Rabbi’s Essays

Talking about the Middle East
Rules of Engagement

Many of you, no doubt, know the story of the frog and the scorpion. They met at the bank of the Jordan River. The scorpion asked the frog to ferry him across the river. The frog demurred. “What if you were to sting and paralyze me? I would drown.” “Why would I sting you?” The scorpion countered, “I would drown too!” The frog could find no fault in this argument and agreed to ferry the scorpion. Halfway across the river, the scorpion suddenly stung the frog. As the paralysis set and the frog began to sink under the water, he called out, “Why did you do this? Now we both will drown!” The scorpion merely replied, “This is the Middle East.”

Here in a nutshell is the problem regarding any rational discussion of the Arab-Palestinian-Israeli conflict; it tends to defy rationale. The most recent events seem to confirm this perception. For seven years, Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) have been moving slowly toward a formal accommodation. There have been twists all along the way: an Israeli Prime Minister has been assassinated, and two others have been defeated in elections. There have terrorist incidents, shootings, bombings and retaliations. There has also been a formal treaty with Jordan and Morocco, and the pullout of Israeli troops from the quagmire of Southern Lebanon. More and more land has been ceded to the PA, and the once unthinkable notion of a Palestinian State in the West Bank and Gaza, had become a fairly common assumption.

For seven years, therefore, through terror and violence and reticence on both sides, the process moved forward as if it had a life of its own. Then Ariel Sharon, head of Israel’s principal opposition party, takes a walk on the Temple Mount, and it looks as if the entire process has not merely come to a halt, but to an end. Has the scorpion stung the frog in the middle of the river?

Before continuing, I will admit that I was caught by surprise both by the intensity of the violence that has occurred over the past two weeks, and by the pessimism that is being expressed from all sides regarding the future of peace. What happened? More to the point, how do we go about figuring out what happened?

What facts? Whose facts?

Often, when confronted with the question, “what happened?” we choose to resort to fact-finding. “What happened” is, after all, a series of events—observable, discrete events—facts on the ground. So what are the facts? We come to the first rule of any conversation we might have about the Middle East: the facts virtually do not count.

I first learned this rule nearly twenty-five years ago. I found myself facilitating a dialogue between Arab and Israeli students at Ohio State University. Before the dialogue sessions actually began, I met with two students—a Jordanian Palestinian and an Israeli Jew—in order to hammer out some ground rules. This was not too difficult since the two sides did want to talk to each other. The conditions we worked out created a successful set of five sessions that culminated in a social barbecue.

Among the ground rules that served us very well was that no one could assert a fact. A dialogue participant could not even suggest that at noon on a clear day, the sun was shining! The problem with facts is that in a land with over 5000 years of history of settlement, there are just too many of them. Which facts do you bring to bear on a particular situation: God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis? The Roman attitude toward Jews? The Balfour Declaration? An Arab family fleeing in 1948 its home of three generations in Haifa? There are enough facts rattling around in the Middle East in order to justify convincingly almost position one wishes to take.

If we do not refer to facts, then what do we use in order to assess the Middle East? Something deeper, and more profound than facts: we need to refer to our very being. On one level, the Land of Israel and its surrounding lands and countries can be described in terms of its geography and other physical features; its population in terms of their ethnic background, occupations and other demographic features. In this way, the Middle East is no different than any other chunk of the world’s real estate. Yet, the land is more than that. It is also a state of mind: an enduring piece of history and legend that embodies the hopes, dreams and promises of peoples. Thus, Israel and its neighbors defy being described by what is, but rather by what one wishes it to be. Reality is illusion and illusion reality in the Middle East.

We read the facts of the events in this part of the world—whether in newspapers, media reports, or scholarly texts—filtered through our own notions of how things ought to be. So, how should things be? You tell me! Here are the fundamental questions; questions that do not admit precisely to facts, but rather to our frame of reference, the way in which we process our perceptions:

Do the Palestinians exist? After all they are an Arabic-speaking people who are mostly indistinguishable in history, culture and attitude from their neighbors in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. Indeed, in the 1930s, the term “Palestinian” often referred to a Jew living in Palestine!

Do the Jews exist? For two thousand years, being Jewish has been viewed as a confessional choice of faith. Anyone could be Jewish, and anyone could drop out of having a Jewish identity. What exactly holds together Yiddish-speaking Hasidim, Russian-speaking socialists, Arabic-speaking laborers, Indians from Bombay and blacks from Ethiopia?

If one or the other of these peoples does not really exist, then issues about competing claims to the Land are moot. If however they both exist, we may still ask do either have a legitimate claim to the land they seek to control? On what does that claim rest? On divine promise? On historic deeds? On purchase? How about sheer squatters’ rights?

Finally, the biblical expression of a “land flowing with milk and honey” notwithstanding, greater Israel is not a particularly hospitable place. Its soil is arid or rocky. There are few exploitable natural resources—particularly for a region that is drenched with oil. So, why should one care about having a claim to living there: is it simply “where I live,” or is it the righting of past wrongs, or is it a step toward the fulfillment of God’s will? How we answer these questions to ourselves-in our own hearts-establishes what we have to say about the events in the Middle East and how we look upon them.

Understanding the “Us” in “Them”

When we come to understand our own fundamental attitude toward Israel and the Middle East, we might be able to concede that there are indeed a variety of points of view. This is the final rule of engagement I wish to discuss. People hold differing attitudes and have different agendas. I think most of us are sensitive to the range of positions and approaches that exist among Israelis and Jews. We read about it regularly in the New York Times.

We also can see another phenomenon at work among Israelis and Jews: at moments of crisis most are willing to pull together. At the moment, for instance, there is serious contemplation of a unity government in Israel, bringing together parties and interests that were figuratively at each other’s throats a few months ago.

Being Jews, we are sensitive and empathetic to these currents of disagreement and reconciliation within the world Jewish community. We should be aware that something similar exists among the Arabs and Palestinians. The range of attitudes is certainly not the same. There is, for instance, no prominent Palestinian “peace camp,” as exists among Israelis and Jews. On the other hand, Palestinians are hardly all of a piece in terms of their attitude toward sharing the land on which they live with a Jewish State.

In the violence of the past two weeks, we should be aware of the varying attitudes of Palestinians. Some are playing out their fantasies of a vision of a land free altogether of Jews. Some are nihilistic living out a life of victimhood; a preference for cursing the darkness rather than lighting a candle. And there is a population whose real frustration and anger is with their own government.

In last summer’s latest round of Camp David negotiations, Barak went out on a very fragile political limb and offered the PA about as good a settlement regarding control of territories and status in Jerusalem as the Palestinians were ever going to see. Arafat rejected it out of hand. He then discovered that his hard-line stance, was not perceived in the world community as principled, but rather as merely stubborn. The PA had maneuvered the Palestinian people into a corner. The U.S., Europe and Russia were not interested in providing them with any moral or political support. A comprehensive solution that was tantalizingly close in July had evaporated, and the world was calling the PA to task for it.

Frustration and anger dissipates, either sooner or later. When it does, we should be aware that there continues to be a segment among the Palestinians—many polls suggest that it is the majority—whose simple wish is to set the lines between theirs and the Jewish State, and to get on with living.