… has to be laid on a robust background of sensible, generative dialogue. I don’t just mean “peace talks,” but rather a wider, deeper understanding of societies and how they interact.
That’s an ambitious title up there, and this post will surely disappoint people who assumed there’d be a concrete twenty-seven-point plan for peace, or whatever. Well I don’t have to make much of a case to argue that that kind of thing goes nowhere: history makes that case for me — and so does the present, to be sure. We can keep wading into the same millennia-old battlefields again and again or we can… well, that’s what I want to explore.
I’ve been thinking in earnest about the Palestine-Israel/Israel-Palestine question for a decade and I’ve never figured out anything sensible to say that might go towards resolving it. I had to do a presentation on it in 1999 for a university course on the causes of war. Our prof made a list of a couple dozen wars since WWII and we were all supposed to get together in groups and pick one. I forgot. I missed the deadline, and all the wars got taken. So my professor had to come up with something else for me (and another classmate in the same situation):
“Well, I didn’t really want to include this one, for a few reasons — partly because it’s not really a “war,” like the other ones assigned, with a clear beginning and end, and partly because this one’s especially sensitive…”
Anyhow, we were assigned to give a presentation on the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, which included (because this was a class on the causes of war) the creation of the state of Israel and the partition of Palestine. I had no idea what I was getting into. It was to be the most vexing problem I ever looked at.
The general account of the Israel-Palestine problem, it seems to my eyes, is roughly this: both sides have profound grievances and a genuine right to complain — reaching back thousands of years, more or less as far as all written accounts go — and both sides are guilty of despicable acts of provocation and vengeance that at the very least only make things worse.
In my more sentimental moods I’m slightly inclined to lean towards the Palestinians’ case (“Israel has all the power…”). In my more rational moods I’m slightly inclined to lean towards the Israelis’ case (“But Hamas’s mission is to destroy Israel. They’ll never be satisfied with compromise…”). Right now I’m trying to work through what might be called a “post-rational” temper: leading with reason then trying to accommodate emotional realities, rather than conceiving an iron-law notion of what’s right and true. (The prevailing temper on both partisan sides seems to be the inverse of that: startwith emotional reactions and attachments, then hardening them with rational arguments.)
I followed the past few-to-half-dozen episodes (I’m including Lebanon… I’m losing count) fairly closely as they were happening, but now I don’t have anywhere near enough information to assess the present escalation in violence – I’m not even inclined to follow it closely because much of the information — and certainly most of the commentary — is so limited in perspective and saturated in biased assumptions that I feel more distracted and blinded by it than actually “informed.”
So I think we need a new way of talking about this stuff.
I actually just took a break from writing this post to comment on Mathew Ingram’s blog, about changes in the news industry. I suddenly see how relevant that could end up being. The Atlantic article everyone’s talking about today mentioned how great the first-response coverage in Mumbai was by bloggers etc. I’m not talking about pajamas-wearing bloggers, for the most part it may amount to journalists with mobile tools — like this great accountof the opening of the Israel’s bombing campaign in Gaza by Nidal al-Mughrabi on the Reuters Global blog: “Saturday is my day off from being Reuters correspondent in Gaza and I usually sleep until noon. This Saturday things didn’t go to plan.”
I said I haven’t been following it. What I mean is I haven’t pored over every newspaper article and editorial I can find. I have kept my eye on the content coming into my Google Reader from different foreign policy blogs (and 3 Quarks Daily has done interesting curating).
I have a sense that in a way this conflict represents Old vs. New as much as Israel vs. Palestine (in no particular order), and the old present in the attitudes and practices of both sides — much as all combatants in the First World War all began with the same 19th century strategies and weapons, only to find themselves at war against the future as much as they were at war against enemies in opposing (newfangled) trenches. The analogy may be confusing due to the differences in specifics, and especially the difference in overall scope, but there is a deep underlying principle I’m trying to convey.
Try to grasp that I’m using this specific conflict for concrete reference points, so we can generate insight into more general historical patterns, which in turn we must appreciate before we can understand the specific conflict. It’s a recursive essay: we’re trying to bootstrap our way towards making sense of this damn mess.
Obviously it is a very massive and very sensitive topic to think and write and talk about. This is just the preamble. I suspect any final solution would take generations to build towards (or, to put it more bluntly, it’ll take that long for enough of the irreconcileably biased troublemakers to pass away). Maybe we can see it happen in our lifetime (if you’re around 30), but I don’t see anything resembling peace in the Middle East for at least the next twenty years: that’s how long it’ll take to establish the background we need before we can even build the foundation, which is maybe another twenty years…
At best, the conflict may simmer down but it certainly is not going away in the next couple of years. Those of us who are neither obligated or able to intervene have time to work over and under the issues with a lot of care, looking for radical (yet pragmatic) new concepts to make the dialogue more generative — eventually a few people in our generation will be in the thick of these challenges. Now’s the time to invest in the intellectual equipment to address them.