Monday, 15 September 2014

Samson and Israel

Ian Harris                           Otago Daily Times                     September 12, 2014
Remember Samson? Champion of Israel at a time when the Jewish tribes were at loggerheads with the people of Gaza? Nothing new there. In his day, however, the Philistines of Gaza were dominant, not the Jews, and in tit-for-tat raids Samson, who was extraordinarily strong, won fame for his prowess in slaughtering Philistines.

Then, whoops, he fell in love with Delilah, a Philistine. Her people prevailed on her to wheedle from him the secret of his strength: his hair, which had never been cut. So as Samson slept she called someone in to shave it off. The Philistines gleefully took him prisoner and gouged out his eyes. Came the day when they mockingly called on this “ravager of our country” to entertain them at a great religious festival. They had somehow failed, however, to notice that Samson’s hair was growing back. Summoning all his returning strength, he strained against the temple’s two central pillars, and brought the building tumbling down. Thousands of Philistines died in the rubble, and so did Samson.

Sometimes it seems that echoes of Samson’s story are reverberating in Gaza today. There is the domination of one people by another (this time with Israel on top), recurrent attacks by one party triggering retaliatory vengeance by the other, and disproportionate death and destruction wrought on the people of Gaza.

The Philistines disappeared from history. Their successors in Palestine will survive, but the prospect grows that the searing injustices at the root of their enmity will undermine and perhaps destroy the Israeli dream of a uniquely Jewish state. For that, the state of Israel must take prime responsibility. When it was established in 1948, the horrors of the Nazi holocaust ensured that the world’s sympathies were overwhelmingly with Jews seeking the security of their own homeland.

But in the 47 years since Israel seized the West Bank and Gaza to ensure that security, opinion has shifted steadily in favour of the Palestinians. Israel has thwarted every attempt to give the people of the occupied territories a dignified future. It has encouraged squatter settlements. And the very power, hostility and intransigence of the modern successors of Samson risk bringing the whole Zionist edifice crashing down on their own people, with Palestinians doomed to share in the mayhem.

In present circumstances a two-state solution would allow Palestinians their statehood and preserve Israel’s Jewish majority. A single state would achieve Israelis’ vision of unity for the entire Holy Land, but Palestinians are close to outnumbering them. Rejecting both those options would guarantee unending hatred, violence, and suppression of one by the other.

Broadly similar choices – separate homelands, a democracy embracing all citizens equally, or violence – confronted South Africans for most of last century. Now leading South Africans are warning Israelis not to go down an apartheid path.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fuelled such fears in May when he proposed tweaking the country’s basic law to make its Jewish identity paramount. The country’s independence declaration defined Israel as “a Jewish state”. Netanyahu wants to stiffen that to make clear it is “the nation state of one people only – the Jewish people – and of no other people”. That would divide residents into two classes of citizen, based on race.

South Africa’s last apartheid president, F W de Klerk, promptly warned that Israel risked its very being if it refused to reconcile with its Palestinian neighbours. The long occupation of the West Bank has produced a situation in the territory where some 2.3 million Palestinians and 460,000 Jewish squatters live under two legal and political systems, geared to the interests of the minority.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu cautioned: “The State of Israel is behaving as if there is no tomorrow. Its people will not live the peaceful lives they crave – and are entitled to – as long as their leaders perpetuate conditions that sustain the conflict. Peace requires the people of Israel and Palestine to recognise the human being in themselves and each other, to understand their interdependence.”

Tutu acknowledges that South Africa had the advantage of a cadre of extraordinary leaders. “But what ultimately forced these leaders together around the negotiating table was the cocktail of persuasive, nonviolent tools that had been developed to isolate South Africa economically, academically, culturally and psychologically.” That is developing as the next phase for Israel.

 There was a time when the Hebrew prophet Isaiah envisioned Israel as “a light to other nations”. Its leaders would “faithfully bring forth justice”. Nobody talks that way now. What might follow if they did?

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