Sympathy for Israel and Palestine

Mount TaborPublic conversation about the military actions of Israel is always noisy and combative. Large statements of principle, contradictory telling of stories and ad hominem arguments make evaluation difficult. In reflecting on the events of the past week I found myself returning to my first visit to Israel over 30 years ago.

Before going to Israel, I had come to see for the first time the extent of the horror of the Holocaust, especially by reading many diaries and reflections of survivors. I was deeply sympathetic to all that the new State of Israel represented. My sympathy was heightened by the terrible events at the Lod Airport shortly before I arrived, and by the massacre at the Munich Games that took place during my visit.

I was deeply impressed by Muslims whom I met. As I waited at country bus stops, they often invited me to take coffee with them and revealed themselves as people of a deep local culture. I came to see that two peoples had claims, bound to history and to religion, to live on the same land. But it seemed likely that when a culture that values time as a space for meeting met a culture that values time as an opportunity for building, the latter would inevitably push out the former. My sympathy for the Palestinians grew.

On Mount Tabor (pictured), traditionally identified with the site of Jesus' Transfiguration, I saw that inherent in the State of Israel was a conflicting logic with a potential for tragedy.

The mountain looks out over a broad plain along which most of the invading armies of history with their spears, their horses, their chariots and their tanks, have made their way to and fro. The logic of the land is that possession is everything, and that possession is secured only by armed force. The logic of history is that over centuries armed powers wax and wane, and that alliances fade. A permanent presence on the land could be won only by a society based on generous values that made connections with surrounding peoples.

The conflicting demands of these two logics are the soil for tragedy.

Seen from this perspective all Israel's recent engagements with its neighbours seem to embody more and more forbiddingly the imperative of survival by virtue of armed force. The building of walls of separation, the extension of settlements on occupied Palestinian land, the unapologetic military strategies that exact a high civilian death toll, the restrictions of food and building supplies to Gaza, the demand for loyalty made of Palestinians living within Israel, the interception of unarmed ships carrying relief supplies, the use of passports bearing the names of citizens of friendly countries in order to carry out assassinations of foreign nationals in other nations, might be all defended as strategies necessary for survival.

But these justifications themselves indicate an understanding of Israel as a people whose one goal is its own survival and which places no weight on values like moderation, compassion, brotherhood, negotiation, and respect for difference.

In the intermediate term there is no reason to believe that this single-minded focus on survival through superior military force will be ineffective. And it is impossible not to sympathise with people who put such a high value on their own survival and that of their families.

But the survival of a people is measured in centuries, not in a single lifetime. If the effective demonstration of superior force is such a dominant value, what will nurture the bonds and the values that promise Israel a continued existence when it depends on the good will of its neighbours? The ruined fortresses of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem bear witness that military power alone does not guarantee survival in the region.

Such broad considerations make it easy to be pessimistic about the future of Israel. But there are many signs of hope. The courts are incorruptible, and many Israeli thinkers demand more of Israel than do its foreign friends. They, rather than the generals, deserve our support.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne. 

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Freedom Flotilla, Israel, Palestine, Gaza



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Existing comments

Israel is in an existential quandary. The two-state solution in no longer viable, with 500k+ illegal Israeli settlers and the appropriation of most water resources by Israel in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Nor is the one-state solution viable, for on the basis of demographics such a one state could no longer be a Jewish state if it were to remain a democracy.
The Israeli government is perfectly aware of this, and doesn't have a clue what to do about it. Hence the constant, knee-jerk recourse to over-the-top violence. Things will be probably get worse, before they can get better.

Leander Gonzaga | 07 June 2010  

Andrew Hamilton's reflective words remind me of some pessimistic thinking about the future of Israel. In 1961 the late Dr Michael Leifer, a practising member of the Jewish faith, was teaching International Relations at the University of Adelaide. As a member of his class I quizzed him several times about the Balfour Declaration and Israel's prospects. He replied simply--'Look at the numbers'. Israel was and remains outnumbered. The strategy of relying on guns is only a short term mitigation. In an area where history marches in thousands of years there is still time to turn to strategies of mutual understanding. But Israel's foreign friends must hope that the turn comes soon. Dr Leifer's tough assessment still rings in my ears.

RFI Smith | 07 June 2010  

RFI Smith pertinently refers to the Balfour Declaration -- which is a reminder that 'the West' and particularly Great Britain bear some responsibity, if not guilt, for the continuing problems and human tragedies. Conflicting promises were made to both Arabs and Jews nearly a century ago.

Is this historic fact still relevant? Yes. The outside world bears some responsibility and therefore should be prepared to make some sacrifices to assist in some kind of peaceful compromise. I wish I could suggest just how this could be done.

Bob Corcoran | 07 June 2010  

Sympathy for those murdered by the Nazis is an imperative for all but making the Arab people of Palestine pay for these crimes is an intolerable injustice. Maybe "Israel" should have been set up in Wurttemberg or Saxony.

I doubt if there will be an Israel in 50 years' time - it is likely to go the same way as the Crusader States which lasted for, roughly, a century. The so-called "Pax Americana" is not going to be around forever; demographically, the cards are stacked against Zionism. One can only hope that there will be no retribution when the end comes.

Israeli policy is extremely short-sighted. It should be building now for peaceful co-existence with the coming Palestine. The Americans should be seeing that Israel does this rather than condone Zionist intransigence.

The dilemma, of course, is that this requires making significant concessions to the Palestinians which will be seen within Israel as incompatible with the Jewishness of the State.

I fear for the future. Its current military power notwithstanding, Israel's existence is extremely fragile in an increasingly nuclearised Middle East.

Sylvester | 07 June 2010  

Jewish identity was delivered at Mt Sinai not Auschwitz, so let's get real, please, this has nothing to do with Jewish survival or that of Jewish families. It is simply about power and the ability to wield it - that is all.

One sympathises with victims so unless one is a bully also, there can be no sympathy for Israel. Israel's actions are all done in the name of the Jewish people and it behaves so badly it is actually in dire need of a most severe reprimand.

That is why this predicament in the Middle East continues as it does. Like a kid that gets everything it wants, Israel will continue to behave like a spoilt child, until it gets its wrist firmly slapped.

The solution lies in humility.

Nathan Socci | 07 June 2010  

Andrew: you recommend that the Israelis should show more evidence of values like "moderation and compassion" to their neighbours, and who could disagree. But the problem is that the Israelis believe they did that and more from 1993-2000, and in response they got suicide bombings, rocket attacks, and the election of the extreme Islamic fundamentalist Hamas to power. Of course, it is not that simple, and the continued building of settlements even when Rabin and Peres harangued the settlers and emphasized their commitment to two states was a major contradiction. But unless you understand how most ordinary Israelis see the conflict, you will never understand why there is such strong support for military actions which as you rightly say will never resolve the conflict. I would personally like to see the introduction of international peacekeeping troops into the Palestinian territories sooner rather than later to facilitate the Palestinian State that has to happen. But I am under no illusions that any moves by Israel or the international community will lead smoothly to peace given the hardline nature of Palestinian political culture which you don't mention in your article.

philip mendes | 07 June 2010  

In the late '70s I was sent to Iraq by my employer to assist in the commissioning of a range of seeding and tillage equipment that had been exported from Australia. I spent most of my time with what we would call 'salt of the earth' people who worked on the various agricultural projects. Part of my task was to instruct the workers on the use of this farming equipment.

Not unlike Andrew who was invited to 'take coffee', we would stop, boil the billy in the paddock, sit on the ground on an old wheat bag and drink lots of tea with lots and lots of sugar. These people had an infectious joy about them and despite our language challenges we had much fun doing what we did. Bear in mind they were at war with Iran at the time yet they still displayed a spirit of optimism.

Some years later with a theology degree under my belt and new 'eyes' I took a pilgrimage to Palestine. I was only there a few days and found I had a deeper sense of connectedness with the Palestinian people. They seemed to have that natural sense of joy an optimism about them that I had experienced some ten years earlier. I thought it was connected to my previous experience in Iraq that I found this closer affinity. Not so as I discovered having discussed this with our scripture scholar. What I observed was real.

Andrew's, editorial has reconfirmed this view even more, years later. Somewhere in the challenges being faced by these neighbours is a goodness and truth struggling to surface. Perhaps that joy and optimism could be tapped into and its infectiousness be channelled towards a more harmonious future for these neighbours with such a rich and diverse culture. Something as simple as an invitation to 'take coffee' or drink tea with each other could be a place to start.

John Southwell | 08 June 2010  

Actually the courts are totally corrupt as they become more rabbinical than jurist.

They approved certain murders a few years back or didn't you know?

they steal homes in Jerusalem by allowing the use of false ownership documents.

The legislate innate racism and they have not one jot of actual historic connection to Palestine.

Marilyn Shepherd | 10 June 2010  

I worked in Ramallah for some three years between 1998 and 2001 on an aid project. Once sympathetic for the Jews due to their suffering during the Holocaust these feelings changed radically when in Palestine. I witnessed the brutal behaviour of the Israeli forces and their acquisition of land that had been the property of decent Palestinian people for generations.

Some 241 Palestinian villages were razed to the ground when Israel was initially created, resulting in the expulsion of the Palestinian villagers into refugee camps now cesspools of hatred against Judiaism and the West.
Today Israel is permitted to sequester unchecked more land in Palestine and allowed to harass the Palestinian citizenry. Israel has no intention of agreeing to meaningful concessions being made to the Palestinians, especially as long as the duplicious Netanyhue heads the Zionist Government.

Sadly, the extremism of Hamas provides Israeli with a plausible excuse to postpone the formation of a Palestinian State. Certainly, Hamas is exacerbating the tension by firing ineffectual rockets into Israeli border townships.

Europe, China, Russia and USA should impose now a peace solution on these two intransigent combatants otherwise this dispute will escalate into a nuclear confrontation that will be disastrous to mankind let alone extinguish Israel and Palestine.

Lex Barker | 10 June 2010  

Thanks,Andrew for your balanced article. He who has the power, the military power in this case, has the responsibility for initiating measures to achieve the sort of lasting peace to which Andrew refers.

The US has poured hundreds of millions in cash and armaments into Israel so it has enormous respoonsibility for working to build the social and economic structures of Gaza and thus undermine support for Hamas but more importantly, to threaten to pull the plug on Israel if it continues with its totally hypocritical, disproprionate and brutal ground and air assaults, wall building, land grabs.

The trouble is that both major US parties are in the thrall of corporations and the banks in which Jewish Americans, I understand, have a strong influence. I have dated a Jewish woman and my future son in-law is Jewish. I simply reject what the Israeli PM and government are doing.

Bill Hampel | 11 June 2010  

How like my own are your memories of your first visit to Israel and your initial respect for it's people. How like your experiences with those whose families had lived there for the past centuries tempered your thoughts. How like you, the terribly disconcerting events of the recent past of Israeli forces and humanitarian aid conflicts -- how that draws upon serious thought. Thank you for your well tempered article.

Jeanne Conte | 11 June 2010  

The Balfour Declaration was the product of the antisemitic Lord Balfour. In arguing for the Alien Exclusion Act he had very harsh words for Jews and wished to keep themm out of England. However, he was quite willing to invite Jews to occupy territory that was in the Ottoman Empire and not England's to dispose of.

Before WW2 Jews who wanted to flee Europe to escape the Nazi menace were barred from most of the western countries. Japan, a Nazi ally that was difficult to get to, gave refuge to more Jews than the entire British Empire.

After WW2 some survivors of the death camps were murdered when they returned home.

In 1948 when Israel fought for its independent from the Arab nations which refused to accept the partition of Palestine British officers were prominent in command in both Egyptian and Jordanian forces.

Had the western world been more welcoming to refugees before the war and those who survived the horrors either there would not be an Israel or if there were an Israel it would not be as mistrustful or have as much of the feeling that they have to go it alone that they have now.

David Fisher | 11 June 2010  

Thank you, Andrew. I visited Israel/Palestine in 1975 connecting with a Jewish friend. I stayed at a kibbutz -- one of the original ones where the Jews had purchased the land back in the 1920s, where their neighbours, the Palestinians, had supported them in the first crucial years, guiding and teaching them and ensuring their survival as they adapted from city life to life on the land.

I met one of the founders, then 87, still working every day in the kibbutz factory, turning out bits for fighter planes. His two sons were dead, killed in wars. His grandson was like an empty shell, in mental collapse after seeing virtually all his platoon comrades die around him on the Golan Heights.

The old man went to the factory every day because he had nothing else to do, nothing else to think about.

When Israel was historically close to real peace, a Jew assassinated the Jewish Prime Minister who had negotiated it. Now Israel has perhaps 400 or as many as 700 nuclear warheads. Dr Leifer was right about the numbers in 1961; with Israel in possession of that many nuclear warheads, the numbers no longer apply.

And that many warheads could well mean an end to at least human life on earth.

Geoffrey Heard | 11 June 2010  

David Fisher says:

The Balfour Declaration was the product of the antisemitic Lord Balfour ... Jews to occupy territory that was in the Ottoman Empire ...


In fact, Palestine was under the authority of Britain at the time and the Balfour Declaration was very much a construction of the Zionists and friends. Britain offered them a large lump of Uganda; they even came to Australia and looked at a large piece of Tasmania. They rejected these offers; they wanted Palestine in the belief that it was (and is) their God-given right.


David Fisher also says:
Before WW2 Jews who wanted to flee Europe to escape the Nazi menace were barred from most of the western countries.


This is a common guilt trip but one that ought to be questioned for good reasons. Germany, the source of these “refugees” -- was part of the western world, surely. Or do we mean “Anglophone”?

But we also should look at what constituted a refugee. Remember the Nazi oppression of Jews was an incremental process starting with name calling. Those who saw the signs early wouldn’t be categorized as refugees under the current UN convention. Then a flood started just before WW II when there were already widespread concerns about prospective enemy aliens.

In restrospect, the notion of Jews being German enemy aliens in 1938 sounds ridiculous, but it would not have been so at the time. Remember that when Nazi oppression of the Jews started in the early 1930s, it was only about 15 years after WW I in which Jews had fought as loyal Germans -- lots had died for Germany, many survivors had medals. They WERE enemy.

In addition, many of those on the move were moderately well-moneyed. They were trying to enter countries still crawling out of the Great Depression where lots of people, including lots of people who had suffered at the hands of Germans in WW I, people still in their 30s or early 40s, had been doing it very, very tough for a long, long time. Read “My Brother Jack” for an picture of life in Australia then. Why should they welcome their former enemies who apparently had been doing it better than them (they could afford the ship fare for starters) and claimed they now felt betrayed by the nation they had supported?

I’m not arguing against a humanitarian outlook here, but I am rejecting the guilt trip.

The responsibility for how Israel oppresses Palestinians lies fairly and squarely on the shoulders of the right-wing Jews -- both in Israel and abroad -- into whose hands Israel has fallen.

Geoffrey Heard | 13 June 2010  

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