When a few years ago I travelled to Israel, I had the specific purpose in mind of making my own pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Looking back on that summer of 2010, Israel was enjoying an interlude of uncertain peace. More than a year earlier, in December 2008-January 2009, the Israel Defense Forces [IDF] had been sent into Gaza to disarm Hamas because of their launching rockets into Israel; then two years later, in November 2012, the IDF went back into Gaza again for similar reasons.
As I watch with people across the world, the IDF has once more been reluctantly forced into military action to stop Hamas from firing hundreds of rockets capable of reaching deep inside Israel, I shall try to go beyond simple and easy condemnations of the brutality of wars and ritualistic sympathy for its victims.
What we are witnessing – as perhaps Albert Camus would have expressed it – is Israel engaged in a Sisyphean struggle against Hamas, against Palestinians, against Arabs, against Muslims, and against an expanding body of opinion in the West that is less and less inhibited from displaying the rancid anti-Semitism behind its support for those who openly call for another Holocaust for the Jews.
The critics of Israel's military action against Hamas have erased from their memory what the government of Israel in 2005, then led by Ariel Sharon, unilaterally did in withdrawing from Gaza and handing it over to representatives of the Palestinian people. The IDF was authorized by Sharon and his government to remove by force those Jewish settlers in Gaza who had insisted on remaining there.
The forceful eviction was necessary because there was no indication given by Palestinians that they were prepared to live side by side with Jews in peace. Any indication – even if symbolic in nature – that at least some Jews be made welcome, or even allowed, to live there in peace and security, would have sent out a signal that Palestinians are reconciled with the idea of peaceful coexistence with Jews. Such a gesture would have signaled a shift in Palestinian thinking consistent with the promise that the Oslo Accords represented when it was signed in 1993 by Yitzhak Rabin, then Israel's prime minister, and Yasser Arafat, then chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization [PLO]. The Oslo Accords were, of course, the fork in the road – one leading to reconciliation with the Jews – which was not taken by the Palestinians.
The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza was a test that Ariel Sharon set for the Palestinians. It came some four years after Arab terrorists connected with al Qaeda hijacked American jetliners and ploughed them into the towers of the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, as well as an attempt, presumably on the Capitol, that forced down by the plane's passengers onto a field in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. While much of the world recoiled in horror, seeing pictures of death and devastation wrought by the hijackers that morning of September 11, 2001, there were those in the Muslim world who celebrated. The Palestinians were among them, distributing sweets as if a great victory had been won. The Israelis were nevertheless willing to go forward on a path that promised an eventual settlement between Jews and Arabs [Palestinians] on the principle of two states in Palestine – the original intent of the UN partition plan for the territory, which the Arabs had rejected, in November 1947.
However, before such a plan was consummated, a period of trust was needed – so Israel's prime minister at the time, Ariel Sharon, reasoned – in which Palestinians would demonstrate, in both words and deeds, their desire to build a flourishing "Singapore on the Mediterranean," and acceptance of the Jews and Israel after over half-century of rejectionism and war.
Gaza was handed over to Palestinians as a test for building trust between the two peoples, and of turning the page that had come to stain a history that could have been so different.
Nothing is foreordained, or carved in stone, that cannot be altered, for ultimately all that matter in human history is mediated through and negotiated by men. It is well to remember what William James, an American philosopher, wrote, "Everything we know and are is through men. We have no revelation but through men."
Jews, many of whom had never left the land, had sought the return of more of their people to Palestine after two millennia of exile; that such a return could be realized after the catastrophe of World War I, which had brought Britain and France as allies to take possession of lands that had been part of the Ottoman Empire until its defeat in 1918 was, perhaps, a fluke of history.
Jews had ancestral claims that anyone familiar with the Bible could not deny. Similarly, anyone familiar with the Quran also could not deny the history of Jews in Palestine. The land between the Mediterranean and the two rivers of Mesopotamia -- including the Arabian Peninsula -- that was ruled as a Caliphate by Ottoman Sultans until 1918, was vast enough to accommodate the nationalist demands and destiny of both Arabs and Jews.
The defeat of the Ottoman Empire, however, and the accompanying political realignment in the region was required to fulfill the Zionist goal, or the Jewish aspiration, for statehood – an aspiration that was neither unique nor to be faulted
Even before this time, Jews had sought reconciliation with Arabs. In 1917 Chaim Weizmann, the Zionist leader, travelled to northernmost point of the Red Sea, Aqaba, which had been taken from the Turks by the Arab warriors loyal to Prince Feisal, and led by T.E. Lawrence, in a campaign that was part of the "Arab revolt" against Ottoman rule.
Chaim Weizmann, a Zionist leader and future President of Israel (L), meets with Emir Feisal in 1918.
Weizmann came to meet with Prince Feisal, son of Sharif Hussein of Mecca and the putative leader of Arabs, who was nurturing his own aspiration for a revived Arab kingdom. Weizmann and Prince Feisal would meet again in London in December 1918 ahead of the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. These meetings were an effort to find good will on both sides so that what Britain had committed to both the Arabs and Jews in documents – the McMahon-Hussein correspondence of 1915-16 and the Balfour Declaration of November 1917 – might be amicably settled.
It was not to be. The Arabs were not prepared then, as they are not prepared even now, to recognize the Jews – the "other" – as being equal. The Jews also thought they had their own legitimate rights to statehood, which could not be denied on either a religious and political or a moral basis.
It is this denial of the "other," the refusal to recognize that the "other" also has equally legitimate rights and claims in history, which has made the history of Arabs and Muslims in dealing with "others" – regardless of whether the "others" are ethnically or religiously different – a hideous travesty right into our time. This history, with its ancient tribal roots, is unfolding right before our eyes as Islamist warriors or "jihadis" rampage across the lands of the Fertile Crescent, and as tribal wars with modern weaponry consume Arabs and Muslims. Ancient animosities of Sunni-Shi'a sectarianism are revived and minorities, such as the Christians in Iraq and Syria with their history going back to the time of the Apostles, appear doomed in the face of the whirlwind of Islamist bigotry sweeping across the region.
This denial of the "other" also makes any claim of moral righteousness, or historical justice by Arabs and Muslims sound specious and self-serving. When Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, goes public in stating that the actions of the Israeli government, in dealing with the indiscriminate firing of rockets from Gaza by Hamas, exceed Hitler in barbarism, what we have is a demonstration of how unhinged Muslim leaders have become – or have been for a very long time – when it comes to understanding the history of the "other."
In the instance of the Turkish leader, the unhinged nature of his remarks directed against Israel is compounded by the knowledge of how the Turks at the beginning of the last century carried out the destruction of the Armenian minority within the Ottoman Empire, now known as the "Armenian genocide," and which the Turkish republic refuses to acknowledge despite irrefutable evidence and the passage of time.
The same cannot be said about the Jews. The Jews – as a people with a history that might be described as the "mother of history of the Semitic people" – have consistently recognized the "other" as they sought recognition from "others" of their own rights.
Arabs and Muslims need only to read sincerely the Quran, which they believe is God's Word, to find for themselves how clearly the history of Jews has been laid forth in their sacred text. Sincerity of reading, however, requires as a prerequisite a cleansing of the heart. The Quran states, "Not blind are the eyes, but blind are the hearts within the breasts" [22:46]. In other words, without a heart illuminated by sincerity, any strivings for peace and justice – as Arabs and Muslims claim their struggle against Jews amount to – is not only a futile exercise but also making a mockery of what is sought by denying the same respect to the "other."
In his recent column for the National Post under the heading "The unlikely Jewish Goliath," George Jonas concluded, "Jews were People of the Book, and Arabs were Desert Warriors." Circumstances of modern times turned Jews into warriors defending their rights, even as their right to defend themselves is scorned by Arabs and Muslims while they raze towns and villages of "others" whom they denounce as infidels or worse.
In the broader perspective of culture and history, George Jonas's observation sums up the problem and the dilemma of the Jews embattled by Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims on all sides. The Quran itself states repeatedly that Jews are the original "people of the Book" (ahl al kitab) among the people described as Semite by race or language. What might this mean from our perspective looking back from the perch of the twenty-first century? I would offer that to be a "people of the Book" means to be a people striving towards freedom and justice by the means of intellect, through reasoning, reflection, introspection, questioning – indeed, always questioning – never acquiescing to authority merely because authority is claimed, but with no reason. This questioning would include even with God, as with Jacob wrestling (metaphorically) with God, and without abandoning human dignity.
The reverse of the "people of the Book" would then mean to remain unquestioningly tied to one's tribe, to be driven by instinct instead of intellect, to inflate the warrior code and prohibit reasoning as "treasonous" to the culture of the tribe.
Across the Arab-Muslim world there is the stultifying absence of what it means to be a "people of the Book," of a culture that progresses through criticism and self-examination. The Quran came to be worshipped by Muslims instead of being read, examined, reflected upon, contextualized, and discussed openly with the understanding that God's Word is infinite in meaning.
The Quran states, "If all the trees of the earth were pens and the oceans ink, with many more oceans replenishing them, the colloquy of God would never come to an end." [31:27] This verse means –almost as a warning for Muslims – that no one Muslim should absurdly claim he has a monopoly over its reading, for that would amount to reducing the majesty of God to the smallness of man.
The Quran was, nevertheless, turned by a significant number of Muslims into a weapon by which to kill, maim, destroy, enslave others and, most ironically, effectively to prevent the development of a culture of books or, in other words, a culture of enlightenment. Absent this culture of enlightenment, what the world finds among Arabs and Muslims is a culture of envy, of denial, of resentment, of bigotry that keeps bubbling into intermittent warfare for settling, if only temporarily, disputes that are readily rekindled into an endless round of maiming and killing while blaming "others" for the continued travesty.
Under these circumstances there is just about nothing that Jews, as "people of the Book," can do to assuage Arabs and Muslims, to make peace with Palestinians, except defend themselves as effectively as they must from the absurdity and malice of a people who have turned God's Word into a cult of death.
For Muslims, or enough of them, have sealed their hearts, plugged their ears, blinded their eyes so that they may continue heedlessly in the path of ruin they have chosen; and those Muslims who question the sheer imbecility of such conduct are then threatened as apostates and heretics.
And then there are those in the West who cheer the Palestinians on in their destructive path, with false arguments of morality, victimhood, human rights, and heedless of historical rights of Jews – and insisting that Jews should not do what they themselves would do in a similar situation, faced with never-ending abuse and violence.
Yet behind the supposed "cycle of violence" that darkens the land where prophets walked and preached God's Word, the promise of peace through reconciliation is ever-present. This was evident when Anwar Sadat, president of Egypt, in November 1977 visited Jerusalem with a sincerity of purpose in his quest for peace. All of Israel came to a stop to welcome Sadat as Menachem Begin, Israel's prime minister, received him. There was the return of Sinai by Israel in exchange for durable peace with Egypt, and which Cairo has maintained to this day.
But with Yasser Arafat there was the dearth of sincerity in his professions of peace, and it also remains missing with Palestinians refusing to recognize the Jews, as the "other," with rights of their own, the denial of which only means the unwillingness of Palestinians to make peace.
For myself, despite the pain and the fury of the battle across Gaza, I treasure the sweet memory of visiting Jerusalem. It was a Saturday evening, just before the ending of the Jewish Shabbat, when I walked down Jaffa Street to the Old City quarters to say my evening prayers at the Dome of the Rock. Later, under a bright moon I headed for the Western Wall, and there among my Jewish brothers absorbed in their own prayers I stood beside the Wall, recited a few verses from the Quran and prayed for peace for all of God's children. I then spent the better part of the evening sitting in the plaza of the Western Wall absorbing the sound all around me of a people joyously celebrating the rituals of their faith. I remember earlier that evening when I sought to enter the Temple Mount and head for the Dome of the Rock, I was stopped by Palestinian security guards and required to prove to them that I am a Muslim by reciting some verses from the Quran, which I did. But in making my way to the Western Wall, I went through the Israeli security at the entrance into the plaza without any questioning or anyone taking any suspicious notice of me. This came as a relief and a sign, I felt, that at a place of prayers as sacred as the Western Wall, any pilgrim sincere in seeking reconciliation with the "other" should also be sincere in striving for God's Word to illuminate his heart. The rest then follows as easily as breathing.
If only the Arabs and Muslims would turn away from being Desert Warriors and learn to be a People of the Book, praying at the Western Wall would be as easy and uplifting for them as praying in Dome of the Rock -- while setting aside yesterdays' quarrels in celebrating the peace that comes through reconciliation with the "other." As I walked away from the Western Wall I recognized, almost as a certainty, the Jews still waiting for the Palestinians, and Arabs and Muslims to recognize them as the "other," with fears and hopes in their hearts not different from ours. With such a recognition there would be reconciliation, and an end to so many absurd quarrels. That these quarrels persist, that the sound of battle is louder than the call to prayer, mean – in the impenetrable logic and animus of Hamas and their supporters among Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims – that endless warfare with the Jews is still taken as preferable to reconciling and living together with them in peace.