The land between the Mediterranean and Jordan River is a central element of the identities of many Jews and Palestinians. It can be difficult for Western, liberal, secular people to understand why and how land is so central to these identities, and why maintaining one inflexible notion of identity is so critical to these communities. But it is important to understand that neither side is acting out of purely irrational radical fundamentalism – they are instead trying to maintain their senses of self, purpose, and meaning, just as we all do everyday.
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I was at the border between Gaza and Israel, standing outside the Erez border crossing with other members of the Yahel Social Change Fellowship. We met a Palestinian journalist who was one of the few thousand Gazans a month allowed to leave the enclosed territory.
I asked the journalist if she thinks that most Gazans would recognize Israel’s sovereignty and accept peace in exchange for better economic conditions and standard of living. She said no, because Palestinian identity is rooted to the land. She said that Palestinians’ multi-generational struggle to return to their land would not be worth it if they did not meet their goal.
Palestinian identity is rooted to the land. Palestinians’ multi-generational struggle to return to their land would not be worth it if they did not meet their goal.
I later recounted this exchange to an Israeli. She said something along the lines of, “it’s silly to me that these people who haven’t lived in Israel for generations are still being taught that it’s their home.” I responded, “the Jews weren’t in Israel for thousands of years, they wanted to go back the whole time, and still use their ancient presence here as rationale for the modern state. In comparison with that, the Palestinians’ desire to return to the land seems fairly reasonable.”
It’s silly to me that these people who haven’t lived in Israel for generations are still being taught that it’s their home.
I also recalled a conversation I had with a Jewish person on the roof of a yeshiva (house of study) in the contested West Bank city of Hebron, where I stayed first with Palestinians and then in the yeshiva. I asked him why a piece of land like Hebron is so important to Judaism, when the religion developed to exist effectively in Diaspora (exile), without a land. He said that yes, the Jews survived Diaspora, but they survived while praying everyday to return to Israel, to Jerusalem, and to Hebron. It was this struggle to return to the land that kept the Jews together, and gave them their identity. If the Jews don’t hold onto the lands that they were praying for the entire time, what was the point of surviving? What is the religion about? What defines the community and its identity?
A central part of both Jewish and Palestinian identity is the struggle to return to Jerusalem, and to a homeland between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River. For many Jews and Palestinians, especially those in more traditional communities, maintaining this connection to the land is critical in maintaining their own sense of self-worth, identity, and peoplehood.
Traditional vs. Liberal Conceptions of Identity and Self-Worth
It can be difficult for liberal, secular Westerners* to understand how critical land is to identity in a traditional society (Israel has a mix of traditional and liberal communities, though I believe it is fair to say that Israel’s liberal communities are more impacted by traditional values than liberal communities in other parts of the world. Palestinian society is largely traditional at its core).
It can also be hard for liberal Westerners to understand how important it is for traditional communities and individuals to maintain one, concrete identity, rather than being open to identity shifts and experimentation, as is common in the Western world. This is true for a number of reasons.
*In this article I will use the term “liberals” to refer to liberal, secular, Westerners
Identity and self-worth in traditional societies are directly linked to an individual’s position in their particular community and its social hierarchy. That social hierarchy exists inside a non-universalistic community that is bounded by territorial, ethnic, nationalist, and values-based borders. If any of those borders are ruptured, the traditional community is threatened, and the individual’s self-worth and identity, which are directly linked to their community membership, are threatened as well.
On the other hand, identity in the Western, liberal world is universalistic and individualistic, based on the premise that every individual has intrinsic self-worth (human rights). According to Israeli sociologist Nissim Mizrachi, for liberals “the notion that all human beings have basic human rights is therefore rooted in the idea of the ‘person’ as a universal entity existing prior to the particular society in which she lives” (Resisting Liberalism in Israel, 45). This means that a liberal individual can experiment with different physical locations, jobs, communities, and identities, while still carrying their intrinsic self-worth, while a traditional person’s entire self-worth is tied to their community. Liberalism and its politics of universalism thus “transforms identity from a structured ‘given’ into an ongoing project, open to negotiation” (53).
Liberals still have the basic human need to be a part of specific communities. But while traditional communities are bounded by land, ethnicity, religion, etc., liberal communities are bounded first and foremost by an acceptance of liberal values. Yes, the country, city, and neighborhood a liberal lives in does have an impact on their identity, but US neighborhoods, for example, are weak sources of community and identity: “A third of Americans say they’ve never interacted with the people living next door.” Liberal identity is more likely to be formed by finding people with similar values, professions, levels of education, income, hobbies, and so on. As such, liberals can find like-minded people anywhere in the world (especially in cosmopolitan cities), meaning that a liberal can move anywhere in the world where there are liberals.
This territorial flexibility, along with the identity flexibility granted by a notion of intrinsic self-worth, makes it hard for a liberal to understand how important it is for people in traditional societies to maintain one concrete identity, especially one based on connection to a land (it should be further noted that this connection to the land has been hardened over time through conflict, meaning the groups define themselves in oppositional terms, and any concessions made are not just material but also symbolic, personal, and emotional).
For a liberal it is thus an easy question to ask: why not just leave the land? Why not accept the economic benefits of peace? Why stay in settlements, where life is harder and more dangerous, and where you are preventing peace? Can’t you be who you are somewhere else?
A thought exercise might help clarify this concept –
Liberalism’s individualistic focus liberates identity from something that is determined by one’s bounded community, to something that can be crafted by every individual. According to Mizrachi, a liberal’s identity is an “ongoing project,” which is “open to negotiation” and “formed through introspection and dialogue” (53).
But crafting an identity doesn’t only become an option for liberals – it becomes a necessity. Identity is a central part of life, and without a concrete and obvious identity, one must craft their own. So liberals form identities and communities through education, employment, objects, values, activities, and yes, even land (think: people from Boston vs. people from New York).
Now, imagine the most important elements of your identity and sense of self-worth are taken away from you. Imagine that your identity, and the meaning of your life, has been to work in environmental law. And suddenly you are fired, and the only job you can find is one in corporate law – the same status in society in terms of income and employment, but a completely different identity and purpose. You would likely question the meaning of your life, and who you are as a person. Friends from the environmental community might not be so friendly without your liberal credentials. I imagine you would do anything you could to get your job back.
The point is: people in liberal and traditional societies use different building blocks to establish identities, communities, and feelings of self-worth and purpose. But in both societies, these elements of our lives are centrally important in our conceptions of ourselves, in our identities, and in having a sense of meaning and purpose. When the ways in which we define ourselves are disrupted, so is our sense of self and purpose. According to the philosopher Dr. Viktor Frankl, finding that purpose is the entire meaning of our lives.
What does this all mean? Circling back to Jews and Palestinians, it means there are two groups of people who have an existential need to maintain their identities through connection to a land – the same land – and through their mutual physical and symbolic struggles to return to it. Without a complete values reform, neither group can exist without maintaining this connection, along with their respective struggles to hold the land or return to it.
So we are left with what seems like an unsolvable contradiction – two peoples, one very important land. Through rose-colored glasses, this struggle for the land is also something both groups have in common. IF those involved can somehow move past the symbolic politics that prevent even small concessions in the conflict, and IF they could openly recognize their mutual connections to the land, it would open space for productive dialogue. We know that “when people feel that their identities are acknowledged and respected, they open up” to conversation, and creative solutions emerge. Conversely, when people feel their identities are “threatened they hunker down. They cannot listen, as they correctly sense that their worldview is under attack.” I have seen this type of mutual recognition and opening occur between Jews and Palestinians in Israel, but only after a long process of building relationships through other means.
I write this article not to make value judgements on which side is right or wrong – I still condemn Palestinian terrorism, and still see Jewish settlements as an impediment to peace and a source of Palestinian suffering. But I think it is important to understand that neither side is acting out of pure religious fanaticism – they are not simply doing what they do because “God told them to,” as one would hear in a Vice documentary or similar outlet. Both sides are trying to maintain their identities and senses of self-worth and meaning, just as we all are every day. Before we make value judgements about either side, let us all think about how we would respond if the core elements of our own identities were similarly threatened.