I spent Rosh Hashana with my wife’s family in Jerusalem. Her nonagenarian parents, who were participants in Israel’s emergence as a nation, sat at one end of the long table. Next to them, her brother displayed a bowl containing the head of a fish, signifying the beginning of the Jewish New Year. The first foods were placed on the table as her niece, just beginning her compulsory two years in the Israeli army, whispered to me “they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.” The first foods are symbolic: For the cyclic turning of the year, a round sesame-sprinkled loaf of challah; for inherent principles (rights and duties), bright red pomegranate seeds; for sweetness, slices of apple dipped in honey and dates stuffed with walnuts. I like to think that most all of our international squabbles might be solved over such a Thanksgiving-like table laden with the fish soup, and meats, and salads, and cakes, and coffees which followed.
Sadly, as I learned first hand during two weeks in Israel, reconciliation between the peoples of the region shows no signs of flowering. At Rosh Hashana, custom has it, a person empties their pockets into water, and starts afresh. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, whose associates, and even whose wife, have lined their pockets, gives no sign that he is willing to “let bygones be bygones” and take a fresh approach to lowering regional tensions.
Netanyahu and President Donald Trump spoke to the U.N. General Assembly on the eve of Rosh Hashana. High on their agenda was the bashing of the 2015 pact with Iran worked out by the Obama administration along with France, Britain, Germany, Russia, and China. This nuclear pact imposes strict limits on Iran’s nuclear activities for ten years in return for lifting of sanctions. Every 90 days congress certifies that Iran is abiding by the terms of the deal.
Later this month, Trump, who made nixing the deal a campaign promise, is preparing to punt the decision to abandon the pact to Congress. The present, far-right leaning Israeli government, I gather from reading the newspaper in Israel, would rather have Iran get a nuclear weapon than grant any possibility of rapprochement with a sworn, terrorist-supporting, enemy.
Here is the central conundrum of the Middle East: Hurting my enemy is more important than not hurting myself. This lethal paradox is contained in the parable of the frog and the scorpion which I first heard while training for a Peace Corps assignment in the region in the 1960s. When they are halfway across the river, the scorpion stings the frog. “But you said you wouldn’t sting me,” says the frog, “now we’ll both be dead.” The scorpion has the last word: “But this is the Middle East.”
I have no illusions about the Israel-hostile policies and actions of Iran, the Hezbollah, and Syria’s blood-soaked Assad. I firmly believe in Israel’s right to exist, and hold its rise to nationhood after WWII and the holocaust — against great odds and an unremitting Arab hatred of Jews — to be among the greatest human achievements of the 20th Century. The Israel of its early architects Theodore Hertzl, David Ben Gurion, and that indomitable girl from Milwaukee, Golda Meir, was firmly committed to the practice of Western morality and to coexistence with the people with whom it shared the land. Unfortunately, over recent decades, the more uncompromising elements of Israeli society have gained ascendency in their parliamentary system.
The day before I left, I had a long conversation with a Palestinian woman. She said that initially Israel was in favor of the nuclear agreement with Iran. Why then the change? “The Iranians support the Palestinians, therefore the Israelis oppose anything Iran does.”
Such rigid side-taking by all parties poisons the well from which they all drink. Legitimate historical and present-day grievances exist on both sides — along with plenty of propaganda to nurse them. Nevertheless, millions of Palestinians live side by side with Jews in peaceful coexistence, an every-day reality which took me by surprise during my visit. As everywhere, extremists grab the headlines, whether they are the person in the street or the leader at the top. Yet, I met many Jews who yearn for peace and long for the more humanistic philosophy of Israel’s founders. And I was received warmly by Palestinians and told I should visit the West Bank (the occupied territory) and see how modern and prosperous it had become. Indeed I look forward to my next visit.