Historians love points of no return. For someone whose business is studying the past, there is nothing like a dramatic election, a decisive battle or a political revolution to define an era or explain a complex process. In the popular imagination, too, events like the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., the discovery of America in 1492 and the French Revolution in 1789 serve as markers that help us make sense out of the chaos of our collective past.
But the point of no return is a misleading concept that obscures the volatile dynamic that charts the course of human history. Often, what seems like a point of no return at one moment turns out to be just another crossroad, after which many more pivotal points appeared when a given society could decide its own fate.
For example, the encounter between the explorer Christopher Columbus and the native population of the island of San Salvador on October 12, 1492, did not dictate the course of events that occurred in America in the centuries following that fateful day. No one decided to dispossess and kill tens of millions of Native Americans in a war for America’s land and resources, and there was no one single point where the European conquerors determined to kidnap millions of Africans and make them slaves in the sugar and cotton plantations of the New World.
The killing of Native Americans and enslavement of Africans occurred as the result of hundreds and thousands of decisions, some small and mundane, made by settlers in Barbados, soldiers in Georgia, slave traders in the Bight of Benin, bankers in Boston, insurance agents in London, and government bureaucrats in Madrid. At any point along the way, it was possible to stop, behave differently, have a change of heart, atone for past actions. Sometimes that was even the case. But, for better or worse, in the common history of America, Europe and Africa, there is no one single “point of no return” we can pinpoint as the moment when the fates of entire civilizations were sealed.
U-turns are always possible
But we need not look overseas. We have plenty of our own examples, the most relevant being the Oslo Accords. When they were signed in the mid-1990s, it seemed that the vision of Greater Israel was dead and an independent Palestinian state was a fait accompli. Twenty years later, though, a division of the land and establishment of a sustainable Palestinian entity alongside Israel seem more distant than they have ever been.
Here, too, thousands of actions – of individuals and groups – created a reality in which the accords that (for all their flaws) seemed to mark the start of a new path steadily disintegrated, to the point where barely a trace remains today. There is no question that Yigal Amir had a bigger impact on the course of events than any other individual, but his assassination of Yitzhak Rabin was itself a byproduct of a wider public atmosphere, and there was no reason why the death of a prime minister also had to entail the death of a dream.
Therefore, the recent past can and should teach us that, even now, when Israel seems to have chosen a path toward a binational apartheid state that is doomed to be engulfed in continuous, bloody civil war, there are still junctures along the way where we can make a U-turn. Just as the Oslo Accords proved to be completely reversible, the 2015 Knesset election is just one event on a historic continuum whose end is unknown.
If we give up the search for that elusive turning point and accept that our fate is always in our hands, we must also be ready to take responsibility. The time has come for us to understand that just by clinging to our routine and insistently looking the other way, we are working on a daily basis to thwart a solution.
Accepting the current reality is a decision. One does not have to move to a settlement, abuse Palestinians at a checkpoint or vote for right-wing parties. It’s enough to go on living a nice life in Tel Aviv, to focus on family and career, and to change channels whenever the news programs go out of their way to cover the conflict. Those opposed to the occupation might be a minority, but even among them very few are actively involved in the struggle to end it. So let’s stop cutting ourselves so much slack. We can bother and get out of the house to confront the right-wing hooligans yelling “Death to the Arabs” on our streets; we can make a small monthly donation to one of the organizations at the forefront of the fight; we can show active support for the few politicians who dare to take a stand against the nationalist, hate-fueled mainstream.
Every act of day-to-day resistance is important. It is easy to say we are merely caught up in the currents of history and there is nothing we can do. But the currents of history are propelled by human beings. Anyone who wants a better future for themselves and their children should wake up and get to work.
The writer is a Senior Lecturer in History and American Studies at Tel Aviv University and serves on the board of the New Israel Fund.
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