Waging Israeli/Arab war in Nevada County
“We Jews have a secret weapon in our struggle with the Arabs-we have no place to go.”
They say you can never know what another man has endured until you have walked in his shoes. I have never been an Arab, but I have great compassion for their lives under Israeli rule. When I was young, I, too, lived in a country where I was treated poorly because of my heritage. That country was America.
My father, who was a rabbi, died when I was an infant, leaving my young mother penniless and destitute. I was raised in orphanages and foster homes in southeast Los Angeles. Living in that fashion, I hardly knew what being Jewish meant, but I knew what it meant to be a Jew. It was during the Second World War; people from Oklahoma and Arkansas were flowing into Southern California to work in the defense plants, and they apparently had taught their children that Jews were evil. As a little guy, I was called names, sworn at, and picked on almost every day of my life. It was only as I grew to be the biggest boy in my class, and a pretty good fighter from all the fights I had been subjected to, that I was finally left alone.
But it didn’t end there. In a thousand subtle ways, as I grew up, I was ostracized for no other reason than that my parents were Jewish. I found that there were areas where Jews were forbidden to live. (It was not until 1961 that such deed restrictions were made unenforceable in California.) From time to time, I came upon signs saying, “No Jews or Dogs Allowed.” It was made very clear that Jews were not welcome in certain organizations, groups and places. Private schools, universities and medical schools maintained strict quotas on the number of Jews they would admit. When I graduated from law school, although I was at the top of my class and an award winner, that there were certain law firms that would employ me and others that would not.
I often wondered what Jews had done to be treated this way. To my knowledge, Jews had never risen up and attacked Christians here, in America, or anyplace else, as the Arabs have done to the Jews in Israel. I had never even heard Jews saying anything bad about Christians. I tried to let the crude anti-Jewish epithets, non-funny jokes and direct insults I heard slide off my back, but they left their mark. Unless you have been a part of a reviled minority, unless you have walked in those shoes, you may never know what Jews, here, and certainly throughout the rest of the world, have endured. Of course, what I endured here, in America, is nothing compared to what the rest of my father’s family experienced in Europe. They were all slaughtered by the Nazis.
In 1954, between my first and second years of law school, I traveled to Israel. What a revelation that was! There were Jews everywhere! I was no longer “different.” I no longer had to wonder what other people were “really” thinking of me. I was no longer one of “the minority.” Everyone I met was filled with hope and pride and vigor-anxious to make their country a success. My cousin whispered in my ear that the bus driver had been a banker in Austria, and the farmer we met had been a doctor in Poland. There were no class distinctions; everyone was equal. I was surprised to learn that many of the people I met, and many of the people my cousins were doing business with, were not Jews, but Arabs. At that time, they seemed to make no distinction. They talked together, joked together, and worked side by side.
It was easy to see where the border was between Israel and what now is referred to as The West Bank, but was then part of Jordan. On the Israeli side, the Jews had fashioned irrigation systems, and everything was green and growing. There was a straight line as far as the eye could see. On one side it was green, and on the other, the Jordanian side, everything was brown and desolate.
This past week, my young cousin visited us from Israel, the granddaughter of the cousin I had visited in 1954. She and her husband were highly trained computer analysts, but both had lost their jobs. Israel, due to the intifada, is in a deep economic depression, and even when people are able to find work, taxes take up more than half of their salaries. When I spoke to them of politics, my cousin wanted Israel to immediately turn over the entire West Bank to the Arabs and close down the settlements. All she wanted was to assure an end to the suicide bombings. But her husband thought differently. Israel, at its waist, is only 10 miles wide. For 50 years, since the day Israel was created, Arab mothers throughout the Muslim world have been teaching their children to hate Jews. If we give them back the West Bank today, the Hamas leaders say that the suicide bombings will continue anyway; it is almost certain that the Arab nations will attack us as soon as they feel ready, and we will not be able to defend ourselves, he said. It seems that Israelis, even in the same family, cannot agree on what should be done.
Over the course of the past several weeks, several articles and many opinion letters have been devoted to the Israeli/Arab conflict in The Union. Proponents for each of the combatants claim that “justice” is on their side. I, as a Jew, am biased, so I will not enter that argument. However, I believe that Israel has learned the same lesson that I learned in grammar school: Jew-hating bullies will stop picking on you only if you are as big and strong as they are.
The issues are extremely complex, but one frightening fact seems inescapable. While there are undoubtedly many Arabs who want nothing more than to have The West Bank and Gaza strip declared the Arab nation of Palestine and live in peace, there are multitudes of others who want nothing less than to kill Jews and totally expel them from Israel. And those Jews have no place else to go.
Israel is half a world away. But here, in Nevada County, we must be very careful not to let old, half-forgotten prejudices worm their way into our subconscious once again. There is no cause for bigotry against either Arabs or Jews. There is no cause for dehumanizing those who might be different from us in some way, by making them “them,” and us “us.” We, here in Nevada County, cannot solve the religious wars consuming Israel, but we can, nay, we must, commit ourselves to peace, dialogue and understanding among people of all faiths in this, our county. Another thing I learned in grammar school was that bigotry and hatred are among the most destructive forces on earth. It is a lesson well learned.
Hank Starr, a divorce lawyer who lives and practices in Nevada City, writes a monthly column.
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