November 30, 2000
The Jewish world is seething with resentment. Our current narrative is both familiar and depressing.
Among its elements: Prime Minister Barak made Chairman Arafat an offer more generous than anyone had imagined he would, but Arafat chose the path of violence. This demonstrates that Arafat and his people are simply not interested in peace, that they continue to wish and now perhaps even plan for Israel's destruction. In the meantime, Palestinian mobs, aided and abetted by Palestinian officialdom, threaten Jewish lives, and the world blames Israel for the casualties it inflicts in self-defense. Once again, the Jews have become victims. And how, in any case, can Israel be expected to make peace with people so base that they stomp on the bodies of their victims and exultantly drag them through the streets?
The purpose of a narrative is to provide a coherent account that can withstand the test of plausibility, and this one certainly does. Never mind that it partakes of exaggeration, omission and distortion. It is not the whole truth, nor is it nothing but the truth, but it is true enough. The historians will come later and impose their corrections; for now, it is enough that the narrative works.
The other side has its own narrative, inevitably different. As is so often the case, especially in times of crisis, we are so preoccupied with our own narrative that we have neither time nor patience for theirs. Yet in conflicts so bitter, it is useful to pause and examine what prompts the Other. One central theme: humiliation.
A physician friend of mine, a man of stellar Jewish credentials, recently returned from a tour of West Bank hospitals; he reports on the stories he heard from his colleagues there. More than one senior surgeon tells of how each day, on his way to work, he is made to show his papers, this notwithstanding the fact that he is well-known to the soldiers who man the control posts. Bureaucratic excess? Then why do they add that from time to time, their papers are dropped onto the ground, forcing them to stoop to retrieve them? And why are they sometimes made to wait an hour or more before receiving permission to proceed?
Multiply these sad stories a thousand times, include in their sweep not only senior surgeons but men and women of lesser status, examine not only the willful arrogance of some of the officials but also the humiliation that is inherent in being subject to an occupying power, of being reminded over and over of your own and your people's impotence. Recall the huge numbers of Palestinians who have experienced arrest and detention -- and sometimes torture.
Ask what it means to know that the very man who has made you an offer "more generous than anyone could have expected" has also in the course of his tenure as prime minister continued to expand the settlements that are a bone in your throat and that threaten to squeeze the state for which you yearn into a collection of disconnected Bantustans. Or ask how it feels to find your bathing water rationed while across the valley, in the settlement that was built on your ancestral land, the lawns are green. Or think what it's like to be one of the 40,000 Arab inhabitants of Hebron, and to know that your life takes on the constricted shape it does in large part in order to accommodate the 400 Israelis who have chosen to dwell in your midst. And then consider that West Bank and Gaza Palestinians under the age of 40 or 45 have no recollection of a time before the occupation. Consider all these things, and you begin (but only begin) to comprehend the daily humiliation that flows from being subject to an occupying power; you begin to understand the Palestinian narrative.
That narrative is hardly the whole truth, nor is it nothing but the truth. It does, however, meet the test of plausibility.
Is it, then, just "Rashomon," one version of truth bumping into another, both wholly contingent on perspective? Is there nothing solid to grab hold of?
Here is a handhold: Perhaps we are, as we like to think we are, morally advantaged. But whether or not we are, it is for sure that we are not immune from the failings that afflict all humankind. We are not immune from the arrogance and insolence that are power's temptations. We, too, know how to humiliate the Other. So when that Other crudely and cruelly humiliates us, gleefully desecrates our dead, we ought not smugly assume they are animals, we are civilized. That is much too easy, too easy and too self-serving. For while the proportions may differ, as also the horror of the offense, the fundamentals are the same: Israel's Jews, and its Palestinian citizens, too, share with the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza their aspirations for a better life, their vulnerability to the temptations of power, their capacity for folly -- and their desire to be treated with dignity. What a grand day it will be when all these can be incorporated in a common narrative. For that to happen, each side will have to start listening to its Other.