by Zachary Braiterman
* This post originally appeared on the author’s blog, Jewish Philosophy Place.
What’s at the root of the Israel-Palestinian conflict? When people on the left want to talk about Gaza or the larger Israel-Palestine conflict they often say that you can’t solve this or that aspect of the problem, this or that local eruption, without resolving “the root cause.” But what’s the root cause? By this is generally meant not the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, but rather 1948 and the Palestinian Nakba. For their part, people on the right, as per Benjamin Netanyahu, see the root cause as the inability of Palestinian political leadership, historically, to accept the establishment of a Jewish majority state in a part of Bilad al-Sham (Greater Syria) or the smaller territorial unit defined by British Mandate Palestine.
You think you get to the bottom of the conflict when you say you want to get at the root cause, when, in fact, there is no root to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Less like a “root,” it’s more like a rhizome, composed of underground stems that shoot off in this or that unexpected way across a wide terrain. Isolate one part of the system, and the sections simply regenerate. There’s no end to it. The historical tendrils are too complex and decentralized composed of too many heterogeneous directions to tear up “at the root.” A root, you can dig up at a source, whereas a rhizome has no such single source. You can start tearing it up, but there’s no getting at it because its form is too multifaceted.
In the case at hand, the tendrils defining the conflict predate the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. This is not to say that the conflict is irresolvable. But there’s no way to “resolve” the root of the problem. One would have to pore over Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Ottoman, and European maps, tracing out shifting demographics, and the history of religions and empires, all in the plural. If there’s no “root cause” to the conflict that one might hope to eradicate it is because we are looking at a network. Impossible to untangle, in Israel-Palestine the main constituting and re-constituting historical and geographical nodes spread out across ancient Jewish memory, the Arab conquest of Palestine, and European anti-Semitism.
Zachary (Zak) Braiterman teaches modern Jewish thought and philosophy in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His work explores the interface between Jewish religion, continental philosophy, aesthetic theory, and visual culture.