Israel and Palestine
This was originally written as an introduction to the Israel part of my Middle East travel report.

Ah, Israel! This is a country I'd been dying to visit. I could hardly have more fascination and more mixed feelings about a country than I have about this one. Since it's such a sensitive topic, and since some people are so quick with accusations, let me explain those feelings a bit before I start describing my impressions.

Jewish culture
I feel a lot of admiration for jewish culture. Of the leading artists, thinkers, scientists and businessmen of Europe, a strikingly disproportionate number had jewish roots. Spinoza, Wittgenstein, Marx, Freud, Kafka and Einstein, to just name a few. Since jews are hardly a distinct race, and most of these men weren't religious, there must be something about jewish culture that breeds success, and I admire success. That generations of anti-semites managed to portray the jews as an inferior race against such overwhelming evidence to the contrary is a monument to human stupidity.

Though I am not a fan of religion, I also admire the incredible stubbornness with which European jews have preserved their religion throughout centuries of discrimination, repression, persecution and genocide. No other religion, and no other cultural characteristic in general, has managed to survive in such a hostile environment for anywhere near as long.

My hometown Antwerp has one of the world's largest communities of chassidic jews, and when I see them with their funny costumes I'm full of amused admiration for such stubborn defiance of fashion. They're so fanatically uncool that it makes them übercool, and I'm glad they're here. This is not a very intellectual argument I admit :)

Finally, as a history freak, the historic depth of jewish culture and traditions attracts me. No other people have such a long recorded history (the Chinese might disagree).

But then there's the jewish state, and that brings me to the other side of my mixed feelings.

The founding of Israel
I think no people could have deserved a home state more than the jews. You can't read the history of the jews in Europe without feeling this. They have been the constant victims of many of humanity's lowest characteristics: racism, intolerance, resentiment, religious fanaticism, cattle behaviour, scapegoatism. For centuries, jewish communities were driven from this place to that, and mass murder against them was a regular, almost predictable event, to such extent that it became a part of jewish identity - "persecution defines the Jew", as Sartre put it. The holocaust was but a culmination of all that.

To me the one thing that symbolised the need for a jewish state more than anything were the boats full of jewish refugees from nazi Germany which wandered the world's seas in the 1930s but weren't allowed to dock anywhere because no country wanted to take in more refugees. Many jewish refugees were actually driven back to Germany, never to be heard from again. The need for a state that would be a safe haven for jews can't be made more painfully clear than that.

However, you can't make up for the wrongs of the past with a new wrong. While I honestly can't blame the jews who survived WW2 for wanting to establish a jewish state in Palestine, this should never have been allowed, because it is a great injustice against the Palestinians, who had zero responsibility for all that happened to the jews.

In today's world, the founding of a new country on territory that has been inhabited by another people for many centuries could never happen - anyone would consider it barbaric to dictate a whole people to give up half its land. In 1947 however, it could happen, but only because of two circumstances: 1) Palestine was a British colony, not a free country that could determine its own fate, as it should have been; 2) The UN at the time was dominated by European (in the widest sense) countries which still controlled most of the world; colonised peoples had no voice at all.

Even then it was a very close vote that was only won after intense lobbying by jewish organisations in the USA, which in turn pressured other countries to vote in favour. The UN plan called for a jewish state about half the size of modern Israel, so in hindsight the Arabs would have been better off not resisting, but how can you not resist when a foreign people takes over your land because their ancestors lived there 2000 years ago?

In effect what happened is that Europe exported its problem to the Middle East. The Palestinians were made to pay for centuries of racism in Europe, and they could only be made to pay because they themselves were colonised by Europeans. Ironically, the Arabs had always been far more tolerant towards jews than Europeans.

Israel today
Anyway, though Israel should never have happened, and it was a terrible injustice to create it, that injustice is now done and we live in a new reality. Though many Arabs still dream otherwise, Israel is here to stay. Most of the current population of Israel was born there so it's as much their land now as it was the Palestinians' 60 years ago. Moving millions of people who were born in Israel out, and moving in a million Palestinians who have never even been there, would just be yet another injustice.

What needs to happen is quite obvious: either Israel should be restricted to its pre-1967 borders (its internationally recognised territory) and the occupied territories should be used to create a Palestinian state (the two state solution), or the occupied territories should be fully annexated and all inhabitants should be given full citizenship (the one state solution). While the one state solution would be the fairest, it is made impossible by the hatred that has grown, so we're only left with one option.

My one big problem with present day Israel is that it is simply not willing to implement this solution: to give up the occupied territories in return for peace. The proof for this is plain and simple: Israel's settlement policy. Since I support the existence of Israel, I also support its right to defend itself by any means possible, even when those means are harsh and lead to injustice. But building colonies in occupied territory has absolutely nothing to do with self-defence; it is blatant agression and the cause of most of the violence and thus most of the need to defend Israel in the first place.

Basically, Israel is the world's last colonial power. It could probably have a reasonable degree of security and peace if it were satisfied with its pre-1967 borders and gave up its expansionist agenda. Times have changed, and its Arab neighbours would all recognise those borders now. But a minority of Israeli's, driven by extreme religious and racist motives, think they have a natural right to more territory, and think it's perfectly justified to build jewish colonies in the middle of Palestinian land. Which is very, very, very similar to nazi Germany's colonial policy in Poland btw.

Sadly, Palestinian policy is equally being determined by an extremist minority. The terrorist organisations are the objective allies of the zionist movement, and vice versa. Terrorism inside Israel has scared the majority of Israelis into believing peace with the Palestinians is impossible, and supporting the likes of Sharon. In return, Israel's colonialist policies, by denying the Palestinians the right to exist on the little bit that's left of their own land, are driving the majority of them to such despair that they see the conflict as a struggle for survival, and terrorism as an inevitability.

If I don't dedicate a whole page to condemning Palestinian terrorists, that's only because noone elected them and noone in Europe supports them anyway; they're just criminals and losers at that. While I have no more sympathy for the likes of Sharon, at least they know what they're doing and are achieving their goals with their murderous ways, while the likes of Hamas are only pushing their people deeper and deeper into their hopeless situation.

Since I was talking about mixed feelings, I must also say that I do admire Israel's success. Israel's string of swift victories against its neighbours, who form an overwhelming majority, is simply amazing. But Israel is also outperforming all its neighbours on the social and economic fronts: it is a thriving democracy, while all its enemies except Lebanon are corrupt dictatorships with backwards economies. Which probably explains the military successes.

So these were my feelings going into Israel: very respectful of Jewish culture, strongly opposed to Israeli policies, very fascinated by the whole situation, eager to see it first hand, and assuming that the majority of people on both sides are just victims of the situation who are in no way directly responsible for all the violence and injustice.


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