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A Land Without Borders

September 30, 2017

Land Without Borders (418x640)Nir Baram, A Land Without Borders: My Journey Around East Jerusalem and the West Bank, 2015. Translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen.

A Jewish settler in the West Bank tells Nir Baram there is no such thing as a Palestinian nation. “Their distinctness in the Arab world does not justify another state … If you need a territorial solution, then there’s Jordan.”

A Palestinian school director tells Baram, “There is no solution except for Jews to go back to the countries they came from, and for everyone to fulfil their right in their own countries.”

During 2014-15, Baram, an Israeli novelist, travelled throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem, speaking with hundreds of people, “Jewish and Arab, from all classes and political affiliations.” Listening to people helped him push past the stereotypes and reach a more complex understanding of the Israeli-Palestine conflict.

Those who say that the only solution is for the other side to go somewhere else are at one end of a very wide spectrum of views. There are settlers who pursue the Zionist dream of the entire Jewish people on the entire land of Israel, but would still like to relieve the suffering of the Palestinian people. Another settler calls for Jews to let go of the concept of ownership: “It is God’s land. The people of Israel belong to the Land of Israel, and the Palestinians belong to the Land of Israel, to Palestine.” After all, Isaac and Ishmael were brothers.

Nir-Baram-web (525x640)

Nir Baram (Text Publishing Website)

Other settlers don’t even notice the Palestinians: “Where are the Arabs here, anyway?” This comment prompts Baram to visit a nearby Palestinian village that had been there since before the Ottomans. Settlers had taken over lands the villagers cultivated or grazed, killing their sheep, cutting down their olive trees. Fences they weren’t allowed to cross separated them from lands the settlers had not yet appropriated.

There seems little prospect of implementing either of the usual solutions. Israel is unlikely to agree to one state with equal rights for all because of the demographic danger. And is it even possible to divide the land into two states? How can Jews and Arabs on the West Bank be separated?

Baram is a member of a group of Israelis and Palestinians advocating a peace initiative called “Two States One Homeland”, which is halfway between the two standard solutions: a shared homeland between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, consisting of two independent sovereign states with an open border between them, with freedom of movement and residence throughout the homeland.

Yet Baram concludes that the problem is not one of state design, but of values. He asks Israelis whether Israel should pay reparations to Palestinians for the loss of their assets – villages, houses, lands – and is met with contempt, fury and mockery. Yet Germany is still paying reparations to victims of the Holocaust.  “Each side is trapped within its own ’48 narrative, without recognising the other story at all.”

West Bank Barrier

Separation Wall (CC, Wikimedia Commons)

It is time to admit, he says, that “the occupation is the image of our society, institutions, army, citizens. An overwhelming majority of institutions in Israel are dedicated to the preferential treatment of Jews over non-Jews and the elaboration of the occupation.”

Whatever the solution, he concludes, “two states, a confederation, a single state – the Jew and the non-Jew must be equal in every sense.”

This is a book about ongoing tragedy, yet it is a joy to read. It connects the reader to the lives of Palestinians and Jewish settlers and makes us feel the forces at work in this conflict. Baram doesn’t just listen, he also challenges people, and asks them difficult questions, such as, “How do you see the future?”

Highly recommended for anyone who wants to understand more about one of the key conflicts of our time.

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