We owe a cornfield respect, not because of itself, but because it is food for mankind. In the same way, we owe our respect to a collectivity, of whatever kind –country, family or any other- not for itself, but because it is food for a certain number of human souls.
SIMONE WEIL: The Need for Roots

This lecture is an attempt to think about Simone Weil’s idea of the need for roots, and to link it with the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Her thoughts about the human losses caused by being uprooted may help explain the intensity of the conflict. The two peoples each have experience of Diaspora, and as a result have bitter knowledge of what it is to be uprooted. 

The conflict between the two peoples is also a conflict between their rival narratives of their shared history. The two accounts have a familiar symmetry. “We” were the rightful owners of the land and were usurped. “They” started the conflict and at every point in its history “we” have only reacted defensively to their aggression. Time and again they have insincerely pretended to want peace while their real aim is to drive us out altogether. Their record shows we cannot trust them. The only language they understand is force. 

Of course there are many Israelis and Palestinians who do not accept the whole, or even any, of their side’s narrative. But something like this story is sufficiently widely accepted on each side to be recognizable. These narratives not only describe the conflict, but also contribute to it. So understanding them is important. The topic today is how they are created, their links with the experience of being uprooted, and how they keep the conflict going. The point of discussing this is to try to weaken the grip of these narratives: a grip that keeps two peoples mutually entrapped in a conflict as unnecessary as it is bloody. 

Some of the things to be said about this conflict arise from general features of human psychology: from what Simone Weil called “the needs of the soul”. One hope is to contribute to understanding other group conflicts as well. Of course each conflict is different. But the same intertwining of the light and the dark threads in human psychology creates other conflicts as well as this one. Some of our deepest and most human needs are closely linked to some of the most destructive things we do.