

By Wine, Rabbi Sherwin | The Humanist, September-October 2002 | Go to article overview

Arabs and Jews: Is There Any Light at the End of the Tunnel for Peace in the Middle East? or Is the Jewish-Arab War Condemned to Last Forever?


Wine, Rabbi Sherwin, The Humanist


The war between the Jews and the Arabs in former British Palestine has been going on for eighty-one years. In 1921, the first Arab explosion against the Zionist pioneers announced the beginning of the fray. Hatred and suspicion have undermined any successful resolution of the conflict.

After the Jewish War of Independence in 1948, the conflict became a war between the Jewish state and external Arab enemies. In that conflict, the Israelis were generally victorious. The Israeli triumph in 1967 crushed Gamal Abdel Nasser, the hero of Arab nationalism. But in 1987 the Palestinian Arabs chose a new kind of battle--internal rebellion. The infitada was born. And it has grown in fury ever since.

The foundation of the war is the power of nationalism. Jewish nationalism was born out of the defiance of the oppressed masses in czarist Russia. It was fed by racial anti-Semitism. Diaspora nationalism sought to liberate the Jews of eastern Europe and give them cultural autonomy. It was destroyed by native resistance and the Holocaust.

Zionist nationalism also saw itself as a national liberation movement. It naively proposed to solve anti-Semitism by returning the Jews to their ancient homeland. Reinforced by socialist idealism and the revival of Hebrew as a popular language, it led to the establishment of a Jewish settlement in Palestine. The closing of the doors to immigration in the United States, the support of the British government, and the rise of Adolf Hitler gave this nationalism the impetus that the slaughter of six million Jews was to make irresistible. Zionism became the most powerful movement to mobilize the Jewish masses in the twentieth century.

Arab nationalism was an import from the West and was cultivated initially by Christian Arabs as a way of countering their exclusion by Muslims. Propelled by Turkish oppression and by the humiliation of European conquest, the Arab nationalist movement was led by Westernized intellectuals who embraced secular values and placed nationhood above religion. Since the Arab world never fully experienced the secular revolution which had transformed European life, the Arab nationalism of the street had difficulty distinguishing between Arab loyalty and Muslim loyalty. Religion is inevitably part of the nationalist package in the Muslim world.

Since the Arab world is vast, divided by regional differences, cultural diversity, and the internal boundaries of twenty-two states created by colonial masters, the unification of the Arab nation hasn't been easy. Nasser tried and failed. He was defeated by both the Israelis and by the hostility of his political enemies and rivals within the Arab world.

The one issue that has the power to transcend the internal state boundaries of the Arab world and to mobilize the Arab masses is Zionism. Whether or not it deserves such designation, the Jewish state has become the symbol of Arab humiliation. Perceived as the last and most outrageous example of European colonialism, Israel is the object of almost universal Arab hate. The defeat of Israel has become the ultimate perceived means of restoring Arab honor. The hatred of Zionism is so intense that it is difficult for most Arabs to distinguish between their hostility to Israel and their hatred for Jews.

In fact, the suspicion and hatred between Arabs and Jews is so fierce that dialogue is condemned to failure. Most public and private encounters between conventional Arab and Jewish leaders degenerates into shouting matches. Each side insists on its rights. And, of course, both sides are "right." The Palestinian Arabs have been invaded, abused, and oppressed. The Israeli Jews are by now mainly native-born residents of the land they defend and the creators of a dynamic, modern, high-tech state; they have no place else to go.

From the Jewish point of view, the Arab hostility cannot easily be distinguished from anti-Semitism. …

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