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Milton Viorst

Fellowship Title:

Impossible Dreams

Milton Viorst
March 30, 2011

Fellowship Year

David NewelI-Smith /Camera Press/Photo Trends
David NewelI-Smith /Camera Press/Photo Trends

(JERUSALEM) – The “melting pot” is an American concept, without bearing in the Holy Land. In the Old City of Jerusalem, where the great religions exalt their symbols of spirituality, Moslems, Christians and Jews rub shoulders in crowded streets, and barely stop to notice one another. None speak of brotherhood, or reach out to neighbors in love, and so it has been over the centuries. Rather, in alternating waves of righteousness, each has periodically risen up to smite the others. To imagine “integration” in the Holy Land, as Americans venerate it for their own society, would be naive. Tranquility depends on putting distance between the points of abrasion, so that each of the communities here can live as it chooses, in splendid indifference to what is around it.



Ethnocentric perception, so widely shared, is the heart of the struggle for Palestine, and so it has always been. Those who have come to Palestine have invariably sought, usually in the name of religion, to rule it. Though for the time being they are out of contention, for two centuries the Christians ruled under the Crusaders, and more recently for three decades under the British. For most of a thousand years it was the Moslems, never under the Arabs who themselves inhabited the land but under one foreign empire or another. Then, having been counted out for nearly two millennia, the Jews returned in large numbers. When they first began arriving almost a century ago, Palestine was under populated and the Jews fit in rather effortlessly. But behind the reclamation of the land and the rebuilding of the cities lay the dream of resurrecting the Jewish state, and the dream was hardly compatible with the aspirations of the Moslems who were already there.

From the start, a few of the returning Jews envisioned integrating the Arab population into the Western style society they proposed to create. Similarly, a few of the native Arabs envisioned co-existence with Jewish communities that would be much like their own. But such visions, as it turned out, had little to do with the reality of mutual exclusion in Palestinian tradition, and very early a struggle for dominance began. By 1920 blood was regularly being spilled, and by the 1930’s wise observers had concluded that the only prospect for peace in the land was partition, to keep the two sides apart. For nearly half-a-century there has been no alternative that has appeared to offer any greater promise.

Both Arabs and Jews saw the concept of partition as cheating them out of their due but, of the two, the Jews were at first more reconciled to it. Though the early partition plans favored the Arabs, as Jewish immigration increased the succeeding proposals shifted the other way. In 1947, after the exodus from Europe of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, the United Nations passed a revolution assigning the Jews about two-thirds of the land, which the Jewish leadership accepted as the basis of the state of Israel. Inside and outside Palestine, however, Arabs refused to sanction any partition plan, and they waged the first of the series of wars against the new state. In the first war, though Israel extended its boundaries, the partition principle remained intact. But by the third, when Israel drove the Jordanians and Syrians out of what in Biblical times had been Jewish Palestine, and the Egyptians out of the Sinai as well, the Jews had begun to question seriously whether there was any validity to partition at all.



The change in the Jewish attitude was barely noticed. At first Israel proposed to give back the conquered territories in return for peace and, in theory, the offer remained open for years while the Arabs spurned it. Inevitably, however, the longer Israel held on to the territories, the more the Israelis became accustomed to their possession. Having built outposts on them, Israelis convinced themselves that the territories were essential to their security. Only a minority of pre-1948 diehards leaving Arab Jerusalem aside-argued candidly for annexation but, in fact, public support for the principle of partition was eroding. Only after the signs became unmistakable that Arab intransigence was softening did the realization intrude that most Israelis had lost their willingness to give the captured territories back.

After a decade of ambiguity, under the Begin government the distinctions that had officially been preserved between Israel proper and the conquered territories began rapidly to disappear. The term “green line,” euphemistic reference to the frontier that divided Israel from Jordan until the Six-Day War, was quietly dropped from usage. The government no longer called the segment of land in which the Arabs are concentrated the West Bank, as it was known under Jordan, but Judea and Samaria, the ancient Hebrews’ provincial names. The maps on the walls of government offices, and those distributed by the quasi-official tourist bureaus, pictured Israel as extending from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River.

Most importantly, the Begin government authorized the establishment of dozens of new Jewish settlements, arguing that since Jordan seized the West Bank illegally during the 1948 war-which it had-then Israel’s claim to the territory was legal. The presence of the 5,000 or so Jews who have settled in the past few years has brought much more immediacy to the problem of possession. Arabs on the West Bank number some 700,000, and the Israelis there live more often than not within barbed wire enclosures, feeling cramped and insecure. But the Arabs, seeing the encroachment upon the little land that is left to Palestine, have become increasingly desperate. Meanwhile the Israeli government, aware that the land’s juridical status is unsettled, proceeds on the premise that the momentum of the “facts” it creates assures that the West Bank must ultimately become Israel.

The West Bank


Very few Israelis are willing to believe that the Arab worlds in general, and specifically the Arabs on the West Bank, have reached a decision to put an end to their war with the Jews. I can make a judgment only on the Arabs on the West Bank, where I have spent a great deal of time in recent months, and I believe that they have had their fill of conflict. The explanation for the change lies not in any newly acquired love for the Jews, but in recognition that after thirty years of war Israel is stronger than ever, and the likelihood of Arabs regaining domination in Palestine in the foreseeable future is negligible. The Yom Kippur War of 1973 was the most successful of the four wars the Arabs have waged against the Jews, and yet at the end the re-conquest of Palestine seemed more remote than ever. My own belief is that the Arabs of the region, and most notably the Palestinians, are resigned to living with a sovereign Israel, while deferring their dreams of recovery to another era.

What the Palestinians ask, in effect ” is that Israel show a wisdom that has been foreign to the rulers of the Holy Land Christian, Moslem or Jew-by desisting from the temptation to imperium. Nearly a half-century after it was first proposed, the Arabs of Palestine are, I believe, willing to accept the principle of partition, based on the frontiers of 1967, which reduces their share of the territory to 22 per cent. Most Palestinians to whom I have spoken say they will gladly grant to Israel all the security guarantees it could reasonably ask. In 20th century terms, they want to exercise the right of self-determination, to establish their own small state. But, in Palestinian terms, the notion goes far deeper, into the tradition of non-assimilation, of separate communities, of co-existence at arm’s length. From this tradition the Holy Land, even in a thousand years, is unlikely to depart.



The price Israel must pay for violation of the tradition is a relentless preoccupation with internal security. It is security, of course, that most Israelis cite-that is, those who do not cite Israel’s obligation to fulfill a Biblical mission-to justify absorption of the West Bank. No doubt West Bank military bases would provide an added measure of security against external attack, particularly from Jordan, and they might even forestall an occasional guerilla foray, though it should be noted that the West Bank has never been a significant terrorist base. More central to security considerations, however, is the unlikelihood that the Arabs of the West Bank will ever become good Israelis, or even accept the status quo of Israeli rule. Inevitably, retention of the West Bank will complicate, rather than simplify, Israel’s overall security problem, and the historical evidence presents little hope that the problem will ever vanish.

David NewelI-Smith /Camera Press/Photo Trends
David NewelI-Smith /Camera Press/Photo Trends

Leila’s Shame


The attitude of Leila, a dark-eyed Arab who lives with her parents in Ramallah, is a commonplace example. Leila is a well-educated woman of twenty-eight, who speaks fluent English and French, and who works as an administrator in a Jerusalem insurance company. She acknowledges that, under the Israelis, the Arabs of the West Bank have prospered, and that they enjoy more political freedom than they had under Jordan. But she dreads her daily encounter with the Israeli army when, on the way to work, she is stopped at a roadblock for questioning. Though the Israeli soldiers are sometimes rude, or flirty, she told me, more often they are perfunctory, and sometimes even courteous. Yet she feels humiliated at each encounter, and knows she can feel no peace until this Jewish cloud of oppression is removed from her life. Until now, she told me, she has been sustained by a hope that the occupation will end peacefully but she is willing to die fighting rather than submit to its becoming permanent.

In recent months, the troubles that the Israeli army has faced in the West Bank have grown noticeably worse. In part, this has been a product of the truculence of the newly arrived Israeli settlers, who insist upon establishing the principle of Jewish dominance. In part, it has been the product of the Arabs’ perception that world public opinion, responding to the Palestinians’ new openness on the issue of partition, has shifted to their side. Though Israel clearly dominates the theater, the two sides know that the Arabs have acquired an asset of incalculable importance in enlisting the sympathy of the world. The feeling throughout the West Bank is that the situation is rapidly approaching a showdown, from which Israel will not emerge the winner.

Strangely, beneath all the fuss and fury, I think the Israelis, too, know they will not be able to retain the West Bank. But Jews, no less than Arabs, have long memories, and out of the Jewish psyche emerges not only a current fear of fedayeen but a more deep-seated fear of cossacks and inquisitors and storm troopers. After two thousand years of being victims, the Jews are strong now, and they are loathe to give up their position of strength, however compelling the reasons. And after fifty years of bloodshed in Palestine, the sense of compassion they willingly display toward others they cannot apply to their Arab neighbors. They have been swept along into the Middle East tradition, which will not permit them to contemplate an amicable overture to an old enemy, or even a graceful retreat, to preserve a residue of good will. There may yet be peace in the Middle East, but neighbors will still not visit in one another’s house.

©1979 Milton Viorst

MILTON VIORST is studying Zionist and Islamic Ideas in the Mid East Crisis on his APF fellowship.