2004-06-11 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular by Stuart W. Mirsky

On the Israeli Day Parade

My wife teaches at a yeshiva high school for girls and her contract calls for her to attend the annual Israeli Day Parade along Fifth Avenue, with her school, each year. My contract with my wife calls for me to attend whatever she wants me to, so I generally go along for the ride. This year, as in past years, we were there. We drove into Manhattan early, found street parking, had a nice leisurely breakfast (at about twice what we normally pay for a better one in Cedarhurst) and then we ambled on up to the staging area.

This year, as in past years, the weather was miserably hot and my wife’s school contingent was typically disorganized. But we primed ourselves with some overpriced bottled water and ice tea, and set off uptown, roughly on schedule, along the parade route. There were the usual ragged lines and singing students . . . just what you find in parades of this sort. And, as we came to the southeast corner of Central Park, there was the usual group of protesters as well, a disparate group of grim, angry people . . . some demanding Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and some demanding Israel’s demise altogether. Among these were a group of renegade hasidim, a sect of orthodox Jews who do not believe that human beings have a right to a state of Israel until the messiah finally arrives to establish it.

At one time, in the formative days of Zionism (the movement that called on Jews to take matters into their own hands and return to Zion to escape European anti-semitism), the idea that one should not act until the messiah had come was prevalent among many of the hasidic sects. But, after Hitler, and with the successful birth of a Jewish state in the ancient homeland, most hasidim moderated their views. But one small group never did. So there they were, in long black coats and hats, with curls hanging down their faces in the 90 degree heat, praying intensely and, in some cases, shouting angrily as the paraders passed by. A motely group of anti-war activists and Palestinian nationalists stood just behind them, glowering in their own righteous anger. One sign said "Zionist Hoodlums Get Out of Gaza". Other signs said things that were far worse. Harsh glances and some harsh words were exchanged between the marchers and the  protestors. The police separating the two groups uneasily hurried us along, plainly concerned about the risks of an unpleasant clash ballooning into something beyond a mere exchange of radically divergent viewpoints.

In the hot sun, as we moved toward the shade of the trees overhanging the edges of Central Park, I felt a terrible sadness. Neither side seemed able to hear or see the other’s viewpoint. Though I’m a lifelong supporter of the State of Israel, I couldn’t help thinking of the opportunity we had lost over the years, an opportunity to change the dynamic of this conflict. After the Six-Day War in 1967, when the Arab population on the West Bank and Gaza suddenly found itself under Israeli rule, there was only shock and passivity on their part. That was the time, I thought, to have reached out to these people and changed the perceptions on the ground. Instead, by the late seventies, the Likud party had come to power in Israel and was actively pushing a policy of creeping annexation of the conquered territories at the expense of the native Arab population.

It’s easy to see why Israeli voters were eager for this. The West Bank is, in fact, the ancient Jewish homeland, not the marginal coastal areas and desert that make up much of the modern Israeli state. More, the pre-1967 borders were barely defensible and the land these borders contained was so limited (about the size of New Jersey) it was barely sufficient for a growing population. So, instead of reaching out to work with, and reassure, the Arab population they had just annexed, by the late seventies they began planting settlements on undeveloped land in the Arab territories. The message this sent to the local Arabs was that they were destined to lose more and more of their lands to encroaching foreigners, the longer the Israelis remained in charge.

Now, many people say these Arabs always hated the Jews anyway, from the time the first Zionists began trickling into the old Turkish province of Palestine, and that the local Arab population was always unwilling to share the land with the newcomers. In fact I think this is probably true. Nor was it guaranteed that a pre-emptive Israeli effort to share and reach out to the local populace after 1967 could have changed this fundamental dynamic. But surely an active settlement policy, such as the one begun in the seventies under Likud’s Menachem Begin, foreclosed even the chance of that.

I supported the Oslo Accords in ‘93 which brought Arafat to the West Bank and made him a "partner for peace." I supported former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s efforts to reach a final accommodation with Arafat in the last year of the Clinton administration, even when Barak offered roughly 97% of the occupied territories plus shared sovereignty of Jerusalem (something no Israeli leader had been willing to do before him) along with dismantlement of the majority of Israeli settlements in the territories in order to provide the basis for a new Palestinian state. I supported every chance for peace. And I was as shocked as anyone when Arafat walked away from the deal Barak put on the table and initiated the intifida that has led to the present bloody impasse.

I’d always suspected the Palestinian leadership wasn’t seriously interested in a two state solution, that their unspoken aim, from the beginning, had been the complete eradication of Israel (just as they teach and preach in their native Arabic). I’d hoped otherwise, of course, but suspected the worst. And Arafat’s actions confirmed the worst. But walking along the Fifth Avenue parade route on that burning hot Sunday afternoon, seeing the awful tension and anger on both sides, I couldn’t help thinking that a wonderful opportunity had been missed, years ago, when Israelis gave in to their worst impulses and initiated a policy of settlement and expansion. What could be worse than human beings so divided like this over a little piece of real estate too small to accommodate these two peoples? Do not the Palestinians have their pain, just as Jews do? And while I happen to think their pain is mostly self-inflicted, since, unlike the Israelis, they have never once been willing to compromise, yet self-inflicted pain is real pain, too.

The current trouble in the world today is clearly about a clash of cultures since Islam represents a civilization that remains mired in a medieval mindset, which has, in its deepest traditions, a belief in the rightness of Islamic conquest and the destruction of non-believers. Christianity and Judaism grew out of this way of thinking centuries ago. But Islam has not, and the very existence of the State of Israel remains an irritant to a vast number of Muslims who see it as an affront to their beliefs and rights as the followers of the "true faith." Our present struggle with the Islamo-fascism of Osama bin Laden et al is certainly not only about Israel. But Israel is a red flag in this conflict.

What a chance was lost back in the seventies, to change the rules of the game and defuse the nascent Palestinian jihadism that was then being born. As many tell me today, there’s no way to know if an Israel less eager for its historical homeland in the hills of Judea and Samaria after 1967 would have made any real difference in the continued development of today’s barbaric Palestinian sensibilities. And I can’t disagree. But looking at the glowering faces as we walked by, on parade, and contrasting these with the indifferent jubilance of my fellow paraders, innured to real Palestinian anguish, I couldn’t help thinking we could have been so much better off today if we had been able to find and heed our better natures, back then, and given up one small part of the Zionist dream, waiting, perhaps, for the intervention of that higher power.

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