A couple of weeks ago, one of my sons texted, asking for my thoughts about Sheikh Jarrah, the east Jerusalem neighborhood at the center of a legal dispute over competing Jewish and Palestinian property claims.
“Certainly more than I can express in a text message,” I replied.
When he stopped by the house, the subject broadened to the war between Israel and Islamists in Gaza. At that point, Hamas and Islamic Jihad were firing rockets into Israel, Israel’s air force was striking targets in Gaza, and Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel were clashing.
I endeavored to answer with what I felt were the basics, just the relevant issues and necessary historical background. That took about 30 minutes.
This is not a column about Israel. This is a column about why I do not want to write a column about Israel.
Writing a column about Israel is what a columnist in a Jewish newspaper is expected to do in such circumstances. So why don’t I want to do it?
First off, this is a subject where it is best to tread carefully.
In a previous professional lifetime, I wrote and produced news reports from Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza; made several working trips to Arab nations in the Middle East; and conversed with Israeli and Arab figures who came through Atlanta. I read and follow a variety of sources, from within and outside of Israel, but because I do not read or speak Hebrew with sufficient fluency (despite some effort), and do not speak or read Arabic, these reports are in English.
I am sufficiently experienced to recognize that news from Israel and the Middle East comes in shades of gray, rather than black and white, as it frequently is presented.
My second reason for not wanting to write a column about Israel is that I have nothing original to add to the conversation. Reams of copy are being produced, much of it reducing events to a shorthand for an audience with an attention span for headlines and videos, for answers typed with thumbs, rather than depth and context.
This includes some in the American Jewish community who have taken to social media to declare their allegiances and share their opinions. This often resembles rooting for one team or another, without knowing much about the players or being versed in the rules of the game or the tactics employed on the field. Or, to push the metaphor further, without having ever attended a game in person. (Only 45 percent of American Jews have visited Israel, even once).
I doubt that many American Jews can name a current Israeli politician other than Benjamin Netanyahu or are aware that, as of this writing, Israelis are uncertain whether a new government will be formed or whether a fifth national election since April 2019 will be necessary.
Third, there is little (close to nothing) that I can say that would prompt anyone to rethink their position or consider a narrative different than the one to which they are committed. That is why, in this space, I prefer to raise issues and suggest questions.
Fourth, the situation is, to say the least, fluid. It is easy, as an American ambassador to the Dominican Republic wrote many years ago, to be “overtaken by events.” The situation on the ground has changed since I began work on this column and will change further before these words become ink on paper and text on a screen. (As if to prove my point, shortly after writing that last sentence, Israel announced a cease-fire.)
Events do not happen in isolation. You can look back weeks or months and see how seemingly unrelated actions contributed to latest hostilities or how an element changed here or there might have obviated the crisis.
In my first column for the AJT, published on Feb. 6, 2015, I wrote, “With each passing generation, the timeline for peace — even as its definition is debated — moves further out. Today’s children have been fated by history to an adversarial relationship. A generation not yet born will have to find a way out.” I would write the same today.
Finally, there is a recurring inevitability to these events. We have been here before and there is little to suggest that we won’t be here again. When that next time comes, I’ll rethink whether I want to write a column about Israel. But for now, no.