Common Ground News Service

Palestine/Israel: A Tragedy ‘In The Purest Sense’

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Israeli author Amos Oz was born in Jerusalem in 1939, the son of parents with roots in Lithuania and Ukraine. In his 2002 autobiographical novel, A Tale of Love and Darkness, his father recalls how the walls in Europe were covered in graffiti: “Jews, go to Palestine.” Then, when he reached Palestine, the walls were scrawled with the words “Jews, get out of Palestine.”

This memory visibly colours Oz’s perspective as a Jew and an Israeli. He is an unapologetic Zionist. He was also one of the first Israelis to advocate a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after the Six-Day War. In a 1967 article in the Labour newspaper Davar, he wrote that “even unavoidable occupation is a corrupting occupation”.

An early member of Peace Now, an Israeli NGO dedicated to promoting peace between Israelis and Palestinians, he has opposed the West Bank settlements for decades. And in 2011, to the outrage of many, Oz sent a copy of A Tale of Love and Darkness, to jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, with this dedication: “This story is our story, and I hope you read it and understand us better. Hoping you will soon see peace and freedom.”

I had the good fortune to hear Oz speak at a plenary session at the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” organisation J Street’s “Making History” conference in Washington, DC recently. Relaxed and engaging as he addressed more than 2000 attendees in a cavernous hall, Oz hammered at his primary theme: that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a tragedy “in the purest sense”, because it is a clash between “right and right” – between one very powerful claim to the land and another no less powerful claim over the same land. Palestine is the homeland of the Palestinians in the same way Greece is the homeland of the Greeks, he said, and Israelis are in Israel “for exactly the same reason”.

Oz made clear that he has little patience for the “sentimentalist Western” idea that the conflict is just a matter of misunderstandings that can be cleared up with “a little group therapy”. “Rivers of coffee drunk together cannot extinguish the tragedy of two peoples rightly claiming the same land as their one and only homeland”, he said. Instead of coffee, what he calls for is a “liveable compromise”. Compromise means life. The opposite of compromise is not idealism and integrity, but “fanaticism and death”.

To this Israel Prize laureate, one state does not offer a solution. Rather than a honeymoon, what Israelis and Palestinians need, in his words, is a “fair, if painful, divorce”. But instead of the current arrangement – one characterised by submission and domination – the divorced parties will live side by side, and not one on top of the other.

Oz is adamant that the majority of Israelis and Palestinians are ready to accept – albeit reluctantly – the divorce: a two-state solution, the 1967 borders with modifications and two capital cities in Jerusalem. He offers another metaphor: the patient, Israeli and Palestinian, is unhappily ready for painful surgery; the doctors are cowards. The doctors – the leadership on both sides – must step forward. Oz doesn’t know which leaders will have the courage to carry out the necessary surgeries, or when, but human beings are “open-ended”; they can surprise even themselves. And, he says with confidence, individuals who are alive today will make this happen.

Literary master that he is, Oz alludes to two kinds of tragedies: those of well-known English playwright William Shakespeare and those of 19th century Russian writer Anton Chekhov. With Shakespeare, at the end of the play, the stage is covered with dead bodies, but justice prevails. Chekhov’s characters, on the other hand, are disappointed, disillusioned, and melancholy – but alive.

Oz is looking toward a Chekhovian end to the Israeli-Palestinian “tragedy”. He doesn’t expect the players – two peoples with equal claims to the same land – to be “happy” when the conflict is finally resolved. But they will be alive, and capable, over time, of healing, and of building a new and productive relationship.

Those of us who listened to Oz at J Street’s conference might differ on which of his metaphors – divorce or surgery or home subdivision – is most apt in describing how the conflict must be resolved. But I expect we agree on this: the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy needs a non-Shakespearean end, and soon. It’s called compromise.

Michael Felsen is an attorney and is on the board of the Workmen’s Circle in Boston, Massachusetts, a 110-year old communal organisation dedicated to secular Jewish education, culture and social justice. 

3 Responses to Palestine/Israel: A Tragedy ‘In The Purest Sense’

  1. Cathy 26/04/2012 at 5:55 PM

    If I moved into your house when you were away, knocked it down and built a palace from funds that were given to me by some nice Americans, would I then own it because I had rebuilt on what had been your land?

    Personally, I am not for retaking Palestinian lands and pushing out Israelis. I am for looking beyond religion, and allow people who have been forced out to return home and to be treated as equal citizens.

    Whether you like it or not your comment sounds like the justification of the white South Africans talking about “the blacks”
    who were “lazy and good for nothing” and did not deserve to share in what they had built.

  2. Georgina 26/04/2012 at 9:35 AM

    While it is undoubtedly true that many millions of people suffered/died during WWII, and many more lost home and family, most decided to make a new life for themselves.
    They found new homes, new careers and founded families and moved on.Not just the Jews, but the French, Germans, Russians, most Europeans in fact.

    It is only the muslims who refuse to accept the status quo.
    Who among them, pity the millions of Jews who were thrown out of the Arab countries, or were killed.
    What of the millions of non-muslims being forcibly removed from muslim nations today?

    Why do the children and grandchildren of these refugees refuse to do what the rest of the world has done – find new homes, make new lives, work and create new homes – as my family did?

    Maybe because it is easier to complain, to fight, to teach children that to be born is to die, and it is good to take as many Jews with them as they can? Do they enjoy the pity of people like you?

    Few, if any, of those living in Gaza or the West Bank, were born in Israel. None have a right to the paradise that the hard working Israelis have created out of desert.

  3. Monty555 25/04/2012 at 5:57 PM

    look guys,back before 1946-1948, no one ever said jews aren’t allowed to come to palestine/jeruselem to live with muslims. the palestinians lived a nice happy life along side jews/israelies before the borders of israel/palestine borders where redrawn, its when the UN-armys came in to relocate almost 8 miollion arab christian/muslim is when the problems happened, they litterally took people and move them depending on religion.only the jewish stayed and everyone else…well they didnt even have time to pack up, they took my grandfather(he ws 20yrs old)) and my grandma(she was 16) and put them in trucks and put them on verry far far away settlemant camps,the israelies have been using the excuse that “they deserve it because of the holocaust”(may the victems rest in peace) but they cant just use that as an excuse to move millions of palestinians in trucks and treat them like hitler treated the jews, they can live in palestine, they can have land that is around jeruselem, they can even have the entire country and call it israel as long as they let anyone live on the land withoout ethnic clensing

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