Ariel Sharon was once the right-wing bogeyman of Israeli politics, despised and feared by Jewish moderates and liberals in both Israel and the United States. Sharon first garnered attention conducting "retaliatory" raids against Palestinian villages in Israel’s 1948 war of independence; he later earned opprobrium for allowing the slaughter of Palestinian refugees by Christian militiamen during Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Today he is Israel’s prime minister, and his belligerent attitude and policies toward the Palestinians have changed little. What has changed is the support Sharon enjoys among Israelis and American Jews. Sharon’s tough policy of leveling Palestinian refugee camps, assassinating "known terrorist leaders," humiliating Yasir Arafat, and destroying the Palestinian Authority’s physical infrastructure is supported by a remarkable two-thirds of the Israeli public and American Jews.

Why have so many Jewish liberals and long-time peace activists here and in Israel rallied behind Sharon’s actions? "We have no choice," is the most frequent response. Arafat’s apparent rejection of Ehud Barak’s unprecedented offer at Camp David, the renewed intifada and especially the waves of suicide bombings, the growing chorus of European criticism of Israeli military actions, and the outbreak of anti-Semitic violence across Europe are seen as constituting a threat to the very existence of the Jewish state.

Sorting out the competing claims of Jews and Palestinians is all but impossible. On the one side: Arafat rejected peace when he rejected Barak’s offer at Camp David. On the other: Barak did not offer territory that would lead to a viable Palestinian state. Arafat instigated the second intifada. No, it was Sharon’s inflammatory visit to the Temple Mount. Arafat controls the terrorist attacks. Israel’s incursions into the West Bank will not end the suicide bombings, they only sow the seeds of greater Palestinian rage. The true obstacles to peace are: (1) the Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, or (2) the establishment of a Palestinian state, which will be the first step in the destruction of the Jewish one. The list goes on.

With such a large majority within the Jewish community agreed on the magnitude of the threat now facing Israel, one thing is certain: it is important for critics of Sharon’s policies to take Jewish fears seriously. That doesn’t mean condoning Israel’s military action in the West Bank. Even if the destruction of the Jenin refugee camp was tactically justified, it is hard to see how such military actions contribute to any long-term solution. Hunting down and killing every terrorist will not solve the problem of Palestinian statelessness. Sharon, as even some of his sympathizers admit, is a man of almost no political imagination. He is little more than a blunt instrument of retribution, a leader who seems incapable of compromise.

But lambasting Sharon’s political limitations and military excesses will not change Jewish hearts and minds when Israel’s survival is seen to be at stake. No matter how unjust Israeli settlements on the West Bank are, no matter how oppressive life is under Israeli occupation, nothing justifies the Palestinians’ deliberate targeting of civilians. To the extent that Israel and its American supporters sense that Arafat is trying to gain political advantage through the use of terror, no progress toward peace is possible. Israel’s resolve will not weaken but only increase if the bombings and the intifada continue.

To be sure, Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, its use of overwhelming military force against an overmatched opponent, and its continuing expropriation of Palestinian land is a recipe for endless strife. The deaths of thousands of Palestinian civilians, including children, at the hands of the Israel Defense Force is a scandal and often a crime. Palestinians, it is fair to say, are not driven by anti-Semitic fantasies, but have an honest grievance against Israel. But recognizing the legitimacy of the Palestinian grievance offers no ready solution to the problem, especially when the Palestinian cause cannot be separated from its reliance on terrorism. Israel was established as a refuge for those who had somehow survived the Nazi extermination camps. Arab rejection of Israel has long been explicitly anti-Semitic, and the demonization of Jews in the Arab world is redolent of the Nazi message. The effect on Israelis of Arab propaganda calling for the destruction of Israel and the killing of Jews, not to mention the three wars waged against Israel, cannot be underestimated. Israelis have good reason to be paranoid about the real motives of the Palestinians and their Arab supporters.

With trust between Jews and Palestinians all but destroyed, what can be done to at least begin a process of peacemaking? It is in desperate times perhaps that small gestures mean the most. Religion, so crucial to the identity of both peoples, can still play a role in reconciling them. In his Holy War, Holy Peace: How Religion Can Bring Peace to the Middle East (Oxford), Marc Gopin suggests, for example, that religious sites in Israel and Palestine can be places where gestures of regret and reconciliation can be made by representatives of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faiths. Each side, Gopin urges, should reach out to the injured on the other side. Religious leaders on both sides can also come together to mourn the deaths of innocent victims, whether they are the victims of suicide bombings or of Israeli military action. Gopin, who has worked with small groups of Palestinians and Jews, warns that the failure of high-level political efforts can be traced to the lack of hope and will for peace among ordinary Palestinians and Israelis. There must exist a desire for peace and a belief that coexistence is possible among the people before leaders will find the courage to act. At the moment, neither Jews nor Palestinians believe the other side wants peace.

If Gopin is right, building hope requires many small steps. Jointly mourning the dead and tending to the injured is one way to open our eyes to the humanity of the enemy.

May 21, 2002

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Published in the 2002-06-01 issue: View Contents
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