thoughts on Palestine/Israel

April 24, 2009

I recently read City of Oranges: An Intimate History of Arabs and Jews in Jaffa, by Adam LeBor. It was an interesting book, that made a mostly successful attempt to humanize the conflict in Palestine/Israel by presenting the 20th-century history of Jaffa through a focus on the stories of several Jewish and Arab families. You can read my full review here, at my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany; here I want to discuss some thoughts the book triggered.

I was reminded of how the conflict stems from not only from the direct interactions in the Palestine/Israel region, but from the centuries-old histories of each group. Jews lived in diaspora for hundreds of years and have frequently been persecuted, with the Holocaust the worst of it. This cultural history informs how they behave and what they believe today. In order to understand the conflict in the region it is important to understand this history as well. This goes well beyond what was presented in City of Oranges, but he does manage to convey this point to some extent, at least with regards to more recent persecutions: he relates the stories of individual Jews who came to live in Jaffa from Europe during the 1930s, when the Nazis were beginning to persecute them.

I knew generally speaking that there has been almost constant conflict in Palestine/Israel in the 20th century, but City of Oranges really made this clear. I feel more strongly than ever that they are stuck in a cycle of violence that must be broken out of. Each side continues to take actions that antagonize the other side, and continues to refuse to address the painful history. City of Oranges humanizes the conflict, and humanizing is the only way that peace will eventually be reached. Each needs to come to terms with their painful histories and learn to see the other side as human. They need to aknowledge the harms they have caused, in a way that allows the other side to reach a sense of closure. Peace is not going to be reached through continued violence, nor through negotiations and concessions that do not address the many-faceted and painful historical factors informing the conflict.

I did not realize the extent to which the British caused problems in the Middle East. Their power-hungry era of colonization is to a great extent responsible for destroying the (somewhat precarious) balances of relationships between multiple cultures in the region. I was somewhat surprised to learn that Jews and Arabs did live in relative peace in Palestine before the British Mandate. Unfortunately, there is no way to turn back history. Instead, we must work to heal the past and build a future in which once again Jews and Arabs can live together in peace.

The history of Jaffa and the individuals that LeBor interviewed demonstrate that it is possible for people of different religions and cultures to live together in a community. Peace will not happen by ignoring or shunning “the other”; it will happen only when people from different cultures can see each other as human.


The Value of Communities

April 12, 2009

I recently read the book Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, by Bill McKibben. In this book, McKibben aims to challenge the idea that more (stuff, money, etc.) always equals better. He claims that in the developed world we have long passed the point where more and better were equivalent, and that acquiring more money and stuff no longer contributes to our happiness (if anything, it detracts from it). He suggests that localized economies, which are based not on growth and efficiency but on drawing strength from the unique contributions of each individual in the community, and which require individuals to be dependent on each other, are both more sustainable and make us happier.

You can read my full review here, on my blog, Books and Other Miscellany; in this post I want to focus on a few thoughts the book triggered in me.

I have long been disgusted by the consumerism and hyper-individualism in this country, so many of the topics in this book were not new ideas to me. However, it got me thinking about the importance of communities. McKibben focuses on the economic side of communities – on how a local economy could work and on how this leads people to be more involved in their community. He suggests that this involvement – when you know the person who raised the cows that gave you your milk and when the solar panels on your roof contribute energy to the local power station – makes us happier even if economically it is less “efficient” than mass industrialized food and energy production. The idea that we are happier when we actually need each other is, I think, an important point and one that many people miss.

This in turn got me thinking about another benefit of living in an inter-dependent communities, one more directly related to peace. When people know each other and need each other, they are both less likely to hurt each other via criminal activity and more likely to make efforts to resolves conflicts in a sustainable, peaceful manner. McKibben does in fact mention that crime rates are lower in the types of communities he describes. This seems obvious – it is much easier to commit a crime when you don’t know the person you are hurting when you do it. I suggest further that although of course people are going to have conflicts, they are likely to be motivated to resolve them peacefully when the other person provides them a service and/or is their customer. Such communities are therefore the perfect place to use mediation and restorative justice techniques.

I also wonder if increased use of mediation and restorative justice can contribute to building more sustainable, inter-dependent communities with more localized economies. I think they can. Although they are not directly economic activities, they help individuals feel more involved in the community surrounding them. Both mediation and restorative justice can sometimes be alternatives to the government-run courts, representing a more localized (specialized to the needs of the community) approach to crime and conflict and avoiding the top-down, one-size-fits-all approaches handed down from the government.

I think that in order to create a non-violent world that is environmentally sustainable and in which there is no poverty, we must turn away from the path of globalised growth economies and hyper-individualism. We need to redirect our momentum as a society towards smaller economies that are based on the unique needs and strengths of individual communities rather than efficiency and growth. As we do so, we will live in both a more peaceful and more sustainable manner.


April 6, 2009

Obama is talking about non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. Thank goodness we finally have someone smart in the White House:

Mr. Obama said that his administration would “reduce the role of nuclear weapons” in its national security strategy, and would urge other countries to do the same. He pointed to the agreement he reached last week with President Dmitri A. Medvedev of Russia to begin negotiations on reducing warheads and stockpiles, and said the two countries would try to reach an agreement by the end of the year. He also promised to aggressively pursue American ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which in the past has faced strong opposition in Congress.