Tuesday, December 15, 2009
13 December 09
I moved to Israel from the United States in December 1981. It was the same day that the Israeli government officially annexed the Golan Heights. Hearing about it literally as me, my wife and our three month old daughter - now a lawyer in Tel Aviv - were about to board the plane, I mentally processed the issues: Is such a unilateral move legal? Is it wise? Is it just? To be honest, I pretty much just shrugged and got on the plane.
Over the last 28 years I have come to appreciate the shrug as the signature gesture of Israeli children. When an Israeli child has doubts about something on offer from an adult, the shrug is her way of signaling: "Sorry, that doesn't work for me." While the physical shrug disappears with age, the Israeli manner of shrugging things off is at one and the same endearing and off -putting. But given the environment of endless hostility in which Israelis live, their shrug is not the kind that reflects callousness but reconciliation to the fact that life in this part of the world is really messy, both morally and practically. There's not much choice but to carry on.
Consider the Golan Heights. Before 1967 the Syrians constantly shelled Israeli agricultural settlements that lay below the Heights, and not much else was going on there. Since Israel conquered the Golan in response to Syrian aggression in 1967, it has flourished under Israeli rule, providing a burgeoning tourist industry to Jews, Arabs and Druze who live there. Israelis cultivate Golan vineyards that have produced world class wines that even left wing Israelis enjoy. To be sure, some Golan inhabitants, in particular in certain Druze villages, still express a preference for Syria. In exchange for normal relations with Syria, I might be willing, subject to continued access and water sharing arrangements, to return the Golan to Syria. But I don't feel any moral compunction about vacationing there. Shrug.
I live on land in Jerusalem that was empty when I arrived, but who knows who owned it before 1948. Many of my friends live in Arab houses that were definitely owned by Palestinians in the past, and some have even looked them up to ascertain that the previous owners have no desire to make a claim. I have watched as Palestinians from the territories conquered in 1967 benefited from improvements in their quality of life that came from Israeli health and social services, all the while chafing, and often reacting with barbaric disproportionate violence including suicide bombings to what they call "occupation." I detest the minority of obnoxious, ethnocentric Arab-baiting Israeli settlers who place their obsession with physically living in certain areas of Jewish historical significance above any other consideration, including the rule of law.
But I don't feel any moral doubts about the main blocks of settlements inhabited by law-abiding hard-working citizens. Between the extremists on both sides who have acted persistently to thwart any accommodation, I judge the Palestinians as worse. Because even when Israel has made concessions and given up territory, the Palestinian extremists have responded with stepped-up violence to the detriment of both Israelis and Palestinians. So I shrug and take the position that as long as the Palestinians seem more interested in eliminating the Jewish state than in achieving a compromise, I'm off the moral hook.