Today in the Middle East you have two groups of people, the Arabs and the Israelis, reared up to confront one another in animosity and suspicion, both in the grip of fear, with the zealots of each having nothing but eyes for the atrocities, the wickedness and beastliness of the other. In public both portray the other as threats to world peace. Can both be right?
We have seen this phenomenon before: Russia versus the West, capitalism versus communism, the western love of democracy versus arbitrary dictatorship, the developed world versus the Third World. But the clearest analogous situation to the Arab-Israeli dispute is the Wars of Religion in the sixteenth and seventeen century.
The conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism presented us with two sharply divided, openly hostile, mutually intolerant systems whose quarrel put at stake the very salvation of the human soul. Hell was a fact. The prospect of eternal torment was your destined fate if your beliefs did not conform to those of your own religious group. Belief was not casual, it was everything. Differences in belief put you in personal peril. Your personal safety in the next life rested on the acceptance of the correct order of certain words -- the uniform recital of doctrines dictated by the rival religious leaders. Any compromise that allowed believers in one system to consider revising or modifying their habitual formulations threatened you with destruction. Any suggestion that both parties could one day live in the same world was pronounced impossible. No tolerance, no concession, no change of outlook, could ever hope to relax the deadlock.
Minds are open or closed. That distinction is one of the primary ways of classifying human beings. A perennial cause of much savagery in human disputes is public opinion. The public opinion in any country or group is mainly that of the average person. What the average person believes is what he or she has been told to believe, what his or her father or mother believed, what their friends and associates believe and can recite by rote, with mere second-rate hearsay thus being taken as a statement of infallible truths for most people. The average person exhibits no great interest in general events. They are not ambitious to discuss speculations, or desire to have an impact on scientific investigations. Their minds are inert, mired in the topics of the day. They think just as their neighbors do, and like them, have no general culture that would enable them to disturb the habitual rut of thought. To such a mind, nothing is more angering or indigestible than the introduction of something that violates people’s usual ideas or impressions and awakes their unthinking slumber. Nothing incenses the ordinary mind more than the unfamiliar.
The slaughters, mass murders, the pitiless mass rape and brutish spoliation of property and possessions of whole groups during the Wars of Religion, was, after all, due to ordinary people being ordinary.
Any conflict can have any number of causes, but once the conflict starts egotism rules. Feuds are especially fuelled by grievances related to land. I remember that in 1969 China and Russia had a battle in which China tried to regain acres of land stolen by Russia a couple of hundred years earlier. The theft of land fuels resentful antagonism as almost nothing else does, short of mass slaughter. Land is held dear by the people living in it, and they are put in fear of want or wholesale displacement if their land is lost or conquered. In Palestine, the lands were Muslim for centuries and were revered and valued as Muslim, made sacred because of Islam. The coming to these lands in 1948 by the new state of Israel was alarming to the Arabs. Israel was animated by a Zionist faith whose character was colonizing and expansive. It was an ideology highly organized and motivated by the idea of a national collective. According to Israeli historian Benny Morris, the Arabs, with a different ethic of life, “soon came to fear for their lands and their livelihoods,” when Israel was established.
Many of the impasses in great conflicts have been due to the fact that the dominant party was never able to devise any peaceful way to revise the status quo. The dominant group usually tends to freeze a situation effectively because that group almost always takes refuge in legalism, seeing any attempt by your rival to amend the status quo as something that will put you in danger. In the past, any attempt by Arabs to improve their lot was too often seen by Israel as the actions of an aggressor who was trying to gain more power at its expense. The Arabs were portrayed as disturbers of the peace, enemies of the established order. As a result, Israel consistently refused any substantial concessions.
The frustration of the Arabs has steadily built as the conflict progressed because they saw Israel as unfairly enjoying benefits acquired by war and saw those benefits as immune to revision, modification or reform. As the defenders of the status quo, Israel portrayed its country’s dominance over unruly neighbors as a way of minimizing war. Israel’s hardliners always felt it would have been better to anticipate an act of violence, lash out, and hold the infinitive rather than wait for something to happen that you would regret. It was a clever and successful tactic.
And as masters of the status quo, Israel had another advantage -- it always had a power of veto and felt that it did not have to concede anything unless threatened with violence or confronted with a single, brutal action which mobilized world opinion in their favor. For the Israelis, the demands for their own security never stop. New prerequisites, new conditions and preconditions pour out unendingly from Israel, baffling any authentic efforts at negotiation. Alas, the demand for further guarantees for security can actually bring about a situation of fearful insecurity, and this is the situation today, although some Israelis cannot see this.
Then there is the factor of fear.
One never hears any discussion of fear because few of us ever admit to suffering from it, but fear is almost always the cause of war, and the Arabs and Israelis both live today under the domination of fear. Fear makes us misinterpret signals and leads us to errors of perception that can be fatal. Fear is an unspoken yet silent factor in all diplomacy. “We do not always realize – and sometimes we do not like to recognize – how often a mistaken policy, an obliquity in conduct, a braggart manner or even acts of cruelty, may be traceable to fear,” said historian Herbert Butterfield. He points out that the symptoms of fear are sometimes unlike fear and can even appear as an immunity to fear. In some cases, fear may lead people to play it safe or allow it to deaden their anxieties. Frequently people may think they are impervious to fear and don’t understand the oppressive dullness of outlook that results.
As the date approaches for the UN General Assembly vote on granting the Palestinians statehood, fear has become vivid and unreasoning in the region, with both sides afraid that some minor incident, “a thunder in the atmosphere,” could spin out of control and produce disaster. Clearly a sense of desperation has seized the Palestinians, who see their opportunity for gaining statehood growing narrower and narrower until the opportunity disappears.
The question for both parties at this juncture should be this: are the policies of both sides aiming at an authentic increase of liberty in the world? Or are both refusing out of fear to try to work to revise the conditions of the old stalemate? Blocs of rival countries are engines for self-righteousness.
As the date for the UN vote to grant statehood to Palestine nears, one must remember one key thing: the hatred of the Wars of Religion relented, two faiths learned to exist side by side. More importantly, neither was forced to give up anything essential from its articles of faith and they learned to live and tolerate each other.
Can that lesson ever be taken to heart in the Middle East?