Mandos

Honestly confronting the Arab No

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Saying-No.jpg

Hey, it’s high time for the Eternal Subject to be brought up once again. Yep, an Israel/Palestine thread.

Dr. Natasha Gill of Barnard College wrote this absolutely wonderful article for the Middle East Policy Council, and I can’t really choose what parts to quote, because pretty much every single paragraph is excellent and says everything that I’ve wanted to say to blogular supporters of Israel’s position, but laid out at such an extent and in such a professional manner that I could never match.

For me the biggest challenge in these discussions, the theme that keeps on coming around, is that the Palestinians at minimum have a right to their own narrative about the conflict and that even if the Palestinians are called “rejectionist”, then the “rejectionism” has an underlying story that the Israel-favorable side has always refused, often willfully, to acknowledge. And worse, that the preconditions set by Israel-favorable interlocutors involve, as Dr. Gill puts it, the requirement that Palestinians “sign on the dotted line” not only for the partition of the land, but the extinguishment of the very history of their nation. And more fundamentally, that the Israel-favorable side demands recognition of the creation of Israel as part of a grand Jewish story, but pays absolutely no attention to its role in the other nation-building/decolonization narratives that were going on at the same time, as though the land, and the whole Arab world, were truly empty.

Dr. Gill, by the way, is trying to write for Western audiences and is not demanding instant capitulation of Israel to all Palestinian demands or something, lest you were worried about that.

Small excerpts from the article (and as I said, it was hard to choose; I have tried to preserve her emphases):

Arab rejectionism has thus served as the equivalent of a cosmological argument: “In the Beginning There Was the No.” The pro-Israel camp often traces the history of the conflict to 1947, when the Arabs said No to the UN partition plan, or to 1948, when the Arab countries said No by launching a war against the recently declared Jewish state. The underlying assumption is that the Arabs had no good reason to reject Zionism or the idea of Jewish self-determination in Palestine: rather, their rejection is interpreted as a consequence of their inherent anti-Semitism, natural tendency toward violence, or self-destructive intransigence. Recently this credo was succinctly articulated by Prime Minister Netanyahu: “The Palestinians’ lack of will to recognise the state of Israel as the national state of the Jewish people is the root of the conflict.”

In one sense, Netanyahu is absolutely correct: the fact that the Palestinians have refused to recognize the moral right of the Jews to a state in Palestine is a source of conflict, even though the Palestinians may be ready to accept Israel’s de facto right to exist today. What is problematic about this view is that it mistakes the response for the cause. Palestinian rejection did not sprout Athena-like, fully formed from the head of Zeus, without reason or basis; and it is not the root cause of the conflict.

Nor did they deny the suffering of the Jews, or the pogroms and persecution they were experiencing in Western and Eastern Europe at the time. On the contrary, many of the most vocal critics of Zionism were extremely aware of Jewish suffering, as they were unsettled by the impact it was having on the British support for the project of the Jewish National Home. What they said no to was the idea that the Jews’ humanitarian plight granted them special political and national rights in Palestine, and that those Jewish rights should trump Arab rights. The Arabs said No to the idea that they should pay the price for longstanding Christian persecution of the Jews, and they expressed deep resentment at the hypocrisy of the Europeans, who were promoting a home for the Jews in Palestine as they closed their own doors to the victims of Christian/European anti-Semitism.

There is nothing shocking or strange about Arabs considering Zionist Jews coming from Europe an “alien implant” in Palestine, and resenting that.2 The logic of most national and proto-national movements — with Zionism hardly an exception — is that outsiders are a threat, and the definition of both “outsiders” and “threat” are influenced by the shifting needs and interests of each movement in its defining moments. In response to Zionism, the Arabs pointed out that the laws of territorial possession were accepted worldwide: had they not been, the Arabs could reconquer and reclaim Spain, a country they reigned over for longer and more recently than the Jews did Palestine. In the view of the Palestinian Arabs, regardless of whether Jews were genuinely attached to or had a history in Palestine, the appeal to the Bible was not strong enough to overturn the rules of a modern, secular world order.

President Obama could have found many ways to express his appreciation for Israel’s many impressive achievements without recourse to that toxic phrase, laden with so many connotations. In conflict-speak it means that that the Arabs of Palestine did not exist in this wilderness when the Zionists began to arrive in the 1880s. Even if a small number of Arabs did exist, they lacked any real love for their land and thus did not deserve to keep it. And if either of these propositions were true, then the Jews deserved the land and should feel no remorse about taking it over then, or appropriating more of it now.

But most crucially, the desert-blooming imagery validates the notion that there is a moral link between means of cultivation and rights to ownership. In other words, the reason that the Israelis have a superior right to the land is that at the time they were, and still are today, more modern and technically advanced than the Palestinians.

A similar situation is replicated today, where the Palestinians are being asked not merely to accept Israel’s “right to exist in peace and security” — something they have already consented to — but to validate the Jewish character of the land (“Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people”), either as precondition for any renewed negotiations or as a condition for peace. One does not have to deny that the Palestinian approach to peacemaking can be, and often is, uncompromising and obstructive also to recognize that this demand will be perceived as a modern day reiteration of the British approach during the mandate: in order to be considered a partner for peace, the Palestinians must first abdicate their view of history, and also embrace the narrative of their enemies.

In response to critiques of Israel, Ross beats a swift retreat into the unexamined safety zone: Israelis might have made mistakes, but before these mistakes, there was The No. The idea is so universally absorbed and accepted by his audience that in order to defend this view Ross does not even feel the need offer any explanation beyond the mere mention that the Arabs “simply” said No to “all possible compromises.” One wonders if he knows which compromises were offered, what they included or why they were rejected. As one of the policy makers most devoted to the modern version of partition — the two-state solution — Ross and other influential U.S. advisers might learn more about why the Arabs rejected the plans then, and consider more carefully what conditions might be necessary for them to accept partition today.

Nor is it helpful to place a universal ban on explaining what lies behind Palestinian violence today. Neither the Zionists in the early period, nor Israelis or Jews today, deny violence as a legitimate tool in the service of a national movement. They have used and glorified violence when it has suited their purposes, as in the early period when Jabotinsky’s Betar youth drew inspiration from quasi-fascist tropes of extreme nationalism about the purifying and liberating role of violence; or in the 1940s when terrorism against the British was considered a legitimate means to attain their goal of national self-determination. A puritanical approach to any violence that comes from “the other side” cannot substitute for real engagement with the reasons they pursue violence, the nature of their goals or demands, and a sober analysis of which of these are necessary to address if peace and security is the desired end.

To challenge this view is not to condemn the entire Zionist project as inherently sinful, but to recognize that it will always be seen as such from the Arab side, because from their perspective, Jewish Israel could only have come about at the expense of Arab Palestine. This common-sense view was the driving force behind Vladimir Jabotinsky’s rationale for the Iron Wall — a position grounded in the avowal that the Jews aimed to appropriate the land that the Arabs lived on, loved and believed was theirs. Jabotinsky maintained that it was only natural that the Arabs would resist Zionism, for “any native people — it is all the same whether they are civilized or savage — views their country as their national home, of which they will be always the complete masters.”

Thus, although supporters of Israel need not embrace the Palestinian view of the causes of the conflict, they should recognize that the Arab’s rejection of Zionism was not irrational and cannot be reduced to anti-Semitism: and they need to move beyond the long-obsolete mantras about the origins of the conflict that prevent them from identifying genuine points of impasse or making the best of opportunities. This does not mean Israel is the sole responsible party — Israelis are justified in questioning whether the Palestinians are able or willing to fulfill their own side of a negotiated bargain, prepare their public for a compromised settlement or recognize that the Jewish narrative cannot be eradicated by an act of will. But the Jewish community should not hide its own rejectionism behind the Palestinians’ No, or behind rabid circular debates that all slam into the STOP sign of 1947.

For while many Palestinians have (in various agreements and public commitments) been saying Yes to Israel’s de facto existence since 1988, they will continue to say No to Zionism itself. Condoning it would require Palestinians swallow whole the major tenets of the Jewish “narrative” and sign on the dotted line affirming that the creation of a Jewish state on land they considered as their own was a legitimate enterprise; that their own rejection of that enterprise was irrational or morally wrong; and that the Arab’s 1400-year history in Palestine should be seen as a brief and inconsequential interregnum between two more important eras of Jewish sovereignty.

And yes, I know that all this has been said before, and sometimes by very good writers, and yet fallen on the deaf ears of people totally invested in a notion of civilization superiority that can be used to justify practically anything.

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This page contains a single entry by Mandos published on August 1, 2013 9:03 AM.

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