April 30, 2011

Contagious flatulence

A.B. Yehoshua, the (racist, judeophobic, blood thirsty ) leading Israeli author, had a brain fart. One admits--by the standards he himself had set, it wasn't even a particularly odorous one. (for these standards, do click on these links, please, because there are few better ways to get a measure of a society than by the bottomless pits scaled by its luminaries).

Yehoshua starts by putting forward a phony question, "Why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict refuses to be resolved"? As if conflicts have mind and agency and can be blamed for not resolving themselves. (Mind you, if only that poor conflict could be subjected to two or three sleepless weeks in a Shabak dungeon, I am sure it would have cried uncle already. But the famous efficiency of Israel's security services only works on flesh and blood subjects.)

With the question thus framed, all matters of (criminal, ideological, historical) responsibility can be summarily executed, and their place filled with metaphysical cant and Hasbara. First comes the Hasbara. "There is no precedent for a nation that lost its sovereignty 2,000 years ago, was scattered among the nations, and later decided for internal and external reasons to return to its ancient homeland and re-establish sovereignty there." Indeed, there is no precedent because it never happened. No nation lost its sovereignty 2,000 years ago because the concept of a sovereign nation didn't exist then. Second, it didn't happen because it can't happen. A nation is a metaphysical concept, not an entity capable of making decision. Herzl, Rupin, Weitzman, Ben Gurion, etc., were not the elected representatives of a trans-historical Jewish polity stretching back in time 2,000 years. They were a tiny organized minority of European Jews who developed a Jewish nationalist ideology drawn on contemporary Eastern European models, based on a reading of the Bible adapted from German Protestantism, and using a concept of the relation of European Jews and the Ancient Hebrews that was first articulated by a the German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder. Not that there is anything inherently bad about borrowing ideas from Herder, but he did not live 2,000 years ago.

In addition, the whole argument is a non-sequitur. The story of Zionism is indeed "unprecedented", in the sense that all historical narratives are unique. No country except Australia was forged on the basis of a former penal colony, and no country except Haiti was the first ever state established by liberated African slaves. The unique way each country came to be is of course of great importance, but nothing follows from that uniqueness itself. It is important to distinguish between, on the one hand, the trivial sense in which every history is unique, and, on the other hand, the Zionist claim to uniqueness, which is a preemptive strike against the comparative method of historical inquiry, and therefore completely bogus.

Let's continue with the Hasbara.

"The Jewish people...did not want to expel the Palestinians, and certainly not to destroy them." Surprisingly, that is almost true. "The Jewish people", having neither agency nor will, did not indeed "want to expel the Palestinians". For that very reason, "the Jewish people" did not in fact expel the Palestinians (contrary to what Yehoshua's sly negative construction implies). It was the militaristic Zionist cadres, the Histadrut, the JNF, the Hagana, the Palmach, etc., that indeed wanted, planned and executed the expulsion. It is very chivalrous of the High Priest of the Third Temple Yehoshua to assume responsibility for the Nakba on behalf of "the Jewish people." It's a priestly tradition.

"Moreover, there was no attempt here to impose a colonial regime, since the Jews had no mother country that had sent them on colonial conquests, as in the case of Britain or France." The idea that Zionism isn't colonial would have shocked Herzl, Rupin, Nordau, Jabotinsky, and practically all the Zionists who lived before the area of decolonization, when "colonialism" become a dirty word. The sophistry is breathtaking, not unlike that of the Israeli lawyers who argue with a straight face that the Geneva conventions do not apply to the OPT. For information, here is a classic definition of settler colonies from "key concepts in post-colonial studies":
In settler colonies “the invading Europeans (or their descendants) annihilated, displaced and/or marginalized the indigenes to become a majority non-indigenous population”.
Nowhere is it part of the definition of colonialism that the settlers must be agents of their own metropolitan nation state. The formulation "sent them for colonial conquests" is a trap for the unwary. To take just one example, Britain didn't send the Puritans to "colonial conquests" in North America. It persecuted them. This is typical. Settlers in all settler colonial formations were drawn from the marginal elements of their metropoleis. They were persecuted religious and ethnic minorities, destitute economic refugees, criminals and demi-monde, etc. The case of Zionism is unexceptional. The beauty of the argument that subtracts Israel from colonialism is that, not only it is willfully blind to the self-understanding of early Zionists, who clearly thought of themselves as colonizers, but it also reinvents what colonialism means to suit itself. What makes Zionism colonialist is the relation between European settlers, supported by Western powers, and Southern indigenous people. That Jews didn't come to Palestine from a country called Judonia is irrelevant.

Thus far, I scooped the hors d'œuvre (and left enough hanging Hasbara fruits for others to pick). It is time to get to the pièce de resistance.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a question of territory, as in the case of many historical conflicts between nations, but a battle over the national identity of the entire homeland.
Now, the homeland in question, isn't that presumably that land between the river and the sea? Namely, a territory? And isn't the battle about the future of that land? About the right of people to live there and to determine that future? Yehoshua argues that a battle over the future of a territory, over the rights to be in that territory, is not "about territory." Odd, but let's try to decipher.

There are conflicts that are "about territory" but do not implicate the "national identity of the entire homeland". Examples would be Alsace, the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, etc. Of course, from the perspective of the people who live there, it is hard to argue that their identity and future is not deeply at stake. But who cares about people anyway? Yehoshua's distinction only makes sense from a nationalist perspective that treats land as possession of the abstract nation, not as the lived world of flesh and blood people. Thus the fate of Gibraltar would be purely a "territorial" matter, a property dispute between "Spain" and the "UK" in which the national identity (of the diplomats, not of the residents) is not at stake. Yehoshua cannot apply that framework to Palestine. Perhaps because he really lives there. And as obtuse as he is, he cannot fail to see that the future of that place and the people who live there cannot be reduced to his beloved abstractions.

But he tries nevertheless, tying himself in knots. First, he blames the uniqueness of Jewish history. But surely, the struggle in South Africa, In Northern Ireland, in Algeria, were just as much "not a question of territory" according to this distinction, at least not from the perspective of those in the thick of it. There must be something else.
For both sides, and mainly for the Palestinians, the size of the nation confronting them is not clear - whether it consists only of Israeli Jews or the entire Jewish diaspora. And the Israelis don't know whether they are confronting only the Palestinian people or the entire Arab nation. In other words, the demographic boundaries of the two sides are not clear either. This is therefore a fundamental conflict that constantly creates primal and profound mistrust between the two peoples, preventing a possible solution.
One could point out that there is hardly any party to a conflict that knows exactly the size of what confronts it. What confronts the democratic revolt in Bahrain? The royal family of Bahrain? Sunnis? Saudi Arabia? The GCC? Arab reactionary governments? The US? The world? But lets stay on topic. That Palestinian nationalism has a relationship with Arab nationalism (and also with other identities, for example Islam), and that Israeli national identity is bound with Jewish identity (as well as other identities, for example, Europe), these are trivial observations about both Jews and Palestinians. Identity is fuzzy and relational, with multiple, fluid, opposing components operating at different levels, changing over time and in response to circumstances. First year psychology students get that. What Yehoshua makes of these elementary facts which he imagines world shattering discoveries makes little sense. First, if Israeli Jews are part of the Jewish nation and Palestinians part of an Arab nation, then, according to Yehoshua's own logic of nationalistic abstractions, this should have made the future of Palestine a mere "territorial conflict", with Arabs and Jews fighting over Palestine the way Argentinians and Brits fought overs Las Malvinas. It should have simplified things, not complicated them. Isn't it a staple of Zionist cant that Arabs have already 22 (or 23, or 24) states to choose from? It doesn't work like that because the basic logic is nonsense.

Then there is the issue of "mistrust." This term belongs to the language of the "peace process," of which Yehoshua is a doyen. It lurks there together with "dialogue," "confidence building measures," "mutual understanding" and other such cant designed to create the illusion that the conflict is not a matter of power and dispossession, but a giant misunderstanding. According to Yehoshua, then, the conflict persists because Palestinians and Israelis do not trust each other. They do not trust each other because they cannot be sure of each other identity. And they cannot be sure of each other identity because they are not clear about the boundaries of their own identity.

Let's note that the premise is pure cant. Palestinians have about one thousand reasons to mistrust Israelis apart from the fact that Israeli Jews and diaspora Jews have bonded over Zionism in recent decades. The history of violence, dispossession, deception and bad faith, for example? The elementary political truth that "trust me" is not a solution to powerlessness? On the Israeli side, the main reason Israeli Jews mistrust Palestinians is that they have lived three generations on a diet of an orientalist discourse that portrays Arabs as inherently untrustworthy and violent. I trust that Yehoshua knows that, as he himself made some contributions to that discourse.

But facts aside, one has to grasp the real thrust of this exposition. The next sentence of the essay discloses the goal post:

Is it still possible to resolve the conflict without ending up in the trap of a binational state?

The solution to the conflict, according to Yehoshua, is in the clear demarcation of identities. What does that mean, for Yehoshua, the supporter of withdrawal from the OPT, Jewish secularism, the apartheid wall, and the unrestrained use of military hardware against Palestinians? This is what I understand. If only Palestinians were clear about who they were, if they gave up their complex identities, memories, family ties, and saw themselves as members of an abstract Palestinian nation confined in a clear territory, say, the West Bank and Gaza, minus Ma'ale Edumim. If only Israeli Jews figured out that they alone were the true Jews, that being Jewish is not a question of tradition or religion but merely about holding sovereign power over a well defined Jewish territory, (like a "normal" nation) and therefore cut their umbilical cord to the various diasporas, stopped listening to Arab music, and stopped taking American Jewish political advice... Then everything would be simple. Then both Jews and Palestinians would become "normal" nations. A wall built roughly over the 1967 border, Palestinians over there, Jews over here. Done! Then Israel could be the dream of white European separatist racism that has always inspired Yehoshua, the dream of secular Zionism. And Palestine? Palestine would be that same dream, only upside down.

A coda, and a return to the title. I probably wouldn't have noticed Yehoshua's fart if it weren't for Gilad Atzmon noticing it, and I wouldn't have noticed the latter if it weren't quoted by Philip Weiss on Mondoweiss.

Atzmon is moved by the "interesting insight" such as that "It is also far from being clear where the Israeli ends and the Jew starts." Describing something that has been discussed ad nauseam for the last 60 years in every Jewish Israeli high school, summer camp and youth movement gathering as an "insight" is special. Atzmon, who, tragically enough, cannot let go of his IDF uniform, compliments Yehoshua for being "a proud Israeli Jew," one assumes as opposed to those spineless diaspora "progressive Jews" who offend Atzmon so much. It is as shocking as drought in the Mojave Desert that two who share the same secular Zionist assumptions, the same dislike of the radical left, the same belief in the trans-historical agency of abstractions, and the same colonial/racial/sexual anxieties about the impure and the unformed diaspora Judaism, would find each other insightful. Possibly the only thing to say about sentences like "In the contemporary Jewish world there are no clear dichotomies. We are dealing with a spineless elastic metamorphic identity that shapes itself to fit every possible circumstances," (aside from the sheer falseness), is that by the standards set by these two authors it isn't particularly odorous.

As to why Philip Weiss finds that deep, one should ask him. Weiss confesses that he "generally avoids" Atzmon. But why does he avoid Atzmon? Is there some political consciousness there that is struggling to take shape. Or is it just fear of what those over-sensitive "progressive Jews" might say? I am not sure Weiss himself can tell, but time will tell.


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