Ira Chernus  


At holiday season, we struggle with old myths. If you are Christian, you may be wondering what to tell the children about Santa Claus, or what to tell yourself about a virgin giving birth. In the Jewish community this Hanukkah, when we celebrate a struggle for freedom, we are struggling to free ourselves from an old myth. Itís the one that says Israel really wants peace, but there is no one to make peace with, no one to talk to on the other side, because all Palestinians support terrorists bent on destroying the Jewish state.

That myth is hard to hold on to, since some top Palestinian political figures joined with some peace-minded Israeli leaders to sign the Geneva Accord. Itís a compromise plan for peace between the two nations, supported by sizeable public opinion on both sides. Yet it faces fierce opposition from some Jews, led by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his government. So Jews who want to try new ways are pitted against Jews who cling to the old myth, just as in the days of the Maccabeean war that Hanukkah commemorates. Of course, there is significant opposition from some Palestinians, too.

Why the opposition to an approach that strikes so many as reasonable and hopeful? Why cling so desperately to the idea that "the other side" does not really want to make peace? That idea is merely one fiber in a complex set of interwoven beliefs that make up the fabric of modern nationalism. People who sew their personal identity out of the fabric of nationalism treasure each fiber. To give up any one, they fear, might unravel the whole myth on which they have built their lives.

The myth begins with the belief that nation-states, and peoples who would form nation-states, are inherently insecure, that they must always be on guard against enemies bent on destroying them. When conflicts arise, each nation says: Our foe is inherently evil, harboring an irrational desire to eradicate our nation, no matter what we do. Because we are innocent of wrongdoing, we are powerless to change our foesí views.

Once the enemy is seen as irrational and irredeemable, a second belief follows. "They" can understand only one language: force and violence. So there is no point in trying to negotiate or talk our way to peace. Since "they" are implacably intent on destroying us, their words of peace can never be believed anyway. That leaves no one to talk to, no one to make peace with, on the other side. Then policy can and should be handed over to the military strategists, who always say that the best defense is a good offense, a show of force to intimidate the enemy.

The show of force only inflames the opponent, guaranteeing further violence and less security. But security is not really the goal. The ultimate aim of the modern nation-state is to give its citizens a sense of identity built on patriotic pride in the greatness of their nation. The state measures its greatness by strength and courage: the willingness to take risks, stand firm in the face of danger, and thus prove the nationís bravery. Only a courageous nation can prevail over enemies that would destroy it, we are told. Since those enemies are out there, we must use force to demonstrate our courage. Then we will survive to fight another day. QED.

These ideas seem to fit together logically, creating a myth that imprisons us in narrow-minded attitudes. The myth passes for common sense, because it normally shape policy in the typical nation of our time. But its normal result is tragically predictable: more war, more killing.

The first Zionists dreamed of creating a Jewish state that would be a normal nation. It is hardly surprising that the state they created became captive to these normal ideas of a modern nation. Nor is it surprising that some number of Palestinians see the world in a similar way. Both sides learned what it means to be a nation from the same Europeans who invented the myth of modern nationalism.

The surprise is that so many Jews and Palestinians are now demanding a new way of thinking. They see that the only way to peace and security is to grow beyond the old myth of uncompromising, violent nationalism.

This is not a matter for Jewish and Palestinian concern alone. A lasting peace between Israel and Palestine is the key to a more peaceful Middle East. That means U.S. troops would be less likely to be sent anywhere in the Middle East. We are already paying a heavy price, daily, for unrest in that region. Anything that can help avert another U.S. intervention is a boon to every American. So we all have an interest in seeing Jews and Palestinians free themselves from the past and embark on a new course.

Beyond that, we all have an interest in breaking free of the old myth that dominates the life of so many nations, including our own. Given todayís military technology, it is too dangerous to believe those things any more. Itís time to discard them, just as humanity has discarded so many outdated myths before.

If this most volatile, seemingly intractable conflict of all can be resolved by reasonable negotiation, then there is hope for every conflict. Hanukkah means "dedication." It celebrates a struggle for freedom. Supporting the Geneva Initiative is one way we can dedicate ourselves to freeing our minds from an old myth and bringing the world a step closer to peace.