For a very long time, I have been deeply concerned by the attitude of Israeli politicians and citizens toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I have been equally concerned, both directly and indirectly, about the moral quality of life, or civic morale, in Israel.
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For many centuries, the Jewish people all over the world have represented a great tradition of moral values. It was that tradition which gave the many different Jewish communities a common identifier; it served as an example of sensibility and ethical behaviour to those non-Jews who were not by nature anti-Semitic, and played a pivotal role in ensuring the survival of Jewish culture.
The other quality that served as a basis for Jewish survival was courage. It was in fact a combination of moral fortitude, civic courage and the inimitable Jewish humor that has kept Jews alive from the days of the Roman Empire until today. But as we know, any attribute can play different roles in different situations: Resistance of a Jew against his oppressors during the Spanish Inquisition, the Russian pogroms or the Holocaust was an expression of courage and inner strength. However, the disdain and arrogance of an Israeli toward a Palestinian at a checkpoint today is a very different matter.
The recent events surrounding Natan Blanc serve as an excellent example of the value of precisely this civic courage which has unfortunately been forgotten by many. Thankfully, Natan Blanc has been released from prison, having spent a total of 178 days there for refusing to join the army because of the occupation. While I applaud this outcome, I still maintain that the 178 days he spent in prison are 178 days too many.
In other democracies, young men and women are given a choice about the way they can serve their country and society. But in Israel, which is democratic in other areas, the choice not to join the army leads to imprisonment. Ultra-orthodox Jews can cite their religion as a legitimate reason not to serve, yet Natan Blanc refused to use this as an argument as he wanted to disclose his true motivation.
This example shows once more that the issue of security has become a dangerous idée fixe in Israel; it is a highly politicized issue which paralyzes Israeli society. The fact that a young man was sentenced to prison for his conscientious objection to serve in the military shows that, unfortunately, present Israeli policies are not only more than unjust toward the Palestinians – they have also resulted in a deplorable decline in civic morale amongst Israelis.
The military occupation and appropriation of Palestinian land cannot, in my view, be seen as anything but an expression of total disregard for the elementary justice to which the Palestinians are entitled. The world’s injustice and abhorrent cruelty to the Jewish people cannot be eliminated by, or compensated with, committing another injustice. This is the lesson I learned from great Jewish thinkers such as Maimonides and Spinoza. Therefore, I believe it is the responsibility of Israelis to find ways to build a better future together with the Palestinians – either together, or side by side. But definitely not back to back.
Let us not forget that the Jewish population of Palestine a hundred years ago accounted for a mere 15% of the overall population. The Jewish dream for independence on this land is one of the most beautiful dreams in history. But, as we know, dream and reality do not always go hand in hand. The land of Palestine was not empty and the myth of “a people without a land for a land without a people” is simply not true. What has happened since is history, and we cannot turn back the clock of time. But in my view, it is imperative to remember the past as something that has led to the present and can give us an indication of how to achieve a better future.
Daniel Barenboim is general music director of La Scala, the Berlin State Opera and the Staatskapelle Berlin. Together with the late Edward Said he co-founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, a Seville-based orchestra of young Arab and Israeli musicians.