A Land Without Borders

The Text Publishing Co.  2017

 

This recent view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict stands apart from the others. Journalist Nir Baram doesn’t rehearse the usual assumptions, advocate a particular solution, or claim a faux objectivity. He does something far more valuable: he listens to the people at the front lines of the situation and reflects on the implications of what he hears.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Baram hears that the root of the conflict lies not in 1967, but in the expulsion of Palestinians in 1948 and the resulting diaspora. When he asks Palestinians where they’re from, they typically don’t identify the town where they live: they name the place where their family lived before 1948, in what is now Israel, even if they have never actually been there. For them, the “right of return” is not a bargaining chip—it’s fundamental to their sense of identity, and justice.

Baram finds that borders and sovereignty are much less important to average Palestinians than practical matters, like freedom of movement and living without fear or harassment. Dani Dayan, the former head of the Judea-Samaria (“Yesha”) Council who today is Israel’s Consul General in New York, agrees. He defends a pro-settlement Zionism, but Dayan also realizes that Palestinians largely see Israel as a colonialist project, not as the historic Jewish homeland. He is less concerned with competing narratives, however, than with people’s everyday circumstances. “There is a moral problem here,” he says. “If we want to stay in Judea and Samaria, the Palestinians must be able to live normal lives.”

Neither side trusts the other’s version of the facts. Palestinians don’t believe anything they hear from Israeli media, and Israeli Jews think that Palestinian news is propaganda. Because their assumptions are so different, small acts by one “side” can hold enormous symbolic import to the other. When a few religious Jews visit the Temple Mount, Palestinians see it as part of a plan eventually to seize it, because they have so often seen their land taken from them; a West Bank settler likewise jumps to an extreme conclusion: “If we have no place in Judea and Samaria, then we have no place in Tel Aviv.”

Perceptions aside, the Palestinian economy has shrunk to a fraction of the size of Israel’s, making Palestinians less self-sufficient and more heavily dependent on trade with Israelis. Burgeoning checkpoints and the separation wall add hours to what once was a 20-minute trip. Some slices of Palestinian Jerusalem have become a virtual no-man’s-land where authority is ambiguous and where there are practically no municipal services. It is understandable, then, that a traditional political solution—one state, two states, whatever—is less important to many Palestinians than ending the constant intrusions of the occupation.

The late Rabbi Menachem Froman worked actively with Palestinian leaders to promote the integration of Jews and Palestinians in the West Bank. Visiting the unconventional Otniel Yeshiva, where Rabbi Froman taught, Baram hears little political detail about how exactly Jews and Palestinians might live together in peace. But he meets teachers and students who regularly collaborate with Palestinians in local coexistence projects. Maybe pragmatic, face-to-face steps can succeed where international negotiations have failed.

A Land Without Borders, written with conviction but without polemics, brings fresh understanding to a much-discussed topic, and it’s engagingly readable besides. Jessica Cohen’s English rendering is so natural, clear, and precise that you might forget you’re reading a translation at all. Anyone with an open mind about the conflict will be grateful for this revelatory book.

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