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On blaming them or us: a multi-cultural perspective


Israelis have been seeking accommodation for decades, depending on when you start counting, first with Arabs and later with Palestinians.

It is common, and perhaps justified, for Israelis and our friends to blame the Arabs for intransigence as well as violence. That is a cultural perspective, one that sees Israelis with a prior claim, earned by purchase, settlement, military success and development, enhanced by attitudes and behaviors that value human life and oppose bloodshed as a means of settling disputes.

Those are not, alas, the Muslim ways or perspectives.

Attributing nasty motives and practices to Muslims does not accord with the fashion of the politically correct. From a naive perspective, mandatory among western politicians, we’re all the same.

But we aren’t all the same. Culture matters. In the larger picture, it ranks high among what determines how we think, how we perceive history, and how we act.

There is a cultural fault line a few meters from my home.

We’re different. We don’t have to insist on being better.

A multi-cultural perspective recognizes the differences, without necessarily demanding that one cave in to the other.

Blame is irrelevant, except as part of a political campaign to justify oneself. Both sides practice the blame game.

It may be inherent in the human condition, but it helps to know what we are doing. Along with the narratives associated with each side, there is no shortage of controversy about what happened, who did what, with what justification. History is a slippery craft, dependent on perspective, and more properly assigned to the fuzzy faculty of humanities rather than to the more exact social sciences.

I can have Palestinian friends, who share to a considerable extent a common understanding as well as friendship, and still recognize that most Palestinians are different from most of us.

Over the course of decades, and almost one decade since the last wave of Palestinian violence petered out, Israeli and Palestinians of the West Bank have reached an imperfect accommodation, with the help of Americans and Jordanians who have trained Palestinian security personnel, only some of whom have gone bad. That may be the best we can do given the cultural differences, and the contrasting narratives widely accepted by each population.

There are fewer security barriers, more interaction and commerce with the West Bank if not with the more violent and rejectionist people of Gaza.

Too many Americans, including some who in or close to the White House, haven’t learned the realities, and may be doing more harm that good. Kerry and his team have prompted the extremists of each side to express their reservations, perhaps out of fear that their leaders are close to concessions. Those reservations, and even louder noises from each camp, make it unlikely that Israeli or Palestinian leaders can agree to whatever it is that Kerry has in mind.

The leaders themselves may not want to make the concessions demanded, and may be relying on associates to express their rejections, while they prefer to avoid having to affront Kerry in any explicit fashion.

Some Jews and even more Palestinians have turned to violence, with the people of Gaza saying that the armed struggle is the only way for them.

Whatever the source or the nature of each party’s politics, the process may get in the way of further accommodation, and cause reversals from the status quo.

Another wave of Palestinian violence will produce Israeli responses aimed at the uprising and perhaps more extensive, along with a re-imposition of roadblocks, inspections, and other nastiness.

It is not appropriate for an Israeli to put on rose-colored glasses. Israel faces unknown numbers of Palestinian and other Islamic movements for whom the destruction of Israel is high priority and a cause for their excitement. There are also an unknown number of individuals—not part of organized movements—set on revenge for Israel’s violation of their personal norms or the injury, death, or incarceration of family members.

The prominence of the blame game in the case of Israel and Palestine derives much of its energy from centuries of religious rivalry focused on Jerusalem and its hinterland. The intensity has increased with modern Jewish immigration, the Balfour Declaration, and the establishment of Israel.

Jewish Diasporas and Muslim religious and political leaders have been prominent sources of the rhetoric, as well as finance and other assistance directed at development or warfare. 

Since the latter part of the 19th century, the norms of democracy have developed to free western Jews from the incentive to convert in order to attain their professional aspirations. Well-to-do Jews aid the Jews of Israel, and advance the Israeli cause in their national politics.

Arabs have used their oil, the masses of troops they employed from 1948 through 1973, and their votes in international forums.

Christians have wavered from being interested outsiders to active promoters of their own favored solutions. Currently they are competing with one another with pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian narratives.

The basic reason for Israelis to defend themselves may take some energy from the millennia of rhetoric, but is essentially much simpler.

Israel’s existence is reason enough, including what has been developed, and the sanctity of Israeli lives. People in need of more can add what they will by way of God’s promise, or what they think happened in the past, including the assessment of blame. 

None of that is as important than what exists, which is as worth defending as what exists in any other western democracy.

Ira Sharkansky is a professor (Emeritus) of the Department of Political Science, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


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