This piece was originally published on The Moderate Voice. Read it here.
JERUSALEM — “So welcome, American, to Palestine,” Bashar says as he taps his hand-rolled cigarette into the ash catcher on an unlit hookah. “What do you know about Palestine?”
In the American public that I know, we hear almost any question about Palestine or Israel as intrusively provocative or overly political. The Clinton Democrats’ platform on the subject is predictable and it demonstrates a paralysis: conversation about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the American public is stuck or non-existent. We “don’t want to get into it.”
The trouble is, we already are: America has been “into it” by supporting Israel economically since the 1950s and militarily since the 1960s. U.S. military aid to Israel is around US$3 billion per year, totaling US$121 billion since World War II (without adjusting for inflation). “Tax dollars at work” arguments aside, unwavering support for Israel is a basic tenet of mainstream U.S. foreign policy talk.
This isn’t news. But when the American public tries to talk about the conflict, we are heavily influenced, if not stopped outright, by having to confront our implicit support for Israel. Given a pre-assigned role in such a long and deep conflict, we stall out: our government appears to have determined who is “right” among Israelis and Palestinians, or at least who it is geopolitically advantageous to support. This starting point inherently pressures American citizens to either stand with their government by default or be absolutely certain about their own conclusion.
As a result, those in the American public who try to “get into it” begin at what can be a very murky level of analysis: we search doggedly for an objective moral conclusion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We look to ethical measurement as a prerequisite to a just peace process: if only we were to wheel in the scales of justice, it would become clear who is “in the right” (other than the current Israeli government).
This scales-of-justice conversation involves a lot of talk about “proportionality”: the question of whether a retaliation for this or that act of violence was proportional and appropriate.
But why do we try to weigh violence against violence? No one suggests that Israelis and Palestinians might find reconciliation by equalizing levels of brutality. Would the two sides repent their respective wrongdoings and bring the walls tumbling down – architecturally and psychologically speaking – a-la-Joshua at Jericho? Would this ethical balancing make international peace efforts more effective? Maybe if we could just measure things out until “right” and “wrong” materialize, Quartet Reports and the French peace initiative would bring resolution.
This emphasis on proportionality does, however, introduce the power of understanding scale and numbers in Israel-Palestine.
Palestinians and Israelis live under our magnifying glass but we still struggle to have a grounded conversation about what actually happens here. The first step out of hand-wringing inertia is to talk. An obvious topic to talk about is the violence one side committed against the other, even if this is a kind of ethical voyeurism. We find this easy because we can use the “crimes” committed by the Palestinians as a frame of reference to evaluate the morality of “crimes” committed by Israelis, and vice-versa.
A less judgmental and potentially more valuable form of comparison, however, would be to take the who, where and what of the conflict and make them concrete and comprehensible.
First, where: Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories take up an area slightly larger than New Jersey (just over 10,700 square miles). The West Bank is a little smaller than Delaware. Gaza is a close in size to Philadelphia but slightly more densely populated (1.8 million Palestinians live there). We know New Jersey. We can picture two Delaware and Philadelphia-sized pieces inside of it. This is a thin strip of land, much of which is desert.
For a flashpoint in the conflict, the Old City of Jerusalem is tiny. It is similar in size to downtown Hamilton, NY, where I went to college – about one square kilometer. It takes just a few minutes to walk from the Western Wall – literally the westernmost wall of the plaza around Al-Aqsa – to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.
Who: Israel has roughly the same population as New York City (8.5 million people). The number of Arabs in Israel is slightly smaller than the number of African Americans in New York (1.7 million). The population of the West Bank is close to the population of Chicago proper – 2.8 million.
This is a starting place for a conversation in the American public that is currently stalled. And this is a conversation that, amid the election circus, we need to be having. From talking about who and where, let’s move on to the what without appointing ourselves the arbiters of justice. We already know where that leads and we don’t have time. It also might not be our place.
As Bashar, a young Palestinian put it to me, “Nineteen years of this s–t. I am so tired.”
There has to be a way to start a dialogue – not between Israelis and Palestinians, but between American citizens. There has to be, if we hope to help the international community go beyond hand-wringing and finger-shaking. There has to be, if the United States will ever seriously evaluate its relations with Israel.
Bashar’s name has been changed.