By David K. Shipler
There is an intriguing quality about President Trump, one that makes him a laughing stock at one moment, a loose cannon the next, and a breath of fresh air to many of his supporters. He is completely untethered to history—to the history of his own country, to the histories of other countries he deals with, to the history of carefully constructed US policy, and even to the history of his own pronouncements.
He has no compunction about contradicting himself, as he has in recent days about Islam, and he seems content to address a problem as if it were a blank slate without a long background of messy complications. Unburdened by the expertise of scholarship or diplomacy—which he obviously didn’t tap for his Mideast trip—his statements to Sunni Arab leaders in Riyadh and to Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Tel Aviv and Bethlehem sound simplistic, devoid of all the hand-wringing doubts that specialists in the region would include.
That might be a good thing if it meant cutting past the burdensome histories that weigh down the region. You might call that creative naïveté. But it’s hard to see much prospect in Trump’s bumper-sticker approaches. Both sides want peace, let’s do a deal. All sides want to defeat terrorism, let’s blame Iran and ready our billions in American arms. Let’s give Arab despots the green light to suppress their domestic oppositions in the name of fighting terrorism. Let’s conveniently forget that the Saudi hosts developed Wahhabism from which al-Qaeda’s ideology flourished. Let’s not analyze the endemic, local wellsprings of radicalism but rather—as the writer Robin Wright has noted in criticism—portray it as some alien invasion that can be expelled “out of this earth,” as Trump urged the Muslim leaders gathered in Riyadh.
You don’t get very far in most parts of the world without understanding the history. On the other hand, you don’t get anywhere being imprisoned by it, as the Israelis and the Palestinians are. They have accumulated layers of historical grievances, sandwiched in between layers of assertive blindness to each other’s historical narratives.
Israel’s is the story of yearning for a Jewish homeland, propelled most intensely by the Holocaust, and finally realized in the country’s 1948 War of Independence. The Palestinians’ is the story of a people deeply rooted in the same land for generations, being ruled by outsiders and then torn away by that same 1948 war, which they call al-Nakba, the Catastrophe. There is no reconciling these clashing narratives, but to gain peace each side must somehow come to respect the other’s suffering and dreams.
Trump seems oblivious to all of this, to the fact that no peace “deal” can ignore the respective histories. It is not like a real estate contract. Further, you have to know the past to escape from its entanglements, and an escape is necessary for a true agreement. The stuff of a peace treaty—agreeable boundaries and security arrangements—won’t reach deeply enough into the memories of Israelis and Palestinians to heal wounds and revise their self-defining narratives of heroism and victimhood. That requires inspired leadership on both sides, changes in school curricula, and much more.
There’s little an American president can do about this, as Trump’s predecessors have learned, so his exhortations to peace seem destined to fail in the Israeli-Palestinian arena. In the broader Middle East, too, his weapons sales to Sunnis and his blame of Shiite Iran for all evil in the region seem more likely to exacerbate the Sunni-Shiite conflict than snuff out ISIS. For all its nefarious meddling in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere, Iran is also fighting ISIS. And its citizens just voted overwhelmingly for moderation. A canny US president would see opportunity there.
But Trump is remarkably tone deaf to the powerful discords of history, especially when they don’t involve him. This, in turn, embarrasses Americans. Consider the following collection of inscriptions written in the guest book of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the somber, haunting memorial and museum commemorating Jews who perished in the Holocaust:
President Bill Clinton: “Today we have come one step closer to the time when the people of Israel will live in peace with all of their neighbors, when the awful events of death and destruction memorialized here will be banished to the past.”
President George W. Bush: “God Bless Israel.”
Candidate Barack Obama in 2008: “I am grateful to Yad Vashem and all of those responsible for this remarkable institution. At a time of great peril and promise, war and strife, we are blessed to have such a powerful reminder of man's potential for great evil, but also our own capacity to rise up from tragedy and remake our world. Let our children come here, and know their history, so that they can add their voices to proclaim ‘never again.’ And may we remember those who perished, not only as victims, but also as individuals who hoped and loved and dreamed like us, and who have become symbols of the human spirit.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2009: “Yad Vashem is a testament to the power of truth in the face of denial, the resilience of the human spirit in the face of despair, the triumph of the Jewish people over murder and destruction and a reminder to all people that the lessons of the Holocaust must never be forgotten.”
President Donald Trump: “It is a great honor to be here with all of my friends – so amazing & will never forget!”