Middle East: Beautiful to behold, wrong to romanticize

The powerful images and beliefs associated with the Middle East bring out the romantic and the radical. What's needed is practical peacemaking.

AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis
An aerial view of the golden Dome of the Rock Mosque, center, and the Al Aqsa Mosgue, bottom left, in east Jerusalem's Old City is seen in this Tuesday Feb. 17, 2004 file photo. The compound, known to Muslims as Haram as-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, the third holiest shrine in Islam, and to Jews as the Temple Mount, site of their biblical temples and Judaism's most sacred shrine, is the most sensitive spot in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

You've probably seen David Roberts's lovely lithographs of the Middle East. They show the soft bones of ancient temples and cities nestled into a dusty landscape. A handful of colorfully attired shepherds, holy men, and merchants usually lounge in the foreground. The whole effect is of an explorer coming upon the sleepy remains of a long-lost civilization in a now empty land.

A modern visitor standing before the walls of Jerusalem's Old City at sunset can conjure a similar image, although to do so requires cropping out the cars, tour buses, kids on cellphones, and street signs for Coke, Nestle, and Samsung. Almost everyone who encounters the Middle East brings a selective mental filter not unlike the one Mr. Roberts provided to Anglo-Americans in the 19th century. Through religion, literature, or history, the Holy Land has been part of most people's image bank all their lives.

For many Palestinians, the Middle East before the nakba -- the (in their view) disastrous war that followed establishment of Israel -- was an easy-going region of olive trees, grape arbors, and peaceful coexistence. When refugees from 1948 talk of it, the life they describe is achingly sweet.

For many Israelis, the fond memory they mention is rooted in the make-the-desert-bloom spirit of Israel just before and after its (in their view) miraculous birth. A prominent member of the Labor Party once sadly recalled how much hope there had been in those early days that his nation of resourceful refugees would be welcomed by its neighbors as a modern, can-do democracy.

Romanticism is a powerful force. It removes complexities and leaves rosy nostalgia for a time that seems more noble or beautiful or innocent than today, even if that time never existed. Despite the Zionist mantra, Palestine was never a land without a people for a people without a land. Nor was it, as Palestinians sometimes describe it, a tolerant paradise under the gently decaying rule of Istanbul.

No group ever had the land to itself. No claim of sacred entitlement has gone undisputed. And yet each time there is a dramatic clash -- such as the deadly encounter between Israeli commandos and peace activists over the Gaza blockade -- otherwise sensible people begin thinking in absolute terms. They question whether Israel has a right to exist or they assert that it is so fundamentally threatened that it has a right to take extreme measures in its defense.

When thinking about the Middle East in the midst of its latest crisis, it is important to know that its future is not determined by its past -- rich, colorful, and tormented as the past may be. Israelis aren't going to "go home" any more than Europeans are going home from the Americas. Palestinians are not invisible or incidental.

The reality of the Middle East is straightforward: Two nations are destined to live side by side on a parched sliver of land along the eastern Mediterranean. Water and real estate are in short supply. So ownership will always be subject to dispute and negotiation. Because of powerful beliefs associated with the three religions born in the Holy Land, fanaticism will frequently boil over. So watchful eyes and high fences will be constant needs.

The Holy Land has been continuously inhabited for more than 10,000 years. It has left a litter of symbols and memories from all those ages. All of its people have been wronged and have committed wrongs at one time or another. No one has the upper hand on victimhood or divine right. No culture is native and none is superior. It is time to make the complex bargain that will allow Israelis and Palestinians to coexist, however fitfully.

The past is a wonderful thing to remember. The present requires less memory and more realism.

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