Slaves of History


Following up on my post below, I wanted to call your attention to this piece in The Atlantic by Jeff Goldberg, discussing the current round of violence in and around Jerusalem but coming to a very different conclusion, at least a different emphasis. By all means, read the piece because there’s only so fully I can capture his argument. But the gist is this: This violence isn’t driven by settlements or really any of Israel’s current policies. It goes back at least a century and is in essence one of Muslim supremacism and secondarily Palestinian-Arab supremacism, mixed with various obscurantist and paranoid ideas about Israeli intentions. As Jeff correctly notes, there were similar incidents almost a century ago, long before Israel was a state, let alone before the Israeli army conquered the West Bank in 1967. Let me say simply that Jeff is right. Indeed, right-wingers (which Jeff is not) constantly go on about why there were wars before 1967 if the Occupation of the West Bank is the cause of the conflict. That’s a more clownish version of the argument Jeff is making. And as I’ve said, Jeff is right. But his explanation is incomplete and inert and that’s what makes it such a flawed way of understanding the current situation.

As Amos Oz has explained perhaps more eloquently than anyone else, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not based on any misunderstanding. Lack of contact, and the corrosive force of mutual violence inflame the issue. But there’s no misunderstanding at the root of it. You have two peoples, two national movements that have equally profound and entirely different claims to the same piece of land. From the vantage point of today, these histories and historical arguments are, I would argue, should be ignored as much as possible. Why Israel proper is populated mainly by Jewish Israelis is a fascinating historical point. But they’re there. Same with the Palestinians in the territories. Again, this is why I support a two-state solution. But nationhood and identity is intrinsically connected to the past. And the simple reality is that these two claims, two historical narratives are totally irreconcilable.

For the Palestinians, it’s their land. Period. A foreign people started settling it a century ago, with critical help from various foreign powers. But the whole thing is theft. They’ve been expelled from their own country. Overlay this with the history and ideology of Islam which views itself as the superseder of both Judaism and Christianity. Jerusalem is Muslim, the Temple Mount is Muslim, all of Palestine is Muslim. And the fact that it is currently controlled by Jews – members of a superseded religious group (critically, there is no recognition of Jews as a national group) which is meant to be a protected group under Muslim rule is a complete perversion of the logic of history.

Critically, for Muslims and Arab nationalists, Zionism can’t be distinguished from and is actually simply a subgenre of European colonialism. And just as colonialism was reviled and ultimately turned out of the region, so will Zionism.

For Jews, Israel – ironically even more the West Bank – is the cradle of their history, where they became a people and lived for about a millennium (depends where you want to disentangle history and legend). They were partly expelled once and returned. They rebelled against the Romans twice in the late first and early second century, the result of which was the destruction of almost all of Jewish society, mass killing on a genocidal scale and much of the rest of the population sold into slavery. Jerusalem and what in Hebrew is the “Land of Israel” has been an object of aspiration and devotion ever since. After countless expulsions and oppressions over the course of roughly 2000 years a political movement formed which had at its base the idea that Jews could never be safe or complete as sojourners of whatever duration in other countries. They needed to return to their original homeland. Here the resurgence of a new and yet very old form of anti-Semitism in Europe (pre-dating but culminating in the Holocaust) played a critical assist in making this argument compelling and for many inescapable. Jews never stopped believing they would inevitably return to the land we now call Israel and Palestine. The key was moving that expectation from the eschatological future to the present day.

Zionism, what we call this movement, was mixed up with the rise of European nationalism, socialism, and to a lesser degree with various forms of religious revivalism. It got bound into the mechanisms of Great Power rivalries and ambitions. But at its core it emerged as a renascent Jewish national movement.

There are various ways both of these narratives can be torn apart, questioned, slandered and more. But I think this captures the essence of each sides view. And as you can see, they are not reconcilable.

But history is mutable.

From the perspective of 1948 or 1928 it would be inconceivable that a group of Arab countries – under the sponsorship of the Saudis of all people – would offer full recognition and normalization with Israel on the basis of creating two states along the 1967 lines.

But the key point is that Jeff is right. This is there. And polls show that over the last decade or so Palestinians have moved more in the direction of saying that their goal is to eventually retake all of what they call Palestine.

But millions of Turks and Greeks were forcibly moved from Greece and Turkey in the early 1920s and resettled in the other countries. Each country’s nationalism has basically written this off. Mahmoud Abbas says he’d like to visit Safed, the now-Israeli town where he was born. But he doesn’t want to live there and he has written it off in national terms. I believe him, though what he thinks unfortunately is not that relevant since he’s so weak politically.

But the point is this: do we expect Palestinian-Muslim supremacism to fade more under an independent Palestinian state that has some economic viability or under permanent occupation? The answer to this question is obvious. People who have some element of freedom, national dignity and prosperity have things to lose and things they want to keep. Historic claims and vengeances don’t find a soil as receptive in those situations. Again, this is amazingly obvious and is validated by almost all historical examples. And here it is worth noting the cynical effort on the part of Arab states not to resettle any Palestinian refugees precisely to keep them as a living remembrance of the Palestinian Nakba. But again, history will only get us so far.

So to Jeff, I would say yes. Of course this is true. But what are we going to do about it now? Should Israel really try to keep ruling these people forever if they have this toxic and irreconcilable worldview? That’s nuts. And to the extent that Palestinian public opinion has ebbed and flowed between various forms of accommodationism and rejectionist supremacism, do we really think on-going settlement and making an independent Palestinian state more and more hard to imagine is going to mollify those views? I mean, of course not. This is obvious. Maximalist and eliminationist attitudes breed under oppressed people.

Jeff goes so far as to say this …

One of the tragedies of the settlement movement is that it obscures what might be the actual root cause of the Middle East conflict: the unwillingness of many Muslim Palestinians to accept the notion that Jews are a people who are indigenous to the land Palestinians believe to be exclusively their own, and that the third-holiest site in Islam is also the holiest site of another religion, one whose adherents reject the notion of Muslim supersessionism.

This is one of those statements that is both vaguely true and yet completely ridiculous.

The founder of Revisionist Zionism – later embodied in the Likud party – Zev Jabotinsky had a philosophy called the Iron Wall. The idea was basically like this. Jabotinsky realized that it was silly to imagine the Palestinian Arabs would happily give away their homeland. He saw himself as having more respect for them and their aspirations than other Zionists who papered over that reality. Jabotinsky argued that Jews were never going to convince the Arabs or be accepted by them. The answer was an ‘Iron Wall’ – by which he meant an invincible military – which the Arabs would over time realize could not be defeated. Eventually they would accept that and then there could be peace.

As Avi Shlaim argued in his book The Iron Wall, while this idea was originated by and associated with Jabotinsky, in practice it was one Ben Gurion (and his successors embraced). And the truth is that in many ways the Iron Wall worked. It is the Iron Wall which is behind the Saudi plan which is based on the 1967 lines which are themselves arbitrary accidents of history.

But at some point you have to accept your own victory. When peace seemed within sight in the 1990s a majority of Palestinians said a two state solution was one they could live with. Maybe not like, but live with. As peace or more accurately an independent Palestinian state has seemed more and more far-fetched, the polls have moved in the other direction. So yes, these views are there and they are the root of the conflict. But the Israelis are there. They’re not going anywhere. Neither are the Palestinians on the West Bank or in East Jerusalem. So what do we think is the best way to shift views over time? Or to put it more accurately, to get people to increasingly distinguish their ultimate aspirations or historical dreams from the real world we live in today?

I would suggest that a permanent occupation, which settlements make more permanent, is the best way to deepen the toxic rage and rejectionism that we see today and which yes does have roots back a century.

I’ll leave you with one thought. As I noted above, one of the ironies of Zionism is that the most history-rich parts of the land in question for Jews are not in the coastal plain which now makes up most of the most heavily populated parts of Israel. The real historical resonance is in places on the West Bank. I would suggest that if you sit down with many committed two stater Zionists, if you press enough, you will find at least a wistfulness that these elemental places from the Jewish past are not part of Israel. But that’s not how history worked out. Deciding to go for everything, succumbing to the drug of maximalism is what got Israel into the settlement disaster. Having a state, having prosperity, having dignity for many makes letting go of these lodestones of national identity and shared pasts more possible. We do the Palestinians and everyone else a disservice to imagine that the same patterns would not take root over time if the Palestinians also had a state.

But even if that doesn’t happen: if this toxic hatred really runs so deep, should Israel really want to be ruling these people? It’s truly crazy. History is interesting. I dedicated much of my life to it. But it’s never the whole story.