June 29, 2006

Shall not fall again

In the year 67 AD, the Jewish rebellion against Roman rule in what is now Israel was in full flow. Perched on a towering camel-shaped peak overlooking the Sea of Galilee, the town of Gamla was a focal point of the rebellion. As the Jewish historian Josephus Flavius tells us, even though other towns in the area "had been persuaded at the beginning of the revolt to submit ... Gamla had refused to surrender, relying on its inaccessibility" to hold out and even defeat Roman attempts to invade.

Naturally, the superior strength of the Roman armies, their siege tactics, eventually wore down the Jews. Trapped on top of the mountain, faced with enraged Romans swarming up the slopes bent on avenging comrades killed in earlier battles, many of the defenders chose suicide rather than death and dishonour at Roman hands. They "flung their wives and children and themselves too" into the ravine below. "4000 fell by Roman swords," wrote Josephus, "but those who plunged to destruction proved to be over 5000."

Many years later, I spent 12 days in Israel. Came home depressed. Because I had never been in any country, any place, where religion and history are as much a part of the present; and I came home convinced that they are a nearly insurmountable obstacle to peace.

During my stay, the Jerusalem Post carried an "Open Letter" to the Prime Minister, signed by some 60 people who called themselves "The Committee for the Abolition of the Autonomy". "If I had wanted ... to put most of Judea and Samaria under terrorist rule", the letter said, "I would have voted for Peres and the parties of the extreme Left ... If you continue in this way, I will no longer give you my vote."

It is the bottom of the letter that really tells you why bringing peace to this torn country is going to be so difficult. Just five words, but impregnated as they are with nearly 2000 years of history, they invoke ancient Jewish fears, defiance and angst.

They read: "Gamla Shall Not Fall Again."

Old Jerusalem is a city for walking. As you walk, you pass seamlessly from the Jewish quarter to Christian to Muslim. Suddenly you are at the Western Wall, Judaism's most sacred spot. The Wall is actually the side of the Harm El-Sharief, Islam's third-most sacred shrine, on which are the Dome of The Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosques. On the other side of the Harm El-Sharief is the Garden of Gethsemane and several more places of immense significance to Christians. The Via Dolorosa, along which Christ carried his cross to his crucifixion and death, runs along a third side, through the Muslim quarter.

That's how close together the religions all are in this city.

History, religion, religious history, are everywhere. The three faiths all have ancient, powerful, emotional roots in this one sliver of land. That explains their equally vocal claims to the land, claims that have already caused centuries of bloodshed here.

It also explains why peace will remain elusive. Why I came home depressed.


Ambar said...

History, religion, religious history, are everywhere. The three faiths all have ancient, powerful, emotional roots in this one sliver of land.

More importantly, moronic roots.

Anonymous said...

Dear Dilip,

I agree completely with Tejal's analysis of the situation. I also disagree with you that it is religion that is responsible for the plight of the Palestinians, rather than good old-fashioned European colonialism.

None of the founder-leaders of Israel were particularly religious, be it Ben Gurion or his successors. In fact, most of them were aggressively secular in their outlook and this was also true of the general settler population in the 1930's and 1940's, drawn as it was from a rather assimilated European Jewry. In spite of 60 years of conflict that remains the situation today in Israel today - about 70% of the population does not identify itself as religious and only about 10% label themselves as "Orthodox". The Jewish identity has always been a racial one - whether that identity was imposed by others on them the Nazis considered even Jews who had converted to Catholicism as Jews if "Jewish blood" exceeded 25%) or whether it was defined by Jews themeselves. The racial element is particularly vividly exhibited by the recent Russian immigrants to Israel.

Until the very recent rise of Hamas (which still does not enjoy majority Palestinian support) the character of the Palestinian liberation movements was strongly secular. Indeed, the PLO had Christian founders and amongst its most articulate spokesmen was the late Edward Said. The PLO charter is explicitly secular and even when Arafat invoked religious symbolism he always spoke of both Muslim and Christian places of worship being returned to the Palestinians, never just the one in isolation.

The only reason the Palestinian question is so intractable is that the world's only superpower funds Israeli aggression to the tune of some three billion a year, steadfastly refuses to allow security condemnation of Israeli human rights violations and actively encourages the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their land. This last is accomplished by giving "aid" to Israel to build settlements on occupied land, by releasing Apache attack helicopters for decimating civilian neighbourhoods (think Jenin) and by encouraging the building of the odious "security barrier" which will cut off a large number of Palestinians from their families, land and cultural heritage. Also by allowing Israel to encircle the Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank and strangulate them until enough of them decide to leave "voluntarily".