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The Never-Ending Story

For the Middle East, how much hope can there be in a handshake?

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Imagine living in a place where, at a distance no farther than from Nashville to Columbia, stand thousands of men armed to the teeth and waiting only for a command to march into your neighborhood to slaughter your family and your neighbors and friends. Those assembled to kill you are people who in appearance are almost indistinguishable from you, whose language you speak and understand, and with whom you have shared the same territory for countless generations. You worship in different ways, but you admit to having the same forebears. Imagine that those people fear you as you fear them. Imagine that this state of affairs has existed continuously for over 3,000 years.

It is nearly impossible for the average Nashvillian to comprehend such a scenario. We go about our daily lives either oblivious to (or bored with) the conflicts taking place, only hours away, in what we think of as the Holy Land, or in other, odd-sounding places like Chechnya, Burundi, or Somalia. We occasionally see the blood and gore on our television sets, but we do not experience what we momentarily witness via the miracle of telecommunication. For this we should be thankful. Such scenes are etched indelibly upon the consciousness of millions of people, people whose hearts are filled with rage, and whose memories are long.

And yet, every schoolchild knows the story of at least one incident from such an incomprehensible saga. It is the story of David and Goliath:

The armies once again mobilized for war. On one side were encamped the sons of Ishmael, the Philistines (Palestinians), a highly disciplined fighting force that, for the previous 50 years, had known spectacular conquests. Its military leadership was unsurpassed by any of its contemporaries, and it was equipped with weapons of the most advanced technological design.

Assembled on the other side of the vale gathered the sons of Isaac, known as the Israelites. They comprised an army inferior both in numbers and in strength, and woefully wanting in skill and experience. Their political infrastructure was in disarray, torn by dissension and rivalry. For many years they had been under assault and forced into retreat by the formidable enemy now encamped within their sight and earshot. Much of their beloved holy land was either occupied or under siege.

Out of the Palestinian ranks emerged a most valiant warrior. He was so fearsome that, upon seeing him, the advance Israeli guard fled in abject terror. The reporters on the scene described him as a giant over 9 feet tall who carried a spear as thick as a “weaver’s beam.” This incredible weapon had a massive tip of iron, a terrifying innovation for which the Israelis had no effective defense. His name was Goliath of Gath, and his presence promised disaster for the beleaguered Israelis and their allies.

The end of the story is thrice-familiar. From the Israeli camp strode a youth, armed with only five smooth stones and a slingshot. As the mighty Goliath towered above the young David and prepared to hack him into pieces, David calmly slung one small stone toward the head of his towering antagonist and struck him so that the stone “sank into his forehead.” The giant Palestinian fell “facedown on the ground,” whereupon David, after removing Goliath’s sword from its sheath, thrust it into him without hesitation, killing him. He then summarily severed the warrior’s head from his body, holding it aloft by the hair for both warring camps to see. With their champion so easily dispatched, the Palestinians fled the field in panic and disarray.

On that day the Israelis prevailed. However, the Palestinians were not to be held down for long. Shortly after the loss of their awesome warrior, the Palestinian fighters regrouped and routed the Israeli forces at Mount Gilboa. In the process they killed all three sons of Saul, the king of Israel. This defeat was so profound and ignominious that the king begged his servant to kill him. When the servant refused, Saul fell on his own sword. When the Palestinians came upon Saul’s body, they cut off his head and used it as a trophy of battle, parading it throughout their villages and towns. This was yet another milestone in the seemingly endless conflict between those two ancient peoples.

In the centuries that followed the battles between the ancient Israelites and Palestinians, one great empire and then another rolled into and over their land and kingdoms. In each case the Israelites and Palestinians were subjugated but not destroyed. First, in the eighth century, B.C., came the Assyrians. They were followed by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar, the Greeks under Alexander, and then the Romans under Marc Antony.

Each of these great empires brought with them its culture, customs, and religion. Nearly every people and tribe disappeared under the crushing weight of the invaders’ influence. In spite of this, the Jews and the Palestinians were able to maintain their separate identities. Finally, in 70 A.D., after over 100 years of contentious occupation, the Roman legions crushed a Jewish revolt, destroyed the Holy Temple containing the Ark of the Covenant, and expelled the Jews from Israel. The Diaspora had begun.

In 1948, after 1,878 years of bitter exile, and after a third of their number had been exterminated at the hands of Adolph Hitler, the Jews once again established a state called Israel. Within its borders still lived hundreds of thousands of their ancient foes, the Palestinians. For more than 3,000 years these two peoples have fought one another over the same tiny piece of land, a place where both arrived, almost simultaneously, 1,200 years before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.

The Palestinians are presumed to have been a seafaring people who, after destroying and plundering the dying Minoan civilization on Crete, came very close to vanquishing the mighty empire of the Egyptians. Unbowed by their defeat at the hands of the Egyptian army led by the Pharaoh Ramses III, the Palestinians retreated to the western, coastal edge of what was then the land of the Canaanites and, after slaughtering the native inhabitants, established the five great cities of Ascalon, Ashdod, Ekron, Gath, and Gaza.

The Israelites, of course, having secured their freedom from Egyptian bondage through the efforts of the great liberator and law-giver Moses, invaded and occupied Canaan from the east after 40 years of desert wandering. After a series of incredibly bloody and brutal battles against the indigenous peoples living in such cities as Jericho, Hebron, and Ai, the Jews established their two kingdoms of Israel and Judah. The western borders of these two kingdoms connected with the eastern borders of the Palestinian city-states, precipitating what is arguably the longest and most contentious conflict in the history of civilization.

Americans are blessed insofar as they are not plagued with ancient ethnic hatreds maintained by 1,000-year-old blood feuds. Meanwhile, nearly every other region of the world is so afflicted. We are an admixture of peoples descended from scores of racial and ethnic ancestries, most of whom came here precisely to escape the conflicts, wars, and persecutions similar to those that exist today between the Palestinian and Israeli peoples.

Our nation is buttressed by two vast oceans and protected by powerful armed forces. We have in our arsenal 50,000 nuclear weapons, which serve quite effectively to deter any foe from attacking us in force. We have vast, almost immeasurable wealth and a population unmatched in education, comfort, and mobility. We look upon conflicts such as those in the tiny strip of land now known as Israel with incomprehension and disbelief.

We are unable to grasp the endlessness of the conflict, particularly because we are not crippled with tribal and ethnic animosities. We do not identify ourselves with a particular piece of land, and, because we live amid overwhelming abundance and surplus, we feel no hatred toward those around us who strive to better their lot in life. In our world, there is enough for everyone.

Since 1948, when Palestine was partitioned and the State of Israel established, the two ancient foes have fought four major wars (1948, 1956, 1967, 1973) and undertaken countless skirmishes, battles, territorial incursions, bombings, murders, and revolts. Each incident has built upon and continues to prolong the blood feud that has existed for 30 centuries. Is it any wonder that the average American is unable to grasp the substance and meaning of this conflict?

When Yassir Arafat, descendent of the Patriarch Abraham and his concubine Hagar through their son Ishmael, shook the hand of Benjamin Netanyahu, descendent of the same Patriarch Abraham and his wife, Sarah, through their son Isaac, the irony of the Palestinian and Israeli conflict was once again revealed. In a very real sense, these men are brethren. Even so, because they are the embodiment of the hopes and aspirations of their respective peoples, they must undertake complex negotiations before even touching the hand or looking into the eye of one another.

The cruel irony of the Palestinian and Israeli conflict is that both peoples have been cast out from their respective religious/political homelands. Both have been feared, systematically persecuted, and murdered. World powers have used the conflict between Palestine and Israel to influence and manipulate one another. The Israelis and Palestinians have frequently been pawns on the international chess board.

Whenever they have become inconvenient or troublesome, or whenever the ruling elite has decided that political advantage is to be gained from arousing public passions against them, terrible miseries have been inflicted upon them. Only 26 years ago, for instance, Hafez Al-Assad, the brutal dictator of Syria, murdered tens of thousands of Palestinians in what is now known as Black September. The Jews, needless to say, have had their own long litany of misery and horror. These two peoples share so much history, and so much sorrow, that it is astonishing that they do not embrace one another in filial love. Instead, as all the world has witnessed for so very long, they fight and hate one another with unbridled passion and intensity.

It is logical to ask if the tentative handshake of President Netanyahu and Chairman Arafat signals a meaningful change in the fortunes of these long and bitter foes. Will peace come, finally, to that land and to the ancient peoples who have lived there for millennia?

If the extremists on both sides have their way, the answer surely will be no. It is to their gruesome advantage to see the conflict continue.

If, however, the self-interest of both peoples were somehow to prevail—if the commonality between those who recognize Abraham of Ur as their forefather and patriarch were to ascend over the ugliness of their collective past—then indeed our world would be the richer for their glory. We can only pray that 30 centuries of hatred is long enough.

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