Jewish Journal

Emotional Barriers

Each side in the conflict feeds the other's worst fears.

by Fredelle Z. Spiegel

Posted on Jan. 4, 2001 at 7:00 pm

Rabbi David Eliezrie is right. It is very frustrating when your point of view is not heard and it seems as if you are invisible. However, Eliezrie's irritation captures a crucial element of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Each contender feels that the other has not acknowledged its perspective and needs. Neither has addressed the fears that underlie its position.

He is also correct that, if given their druthers, the Palestinians would like to have the entire Land of Israel for their own possession. But then, if given their way, so would the Israelis. Taking the whole pie is the only way that each side can ensure that their worst nightmares will not become reality. Israelis and Jews are concerned about their physical survival. In a post-Holocaust environment, there is no way this could be otherwise. The Palestinians worry about the possibility of their cultural destruction.

It is difficult for Jews to understand this Palestinian concern because Jews do not need to worry that Judaism or Jewish culture will disappear if the State of Israel has smaller or larger boundaries. With the destruction of the Second Temple and the rise of rabbinic Judaism, Jews learned how to ensure Judaism's survival without the need for a territorial base. Of course, Jewish life is enhanced in every way through the State of Israel. And Jews worldwide are concerned about Israel's welfare.

But the Palestinians cannot be as sanguine about their cultural survival if they are not living on their land. As in most of the non-Western world, their culture remains directly related to their land. From their perspective, if they lose their land, they worry that they will lose their identity. The Palestinians' fears are as much psychological as political.

It is equally difficult for the Palestinians to understand Jewish concerns with obliteration, for these too are as much psychological as political. They cannot fathom that Jews around the world, even those who did not personally experience the Holocaust, including those who were born after it, fear that Jews will be annihilated. From the Palestinian perspective, indeed, from much of the world's perspective, this fear is absurd. The Israelis are by far the strongest power in the region. They also have the backing of the strongest power in the world. For Jews, this fear is part of the psychological reality. But it is not part of the Palestinian psyche.

Part of the intractability of this problem stems from the fact that each side's policies continually reinforce their opponents' worst fears. Every Israeli settlement and settler convinces the Palestinians that Israel is not serious about wanting peace and that Israel wants to control, if not all the territory, certainly more of what they view as their land. The Palestinians conclude that they will never have sovereignty over any land. This encourages them to maintain a hard line. From their perspective, force is the only thing that gets the Israelis' attention.

From a Jewish perspective, every act of violence against Israel convinces Jews that the Palestinians are not peace-loving and will never accept the sovereign State of Israel. We point to the continuing violence, their intransigent demands, and their unwillingness to change their textbooks and their rhetoric. We view the Palestinians' continuing insistence that the refugees from 1948 are entitled to resettle within the borders of pre-1967 Israel as evidence that they do not really accept the reality of the Jewish state.

Both sides believe that their tactics and strategies are the only ways they have to make their points and to protect themselves. Their fears for their own survival, either physical or cultural, prevent them from moving forward. Unfortunately, Eliezrie's article is indicative of the problem.

Is a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute possible? I don't know. And neither does anyone else. But I certainly hope so. If there is no solution, the Israelis are doomed to live with increasing violence, growing splits within the Jewish community both here and in Israel, a declining economy and growing alienation on the part of the majority of the Jewish community.

But one thing is certain. There is no easy solution to this problem. And just screaming about the other side's faults does not move the dispute any closer to being resolved. It merely increases the lack of trust that is already hindering the process.

Instead, we need to acknowledge the power of each side's basic fears. Only then will we be able to find solutions that will ameliorate these fears enough so that a new political agreement can be reached. Alas, much as their hearts are in the right place, Eliezrie and those who agree with him are not increasing Israel's chances for living in peace.

Fredelle Z. Spiegel is a member of the Jewish Studies faculty at UCLA and a psychoanalyst in private practice. Her e-mail address is fspiegel@ucla.edu

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