Columns » Ernest Dumas

Why Jerusalem matters

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Israel and Palestine have been on the fringe of the American consciousness for half a century, but what most of us know and think about the bewildering moil of issues there can be distilled into four words: Muslims bad, Israel good.

The issues are too complex and their relevance to our lives too remote to give much thought to or squander much passion on. Health care, deficits, big government, bailouts, socialism, terrorists — those are the horrors and imaginings that have driven many into the streets, or to town halls, in this raging summer of discontent.

But it is not a stretch to say that much, perhaps most, of the vague distemper that arose and exploded around health care this summer can be traced pretty directly to the failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Certainly the giant deficits that suddenly caused women to weep and middle-aged men to bray at the town halls. Two Middle Eastern wars and a massive federal apparatus to secure us from the terrorists and ourselves have added a couple trillion dollars to our mortgaged future with far more debt gorging through the pipeline. They were our response to the zealots on 9/11 who wanted to punish us for supporting Israel in the repression of Palestinians and for defiling the holy soil of Saudi Arabia with our soldiers.

So a Jerusalem mother came from the cauldron this week to tell us in tones of uncommon sweetness why we ought to care a little more than we do about what happens to her and her neighbors, all her neighbors. It is this, Gila Svirsky said: Without a negotiated peace for Jerusalem, for which the United States is the linchpin, the unrelenting suffering of Palestinians will continue, Israel will remain insecure and its national values debased, and the United States will continue to pay a price in blood and treasure. Is that enough?

Svirsky, New Jersey born, moved to Israel as a student and took citizenship in time to celebrate the country's victory in the Six Day War. She was in the crowd that waited all night at war's end for the joy of being the first allowed into the Old City and to the Western Wall. It meant so much then, so little now.

In Arkansas for a string of talks arranged by Arkansas Action for Peace, Svirsky recapitulated her gradual conversion to peace activism. In the weeks after the victory, all those Palestinians in the occupied territories were mere ciphers. They were not worth thinking about.  They became human through personal relationships. Twenty-one years ago she joined the Women in Black, who protested the occupation of southern Lebanon. Svirsky's wide women's movement now embraces Palestinians and Jews, equally committed to a just and permanent peace based on two independent and equal nations.

She came gradually to the view that the country she loved so passionately was not quite perfect and that the government was debasing the values of its founding as a refuge from persecution. She was in Gaza for the trial of the 16-year-old son of a Palestinian friend, who was convicted in an Israeli court and imprisoned for 10 months for scrawling this bit of graffiti: “Two states for two nations.”

Peace can come, Svirsky says, in the only just way: Israel's withdrawal roughly to its national borders, the dismantling of the illegal settlements, the sharing of Jerusalem as the capital for Jews and Palestinians, recognition of the state of Palestine and Arab recognition of Israel's right to exist. A significant majority of both Israelis and Palestinians, even much of the support for the radical Hamas party, favor such a settlement, but events and policy, as it so often happens, are driven by the extremists — in this case, the relatively small factions of extremists from the three faiths, Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

In some ways, the most troubling extremists are the Christians, the evangelicals in America who see war and Israel's triumph as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. They are the America that Israelis see, the stream of evangelicals on the Baptist-preacher tour of the holy land. Last month, Svirsky was dismayed by the heavy attention given to our former governor, Mike Huckabee, who paid a visit to the Holy Land under the sponsorship of Ateret Kohanim, an extreme religious group that wants Israel to populate the occupied territories and drive the Palestinians out. Huckabee, flouting the policies of every U. S. administration, Republican and Democratic, since Lyndon Johnson, opposed a Palestinian state, said Israelis should take over whatever land they wanted and suggested removing Palestinians to some place on the planet — he didn't care where.

Such ignorant pandering to extremists by a man characterized in Israel as the leading Republican candidate for president in 2012 does enormous damage to the prospects for peace. It neuters the United States' critical role in pressuring the Israeli government, now headed by a man with no fixed ideological principles but who panders himself to the angriest element, to negotiate a peace.

Look, Svirsky told a crowd at the Pulaski Heights Methodist Church Sunday, you don't have to become an expert on Middle East history and the intricacies of territorial and religious disputes to know what should be done. Channeling Abraham Lincoln, she said all you need to remember is that it is never good, for either side, for one people to hold dominion over another.

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