Two Men and a Woman Imagining and Reimagining the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
His memories of her kept him going during the long years of his captivity. The sweet soothing voice that flowed so gently, caressing him like a quiet gurgling brook. The long smooth chestnut hair that blew in the wind.
They had married young. It was the first love for both of them. Their life together had been so perfect. But then came the war. He had to go, and he went. She made him promise to take care of himself. He promised, but it did not help.
Every detail of that fateful battle was etched in his memory. There was dissension in his unit. The attack was not unexpected, but they were thrown into disarray. His comrades were slaughtered one after the other. Suddenly there was a deafening blast. Flames lashed high into the night…
Life was dreary as a prisoner of war. But at least there was hope of going home when the war was over. The war came to an end, but captivity continued. He tried to escape but to no avail. Each time he was caught and thrown back into prison. The years dragged on. There seemed to be no hope.
But he did not give in to despair. He remained faithful to her, and he knew that she would remain faithful to him. Images of her conjured up by his mind brought a bittersweet half-smile to his face. He still heard her voice during the long, lonely nights and never gave up on his vow to make it home someday.
The day arrived. His captors seem to have let down their guard. He snuck away under the cover of night. Free at last. He had been gone forty years to the day when he opened the door to his house and embraced her. It was like love at first sight all over again, as if they were made for each other. He moved about as if in a dream, almost not believing that they were united at last against all odds. What a victory for the human spirit.
But not all was perfect. Someone in the shadows was always trying to trip them up, another man who claimed that the two of them had never been married, to begin with, that our hero returned from war was an imposter who did not belong in this home. This rival took up arms, he booby-trapped the house. He tried to drive a wedge between them. And the hero returned from war never understood why. Who was this man who, after forty years of longing and suffering, wouldn’t let him finally live in peace and quiet with the beloved wife of his youth?
The other man tells a completely different story. He fell in love with her when she was already in middle age. He was so taken by the commanding presence of this stately woman.
Yes, he knew that she had been married before. And yes, he knew that her marriage had ended under difficult circumstances. But it had indeed ended a long, long time ago. Whatever had happened back then was irrelevant now.
She never talked about that previous marriage. Or perhaps she did, but he barely listened because the past is gone, and the present is all that matters.
Sometimes, he convinced himself that she had never really been married before. How could she have been so perfect was the match between them?
They had lived together for the better part of thirty years when one day, their quiet bliss turned into a nightmare. With no warning, a newcomer turned their marriage upside down. His home was invaded. He found himself forced to do the unthinkable, to share his wife with this imposter, this immoral usurper.
Of course, he fought back against the inexplicable injustice. Of course, he took up arms. It was his right and his duty to do so. He struggled to remain in his home with his beloved wife. But to no avail. However, hope was never extinguished. He continued to seek out every means possible to redress his grievance.
For years a faded picture of his beloved wife accompanied him wherever he went, hanging from a chain around his neck.
The woman in the saga has her own perspective, more complex and complete than either of the other two. For many years after her husband disappeared, she remained faithful. She was sure he would return, but he did not. Finally, she remarried. She wanted to put the bitter past behind her, so she barely mentioned her previous marriage. Still, the evidence of it could not be suppressed. But she loved her present husband as deeply as she had loved her first one.
And then, one day, the door opened, and there was the husband of her youth. What a joy! But what a tragedy! She is married to both men and is deeply attached to both men. Can a woman have two husbands?
Living the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for over forty years and now bringing together the two sides and listening deeply to their voices for most of the past decade, it has become crystal clear to me that the political conflict is only a symptom of a much deeper conflict. The conflict at its core is over identity. The two people’s self-understanding and understanding of the other side are diametrically opposed. Neither recognizes the other for who they understand themselves to be. Neither people appreciates the sincerity and the depth of the other’s belonging to the Land. This blind hubris of exclusivity is well illustrated by the metaphor of marriage presented above. And indeed, after coming up with this metaphor, I learned that a generation of religious Zionist youth here in Israel was explicitly educated to see themselves as married to the land and to see the other side as attempting to sabotage the holiness of the bonds of matrimony that bind us to the Land!
This being the case, it is clear that any attempt towards a purely political, utilitarian solution to this conflict will almost certainly not be sustainable. Division of the land cannot serve as the sole foundation of the solution. Just as a woman cannot have two husbands, two men cannot share a wife, and any effort to make it work will invariably end in failure and conflict, so in our case as well.
The solution must begin at the foundation. The hubris of exclusivity at the core of our identities must be softened and deconstructed. Both sides must expand their identities to accept and recognize the self-understanding of the other side. We need not love the land any less, but we must allow for the other’s love of the land to flourish alongside our own love for her.
We must learn that love is not a zero-sum game. Marital love is, by definition, exclusive, but there are other models of love that are not. One of them is that between children and parents. The love of one child for mother and father does not lessen the love of the other siblings for those same parents. On the contrary, brothers and sisters can embrace and celebrate the love that they each feel for their father and mother. And parents have room in their hearts for many children.
Solving a conflict rooted in identity cannot be left to politicians alone. They don’t have the required tools. Religious leaders and scholars, educators, civil society, youth movements, and schools – all have an indispensable role to play.
Jews and Palestinians need to re-envision the metaphor of our belonging to the land – and of our relationship to each other – on the way toward solving the political conflict between us. No longer two men married to one woman, no longer two competing suitors, but rather two children born of the same womb, two siblings deeply connected to – and sharing – the mother they both love.
Note – this essay is a revision of one written about five years ago. It appeared online here:
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