The great Charlie Glass

August 21, 2010

In News The Israel-Palestine Conflict

In the elegant and incisive style that characterizes all of his writing, James Carroll set out in these pages (“The wandering Jew and the mad Saracen,” Views, Aug. 12) the theological genesis of the dispute in Israel-Palestine. Mr. Carroll presented a compelling vision of Christian religious prejudice against both Jews and Muslims that he believes informs this seemingly intractable conflict. Christian insistence from St. Augustine onward that “Jewish exile was a matter of theological proof,” he wrote, animates Christian hostility to Zionism.

“As the Israeli-Palestinian dispute has continued, international sympathy for the besieged Palestinian population has intensified, but something else than genuine feeling for the downtrodden is at work,” Mr. Carroll wrote. “An ongoing and unconscious Western unease about Jews in Palestine, especially Jerusalem, is part of this concern. The legitimacy of the state of Israel is still at issue.”

This ignores longstanding Christian support for Zionism, which predates the Zionist movement itself. Speaking long before Zionism’s founder, Theodor Herzl, the British Christian philanthropist Lord Shaftesbury popularized the phrase coined by the Rev. Dr. Alexander Keith, “a land without a people for a people without a land,” and urged European Jews to move to Palestine.

International sympathy for the Palestinian Arabs today is limited to neither the Christian West nor Muslim East. Among those expressing compassion for the Palestinians’ plight are Hindus, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, atheists and others untouched by Christian prejudice. International sympathy has not prevented the dispossession of a single West Bank Palestinian from his land to make way for an Israeli settler. Nor has it lifted the siege of Gaza.

International sympathy, confronted with Israel’s determination to go its own way with the territories it occupied in 1967, is irrelevant. So, too — and I write this with respect for James Carroll — is theology.

What is at stake in the conflict over Israel and Palestine are land and sovereignty — the traditional core issues of colonial and anti-colonial rivalry — not theology.

When a Palestinian olive grower weeps at the sight of Israeli settlers uprooting his trees, it is not because the Bible or Koran tells him to. It is because he no longer has olives to press into oil. Without that cash crop, he cannot feed, clothe and house his family. A Palestinian mother who laments the confiscation and destruction of her house and garden near Jenin that is given to a settlement populated by immigrants from the United States might be Christian, Muslim or atheist. It would not matter to her if the settlers were Chinese. What matters is that she has been dispossessed.

We have seen this conflict before, not in the Bible or the Koran, but in every land where settlers have displaced indigenous populations. The United States knows more about land confiscation and dispossession of natives than most countries. When the indigenes of North America fought, it was not for religion but for survival. The South African and then-Rhodesian blacks resisted dispossession, not because of their animist or recently acquired Christian faith, but because they could not live if they allowed another people to take and govern their land.

Struggles between earlier inhabitants and those entering a country with the intention of taking it over have recurred throughout history.

In Palestine and Israel, there is an opportunity to find an equitable solution without, as too often has been the case, annihilating the native population or exiling — as in Algeria and Zimbabwe — all of the settlers.

Until the United States withholds the subsidies that Israel uses to pay for the confiscation and settlement of Palestinian land, there will be no resolution to the conflict in Palestine-Israel. Until Israel gives back what it has taken and agrees to live peacefully beside a state in which the Palestinians exercise self-determination, there will be no peace. For their part, the Palestinians must convince Israelis that they would not use an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza as a base for future attacks. These issues are secular, political and capable of solution.

James Carroll writes, “At stake in their dealings now, beyond all that they hold against one another, is nothing less than an ultimate and long overdue exorcism of demons set loose when Christians got it so wrong.”

Raising a dispute over land and livelihoods to a metaphysical plane renders it insoluble, which I am certain is not Mr. Carroll’s intention. Palestinians and Israelis, whether they are believers or good agnostics, carry a burden of recent political history that is heavy enough. Adding two millennia of Christian-Jewish torment to the mix will not bring peace or justice any sooner. Indeed, religious fanatics on both sides can delay mutual recognition until Judgement Day, if we let them.

Charles Glass was the ABC News chief Middle East correspondent from 1983 to 1993. He is the author, most recently of “Americans in Paris: Life and Death Under Nazi Occupation, 1940-1944.”