Along with quantum physics and determining college football’s national champion, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has earned a reputation for complexity. Bring it up, and even those among us who’ve made careers out of opining on the latest developments are likely to smile politely and wait for the first opportunity to change the topic of conversation to something more cheerful, like the mysterious disappearance of bees. This month, however, the intricacy of the news from the Middle East has given us a rare treat: a stroke of clarity.
What to make of the skirmishes along the Israeli-Gazan border? If you observe the facts alone, the picture is not too difficult to understand. Here’s what we know: Scores of Palestinians, many of them violent, have marched on the border fence on several occasions during the past few weeks, attempting to violate it and enter Israeli territory. Some were flashing swastikas; many were burning Israeli flags. Hamas is rewarding these efforts by paying hundreds of dollars to anyone injured in the clashes, a significant monetary reward in an economy Hamas itself has destroyed by funneling every dime to build terror tunnels rather than hospitals, schools, and infrastructure. Of those killed, an overwhelming majority are Hamas militants; and the purpose of all this, said Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’s leader, is simply to affirm “that our people can’t give up one inch of the land of Palestine,” which is why “the protests will continue until the Palestinians return to the lands they were expelled from 70 years ago,” and which also happens to mean the destruction of the Jewish state.
Now, pretend you had no preconceived notions about the conflict, and try to observe these facts dryly. A sovereign nation, having withdrawn from a territory 13 years ago, awakens one morning to attacks by the emissaries of the terrorist organization that has since taken over and which declares that its wish is to cross the border and that its goal is obliteration. Under these circumstances, extreme precautions aren’t just permissible; they’re necessary.
Why, then, are so many, including most on the Israeli left, appalled by the Israel Defense Forces acting, well, defensively and forcefully? Ask, and you will likely receive a bouquet of reasonable-sounding answers: Using live ammunition constitutes excessive force against civilians; it only helps Hamas score a propaganda victory; and even though Israel withdrew from Gaza, its strict border closures makes life in the strip difficult and people resentful. But the real reason for the outrage over the recent clashes is different and far more profound: What we’re seeing in Gaza isn’t a conflict between two nations but between two irreconcilable worldviews.
If, like me and like most Israelis, you believe that humanity could hardly do better than to arrange itself by nation state, you shouldn’t have much difficulty understanding why a border is among the key emblems of national sovereignty, and why violating it brazenly and violently is going to be met with the harshest response imaginable. But what if you believe otherwise? What if you believe, like so many on the progressive left these days, that nation states aren’t efficient guardians of individual liberties and serviceable embodiments of our collective values but, rather, a remnant from bygone, benighted times? What if you believe that we are all global citizens now, and that our evolution will not reach its apogee until we shed the silly notion that Israelis and Palestinians—or, for that matter, Americans and Portuguese and Congolese and Laotians—are inherently different and focus instead on transcending our differences en route to an Isaiah-like end times of harmony and peace?
The latter isn’t so much of a pipe dream these days. Much power, after all, rests with multinational corporations that have made their mint by eradicating our traditional relationships with the two most formidable barriers facing mankind, space and time. Facebook, which lets you connect with anyone, anywhere, at any time, now has a market value of around $500 billion, more or less the gross domestic product of the entire nation of Sweden. If you grew up connecting primarily on digital platforms, if you know many people who see their costly education as a passport that allows them to pick up and work in different cities across the globe; if you have little use for the peculiarities of tradition and the constraints of location, why would a nation state strike you as anything but an anachronism? And if your entry into upward mobility involved embracing cosmopolitan articles of faith—the ones that see your nation, your religion, even your family, as a burden on your ability to soar unfettered into the blue skies of endless promise that await anyone smart enough and bold enough to come up with the right app—what use have you for antiquated ideas like fences and guns? Isn’t technology and the future all about breaking down barriers? So why are these meanies in uniform over there opening fire?
The progressives observing Gaza, then, are seeing something altogether else. Call it an augmented reality, to borrow a favorite term from Silicon Valley: There, on the narrow corridor of land by the sea, are people who simply wish to exercise their God-given right to live wherever they please, murdered by men who insist, for some reason, on stopping them.
How to resolve this conflict? Sadly, you cannot, because the disagreement here is ontological, not political. And it is not limited to Israel alone: In America, for example, the proponents of immigration reform too often speak of an American citizenship as if it as a basic human right, not a precious privilege, and of considerations of national capacities and priorities as largely irrelevant to the question at hand. Why, if nationalism strikes you as useless and frightening, not open wide the gate and let the wide world in? It makes little sense.
The skirmishes in Gaza, tragically, are likely to continue, as are the quibbles between the two groups that the British journalist David Goodhart helpfully labeled the Somewheres and the Anywhere, the former rooted in a specific nation with specific borders and specific interests and traditions, the latter feeling no gravitational pull save for that of the world at large. We see these battles everywhere from ballots to bookshelves. They’re the ones that will shape the future for us and our children, so we may as well get the reasons for fighting right.
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