A Mutual Solution to the Problem of Being Mortal
Originally published in 2002
Can we, just for a minute, dispense with the hand-wringing and acknowledge that the problem Israel and the Palestinians have with one another is actually their mutual solution to the problem of being mortal?
Of course to understand what I mean it is first necessary to recognize that it’s not love or sex or money that makes the world go around but the fact of death; that what drives virtually everything we believe and do is the need to reduce, to at least a manageable degree of fear, the terror and panic the anticipation of death causes us. (If you can’t quite grasp this notion, if you have to be reminded that terror and panic constitute the human default condition, then whatever you’re believing and doing is working for you.)
Of the myriad subtle and blatant ways we’ve come up with to make living with an impossible reality tolerable, one example would be the symbolic immortality we assure ourselves of by leaving behind a scientific discovery, or a work of art, that will continue to have an influence on the world. Another is the accumulation of inordinate wealth. The god-like trappings great sums of money buy enable us to feel not just superior to the common man, but less vulnerable to the common fate. Still another is getting high, which is about getting above the body that we know will one day be our undoing.
And then there’s our invention of an afterlife. Presenting us with a chance to survive death—if we honor the pronouncements and follow the dictates we’ve assigned to deities of our own fashioning—it’s this immortality illusion that’s at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The Arabs are qualifying for eternity by doing what they’ve determined to be God’s work, which is to make war on those who, ignoring or questioning His authority, are undermining His plan for the planet. And Israel, dropped in the Arab’s midst, its diverse culture implicitly challenging the validity of Arab beliefs, provides the Arabs with the infidel they need to carry out their mission. For Arabs, it’s not about killing Jews, per se. Jews are simply a fortuitously placed means to a purchase on heaven. (You could say that—their culture being, by all appearances, limited in its repertoire of immortality illusions to the resources of Islam—suicide is the only instrument of self-perpetuation available to the Palestinian terrorists.)
On the other hand, the Arabs afford Israelis an opportunity to continually certify their biblically bestowed “chosen” status—and to assure themselves of the post-corporeal rewards implicit in the anointment—by constantly threatening, but never accomplishing, Israel’s destruction. Persistently testing Israel’s exalted designation, but never disproving it, enabling Israel to be embattled and remain intact, the Arabs are every bit the blessing to Israel that Israel is to the Arabs.
It follows that the violence each side visits on the other must be measured; balances and proportions need to be kept. For one side to win, after all, would be for both sides to lose; would, that is, end the game and return both sides to a contemplation of the void. We might call this aiding and abetting of one another’s immortality illusions—the cooperation and the accommodations it requires—the deeper definition of the “social contract.”
So we can engage ad infinitum in the most earnest discussions about anti-Semitism, about Hamas, about territory and occupation, and forever miss the real dynamic of the situation. The Arab-Israeli problem is, again, a solution to a more pressing problem, to what is, literally as well as figuratively, the mother of all problems. And what accounts for the tenaciousness of the conflict is the ongoing success it’s enjoying in the service of its underlying agenda. As long as this holds true, Arabs and Israelis will, for all the anguish it induces, remain at odds because the enmity between them is their buffer against the specter of oblivion.
The pain we are witnessing is a palliative. These are not the worst of times in the Middle East.