14 July 2006

The Middle East: Real Estate & Fanaticism

The news from the Middle east is horrible today. This is an image from The New York Times of Beirut which is under bombardment by the Israelis just as Hezbollah is shelling northern Israel. This, of course, comes on top of the ongoing conflict/standoff in Gaza precipitated by Palestinian kidnapping of an Israeli soldier.

Images such as this, insofar as they suggest that we have simply reverted to the 1980s, might generate a sense of hopelessness. At least that is how my thoughts tend in light of recent events. But I also have recently read a slim volume by Amos Oz entitled How to Cure a Fanatic (Princeton UP) and I recommend it as an antidote to despair. Here are a couple of relevant passages:

"The Israeli-Palestinian clash is essentially . . . not an internal but an international conflict. Which is fortunate as international conflicts are easier to resolve than internal ones - religious wars, class wars, value wars. I said easier, I did not say easy. Essentially the battle between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs is not a religious war, although fanatics on both sides are trying very hard to turn it into one. It is essentially a territorial conflict over the painful question "Whose land?" It is a painful conflict between right and right, between two very convincing claims over the same small country. Not a religious war, not a war of cultures, not a disagreement between two traditions, but simply a real-estate dispute over whose house this is. And I believe that this can be resolved."

Current events may make Oz's cautious optimism seem wildly naive. But it is important to see the nature of his solution. he insists plausibly that "imagination may serve as a partial and limited immunity to fanaticism." And he thinks, also plausibly, that large portions of both the Israeli and Palestinian populations are not fanatics and can be persuaded by imaginative proposals to settle their real estate dispute. For this, he insists they need not learn to love one another but simply to co-exist.

"I don't think love is the virtue by which we solve international problems. We need other virtues. We need a sense of justice, but we also need common sense; we need imagination, a deep ability to imagine the other, sometimes to put ourselves in the skin of the other. We need the rational ability to compromise and sometimes to make sacrifices and concessions, but we don't need to commit suicide for the sake of peace ..."

So Oz is not a pacifist - he rightly insists on the need to defend oneself in the face of aggression. But he insists too on the need for peace. That is a hopeful but not naive view. And on days like today, when the news is so bleak, it is important to keep hope in sight. Here is his diagnosis of what is at stake:

"The present crisis in the world, in the Middle East, in Israel/Palestine . . . is about the ancient struggle between fanaticism and pragmatism. Between fanaticism and pluralism. Between fanaticism and tolerance."

It seems clear which side one must take in that struggle.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post. It is surely nice to read of a hopeful perspective in the midst of such terrible news. I plan to look up the book, but have a question as you have already read it. Is the book suitable for a general readership - is it largely theoretical, or something that might be accessible to an undergraduate audience?

14 July, 2006 15:14  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

The book is completely accessible to undergrads - although you may need to provide some history if they are to understand parts of what he refers to in the essays. It consists of hte texts of two public speeches Oz gave a couple years ago and an interview.

14 July, 2006 15:37  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't mean to kill your optimism, but Amos Oz is not a politician, he's a teacher - Shimon Perez, Yosi Beilin, Amir Peretz and other historically dovish Israeli politicians are saying that what is being done to dismantle Hezbollah in Lebanon is no less than a nessessity.

I suggest you consider perusing 'The Routledge Atlas of the Arab-Israeli Conflict' by Sir Martin Gilbert. The book diagrams a play-by-play of the events - not theories - in Israel and around the globe that led to each of the Arab-Israeli wars, peace treaties and cease-fires up to the first intifada. It's pretty one sided, but then again, so is Amos Oz.

14 July, 2006 22:27  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Actually, you are wrong about Oz. He is both a, Israeli military/war veteran and a founding member of Peace Now, which, last I checked, is a political organization. He is hardly naive about the history of the conflict or about the tragic choices and compromises that would be required to resolve it. In any case, I am holding his views out only as a sign of hope. That said, you are right abaout the elected politicians and their views about destroying Hezbollah - I am not sure that Oz would disagree with them; I really do not know. And, as for being overly optimisitic, it is crises like these that, I suspect (and Oz is right on this) that persuade more and more Israelis and Palestiniains that a non-violent solution must be forged.

14 July, 2006 22:57  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amos Oz's opinions are not naiive, they reflect the radical-left wing ideology in conflict resolution. Its principal is that Jews actually took lands from Arabs - that each nation has a just cause for laying claim to the land and that Jews must return this land, with various other initiatives taking place simultaneously, in order for peace to be achieved.

There are less severe, pragmatic points of view, that don't believe in the basis, but agree that a peaceful solution must be resolved by an appeasement of similar circumstances.

I merely suggested you consider reading the Routledge Atlas for a more comprehensive viewpoint from the moderate right.

Regarding Israeli popular opinion, as always, it is split right down the middle between left and right. but again, it's very telling that even dovish parties in Israeli politics are calling todays attacks necessary.

As for the Palestinian popular opinion, nobody knows because their governments never invest in infrastructure to test anything with any form of accuracy, and don't blame that on sanctions, since they clearly have the funds to arm themselves to the teeth.

On a final note, if Oz made Shalom Achshav and agrees with the current military action, then that's not peace now, that's peace after destroying Fattah, Hammas and Hezbollah.

Thank you for the forum.

15 July, 2006 00:04  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My thoughts on this are as follows: If you have one piece of land and two people who want it, uncompromisingly, it will exist in a state of tension until finally one party accepts loss.

15 July, 2006 05:42  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Anon: Thanks for your reasoned comments - truly. I intend to find the volume you suggest. As for Oz, he is quite clear that aggression must be met, with force if need be. And, as I said, I am not sure what he would say about current events. In the little book I read he claims that he would re-enlist in order to fight aggression (if, of course, at his age hte military would take him!). I agree with you re: the Palestinian Authority and how they are proceeding, although I do doubt they (or the Labanese government) have much meaningful control over the armed groups like Hezbollah. And your point re: public opinion (on both sides) seems right on the mark.

PS: As a follow up on our exchange yesterday, let's assume that Oz is, as you say, a teacher not a politician. Perhaps what is most neeeded in the world these days are teachers and people willing to learn?

Phillip: One point Oz is clear about is that it is slikely both parties here will need to compromise and so sustain a "loss" given what they claim to want, which is more or less unilateral dominion over the land.

Thanks to both of you for your thoughts.

15 July, 2006 10:19  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jim: as much as I agree with" "both parties here will need to compromise", this is unrealistic, it will probably never happen, given Israeli power and Arab inability to accept loss under any circumstance short of ultimate death:

Me against my brother, my brother an I against our cousins, and our cousins and us against the world...

or another version:

"So before I was nine I had learned the basic canon of Arab life. It was me against my brother; me and my brother against our father; my family against my cousins and the clan; the clan against the tribe; and the tribeagainst the world. And all of us against the infidel."--Leon Uris, _The Haj_ (1984)

16 July, 2006 05:45  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read this little book on your suggestion and found it very thought provoking. Although coments posted here seem skeptical, I think Oz's solution is plausible and well reasoned, and he never lets the reader forget that he is not suggesting it will be easy to realize. The ideas OZ raises go beyond the Arab-Israeli dispute, as he himself points out, often to surprising places. I hope the book is read widely as I think it will provoke much discussion - and it is short, concise and engagingly written, a rarity and a bonus.

Thanks again for the recommendation perhaps I can return the favor - I recently came across sample photographs and a link to a wider project that you may find interesting. The photographs are of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, you may have already seen them - they are available on the companion website for the frontline documentary The Torture Question - http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/torture/behind/slideshow.html
Though you may have seen the photographs you may not be aware they are part of a larger project by Richard Ross that uses photography to explore the "Architecture of Authority"

16 July, 2006 14:06  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Phillip: I guess I do not think the sort of (let's call it) cultuaal determanism you suggest is plausoible. Otherwise we would not see more or less large-scale political discontinuities - some good, some terrible. What you say reminds me of the Robert Kaplan diagnosis of the Balkans that is so totally unpersuasive and politically defeatest not only there but elsewhere.

Anon: Oz has resonance for my own pragmatist leanings/ And in particular he makes contact with the geneaology offered by Louis Menand in the Metaphysical Clube - there we see pragmatism as a mode of thought aand analysis emerge in response to fanaticism and civil war in the US.

Thanks too for the references.

16 July, 2006 16:41  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your posts and Oz's thoughts about the relevance of imagination and art/literatre to politics makes this seem quite relevent. About a different location perhaps, but the similarities and legacies are stark.

Partition -- W. H. Auden.

Unbiased at least he was when he arrived on his mission,
Having never set eyes on the land he was called to partition
Between two peoples fanatically at odds,
With their different diets and incompatible gods.
"Time," they had briefed him in London, "is short. It's too late
For mutual reconciliation or rational debate:
The only solution now lies in separation.
The Viceroy thinks, as you will see from his letter,
That the less you are seen in his company the better,
So we've arranged to provide you with other accommodation.
We can give you four judges, two Moslem and two Hindu,
To consult with, but the final decision must rest with you."

Shut up in a lonely mansion, with police night and day
Patrolling the gardens to keep the assassins away,
He got down to work, to the task of settling the fate
Of millions. The maps at his disposal were out of date
And the Census Returns almost certainly incorrect,
But there was no time to check them, no time to inspect
Contested areas. The weather was frightfully hot,
And a bout of dysentery kept him constantly on the trot,
But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided,
A continent for better or worse divided.

The next day he sailed for England, where he could quickly forget
The case, as a good lawyer must. Return he would not,
Afraid, as he told his Club, that he might get shot.

16 July, 2006 20:06  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Well, thanks for this poem; it is quite appropriate. Oz speculates that the partition of Palestine would have to be roughly at the 1967 boundaries. I do not know enough to say one way or the other. Partitions are hard to draw and Auden is correct that they typically are drawn by colonial outsiders. As he recognizes, the technocrat quickly runs into politics in such circumstances. They division they establish then provides a legacy of future problems, tensions, resentments and violence unforeseeable to the architects. The architects themselves too risk becoming targets. And of course as we witness in the instance Auden addresses partitions are not just difficult to draw but also to impose and then maintain. Once again the poet is right.

17 July, 2006 08:01  

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