The four lenses of the Israel/Palestine conflict

Palestinian protestors stand facing the Israeli settlement of Qadumim during clashes with security forces in the occupied West Bank on Dec. 30.
Palestinian protestors stand facing the Israeli settlement of Qadumim during clashes with security forces in the occupied West Bank on Dec. 30. AFP/Getty Images

The general silence from American Jews, despite loud cries from the right, regarding a UN vote condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank, is instructive. Most American Jews also oppose these settlements, and agree with the fair and balanced principles outlined in John Kerry’s subsequent speech.

Thoughtful people are often frustrated at our inability to have productive discussions about Israel/Palestine for a good reason: we view the problem through one of four different lenses.

We might label these lenses ethical, historical, religious, and realpolitik. Advocates of each view defend the “facts” let in through their own lens and discount as secondary, or irrelevant, the lens used by others.

Through the ethical lens we see people who are suffering. A Palestinian who is hungry or homeless, or without a job or hope for a better future, compels our sympathy. The most idealistic among us will see this problem through an ethical lens and favor the weak over the powerful.

The historical lens is convincing to those who take a broader look at the problem. For Jews, Israel is a legitimate state, created, with Palestine, by a vote of the UN in 1948—a vote which also made Jerusalem an international city. Israel accepted this vote but was rejected and attacked by surrounding Arab nations while the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem urged indigenous Arabs to leave so his forces could wipe out the Jewish population. But for Palestinian Arabs, the historical lens reveals a picture of Europe (including Russia) and the U.S. imposing a foreign political entity into the heart of Arab Muslim territory—repayment, out of guilt, for the Holocaust. They see Zionism as an imposition of 19th century European colonialism into the Middle East. Ignoring those who voluntarily fled their homes, this view focuses on incidents where the Jewish army was responsible for Arab refugees, as around the city of Lod.

The religious lens lets in the light of ideology, of faith, and of the human spirit. Religious Jews understand Judaism to be a program for national life—“ethical nationhood,” Mordecai Kaplan called it—and have prayed for a Return since the Roman exile in 70 CE. Modern Zionism is a braiding together of the historical view (regarding Jewish persecution in Europe) with this religious view and thus united most Jews. For Muslims, Muhammad’s ascent to heaven from Jerusalem makes the sanctity of this city third only to Mecca and Medina. The Dome of the Rock and al Aksa Mosque testify to Jerusalem’s importance to Muslims.

The lens of realpolitik sees Israel at the crossroads of three continents and thus having strategic value to any power seeking to grow. A single ship, sunk in the deep water channel through the Straight of Tiran, would stop delivery of much of the world’s oil. America’s long range goal is to implant a free market economy and, secondarily, stable democratic governments, into the region. In its close relationship with Israel, the U.S. created for the Arab world a window into America’s vision for the entire Middle East, whose market economy and accompanying benefits would be available to any nation that would ally with us.

But this is much easier to visualize than to accomplish. Arab nations do not necessarily embrace western capitalism. Through the lens of realpolitik, we see the continuing conflict as a battle between western economic interests and Arab political and social values. Through this lens we can also see that Palestinians and Jews are both surrogates for their patron nations.

Just as the historian can be blind to the ethicist, foreign policy mavens can be immune to both. And the passionate religious person is often blind to the other three. And yet, whichever lens we see the problem through guarantees a certain myopia. To promote peace, Arabs and Jews, and their allies and patrons, will need to acknowledge the legitimate views seen through all four lenses. Having done that, we can all then proceed, kicking and screaming, down the inevitable road of realpolitik.

Jonathan Gerard is a retired Rabbi and a couples and family therapist living in Chapel Hill.