The Israel/Palestine conflict is not simple

Right-wing commentators like Dennis Prager and left-wing columnists like Ta-Nehisi Coates have something to agree on: They agree the situation with Israel and Palestine is simple. Prager says, "It is a simple problem to describe: One side wants the other side dead". Coates says it's "shocking [...] how uncomplicated it actually is," I'll give Coates credit in that he backtracks a little bit and says, "I’m not saying the details of it are not complicated. History is always complicated."

But the situation in the Middle East regarding Israel and Palestine is very complex, and denying this truth promotes bigotry and violence no matter which people you're trying to simplify.

I came up with this unpleasant analogy to help clarify my own thinking about Israel-Palestine:

Imagine a family lives in a house on a farm, and everything is fine until a gang takes over the house and throws the family out.

Generations later, a descendant faces violence in a different neighborhood and decides to return with his family to his ancestor's home. The home has changed hands several times. It is now owned by a landlord, is in disrepair, and is occupied by poor tenants.

The heads of the families get together and discuss shared living arrangements. The descendent promises to make improvements to the house and farm. Members of each family grow fond of each other and look forward to living together. But the heads argue.

Since the heads can’t agree, the descendant buys the house from the landlord and, asserting ownership, moves the tenants to the basement. He makes improvements to the house and farm as promised, and even in the basement the tenants see material improvements to their lives. But they are second-class citizens in their own home, and the descendant has been overheard talking about kicking them out some day.

The head of the tenant family is upset, and he worries about the future. In frustration and anger, he tortures and murders one of the descendant’s children, and plans to continue his rampage but is stopped by authorities.

The murder in my story is not an analogy for the Hamas attack of 2023. It’s an analogy for the Western Wall massacres which occurred almost a century before. If you think I'm exaggerating the cruelty, then you should read up on the massacres of 1929.

But my analogy of a horrible response to a valid grievance only touches on the complexity. I didn’t include the years of mistreatment of Jews in in the Islamic region, I only touched on Zionist plans to clear Palestine of Arabs or crimes against Arabs committed by Jews, and I didn’t include anything after 1929,

On the first point above – the years of mistreatment: I don't hear much about the bloody riots or the centuries of discrimination that occurred before the Nakba. We should know about the Nakba. But we should also know about what came before.

Zionist arguments generally center on the Jews' right of return to their ancestral homeland. But I don't find it very compelling that people whose ancestors controlled a land over two thousand years ago have a right to reclaim that land by displacing the current residents. I find it more compelling if you add the argument that Jews were so poorly treated throughout history by people of the Islamic world, which includes the Jewish homeland, that they have a right to reclaim that homeland for their own protection. Historian Benny Morris writes in Righteous Victims:

In 1066 nearly three thousand Jews were massacred in Granada, Span. In Fez, Morocco, some six thousand Jews were murdered in 1033, and massacres took place again in 1276 and 1465. There where massacres in Tetuan in Morocco in 1790; in Mashhad and Barfurush in Persia in 1839 and 1867, respectively; and in Baghdad in 1828. The Jewish quarter of Fez was almost destroyed in 1912 by a Muslim mob; and pro-Nazi mobs slaughtered dozens of Jews in Baghdad in 1941.

Benny Morris goes on to quote Jewish philosopher Maimonides:

"God has cast us into the midst of this people, the nation of Ishmael, who persecute us severely, and who devise ways to harm us and to debase us.… None has matched [them] in debasing and humiliating us.… "

Ellipses and brackets are in Righteous Victims

This still doesn’t justify evicting people from their homes. For much of my life, I believed that there was plenty of room for Arabs and Jews in Palestine, and that the Zionists took over vacant fields and turned the desert into the land of milk and honey. That idealized story is partially true. Many kibbutzim were built on empty land which Zionists turned into productive farms and orchards. Many Arabs benefited from their Jewish neighbors. But that truth has been used to cover another, which is Zionists purchased land and evicted tenants. Again, from Righteous Victims:

... Jewish colonists, with their backers abroad, bought tract after tract of land. In some areas the land was uninhabited and untilled; in others purchase led to the immediate eviction of Arab tenant farmers, many of whose families had themselves once been the proprietors.

Zionism wasn’t born of a desire to protect Jews in Palestine from hostile neighbors. But that need became more apparent as Arab resistance against eviction and Jewish national goals strengthened. There were several forms of Zionism and early Zionists called for a Jewish homeland to be created only with Arab cooperation. Furthermore, most Jews whose families had lived in Palestine for generations were not Zionists. But the massacres increased support for Zionism in its most militant forms. To add to the heartbreak, non-Zionist “old Yishuv” towns were targeted by the rioters.

An absurd aside to all this is conservatives in America are siding with Israel, a land of immigrants who flooded a region and took control despite the objections of its inhabitants. Meanwhile, leftists in America are siding with violent, oppressive, religious fundamentalists.

Caught up in all of this is the vast amount of innocent people: Arabs who just wanted to live in peace on their own land and Jews who just wanted a safe place to live. Many were accepting of each other. It all could have happened so differently.

I know that I’ve used more text highlighting the Western Wall riots and their aftermath than on other aspects of this very complex and terrible situation. I feel that 1929 is an important but neglected part of Israeli-Palestinian history. Anti-Zionists are happy to ignore any fact which may bring some understanding to the Zionist movement, and Zionists focus too much on arguments which ignore Palestinian claims, paint Palestinians as terrorists, or conflate anti-Zionism with antisemitism.

Barack Obama urged us to take in the whole truth and I agree. We can’t all be experts, but we can be more informed. At least we can be well enough informed to know that the story of Israel and Palestine is not simply a story of colonists stealing land or of terrorists attacking civilians.