Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Israel as Rome

I recently spent a month traveling with 19 students through five Middle Eastern countries including Israel/Palestine. (This explains in part my prolonged absence from blogdom.) As we walked the streets of old Jerusalem, passed through checkpoints, visited holy sites, dialogued with religious figures and activists—as we experienced the modern Israel/Palestine conflict, we could not help but notice parallels between 1st and 21st century Israel. Much like Jerusalem in the days of Herod and Jesus, today’s Old City pulses with the cries of merchants and the prayers of holy men. Pilgrims flush with foreign currency banter and barter in the streets. Armed soldiers patrol near the Temple Mount. Rumors of foreign incursion or homegrown uprising circulate.

The irony, of course, is that Israel today plays the imperial role once filled by Rome while the Palestinians mirror the part played by the Jews of ancient Galilee and Judea. Yesterday’s Jewish Zealots are today’s Palestinian insurgents. Well, sort of. And Rome’s Legions foreshadow the modern IDF. The-state-of-Israel-qua-Rome justifies its incursions and human rights abuses in the name of security and economics, while perpetuating a caste system that extends full privileges to Jews and only a minority of Israeli Arabs. Palestinian-militants-qua-Zealots justify targeting civilians in the name of honor, clan loyalty and divine mandate, while shamelessly recruiting “peasants” whose harsh living conditions engender only rage, despair and shame. Tragically, eyes on both sides of the conflict seem blind to “the things that make for peace.”

I do not excuse the suicide attacks and summary executions perpetrated by militant Palestinians any more than I endorse the atrocities of the dagger-wielding Sicarii during the Jewish War. But the Palestinians, like the Jews of Roman Judea, are a people under occupation. There is no debate on the streets of Jerusalem about who has the power. I have witnessed a Daewoo bulldozer flatten the home of a Palestinian family who simply lacked a building permit—a permit Jerusalem’s bureaucracy makes it all but impossible for Palestinians to acquire. I have watched armed Israelis compelling middle-aged Palestinian men to drop their pants on a public street to show they wore no explosives. I have seen border police climb out of jeeps to fire live rounds at young children whose only arsenal was the rubble at their feet. I have walked the “sterilized” streets of old Hebron where Palestinians can no longer go and listened to a former Israeli soldier describe how he used to torment civilians there. I have stayed in homes whose rooftop tanks must be refilled by hand when the Israeli authorities cut off electricity and ration water to insure that settlers on nearby hilltops can water their lawns and fill their swimming pools. I have comforted a Palestinian forbidden to enter Jerusalem to visit his hospitalized daughter. I have smelled teargas, felt percussion grenades and looked on as soldiers battered non-violent protesters whose crime was their stubborn presence on Israeli-confiscated Palestinian farmland. I have walked the course of the Wall that knifes through Jerusalem, separating kin from kin, worker from job, farmer from olive grove and people from sunset. And I have read the rage splashed across the Wall’s cold concrete canvas. My favorite graffiti is a hastily sprayed message in green paint: Jesus wept for Jerusalem – we weep for Palestine.

Is anyone else struck by similarities between the two occupations? Is this a useful thought experiment or is it simply stating the obvious?