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A lament for 'them and us'

Many Canadian Jews expressing solidarity with Israel have forgotten the lessons of Scripture, says physician GABOR MATÉ

GABOR MATÉ, The Globe and Mail, Wednesday, November 1, 2000

A delegation of 100 Canadian Jewish leaders arrived in Jerusalem this week, bearing a "message of solidarity with Israel." Among other activities, they are to visit with families of Israeli soldiers captured or killed during recent hostilities with Palestinians.

This "solidarity visit" is yet another of the regrettably one-sided tribal "them and us" responses that have characterized attitudes around the current Jewish-Palestinian conflict. The delegates have announced no plans to meet any of the Arab families whose children have been killed or maimed or jailed. Yet the ratio of dead and wounded and "captured" runs highly against Palestinians inside Israel proper and on the West Bank and in Gaza, as may be expected when one of the world's best-equipped military forces faces an army of stone-throwers.

I am reminded of being in synagogue some years ago on Yom Kippur -- the holiest of Jewish Holy Days, when we are enjoined to examine our conscience, to take stock of how we may have hurt others and betrayed our own true selves. During services, a speaker denounced "Arab tree terrorism." He was referring to acts of arson by Palestinians in the Canada Forest, stands of trees planted near Jerusalem through Canadian donations.

I listened in anguished silence. I knew that the "Canada Forest" had been established at the site of Palestinian villages levelled to the earth, their inhabitants expelled. I had just visited the occupied territories and had seen Palestinian olive groves bulldozed into the ground as acts of collective punishment by the Israeli army, the labour of generations turned into desert overnight. Whose tree terrorism?

The Canadian Jewish leaders may wish to pay a visit to the West Bank village of Kifl Hares, where at least 200 olive trees were cut down by the army only last week.

Blinded by their own suffering, human beings have great resistance to seeing the agony of others. Given the horrors endured by Jews within living memory, it is understandable why the Zionist dream has been such a balm for wounded souls -- a nation rising from the ashes of the Nazi genocide, re-established in the ancient Jewish homeland. The problem, which many still have difficulty facing, is that this dream could never have been realized without visiting a nightmare on the Palestinians.

A Jewish state could be created in Palestine only by denying the rights and national existence of the Arab people who already inhabited the land and who could not be displaced without force. Zionist leaders were clear about this early on. Some of them warned against it as a coming catastrophe, others saw it as an unavoidable if painful necessity.

That history cannot now be undone, but we need to recognize the consequences and to be fair-minded in interpreting them. It is fashionable to denounce Palestinians for encouraging their children to confront the Israeli army. Yet, as one Israeli commentator has pointed out, the Jewish 14-year-old who destroyed a Syrian tank in 1948 is still venerated as a hero. The Palestinians are not "them," but "us," people whose actions arise not from some fundamentalist Islamic creed of hate, but out of dispossesion and despair.

For all the talk of peace since Oslo, Israel has stiffened its economic and military control over the territories. On the West Bank and in Gaza, the Jewish settlements are expanding, their populations rapidly growing, their fields lush. Because Palestinians are not permitted to dig deep wells on their own soil, water flows preferentially to the lands cultivated by settlers -- swimming pools in the Jewish settlements, not enough water in some Palestinian hospitals to wash the linen. Armed settlers from New York roam freely in the heart of Hebron, while native Arabs face curfews and daily humiliations. If we saw "them" as "us," we would empathize with the Palestinians and understand their rage.

Palestinians, too, must see and accept Jewish reality. But there is no symmetry here, no parity of killings and loss and torment or even of the mutual atrocities from which both parties have suffered. One side has had all the power all along, has imposed its conditions on the other, and continues to wield overwhelming force -- "excessive use of lethal force," reports Amnesty International, "in circumstances in which neither the lives of security forces nor others were in imminent danger." That side has a greater responsibility not to persist in seeing itself as victimized.

People urging "solidarity with Israel" need to ask themselves what that phrase means. The greatest Jewish tradition is the prophetic one that holds truth and justice above rulers, governments or the policies of states. There are Israelis with courage and clarity of vision even amidst the current troubles -- soldiers, for example, who have gone to jail rather than shoot at stone-throwers in occupied villages and towns. One betrays their hard work for peace if one accepts uncritically whatever their government or army chooses to do.

Policies based on despotism are, as the prophets taught, ultimately self-destructive and will bring nothing but catastrophe for the Jewish state. Trust in military might is futile, warned Isaiah -- "in abundance of chariots, in vast numbers of riders." The Jewish leaders now visiting Israel are pouring oil on the flames by encouraging the politics of "them and us," even if unwittingly. Solidarity should begin with truth, with compassion, with seeing the other as ourselves: the only guarantees for lasting peace and the only possible true victory for both Jew and Arab.

Gabor Maté, a native of Budapest, is a Vancouver physician. He is a former Zionist youth leader with the Habonim movement.

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