Famous quote, famous oversimplification

Former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir once said something like, “Peace will come to the Middle East when the Arabs learn to love their children more than they hate us.” Many slightly differing versions of this quotation can be found easily on the Internet. Some quote Meir as saying “Arabs,” while in others she says “Muslims,” “terrorists” or “Palestinians.” In whatever form, this is an example of an expression that is so apt and resonant with its hearers that they embrace it and, before you know it, you find it everywhere.

For example, I heard the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, Dan Gillerman, use the Meir quotation recently on several occasions to defend Israel’s current situation in Lebanon. Other commentators and politicians have used it liberally, as well. Soon the quotation began to make its way into other contexts in slightly modified form. In early August, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Peter Pace, facing the uncomfortable task of admitting to a congressional committee that Iraq is on the point of civil war, said, “Shiite and Sunni are going to have to love their children more than they hate each other.” Bloggers weren’t far behind. Recently one wrote, “We will win this war when Democrats love their country more than they hate George Bush.”

Clearly, Meir’s statement strikes a chord with audiences. But I suspect that its considerable rhetorical power tends to obscure and oversimplify the complicated situation in the Middle East. Do Muslims (some 1.3 billion of them) really fail to love their children sufficiently? Or do only terrorists? For many, the terms are synonymous, and the Meir quotation, in its various corrupted forms, doesn’t help make any distinction.

Furthermore, the statement, in whatever form, puts the moral burden entirely on the other side, and issues as complicated as this one are rarely that easy to sort out. It reduces the situation in the Middle East to a straightforward but oversimplified moral issue: Arabs (or some group) simply don’t love their children enough. At the same time, it manages to sound smug, superior and self-righteous.

To be clear, Israel has the moral high ground in the current dispute, and U.S. support for a secure Israel should be emphatic and non-negotiable. The Jews, having suffered considerable unprovoked persecution throughout the world, have, in return, made some of the greatest contributions to world civilization. In Israel, they’ve maintained a healthy, prosperous democracy for almost 60 years in a very troubled region, and the West should not and will not allow it to be destroyed.

On the other hand, the conflict isn’t about loving children or even hating Jews. At the heart of the issue is land, and disputes about material things are often much more complicated and ambiguous than straightforward moral issues like whether or not one should love one’s children.

This isn’t hard to illustrate: In 1863, Lincoln might have said, “Peace will come to the Union when the South learns to love its children more than they love their slaves.” Or “Peace will come to Vietnam when the North Vietnamese learn to love their children more than they hate imperialism.” Or “Peace will come to Vietnam when the Americans learn to love their children more than they hate communism.” In fact, I suspect that both sides of nearly all the great issues that nations have thought were worth fighting over could be reduced to this simple moral proposition. While Meir’s quotation sounds wise and evenhanded, it’s actually a significant attack and really doesn’t contribute much to the resolution of the dangerous Middle East issue.

On the other hand, maybe a modified version of the quotation could be put to good use. Estimates vary, but it’s safe to say that the cost of the war in Iraq has exceeded $300 billion. Some predict that it could eventually reach $1 trillion. Many of these costs are being passed on to future generations. How about: “We’ll never take responsibility for this war until we learn to love our children more than we love tax cuts for the rich.”

And here’s my favorite: “The problem of global warming will be solved when we learn to love our children more than we hate abandoning our oil-addicted way of life.”

(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail jcrisp(at)delmar.edu.)