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When Can We Talk About Israel?

Human beings have long been engaged in dramatic struggles. We want to honor our better angels, yet our demons wait on the corner, smirking. They know we’ll crack. Evolution has handed us a harrowing deal: humans are empathetic and even compassionate beings when it comes to our family and tribe. Beyond that, we’re vicious animals. 

As Yale University psychology and cognitive science professor Paul Bloom writes, when considering others little of our innate beauty remains.

We are by nature indifferent, even hostile, to strangers; we are prone toward parochialism and bigotry. Some of our instinctive emotional responses, most notably disgust, spur us to do terrible things, including acts of genocide.

Welcome to Israel. No topic immediately conjures such disgust and revulsion, such powerfully charged emotional reactions, as this eternally tumultuous land. Yet the fact this particular terrain has always been the site of controversy holds clues to what is going on now. Unfortunately humans have short attention spans and hold long grudges; trying to reason with people closed off to rational thought will gain you no ground.

I am not for a ‘side.’ Both tribes—this is the epitome of tribal warfare—have committed atrocious acts that neither should be proud of. Yet for most of modern history, the main instigator in this struggle was not Jewish or Muslim. In fact, as religious historian Karen Armstrong writes, followers of these two religions often bonded under duress from Christian invaders.

In November, 1095, Pope Urban II summoned his Christian followers to ‘exterminate this vile race from our lands.’ Jerusalem was the city of Jesus; he was rather upset that Muslims were in control. Over the next two years roughly 160,000 soldiers and pilgrims set off to take back what he perceived to be their land. From the outset, the ordeal had little to do with actual religion. Devotion and genocide are conspicuous bedfellows when real estate is involved.

The initial Crusade failed miserably. In fact, later Crusades were launched not to just acquire land, but to teach Christian soldiers, many of whom had settled in Muslim lands and began intermarrying with the very devils they were supposed to chase out, a lesson. The soldiers were doing what humans do when meeting new people: congregating and merging. This did not sit well in the north.

Armstrong notes that for a while Jews ‘no longer saw physical possession of the Holy Land as essential to the Jewish identity.’ In fact, in this video from 1896, we see the triad of faiths living in Palestine under a relatively stable order, each worshipping their own god without persecution. It might not have been perfect, yet it wasn’t that different from today’s New York City, where entire cultures live apart from one another connected by an expansive subway system.

This all changed when an Austro-Hungarian journalist named Theodor Herzl devised a plan to create a settlement for Jews to escape growing anti-Semitism in Europe. In the early twentieth century Herzl supported a plan to found such a settlement, not in Palestine, but in Uganda. Talks failed and the idea was abandoned, the focus returning to Palestine, though Herzl, the man most responsible for initiating a Jewish state, died before the Uganda Scheme failed.

Herzl’s dream of returning to Palestine would, obviously, take root. The idea of Jewish nationalism kicked up again, although, as Armstrong writes, the first settlers were anything but pleased. Life was not easy; food was in short supply on fallow lands; many fled. Still, the notion of a ‘return’ drove them forward, even though Muslims had their own connection to the city: it is believed that in 620 Mohammad made his Night Journey to Jerusalem to speak with Moses and Jesus.

It should be noted that Muslims consider older prophets an important part of their religious identity. It just happens that Mohammad is the main man. Jerusalem is the third most important city in Islam, after Mecca and Medina. Even more interestingly, early on Islam gave up the notion of jihad, the catchphrase that so frightens pundits today. By the beginning of the eighth century they felt all would be decided at the Last Judgment. The sword was laid down and Muslim leaders, while ambitious in scope, tried not to oppress others on the basis of religion. The resurgence of the jihad came only more recently due to what is perceived as Western oppression.

This is not an endorsement for holy wars. It’s just that what is peddled today as factual information is a far cry from the nuanced history of Israel and Palestine. Few such points can ever be put forward without instantly being labeled anti-Semitic (something I’ve experienced before when even invoking the term Palestine) or anti-Islam. The battle for this land has lasted for centuries under the guise of religion and identity, though that is a deceptive disguise. This is and always has been about those ancient principles of tribal warfare: land, money and power.

When either religion claims to have divine rights to land, both look ridiculous. As the mythologist Joseph Campbell, commenting on the famous earthrise photograph of the earth rising over the horizon of the moon, writes,

Is the center the earth? Is the center the moon? The center is anywhere you like… The rising earth shows none of those divisive territorial lines that on our maps are so conspicuous and important. The chosen center may be anywhere. The Holy Land is no special place. It is every place that has ever been recognized and mythologized by any people as home. 

Americans are intensely polarized on this issue. Over here anyone criticizing Israel is anti-Semitic; there, a growing surge of academics unwilling to label anything Islamic wrong, as evidenced in Brandeis University’s decision to not award an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a critic of female genital mutilation and Islam in general. It is not a good sign that this collection of Israeli teens tweet that Muslims should be killed and torched, Israel ‘cleaned of any Arabs’ so the land can ‘be free of the stinking Arabs’ and they ‘die of great suffering.’ I’m sure others express opposing sentiments.

Paul Bloom, cited above, writes about this tactic: when you inspire disgust in a race of people, you no longer feel they are even human. Sentiments like the above become plausible. If you can write off an entire race as inhuman, well, then you experience what began in Germany a little less than a century ago. We’re watching that very process unfold on social media today through the lens of the next generation.

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Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes that in order to change another person’s mind on a political or moral matter, you have to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. If you are able to accomplish this, you open your mind to other possibilities. Empathy becomes the antidote to righteousness.

I conclude with one last quote from him for it echoes my own feelings. May cooler heads and more open hearts prevail, and the righteous indignation and land stealing that’s been going on for centuries be the only things that disappear.

When I was a teenager I wished for world peace, but now I yearn for a world in which competing ideologies are kept in balance, systems of accountability keep us all from getting away with too much, and fewer people believe that righteous ends justify violent means. Not a very romantic wish, but one that we might eventually achieve. 

Image: Francesco de Marco/


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