Last week I had a fascinating debate with David Ha’ivri, an extremist Israeli settler—an event loosely connected to a conference of the pro-settler Christians United for Israel organization.
I call Ha’ivri an extremist settler for two reasons. First, many settlers are living in the occupied Palestinian territories not for ideological reasons but for practical ones. They have been induced to do so by generous Israeli government subsidies. Second, Ha’ivri’s worldview—that all the occupied territories belong exclusively to the Jewish people and that Palestinians there are not entitled to national or political rights—is by any standards extreme.
His vision involves permanent Jewish rule in all of Palestine, but no citizenship or votes for the Palestinians in the occupied territories.
In our exchange, Ha’ivri opened with a recitation of Jewish theological claims to all of the “land of Israel,” including the occupied territories, interspersed with a tendentious narrative about recent history. He and the audience, mainly of his supporters, probably expected me to counter with a tendentious Arab historical narrative or Muslim theological arguments.
I did neither. I pointed out that those arguments exist, and are as passionately held on the other side, but equally unhelpful. In his opening he never mentioned the word Palestinian, and neither described the problem nor suggested a solution.
I continuously emphasized that there are two peoples of approximately equal numbers in a small area who show no signs of being willing to share power or abandon their national agendas. Therefore, the only way to avoid continuing and intensifying conflict is a solution that involves creating two separate states.
My main point was that this was not so much a debate between an Arab and a Jew, as one between a modern mentality and a medieval one. Modern thinking, I explained, recognizes both the inherent rights of individuals as human beings and the rights of self-defined peoples to national self-determination. Medieval thinking, on the other hand, relies on holy texts and symbols, and conceives of people not as individuals and groups of individuals, but as fixed categories in a divinely ordained hierarchy. Though he was born in New York, Ha’ivri really believes that he possesses many rights in Palestine that Palestinians do not.
When the moderator, a friend of Ha’ivri, suggested there was deep significance in the fact that Jerusalem is frequently referred to in the Bible but not in the Koran, I dismissed this as irrelevant on two counts. First, historically this has not been, and it must not become, primarily a religious conflict that is by definition irresolvable. Second, ancient texts of whatever variety have nothing constructive to tell us about how to solve the real problems we face.
This modern, rational evaluation drew snickers from some of the audience. Most of them were clearly more comfortable with the religious absolutism Ha’ivri was offering, and deeply but erroneously and dangerously believe this is a religious struggle.
Many of them seemed more comfortable with the childish caricature he was offering of a morally pure Israel, relentlessly pursuing justice and friendship that is opposed only by degenerate Arab and Palestinian venality. The realistic evaluation I put forward, in which there were faults on all sides and no clean hands, has little appeal to absolutists. Nonetheless, I invited everyone present to join me in the modern world.
While I recognized the deep Jewish attachment to the land, neither Ha’ivri nor most others in the room showed any signs of acknowledging the deep Palestinian history, attachment and presence in it. His arguments, such as they were, boiled down to this: We have returned; we are not leaving; God is on our side. The organizers were distributing a pamphlet entitled “This Land is My Land,” which says it all.
Yes, I told him, you are there and you are a reality everyone must deal with rationally. But Palestinians are also there in equal and growing numbers, and they have the same rights you do, but you do not factor them into your thinking in any realistic manner. I noted neither he nor anyone in the audience would ever agree to be denied their basic rights, as he was suggesting Palestinians should, and that they would fight to restore them if they were taken away. To this, he offered no answer.
The whole conversation was, not surprisingly, deeply reminiscent of a debate I once had on Iranian TV with a leader in Gaza of Islamic Jihad. Nonetheless, some audience members plainly were listening to me and left with at least some challenging and unfamiliar ideas to grapple with.
Ha’ivri was amiable enough, but his mentality is extremely dangerous to Palestinians and Israelis alike. If mindsets like his guide Israeli policy, it would probably drag both Palestinians and Israelis, much of the region and possibly the world, into an apocalyptic cataclysm. This, sadly, is what some of Ha’ivri’s Evangelical friends, intoxicated with fantasies of a “second coming,” are gleefully anticipating.