Sunday, June 18. 2017
I noticed this letter by Stu Blander in the New York Times Book Review, a response to a review by Gal Beckerman, 50 Years On, Stories of the Six Day War and What Came After, and saw that it provided a brief set of talking points meant to defend Israel's 50-years-and-counting Occupation. I thought I'd quote these points (in bold below) and see how well they hold up:
I can see some merit in some of these points, especially up through the 1967 War. European settler colonies have either succeeded or failed depending on whether they were able to establish a demographic majority -- as they clearly did in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, but as they failed to do in Algeria, South Africa, Rhodesia, or Kenya. Until the 1948-49 War, the Jewish Yishuv in Palestine was limited to about 32% of the total population, which didn't bode well. This is why Ben Gurion and the Zionist leadership embraced Partition and Transfer as well as open Jewish immigration (which the British had suppressed since 1939, and earlier from Arab countries). That they emerged from the war with 72% of the land in Palestine and an 80% majority ensured their survival, but it took some years after that before the lesson was impressed on the Palestinians and neighboring Arabs. Algeria, for instance, rejected the French only in 1964, and it took another 25 years for white South Africans to give up their system of Apartheid. So Zionism won the struggle for existence and statehood in 1948-49, but like so many successful people, they didn't stop there. They got greedy: both in terms of expanding their territorial grasp and in how completely they were able to dominate their opponents. The result has been an extraordinary human tragedy, both for the oppressed and for the souls of the dominators.
Blander's letter continues:
Aside from demography, the other settler colony consideration is whether you can return, as the British in India and the French in Algeria clearly could. Boers in South Africa might have been able to return to the Netherlands, but (unlike the English in South Africa) were long separated from those roots -- which is one reason they hung on so dearly. Jews in Palestine/Israel had few other options -- Americans could come and go, and some others did move on to Western Europe, but the majority from East Europe and the MENA countries had few options and little appetite to return.
On the other hand, if you don't recognize Zionism to be a creed of settler colonialism, you'll miss the underlying rationales for why the Zionist settlers did what they did, and why they've gone on to create a regime that systematically denies the native population any semblance of human or civil rights, a system which it regularly reinforces with violence. Otherwise, you might just think their racism and militarism derive from some intrinsic evil. As a white settler American (albeit 4-10 generations removed from Europe), I can relate, but I also understand the trap such identity sets, and the need to outgrow that. Israelis have succeeded in transplanting themselves to the Middle East, but not for as long, and with a more precarious majority, than we have, so it's understandable that they're much more on edge (plus there's the Holocaust, which they've preserved memory of to an unhealthy degree -- kind of like the way the Civil War was remembered in the US South well into my lifetime, whereas we've done a pretty good job of sweeping traumas to minorities like slavery and the Indian wars under the rug).
I guess this is why I find the last paragraph of Blander's letter confusing:
You can't really square away those and dozens of other things people say, each coming from a limited and parochial vantage point. It would helps to see where the Zionists came from, what they sought and hoped for and built, and how they coped with real and imagined threats, but one also needs to accept the Palestinians as they were and have become, to put their words and actions into a historical context and understand how their options have been severely constrained. The next line might be something about how if they could all just learn to understand and empathize with each other the conflict would be easy to resolve. But that won't happen, at least broadly: the views are too limited and the experiences too raw. It often takes distance to be able to see both sides clearly, to find some common ground or viable modus vivendi.
I think that's the point of Nathan Thrall's new book, The Only Language They Understand: Forcing Compromise in Israel and Palestine. Thrall is taking a line that Israelis have often said about Arabs -- one of many things Zionist colonizers learned from their British patrons (along with house demolitions and other forms of collective punishment, and indeed the legal code Israel built its Occupation on), and reflecting it back. The saying usually ends with "is violence," which Thrall left out, because he realizes that force can take other forms. In The One-State Condition: Occupation and Democracy in Israel/Palestine, Ariella Azoulay and Adi Ophir make a distinction between "eruptive violence" (what you normally think of as violence) and "potential violence" (what you feel when you see an Occupation soldier, or are arrested, or served with a warrant by a state that depends on arms for enforcement, or even a veiled threat). Israeli society positively seethes with "potential violence" like this. The closest analogy I can think of, one that Americans should (but often cannot) be able to relate to, is how the all-pervasive legal strictures of the Jim Crow South were reinforced with lynching (and note that many white Southerners had their own "Holocaust memories" dating from Civil War and Reconstruction, their own sense that their renascent power was only achieved through violent struggle).
As someone who abhors violence in all forms and degrees, I find it disturbing to note that Jim Crow was only dismantled because a superior force -- the US federal government -- intervened. (Same for slavery a century earlier, much more violently.) Similarly, it is hard to see any glimmer of hope that Israeli society might voluntarily dismantle its own "matrix of control" (Jeff Halper's apt phrase and thorough analysis) without the application of considerable external pressure. One problem is that the world isn't much good at this: partly because many powers are convinced they can solve their international problems through violence, and partly because the targets of that violence are more likely to hunker down and carry on than to give up. Germany and Japan gave up their imperial ambitions only after utter devastation, but Vietnam and Afghanistan suffered comparable ruin and carried on. And while economic sanctions seem less brutalizing, about the only case you can point to where they worked was South Africa (which at least is much more similar to Israel than such failed sanctions targets as Cuba, North Korea, Iraq, and Iran). The BDS movement is promising not su much because it punishes Israel for misbehaving as because it shows that the world no longer considers Israel's violent repression of millions of people subject to its power to be morally acceptable.
As fascinating as the past is, this is a conflict which can only be resolved in the present, and the key to that is to stop treating each other badly. To do that we need to condemn every transgression on every side, and we need to refuse to allow either side's misdeeds to justify the other. Most obviously, Israel's "right to defend itself" doesn't extend to bombing, shooting, bulldozing, kidnapping or starving -- all typical Israeli acts justified under the "self-defense" umbrella. One could even imagine a simple and elegant system where, for instance, every time someone in Gaza shoots a rocket over the wall Israel can present the authorities in Gaza with a bill for damages and a warrant for the arrest of whoever's responsible. Of course, Gaza could do the same every time Israel lobs a shell or drops a bomb on Gaza. While the warrants may be difficult to satisfy, the damages at least could be deducted from the streams of aid both Israel and the Palestinians receive. The formalities themselves would both publicize infractions and deter against them. Moreover, this wouldn't require a grand deal to establish a "final status" verdict. All it would require is mutual agreement that shooting and bombing is something that shouldn't be allowed or excused any more.
We also need to lighten up and let go of things. You can't go back and rectify the past, but you can start again and try to get it right from here on out. No one starts with a clean slate, and I'm not sure that one is even possible, but a little self-awareness and a little more effort to respect others can go a long ways. I know, for instance, that I'm not free of the racism and sexism and Christianity and American jingoism I grew up with, but I've managed to contain them to the point where I'm not much of a problem for other people. That much seems doable, even if it's not done often enough.
But one last point: we should understand why ending (or at least ameliorating) this conflict matters. It's not just that mistreatment anywhere is bad, or even that Israel is bucking a worldwide trend toward deconialization (not so much a return of settlers to Europe as a general blurring of racial and ethnic identities all around the world), but especially for us in America a recognition that Israel's all-encompassing belief in using violence to perpetuate inequality infects us as well (or in some cases, such as Jim Crow, even originated here). America's self-destructive lurch to the right parallels and feeds off Israel's, and it's unlikely we can stave off the one without at least separating it from the other.
For another review of Thrall's book and several others, see David Shulman: Israel's Irrational Rationality (or as the cover put it: "Israel: From Military Victory to Moral Failure"). Here's a quote:
Also, further down, after detailing the author's personal experiences with Israeli settlers near Hebron:
Shulman also mentions a "binational" scheme which is close to where my own thinking has led me:
Of the other books reviewed, Matti Steinberg's In Search of Modern Palestinian Nationhood strikes me as possibly the most interesting. The author "served for many years as a senior adviser to the heads of the Shin Bet" and he seems to have made a careful, nuanced study of what Palestinian writers were actually thinking as their view of Israel evolved from "roughly 1973" on. There is an interesting movie called The Gatekeepers of interviews with five former Shin Bet heads, showing in each case a career evolution from youthful hawk to aged, wizened dove, so one imagines that even while they towed the standard political line, they actually learned real things about the people they were spying on. Unfortunately, the more they learned, the more they regretted, the more likely they were to be replaced with someone younger and more reckless. I think that rule often applies to Israeli politicians as well, although Netanyahu has managed to be single-mindedly obstructionist for what seems like forever.
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