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Michael Bettencourt

Promised Land


September 2014

I have just finished reading Ari Shavit's My Promised Land along with a forum in the September 2014 issue of Harper's titled "Israel and Palestine:  Where to Go from Here."


"Israel" is a vexed issue, made more so by the fact that I work for a Jewish fundraising organization, where discussions about this (when they happen) also link to people we know in the programs that we fund in Israel.  This personal slant often fogs what is already full of murk and fire.


Luckily, these talks don't take place often since the default position (which is no surprise) is full solidarity with Israel the state as well as the idea of Israel.  One staff member was already sent on a solidarity mission organized by our European office, and my boss may be going on an upcoming solidarity mission organized by the Jewish Federations of North America.  Other organizations, like the Conference of Presidents, are also arranging these trips, and Ben Gurion Airport bustles with people on their missions.


I am glad we do not turn this topic over very much in the office since it is hard for me to keep my peace.  The current war between Israel and Hamas is not the real dispute but more a synecdoche of the tectonic clash of origin stories.  Shavit points out that as much as Theodore Herzl and the promoters of Zionism wanted to believe that Palestine was the ancestral home of the diaspora Jews and thus should be available to them for their return, they could only believe this if they chose not to see the clear reality in front of them: the land was not theirs, it was settled and owned by Arabs and it was never going to be possible to just slip in and take things over without anyone noticing.


Thus, horrific clashes among Jews and Arabs during the 1920s and 1930s; the war in 1948 (for Israel, the "War of Independence"; for the Palestinian Arabs, al-Nakba, or "the Catastrophe"); the "founding" of the state of Israel; and then 1967, 1973, 1982, the Intifadas, and so on and so on.


I do have thoughts about what a solution might, or ought to, include, but of equal import is thinking about, as Shakespeare said, the fact that "the evil that men do lives after them."  An origin story infused with a poison continues to secrete the poison over time, no matter how hard ideologues work to nullify it.  The Israel-Hamas "conflict" is just one more secretion of the venom at the core of the Israeli origin story, which will continue to ooze and destroy until the proper antidote is applied.


Is there an antidote?  Not now, given the language used by combatants on each side, language that has calcified thought and disarmed logic.  There are antidotes, but they will require wholesale shifts in thinking and action about such matters as is Israel a state or a Jewish state, what of the Palestinian Israelis (or Israeli Arabs), how much of "Jewishness" should be defined by the ultra-Orthodox, should it be one state or two states, should Israel stop being an occupying and colonial power -- the Harper's forum brings out dozens more questions like this.


The venom in an origin story will last forever unless very specific things are done to neutralize it.  In our country, the enduring toxin is slavery (note the article by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the May 21, 2014, Atlantic, "The Case for Reparations") and the ethnic cleansing of the aboriginal peoples. Israel has its own septic origin story, and until it deals with that, nothing else can be dealt with.

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Michael Bettencourt is a playwright and essayist.
He also writes a monthly column for Scene4.
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