Hatfields and McCoys


The West Virginian Hatfield-McCoy feud is likely the best-known and least-understood family drama in American history (I myself mixed it up with the O.K. Corral gunfight, which is totally unrelated). But it’s most often used as metaphor for one of the biggest unresolved disputes of all: that between Israelis and Palestinians.

I’ve read and studied this subject a lot, partly because I have a dog in this fight (a sizeable portion of my extended family resides in the region), and partly because I’m captivated by its symbolism as the flash point in the alleged “clash of civilizations” between Western power and Islamic tradition.

First off, I’m simultaneously grateful and annoyed at world media for the disproportionate amount of coverage this gets. All sides of the conflict are equally culpable here, and I’m sure it must frustrate war-ravaged sub-Saharan Africans or police-stated North Koreans to no end to see their far larger-scale problems upstaged by the travails of a nation the size of Delaware. It’s nice to have so much information about this conflict I follow; at the same time, it would be nice if, say, the war in the Congo (1998-2003; 5.4 million killed) got a bit more airplay.

Various explanations have been advanced for this media malproportion: the relative ease of covering a major civilizational conflict from comfortable Western-style hotel rooms in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv (the very smallness of the country may be part of what keeps it in the news); an Anti-Semitic double standard; the importance of Middle East oil. Often overlooked, as it is in most news coverage and even opinion pieces on the subject, is the bigger picture behind the screaming headlines.

The issue has its passionate partisans (I know more than a few myself), most of whom spend much of their time railing about the savagery and cruelty of the other side. But what no one really states is what the conflict’s really about, i.e. what each side wants. My take on it, the one that I think a startling proportion of people on either side would agree with, is this:

Both sides want the entire place (more-or-less) exclusively for themselves.

At this point the partisans begin their carefully-worded “yes, but” responses: this side must stop doing this; that side did that barbaric or unforgiveable act; we’re not “really” going to exclude people; and so forth. Platitudes are then put forth about colonial projects, latter-day imperialism, (literally) God-given promises made to Biblical figures. But all that really obscures a simple yet intractable fact: this is, at its heart, a custody battle over some real estate.

Since it’s impossible for two sovereign entities to exercise exclusive control over the same turf (and restrict residency in said turf to its own kind), the dance continues, from settlement-building (“facts on land,” the early Zionists would call it) to suicide bombs to rocket attacks to reprisal incursions to full-on wars. But really, truth be told, the true goal of either side will never be realized: there are millions of both peoples (and, to be sure, smatterings of other minorities) co-mingled in the same space; one of the most powerful militaries on Earth on one side; the backing of ethnically-related neighbors on the other who happen to be some of the leading oil-producing nations; and the spectre of nuclear war still hanging like a Damoclean sword over all humankind (just because the Cold War has ended doesn’t mean nuclear weapons are gone, and it would take relatively little to invoke some future global nuclear conflagration).

So if no one’s going to win, is there any hope? Maybe, if the two sides can be persuaded to share the place. A truly multinational state with both Palestinian Arabs and Jewish Israelis as roughly a 50/50 split in population is anathema to both sides. I’m inclined, however, to think that short of this fight going on forever (which is a possibility), this will be what comes to pass long-term. Palestinian nationalists and die-hard Jewish Zionists may loathe and fear it, but I suspect it’s a demographic inevitability.

But in the short and medium term, it won’t work. The two sides are too different, too divided, too… well, Hatfield-McCoy-like, for a simple act of national union to happen. But the much-touted “two-state solution” is more likely.

If this does get closer to happening, I’ll offer up my one bit of highly-unconventional advice to both sides: forget the past. To heck with Biblical covenants or what village your grandpappy lived in before 1948 or who’s more wrong than the other. Make like a character in some movie who loses all memory and is forced to begin life anew.

First: from humble beginnings, the State of Israel is a wealthy, technically-advanced nation — one of the most on Earth. Whatever their motivations, whatever their actions, Israelis have wrought an enviable place from a cultural/economic-development standpoint. Meanwhile, you have another side that’s in dire need of something to do — assuming they can be persuaded not to spend their waking hours plotting their rival’s destruction like some Bond villain. What a great match, like tethering a once-divided Central European nation or two differently-skin-colored people in southern Africa. It’ll be uneven and bumpy at first — it always is, just ask the East Germans or South Africans — but it can work.

But that will mean Israel/Palestine abandoning their mutual goals for an ethnically-homogenous nation-state and instead settling for what we’ve (admittedly imperfectly) built here in North America, in Australia, and to a now-growing degree in Western Europe: a heterogenous “melting pot” nation-state, where people are just distinct enough to be interesting but not so much so that they’re at each others’ throats. We in such nations often scoff at this notion, calling it flawed, racist, outmoded… pick your epithet. But this very dismissal is indicative that our style of nation-ing works so well as to be taken for granted. Innumerable Palestinians and Congolese probably wish they had our “problems.” But in order to get there, they may need to embrace pragmatism and abandon romantic notions about “a state just for us.”

This will be dismissed as naive — and that’s precisely the point. Once every other approach has been tried, maybe a naive one, unencumbered by past trauma, is the way to go. After all, the Hatfield-McCoy feud eventually burned itself out — but who knows what might’ve happened if it were expanded out to the scale of two nations, in the twentieth (and twenty-first) century, across a civilizational divide, and in the backyard of some trillions of dollars in energy deposits. The only way for these two parties to see past their differences is to look in an entirely different direction.