Right up front, let me say that I am neither Muslim nor Jewish. I was raised as a Christian (specifically, Baptist) and now I’m an Atheist. AFAIK, I don’t have any relatives who live in the Middle East, although I once had a roommate who used to live in Jerusalem for a few years. I was raised to not judge people for things that are out of their control, like where their parents were born. Growing up, I knew some Jewish kids and some Arabs. I don’t feel any hatred towards either group. I’m just saying, don’t assume that I’m taking sides in the argument based on my background. I’m just here to talk about my confusion at trying to figure out this whole mess and make sense of it for my own sanity.
When I was a kid, I remember hearing about Israel as being the place where Jesus used to live. Around the age of 10, I saw pictures of “The Holy Land” and it confused me. I knew Jesus lived a couple thousand years ago, long before cameras were invented. So how could they have photos of it? On a similar note, I thought Baghdad was a fictional place, only talked about in I Dream of Jeanie and Bugs Bunny cartoons. Gradually I started figuring out a few things, like…
* The geographical location where Jesus used to live… is still there.
* Different countries over the years have tried to control that land.
* The “crusades” sounds very noble but really it was awful.
* There’s a lot of violence going on over there still.
* Wow the Crusades were really really awful. Seems like “crusader” should be a dirty word.
* If you want a land route to China from Europe, going through Palestine is the easiest way to get there.
* The Agricultural Revolution we all read about in school started in the Middle East, in the Fertile Crescent.
* The Fertile Crescent is the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and yes it’s a real place.
And it seems that the older I get the more I realize how many misconceptions I had about the whole situation. For example, I used to think that Judaism and Christianity had comparable numbers. It turns out Christians outnumber Jews by something like 200 to 1. I found that out when I was in my thirties. Suddenly I understood something that never made sense to me before, when colleges used to talk about “quotas”. Apparently, there were lots of colleges in the Northeastern USA who would get something like 8,000 applications and they could only take 2,000 students but in those 8,00 applications there would be 500 Jews. And the colleges didn’t like it; they wanted to get rid of the Jews. But they couldn’t come out and say “No Jews Allowed”, so instead they said “We only have room for 2,000 students and in that group we’ll allow 10 Jews because that’s our quota.” So they’d only let in 10 Jews out of 500 but they’d let in 1,990 out of 7,500 non-Jews. And they could pretend they weren’t being antisemitic.
Another thing that’s not clear to me is that people seem to use “Jews” and “Isrealis” interchangeably. Also they seem to use “Arabs” and “Palestinians” interchangeably, when what they really mean is “people who live in Palestine who aren’t Jews”. As if that wasn’t confusing enough, there’s also the fact that not all Jews practice Judaism (many of them are Atheists, some are Christians) and some Israelis are actually non-Jewish Christians. So, forgive me if my terminology isn’t accurate.
Up until last week, I had the distinct impression that the reason there are so many Jews living in the middle east now is that, after the Holocaust, the rest of the world felt sorry for the Jews and decided to give them Palestine (the land around Jerusalem) as an apology, and rename it “Israel” for old time’s sake.
By the way, it’s not “izz – reel”. It’s “izz – rah – ell” or “izz – ray – ell” . But I digress.
Then, just a few days ago, I found out that the plan to give Palestine to the Jews and rename it Israel predates WW2. The plan really came together in 1922, just after WW1. So it wasn’t a reaction to the Holocaust. Huh. Now I need to rethink this whole thing.
Also, I thought there had only been Arabs/Muslims living in Palestine at the beginning of the 20th century and all the Jews who went to Israel came from places like Europe and the USA. It turns out that’s not quite true either. At the beginning of the 20th century, Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire (also known as Turkey) and there were some Jews living there, and some Christians too, and mostly Muslims. Apparently it was about 85% Muslims, 10% Christians, and 5% Jews. Then more Jews from all over the world started moving to Palestine and by the middle of the 20th century it was more like 33% Jews, who owned roughly 7% of the land. And that’s when the United Nations officially voted to split Palestine into two sections, with 55% going to the Jews and 45% going to everyone else.
This whole situation reminds me of the history of the USA. At the time the country was founded, there were living in that region lots of Europeans, Native Americans, slaves from Africa, and others, but the Native Americans inhabited most of the land with only a small fraction belonging to the Europeans. The Europeans kept pushing their settlements westward and the Native Americans often fought back with violence. It’s not a perfect analogy. For example, the European Americans had vastly superior technology (including weapons) but the technological differences in the Middle East weren’t so dramatic. But it makes sense to me. I can totally imagine the Jewish Israelis as the European Americans and the Arab Palestinians as the Native Americans.
Flash forward to 21st century America. The European Americans control something like 90% of the USA and the Native Americans control about 5% and everyone else owns the other 5%. The bizarre thing is that most Americans seem to be kinda okay with this. We don’t agonize over how unfair it is. We just shrug and say the past is the past. And this seems to be where Israel is headed. The Jews started out owning 7% of the land, which makes it not really shocking to hear that the non-Jews living in Palestine weren’t very happy when it was suggested that the place should be divided up 50-50. They fought back with violence. Meanwhile, the Israelis have pushed settlements more and more into the areas which were supposed to be set aside for the Palestinians. And it looks to me like fifty years from now the Palestinians will only have 5% of the land. I’m guessing that old 50-50 idea is probably sounding better all the time.
Anyway, my point is that I used to think Palestinians were being selfish and spiteful, the only people in the whole world who couldn’t just get with the program and apologize for the Holocaust like the rest of the world. But now I’m seeing the Palestinians as people who are upset about having their land taken away, like the Native Americans.
What really boggles my mind is people who say there’s no such thing as Palestinians. That’s like saying there’s no such thing as Native Americans. Yeah, I know they don’t have their own country, not a member of the UN. But how does that mean they don’t exist? Before you tell me that’s not what people mean when they say that, listen to this. I read a joke years ago that went something like this…
Tecumseh and Andrew Jackson are just sitting down to negotiations and Tecumseh makes an opening statement: “Before we begin, It’s important to remember that white men can’t be trusted. Five hundred years ago, white men attacked our village and burned half of it to the ground.” Jackson stands up and says angrily “That’s outrageous! Everyone knows the 500 years ago there weren’t any white people in America!”, to which Tecumseh calmly replies, “Yes you’re right. Now that we’ve settled that, let’s begin the negotiation.”
Now, the weird part is that I’ve also heard this joke retold with Arafat and Bengurian sitting down to negotiate and one of them tricks the other into admitting that other side was there first. But the way I heard the joke told, the Native Americans become the Jews and the European Americans become the Arabs. That sounds backwards to me. Now the joke ends with Arafat saying “There weren’t any Arabs in Palestine 100 years ago!” which is totally untrue. 100 years ago, Arabs in Palestine outnumbered Jews by about 20 to 1. And yet people who tell this joke make it sound like it’s the other way around. I just don’t get it.
Another thing I’m still struggling with is trying to understand why the USA and Israel are such good buddies. Back in the 1980s, there was a resolution in the UN condemning the USA’s imperialism somewhere. I think it was Nicaragua. Anyway, the UN General Assembly voted to condemn the USA’s actions and the vote was nearly unanimous. Only two countries voted against it. The USA (obviously) and… wait for it… Israel. Maybe it’s because their history is so much like ours. But I’ve also heard the theory that Christians in the USA support Israel because it fits into their world view about living in the End Times, which means Armageddon is right around the corner and that means Jesus is coming back any day now. And that makes the Christians happy.
Maybe another good analogy would be Northern Ireland under British occupation, where the Brits are the Israelis and the Irish are the Palestinians. But there’s yet another situation that I must admit I don’t know a lot about, and I suspect it will turn out that most of what I think I know is actually wrong. That could be a whole other blog post right there.