Thursday, March 18, 2010


It’s completely obvious that two people cannot talk to each other if they do not have a language in common and that this is true even if they speak really, really clearly (or loudly) in their own tongue. Think of putting a unilingual Norwegian speaker in a room with a unilingual speaker of Japanese and you’ll see what I mean. Maybe such a pair could convey some elementary thoughts with gestures or by attempting to act out something that they would have simply said aloud if they were speaking to someone who could understand, but truly meaningful dialogue simply cannot take place without both parties having at least one language in common. But what is obviously true when there is no single language two people can both speak well can also be true when people only appear to have a language in common, and I was reminded of this truth in the course of the last week while we were all treated to the complicated pas de deux performed this last week on the world stage (and for a mostly hostile world’s all too eager delectation) by our own Vice President Biden and Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu.

That two nations allied by common values and common interests should occasionally not see eye-to-eye on some specific point is hardly the kind of amazing development that anyone would consider newsworthy under normal circumstances. Nevertheless, when Israel and the United States disagree so publicly and so unexpectedly dramatically over a point as contentious as the right, depending on your point of view either inalienable or self-arrogated, of Jewish people to live wherever in Jerusalem they wish (which is merely the more tightly focused version of the parallel issue regarding the right of Jewish people to live wherever they wish in the Land of Israel, including the so-called territories), the dust-up seems not only newsworthy but intensely so…and not in such a healthy way. Indeed, for me personally, there was something vaguely unwholesome and indecent about being made privy to this kind of normally private dispute between the closest of allies, something not entirely unlike accidentally walking in on your parents having a huge row without either of them being fully dressed and not knowing which way to look or not to look.

Vice President Biden was visiting in Israel when the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, which controls the Interior Ministry, suddenly announced plans to build 1,600 new housing units in the part of Jerusalem that was controlled by Jordan until 1967. This announcement, coming with no advance warning, could not have been less well timed and provoked the vice president to respond uncharacteristically harshly. Prime Minister Netanyahu apologized for the timing, for which effort he was rewarded with an outpouring of almost unprecedentedly angry rhetoric from some of President Obama’s aides and from Mrs. Clinton. This in turn triggered some seriously intemperate language on the part of some Israeli officials, not least of all from Israel’s outspoken Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. In the end, after some concerted backpedaling, everybody appears more or less to have calmed down. The housing project at the center of the whole affair turns out not even to have received the final approval of the Israeli government to be built and, as such, was hardly a worthy trigger event for a dust-up of this magnitude. (If the project ever actually is approved, it will only be built years in the future.) But the issue itself of whether Israel has the right to permit its citizens to live wherever they want in Jerusalem will inevitably resurface.

Part of the problem, I believe, is because the parties to this discussion speak the same language and different languages at the same time. Indeed, the more I think about it, the more obvious it is that there are many different contexts in which Israelis and the rest of the world, including our own elected officials, only appear to be saying the same thing when they use the same words to refer to the same things. And that places a special burden of responsibility on those of us who, as patriotic Americans and as Jews fully committed to the viability of the Jewish state, actually can speak both languages.

Consider the name "Jerusalem" itself. When most Americans hear that name they think of the modern city that was divided into two from 1948 when the War of Independence ended until 1967 when the Jordanians withdrew from the city during the Six Day War and the city was reunited under Israeli rule. And for people whose sense that the part of history that matters most is the part that coincides with their own lifetimes, nineteen years is certainly long enough to establish a status quo worthy to be considered a reasonable jumping-off point for negotiations. For Jews with long memories (and Jews have nothing if not long memories) however, the nineteen years between 1948 and 1967 constitute the shortest of blips in the history of a city that was the capital of a Jewish state in the days of King David three thousand years ago and which was only divided in two for less than two decades millennia later.

Nor do Jewish people think specifically about the modern capital of Israel when they hear the name “Jerusalem.” Obviously, we know there is a modern Jerusalem and that it is the capital of Israel. But the name of Israel’s capital is far richer and more evocative than that! For us, Jerusalem is the city of David, the city in which the ancient Temple stood, the capital not only of a modern Jewish state but of the people Israel itself. As such, Jerusalem is more than the aggregate of its neighborhoods, more than its tourist sites, more even than the seat of the central institutions of the Israeli government. And so, both for Jews in and outside of Israel, the notion that Jewish people should not be allowed to live in some specific neighborhood of Jerusalem because that part of the city was exclusively Arab while it was under the temporary jurisdiction of an Arab state in a state of war with Israel seems beyond peculiar. Add into the mix the detail that the Ramat Shlomo housing project that triggered such an unforgiving reaction in Washington is less than three miles from the Prime Minister of Israel’s residence and it starts to become clear the extent to which we are witnessing a conversation between friends using the same words to mean entirely different things.

The same is true with respect to other words as well. No Jew with any knowledge of Jewish history could possibly refer to Jews occupying the Land of Israel. But when Americans hear the phrase “occupied territories,” they suppose that for land to be occupied it must be have been seized from its rightful inhabitants without recalling that the same West Bank occupied now by Israel was previously occupied by Jordan (which rejected the United Nations partition plan of 1947 to divide British Palestine into Jewish and Arab states and which then proceeded to grab as much territory of the old British mandate that it could before agreeing to an armistice) and had before that previously been occupied by Britain whose right to govern the land was awarded to them by the League of Nations as a way of punishing the Ottoman Empire for been on the losing side in the First World War.

And the “territories” part of the phrase “occupied territories” also means two different things when used by different parties to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When Israelis talk about the territories, they are talking not solely about lands that came under Israeli control at a specific moment in 1967 but about the heartland of ancient Israel, about cities and towns that were never considered by any ruling power, certainly including the Turks and the British, to be other than part and parcel of the Land of Israel. Yet when most Americans hear the word “territories,” they hear something entirely different. One of the dictionary definitions of the word “territory,” for example, is “a non-sovereign geographic area which has come under the authority of another government.” Think, for example, of the Louisiana Territory purchased by the United States from France in 1803 for fifteen million dollars in cash and forgiven debts without anyone on either side pausing to note that the land was not unoccupied—scholars estimate that there were between 100,000 and 200,000 native Americans present when the French arrived—and that the French themselves had come to “own” the land they were selling merely by unilaterally declaring their sovereignty over it. Whether or not Israel should cede the West Bank to a future Palestinian state is a question for Israelis to decide based on their own perception of where the best interests of the state lie. But the discussion here too often features two sides using the same language to refer to things they conceptualize entirely differently.

There is no question that the timing of the Israeli announcement was ill-conceived. Whether or not Netanyahu was blindsided will probably never be known publicly. The 1,600 housing units eventually either will or will not be built. That the matter will eventually be forgotten and folded into a larger discussion regarding the future of Jerusalem goes almost without saying. Things will return to normal. (President Obama, for example, said just yesterday that American efforts to bring peace to the Middle East must begin with a “clear and strong commitment to the security of Israel” and he called Israel America’s strongest ally in the region.) But the question of Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem will not disappear. In fact, it and its sister question regarding the rights of Jews to live wherever they wish in the Land of Israel will continue to fester until the concerned parties find it in themselves finally to learn to speak the same language and to address each other not in words that merely sound like the words the other side is using but actually do carry the same meaning and the same weight.

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