Expanding the Focus

{Cross-posted at Free News of the World and News and Views from Jews Down Under.}

Perhaps the biggest problem that we face in understanding the Arab-Israel conflict has to do with focus.

That is, among western liberals the typical understanding of the conflict is that it is one between Israelis and Palestinians fighting over a bit of turf, since November of 1947, on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea.  We tend to think that Israel is largely at fault because it is occupying and causing innumerable sufferings for the indigenous population.  We tend to oppose tactics like suicide bombings or the violent targeting of innocent Israeli civilians, but we also tend to understand that a people under occupation will do what is necessary to free themselves, which is what the Palestinians are trying to do.

This, in a broad kind of way, represents the sort-of middle-of-the-road western liberal view of the conflict.  This western liberal view, which was my view until fairly recently, seeks balance and even-handedness.  It comes from an ideological standpoint in which peoples around the world are seen as more-or-less the same in that we all want the same things.  We all want to live decent lives and have decent jobs and to take care of our families and to get along with our neighbors and to have a little fun now and again.  The basic idea is that everyone wants these things and that if we would simply treat one another fairly then we could all get along in peace.

As applied to the Israel-Palestine conflict this means that since the Israelis are the occupying power, who are persecuting the indigenous minority population, it is up to the Israelis to cease and desist in order to bring about a peaceful and just resolution to the ongoing problem.  If only Israel would end the occupation then resistance to the occupation would also end and we could see a Palestinian state living in peace and thriving alongside the Jewish state of Israel.

It’s a matter of freedom and justice for the Palestinians and security for the Jewish people of Israel.

This is essentially where Barack Obama is coming from and while this view is more or less monolithic on the western center-left it is also significantly present on the western political right.  It represents a general consensus among people who bother themselves with the issue and it explains why so many friends of Israel throughout the world, including very many Jewish people, tend to think that both sides are largely to blame, but that the real burden is upon Israel to make the peace.

This very moderate, very reasonable, very rational take on the conflict is also, sadly, entirely wrong.

The conflict is much longer in time and much wider in scope than the typical well-meaning western liberal understanding of it.

This never-ending fight is not one between Israelis and “Palestinians,” but between Jews and the much larger Arab world that has persecuted those Jews for centuries.  Furthermore, the conflict did not begin in November of 1947 with UN Resolution 181 calling for recognition of the Jewish State of Israel.  The timeline for the ongoing war against the Jews of the Middle East begins not in the twentieth-century, but in the 7th century with the rise of Islam, because Islam, itself, has hatred and contempt for the Jew hard-coded into the faith as written within both the Koran and the Hadiths and as acted upon by innumerable Arabs from that day to this.

The fact of the matter is that the Arab-Muslim world has persecuted and stoned and murdered and harassed the Jewish people for religious reasons since the time of Muhammed.  There are 60 to 70 Muslims in the Middle East for every Jew and the Jews have been driven out of every Muslim country throughout the Arab Middle East within living memory.  Our numbers are tiny compared to the vast hostile majority precisely because that hostile majority has succeeded very well in keeping our numbers small.  Living for thirteen hundred years under the system of dhimmitude a Muslim could beat or kill a Jew and that Jew, or his family, would have little, or no, recourse within Muslim jurisprudence.

So, if you honestly wish to understand the conflict then you have to understand that it is not a matter of post World War II militaristic Israelis persecuting a small allegedly indigenous minority, as most on the progressive-left, including the Jewish left, would tend to think.  Nor can it, from an historical standpoint, be reasonably characterized as “the Jews have done bad” and “the Arabs have done bad” and that if only both sides would take the measure of their own guilt then we could finally move beyond the problem.

The truth is that one side is far, far larger than the other and has been far, far more aggressive than the other over the course of fourteen centuries.  Although it is not politically correct to say so, and although it flies in the face of commonly accepted wisdom, the fact of the matter is that it is the tiny Jewish minority in the Middle East which has been, and continues to be, the victim of the Arab-Muslim majority population.  Throughout the period of the conflict, the Jews of the Middle East are no more the aggressors against the hostile Arab majority than black people in the United States were the aggressors against the hostile white majority during the period of Jim Crow.

Until we can expand our focus, both in time and space, on the conflict than we can never make the Jewish case to the larger world and making that case is imperative.  The only way to understand the conflict is through the lens of Jewish history in the Arab world and the history of the persecution and submission of non-Muslims in territory conquered by Muhammed’s armies.  Furthermore, the only way to understand the conflict is not that it is about Jerusalem versus Ramallah, but Jerusalem versus Ramallah and Cairo and Beirut and Tripoli and Mogadishu and Khartoum and Damascus and Riyadh.

Finally, all peoples are not the same and we do not all want the same things.  This is not due to issues of “race” – there is no such thing as a scientific biological category known as “race” – but because of culture.  Those among the 1.5 billion Muslims in the world who would like to see al-Sharia as the basis of government – Daniel Pipes puts the estimate at maybe 10 percent or 150 million people – may very well want to live decent lives and raise their children to be decent people, and so forth, but they also want to impose a system of government upon the rest of us in which women are chattel, Gay people are slaughtered outright, Christians are driven from their lands, and the Jews are either third class citizens… or dead.


Michael Lumish is the editor of Israel Thrives.

About the Author
Mike Lumish is a PhD in American history from the Pennsylvania State University and has taught at PSU, San Francisco State University, and the City College of San Francisco. He regularly publishes on the Arab-Israel conflict at the Times of Israel and at his own blog, Israel Thrives ( He has in recent years given conference papers on American cultural and intellectual history at The International Society for the History of Behavioral and Social Sciences in Dublin, Ireland, as well as at the Western Historical Association in Phoenix, Arizona and the American Cultural Association in New Orleans, Louisiana. Lumish is also the founding editor of the scholarly on-line discussion forum H-1960s. He can be contacted at