Crossed Paths in a Holy Land

June 13, 1994|By TIM BAKER

JERUSALEM — Jerusalem. -- She grew up an American Jewish girl in a suburb outside Detroit. He grew up a Palestinian Arab boy in a village outside Jerusalem.

She was a teen-ager when Israel declared its independence in 1948. It thrilled her to listen to the news of her Israeli heroes fighting off Arab armies and holding on to enough land along the sea to build a Jewish state.

He went to an Arab high school on the West Bank. Jordan had conquered the area in the 1948 fighting. When the Six Day War broke out in 1967, he watched in dismay as Israel reconquered his village and put it under Israeli military control.

Teen-age political protests soon got him in trouble with the military authorities. When he left the West Bank in 1969 to go to an Arab university in Damascus, the Israelis wouldn't let him come bank home.

He ended up finishing his education in the United States, then settled down in Baltimore, where he has built a successful career as a downtown businessman. His children have grown up going to American high schools and universities. Today, he and they are American citizens.

Meanwhile, she fulfilled her youthful aspirations by emigrating to Israel in 1967 and becoming an Israeli citizen. For the last 25 years, she's lived and worked in Jerusalem, not far from his village.

The crossed paths of these two very different friends of mine have preoccupied me for the last week as I've traveled through this troubled Holy Land. What would they say to each other about the ''Peace Process'' in which the Israelis and Palestinians are now fitfully engaged?

I have this fantasy that the two of them could work it all out.

It wouldn't be easy. She's a fervent and aggressive advocate of the Jews' moral right to a state of their own in their ancient homeland. She left America to become a part of that dream.

He is equally passionate and determined about his own people's historic rights in Palestine. He resents the Israelis' land expropriations, their military occupation and their Jewish settlements on the West Bank. Sometimes he feels bitter. After all, he went into permanent exile in America, he had to leave his dreams behind.

He believes the Israelis have escaped their responsibility for a now ungovernable Gaza and that they will never dismantle their settlements on his land nor relinquish their humiliating military control over his people.

She fears Arab Scuds and Palestinian terrorists. She despises Yasser Arafat and doesn't see why Israel should trust him when no Arab state does -- especially since he still talks of jihad and the expedient breaking of agreements. She's afraid a Palestinian Gaza will become a launching pad for Katyusha rockets and that a Palestinian West Bank will become a staging area for invading Arab armies.

The intifada uprisings both thrilled and enraged him. As he watched the nightly television news, he felt pride in the defiance of brave young Palestinians and horror when they were shot and killed by Israeli soldiers.

She watched the intifada in horror too. She saw Israeli soldiers shooting, not at terrorists, but at mere boys who were, she realized, only throwing stones. Her soldier heroes seemed somehow to have turned into an oppressive force which might have to subjugate a conquered people forever. Slowly she began to think something had to be done or else her Zionist dream would become a nightmare.

He also watched as his irredentist dreams became a blurred agony of hopeless poverty, brutal terrorism and Islamic fanaticism. Israel was here to stay, he thought. Unless his fellow Palestinians accepted the reality, they'd have no chance to build decent lives for themselves and their children.

So my two friends' paths have crossed again. They both support the current negotiations. They are both willing to trade land for peace. It's a reasonable deal that makes sense to two reasonable people.

Like most Americans, I assume that other people are basically like me and my friends. Other people may speak different languages, come from different cultures, have different histories, follow different philosophies and believe in different gods. But still, I always assume that underneath, we're really all the same. We're all reasonable, and we all want peace.

Historically, of course, this has proved a doubtful assumption anywhere, including the United States. After all, we once fought a murderous, fratricidal war of our own and peace has rarely been our paramount national goal. It was an American who said, ''Give me liberty or give me death.''

For many people here, it's ''Give me Jerusalem or give me death.'' A lot of people in this part of the world are anything but reasonable and they don't want any peace at all unless they can have it on their own terms.

Fanatical Jewish nationalists deliberately profane Muslim shrines. They want a peace that will come only when they have driven all the Arabs out of the Biblical lands of Canaan and Judea.

Arabs, on the other hand, have no real experience of democracy and little belief in it. The Enlightenment is not a part of their intellectual heritage. Muslim teachings recognize no distinction

between religion and the state. For many Muslims, any infidel presence in the Middle East is intolerable, regardless of whether Jews, Christian crusaders or Western secularism. Some Arabs want the peace that will come only when they have driven the last Israeli Jew into the sea.

This is not a promising demography for a peaceful accommodation. Reasonable people on both sides feel oppressed and besieged. Fanaticism arouses their fears and distrust, incidents ignite their rage and retaliations feed their resentments. Somehow reasonable people must withstand these assaults. Among both Israelis and Palestinians, the center must hold. For if it doesn't, the clash of horrors will only go on and on.

Tim Baker visited Israel with a group sponsored by the Baltimore Jewish Council.

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