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October 9, 2023
In December of 2002 I presented the reflections below about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, on invitation, during a meeting in Amsterdam, NL, which was convened by the Dutch organization Een Ander Joods Geluid Ė A Different Jewish Voice. This organization sought, and seeks, to contribute to a just and lasting peace as understood by all involved. As part of that meeting, I was requested to place that conflict within a larger historical perspective in my role of teaching big history at the University of Amsterdam. Those reflections, translated into English, with a few updates, additions, and clarifications added, follow here.
The area currently contested by Israelis and Palestinians forms the land bridge between the two large continents known as Africa and Asia. This geological constellation emerged many millions of years ago as a result of the process of plate tectonics, in which the continents keep moving around the globe while changing in shape.
This land bridge had already taken shape when early humanity emerged in Africa, some seven million years ago. Our early predecessors stayed there for a long time. According to paleoanthropologists it was only 1.8 million years ago when the first representatives of Homo erectus began to move out of Africa into the wider world.
Those early humans would have walked across the land bridge into Asia. But they did not leave a great many traces there. The first clear evidence of the presence of Homo erectus in the Jordan Valley dates back to 1.5 million years ago. Ever since that time people have moved back and forth across that land bridge or stayed there. Presumably, this would have included rivalry and fighting to control that area, both of which, as a result, would have been a daily reality in that part of the world ever since that time.
The emergence of the first large states around the land bridge some 6000 to 5000 years ago, Egypt on one side and Mesopotamia on the other side, introduced a new social dynamic. At certain times Pharaoh and his people were dominant on the land bridge, while at other times the powerful neighbors to the East took their place. During the periods in which those two superpowers balanced each other, local and regional peoples were able to found their own little state societies.
This went hand-in-hand with unique religious claims on such areas, most notably perhaps Jerusalem, which was, and is, very strategically placed along the main natural road connecting the coast and the Jordan valley, and, in doing so, connecting Africa to Asia overland. Such transcendental religious claims may offer very powerful motivations for action, including claiming the areas about which such claims are made.
However, those local and regional states never lasted long, because the balance of power between and among the contemporary superpowers kept changing, including the emergence of new states to the north and southwest of the land bridge. Over the course of time this led to the occupation of that coveted area by one powerful state after the next.
In this process, Europe began to play an increasing role. Following the Greek conquests led by Alexander of Macedonia, Hellenistic states emerged both to the west and north of the land bridge which sought to dominate it. The rise of the Roman empire added a further social dimension to this dynamic. This contemporary globalizing situation led, among other things, to the emergence of a novel world religion, Christianity, again with unique religious claims on the land bridge, including again, most notably, in and around Jerusalem.
Ever since that time, the land bridge has experienced the influence of larger states from all geographical sides as well as from ever greater distances, while people migrated into and out of the land bridge, forced or otherwise, resulting in continuous population changes. As part of this process, a complex of emerging states emerged on both sides of the land bridge that promoted another universal religion, Islam, again with unique religious claims on that strategically situated area, including again, most notably, Jerusalem.
The influences on the land bridge resulting from the European Crusades and the Ottoman empire were followed by those of the novel emerging powers of European origin, first France, followed by Great Britain, the United States of America, the Soviet Union (now the Russian Federation), and also the earlier major players Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia, and Iran.
Again, this went hand-in-hand with incisive population changes, most notably the influx of Jewish migrants in the twentieth century and the following foundation of the state of Israel, resulting in a partial out-migration, forced or otherwise, by Palestinians who already lived there. Also the current state of Israel could only emerge, and can continue to exist, thanks to the consent and support of the major superpowers, while many minor powers either support it, criticize or threaten it, or seek to keep neutral.
As a result, in the currently globalized world the land bridge has become socially connected to all states and people on Earth. And thanks to the current very efficient and cheap means of communication, everywhere people are informed about this situation in various ways, while many of them have opinions about this conflict, in which all parties involved seek to control the land bridge between Africa and Asia, including by using powerful and unique religious claims.
It is important to understand that nowhere else on our planet such a geological situation exists with the resulting long history of power politics and unique religious claims. This makes both the geological situation and the resulting social conflict unique. Given this long history of rivalry and conflict it would be a major miracle if a lasting and just peace as experienced by all parties involved could be established in this area. But perhaps for the first time our current globalized world offers, in principle, the opportunities to shape such a peace effectively.
To do so, more detached knowledge of the situation, a greater empathic understanding of each otherís perceptions and interests, as well as a willingness to compromise, with painful results for all involved, all appear to be essential for achieving a lasting peace. Yet that pain of compromise may be considerably less than the pain resulting from continuing the conflict for an unknown period of time with all the inevitable dead, wounded, material destruction, and other forms of suffering. This applies not only to the conflict on the land bridge connecting Africa and Asia, but also to other major violent conflicts, most notably perhaps today the war in Ukraine.
Will humanity be able to rise to this challenge, by understanding that we share one single planet with limited resources, and that our longer-term survival in reasonable well-being will depend on a much greater collaboration than witnessed today?
Or will humanity continue to pursue the old established pattern of power and violence, while legitimizing their positions and actions by their unique religious and other moral/ethical claims, in doing so not learning anything positive from the available much greater knowledge about the human condition including its history on our precious but vulnerable and limited planet Earth?
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