By Ira Sharkansky
Letter from Israel 

The semantics of peace


Nervous Jews are worrying if Barack Obama is intent on forcing Israel into a peace process.

Leaving aside the issue that being nervous is a chronic condition of being Jewish, an appropriate response to Obama and all the others who think that Israel is not doing enough to make peace with the Palestinians is that peace is already upon us.

It is a Jewish peace, to be sure, but peace none the less.

Peace is, after all, more a semantic issue, or a matter of comparison, than anything absolute.

No one in the world lives in absolute peace. Americans least of all, with their astronomical murder rate, high rate of traffic deaths, the lowest life expectancy among developed countries, and their involvement around the world contributing their share of the mayhem in the name of peace. (I’ve documented in previous notes high U.S. murder rates, low life expectancy and the various estimates of deaths in Iraq as a result of the U.S. invasion. For those wanting three different measures of U.S. traffic deaths compared to other countries, click here.) 

Jewish history looks like the Israeli Jewish present. Most days, months, and years are peaceful for most of us. Every once in a while, however, the goyishe masses with some of their intellectual and political elites urging them go on a rampage in order to kill Jews.

According to my reading of Jewish history, it’s been that way more or less forever, in the period described in the Hebrew Bible, throughout the Middle Ages, and up to last weekend.

Things have changed.

Last weekend an Israeli police helicopter was circling over Isaweea to help the police deal with points of unrest. Other well armed Israeli police were lounging at an assembly point in French HIll, ready to act if necessary.

Meanwhile a group of Arabs, most likely from Isaweea, were playing football in the school yard 10 or so meters from this desk. Except for some yelling in the mid-game enthusiasm, it was as peaceful as is any game among Jews in the same school yard. If I pay attention, I can understand what the Jews are yelling about. I can only guess about the Arabs. Everyone once in a while I notice Jews and Arabs playing together. For the most part, it’s a matter of a pick-up game among Jews or among Arabs.

The playground is part of the Janusz Korczak Primary School. Those familiar with his story may appreciate the significance for this note. Others can look at this.

Is Israel peaceful enough?

Choose your measurement. Compared to what other country at the present time? Compared to what period of Jewish history?

Ah! You deny the value of comparison? Only something absolute will satisfy?

How to deal with that?

Without a standard of measurement, how can we tell if the peace is sufficient?

Should we worry about the Palestinians, and what Israel is doing or not doing to make their lives more peaceful?

I think the record shows that Israel has tried, in two high profile efforts since the year 2000. And in countless encounters Israeli security forces have sought to control Palestinian violence with a minimum of casualties to them and to us.


Take a look at the film 5 Broken Cameras, which shows from a Palestinian view Israeli efforts to control Palestinians, and compare it with current news films about the actions of Syrian and Egyptian forces in the Syrian civil war and the Egyptian chaos still short of civil war.

Ah. You again refuse to compare.

We’re in trouble.

Without comparison, there can be no evaluation.

The constant claim that it could always be better also requires comparison, best done by what occurs in other places which it is fair to use as a standard of comparison.

Since the United States is the source of the most pressing assertions that Israel ought to do better with respect to making peace, the United States appears to provide a fair point of comparison.

No doubt the U.S. has reasons for sending its military elsewhere. Three thousand deaths on 9-11 was the iconic American experience. However, the deaths in one of Israel’s iconic events, the second intifada, were about 20 times higher as a proportion of population. And perhaps 10,000 Palestinians and Lebanese killed by the Israeli security forces responding to various incidents since the year 2000 amounts to a fraction of the estimates (100,000 to more than a million) of Iraqis who have died since the U.S. invasion in 2003.

The true numbers are elusive, but those available appear to indicate that Israel has little to be ashamed of in terms of failing to achieve the peace that has appeared to be possible.

Can Israel do more? Should it be pressed by the United States and others, or Israelis and overseas Jews whose values demand more effort?

How much of the responsibility for a stalled peace process should be laid at the feet of Israeli settlers?

That’s another question impossible to answer without comparison.

The overwhelming proportion of the construction has been in neighborhoods of Jerusalem and major settlement blocs (Gush Etzion, Maale Adumim, Ariel) that no Israeli government is likely to concede as improper. 

Israeli governments have acted, imperfectly, against Jews who would build outside of those areas throughout the West Bank. Israeli police have also acted, imperfectly, against individual Jews who shame the rest of us by insulting and assaulting Arabs and destroying their property. 

Nothing I or anyone else writes will quiet those who refuse to compare, and demand maximum effort to maximize what is possible.

Even within the concept of “what is possible,” however, are also elements of comparison. An intelligent conversation cannot evade comparison. 

In this case, the comparison of what is possible has something to do with what the Palestinians are willing to do for the sake of peace.

You haven’t noticed? Take another look at Gaza, and Mahmoud Abbas’ recent speeches.

Ira Sharkansky is professor emeritus, Department of Political Science, Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He may be reached at


Reader Comments(0)


Powered by ROAR Online Publication Software from Lions Light Corporation
© Copyright 2023

Rendered 09/20/2023 05:18