Earlier today I wrote a letter to The Montague Reporter, the wonderful local paper delivered to my mailbox every Friday morning, in response to a column they ran dealing with the war in the Middle East.
The columnist wrote about the importance of obtaining a cease-fire in Gaza. Beyond that, she wrote, it was crucial to work towards a permanent peace, with Israelis and Palestinians living in freedom and equality. So far, so good. But then she mentioned that Israel is, “like the United States, a settler-colonial nation.”
In my letter, I asked: Who are the people indigenous to the Holy Land? Both Israelis and Palestinians can trace their genetic origins to the old inhabitants of the Levant known as Canaanites, and to those even earlier. So, who is more indigenous than whom? There is clearly a travesty happening in the West Bank, encroachment not just by settlers but also abetted by government and the army. You can call it many things—highway robbery comes to mind. But colonialism?
I find myself shaking my head at the conceptual paradigms we’ve created to describe characteristics in our country, e.g., colonialism, racism, etc., and then applying them blindly to other parts of the world. I can sympathize with the dream of forming a global partnership of people who suffer from discrimination, food and water insecurity, the lack of medical infrastructures, and of course, war. But in doing that we run the risk of overlooking the big differences and complexities that come out of our various countries, religions, and cultures.
We start believing that labels matter. That maps are the world, rather than just maps.
Over 50 years ago I was in Jerusalem and went to the Temple Mount, where I was allowed to go (an increasingly rare opportunity), as well as to the Wailing Wall. At the entrance to the Wall was a booth selling tickets for a tour of archeological discoveries that had been made under the Wall. I joined the group.
The tour guide took us deep underground, passing by and pointing to various artifacts and spaces uncovered by archeologists depicting Jewish life in Jerusalem several thousand years ago. Finally, he brought us to a small auditorium, we took our seats, and he pointed to a diorama of old Jerusalem as uncovered by archeologists. Every inch of it related to ancient Jewish-Israeli life: the living quarters of the priests and Levites, holding pens for animals brought for sacrifice, and of course, the Temple itself.
At the end, the tour guide announced happily: “They dug and dug and dug, and they uncovered the entire city as it existed then, inhabited by the people of Israel at that time. No one can say we have no right to this land.”
I raised my hand. “Did they dig any deeper than that?” and I pointed to the diorama.
“Any deeper?” he asked doubtfully.
“To see what was underneath,” I said.
“There was nothing underneath,” he said brusquely.
Israel has highly professional archeologists, with the best survey and study instruments. But the tour guide had no real interest in digging up the past. He was interested in a map of the past, not the real thing.
When I told my sister the story of that underground tour, she laughed hard. “That’s you, Eve,” she said. “When nobody else says anything, you can depend on Eve to be the lone voice of dissent.”
You see, my sister also has a map of me. But it ain’t me, it’s just a map.
Actions relating to colonialism, racism, or genocide cause horrific harm. For that very reason we have to be careful about the labels we bandy about, the vast generalizations we make across nations and cultures. There’s nothing wrong with maps, we all make them up in our heads, but they ain’t life. They’re not the real thing.
I was moved reading about President Barack Obama’s talk with 200 members of his old White House staff a week or so ago, when he urged them to study and learn more about the history and sociology of the Middle East, especially the many threads and nuances that come together there. If you don’t do that, he warned, you get into “sloganeering.” His word, not mine.
And in that spirit, I got an email from the managing editor of The Montague Reporter, who took the trouble to look up census and DNA data to check on what I had written in my letter, and found errors. He suggested I fix them, and he’ll publish it. I was thrilled. It’s nice to publish in a newspaper I love and subscribe to, but more so that someone took the trouble to check up and correct me. Thank you, thank you, Mike Jackson.