Can There Be Peace in the Holy Land?
The conflict in the Holy Land is often said to be impossible to resolve. GÜNTHER SIMMERMACHER outlines the main obstacles to peace, and how a just solution can be achieved.
The teenage girl crouched against the wall of the carpeted corridor, head buried in her arms as she sobbed inconsolably. Her friends offered their comfort, but in her distress the girl was alone.
She had just emerged from the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. To follow the documentation of the extent and mechanics of the Nazi persecution and genocide of Jews in much of Europe is indeed a shattering experience, as the Pilgrimage of the Peacemakers group found after a visit there in February.The Holocaust did not erupt spontaneously. It was the culmination of centuries of anti-Jewish calumny and persecution in Christian Europe.
Churches, including the Catholic Church, played a crucial part in that persecution. Christians, generally, held all Jews through the generations responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion, so Jews were viscerally despised. The blood libel — calumnious accusation that Jews murdered Christian children for religious rituals — had great potency, instilling additional fear and hatred of Jews.
The first ghetto — a word we today tend to associate with slums in the US — was set up in Venice in 1516 to keep Jews confined to one area (Shakespeare’s Shylock in The Merchant of Venice was a resident of that ghetto).
In 1555 Pope Paul IV adopted and implemented the segregation in the Papal States (which was most of present-day Italy), thereby becoming an architect of the legalised repression of Jews, a group that had lived in Rome since pre-Christian times. A few brief moments apart, Jews remained segregated in Rome until 1880.
The Holocaust might have been executed by the pagan Nazis, but Christians through the ages helped fertilise the fields of hate that allowed the genocide to occur.
St John Paul II rightly apologised on behalf of the Catholic Church for “the failures of her sons and daughters in every age”, in a 1998 document and in Jerusalem during his pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2000.
It is within that history that one must understand the state of Israel. The Zionist ideal was to establish a land where Jews would be safe, a refuge from the perennial threat of persecution and pogroms.
This need for security is written into the Jewish psyche. It explains why the Jews of Israel are living in constant fear of attack, real and perceived, and why to most Jews, in Israel and internationally, the security question tends to trump all legitimate criticism of the Israeli state.
A series of wars with Arab nations ramped up these fears (many of these nations are now on friendly terms with Israel). More recently attacks on Jews by militants — the suicide bombings of the 2000s or the spate of knifings in the past months or Hamas’ ineffectual rockets—have radicalised many Israelis to such frightening extents that they applaud atrocities against Palestinians.
When Gaza was bombarded in 2014, large groups of Israelis camped out on picnic chairs on a hill overlooking the region, cheering each murderous explosion. And when in late March a video caught a soldier in Hebron shooting an incapacitated Palestinian point blank in the head, a great number of Israelis hailed him as a hero.
The ideal of Israel as a Jewish state, controlled by Jews for Jews, is widely seen by Jews as the key to their survival.
And it is that idea of a Jewish state which is a problem for Palestinians. Contrary to the outdated notion that “the Arabs want to wipe Israel off the earth”, most Palestinians accept the reality of the state of Israel and want some form of peaceful coexistence.
Their problem is not with the state of Israel, but with the idea that this land — the ancestral land of Palestinians — should belong only to Jews. It is the idea of an explicitly Jewish state, as opposed to a state with Jews, that Palestinians refuse to recognise.
There still is a burning anger at the memory of how so many thousands of Palestinians were driven from their homes in 1948 by Jewish militias and the Israeli army by methods which we might today describe in terms of ethnic cleansing and terrorism.
When Palestinians refer to the “Right of Return”, they are talking about moving back to the houses and their villages from which they were expelled 68 years ago—even if it is obvious that they can’t go back.
The late Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat rejected any negotiation agenda which would have forced him to repudiate the Right of Return, because to do so would have been to delegitimise the claim to the land from which his people were expelled.
And so, apart from the many complex issues that might be negotiable, there are two diametrically opposed claims which the respective parties cannot sell to their constituencies: the demand for a secure haven for Jews in an explicitly Jewish state on the one hand, and the Right of Return of dispossessed Palestinians on the other.
The former might have been solved by arriving at the two-state solution which Palestinians and the international community, including the Catholic Church, have been pushing for. But Israel’s rapid construction of illegal settlements throughout the West Bank has made the two-state solution impossible.
The idea that a Palestinian state would take on borders with Israeli enclaves, giving it the geographical appearance of a spotted dog, is unviable. For the two-state solution to be feasible, Israel would have to dismantle these settlements or allow most of them to be incorporated into a Palestinian state. Both options would put Israel in internal turmoil.
And all that is leaving aside the impenetrable issue of Jerusalem, which is claimed by both sides as their capital.
There is only one solution that is grounded in justice and peace — and the only one that can bring security to both sides. But it requires that old fears and hatreds must be put aside, and that non-negotiables be negotiated.
The solution is a unitary state comprising what is now Israel, the West Bank and Gaza under a secular democratic constitution with enshrined minority rights that protect all groups from domination and discrimination by another. Jerusalem would be everybody’s capital.
It is often said that the conflict is too difficult to understand, with the implied suggestion that it is therefore best left alone. But that is not so. Seeing things from both sides, it is relatively simple. What is complicated is the history that has brought us to this situation and to find a solution which will be acceptable to all sides.
Modern Israel is founded on the precept that this was the Promised Land of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Leaving aside the dubious insertion of theology into international law, it is true to say that most Jews and Palestinians share a common heritage, the lines of which are broken only by religious conversion.
Before the Muslim Palestinians converted to Islam, they were Christians or Jews or Samaritans or pagans. Before Christians ruled the land from the 4th to early 7th century, they were Jews, Samaritans or pagans. And before they were Jews or Samaritans they were Canaanite pagans.
And so there are two competing claims: on the one side from those who assert a religious claim on the land, and on the other side from those who have lived there for thousands of years.
As South Africans we know that the seemingly impossible can become reality. Why should this not be so in another land whose conflict appears to be as intractable as ours was just 30 years ago?
The alternatives to a just and peaceful solution — the unitary state — are unsustainable. Israel cannot continue dispossessing Palestinians and squeezing them into ever-smaller living areas without there being an explosion.
And Israel is feeling the pinch from public sentiment in many parts of the world turning against it, with a movement similar to the anti-apartheid boycott, called Boycott Disinvest Sanctions (BDS), gathering momentum.
The notion of two mutually exclusive narratives — one only from the Jewish perspective, the other only from that of Palestinians — must be abandoned. Those who present the conflict from only one side, those who distort or lie about the realities, those who make declarations founded in ignorance or propaganda or violence, those who treat the conflict like a sporting contest in which you cheer for one side and loathe the other — those are enemies of peace.
If we want to make peace, we need to understand the situation, experiences, grievances and fears of the people on both sides, even those who place the obstacles in the path to a just solution.
This does not mean that we mustn’t condemn injustices, be they Israel’s vast range of human rights abuses or violent attacks on civilian Jews by Palestinians. On the contrary, justice demands that we point these out rigorously — but not at the cost of defending the indefensible. No good is served by representing the concerns and aspirations of one side without also accommodating those of the other side.
We can take our cue from Pope Francis. On his May 2014 visit to the Holy Land, he stopped on a street in Bethlehem to pray at Israel’s Separation Wall, then prayed at the Western Wall and even prayed, albeit at the insistence of his Israeli hosts, at the tomb of Zionist founder Theodor Herzl. He then invited Israel’s outgoing president, Shimon Peres, and Palestinian premier Mahmoud Abbas to the Vatican to pray for peace.
So, when we are faced with the question of whether there could ever be peace in the Holy Land, we must not fall into the trap of despondent resignation. We must instead propose a solution: such as the unitary state under a secular democratic constitution with enshrined minority rights — and pray that this will become a reality.
Last Week: The Living Stones of the Holy Land
Next week: Pilgrims in Jerusalem
Günther Simmermacher is the author of The Holy Land Trek: A Pilgrim’s Guide, published by Southern Cross Books (order from www.holylandtrek.com). Join The Southern Cross on the Year of Mercy Pilgrimage to the Holy Land in October, led by Fr Larry Kaufmann CSsR. For details and illustrated itinerary see www.fowlertours.co.za/kaufmann