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Calling All Semites

Sunday 3 September 2006, by Deb Reich

Writing from my great love for all my sisters and brothers and cousins and sons and daughters in the Semitic family, at this hour of bloodshed and despair, I call you to open your eyes and your hearts now, today, and see what has been hidden from you - right before your eyes.

In Palestine and Israel, our shared choice is not complicated, as the analysts and commentators seem to think. Our options are starkly simple: to compete endlessly at this game of mutual destruction until we achieve it (taking some large chunk of the rest of the world with us, perhaps), or to cooperate from now on at mutual co-living, co-creating, and co-advancement (thereby crafting a precious new social paradigm for ourselves and all humanity).

I and others have suggested a way out of our dilemma and I will present it again here, in my own style, as simply as possible.

First, to those who remain committed to violence, militancy, and arms, I say: Open your eyes! To subdue your neighbor by force is to shoot your own grandchildren through the heart – because no people remains subdued forever and when they rise again, your children’s children will pay the price. Equally true if harder to accept is that, however legitimate your uprising may be deemed by any impartial judge, throwing off your neighbor’s oppression by force means that you become him, and so the cycle continues.

Another aspect of this puzzle has become clear lately: the unintended consequences of success. Israel has succeeded in becoming a world-class military power, but what has that achieved? The armed struggle has succeeded in making the Palestinian independence movement a presence on the world stage, while also making the world blind to the majestic dimensions of Palestinian civilian endurance and heroic efforts at constructive nation-building – so what has been achieved?

Exclusive sovereignty reconsidered

Let us consider, calmly, our longstanding attempt in Israel/Palestine to make this bit of land ours at the expense of our cousins. Arguably, it goes back to the time of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar, so there’s little to be gained by talking about 1967 or 1948 or 1929 or 1880-something or the Middle Ages or the birth of Jesus as the ultimate reference point. Elsewhere I have called this process “peeling the onion of blame” – analyzing successive layers of history, backward in time, weeping all the while - until left with a pile of onion peels and an ocean of tears, and little else. Let’s abandon that approach!

Granted that groups of people develop a passionate attachment to pieces of territory; this is natural and perhaps universal. Yet nowhere in nature is it written that this attachment must be one of ownership, or that this attachment can be or should be exclusive. Indeed, many cultures that live close to the land find the idea of owning it ridiculous (Does the flea own the dog?); they know that our proper role is to learn to serve the land, to be its stewards. In the tradition of the story of King Solomon and the two women claiming to be the mother of the same child, the real mother proved her greater love not by hanging on, but by letting go. If uprooting olive trees one by one is like pulling your baby’s fingernails out, one by one, how can we pretend to love this land? If bombing a restaurant (in person) or an apartment building (from the air) kills even one innocent baby, what would Solomon say about our love for this land’s children? How can anyone pretend to truly love this land when they demonstrate their love by strangling it with checkpoints, soaking it in violence and drenching it in blood?

The way out of this trap is to see that our attachment to the land need not be exclusive. Human culture in the last fifty years has stumbled on a new and useful way to view this question. Half a century ago, mathematicians began elaborating a mathematical model for multiple parallel universes, suggesting that the reality we know may be but one reality in an endless series of multiple, parallel universes – not science fiction, but science. In creating the Windows system for the personal computer, cyberpioneers translated this notion into something useful for all of us: multiple programs are open, all are equally “present,” but we are paying attention primarily to only one at a time. Psychologists and anthropologists have been telling us for years that life is about what we pay attention to: that there are potentially many realities to be experienced and that the one we live in is constructed by what our culture teaches us to notice, and what to ignore. Mystics have said the same thing for centuries but too few of us have gotten the message yet.

On a metaphorical level, in the Semitic Middle East, multiple realities have long been a fact of everyday life. Go to Tel Aviv, show any Jew a map of the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea and ask: What place is this? and be told: Israel. Go to Nablus, show the same map to a Palestinian and ask the same question, and be told: Palestine. -What is that, if not parallel realities?

Parallel sovereignty, the new paradigm

This line of reasoning suggests that we can actually have our cake and eat it too. Instead of dividing up this land in a way acceptable to no one, keep it whole and give it to everyone. Greater Israel and Greater Palestine, in this model, simply exist, simultaneously, in the same territory, with the same national boundaries - in parallel universes: each with its own flag, anthem, and membership in the UN. Each with its own government, foreign service, and taxes. Call it a new form of confederation or the actualization of parallel realities – the terminology is not central. Other nations have crafted their own approaches to sharing (Belgium; Switzerland); we can, too.

Many practical challenges would remain about how to divide the pie in the here-and-now. These are challenges that teams of professionals could address together at length, but there are also tremendous immediate advantages. Perhaps the most signal advantage is that the competing claims of religious orthodoxies are served rather than ignored or discounted. Islam does not have to concede territory it once governed; Judaism does not have to relinquish the graves of the ancestors. Who dares to say that, if the prophets of old were alive today, they would fail to embrace a new conceptual paradigm that pointed the way to greater lovingkindness and cooperation? What has prophecy always been, if not the embrace of new conceptual paradigms?

If this model seems vague to you, here is a simple illustration of the principle. Consider a modern supermarket in a large shopping center. You drive there with your car and park in a parking space which is used, the rest of the time, by other people. It’s not your parking space; you don’t own it; but you don’t need to own it. Then you take a shopping cart which is not your cart, which is used by others all day long, and you walk up and down the aisles of the supermarket, which do not belong to you exclusively, and you take food off the shelves and put it in your cart. After paying for the food and returning the cart, you pull your car out of the parking space and drive home. Here, the metaphor reaches its limit. You do want to go home in your own car to your own house and you don’t want to find that someone else has moved in while you were shopping; and you do want the food you have bought to be eaten by your own family, not someone else’s.

In Palestine/Israel, there is enough for everyone as long as we differentiate between sharing a parking space or a shopping cart (painless), and driving someone else’s car home with her groceries in it and feeding them to our own family, or moving our family into her home.

We can have truth and reconciliation commissions on the South African model to deal with defining what is a land grab, and what is not; repatriation of the exiles, confession, compensation, forgiveness, and all the other thorny questions. They can be solved, but we need to put the basic paradigm in place first. When we can see one another as resources rather than threats, we will be able to solve anything. First comes the vision; then the details. And at the risk of repeating myself: the vision comes from love – not from anger.

Somewhere on the West Bank is a hard-working Palestinian farmer whose son Ahmad dreams of studying computer science, while Michal, the daughter of an Israeli scientist friend of mine, studied agriculture at the Hebrew University and dreams of working in organic agriculture. Why can’t Michal work with farmers on the West Bank to make their produce more marketable in Europe, while Ahmad studies computers at Bir Zeit University or – yes! – Hebrew University, if he wants to? That is the future we can have, together. If we visualize it, commit ourselves utterly to achieving it, and labor lovingly to bring it into being – and if we do not permit ourselves to be deflected by enticements from the realm of the illusory and unattainable ultimate victory – then we can have it. And the rest of the world out there, which is more than sick of us now, sick of our bickering and bloodshed and brutality – the world will stand and applaud. But first we have to get a grip, and do the work.

— 

© Deborah Reich 2006. Reproduction with attribution is encouraged.


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