When the debate around the Israel-Palestine conflict begins to weary me with its vitriol and polarisation, I sometimes restore myself to sanity by re-reading a beautiful essay by the great Israeli author Amos Oz. It’s called ‘Between Right and Right’, and it appears in a little booklet which was republished last year as How to Cure a Fanatic. I’ve just finished reading it for the fourth or fifth time, and I would love to quote the whole thing, but I’ll restrict myself to sharing a short passage which, if absorbed, would benefit not just the Israelis and Palestinians but those of us who for some reason make it our business to argue about their struggle.
Speaking of invitations from well-meaning European intellectuals and humanitarians to spend ‘a rosy weekend in a beautiful resort with [. . .] Palestinian counterparts’, drinking coffee while overcoming their ‘misunderstandings’, Oz writes:
I have some sensational news for you: there is no essential misunderstanding between Palestinian Arab and Israeli Jew. The Palestinians want the land they call Palestine. They have very strong reasons to want it. The Israeli Jews want exactly the same land for exactly the same reasons, which provides for a perfect understanding between the parties, and for a terrible tragedy. Rivers of coffee drunk together cannot extinguish the tragedy of two peoples claiming, and I think rightly claiming, the same small country as their one and only national homeland in the whole world.
So, drinking coffee together is wonderful and I’m all for it, especially if it is Arabic coffee which is infinitely better than Israeli coffee. But, drinking coffee cannot do away with the trouble. What we need is not just coffee and a better understanding. What we need is a painful compromise.
The word compromise has a terrible reputation in Europe. Especially among young idealists, who always regard compromise as opportunism, as something dishonest, as something sneaky and shady, as a mark of a lack of integrity. Not in my vocabulary. For me the word compromise means life. And the opposite of compromise is not idealism, not devotion. The opposite of compromise is fanaticism and death.