Saturday, February 04, 2012

Palestinians Are Nobody's Negroes

Plus ça change… Here’s an ‘older’ text on I/P (reproduced here without hyperlinks, emphasis or images) which would barely need a few names changed to be as pertinent and accurate as ever. H/T to an older Jews sans Frontieres post.

Lawrence of Cyberia.

Years ago I read some words of Edward Said that seemed at the time rather innocuous but which I think, in retrospect, really lie at the heart of the I/P conflict and help to explain why it has remained unresolved so long: "Until the time comes when Israel assumes moral responsibility for what it has done to the Palestinian people, there can be no end to the conflict".

I think the reason I have come to appreciate the importance of what Said was saying is that throughout the peace process, Israel's policies - and the tortured justifications it uses to defend them - have repeatedly seemed to have less to do with hammering out a peace agreement than with evading having to really come to terms with why there is no peace in the first place. The Israeli historian, Tom Segev, remarked on this Israeli preference for avoidance - and the negative effect this has on resolving the conflict - when he wrote just last month:

Most Israelis still find it hard to acknowledge that they bear historical responsibility for the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem. The Zionist vision is based, among other things, on the assumption that its fulfillment need not cause injustice to anyone: If only the Arabs would relinquish their nationalist yearnings and agree to the fulfillment of our dream, it would be good for everyone, including them.

This historical fiction is very harmful because as long as we convince ourselves that we have no part in the responsibility for the creation of the Palestinian tragedy, we have no real reason to try to correct the injustice. This is the importance of acknowledging our responsibility.

I think the current manifestation of Israel's determination to evade rather than confront the causes of the I/P conflict can be seen in the demand that Olmert's negotiators made of the PLO in the run-up to Annapolis, i.e. that the Palestinians formally recognize Israel as a "Jewish state"; and in the near-hysteria that arose in some quarters when the PLO declined.

Before I get into the details of why the "Jewish state" controversy is so revealing of Israel's general inability to come to terms with its own past, I should make a few preliminary points. First, it is a good thing that the "Jewish state" issue is being discussed, even if the discussion so far tends to generate more heat than light. This is what the I/P conflict is about, and this is the kind of issue that needs to be aired honestly if it's ever going to be resolved. The I/P conflict is not about how many nonexistent West Bank roadblocks the IDF can fool Condoleezza Rice into thinking have been removed this week, or any of the other superficial lipstick - on - a - pig, how - can - we - make - the - Occupation - appear - less - onerous - to - the - outside - world kind of issues that Israel has managed to restrict discussion to over the last seven years. The I/P conflict is, at base, about what it means to create a state for Jewish people in a land with a preexisting population that is overwhelmingly not Jewish. It might have saved a lot of blood and treasure if the subject had been honestly debated a century ago, instead of being hidden behind silly lies like "a land without a people for a people without a land", but it wasn't. So, better late than never, I guess.

Second, it might help put the whole controversy in perspective if we acknowledge at the outset that that it's not just the PLO that has problems recognizing Israel as a "Jewish state". There is dissent even among Jewish Israelis over whether it is appropriate to describe an allegedly modern, democratic state in confessional, sectarian terms. Israeli novelist Amos Oz has written that the concept is absurd, for "A state cannot be Jewish, just as a chair or a bus cannot be Jewish". Avrum Burg, former Speaker of the Knesset, describes the definition as inflammatory and suicidal, saying: "To define the State of Israel as a Jewish state is the key to its end. A Jewish state is explosive. It's dynamite". Israel's former Minister of Education, Shulamit Aloni, does not accept that Israel is a "Jewish state", as the term makes second-class citizens of Israelis who are not Jews. Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman finds it "nonsensical" that non-Jews should be expected to acknowledge the multi-ethnic state of Israel as existing for only one of its peoples. The late Israel Shahak, formerly Professor of Chemistry at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, wrote that declaring a "Jewish state" is not only discriminatory against Israel's non-Jewish citizens, but also incompatible with the democratic rights of its Jewish ones:

The principle of Israel as 'a Jewish state' was supremely important to Israeli politicians from the inception of the state and was inculcated into the Jewish population by all conceivable ways. When, in the early 1980s, a tiny minority of Israeli Jews emerged which opposed this concept, a Constitutional Law (that is, a law overriding provisions of other laws, which cannot be revoked except by a special procedure) was passed in 1985 by an enormous majority of the Knesset.

By this law no party whose programme openly opposes the principle of 'a Jewish state' or proposes to change it by democratic means, is allowed to participate in the elections to the Knesset. I myself strongly oppose this constitutional principle. The legal consequence for me is that I cannot belong, in the state of which I am a citizen, to a party having principles with which I would agree and which is allowed to participate in Knesset elections. Even this example shows that the State of Israel is not a democracy due to the application of a Jewish ideology directed against all non-Jews and those Jews who oppose this ideology.

So the PLO is not doing something uniquely provocative or outrageous when it says it will recognize Israel's sovereignty, its people and its borders, and its right to exist in peace and security within those borders, but it will never recognize Israel or any other country in confessional terms [Footnote 1]. As the demand to do so is controversial even among the people who would be the putative beneficiaries of a "Jewish state", the Palestinians' refusal to assent is not a denial of a self-evident, widely-accepted reality, but a legitimate dissenting viewpoint in an ongoing political debate. Disagreeing with the validity of a political viewpoint is not the same as disagreeing with whether there was a Holocaust. Questioning the Israeli Law of Return is not like questioning the Law of Gravity.

Third, it would be useful to clarify at the outset what exactly the PLO is rejecting when it refuses to say Israel is a "Jewish state". Let's at least know what the PLO refuses to recognize before we get upset that they reject it. I think there's a tendency among some of the Usual Friends of Israel™ to misinterpret in the most extreme sense possible the words of anyone who criticizes Israel or Zionism, playing up real fears of anti-semitism and past genocide, so as to avoid having to deal with the merits of the original criticism. If you can just reduce every unsympathetic comment about Israel to "anti-semitism", then Israel and Zionism can never be criticized. For example, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad said that the occupation regime over Jerusalem would disappear from the pages of time. He's not a Zionist. He doesn't think the pre-existing people and culture of Arab Palestine should be destroyed to make way for a Zionist state populated by an overwhelmingly immigrant population of Jewish people from all over the world. To him, the creation of a minority, sectarian regime in the Muslim-dominated land of Palestine raises all sorts of questions, like: What is the justification for it, and how do you expect the disenfranchised majority population will react to it? Why should Jewish people anywhere in the world have greater rights to Palestine than native Palestinian Christians and Muslims? Is a regime like that sustainable, or will it go the same way as the Soviet regime in the USSR, the rule of the Shah in Iran, and Saddam's regime in Iraq? But once you translate his original words as "wiping Israel off the map", and hammer it into people's heads that he was threatening to nuke Israel and "kill the Jews", you don't have to answer any of those questions. Once you have successfully framed the debate in terms of "Ahmedinejad wants to wipe out the Jews, just like Hitler; you surely don't support Hitler, do you?", you have closed down the possibility of debate.

I think there's a similar dynamic at work among at least some of the people who profess outrage over the PLO's rejection of Israel as a "Jewish state". The PLO has legitimate misgivings over recognizing Israel specifically as a "Jewish state". If you really don't want those misgivings to be aired, because they raise questions that are difficult for you to answer, you can simply pretend that in rejecting a "Jewish state" the PLO is actually rejecting "a state populated by Jews". Once you have managed to misrepresent the Palestinian position as simply wanting to "drive the Jews into the sea", a position which has no legitimate defenses, then you have again preempted the danger of rational debate.

But the PLO's position on recognition is nothing to do with getting rid of the Jewish people in Israel. The PLO recognizes the state of Israel in its 1967 borders; it recognizes the right of Israel to exist in security within those borders; it acknowledges that the composition of Israel's population is overwhelmingly Jewish (about 80 per cent); and, through its acceptance of the Arab peace initiative which gives Israel an effective veto over the implementation of the Right of Return, it is offering -- within the context of a comprehensive settlement -- a final status agreement that allows Israel to retain that demographic make-up.

The significance of this offer lies in the fact that the demographic balance in that part of the world didn't always look 80 per cent Jewish. When Zionist settlers first arrived to build a Jewish state in Palestine, they were actually settling in a land where 95 percent of the population was not Jewish, but Muslim and Christian Arab. By 1947, the continuing imbalance between the Arab majority and Jewish minority meant that even in the generous partition borders that the UNGA envisaged for "Jewish Palestine", the population was still only about 60 per cent Jewish, with a 40 per cent Arab minority. The 80/20 demographic balance was in fact brought about by Israel's expulsion - and continuing exclusion from their homeland - of a large majority of the Arab residents of "Jewish Palestine" in the war of 1948 [2]. Expelling 750,000 Muslim and Christian Arabs - and continuing to refuse them their legal right to go home - is simply the only way to make a "Jewish and democratic state" in a land where a natural majority of the population happens not to be Jewish.

Not unexpectedly, the PLO does not accept that Israel had the right to gerrymander its Jewish majority by forcing out three-quarters of its non-Jewish residents in 1948. Nevertheless, by recognizing Israel in its 1967 borders, and agreeing that the right for refugees to return there can be implemented only in agreement with the Israeli government, the PLO is offering the Israelis a peace agreement that preserves the outcome of that ethnic cleansing. Without saying it was all right to expel the Palestinians in 1948, the PLO is offering to make a peace deal on the basis of where the parties stand now, in 2008. It is offering to accept a two state solution on the 1967 borders, within which the Israeli state has an overwhelmingly Jewish population; to recognize the right of that de facto (but not de jure) Jewish state to exist in peace and security within its internationally-recognized borders; and to formally acknowledge that the establishment of such a two state arrangement marks the end of Palestinian claims against, and conflict with, Israel.

For the PLO - for any Palestinian - this is a monumentally painful concession. Not like Israeli "painful concessions", when assembled world media watch the IDF remove an empty container from a hilltop in the West Bank (which it replaces the next day when the cameras have gone home) and the Israeli government announces it has dismantled an "illegal outpost" for the sake of peace. And not like the disengagement from Gaza when 8,000 settlers, whose settlements the Israeli government knew from the start were illegal, are melodramatically removed by Ariel Sharon, in order to buy time to insert even more settlers - and solidify the seizure of even more land - in the West Bank.

What the PLO is offering is a real painful concession, in which people who were not squatters in illegal settlements in belligerently occupied territory, but indigenous residents living in their own homes in their own land, offer to implement their legitimate legal right to go home in a way that preserves the way of life of those who forcibly evicted them in the first place. It means accepting the outcome of their own ethnic cleansing at the hands of a once-persecuted people that the Palestinians themselves were not responsible for persecuting. Palestinians do not accept the rationale or the rightness of the ethnic cleansing but, for the sake of their own future generations and of Israel's, the PLO is offering to acknowledge the outcome. As Yasir Abed Rabbo, a senior Palestinian negotiator and himself a refugee in 1948, put it in a debate at the Brookings Institution on 20 November 2001:

We asked [at Taba] for the principle of the right of return, but the implementation of it, should be discussed in a very practical and even pragmatic way, without affecting or without -- yes, without affecting -- the Jewish nature of the state of Israel...

You want, as a Palestinian who was born in Jaffa, to forget my personal thing, my attachment as a person to the place of my birth? I will not do that. But you want me, as a serious politician responsible for the future of my people, and as a person who wants, really, to put an end to these agonies, to take a position which hurts me -- I should take it. I will do that. This is the difference.

-- cited by Akiva Eldar, in You're holding the baby, Colin, try not to drop it; Ha'aretz, 22 Nov 2001.

This is a generous offer whose proportions the Israelis - who apparently think that Barak's attempt (below, left) to give back disjointed parts of something that didn't belong to him in the first place, actually constitutes a "generous offer" - cannot begin to imagine.

Those Israelis who live in a universe where Palestinians are not equal human beings and have no rights anyway, cannot imagine the extent of this concession. The PLO is offering the chance of normalization with the Arab world to a country that could be created in the first place only through the ethnic cleansing of its Palestinian Arab population, and whose inhabitants have been largely violent, self-righteous and expansionist ever since in their treatment of the native population they still seek to displace. Zionism's self-serving historical narrative has always dehumanized the Palestinians and minimized the complexity and development of the Palestinian society it destroyed; nevertheless, the PLO's offer to recognize a Jewish-populated state that could be created only through the devastation of the preexisting non-Jewish population is generous whether Israelis are capable of recognizing it or not.

But by insisting that the PLO recognize Israel as a "Jewish state" as a precondition for peace talks (a demand that Israel never raised when it negotiated peace treaties with its Arab neighbors, Egypt and Jordan), the Israeli government is saying that even this is not enough. It is not enough that the PLO give diplomatic recognition to Israel as a state that has successfully expelled so many Muslims and Christians that its population is now overwhelmingly Jewish; they have to say specifically that Israel is a "Jewish state", i.e. a state that is not only populated by Jews, but where the full benefits of citizenship are intended only for Jews.

Precisely because this "Jewish state" was created not in a vacuum, not in "a land without a people for a people without a land", but in Palestine, where there was a settled indigenous population that was overwhelmingly not Jewish, the designation of Israel as a state for only one of its peoples carries all sorts of baggage, and has ramifications for past, present and future relations between Palestinians and Israelis. From an historical perspective, declaring Israel a "Jewish state" means that there is nothing left to resolve from the events of 1948. If Israel is only for Jewish people, then there is no refugee problem, and no Right of Return, regardless of what international law says. Because the refugees aren't Jewish, so how can they expect to have rights in a "Jewish state" in the first place? From this perspective, expelling the people of the "wrong" race or religion isn't a problem to be resolved in peace talks between the two communities, it is simply a right that a sectarian state may exercise to rid itself of the "wrong" sort of people who happen to be the native population [3].

And the ramifications of demanding recognition of Israel as a "Jewish state" aren't just of historical interest, but impinge directly on the rights of the 20 per cent of Israel's current citizens who are not Jewish, but native Palestinian Arabs who were living there in their own homes in 1948 when Israel was declared on top of them, and managed to remain there. If Israel is a "Jewish state", then it has no obligation to live up to the promises of its own declaration of independence, in which Israel guaranteed "complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants." The institutional discrimination that Israeli Arabs face isn't something that needs to be confronted; as Israel Shahak explained, being non-Jews means they shouldn't expect anyway to have equal access to land, housing, careers, infrastructure, development and investment, because the country of which they are citizens isn't really theirs at all:

"The widespread misconception that Israel, even without considering its regime in the Occupied Territories, is a true democracy arises from the refusal to confront the significance of the term 'a Jewish State' for non-Jews. (...)

By this official definition, Israel 'belongs' to persons who are defined by the Israeli authorities as 'Jewish', irrespective of where they live and to them alone. On the other hand, Israel doesn't officially belong to its non-Jewish citizen, whose status is considered even officially as inferior.

This means in practice that if members of a Peruvian tribe are converted to Judaism, and thus regarded as Jewish, they are entitled at once to become Israeli citizens and benefit from the approximately 70% of the West Bank land (and the 92% of the area of Israel proper), officially designated only for the benefit of Jews. All non-Jews (not only all Palestinians) are prohibited from benefiting from those lands. (The prohibition applies even to Israeli Arabs who served in the Israeli army and reached a high rank.)"

I suspect that the Jews of the USA or of Britain would regard it as anti-Semitic if Christians would propose that the USA or the United Kingdom should become a 'Christian State', belonging only to citizens officially defined as 'Christians'."

(That last sentence is no academic scenario either, as there is currently no shortage of prominent voices in this country who argue that the Founding Fathers didn't really intend for the separation of Church and state, and that the U.S. is in fact a "Christian country". Not "a country where the majority religion is Christianity" but a "Christian country". Usually, we hear that kind of talk from politicians pandering to the evangelical vote, but from time to time we get the same message from widely-syndicated opinion makers in cable TV and talk radio. Three months ago, Anne Coulter argued on CNBC that ideally, everyone in the United States would be Christian, and that Jewish Americans would be "perfected" [Jewishness apparently being some kind of a personal defect?] by converting to Christianity. In a similar vein, Bill O'Reilly explained to a Jewish-American listener, who called in to express how sick he was of people trying to convert him to Christianity, that if he didn't like it then he should leave the U.S. and "go to Israel". In both those cases Jewish Americans, who understood straightaway the negative implications for their own equal citizenship, were among the first to (rightly) complain at the suggestion that the U.S. is a Christian country.

In fact, the ADL sent a letter to Bill O'Reilly, spelling out for him exactly why it is offensive to suggest to Jewish Americans that their failure to be Christian means they don't really belong in the country of which they are citizens. (Read the letter here). The ironic thing is, with a few simple changes in wording - "Muslim" instead of "Jew"; "Israeli declaration of independence" instead of "tradition of religious freedom"; "Jewish Israel" instead of "Christian America" etc., etc. - that letter would articulate quite well how objectionable a religious definition of citizenship is for Palestinians in Israel. It is ironic that some of those Americans who have no difficulty understanding the undesirability of a religious state when the dominant religion is Christianity and Jewish people are in the minority, would probably be among the first to be affronted by Palestinian Arabs expressing the same reservations about being the non-Jewish minority in a "Jewish state". I guess it's just easier to argue for a sectarian state when you belong to the dominant sect, than when you belong to the minority that is being told to get out of your own country because you're the "wrong" religion.)

And what are the future prospects for these non-Jewish citizens of Israel? If Israel is a "Jewish state", then not only did it have the right to get rid of non-Jews in 1948, it implicitly has the right to do the same again in the future, should the "wrong sort of people" breed too much. This is not some hysterical worst-case scenario, this is how some prominent Israelis already speak - out loud and in public - about their fellow citizens who happen to be of the wrong ethnic-religious descent. The Israeli former Minister for Strategic threats, Avigdor Lieberman, declared: "They are not wanted here. They can take the bundles and go to Hell!", and called for the expulsion of the "Arabs of Israel" on Army Radio in May 2004. Former and perhaps future Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, warned at the influential Herzliya Conference in December 2003 that if the percentage of Arab citizens rises above its current level of about 20 percent, Israel will not be able to remain both Jewish and democratic, saying: "If there is a demographic problem, and there is, it is with the Israeli Arabs who will remain Israeli citizens..." (Lapid lambastes 'barbaric' settlers; Ha'aretz, 19 Dec 2003). At the same conference, Dr. Yitzhak Ravid, a senior researcher at Rafael, Israel's Armament Development Authority, proposed that Israel should prevent such an outcome by implementing a stringent policy of family planning, targeted specifically at its Muslim citizens, because "the delivery rooms in Soroka Hospital in Be'er Sheva have turned into a factory for the production of a backward population." Can you imagine the outcry if leading American academics or politicians were to declare that the U.S. is a "Christian country", and as such it has the right to institute racially-targeted birth control to ensure that Jewish Americans don't breed too much? How acceptable would that logic be to you? Well, this is the logic that is supposed to sound acceptable to Palestinian Arabs in a "Jewish state"...

Western news media, even when essentially sympathetic to the Palestinian refusal to recognize a "Jewish state", tend to attribute the refusal simply to the PLO's desire to keep the Right of Return alive as an issue for final status negotiations, as if it's all a negotiating ploy. In fact, although the Right of Return certainly is a final status issue, to see this as the PLO's primary motivation in rejecting the "Jewish state" formula really misses the point.

When the PLO offers to make peace by accepting the outcome of 1948, it is saying that the creation of Israel entailed an historic injustice to Palestinians, but that somehow normal life has to go on. This is a utilitarian way of dealing with a past tragedy, so as to bring out of a bad situation the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people, both Palestinian and Israeli. Israel's demand for recognition as a "Jewish state" comes from a different perspective altogether. If the PLO position on 1948 is a pragmatic one which amounts to "once, but never again", the Israeli position is an ideological one that amounts to "once in 1948, and again should we need to". Israel assumes it can make peace with the Palestinians not by agreeing with them on practical solutions to practical problems, but by using the imbalance of power between the two parties to force the Palestinians to adopt the ideological world-view through which most Jewish Israelis see the conflict, i.e. Zionism. "If only everyone will think like us, then the problem will be solved", as it were. In this world-view, the expulsion of Palestinians in 1948 to create an artificial Jewish majority is not a tragedy from which Palestinians and Israelis need to find a way to return to normal life, but is itself perfectly normal. If Israel is a state that is only for Jews, then expelling non-Jews is "normal life" whenever Zionism deems it necessary. The imperative to do whatever it takes to create a Jewish state in (all or part of) Palestine always takes precedence over the individual and national rights of the indigenous non-Jewish population. Palestinians exist in this universe only as a demographic footnote in the long march to a Jewish state. An indigenous Palestinian has rights only inasmuch as he or she doesn't get in the way of an immigrant Zionist. When Palestinians do get in the way - even just by existing - then it is not only necessary, but even moral, that a Muslim or Christian citizen should be expelled, discriminated against or disenfranchised by a "Jewish state".

The PLO is being asked to adopt this world-view, which says that Zionism is the normative way of looking at things. Palestinians are being asked to legitimize an ideology that says it is natural and right to do whatever it takes to create a state for Jewish people in a land where the natural majority is not Jewish, even if such a state can be created and maintained only through the destruction and oppression of the Palestinians themselves. When they decline to see things this way, it is not because they are "anti-semitic" or pulling a negotiating ploy: it is much simpler than that. The PLO will not say that Israel - a country created in a land where people of different religions always co-existed - is a state only for Jewish people, because they hold the apparently outrageous belief that a Palestinian Muslim or Christian is an equal human being to anybody else. Palestinians do not think that they exist only as collateral actors in a sweeping Zionist drama, or as a "demographic problem" in someone else's ethnically-pure existence. Palestinians believe they are equal human beings, whose history and culture have the same inherent worth as those of any other group of human beings, regardless of whether this is a bone in the throat of Zionism or not. Asking them to acknowledge Israel as a "Jewish state", when a "Jewish state" can exist in Palestine only by trampling on the existing people and culture, is asking them to accept that their individual and national rights are lesser because of their failure to be Jewish. It is asking them to internalize the inherent inferiority and inequality of a Palestinian Arab in relation to a Zionist Jew, and to accept that when the aspirations of the two groups collide it is in the natural order of things for all things Palestinian to be swept aside.

The amazing thing is not that the Palestinians refuse to do this, but that some people are actually shocked that they won't! That the Palestinians should be asked to call Israel a "Jewish state" and refuse, is not a sign of how incorrigible they are; it is a sign of how thoroughly our political discourse is distorted by being filtered through a Zionist prism, to the point that we have lost the ability to see Zionism as a political movement (and a political movement that never came clean and articulated what exactly it would take to create a state for one people in a land where a different people predominated, we might add), but treat it instead as a law of nature that people have no choice but to live by. It is astonishing that we should find controversial the Palestinians' assertion that they are fully human, or that we should be shocked that the people who were - and inevitably had to be - decimated by the implementation of Zionism in Palestine, would refuse to adopt Zionism as their governing ideology. How on earth can it be controversial that the Palestine Liberation Organization should turn out not to be Zionist? There is no people on Earth that would agree to vocalize its own racial inferiority as a precondition for freedom, yet you're surprised when the PLO won't do it? You're insane.

And while we're on the subject of madness, let's be clear that if there is abnormal thinking going on behind the "Jewish state" debate, it's not coming from the Palestinian side. It is the Zionist demand that Israel's national identity be defined in terms of one particular ethno-religious group - most of whom don't even live there and never will - rather than in terms of its existing citizens and residents, that is odd. As Tony Judt pointed out in 2003, modern nation states do not generally define themselves in terms of race-based nationalism, granting full constitutional rights to some blood-related international volk at the expense of some of its own citizens whom it regards as belonging to a different genetic stock. Certain other regimes did experiment with that kind of arrangement during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but having seen how race-based citizenship worked out in real life, international consensus today is that this is not a desirable means of governance in an interlinked, multi-ethnic world. Here in the United States, a plurality of our population is white and a large majority profess to be Christian, but we do not demand recognition as a White, Christian State, much less a state for all white people everywhere. Flawed as our democracy and governance might be, we nevertheless understand that the benefits of nationality belong to all of us, and are not reserved in their fullness for certain groups on account of their having the "right" genetic makeup or religious practice. So let's be clear that it is the Olmert government's demand that the Palestinians recognize the legitimacy of Israel as a racially-preferential state that is odd, not the PLO's refusal to do so. When the PLO says exactly the same thing as President Harry Truman once said on behalf of the United States - i.e. that it recognizes not the Jewish state but the Israeli state - the word that most accurately describes this world-view is not "anti-semitic" or "obstructionist"; the word that describes this state of affairs is "normal".

The reason why international consensus today is against blood-based nationalism is that we understand we live in multi-ethnic nations in a multi-ethnic world. And in a world like that, no group can expect exclusive rights. Zionism has always avoided this problem by simply denying that there are any competing rights to take into consideration; as reflected in comments like "a land without a people", "there's no such thing as a Palestinian people", and more subtly in the argument that Zionism is simply a national liberation movement seeking self-determination for the Jewish people. I hear that last argument used from time to defend Israel against non-Zionists. The logic goes like this: Zionism is simply a national liberation movement for Jews, who are simply a people like any other, seeking self-determination in a state of their own. This is an eminently reasonable thing to do; in fact, it is what every people wants. As it is so normal and so rational, the only reason that anyone would object to it must be that the people seeking self-determination in this case happen to be Jews. Therefore the people who resist Zionism do so out of antisemitism. Q.E.D.. The problem with this line of reasoning is that it is based on a profoundly defective description of Zionism. Zionism is not a project for Jewish self-determination; it is a a project for Jewish self-determination in Palestine, a land with a preexisting overwhelmingly non-Jewish population.

Anyone who leaves out that second half of the description is being as deceptive as the early Zionists who pretended Palestine was a land without a people, and the current Zionists who pretend the underlying cause of a century of conflict is "terrorism", or some genetic defect in Palestinian people, or something inherent to Islam, rather than the century-long project to create a sectarian state in Palestine. And they're doing it for the same reason: they understand at some level that it is problematic to openly demand exclusive Jewish rights in a land where the population is, and always has been, far from exclusively Jewish. There's an old cliche that applies here - "Your right to swing your arm ends where your fist meets my nose" - and Zionism's right to swing its arm well and truly ends when it lands on the nose of Palestine, where there was a multi-ethnic, overwhelmingly non-Jewish population long before there was such a thing as political Zionism (and technically, if you really want to be pedantic, even before there was such a thing as Judaism, whose very earliest archaeological traces emerge in the Middle Bronze Age strata within the existing Canaanite culture in what we now call the West Bank).

So it's not a very convincing argument to say that Zionism is only asking for the kind of self-determination that other people have. It's actually asking for rather more, i.e. the right for one people to enjoy exclusive rights in a country where other people live too, and where those exclusive rights can be realized only by denying equal rights to those others [4]. This way of thinking might have been normal in the 19th century European circles where modern political Zionism developed, when the dominant paradigm for foreign relations was colonialism, and the colonized world was a blank slate where native peoples didn't exist or didn't matter. But this isn't 19th century Europe. And colonialism is no longer a respectable principle in international affairs. Today most of the world - and certainly that part of the world community to which Israel claims to belong - pays lip service instead to democratic principles, and is rather embarrassed by openly colonial or volkische ones.

When the international community had to decide whether Afrikaners had a right to national self-determination in South Africa, where Afrikaner dominance could be established only by the dispossession, displacement and oppression of the existing indigenous majority and maintained only through the apartheid system of government, it decided overwhelmingly that South Africa had no right to exist as a "white and democratic" state. Outside of the immediate coterie of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, it was self-evident that the right of one ethnic group to exclusive self-determination did not outweigh the right of everybody else to equality. The right of white South Africans to swing their arm ended where their fist landed on the black South African nose, as it were. Even their self-understanding as a people whose vortrekking ancestors were specially chosen by God to settle the land in the midst of the "uncivilized" hordes who lived there didn't change things. The Afrikaners' self-determination had to be achieved within the context of their South African nationality, which they share with fellow South Africans of other races.

What it comes down to is that in this day and age, we consider nationality rather than ethnicity to be the defining factor in citizenship. This is why Israel finds itself in the position of the perennially misunderstood, square peg in a round hole, as it tries to hold on to the idea of "genetic stock" as the basis of citizenship. While Zionist Israelis want diplomatic recognition of the "Jewish state", the rest of the world - like the PLO - gives recognition instead to the state of Israel. I think on an instinctive level, people understand this issue without having to have it explained to them at this sort of length. For example, since the Annapolis Conference, Israel has killed more than 100 Palestinians. Obviously, from a U.S. perspective, that sort of thing doesn't make it into the evening news. But just for the sake of the exercise, imagine that it did. We take for granted that it would be reported as "Israelis" killing 100+ Palestinians, not "Jews". Even the thought of wording it as "the Jews have killed more than 100 Palestinians since Annapolis" makes you cringe, and so it should. And I'm sure the Israeli government would object loudly to that phrasing as well, even while it is asking you to accept the underlying logic that makes that identification possible. What Olmert really wants is to be able to have this both ways: on the one hand to say Israel is the state of the Jewish people, in order to justify discrimination against non-Jews, but to simultaneously reserve the right to call you anti-semitic if you follow his defective logic to its natural but fallacious ending, and attribute the actions of Israel not to "Israelis" but to "Jews". In English, I think the phrase for this is "wanting to have your cake and eat it too".

This same tendency to treat words as if they have no objective meaning, but simply mean whatever is convenient to Zionism at any particular moment, also bleeds over into discussion about the "two state solution". When Olmert and Livni started talking the talk about two states for two peoples, this was treated as if they had made some major psychological breakthrough and were now singing off the same song sheet as most of the outside world. This is an illusion. While Olmert and Livni might have started using the familiar terminology of the two state solution, what they mean by it is quite different from what the "two state" language is generally understood to mean.

When the international community talks about two states, they envisage two modern nation states, Palestine and Israel. As it happens, the people of Palestine will be overwhelmingly Muslim, and this will no doubt be reflected in the customs, laws and practices of the state, though there will be Christian and Jewish minorities. The adjective to describe all these people will be "Palestinian", because that will be their shared nationality. In the second of the two states, the people of Israel will be overwhelmingly Jewish, and this will no doubt be reflected in the customs, laws and practices of the state, though there will be Muslim and Christian minorities. The adjective to describe all these people will be "Israeli", because that will be their shared nationality. This is not at all what Olmert and Livni mean. They too envisage two states, Israel and Palestine; but they do not envisage them as a state for Israelis and a state for Palestinians. In their two state solution, the proper noun that corresponds to "Palestine" is still "Israel", but when it comes to describing the people of the two states, their corresponding adjective for "Palestinian" is not "Israeli", but "Jewish". They keep the familiar language of two states, but retain nationality as the basis only of one of them (Palestine), while assuming ethnicity as the basis of the second (Israel).

Olmert and Livni might have formally left the Likud, and adopted the two state terminology that would have been anathema to them in their former party, but their ideology has not developed. All they have really done is to appropriate the language of the two state solution in order to repackage in more internationally-acceptable terms their idea of an exclusive, ethnic/religious-based state, where the preexisting population enjoys no national rights other than the right to shut up, and - as Livni makes clear - the right to get out.

I don't think their failure to frame the I/P conflict in nationalist rather than religious terms is due solely to the ideological blinders that Olmert and Livni grew up with. From a Zionist perspective there is a short-term, tactical advantage to framing the Palestinians' conflict with Israel as a conflict with "the Jews", in that you can instantly appropriate the entire history of Jewish persecution and suffering in support of your political aims. (Though I'm not sure that it's a good idea for the long-term. If you are five million Jewish Israelis living among 200 million Arabs whose conflict with you resonates strongly with one billion Muslims worldwide, defining your conflict as a holy war doesn't seem a very well thought-out strategy). Hannah Arendt anticipated as early as 1946 the potential for Nazi crimes becoming a license-to-kill for those who survived, warning in the aftermath of the Holocaust: "I don't know how we will ever get out of it, for the Germans are burdened now with ... hundreds of thousands of people who cannot be adequately punished within the legal system; and we Jews are burdened with millions of innocents, by reason of which every Jew alive today can see himself as innocence personified" [5]. And more recently, Israeli journalist Amira Hass has written on several occasions about what a potent propaganda tool it is to be able to call upon the language (they want a judenrein Judea and Samaria!!!) and imagery (photo left, A settler boy wears a Star of David badge as he plays with friends during a demonstration against Israel's plan to remove the settlers from Gaza, Dec. 21, 2004. REUTERS/Nir Elias ) of the Holocaust and instantly recruit six million silent voices in support of Zionism being allowed to do whatever it likes:

Turning the Holocaust into a political asset serves Israel primarily in its fight against the Palestinians. When the Holocaust is on one side of the scale, along with the guilty (and rightly so) conscience of the West, the dispossession of the Palestinian people from their homeland in 1948 is minimized and blurred.

The phrase "security for the Jews" has been consecrated as an exclusive synonym for "the lessons of the Holocaust." It is what allows Israel to systematically discriminate against its Arab citizens. For 40 years, "security" has been justifying control of the West Bank and Gaza and of subjects who have been dispossessed of their rights living alongside Jewish residents, Israeli citizens laden with privileges.

Security serves the creation of a regime of separation and discrimination on an ethnic basis, Israeli style, under the auspices of "peace talks" that go on forever. Turning the Holocaust into an asset allows Israel to present all the methods of the Palestinian struggle (even the unarmed ones) as another link in the anti-Semitic chain whose culmination is Auschwitz. Israel provides itself with the license to come up with more kinds of fences, walls and military guard towers around Palestinian enclaves.

It seems almost churlish not to be swept along by it all, but let's pop this bubble. The settlers, their government, and their Zionist supporters at home and abroad are not engaged in an heroic struggle against Nazi-dom, but (regardless of the layers of religious trappings that have enveloped the I/P conflict over the decades) in a nationalist struggle for control over a land where another people lives too. However evocative the pictures of the be-starred children, the fact is that not one settler had to leave Gaza because he or she was Jewish. Just as not one settler will have to leave the West Bank because he or she is Jewish. Yet they will have to leave nonetheless. The settlers have to go not because they are Jewish, but because they are Israeli. They have to go because they are citizens of Israel, deliberately planted by the government of Israel on land that no country in the world recognizes as belonging to Israel, with the purpose of seizing that land by force from its existing population and annexing it against their will to a foreign country, Israel. It is the illegality of the settlement policy, the injustice it inflicts on the existing population, and the impediment it presents to a peaceful resolution of a conflict that threatens to drag the whole region into war, that makes Israel's colonization of the Occupied Territories unacceptable, not the religion of the people who carry it out, which is pathetically incidental in comparison. The actions of the violent theocratic loonies of Hebron would not be somehow less disgusting if only it were Hindus or Buddhists carrying them out. Not one of the Palestinians whose land was confiscated for the building of Highway 443 in the West Bank - on which Palestinians are forbidden to drive - sits around complaining: "It's not so much the land theft that bothers me, just that it was Jews wot done it...". It is a particularly self-serving, navel-gazing and unempathetic brand of Zionism that can look at what the settlers inflict on their neighbors under the protection of the IDF, and then assert disingenuously, "They hate us because of our religion".

There is something comforting about framing the I/P conflict in terms of "we're a peaceful people just trying to quietly go about our business but the islamofascist hordes who have an irrational hatred for us solely because we're Jewish want to push us into the sea". Comforting that is, if you're a Zionist who essentially supports the "redemption" of all of Greater Israel, wants excuses to justify continued expansion into the Occupied Territories, and for ideological reasons absolutely cannot afford to acknowledge the practical ramifications of constructing a "Jewish state" in Palestine. But for those who are at least capable of recognizing that Palestine's non-Jewish majority might have rational, legitimate and defensible reasons for rejecting a sectarian state which by definition excludes them, dissecting the reasons why the PLO so vehemently refuses recognition of "Jewish state" actually gives some cause for hope. Because when you stop and think about why Palestinians will not formally acknowledge Israel as a "Jewish State", it turns out their reluctance isn't based after all on some irrational hatred of all things Jewish, which could never be bridged or accommodated in any I/P settlement and would condemn all Jews in the region to an endless, existential struggle. It springs instead from the Palestinians' simple conviction that they are equal human beings whose innate worth and rights are not inherently inferior to any other people's; and that is surely not so radical a belief that it need be regarded as an obstacle to peace and reconciliation.

The PLO rejects the notion that Israel is a virtual "Jewish state" in which certain people who've never set foot there have more rights than others who were born there to families that have always lived there. It offers instead a comprehensive peace and regional normalization to the state of Israel as it actually exists in the real world. If this is not enough, if Zionism cannot settle for an Israel on 78 per cent of historic Palestine and with a population that is 80 per cent Jewish, then Israel will never be at peace, and it will be Zionism's own greed and self-absorption that makes it so.


[1] The PLO has already made clear that if Israel wishes to be known as a "Jewish state" in the same way that Iran is called an "Islamic Republic", i.e. in a strictly titular sense, they would have no objection to this (or rather, they wouldn't consider this any of their business at all). When foreign countries refer to "the Islamic Republic of Iran" they are simply using the name that that country chooses to be known by, not granting diplomatic approval to a particular religion, form of government or demographic balance within the country (none of which are suitable subjects for diplomatic recognition). In the same way, NATO countries during the Cold War might have referred to Warsaw Pact countries by the names that they chose for themselves, e.g the "German Democratic Republic", but in doing so they weren't commenting one way or another on whether they thought East Germany was really a democracy.

But the Olmert government's demand for recognition of Israel as a "Jewish state" goes well beyond the usual limits of diplomatic recognition. What Israel is asking is for the PLO to not only recognize the state of Israel (which it does), and to call it by whatever name Israelis choose (which it will), but to also officially recognize that Israel is a state that is really only for people of one particular religion.

[2] And anyone who tells you that the UNGA vote for the creation of a "Jewish Palestine" means that there is a UN mandate for expelling the Muslim and Christian minority from that part of Palestine has either never read Resolution 181, or is hoping that you haven't. Resolution 181 calls for a "Jewish Palestine" that is Jewish because it has a Jewish majority, not because it is intended for Jewish people only and therefore has the right to discriminate against or expel the 40 per cent of the population that is not Jewish. In fact, Resolution 181 requires that all residents be granted equal citizenship, and specifically prohibits the seizure of the minority community's land by the majority. Following the war of 1948, when Israel did indeed expel three-quarters of a million Arab residents and seize their land, the Special U.N. Mediator to the Middle East, Count Folke Bernadotte, emphasized the "Right of Repatriation" of the Arab population of "Jewish Palestine" as a key element in establishing peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors, saying: The right of innocent people, uprooted from their homes by the present terror and ravages of war, to return to their homes, should be affirmed and made effective, with assurance of adequate compensation for the property of those who may choose not to return.... [N]o settlement can be just and complete if recognition is not accorded to the right of the Arab refugee to return to the home from which he has been dislodged. It will be an offence against the principles of elemental justice if these innocent victims of the conflict were denied the right of return to their homes while Jewish immigrants flow into Palestine....

And that is why Bernadotte was assassinated on 17 September 1948 by members of the Lohamei Herut Israel (LEHI) militant Zionist group. Militant Zionists didn't go to all the trouble of terrorizing Arab civilians out of "Jewish Palestine" only to be reminded that an ethnically-cleansed "Jewish state" was not at all what the UN had sanctioned when it voted for a Jewish-majority, yet bi-national, state in part of historic Palestine.

[3] Long before the Annapolis Conference, the Kadima government - in its rejection of even a Right of Return over which Israel holds an effective veto - was signaling its intention to deal with the refugee issue by claiming that the refugees, as non-Jews, simply have no rights that Israel need recognize, because their original homes are now in a self-declared "Jewish state". e.g. here and here (with English translation for the latter here).

[4] In fact, from a purely logical point of view, wouldn't it be more convincing to argue that the experience of Jewish minorities over two millennia in Christian-majority countries makes Israel a special case which shouldn't be judged by the criteria that apply to other nations, rather than claiming that it's an example of the same kind of self-determination we see anywhere else, which it isn't?

[5] Letter to Prof Karl Jaspers, August 1946. Cited in Cultural Analysis, Cultural Studies, and the Law: Moving Beyond Legal Realism by Austin Sarat and Jonathan Simon; June 2003, Duke University Pres, p266.


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