I grew up in a large family of pogrom and Holocaust survivors. We were taught that Israel’s existence gave all Jews a sense of pride and security that had been denied us for almost two millennia. The Arabs? I knew nothing about them.
One afternoon in 1982, when I was a novice teacher at San Francisco State University, my master teacher asked me, “Do you think Israel has the right to exist?”
My initial reaction was to take the question personally. It was as though he had asked whether I, a Jew, had the right to exist. I wanted to slug him. However, he was my boss and a head taller than me, so I responded with another question: “Why shouldn’t it have the right to exist?”
“Because it’s a settler state.”
“And isn’t this country?”
He frowned. “But we’ve been here for 200 years.”
“So if Israel manages to hang on for 200 years, will it have earned the right to exist?”
Today, after visiting Israel and the West Bank, after much study and many conversations, I would have a more complex response.
All states are settler states. Throughout history, one people displaced another, slaughtering, enslaving, raping, and intermarrying. With modern weapons, we can keep this up until we make the entire planet uninhabitable, or we can find a way to coexist. It isn’t possible to correct the injustices of our ancestors by returning to our places of origin. Either those places have disappeared, or other people have been living there for generations.
There are other ways to make amends. After the Holocaust, Germany paid enormous sums in reparations which were used to build the state of Israel. Those two nations are now on good terms. From a moral point of view, the United States also owes reparations, to the Native Americans and African Americans. Might trumps morals, however, and neither group has sufficient clout to leverage a fair shake. Germany had to pay reparations only because it lost the war.
If Israel wants to survive long term, it could offer reparations and help build a Palestinian state. It could dismantle the newer settlements and offer fair payments for the older ones. The land is small, 60% of it is desert, and the water supply is limited, so both sides would have to abandon the unlimited right of return. Orthodox Jews and Muslims would have to limit the size of their families.
I do not expect either party to adopt this solution. The level of hatred and racism I’ve heard expressed on both sides is horrifying. When one person has behaved badly toward another, he justifies it by saying that the victim is evil and subhuman and deserves even worse treatment.
However, while Israel hasn’t yet suffered a defeat like Germany’s, it doesn’t have much in the way of size or geographical buffers. Throughout its history, Israel was often a client state of larger empires—ancient Egypt for one—and suffered when that protection failed. Right now it is backed by the U.S. All empires fall, though, and ours seems to be heading downhill. In my opinion it is better to make peace with your neighbors than to imagine you can always outgun them.