MAJOR CRISES in the world have a habit of bringing to light faults that
run deep in every contemporary human situation, not just whatever local
tragedies have triggered the catastrophe. So it is with the nightmare
deadlock in the Holy Land.
The aim of Israeli military action is, naturally, security: an end to
the terrible random violence of the suicide bombers. They seem to assume
that this means turning Israel into a fortress, with the capacity for
swift and uncompromising action against anyone who violates their
This is where they are most clearly a symbol of the kind of world we
inhabit. Cities throughout the world are seeing the growth of “fortress
housing”: estates of new properties for the wealthy surrounded by
refined electronic surveillance equipment.
The global economy advances by reinforcing not just the prosperity but
the security of the rich nations. Outside the enclave there may be
poverty and, increasingly, anarchy – countries reduced to political
chaos by the vicious cycles of poverty, debt and corruption; but
economic protectionism and military sophistication will keep us safe.
Before we point the finger at Israel, then, it is as well to recognise
that we are not talking about security at all.
The one thing that does not feature in this bleak picture is the one
thing that could actually change the situation – that is, the imagining
of a future in which the welfare of insiders and outsiders is seen as
being, in principle, convergent.
That vision of a common future is the secular shadow of what Easter
promises and realises for Christians: the world converging on the risen
Jesus. To abandon that is apostasy for Christians; to abandon even its
shadow in the wider world is to refuse a hope that has been
authoritatively given by God.
So, in a situation like that of the Holy Land today, we have to be as
clear as we can be about what frustrates this.
We do not have to look far. Israel has endured decades of pressure from
neighbours who, until very recently, have insisted that it has no right
at all to exist, whose aim has been to turn the clock back to conditions
that have irrecoverably vanished.
One of the most outspoken critics of Israeli policy from within the
Jewish community, Marc Ellis, has said lately that we must not delude
ourselves that the map can be completely redrawn.
But the rhetoric of Israel’s Arab neighbours has implied just this: this
is a portion of history that must be airbrushed away.
From the other side, there is an equal level of illusion: that there
were never really long-term settlements in the Holy Land before 1948; no
one left except by their own free will; Jordan is the true Palestinian
state; and, if need be (this is being said very clearly on the Israeli
Right), the remaining populations in the territories can be moved on.
Israel can survive as an independent and open democracy once the dream
of an autonomous Palestine has been finally crushed.
James Fenton, in a haunting poem about Jerusalem, wrote of the “warrior
archaeologists” who dominate the conflict, who follow “the Law of No
History is set aside as much by the Israeli fanatics who destroy Muslim
or Byzantine sites as by the Palestinians who question any occupation of
the Temple Mount before the first century of our era, and ignore the
continuing Jewish history in the land since then.
No common past means no common future. There is no possibility of peace
without a rediscovery of history, not as a weapon but as a discovery of
involvement with the other.
Facing illusions is painful. Arabs, both Muslim and Christian, have to
confront the facts of Arab anti-Jewishness over the centuries of Muslim
rule, not often as murderous in those days as in Europe, but real
enough, up to the 20th century. It is not quite accurate to say that
before 1948 there was peaceful pluralism.
More recently, notably since the last war, Arab publicists have
reproduced the most slanderous and ignorant European myths about
Judaism. It was only this year that the story surfaced again of Jews
making unleavened bread with the blood of Gentiles.
For Israel, too, the illusions are not only about the past. The massive
subsidies, economic and military, from the USA that guarantee the
continuance of Israel must prompt some self-examination as to what would
be a truly viable scale for Israel’s growth and standard of living.
The territorial claims of successive administrations imply that, for
this one nation in the world, it is possible to define boundaries
unilaterally, without reference to international law. This is an
unsustainable position, on any showing.
And the open secret of Israel’s nuclear capacity has to be brought into
public discussion if there is ever to be any remote chance of an honest
policy about regional security.
What the UN or the USA, or anyone else outside the situation, can do is
limited; we need to be realistic about that, too. But perhaps they can
ask some questions about the past as well as the future.
Imagine, for a moment, a situation in which there has been a military
withdrawal and ceasefire in the Holy Land; Israel (a new Israeli
government? Not, I think Sharon’s administration) has given a clear
commitment against new settlements, perhaps even dismantling one or two
Arafat has handed over negotiating powers to a small group augmented by
representatives from Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt (and Syria?), on the
understanding that all the countries involved openly repudiate the
suicide bombings. (It is a harder matter actually to stop them; as has
been said, the “infrastructure of terror” in this context is almost
entirely informal and invisible.)
The USA, with UN support, initiate first, not direct negotiations about
land, but something like the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation,
working towards a set of statements on the recent past that will try to
say what has been unsayable about the history of both parties.
The signatories of the Alexandria Declaration are invited to review the
status of Jerusalem.
What would all this make possible? We can’t know, and it is a fairly
remote dream. But we do need to think a bit laterally, to get ourselves
out of the iron grooves of violence and simple territorial battling. We
need to think what mechanisms could bring about anything like this.
And for Christians, it is, as I’ve suggested, a question of how the
Easter promise becomes concrete.
We have been given a common future in the wake of the common admission
of the destructive, compulsive past from which we emerge (sin), the
admission made possible by the tangible presence of God’s absolution.
Again and again, we must ask how this becomes political, human
Otherwise, the only epitaph is the dreadful simplicity of the end of
James Fenton’s poem:
“I have destroyed your home. You have destroyed my home.”