In the spring of 1996, I found myself standing outside an abandoned gas chamber in the Nazi death camp Majdannek, just outside of Lublin, Poland. I could see the rooftops of the city, just under a quarter mile away, as I listened to a guide explain that the people of Lublin used to complain to the Nazis about the way their clothes smelled after they’d been hung out to dry downwind from the camp.
It took a few moments for the information to really sink in-for me to understand that I was being told that the wives from Lublin were angry because their clothes smelled like the burnt remains of human beings. I also understood that city residents were unconcerned about the human beings.
As an American Jew with little religious conviction, I hadn’t given much thought to the politics of the existence of the state of Israel before my visit to Poland. After Poland, I felt I needed to treasure and protect Israel, I didn’t want to ask questions because I had stood in a gas chamber and I understood that the world needed a safe place for persecuted Jews.
Today, I feel I need to ask questions because while I have stood in gas chambers, I have also watched footage of funeral processions for Palestinian children slain by the Israeli army, seen the homes of Palestinian families destroyed and read about retaliatory bombing within the Palestinian Authority.
My questions cannot diminish the fact that Jews are still persecuted all over the world, so I feel the state of Israel is still needed. The video tape of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl’s execution showed Pearl saying he was a Jew before his throat was slit. In the days following this revelation, there was a suggestion that Pearl was the kidnappers’ target not only because he was an American, but because he was Jewish as well.
In a recent New York Times Magazine article, Marija Milosevic, wife of former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, blamed current problems and political divisiveness on the Jews. She didn’t name any specific Jews, she just said that Jews were the cause of many of Serbia’s ongoing problems.
There is also recent historical significance. In the 1980s and 1990s, Israel was responsible for rescuing thousands of persecuted Jews from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union.
There’s an unwritten cultural assumption that Jews support Israel, but the fact is that a lot of young, politically liberal Jews do not support Israel unequivocally. Though the rhetoric of news coverage has gotten better, there is a tendency to refer to Israelis as just Jews, putting the context of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict into the realm of the religious rather than the political.
But this is not a religious conflict at its heart. It is a political conflict complicated by religious beliefs. Moreover, it is a human conflict, one in which the ultimate settlement must support nonviolence and human rights, religious and political freedoms.
In trying to understand my wavering faith in the current state of Israel, I’ve spoken to a number of people with differing views on the subject. Few, if any, have expressed the same opinion and everyone has a proposed a different solution. The one thing everyone agrees on is that there is no easy answer.
One of my housemates said that Israel’s view of the Palestinians was couched in an “us vs. them” frame, making it easier for Israel to oppress Palestinians. To him, it seems that Israel (or at least the current government) sees the conflict as one where Israel has pitted itself against the entire Arab world, and that the idea of Palestinian nationalism brings out Israeli fears.
His answer involved turning over the Palestinian territory and tightening the Israeli borders, and then letting the two sovereign countries take it from there.
His solution is not an uncommon one, but it is impractical. One problem is that it has proven nearly impossible to divvy up Jerusalem in such a way that the border pleases everyone. Inevitably the Jews, Muslims, or Christians are somehow denied access to a holy site they insist on having under their respective religious jurisdictions.
Also, the economy of an independent Palestine would be largely dependent on Israel, just as the territory is now. Palestine and Israel are co-dependent in many ways.
On the other hand, there is the view of some people who are both religiously and politically conservative. A student I spoke to at a Hillel function suggested that Israel should occupy all of the Palestinian territory.
His suggestion is unrealistic, inhumane, and utterly impractical, as it would almost undoubtedly lead to an even greater Palestinian uprising and an increase in terrorist suicide bombings. It would also displace thousands of Palestinians, many of whom have been living in refugee camps for over a decade.
After each conversation, I am filled with a sense of emptiness that comes from seeking something that is still so completely unresolved. After each conversation, I still have my questions – what do I do if I’m neither wholly for or against Israel? How can both sides be appeased? Will there ever be an answer that is right?