The tragic history of Israel and the Palestinians


The long and bloody history leading to the war in Gaza brings to mind ancient Greek tragedies, in which the characters were helpless against fate, the laws of the universe, and their own mistakes. A similar feeling of tragic destiny hovers over Israel and the Palestinians. It arises in their case from human nature — and economics.

Jared Diamond’s influential 1997 book, “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” revealed how this can happen. His purpose in writing it was to explain why some societies, and not others, have prospered and become powerful.

It goes all the way back to prehistoric times, when people began to take up farming. This economic advance produced large populations, along with tools and weapons that enabled them to absorb, drive away, or kill off the remaining hunters and gatherers. This was the beginning of a pattern that continues today, in which societies with superior economies overwhelm less fortunate ones.

Mr. Diamond argues that the winners haven’t been more capable than the others, but instead enjoyed more favorable natural resources, climate, and geographic locations. His examples run throughout history, around the world, and at all levels of economic development. They leave the impression that something like a law of nature, like gravity, is at play.

The victors in these tales of dominance and conquest have of course tended to see themselves as agents for the greater good. Our ancestors believed that they were creating a “city on a hill,” an example of a just society for the world to imitate, when they came to America. The Native Americans that they encountered were, unfortunately, in the way.

The British also expressed high ideals as they created their empire in the 19th century. They were, in the words of Rudyard Kipling, taking up the “white man’s burden” of civilizing their conquered subjects. The flip side of those ideals was the belief that the native ways of life, and often the natives themselves, were inferior.

Idealism was also a driving force behind Zionism, the movement to create the state of Israel. Ian Black’s book, “Enemies and Neighbors,” provides a thorough account of that struggle.

He explains that European Jews living through the persecutions of the 19th century and the Holocaust of the 20th were inspired by the dream of returning to their ancient homeland. They hoped to reestablish the long-lost state of Israel, a Jewish nation where they might live without fear. The Arab Muslims, who had for centuries made up 80% or more of the population, presented, unfortunately, a moral as well as a physical challenge to that dream.

Arthur Balfour, a leading British official at the time, expressed a common reaction among Zionists and their British supporters to that dilemma: “Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is…of far greater import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.”

Violence on both sides gradually intensified during the years between World War I and World War II, as more and more Jews entered the country, and as Palestinians became increasingly alarmed at the threat to their way of life. The Zionists enjoyed the financial backing of wealthy Europeans and the support of the British government. The Arabs never had a chance against that combination of economic and military power.

The Zionist dream came to pass in 1948 with the creation of the state of Israel and the removal of most Palestinians from within its borders. It has ever since remained the most powerful nation in the area, although one surrounded by enemies. The United States, rather than the United Kingdom, is now its leading supporter against opponents within and outside of Palestine.

There are many reasons for our preferential treatment of Israel through the years. We have much in common with Israelis in terms of culture and political ideology, and many Christians see Israel as a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. Arabs, on the other hand, seem more alien to us, with their unfamiliar language, religion, even their clothing.

But we must, if we’re to play a helpful role in this conflict, understand the way it looks and feels from both sides, and how it fits into a pattern of conquest that goes all the way back to prehistory. The laws of human nature and economics have produced the Greek tragedy that is the war in Gaza. It will take all the wisdom everyone can muster to produce a happier final act.

Lowell Harp is a retired school psychologist who served school districts in Ogle County. His column runs monthly in The Ogle County Life. For previous articles, you can follow him on Facebook at