Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

The Wait of History: Why the Conflict Hasn’t Been (Re)solved

The guns have fallen silent, but the conflict continues to fester. Why is it so irresolvable? Try answering this question: How long has the Arab/Moslem/Palestinian conflict been going on with the Israelites/Jews/Zionists? 54 years? 73? 104? 1400? 3200? There is no “correct” answer – and that’s the problem!

The expression “the weight of history” suggests that many times we have trouble dealing with the present, and possibilities for the future, because of the “dead hand” of history – otherwise known as the “weight of history”. But for most people in the Middle East, “history” is far from a “dead hand”; it’s very much alive in forming (or creating) their identity.

I have chosen here to spell the critical word as W-A-I-T and not “WEIGHT”. History tells why. In contrast to China, Japan, England, France – all with a virtually unbroken tradition of many centuries of self-government – both the Jews and the Arabs have had to rebuild their nation-states from scratch. How does one do that? By taking cues from their own ancient history.

After the Jews were exiled from the land by the Romans 2000 years ago, they kept their national spirit alive by constantly invoking the return to the Holy Land – Shivat Zion (the return to Zion). Over these many centuries, a few Jews did trickle into the Holy Land but for the vast majority it was a concrete dream (forgive the oxymoron).

Indeed, Jewish historical memory and experience regarding exile goes back even further than that to the 6th century BCE when a large part of Judea was exiled to Babylonia – and then returned to the Land of Israel 70 years afterwards to reestablish national autonomy, if not always complete sovereignty.

For the Arabs, the situation was a bit more complex. Within a few decades of Mohammed’s creating Islam, the Moslems had conquered half the world — all the way to North Africa and Spain. But this “overarching” umma soon split into factions (religious, ethnic, and political), and later was reestablished by the Ottoman Empire, although by then the Christians had regained southern Europe.

Within this vast territory, a relatively small number of Arabs lived in “Palestine” – a small outpost within the Empire. Eventually, over the past 74 years they developed the same concept as had the Jews: al-Awda (the Return).

And here we come to the crux of the matter. One of the ironies in all this historical exposition is that the Palestinians can draw “historical support” from the Jews’ success. If a nation like the Jewish People can wait for 2000 years and finally succeed, then surely the Palestinians can wait for decades and even a few centuries until their successful return. Not that they need the Jewish-Zionist experience for evidence of successful return: the great Moslem Sunni general Saladin defeated the Crusaders in 1187, wresting control of Palestine from the Christians, who had conquered the area 88 years earlier.

This is the “wait” of history. Based on past Arab-Moslem history, the Palestinians look at Israel’s Jews as colonialists, not much different than the Crusaders. This is not only a “religious” perspective, as held by Hamas; the PLO, for example, is a secular movement. Rather, the mindset here is deeply cultural: no matter how they define their own “we” (Arab, Moslem, Palestinian), they did eventually get rid of the “others” in the past. So, from their standpoint there is no reason that they can’t wait out the enemy until a propitious historical moment and do it again – this time to the Jews instead of the Christians of yore.

The Jewish perspective is a mirror image of this. Indeed, I should add one more historical “factoid” to complete their picture: after King David and his son Solomon established their Jewish Empire, their kingdom (Judea) lasted close to 500 years. And then when the Jews returned from Babylonian exile and rebuilt the (second) Temple, once again their kingdom lasted close to 500 years. So based on that historical experience, contemporary Israeli Jews view their return to, and “reconquest” of, the Holy Land in similar terms: “we will be here for many centuries and can outlast our enemies”. The result: both sides can (and do) “wait”.

But how far back can and should a “people” go in order to define “who they are” and where they have a right to live? Do you go back 125 years – in which case the Arab argument is stronger than the Zionist one, because the Holy Land in 1897 was populated largely by Arabs, with only a few thousand Jews? Or do you go back 1300 years, in which case the Moslem argument is even stronger with very few Jews living there, and conversely a bona fide religio-national people was working and ruling the land?

Or: do you go back 2000 years – even 3000+ years – when the Jewish-Zionist case is far stronger, based on the Biblical narrative, the forced exile of Jews by the Romans, the fact that Islam did not exist back then, and that there certainly was no “Arab nation” as we understand the term “nation” today?

And then there is this head-scratching question: can a people declare themselves a “nation” when they weren’t anything of the sort in the past? That’s what the Zionists argue: there was never a “Palestinian people” or “Palestinian nation”. The term Palestine is a Roman invention (based on the former people called the Philistines, who left the world stage about 2500 years ago) – chosen by the Romans in order to expunge any memory of the Jews having lived there. More germane, Arabs living in the Holy Land for centuries – even millennia – always saw themselves as either part of the very large Moslem “umma” (trans-national peoplehood), or as a small district within the political system of the region’s ruling power, whether the Byzantine Empire or the Ottoman Empire.

For all these critical national-historical questions, we can see that there is no definitive answer. Indeed, regarding this territory specifically and the overall conflict in general, we are now witness to a struggle between a very ancient people (the Jews) who have established a new country, and a very new nation (the Palestinians) who as individuals with a shared religious (but not “national”) background have many centuries of territorial ownership!

And the rest of the world waits for this Gordian Knot to be severed, and waits, and waits… Unfortunately, this weighty matter has become all to “waity”.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) presently serves as Academic Head of the Communications Department at the Peres Academic Center (Rehovot). Previously, he taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published five books and 69 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book (in Hebrew, with Tali Friedman): RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS RABBIS' FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Between Halakha, Israeli Law, and Communications in Israel's Democracy (Niv Publishing, 2024). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see:
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