This piece was originally published in Flagpole Magazine.
It has only been a little over a year since I graduated from college, but politically speaking, it feels like much longer. In college I went through an ideological phase that could be described as fiercely far-left. Like many others in my circle, I was awash in negativity. I had scorn for the hordes of dumb Americans who had put their faith in the two-party system, scorn for the greed and self-serving nature of the powers-that-be, scorn for liberals for not being radical enough, scorn for the radicals for not doing enough, and scorn for myself for not feeling enough for the oppressed peoples of the world. As you may guess, I was a masterful critic but a terrible problem solver.
A few months after graduating, I moved to Athens for a change of atmosphere. Before long I had a full-time job at a middle school and had started interviewing “everyday people” for this very magazine. These two unexpected developments—not to mention being outside of the social and ideological bubble of academia—were like buckets of cold water dumped on my head. I began to understand how complex the people and the social systems of this country really are, and how woefully immature and dogmatic I had been in my political judgments of them. I came to realize more fully the truth of the axiom that character, not ideology, is the better measure of a person.
Yet as I came to understand the “other side” of many political debates, and as my need to be right faded, there was still one issue that could make my blood boil. The hairs on the back of my neck still bristle at the prospect of confrontation when this politically charged subject makes a rare appearance in conversation.
I am talking about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
To understand where my feelings come from, you first need to know some historical background. I don’t like to assume knowledge (preaching to the choir is the fatally complacent sin of almost the entire progressive movement), so I’ll give the uninitiated the pertinent details.
Israel is a small Middle Eastern country which officially came into being in 1948, right on the heels of the Second World War. The horrors that European Jews suffered at the hands of the Nazis greatly accelerated the creation of a “safe haven” for Jews (in other words, a modern Jewish state), the idea for which was conceived half a century before by what is called the Zionist movement.
The Zionists set out to create this state in the lands of their Jewish ancestors between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, near the holy cities of Jerusalem, Nazareth and Bethlehem.
Unfortunately, there were already hundreds of thousands of Arabs living in the area then known as the British Mandate of Palestine. Thus, the Palestinians’ desire to stay in their villages and the Zionists’ desire to create a Jewish state proved incompatible, and to make a long story short, resulted in a war that Jewish forces won—although the new state of Israel retained some of the existing Arab population. Then came the war of 1967, which was a critical juncture in the conflict. In this war, Israel decisively routed neighboring Syria, Jordan and Egypt in a matter of six days and militarily occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip—Palestinian territories which were previously under Jordanian and Egyptian rule, respectively. Israel also claimed from Jordan the eastern half of Jerusalem, a city right at the nexus of Israel and the West Bank largely populated by Palestinian Arabs.
To this day, 42 years later, the names, faces and political parties have changed, but the situation has been generally the same: the Palestinian West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem are still either militarily occupied by or under the complete control of Israel. Palestinian militants have attacked Israel, citing this reason, while Israel has pointed to these attacks as proof of the necessity of such an occupation.
Here’s where you find out where my sympathies lie, if you haven’t figured that out already. In both territories, and in Israel proper, Palestinian Arabs are systematically and institutionally discriminated against by the Israeli authorities. The evidence of this is so overwhelming that Jimmy Carter titled his book on the conflict Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, despite the enormous risks to his public image for doing so. In Israel this discrimination is everywhere, from the issuing of travel permits, to the decision of who gets through military checkpoints (a nightmarish version of airport security), to access to medical care, to access to public and political office… the list goes on and on. Suffice to say, the conflict is not between two equally strong forces pulling in opposite directions.
Nowhere is this racism more obvious than when it comes to the issue of settlements. In 2004, the Jerusalem Municipality, in a 20-year “Master Plan,” endorsed the maintenance of a 70-30 ratio of Jews to Arabs in order to preserve “a firm Jewish majority in the city.” Thus, it is little surprise that Palestinians find it nearly impossible to obtain permits to build homes in East Jerusalem. When they build anyway, their homes are declared illegal and eventually demolished. Meanwhile, Israeli settlers in the West Bank are not only unpunished, but actually protected by the Israeli military. An estimated 18,600 homes in East Jerusalem are currently slated for demolition, while Jewish settlements in the West Bank, illegal by international law, continue to grow.
This is precisely the reason why I have chosen to spend my summer in the holy lands of Israel and Palestine, working for the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD): it is not only where the Palestinian need seems greatest, but where I feel most unquestionably right about what I am doing. To struggle against something as obviously abhorrent as racism leaves little room for self-doubt.
While I am here, I will live in the Palestinian city of Ramallah and work mostly in nearby Jerusalem, where ICAHD is based. Most of ICAHD’s work is advocacy—reaching out to the rest of the world through a variety of educational initiatives with the aim of getting more people to know, care about and act on the situation here. But the members of ICAHD also get their hands dirty as well. Every few months or so, they rebuild a Palestinian home that has been destroyed by a well-guarded Israeli bulldozer.
With all that said, what was the point of all this background on my ideological history? On one hand, my perception of injustice may be so strong because I have not actually been to the area yet. I may not understand the nuances and the complexities of the situation that may be glossed over in the books and movies covering the conflict that I have likely selected to suit my initial biases. I must go, then, to complete this journey of political maturity on which I have already come so far, and perhaps when I return I will look back at this column with an embarrassed smile.
Yet another part of me wants to say that it is significant, given my newfound moderation and understanding, that the situation of the Palestinians still seems so glaringly unjust, that it survived the post-college gut check and passed through the filter of unimportance and emerged as the most urgent task at hand. Maybe I will come home an even stronger supporter of the Palestinian cause.
Either way, I believe I’ll be a wiser man when I return.
*I realized I made an error in calling the Gaza Strip an "occupied territory." The reality is actually much worse - it is now a besieged territory.