PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER
Trying to understand the psychology of a people at war is a lot like trying to find the bodies buried under a bombed out building. You have to dig through many layers and cast aside many pieces, some of them very heavy, before you get to the bottom, where you hope to find what you are looking for.
For more than forty years Iíve been watching my own
Jewish people in wartime, repeating the same self-defeating pattern over and
over.† Most Jews say that they want
Iíve been digging for decades through the endless pieces of that paradox, trying to get to the bottom of it.† Hereís what I see now as the bottom layer (though there may be layers further down that I havenít reached yet).
The root of the problem lies in the Jewsí relationship to the non-Jewish world and, even more, in the way Jews understand that relationship.
Jews have a long checkered history of relations with
their gentile neighbors. Sometimes, in centuries past, they got along very
well; Jews felt fully a part of a larger multi-ethnic community. But most of
the Jews who came to
All they could feel was a great disconnect. Before 1948, they saw themselves as a community separated by all sorts of invisible walls from the Arabs around them. After 1948 they had geographical borders that functioned as visible separators, much like the ghetto walls of old. Although Zionism began as an effort to make the Jews a ďnormal nation,Ē it ended up creating the worldís largest Jewish ghetto.
For many Jews, the sense of disconnection was rooted in real history. Some had ancestors who had been separated from gentiles physically by a ghetto wall. Many had ancestors who felt separated by invisible walls of law and social custom, which seemed just as thick and high.
Still others, though, came from relatively well-assimilated
communities. They learned to feel separated from the non-Jewish world, for
reasons of all sorts. And since the Six-Day War of 1967 many Jews in the
Thatís why many Israeli Jews, and Jews everywhere who sympathize with them, have a hard time recognizing what Martin Luther King taught us:† Whoever we are, whomever we live with, all the members of a community are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Thatís not a moral platitude. Itís a poetic way of stating a common-sense observation of fact: Whatever we do is bound to affect others in our community, just as what they do affects us; we are all responding to each other all the time.
No matter how isolated one group may feel, it is always interacting with the groups around it. A minority group knows that itís responding to the majority. It has a harder time seeing how the majority is responding to it.† But in fact, the relationship is always mutual.† And when anyone on either sides commits violence, the violence is actually a product of the ongoing pattern of relationship, though the majority typically holds the upper hand when it comes to force.†
Since so many Jews in
Today the Palestinian Arabsí rocks still fly. Bullets
and bombs and rockets fly too. And the same great disconnect remains among far
too many Jews, both in
This view is at the root of all
The famous historian Benny Morris, in a recent New
York Times op-ed, described just how things look from inside this great
disconnect:† ďMany Israelis feel that the
walls ó and history ó are closing in on their 60-year-old state. Ö The Arab and
wider Islamic worlds Ö have never truly accepted the legitimacy of
Then comes the inevitable conclusion: Though we canít change our opponentsí feelings, we can change their behavior. Conciliation and compromise may produce marginal improvements. But the only way to change their behavior substantially is through the fear that comes from overwhelming force. So the best thing we can do is fight back. When the targets of our force try (quite naturally) to resist, we say:† See, they really do hate us!† Itís a self-confirming illusion that is hard to escape.
Thatís the greatest danger of the
great disconnect: If you donít acknowledge your own role in creating a
conflict, you are working with an unrealistic view of whatís happening. So you
canít craft realistic policies that will actually make your nation more secure.
When you start out from an illusion, you are bound to end up in
self-contradiction -- which is just what has happened to
But itís an illusion. Any realistic
assessment of the Middle East must begin with the obvious fact that
It isnít just absurd; itís lethal. It
creates policies that get people killed -- mostly in the
Itís a common refrain, a reminder that the great
disconnect is hardly unique to
In fact, when I offer this analysis of the Jewish
community, Iím often met with the objection: Why just criticize
Of course the trouble comes from the relationship, to which both sides contribute. But I donít live among Palestinians. Iím not in any position to understand them. So I speak to my own people. I point out that we have no control over the choices others make. We can control only our own choices. And itís only by making new choices in our own community that we can hope to affect the choices of others.
Fortunately there are plenty of Jews
who understand this. Their numbers are growing. And they hold the key to peace
and security for
But the message has to speak directly to the heart of the problem at its deepest level. It has to name the great disconnect, acknowledge the real and imagined history behind it, but insist that now it is too dangerous -- for ourselves and for others -- to cling to a past memory as if it were present reality.
To explain the great disconnect is not (as some fear) to absolve Jews of their moral responsibility. In fact, itís the only way to bring the Jewish community back to its moral responsibility.† The great Zionist thinker Martin Buber said that responsibility is really ďresponse-abilityĒ: the ability to tear down the imagined walls separating people and communities from one another, so that all can respond to the reality of the situation.
The first step toward responsibility is recognizing the reality that no one ever lives shut up behind a wall. We are always in mutual relationship with the people around us, whether we know it and like it or not. Once people tear down the imaginary walls that they think surround them, they can realize that their borders are not walls but bridges, connecting them to the people on the other side. Only then can they begin to reach across those borders and make peace.
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