A Jewish journalist friend wrote to me:
Anna Karenina sure. But Gone with the Wind???? [He had asked me what I had been reading]
So your [Palestinian] friend’s kid is asking questions. Here is mine. It has intrigued me for some time, even more so since reading Shavit’s book. I don’t mean it polemically, and I only use the Christian phrase because there is no better one. When did the Jews commit the original sin? I mean since some Jews the came up wIth the idea of a Jewish state in Palestine. I don’t want to narrow the question down because that would make it too easy for you.
My friend’s kid (8 years old) is advising her to get pregnant again so that if he gets kidnapped and burned alive like that other kid, she’ll still have a son.
Probably you’re being flip, but I would never say “the Jews” committed any original sin. Jews, like any collection of more than one human being, are individuals with wildly diverse opinions, beliefs, and experiences.
If you mean where did the main thrust of the Zionist movement go wrong, I’d say it’s when they decided Palestinians were less human than Jews and fundamentally less deserving of basic human rights. There was never a serious attempt to deal with them as equals. It was basically, “Accept our idea (which is domination of your homeland by people who mostly aren’t here yet, despite the fact that you’ve lived here for far more centuries than the ancient Israelite kingdom ever existed), or we’ll probably do it anyway.”
That was made clear by the Balfour Declaration. It was really a declaration of war. European Jews were going to go over the heads of the Palestinians to seek great power support for an essentially colonial project in the Palestinian homeland. The British tried to play both sides, but neither was fooled.
The Hebron massacre against Jews in 1929, though it can never be justified or condoned (not least because the mob who descended on Hebron targeted people who were some of the most likely to treat their neighbors as equals), did not come out of a vacuum. Jabotinsky’s young thugs at that time were marching through Jerusalem shouting the equivalent of today’s prevalent “Death to Arabs.” Their message was clear then as it is today: This land is ours. Get out or pay the price.
The Arab Revolt in Palestine (1936-39) was an attempt to gain independence instead of watching their homeland be given away. It was crushed, and Palestinians were left even more helpless in the face of what soon became well-armed and well-trained Zionist militias.
What followed in 1948 was no accident. Ethnically cleansing 750,000 people doesn’t just happen. There were Zionist terrorist attacks and rapes and massacres against the Natives, just like there always are in colonial conflicts.
(The high irony is that the Palestinians themselves are more likely to be descendents of Roman-era Jews than European Jews are. Not that distant, uprovable ancestry should confer any special privileges.) [The other high irony is if Israel had been a bit earlier to the colonialism table, they could have just committed genocide and been done with it.]
Some visionaries like Judah Magnes had another vision. But they were left out of the “serious adult” conversations. Count Bernadotte was just plain assassinated by Stern Gang terrorists when he tried to mediate a more equitable peace.
Ari Shavit is excellent at eliding just the right truths to make Israel seem as innocent as possible without seeming to be outright lying. He constantly goes to the brink and then lightly steps back, sweeping the most important realities neatly under the rug, or just shrugging at them. Lots of people are fooled by it.
But here’s what Moshe Dayan had to say in 1956 at the funeral of a Kibbutznik killed by a fighter from Gaza:
“Let us not cast the blame on the murderers today. Why should we deplore their burning hatred for us? For eight years they have been sitting in the refugee camps in Gaza, and before their eyes we have been transforming the lands and the villages, where they and their fathers dwelt, into our estate.”
Today, more than 70% of Gaza’s population comprises refugees from Israel’s coastal plain and their descendants.
Simple fact is, no people enjoy being colonized and dominated (much less thrown out) by outsiders. That’s just natural. Ben Gurion knew very well that there would be no “Jewish democratic state of Israel” in Palestine without some very dirty work.
Once you do this to another people, and convince yourself to feel OK about it, you have to keep doubling down. Because your only other option is to finally give up and denounce it, realize Palestinians did nothing to deserve their horrific fate, and call for equal rights for all humans in the Holy Land.
If you can’t bear to let go of the Zionist dream of a Jewish majority state on most of historic Palestine, then you have to keep doubling down. And that is an ugly spiral. There will always be resistance to theft and oppression. And you keep having to whack it, thwart it, brutalize people into submission, which just begets more resistance. (Stealing even more after the 1967 war was just plain greedy madness.)
Pretty soon the only way you can justify the reality you see around you is that “The Arabs just hate us for no reason. They’d rather kill their own children than make peace because they are barbarians, not sensitive humans like us.” And that’s racism, madness, a lie. You can use it to justify any atrocity. (You may not hear that in your circles in Israel, but proud, overt racism and bloodlust is becoming more and more prevalent and tolerated.)
Shavit manages to seem relatively genteel in his racism and elisions, but what he’s doing is saying that ethnically cleansing Palestinians — and maintaining that cleansing indefinitely — is OK because he likes it that way. Keeping millions more under a brutal occupation is OK, too, if necessary. He feels like he needs a state that caters to his religion / ethnicity even if he has to steal and kill for it. Too bad for the Palestinians. Wrong place at the wrong time. Oh well.
I haven’t even seen him show one real move toward working to end the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Lip service, sure, but nothing more than that. No call for boycotts, no plea to the US government to stop funding the madness.
What’s funny is that Israel could have won — they could have had a state on most of historic Palestine, despite the injustices they perpetrated. 78% of it! Palestinians were willing to do it for a long time, even though it was a bitter pil, as long as Israel acknowledged the 1948 Nakba (and made some reparations and allowed some agreed-upon number of refugees to return), removed most of the settlements, and shared Jerusalem fairly.
It would have been a bitter pill for many Zionists as well, though they have about 1% as much right to complain. As Lord Sydenham of the House of Lords said in 1922:
“They [European Zionists] have no more valid claim to Palestine than the descendants of the ancient Romans have to this country. The Romans occupied Britain as long as the Israelites occupied Palestine, and they left behind them in this country far more valuable and useful work. If we are going to admit claims based on conquest thousands of years ago, the whole world will have to be turned upside down.”
(Romans who stayed behind and became Britons are, of course, a different matter. So are Romans who wish to move to England and obey its laws. I know several Jews who live in Ramallah today.)
But Israel would never accept anything close to a two-state solution based on international law — giving up that last 22% — the minimum of Palestinian demands. They held all the cards, and they started to believe their own lies. Even Rabin increased the number of settlers during the Oslo “peace process” years.
And now it’s come to this. This slaughter in Gaza is unbelievable. Two random assholes, not affiliated with Hamas, allegedly committed a heinous crime (not long after Israeli snipers shot two unarmed Palestinian teenagers walking down the street, apparently for sport). Netanyahu then escalated it into holy hell for everyone.
For three kids killed by two criminals, the Israeli army has killed and maimed dozens of kids, to say nothing of the mass destruction (including of a center for the disabled, mosques, schools, and hospitals, and hundreds of civilian homes), or the other kid kidnapped and burned alive by Jewish extremists. Jewish extremists are encouraged every day by extremist members of the Knesset. No one in the US media talks about their incitement to racism and violence.
Extremists are also encouraged by the police, who rarely do anything to stop anti-Arab chants, harassment, intimidation, or beatings within Israel. They are encouraged by the army, who are in the West Bank to defend the settlers and don’t care if settlers harass, steal from, destroy the property of, or even murder Palestinians. Only when something threatens to become a PR disaster are any measures taken. More often than not, the quiet end result is a slap on the wrist, and the daily horrors go on.
I really, truly don’t understand how Palestinians stand this year after year and don’t lose their minds or their humanity entirely.
And I’m less and less tolerant of how otherwise fine Israelis (and Americans) are able to do the mental gymnastics necessary to justify systematic theft and violence against a mostly helpless civilian population.
Sorry if my tone isn’t as gentle as one might hope. Pointless mass murder does that to me.
Until Operation Cast Lead, I had both hope and sympathy for a two-state solution that let Israel keep its Zionism — and that was hard-won, given what I had seen. Now I have neither.
The bottom line is, Israel keeps creating enemies and then using those enemies as pretexts for more theft and brutality.
Where do you think it will end?
P.S. Gone with the Wind is fascinating, if exhausting. I’m learning all kinds of unsavory things about the origins of Southern culture. It reminds me, actually, of Israeli culture, in that a goodly number of them genuinely managed to convince themselves that the slaves were better off enslaved, and all those stories about horse whips and bloodhounds were just rumors started by Yankee troublemakers.
He wrote back:
My question has to do with one’s vision of the conflict. It certainly doesn’t have an “answer” as such, but has preoccupied me for some time.
Is there one moment which signalled the end of the Napoleonic Empire? Yes, it was when Napoleon made a tactical blunder at Waterloo.
Was there one moment which signalled the failure of the American campaign to conquer Vietnam? Yes, it was the Tet Offensive of 1968.
In your mind, can you pinpoint that moment in the israeli-Palestinian conflict? That is, the moment when the Zionist enterprise went wrong?
I’m sure you’ve heard of “The Iron Wall,” the essay by Jabotinsky written in 1923 (originally in Russian). It basically said the Palestinians won’t let us take over most or all of their land willingly, so:
“Zionist colonisation must either stop, or else proceed regardless of the native population. Which means that it can proceed and develop only under the protection of a power that is independent of the native population – behind an iron wall, which the native population cannot breach.” The only solution to achieve peace and a Jewish state in the Land of Israel, he argued, would be for Jews to first establish a strong Jewish state, which would eventually prompt the Arabs to “drop their extremist leaders, whose watchword is ‘never!’ and pass the leadership to the moderate groups, who will approach us with a proposal that we should both agree to mutual concessions.”
So basically, they won’t give it to us, so we take it and hold onto it no matter what we have to do until they learn to accept their position as supplicants to us. And that’s basically what mainstream Zionists did and have been doing ever since.
And that was just bound to get ugly. More and more and greater and greater power and brutality rarely lead to a conciliatory attitude from either side. It leads to a “tiger by the tail” scenario, and also an arrogance of power. (The racism that justifies violence rarely abates after the violence is done.)
What Israelis truly don’t understand is that Palestinians are, by and large, some of the most magnanimous and forgiving people on the face of the earth. But they’ve never really been approached with respect, never with anything but imperious contempt and suspicion and brutality.
The Oslo years were a rare time of tremendous and real hope, but even Rabin kept building settlements during those years (they ultimately doubled during the “peace process”), and the settlers were effectively rewarded after the Baruch Goldstein massacre, Arafat was promised he wouldn’t be blamed if the Camp David talks fell through, and then he was solely blamed, and on and on. A million little humiliations and thefts, all the time. Interspersed with occasional mass destruction and massacres.
There wasn’t just one moment when Zionism went wrong. It’s always been infused with “Our people are better and more important than your people” (i.e., racism) and deep trauma that’s easy to transfer onto whoever’s in front of you and seems to be threatening you. Palestinians become “Nazis” in the minds of many Israelis, and brutality becomes misplaced revenge, and the whole thing feeds on itself.
Now Israelis fear that if they give half an inch, they’ll lose everything. And they may be right. But not in the way they think. They think losing Zionism, and permitting equal rights for all, will be tantamount to their destruction. When in fact it’s the only way to save not only their lives but also their souls.
I don’t see a good result otherwise. Palestinians will never just disappear, or totally submit. And the more Israel keeps trying, the more extremists will get a foothold in an otherwise fairly reasonable population. (The unity deal Hamas was trying to sign when all this broke out would have made them effectively subordinate to Fatah, who have bent over backwards to try to appease the Israelis, always getting a kick to the teeth for their trouble.)
Israelis are still waiting for Palestinians to say, “You were right all along and you can have what you want. We’re sorry for all we’ve done to you. You didn’t deserve any of it. We should have just given our land away to begin with [because you have a greater claim than we do].”
Sorry, but Palestinians aren’t going to say that. Especially while Israel is still actively brutalizing and stealing from them. Most non-religious Zionists, who think of land as a possession and a fortress, have no inkling of what the land means for the Palestinians. Religious Zionists of all people, who pined for the land for 2000 years, should know that 60 or 100 years is nothing.
The West Bank and Gaza settlements were a kind of Waterloo, though. It created a whole massive and impassioned settler population whose very existence was threatened by real respect and peace based on international law. I don’t think that was accidental.
Problem is, Israel’s brainwashing has wound everyone up so tight that a fair two-state solution is basically impossible, and a one-state solution will probably be a bloody mess, at least for a while. The majority of Israeli Jews just can’t conceive of giving up their special privileges (which they see as natural rights).
Any more than antebellum Southern whites could imagine paying slaves, or letting them up and leave whenever they wanted to. And they hung onto subjugating black people as long and as hard as they could, even after they lost the war. Luckily Palestinians have had more opportunities to be educated and connected in this modern world, so maybe it wouldn’t be quite so ugly, once they have some modicum of leverage. One can hope.
(Read A Doctor in Galilee and The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist for a taste of the Kafkaesque fourth-class status of Palestinian-Israelis, who are ostensibly full citizens of Israel.)
Of course, the Palestinians don’t have a bunch of Yankees to fight their slavemasters. But they do have what black South Africans had: world opinion on their side, and a devastating boycott that is rapidly picking up steam. Here’s hoping that’ll have a non-violent if very painful effect.
Question back to you: How do you define “Zionism”? You asked me if I condemned the very concept. What I condemn is how it’s turned out, how the racists and extremists in a time of crisis won out (as usual) and never stopped upping the ante.
How do you wish it had turned out? What would you see as acceptable, realistic Zionism?
(I haven’t heard back from him yet. Will let you know if/when I do.)
Meanwhile, here’s a poem I wrote on the subject of “claiming” Palestine:
Ajnabiya [Foreign Girl] in Palestine
Palestine is mine
as much as anyone’s,
which is to say
not at all.
If you are very lucky
and very quiet
you may find
that you belong
can never belong
Palestine, Fall 2009