Palestine is the Agunah of the World

This probably falls under the heading of “strained analogy” but hear me out.

It has occurred to me many times that there is a fundamental disconnect between the way outsiders and locals talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Outsiders talk in terms of “peace” as a goal – two states living side by side, each secure, engaged in peaceful commerce and friendly relations generally. And there’s an endless process trying to get the two parties to that point.

But while this is a worthy goal and, I will stress, one that I hope is achieved one day, “peace” isn’t really the goal of the process. The process is not about reconciliation or restoring friendly relations. The process isn’t properly described as a peace process at all. Rather, what the process is aiming for is a divorce.

Most Israeli Jews don’t want “peace” with the Palestinians anymore. Maybe they did ten or twenty or thirty years ago – but today all they want is to rid their minds and their lives of them. Which, to a considerable extent, they have done.

Hence the strained analogy. An agunah is a “chained woman” – a woman who, under Orthodox Jewish law, is unable to marry again even though she has no ongoing relations with her husband. Traditionally, this was usually a woman whose husband could not be found, alive or dead. Now, it usually refers to a woman whose husband refuses to grant her a religious divorce, something which, in the traditional understanding, was his to grant or to withhold. Without a proper divorce, not only can she not remarry but all sorts of financial and other arrangements cannot be finalized. She is still married to the man who rejected her, and still treated by the law as such.

Well, the Palestinians are in a somewhat analogous position. While the far right in Israel still dreams of holding on to the entirety of the West Bank, and either driving out or permanently subjugating the Palestinian population there, that’s not by any means the mainstream position among Israeli Jews. Rather, the Israeli center has simply abandoned the whole question. If the territories don’t force themselves into the public eye, the Israeli Jewish public doesn’t care what goes on there. They have divorced themselves in their own minds.

The promise of unilateralism, as in Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza, was precisely that it would bring about a divorce. The Palestinians would no longer be Israel’s problem. They would be their own problem. And the terms of the divorce would be set by Israel – Israel would build the separation fence where it wanted; Israel would control ingress and egress from the territories, would retain the ability to intervene militarily, and so forth.

But the Palestinians in the territories have not received their bill of divorce. They cannot develop their own relations with other nations. They cannot get on with their lives, individually or nationally. They are still chained to Israel even as Israel has, to a considerable extent, washed its hands of them and moved on.

I don’t want to suggest that the inability to achieve a true divorce has been entirely Israel’s fault, any more than I think it’s appropriate to suggest that “chained wives” never contributed to a marital end-game that left them in such a position. The mainstream Palestinian position always has been and still is that complete justice (from their perspective) is more important than a settlement – that (in terms of my analogy) they would rather never finalize the divorce if finalizing means accepting a smaller share of communal property, or inadequate custodial rights, relative to what they feel they deserve. But regardless of the distribution of fault, the facts are: Israel wants a divorce. And yet, as with the situation of husbands of the agunot, Israel holds a stronger hand in that it can achieve most of what it seeks to obtain from a divorce without granting an actual divorce to the Palestinians.

I’m not sure that this extended analogy points to any actual solutions. But I do suspect that progress towards some kind of a settlement will be more likely if we outsiders talk in terms that make more emotional sense to the insiders than the language we usually use.