A New Israeli-Palestinian Discourse
Wed 15th Apr 2015
Jack Omer-Jackaman’s article ‘The Left, Anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism’ is a sincere attempt at analysing left wing discourse over the last hundred years (LPJ, Saturday 28 March 2015). However, it does miss a rather important point in using the customary discourse fabricated by both sides of the conflict to suit their ends. In other words, although it is sincere in seeking a peaceful resolution to an apparently intractable and insoluble conflict, it does so in precisely the same way that it articulates as fabricating obstacles to such a potentially and actually realisable peace.
There is a need for both Israelis and Palestinians to change their discourse which is based on a mixture of rewriting history, expansionist aims, victimhood and endless conspiracy theories where none exist.
There is no “correlation” between anti-Zionism (a political construct) and anti-Semitism (a religio-cultural construct which, incidentally, includes Palestinians who are also Semites). Any attempt to delegitimise Israel is not “de facto anti-Semitic” although clearly it is immensely helpful to Israeli Zionists to say so since such a charge leaves most people defensive and speechless. Zionism has shown itself to be precisely what it is: “right-wing, bellicose and intransigent”. Consequently, any attempt at making peace, from Oslo onwards, is entirely predicated on the power of Israeli military strength (unconditionally supported by the USA) and a weaker losing side made up of defenceless and largely unimaginative Palestinian negotiators. Zionism, as evidenced by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s abominable declarations during the recent elections, does not want to give up an inch of Palestinian lands – full stop. This is the very behaviour that causes Israel to appear “as a militaristic outpost of Western Imperialism” and to become the main recruiting sergeant for extreme political movements in Palestine and in the Arab World as well as amongst Muslims elsewhere. The injustice of what happened to the Palestinians is what is at the heart of almost every conflict in the Islamic World – especially amongst the disenchanted and largely oppressed Arabs.
Omer-Jackaman quotes Ralph Miliband (father of the current British Labour Party leader) as advocating “condemning the Israelis for their foreign policy in the name of Socialist principles, but without putting the existence of the State [of Israel] in question”.Whereas this appears to make sense, it is the very discourse that allowed the setting up of an alien state on the land of indigenous inhabitants and at the cost of their lives, liberty, homes, lands and freedoms. Similarly, Jean Paul Sartre allegedly “wrestled with how the anti-colonialist should properly view Israel and Zionism but still advocated solidarity with the Jewish State”. This is one of the most difficult enigmas to understand. Miliband and Sartre were two of thousands of allegedly intellectually powerful leftist commentators who felt like this. But this attitude is not only part of left wing politics. It applies to others on the right.
The late British historian Sir Martin Gilbert argues that, in 1967, Israel kindly accepted to share its lands with Palestinians (Gilbert, Israel: A History, 2008, page xxi). This is a first time that invasion, occupation and repression are described as a form of “sharing”. This is precisely why the discourse used over the last one hundred years needs to change.
Churchill professed to be a Zionist and, as such, a staunch supporter of Israel. He dismissed the colonial settler argument by saying, “I do not admit that the dog in the manger has the final right to the manger, even though he may have lain there for a very long time. I do not admit, for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America, or the black people of Australia. I do not think the Red Indians had any right to say, ‘The American Continent belongs to us and we are not going to have any of these European settlers coming in here’. They had not the right, nor had they the power.” (Churchill giving evidence before the Palestine Royal Commission known as The Peel Commission, 1937).
But, even an ardent Zionist like Churchill still adds, “The position of the hundreds of thousands of Arabs [Palestinians] driven from their homes and existing precariously in the no-man’s-land created round Israel’s frontiers is cruel and dangerous.” (Churchill, Winston, The Second World War, Epilogue, 1957).
This is a rather bizarre mix: on the one hand, it is perfectly all right for Israel to be created as a national homeland for the Jewish people despite that fact that this has happened on someone else’s land. On the other hand, the dispossession of Palestinians is a sad and inhuman event (as well as “cruel and dangerous”). Surely, neither the left not the right of the political spectrum could have it both ways.
Even intellectuals like Oxford Professor John Carey, an alleged English Literature giant and self-proclaimed Christian whose sensitivity goes completely contrary to his inhuman statement when visiting the occupied Syrian Golan Heights: “Why shouldn’t they [the Israelis] cling to what they had? For my generation the Holocaust excused anything and everything that Israel did to defend itself”. (The Unexpected Professor – An Oxford Life in Books, 2014).
Yet Omer-Jackaman argues that there is “the whiff of the Anti-Semite” in any one who denies Israel’s right to exist “after millennia of pogrom after ghetto after massacre, culminating in the worst of all anti-Jewish orgies of violence, the Holocaust”.
The Holocaust was the most heinous crime against all humanity. It was perpetrated by Europeans. The Palestinians had nothing to do with it. Why should they pay the price for the criminal behaviour of Europeans by quietly giving up their homeland in order to house the persecuted Jews of Europe and beyond? What can justify the occupation, dispossession, exiling and killing of millions of Palestinians to salve the Western conscience for its guilt in persecuting Jews? And if, as leftists argue, Jews deserve to take Palestine because they were “a stateless people in the diaspora”, why has it become perfectly all right to believe in the Palestinian people being a stateless people in their diaspora. Jackaman rightly argues the “if Jews wish to wander that is their right, but Gentiles demanding the Wandering Jew is not the same”. Equally, he should have argued that “if Palestinians wish to wander that is their right, but Gentiles and Jews demanding the Wandering Palestinian is not the same”.
This one sided discourse that benefits Israel at the expense of Palestinians is patently wrong. It is the first area where the discourse needs to change. It needs to do so because the status quo is immoral and intellectually dishonest. Furthermore, the dispossession of Palestinians in order to correct a wrong (the Holocaust) does not make the wrong of dispossession ultimately right. There are no grades of suffering as argued by some Israelis. What happened to the Jews is not worse than what has happened and is still happening to Palestinians. Suffering is not to be graded in order to justify the elimination of one people’s suffering at the expense of another people’s alleged “lesser” suffering. Cruelty is cruelty and the victim does not “reason the need” as s/he lives her/his last few seconds.
Omer-Jackaman dismisses Judith Butler’s belief in the importance of “understanding Hamas and Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the left, that are part of a global left” (UC Berkeley teach-in, 2006). He argues that these are groups “whose espousal of national liberation is really a mask for chauvinism and hatred”.It is amazing that this description is applied to Hamas and Hezbollah but not to the Irgun, Stern Gang, Haganah (the latter being Hebrew for ‘Defence’) or other Zionist terrorist / liberation movements. Furthermore, it is odd that Hezbollah which fought Israel’s occupation of Southern Lebanon, and Hamas which fights against the oppression and occupation of Palestinians, are both seen as terrorist organisations. This argument deems the defence of one’s land by an occupying foreign army as a crime (except, of course, in the case of the West or Israel who have the right to all the attributes of self-defence even against unarmed civilians). Omer-Jackaman does not even mention the excruciatingly loud right wing response to Butler in what can only be described as intellectual bullying rather than as the normal and more civilised business of engaging in a dialogue. Indeed, Jackaman appears to support the right of self-defence when he says: “Opposition to the occupation, essential and noble as it is, does not require us to repudiate or de-legitimise the fundamental Zionist philosophy”. Tell that to the Palestinian prisoner in Israel. To the limbless Palestinian in Gaza. To the oppressed Palestinian in Ramallah and Nablus. To the miserable Palestinian in Lebanon or Syria or Jordan. To the starving Palestinian in the Yarmouk Camp in Damascus.
The argument of anti-Semitism is wearing thin in the case of any one who dares condemn Israel’s behaviour in Palestine. It has been a highly successful blackmail for decades. Omer-Jackaman seems to support this form of blackmail when he devotes a paragraph to a one line response to singling Israel “from the long list of international transgressors” as sharing “the same habit of highlighting the sins of Jews over those of others of the traditional anti-Semite”:
“Only the conscience of the individual knows from whence his motivation comes”.
I agree with the principle. Singling out Jews for their sins is wrong. Just as wrong as singling out blacks or Muslims or Catholics. But the issue raised by Omer-Jackaman does not deny a Palestinian his/her right to fight for their freedom from oppression and dispossession. Nor does it stop them from asking the world for some clemency, some pity, and some humanity.
This is the second area where the discourse has to change if peace is to be achieved. The Palestinians currently have to live (if one can call theirs a life) in a world in which US President Obama condemns Iran for acquiring potential nuclear capability but says nothing about Israel’s nuclear arsenal. The Palestinian has to breathe the same air as US Secretary of State Kerry condemning Russia for occupying Crimea whilst saying not a syllable about Israel occupying Eastern Palestine (aka the West Bank). The Palestinian has to read endless books that justify Israel’s moral right to all and everything whilst the rest of the world looks away as s/he is besieged and virtually starved. The Palestinian has to hear the sickening hypocrisy of French President Hollande about protecting all human beings from fortuitous aggression whilst s/he lives at the mercy of a neighbouring aggressor. The Palestinian has to listen passively to British Prime Minister Cameron telling all and sundry how he has always been a friend of Israel and how he lives only by his Christian principles at the very time that Palestinians are being killed or injured in their thousands in Gaza.
Omer-Jackaman tells readers that “we have never had to face the possible extinction of our tribe” without the slightest codicil being added, or even thought of, about the readily accepted extermination of the Palestinian “tribe”. These are the very double standards that militate against any possible peace settlement. Omer-Jackaman works very hard to ensure that Zionism is not equated to Nazism. Whereas the horrors of Nazi industrial scale racial murders can never be replicated anywhere (and hopefully never will be), why is there such a strong attempt to disentangle the horrors of Zionism from the horrors of Nazism? The victim of either will have much to say about these obfuscations that are intended to lessen one crime by arguing that it was not as bad as the one that caused its perpetration in the first place. It is offensive to tell any Jew, including one acting inhumanly in the name of Israel, that his / her behaviour is similar to those of the Nazis for obvious reasons. But the condemnation of a cruel act does not lie in the semantics of using this or that descriptive label; it lies in the cruel act itself. All cruelty is wrong and immoral whatever its label.One’s suffering is never less or more than another’s regardless of any philosophical or political justification.
Omer-Jackaman urges his reader to “Live with that [i.e. being stateless] for a while and see if you think you need a national home”. He does not acknowledge that this is precisely how Palestinians do live now because of the creation of Israel on their land. A Palestinian has lived without a national home for the last sixty seven years and not a word of outrage or human compassion appears to have attached itself to his / her deplorably inhuman position.
Omer-Jackaman continues: “Similarly (notice I don’t say equally), when those on the Israeli side refuse to acknowledge the size of the injustice visited upon the Palestinians following Israeli statehood, and the profundity of their suffering, then not only are you both impractical and unhelpful observers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you are inhuman as well.” Why does he not say “equally”? Why is it that everything Zionist takes precedence over everything Palestinian? Is it the old fear of offending Jews after the horrors of the Holocaust? Once and for all, it needs to be stated that Zionism has nothing to do with being a Jew any more than Christianity has anything to do with being a capitalist or Islam anything to do with being a nationalist or… the list of such profiling links is endless.People should never be judged on their race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexuality or any other such attribute. They should be judged on their behaviour (what Martin Luther King called “the content of my character”) and on the impact of their behaviour. And the only truly valid political behaviour is the humane, kind and loving one.
Ilan Pappé and Naom Chomsky quite rightly argue for a change of language in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (On Palestine, 2015). They accept, as do most Palestinians now, that third generation Israelis belong to Israel and have the right to remains citizens of their state. What both Pappé and Chomsky argue is that leaders “should not hear the past slogans, which are no longer relevant in the struggle for a more just and democratic Palestine”. Pappé goes further and argues against the deplorable “absence of any socialist discourse from the conversation about Palestine in this century”.
Omer-Jackaman is perfectly right in saying that each person can contribute “to a culture of reconciliation and compromise”.He is accurate in giving a stark choice between “both sides view[ing] their enemy as a human being with rational and justifiable claims and desires can we hope for peace” or continuing as has been done so far with the “exponential increase of hatred and violence – the moral tit-for-tat that we scold and attempt to correct in our children – remains the despairing lingua franca of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”.
For peace to be achieved between Palestinians and Israelis, the discourse used so far has to change in order to take on all realities of the conflict, to move away from pure propaganda, to serve a more humane solution to a long conflict and to become intellectually honest in desiring and pursuing peace.
Peace has a significantly better chance of being created if the following were to happen:
Both sides have to declare in clear and unequivocal terms their part in causing the conflict. In order to achieve reconciliation, each side should express unequivocal and unconditional regret for all deeds perpetrated against each other and make a public confession and apology.
Both sides should agree to share the land of Palestine on an equal footing and within a context of mutual respect, humanity and cooperation either in a one State solution or in a two State solution.
Whichever solution is chosen, each side to the conflict has to undertake to accept the racial and religious plurality of the State (or States) and to offer unconditional respect for national histories, narratives, traditions and customs.
All negotiations should be held on a fully equal footing between fully equal partners at all stages and in all areas and without the presence of so-called honest brokers who are nothing of the sort.
All Palestinians, wherever in the world they may be, should have the right of return or to agreed compensation for not returning. They should have the right to settle wherever they wish in Israel and or Palestine (depending on a one or two State solution).
Every effort should be made to humanise each side of the historical conflict with the aim of moving away from any racial profiling, dehumanisation or demonisation of the other. This will involve a conscious introduction of a school curriculum aimed at creating questioning critical thinkers whose mantra in life will always be “why” rather than the current blind and slavishly obedient “okay”.