07/29/2014 05:55 pm ET Updated Sep 28, 2014

A Simple Guide to the Roots of the Israel/Palestine Conflict

"Debating Palestine and Israel"
by Dan Cohn-Sherbok and Mary Grey
Impress Books, Ltd (paper and ebook)

This book is both timely and valuable for those who want to understand the roots of the Middle East's seemingly endless conflict. It takes the form of a conversation between two compassionate and peace-loving people, exchanging letters that illuminate the recent history of the region and the deeply-felt arguments raging still about who is entitled to call the Holy Land home.

Many of us mentally turn off when we see reports about Israel/Palestine. If you missed the beginning of the story, you are not inclined to jump into the latest episode. Understandably, people may lack a grasp of the historical fundamentals, yet distrust the politicians on either side to give a reliable account of events. Journalists provide gossip and opinion: deteriorating relations between the U.S. and Israel, in-fighting between various Arab factions, and sports-like coverage of who has the advantage in the latest confrontation. But if we don't feel confident about the underlying reasons Israel/Palestine remains an open sore, then we won't engage.

That is where this book is so valuable. It is a guide to how the Holy Land reached its current bloody condition, from the persecution of Jewish people around the globe at the start of the twentieth century to the Balfour Declaration, granting them a homeland; from Israeli independence to the expulsion of the Palestinians already living there; through sundry wars with Arab nations in the region to the Palestinian uprisings, to the controversial security barrier or wall and the settlements, the rise of Hamas and the battles in Gaza.

The early exchanges between Rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbok and the theologian, Professor Mary Grey set the tone for what follows, illustrating the mutual incomprehension persisting between supporters of Israel and the Palestinians.

Cohn-Sherbok writes, "The issue is whether Zionism at the turn of the century was a valid way forward for the Jewish people." He asks us to look at the context: the Jews had been uprooted from Judea in the first century and lived in exile in other lands for almost 2,000 years, persecuted and ethnically cleansed. He repeatedly asks why the Palestinians could feel no sympathy for the plight of the Jews.

Professor Grey equally cannot understand why the Israelis refuse to grasp that it is unrealistic to ask people whose ancestral land has been stolen and whose homes have been destroyed to sympathize with the usurping newcomers. She contends that at first many Palestinians welcomed the Jews, thinking they could live side by side. They were shocked when these same newcomers expelled them, and they still dream of taking back their farms, cherishing the keys to their front doors, even decades later.

Grey is also critical of the British for promising the Jews a homeland, while also pledging the Sharif of Mecca an independent Arab land if the Arabs fought the Ottomans during the First World War. She quotes the prophetic words of Edwin Montagu, the only member of the British cabinet to vote against the Balfour Declaration. In 1917 Montagu, himself Jewish, predicted that creating a Jewish state would tempt other countries to get rid of their Jewish populations, inevitably leading to more anti-Semitism. He preferred assimilation, which critics argue requires an ethnic group to suppress their culture in order to fit in. Cohn-Sherbok points out that Germany's Jews were the most assimilated in the world, for all the good it did them. In other words, Jews will always be hated, so they must have their own land if the world is to avoid further Holocausts.

Cohn-Sherbok contends that early Jewish settlers purchased land from Arab landlords who willingly sold it. However, the Arabs never intended to give peaceful coexistence a chance, and "have always embraced violence." He quotes the constitutions of Fatah, the PLO and Hamas, the representatives of the Palestinian people, with their commitment to armed struggle. "There was a universal determination on the part of the Arab population to curtail immigration and drive the Jews from Palestine." He cites attempts by the Grand Mufti, the leader of the Palestinian Arabs, to make a deal with Hitler to eliminate all the Jews in the Holy Land.

Another of Cohn-Sherbok's themes is the unwillingness of the Arabs to compromise. He argues the Palestinians refused to participate in any form of representative assembly, or a Legislative Council which would have had an Arab majority. They have always wanted to drive the Jews into the sea, he repeats. Grey counters by asking, what would you expect when immigrants arrive, take the land and create a Jewish state? "You cannot solve one injustice with another."

The "injustice" is the "Nakba" or catastrophe when 800,000 Palestinians were forced to become refugees, and 530 villages emptied to make way for the state of Israel. Cohn-Sherbok wonders why, decades later, so many Palestinians still live in atrocious conditions in refugee camps. Why did the Arab nations, with their vast oil wealth, not integrate the Palestinians into Arab lands, build homes and schools? He argues the Arabs are using the Palestinians to make a political point.

Grey, however, says that Palestinians remain as refugees, preserving their culture, so as not to endanger their right of return to their former homes. Cohn-Sherbok argues the Palestinians must compromise to attain peace. For instance, they must recognize the state of Israel as a Jewish state, and renounce their right of return. By so doing, they could achieve the two state solution many feel is the only realistic way forward.

Dennis Ross, the former U.S. envoy to the Middle East, believes victimization has deep roots in the Palestinian mind. Whereas the preoccupation with security governs the Israeli approach to negotiations with its neighbors, the need to end victimization and to be accorded dignity, respect and genuine independence guides the Palestinians. Hence it seems the suffering of both will continue.