It’s a Shame About the Middle East
We have a young language instructor at Shalem College in Jerusalem, where I work. She’s a religious Muslim who wears a hijab, lives in one of the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem and is a graduate student at Hebrew University. She’s fun and warm, and a great teacher — the students like her a lot.
Late last spring, when things here were quiet, some of the students mentioned to the department chair that as much as they’d spoken with her over the past couple of years, they’d never discussed politics. They were curious what someone like her thought about the conflict in this region, especially now that she was teaching at an unabashedly Zionist college, had come to know so many Jewish students and had developed such warm relationships with them. How does someone like her see things here? How did she think we would one day be able to settle this conflict?
“So ask her,” the department chair said. “As long as you speak to her in Arabic (she’s on staff to help our students master the language), you can talk about anything you want.”
They did. They told her that since they’d never discussed the “situation” (as we metaphorically call it here in Israel), they were curious how she thought we might someday resolve it.
“It’s our land,” she responded rather matter-of-factly. Stunned, they weren’t sure that they’d heard her correctly. So they waited. But that was all she had to say. “It’s our land. You’re just here for now.”
What upset those students more than anything was not that a Palestinian might believe that the Jews are simply the latest wave of Crusaders in this region, and that we, like the Crusaders of old, will one day be forced out. We all know that there are many Palestinians who believe that.
What upset them was that she — an educated woman, getting a graduate degree (which would never happen in a Muslim country) at a world class university (only Israel has those — none of Israel’s neighbors has a single highly rated university) and working at a college filled with Jews who admire her, like her and treat her as they would any other colleague — still believes that when it’s all over, the situation will get resolved by our being tossed out of here once again.
Even she, who lives a life filled with opportunities that she would never have in an Arab country, still thinks at the end of the day the Jews are nothing but colonialists. And colonialists, she believes, don’t last here. The British got rid of the Ottomans, the Jews got rid of the British — and one day, she believes, the Arabs will get rid of the Jews.
Read the whole thing. Gordis writes in sadness, as if having to face the resilience of Palestinian irredentism falsifies a cherished belief. Which, of course, it does: there can never be peace if Arabs believe that Jews have no right under any circumstance to be on the land.
I think there’s a lesson in this for all of us in the West, whatever we think of the Israel vs. Palestine divide. We love to think that the modernity — liberty, equality, capitalism and the material comfort it generates — erodes instincts we find atavistic. Why would you want to carry on a tribal dispute about land when you could live in peace and we could all get rich together, and be happy? The answer, it would appear, is that to the non-Western culture of the Middle East, the greatest poverty is the dishonor of acquiescing in your defeat. We keep missing this about the Middle East.
I have a sense of what this means, because I too come from a shame-honor culture, in the Deep South. It’s not nearly as strong as that of the Middle East, heaven knows, but having experienced it from the inside gives me at least an inkling of how infinitely stronger it must be among Arabs there. To be frank, my father was willing to preside over the breakup of our family system rather than admit error, or to compromise in any way. It was a matter of honor. Last week, I ran into an acquaintance in town, who asked how my mom was doing in the wake of my father’s death. “Your daddy was the kind of man who would do anything in the world for you, but if you crossed him once, that was it,” the man said, making a chopping motion with his hand.
I laughed at that, but it was true, and in the end, it was tragic. In the South, despite our Christian pretensions, many of us know who we are by the grudges we hold. Pushed to the extreme, this ethic is about preferring to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven (Milton). But from another point of view, it’s the ethic of the Christian martyrs, who would rather die than bow down to a false god.
Whether you think the Palestinian language instructor is a slave to self-destructive pride, or is a heroic example of fidelity to ideals uncompromised by material gain, depends on what you think of the end to which she is pledged. Has she sold her soul to irredentism and Jew-hatred? Or is she refusing to sell her soul to the occupiers of her land, no matter how easy they make her life?
What is the soul? Which god does it serve? Those are the real questions, and the answers to them define how the Palestinians deal with their dispossession, and how all of us deal with our own dispossession and exile, which may not be literal, as it is for the Palestinians, but which is real all the same (see How Dante Can Save Your Life for more on this point). My father dealt with his dispossession — seeing his son adopting a way of life somewhat different from his own — by doubling down on grudge-holding, and refusing to compromise, because in his mind, if he compromised, it would amount to accepting his dispossession. But it very nearly succeeded in destroying the very thing he wanted to pass on. See how that works?
(Readers, I’m happy to host a wide-ranging discussion, but I’m not going to publish tiresome polemics about evil Zionists and suchlike. If you don’t have something new to add to the discussion, in the conceptual framework I’ve introduced here, better not to waste your time writing it.)