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Israelis, Palestinians and the Myth of Cultural Identity

Religion and tribes are what keeps war going…

“A nation is a society united by a delusion about its past and by a common hatred of its neighbours.” (Dean Inge)

I met an old Israeli friend the other day and though we hadn’t seen each other for a year we got into an argument about politics within minutes.

He had been in Australia for a year and was now heading back to Israel and was lamenting that people thought there might be another war with Lebanon that summer. He just wanted to be with his girlfriend, get a good job and do some surfing. Now he wondered if he might be called to go and fight.

I gave him my view that the Israelis need to stop pretending they’re part of Europe and wake up to the fact that they’re in the Middle East. That if they want any peace with the Arabs they need to start recognizing what happened in 1947/8 and also learning some Arabic, to tear down some of the cultural and physical walls that separate them.

After all, Hebrew is pretty similar to Arabic, linguistically speaking and Arabs and Jews share ancient geographical, religious and cultural roots.

“Why should we have to do that?” he growled, “Why should we have to make all the effort? Why’s it up to us to make all the concessions? Every time we do make concessions they always come back and make war soon afterwards.”

Why is it up to the Israelis? Because they have most of the power. Because they control the roads, the borders, the water, the electric, the economy. Because they have the physical power and also the moral debt of all the homes destroyed, the olive trees cut down, the tens of thousands of Palestinians arrested and held without evidence in prison camps, many of whom were tortured, some to death.

Besides, a minute ago he was telling me how much he wanted to live in peace. To refuse to do anything about what you want, to refuse to make any concessions is distinctly adolescent.

“But it’s not all one side!” he protested, “Why do their leaders steal all the money that comes in? Why do they blow themselves up on our buses?”

The Palestinian leaders are definitely corrupt. They siphon off aid money from the UN to their own Swiss bank accounts instead of building schools and hospitals. No doubt. But in any conflict, each side has to deal with their own responsibilites and karma, never mind what the other side does.

And although both sides suffer, the Palestinians suffer a great deal more. Around 3 times more Palestinians have died since the current intifada began in 2000.

And let’s not forget, the Palestinians were living in their land quite happily until Jewish settlers arrived in the 1890’s and then en masse after the second world war. But the dispossession of the Palestinians set against the holocaust was like a candle against the sun.

But a candle can still burn.

“But whose land is this?” he insisted, “We were here 2000 years ago…”

That old chestnut. Presumably then the Israeli government would be happy to extend military support to the Mayas in Mexico, the Native Americans, the Bushmen in South Africa and the Aboriginals in Australia, all of whom had settled and civilised their countries long before Abraham.

Tribal and religous identities are attractive to those who belong. They bind people together, provide economic and cultural security and allow the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts.

The trouble comes when one tribe meets another, when one religion meets another. Then those identities conflict, fight over resources and wars of one form or another are started.

If there’s any hope to resolving conflicts in this world, we have to meet as people. We’re not Jews, Muslims, Israelis or Arabs – we’re human beings who all breathe, bleed, eat, sleep, fall in love and someday die.

That day will be much sooner for many of us if we persist in believing the myths of tribal culture and religion. They’re sacred cows that are behind almost every conflict on the planet.

That’s maybe the beauty of travel, that you can leave your tribe behind.