Growth and narratives, natural and unnatural


There are some hypocrisies so grand, so utterly defiant of awareness of the world and of oneself, that it takes days — sometimes weeks — for we mere mortals even to discern them.

That’s my excuse anyway. I’ve been following the issue of "natural growth" in the settlements with mixed feelings: I know people who live in the settlements, and whatever one thinks of their politics (and not all of them necessarily hew to a rigid political view) squeezing them out because they want to add a room for a new baby seems unconscionable.

On the other hand, where does one draw the line? If settlements are truly a final status issue — if it is true, as every Israeli leader has argued, that they can be dismantled as readily as they were built —  why do we allow ourselves to become more deeply entrenched?

This is the wrong paradigm, and I’m guilty once again of assessing this issue from where I sit, whom I know.

The real question is: What natural growth have we allowed the Palestinians?

Not a whole lot.

I chatted today with Danny Seidemann, who heads Ir Amim, a group that I like to call "pro-Jerusalem" — it cares for the viability of the city and all its residents. I asked him about the notion of "natural growth" within the confines of the city (never mind the strictures on growth — and movement — in the West Bank).

The term, he said, is not "values neutral." There is natural growth, and there is natural growth when it is heavily funded and promoted by a government.

And so, in Jerusalem, Israel’s government has, since 1967, played a role in the building of 50,000 units — and Jewish growth in the eastern "new" sector now stands at 190,000.

In the Arab sector, the government has helped fund just 600 units — the last of these three decades ago — and yet Arab growth has ballooned from 70,000 in 1967 to 270,000 today. In 1967, Arabs constituted 25 percent of the city; today, they account for 35 percent of its population.

In other words, the Israeli government has unnaturally impeded the natural growth of the city’s Arab population and has unnaturally spurred its Jewish growth.

"The mantra of all israeli policies in Jerusalem is to maintain the natural balance," Seidemann said. "Which means that the birth of an Israeli child is a simcha and the birth of a Palestinian child is a demographic threat."

Without massive government assistance, he says, Jewish growth would not have been so impressive. He notes the recent, private attempt to build Jewish homes in Jebel Mukaber, an Arab village adjacent to East Talpiot. It’s going bust, Seidemann says; subject to purely market conditions, Jews are not interested in expanding their presence in Jerusalem.

(Full disclosure: I own an apartment in East Talpiot, one of Jerusalem’s post-1967 "new" neighborhoods, one I purchased with a loan that had favorable terms for olim, or new immigrants. The loan would have applied wherever I settled in Israel. There were additional incentives at the time to settle in Ma’aleh Adumim and other West Bank settlements. The contractors who built my neighborhood in the 1970s would have benefited from government breaks; by the time I got to it, in 1986, I bought it from a private seller and paid market price.)

Here’s another comparison: The Israeli government has not only permitted but has assisted in the construction of 50,000 new dwellings since 1968. It has permitted the construction of only 8,000 new dwellings in the Arab sector. (Arabs have built another 20,000 without permits.)

Anyone who’s lived in Jerusalem knows this is the reality: Unless a neighbor complains, an illegal addition to a home in the Jewish part of the city goes unmolested. (My neighbor had the ugliest balcony, propped up on a cement block. Literally. But was I going to snitch? Never.) Add-ons built without permission in the Arab sector are tracked by the muncipal authorities and routinely destroyed. Clearly — as the figures above show — there’s a good deal of looking the other way in the Arab sector. But the systematic attempt to inhibit "illegal" growth exists only in this sector.

Now you can decry the tracking of such figures, you can make the case that Seidemann is missing a larger point about Jews and Jerusalem (and that I am too) — but that argument is the way of madness.

Not because I disagree about Jewish claims to Jerusalem and the case for Jewish sovereignty in the city. I believe in those claims. But because the argument — while precious and vital to us, as Jews — is meaningless in a larger context.

The best argument, in an international arena, for expanding the Jewish presence in Jerusalem is natural growth — just as it is for adding an apartment or two in a settlement.

We can’t make that argument if Israel inhibits Palestinian natural growth. Not because it is immoral or impolitic. Because it is insane.

I had coffee with a Western diplomat yesterday. This is a diplomat from a country with a pro-Israel government and who is, himself, pro-Israel, especially when it comes to dealing with the Iran threat. He laughed — I mean, rocked back in his chair — when we discussed Israeli plaints about natural growth in the settlements.

Why, he said, should anyone consider the needs of settler families in the West Bank if Israel refuses to deal with the needs of Palestinians?

Believe me, this is not the first time I’ve witnessed this reaction, and at all levels of western government. Yet no one among Israel and pro-Israel activists who defends natural growth accounts for this argument.

It is, as I said, a hypocrisy so massive that it almost defies explanation.

I’ll try. I don’t believe, by the way, it’s a hypocrisy that Israelis enter with awareness. It is an insanity honestly come by.

It’s what I call inner narrative versus outer narrative: The current Israeli government’s case, for instance, for slow-going in the West Bank, when made in the international arena, raises legitimate concerns about security — the outer narrative. The inner narrative has to do with ancient claims to Eretz Israel.

Usually, we get this: That our arguments, among mishpokhe, as Jews, don’t have any relevance in the real world. That there are issues that are best explained in terms that are understandable in the international village common.

It’s when we elide from the outer to the inner narratives that we lose it. When we start an argument "we need security and autonomy and sovereignty in our ancestral homeland" (makes sense in the real world) and end it "because when it comes to the land of Israel it is a right given only to the Jews" (makes no sense in the real world); when we start an argument "how can you order a Jewish family to uproot itself because the mother is pregnant?" and when we end it "the Palestinians are using population growth to threaten us."

We’re not the only ones to succumb to this elision. I’ve seen it among the Pashtun, among the Irish, among Serbs and Croats — and especially among Palestinians. Revisionist history notwithstanding, what scuttled the 2000 Camp David talks is that when the outer Palestinian narrative — the longing for territory — collapsed because its solution was within reach, Palestinians elided into the inner narrative of denying Israel’s existence. Instead of embracing the prospect of Palestinian statehood made viable by Ehud Barak and Bill Clinton, Palestinians got stuck insisting on a "right of return" and denying any Jewish claim in Jerusalem.

And I know that sometimes these inner narratives have faint echoes outside of one’s community — in the case of the claim to the West Bank, among evangelical Christians. The same is true of the Palestinians who seek validation among nationalist and Islamist Arabs. The same was also true of Serbs, whose aggrieved honor resonated among other Eastern Orthodox peoples, including the Russians and the Greeks.

The problem with this is that until Evangelical Christians, or the Muslim Caliphate, or the Constantinople Patriarchate are once again running the known world, this kind of support runs shallow. If we want to play ball in the secularized, democratic West, we play by its rules — especially if we’re also accepting the protection and financial support of its major power.

If there is tension in the coming months between Israel and the United States, this elision will be at its core. For the Obama administration to take seriously Israeli claims to humanitarian treatment for settlers, the Netanyahu administration must take seriously the humanitarian treatment of Palestinians.

Any other formula defies sense.

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