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3:27pm Thu Jul 31 '03
An agreed-upon starting point is essential, because each party to this long dispute begins the narrative of its claim to the land at a different point in history. This should not be surprising, since nations and peoples who are in conflict generally select as the beginning of their national narrative a point that best serves to support their claims and grievances. When the American colonists sought separation from England, their Declaration of Independence began the narrative with a history of "repeated injuries and usurpations" committed by "the present king," such as "imposing taxes on us without our consent" and "quartering large bodies of armed troops among us." Those who opposed separation began their narrative with the wrongs perpetrated by the colonists, such as their refusal to pay certain taxes and the provocations directed against British soldiers. Similarly, the Israeli Declaration of Independence begins its narrative with the land of Israel being "the birthplace of the Jewish People," where they "first attained statehood ... and gave the world the Eternal Book of Books." The original Palestine National Charter begins with the "Zionist occupation" and rejects any "claim of historical or spiritual links between the Jews and Palestine," the United Nation's partition of Palestine, and the "establishment of the state of Israel."
Any attempt to unravel the complexly disputed and ultimately unverifiable historical contentions of extremist Israelis and Arabs only produces unrealistic arguments on both sides. It is, of course, necessary to have some description of the history -- ancient and modern -- of this land and its ever-changing demographics, for no reason other than to begin to understand how reasonable people can draw such diametrically opposed conclusions from the same basic facts on the ground. The reality, of course, is that only some of the facts are agreed upon. Much is disputed and believed to be absolute truth by some, while others believe that its opposite is equally true.
This dramatic disparity in perception results from a number of factors. Sometimes it is a matter of the interpretation of an agreed-upon event. For example, as we will see, everyone agrees that hundreds of thousands of Arabs who once lived in what is now Israel no longer live there. Although the precise number is in dispute, the major disagreement is whether all, most, some, or none of these refugees were chased out of Israel, left because Arab leaders urged them to, or some combination of these and other factors. There is also disagreement over how long many of these refugees had actually lived in the places they left, since the United Nations defined a Palestinian refugee -- unlike any other refugee in history -- as anyone who had lived in what became Israel for only two years prior to leaving.
Because it is impossible to reconstruct the precise dynamics and atmospherics that accompanied the 1948 war waged by the Arab states against Israel, the one conclusion about which we can be absolutely certain is that no one will ever know -- or convince his or her opponents -- whether most of the Arabs who left Israel were chased, left on their own, or experienced some combination of factors that led them to move from one place to another. Israel has recently opened many of its historical archives to scholars, and newly available information has produced more insights and interpretations but has not -- and will never -- end all disagreements.
Similarly, the 850,000 Sephardic Jews who had lived in Arab countries before 1948, most of whom ended up in Israel, were either forced to leave, left on their own, or experienced some combination of fear, opportunity, and religious destiny. Again, the precise dynamics will never be known, especially since the Arab countries they left do not maintain, or refuse to share, historical records and archives.
Each side is entitled to its self-serving narrative so long as it recognizes that others may interpret the facts somewhat differently. Sometimes the dispute is about definition of terms rather than interpretation of facts. For example, it is often claimed by Arabs that Israel was allocated 54 percent of the land of Palestine, despite the fact that only 35 percent of the residents of that land were Jews. Israelis, on the other hand, contend that Jews were a clear majority in the parts of the land allocated to Israel when the United Nations partitioned the disputed land. As you will see, precise definitions can sometimes narrow disparities.
Another starting point must include some kind of statute of limitations for ancient grievances. Just as the case for Israel can no longer rely exclusively on the expulsion of the Jews from the land of Israel in the first century, so too the Arab case must move beyond a reliance on events that allegedly occurred more than a century ago. One reason for statutes of limitations is the recognition that as time passes it becomes increasingly difficult to reconstruct the past with any degree of precision, and political memories harden and replace the facts. As it has been said, "There are facts and there are true facts."
With regard to the events preceding the First Aliyah in 1882 (the initial immigration of European Jewish refugees to Palestine), there are more political and religious memories than true facts. We know that there has always been a Jewish presence in Israel, particularly in the holy cities of Jerusalem, Hebron, and Safad, and that there has been a Jewish plurality or majority in Jerusalem for centuries. We know that European Jews began to move to what is now Israel in significant numbers during the 1880s -- only shortly after the time when Australians of British descent began to displace Aboriginal Australians and Americans of European descent began to move into some Western lands originally populated by Native Americans.
The Jews of the First Aliyah did not displace local residents by conquest or fear as the Americans and Australians did. They lawfully and openly bought land -- much of it thought to be nonarable -- from absentee landlords. No one who accepts the legitimacy of Australia being an English speaking Christian nation, or of Western America being part of the United States, can question the legitimacy of the Jewish presence in what is now Israel from the 1880s to the present. Even before the U.N. Partition of 1947, international treaties and law recognized that the Jewish community in Palestine was there, as a matter "of right," and any rational discussion of the conflict must be premised on the assumption that the "fundamental conflict" is "of right with right." Such conflicts are often the most difficult to resolve, since each side must be persuaded to compromise what it believes is an absolute claim of right. The task becomes even more daunting when some on each side see their claim as based on God's mandate.
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