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The Jews’ return to history

by A.B. Yehoshua

TEL AVIV — Ten years ago, on Israel’s 50th anniversary, the peace process begun by the 1993 pathbreaking Oslo accord — reached by Israel and the Palestinian Authority — established the legitimacy of two peoples’ existence in their shared homeland on the basis of territorial compromise. There was a general feeling that this long conflict was being resolved.

Unfortunately, the past 10 years have witnessed a painful setback in many areas. Individuals and peoples are capable of enduring difficulties if there is a sense that the future will be better and conflicts resolved. But a sudden backward regression can lead to despair, which we feel today.

Why is it that struggles far more complex than the Israel-Arab conflict — apartheid in South Africa, the partition of Germany or the collapse of the Soviet Union — all seem to have been resolved, usually without bloodshed, whereas the Middle East conflict, after more than a century, claims more victims every day?

One reason is that this conflict is unparalleled in human history. There is no other example of a nation that returned after a 2,000-year absence to a territory that it never stopped regarding as its homeland. So it is no wonder that the Arabs, especially the Palestinians, remain unable to comprehend, existentially or morally, what has befallen them.

The Jews’ return to Israel was not colonialism, as the Arabs thought. Not only did the Jews lack a mother country, but in Europe they lived as a foreign nation, leading to expulsion and annihilation. The Jews did not come to exploit Palestine’s resources or subjugate its residents in order to transfer the economic benefits elsewhere. Nor did they come like the American or Australian settlers in order to build a new identity and assimilate the natives into it.

Zionism aimed at renewing and deepening an old identity.

From the beginning, there was no intention to damage the identity of the native-born Arabs, or to merge it with the traditional Jewish identity. Because the Arabs had no corresponding historical model from which to learn how to relate to the phenomenon that had overtaken them, they tried to interpret Zionism as colonialism, and thought that other nations’ fight against colonialism provided a model for resistance.

Thus, the legitimacy of Israel’s right to exist remains an open question. Indeed, never before has the question of legitimacy been so fundamental to a conflict between nations.

Although recognition of Israeli nationality is increasingly widespread, even among most nations of the Middle East, it remains obstructed by two closely related — and dangerous — notions. The first is the growing shift in the Middle East, and elsewhere, from rejection of Israel’s legitimacy to rejection of Zionism’s legitimacy.

The second is the growing tendency among Palestinians, other Arabs, and many Europeans to prefer a binational Israeli-Palestinian state to the original two-state solution.

Hamas spokesmen speak not of “Israelis” but of “Zionists,” as does Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Discussion about the “de-Zionization” of Israel can also be heard at universities worldwide and even among Jewish leftists. In Israel, too, there are people, though not many, who call themselves “post-Zionist” or “non-Zionist.”

But the sole practical expression of Zionism nowadays is the Law of Return, which is not a racist law but a moral law. When the world’s nations decided in favor of the creation of an independent Jewish state, they did not designate it only for the 600,000 Jews then living there.

Rather, they intended that Israel would help solve the Jewish problem everywhere in the world by enabling every Jew who wished to leave the diaspora to do so.

The idea of a binational Israeli-Palestinian state embodies the dangerous illusion that two peoples who are utterly different in their language, religion, culture and history, who are divided by a deep economic chasm and connected to their own external worlds — the Palestinians to the Arab world and Israelis to the rest of world Jewry — can be combined in the framework of a single state. Moreover, these are two peoples that have been intensely engaged in a bloody and intractable conflict for the last century.

Both Palestinians and Israelis, as two different nations, deserve their own states. There must be a clear border between the two. In Israel, an Israeli Arab-Palestinian minority has full citizenship, even if much remains to be done to afford it full social and economic equality.

It is possible that in the Palestinian state there would be a small Jewish minority, consisting of West Bank settlers whose attachment to the Biblical homeland is so intense that they would be willing to live under Palestinian control — provided that the Palestinians would grant them Palestinian citizenship.

During the early years of Zionism, the great Jewish scholar Gershom Scholem — who was born in Berlin — said that the Jews were embarking on a difficult journey, a return to history. In other words, the Jews, who based their identity in the diaspora on mythological memory and time, were now returning to its clear-cut elements: a territory defined by borders, and a detailed chronological understanding of their own history.

Sixty years later, the Arab-Israeli conflict reminds us that the Jews’ journey back to history continues.

A.B. Yehoshua is an acclaimed Israeli novelist and essayist. His most recent novel, “A Woman in Jerusalem,” was awarded the Los Angeles Times book prize for 2006. © 2008 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org).