On an earlier (than my previous post) trip to Israel, between the Intifadas, one of my local colleagues took me for some sightseeing. Avigdor was a secular Jew. Jewish in the same way I am; not so much by belief, but rather because he had little choice about the matter. His mother and five thousand of years of Jewish tradition decided for him. He was also a fairly liberal fellow, more interested in just keeping his representative business going than the details of politics.
Earlier that day we had been walking through the streets of old Jerusalem and seen a man walking away from us down an ancient cobblestone street. Reaching up and hold his hand was his tiny daughter walking quickly to keep up with him. Slung over his back was a large, imposing looking, machine gun.
Avi pointed it out with a sneer. “Look at that man,” he said. “He let’s his machismo endanger his own daughter.” Avi claimed that this man wasn’t protecting his daughter, but rather attracting danger. It was a relatively peaceful time in Israel, and, in spite of the news we get in the United States, there is still little more reason to warrant a machine gun to protect yourself in old Jerusalem than there is in New York City. Probably quite a bit less. He wasn’t a military man walking back from his post, Avi explained, but a man brandishing a big gun and asking for trouble.
Later, we found ourselves on a hill in a parking lot of the University, with vistas to Jerusalem in the west and out, over the desert to Jordan in the east. Avi’s children were playing near us when Avi asked me: “look west, what do you see?” “Jerusalem,” I answered, “a modern city and this university decorated with light Jerusalem sandstone.” “And to the east?” I saw an expansive desert and a lone man herding his goats among the desert scrub.
Here’s this liberal secular Jew, with his kids playing within earshot, who begins to explain what I could see. To the west, Israel. I thriving modern country sprouting literally right out of the desert. A land made fertile in only 50 years and a society that enjoys religious freedom and a middle class economy. To the east, a goat herder shepherds his goats like his ancestors have done for millennia. It was a desert 50 years ago, 2000 years ago, and will be on into the future. They do not want anything more than this he told me. They would leave the place a desert and know nothing better, yet they covet what we have.
It seems Avi, too, was a Zionist. While it’s judgmental to assume that there must be something inherently better about the modern, also known as Western, way of life compared to the goat herder, who, as far as Avi knew, might be very happy, thank you very much, it would be hard to deny that there is a difference and that the Israelis had accomplished so much in such a short time. That’s not what bothered me though.
What disturbs me about this view was what it means for the prospect of peace in the middle east. This wasn’t some right-wing conservative damning the dirty arabs. This was a relaxed, mostly a-political (at least as much one can be, in Israel) guy, describing his neighbors like they are lesser people, and doing so within hearing range of his kids. Until that goes away, and it’s going to take a generation or two, I don’t see what their path to peace will be.