Why the Left Cannot Deliver Peace

The assumption used to be that concerns such as justice, religion, faith and identity were obstacles to peace in the Middle East. That assumption has failed, now it’s time to change direction.

Israeli Peace Now activists protesting in Jerusalem on May 15, 2010.
Tomer Appelbaum

Following the freeze in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, the left wing’s claim that leaders on both sides have an interest in keeping the conflict going, so as to prevent any public debate about urgent social and economic issues, has gained strength.

The assumption built into this claim is that the Jewish-Palestinian conflict centers around issues of territory, rights, borders and the sharing of resources. Their insertion of issues of identity, religion and history is done deliberately to make the conflict nonrational, emotional, unsolvable and eternal.

Questions of identity, justice and “who was here first” are unimportant baggage along the way to the future. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni summed that up when she said there was no need to argue over whose narrative was more just, but to look ahead toward a solution.

This assertion stems from a view that has been around as long as the Marxist ideology from which the founders of the Zionist and non-Zionist left wing drew much of their philosophy. Karl Marx believed that any ideological and religious struggle served, by its very nature, as a way for the elite to drug the masses, so the latter would not notice the material economic injustices they were suffering.

History teaches that neglecting the “baggage” of identity, religion and history for the vision of class liberation leads to the construction of artificial rituals that are far more oppressive, coercive and dogmatic. But even if we ignore this lesson, it is the view that such things are unimportant that nourishes the conflict and sabotages its resolution.

“Who needs this whole Vatican?” was how Moshe Dayan, a representative of the new Israeliness, referred to the Old City of Jerusalem on the eve of its liberation in 1967. Well, we all do. Identity and memory and emotion are the essence of humanity.

Practically speaking, the contempt that many parts of Israel’s Left shows toward the cultural-religious dimension at the basis of the conflict leads it to show contempt for most of the people who live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

Israelis who see their entire national and religious story as a millstone that keeps them from creating a secular Western environment that takes Europe for its model, are actually expressing their deep-seated revulsion toward their Palestinian interlocutors as much as their disgust for the historical baggage of their own people.

The peace process they propose is actually a process of severing all connection with the entire expanse of the Middle East (separation). In this place – where concepts such as prosperity, sovereignty, borders and civil rights take a back seat to historical memory, religion, faith and land – there can be no reconciliation without understanding that the conflict is based first and foremost on a religio-cultural conflict, and that this conflict is legitimate and essential, not imaginary.

After all, what is the average leftist telling Israelis other than this: All your Jewish cultural baggage is a big headache. Let go of it already and move on. Leave it for the native Palestinians. Let them get stuck with the stones, graves and all that primitive nonsense. After all, they, the natives, cannot give up what they hold sacred, but we are capable of progress.

For decades, the security doctrine, on the one hand, and discourse of rights on the other, controlled the peace process. This created a situation in which the basic assumption was that questions such as justice, religion, faith and identity were obstacles to peace. That assumption has failed. It is time to change direction.

The discussion of these questions is exactly what could promote reconciliation, because it is the only thing that enables dialogue between equals, each of whom sees the other’s culture and identity as legitimate and obvious issues that must be taken seriously.

When an Israeli Jew discusses his existential link with Hebron and the Temple Mount, he can understand his neighbor’s link with these places – and see the religious and historical commonalities that connect them. Even if they disagree substantially on the story, both Jew and Palestinian come from points of departure that both understand and share.

I cannot feel the pain of the other, or understand his hopes, memories and yearning for the land, if I see all of it as complete nonsense where my own identity is concerned.

The Left’s ongoing contempt for the importance Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ascribes to the issue of Palestinian recognition of Israel’s collective identity – together with its complete disregard of alternatives to the dominant peace discourse such as the one suggested by the late Rabbi Menachem Froman of Tekoa – shows that the critics are the very ones who continue to be held captive to a false view of the conflict and its solution.

In recent weeks, hundreds of peace activists participated in events commemorating the Palestinian Nakba [“Catastrophe,” when the State of Israel was founded] and urged the Jewish population to recognize the narrative of its neighbor.

I suggest that the Palestinians who participate in these ceremonies regard the left-wing’s embrace with suspicion, and remember that those who look contemptuously upon their own people’s historical, religious and cultural memory – and upon what their people hold sacred and the tombs of their ancestors – will certainly feel inward contempt for Palestinian adherence to those very things. It is not from the Left that reconciliation will come.

The writer, a doctoral student in political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, teaches sociology and political science at Ariel University.