There Must Be Peace Between Symbols (op-ed © 2005)

Originally published in the Westchester County Journal News and then re-published online in Thinking-East here. –CS 13.06.2008

What has constantly frustrated the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process has been the countless would-be peacemakers’ neglect of the dreams, nightmares and ideals that fuel the Conflict. Even if a political peace is finally achieved, there shall still remain oppression and terrorism, cynical colonization and nihilistic insurgency, only transmuted into subtler, more intangible formulations.

The great irony of the modern Holy Land is that unbeknownst to them, both peoples, Israelis and Palestinians, share in their core the same ideals, differing only by the thinnest shades of symbolic imagery.

On the one hand is the Exile, a wilting flower of a person who has been cut off at the root from the soil of identity: the landscape, the landmarks, the vanished generations which preceded him, the whispers of ancestors’ prayers still blowing across the hills and echoing in the deepest recesses of the Jewish and Arab psyche.

On the other hand is the Warrior, who has vowed to never again suffer the multifarious spiritual and physical forms of banishment-assimilation, apartheid, refugee camps, occupation, extermination.

For the Israeli, the Shoah (Holocaust) and the “musülmann” (those Jews who, in the Nazi death camps, shuffling mindlessly and meaninglessly to the gas chambers, had already died and were simply waiting for their bodies to surrender) constitute the ultimate symbol of the Exile. The Warsaw ghetto fighters and the Matzada zealots, however, constitute the ultimate symbol of the Warrior who, translated into the Israeli mind, becomes the Partisan: the ragtag, implaccable and almost lunatic rebel, the lone hero standing against the infinite forces of darkness, battling till his inevitable defeat and demise.

For the Palestinian, the Nakba (the Catastrophe, i.e., the founding of the State of Israel) and the refugees languishing in tents and mud huts, form the fullest symbol of the Exile. The PLO and the Hamas shaheed (martyr), however, are the Warrior, who, translated into the Palestinian mind, now becomes the Guerilla: the revolutionary striving against all odds for the finest intifada, to “shake off” the sorrow and shame and oppressions of the past, suicidally struggling to regain an honor long lost and never to be regained.

And of course the intersection of these symbols is another symbol: the coveted Jerusalem, that city of cities, which has defied all conquerors, which has persevered against fickle fortune and infernal fate-just as the Jews and Palestinians have persevered.

There shall be no peace between nations until there is a peace between symbols.

And what is the essence of that peace? A reinterpretation that calls for solidarity.

The Partisan and the Guerilla, rooted as they are in the trauma of the Exile, are good symbols, pure in their defiance, satanic only when directed against flesh and blood human beings when they should be channeled back into the psychic realm of beliefs, experiences and ideas, that inner dimension in which symbols are born, nursed, vie and die, thundering and storming and raining upon physical history the destructive brimstone and life-giving rains of human potential.

There are indeed wars to be fought, but the Israelis and Palestinians must awaken and realize that theirs is really a common spiritual war against the tyrannies within the human soul… and not against each other.


From the Shoah Resource Center of the Yad V’Shem Holocaust Museum in the State of Israel’s entry on the subject: “[Muselmann] is a German term widely used among concentration camp inmates to refer to prisoners who were near death due to exhaustion, starvation, hopelessness. The world ‘Muselmann’ literally means ‘Muslim.’ Some scholars believe that the term originated from the similarity between the near-death prone state of a concentration camp ‘Muselmann’ and the image of a Muslim prostrating himself on the ground in prayer.

“Many victims, totally lacking the wherewithal to adapt, reached this stage soon after arrival in a camp. Other prisoners succumb to sickness, physical abuse, hunger, and overwork. One could identify Muselmänner by their physical and psychological decline; they were lethargic, indifferent to their surroundings, and could not stand up for more than a short period of time. Most other prisoners avoided contact with Muselmänner, in fear of contracting the condition themselves.

“The Nazis running the camps considered the Muselmänner undesirable, because they could not work or endure camp rule. Thus, during selections, these victims were the first to be sentenced to death. A person at the Muselmann stage had no chance for survival; he or she would not live for more than a few days of weeks.”

For a forceful, angry, but informative article about the phenomenon of the musulmann, written by a Muslim, read: Manzoor, S. Parvez. “Turning Jews into Muslims: The Untold Saga of the Muselmänner.” islam21, no. 28, April 2001, pp. 8-12 (or click here).

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