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.