In recent days, the world has watched as Israel has pulled anguished Jewish settlers from communities in the Gaza strip to allow Palestinians to return to land that was once theirs. What this development portends for the future either of Israel or of Palestine is unclear; while some anticipate that Israel's gesture will help cultivate goodwill, others worry that it will be interpreted as a validation of terrorist violence. Over the years, The Atlantic has reported on many aspects of the spiritual-national project that is Israel, and on the resentment and hurt it has fostered among the Palestinians it displaced. At this historic moment—as acreage in the hotly contested Holy Land changes hands once again—now seems an appropriate moment to revisit a selection of those articles.
In "A Jewish Palestine" (July 1919), H. Sacher explained the scriptural and historical basis of the Zionist impulse. "'With him who dwells outside Palestine it is as though God were not with him,'" he wrote, quoting from rabbinical works. "'To live in the land of Israel outweighs all the commands of the Torah.'" All of Judaism, Sacher claimed, is tied together by the "triple thread of God, the Jewish people, and the Jewish land."
Rabbi Milton Steinberg, in "The Creed of an American Zionist" (February 1945), argued for the formation of a Jewish commonwealth in Palestine. In the wake of the Holocaust, he asserted, the revitalization of Hebraic culture would require a safe haven "where the homeless Jews of the world shall have found rest; where the Jewish spirit shall have been reborn; whence shall flow to the Jewries of the Dispersion inspiration and the stuff on which it feeds."
"The Kingdom of the Spirit" (November 1961) by David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, explained that, far more than a mere "national and political unit," Israel was to become a spiritual arena in which "a new way toward freedom, peace, justice, and equality, the advancement and redemption of humanity" would be "point[ed] out to the world."
In 1961, Martha Gellhorn traveled to the Middle East to spend time in Palestinian refugee camps, speaking at length with dispossessed Palestinians and gauging their mood. The depth of bitterness against Israel, she reported in "The Arabs of Palestine" (October 1961), was extreme. "The children are taught hate," she reported. "The garden of Eden stolen from them by murderers; their duty is to live for Return and Revenge."
In "Israel and the Arabs: The Myths that Block Peace" (January, 1969), the political scientist Charles Yost argued for the feasibility of Arab-Israeli peace. He suggested that if each side could only be persuaded to relinquish its cherished myths—the sense each had, for example, of its own innate superiority and divine right to control the Holy Land—then the conflict could be approached as a purely political, logistical matter, and a workable compromise could be devised. Should the two sides stubbornly refuse to listen to reason, he argued, then outside intervention on the part of the United Nations would be required to work out a compromise.
In "Why Israel Can't Take 'Bold Steps' for Peace" (October 1985) Irish statesman Conor Cruise O'Brien argued that hopes for rational solutions to the Middle Eastern conflict are unfounded. He suggested that the modern Western world's rationalism has led many to believe, wrongly, that a logical settlement is all that is required for the attainment of peace. "The Jewish claim to Jerusalem is not a matter of rational argument; nor is the Moslem claim; nor will the two claims be reconciled, or either side appeased, by arbitration."
In "Runaway Revolution" (June 1988), Ehud Ya'ari took a considered look at the Palestinian uprising—or intifada—in which Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza protested the Jewish occupation by hurling stones, closing their shops and businesses, and erecting barricades against Jews. Most observers had assumed that the movement had been instigated by top leaders of the PLO. But in truth, Ya'ari suggested, signs indicated that it was in fact a grassroots development, growing out of the day-to-day "frustration, humiliation, and despair" of ordinary Palestinians living in occupied territory. After all, he pointed out, they face everything from "frequent and humiliating checks at roadblocks to cavalier treatment at work and discrimination in setting wages." And after spending all day working in Israel constructing nice homes for Jews, they return "home at night to sewage flowing in the streets between their wretched huts."
Most recently, in "Will Israel Live to 100?" (May 2005), Benjamin Schwarz warned of dim prospects for the state of Israel. He argued that recent reparations and efforts to establish some semblance of peace between Israel and Palestine will not, ultimately, ensure a satisfactory compromise. He wrote, "The very circumstances that have pushed both sides toward accommodation militate against it. Indeed, they point toward catastrophe." The demographic (and geographic) reality is, Schwarz argued, that Israel will probably not be able to hold onto its territory in the coming generations. "The century-long Palestinian-Zionist conflict is a story of two peoples, each with reasonable claims to the same piece of earth; and nearly every aspect of that story suggests that in the end—and to the detriment of those peoples, their region, and perhaps the entire world—their aspirations are not amenable to compromise."
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