No “Root Cause” to the Israel-Palestine Conflict (Rhizome)


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.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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4 Responses to No “Root Cause” to the Israel-Palestine Conflict (Rhizome)

  1. David Kaufman says:

    Zak–here’s part of a piece I wrote a few years back, trying to isolate said root cause–what do you think, is it at all helpful?:

    To begin, there must be an honest assessment of the source of the conflict. Most will characterize it in political terms as the contradictory claims of two peoples to the same land. But underlying the external conflict of interest is a basic denial of the other’s inner reality—for both peoples, both Jewish Israelis and Arab Palestinians, are deeply and irrevocably connected to this land—and as long as either side denies the core worldview of the other, no progress can be made. The two-state solution is not merely a Solomonic compromise between competing demands; it is rather the clearest possible statement that both Jews and Arabs are intrinsically bound to the land one calls Israel, the other Palestine. Far too often, those at either end of the political spectrum just flat out deny the existential claims of the other, saying in effect, “They have no right to be here—only we do.” But those who question the Jews’ historical and religious bonds to their ancestral homeland may just as well question the bondedness of the Irish to Ireland; and those who doubt the Palestinians’ love and yearning for their ancestral homeland may just as well doubt the ties of Thais to Thailand. The “anti-Israel” critique that Jews are colonialist outsiders in the land is just as absurd as the “anti-Palestinian” position that Palestinians have no national existence—the one is anti-Zionist (and perhaps antisemitic) nonsense, the other anti-Arab propaganda. As long as either side negates the historical narrative of the other, thereby demonizing them as interlopers and obstructionists, peace will remain an impossible dream; whereas the moment both people’s claims are recognized, mutually and respectfully, then the path to peaceful co-existence will have begun.

    • zjb says:

      yes, yes, i like this statement a lot, but am suggesting in the post why the language of “source” might be unhelpful as a way to think through such an intricate set of inter-relations.

  2. IH says:

    For those with access, I recommend Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s review of “Side by Side: Parallel Narratives of Israel-Palestine” in the April 5, 2012 NY Review of Books that I reread the other day:

    “If the two narratives are not only contrasting but largely contradictory, that need not in itself imply bad faith. Two parties in a divorce will not recall their marriage in the same terms, and any lawyer or policeman knows that two chance eyewitnesses to the same event may give startlingly disparate accounts of it. But to read these two versions—not written by some extreme adherents of Likud or Hamas, but by Israelis and Palestinians who truly want to cooperate—is as revealing as it is dispiriting. Here are two litanies of sorrow and grievance, a competition in suffering, with more than a hundred years of history driving them ever further apart.”

    • dmf says:

      for pragmatic/diplomatic reasons this kind of analysis is very important, but to the larger point of the post this isn’t just a matter of subjective accounts/recall but of the sorts of relations that compose actual events apart from our abstractions of History, there are sciences and there are historical accounts but no Science of History…

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