(an essay in several parts)
Los Angeles, 14 May 2018
Prologue: Today marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel; not any less significantly, and with perhaps even greater implications in thinking about the future of humanity, and the possibilities, slim as they seem at this juncture, of moving towards a world that would embody nobler conceptions of social justice, equality, and human dignity than those that are found to prevail today, Palestinians remember this day as the “Nakba” [also “Naqba”], a catastrophic day when they were dispossessed of their land, their homes, and rendered into refugees. The plight of the Palestinians continues unabated to the present day. Today was, in Gaza, a day of terrifying carnage: as the Americans celebrated the opening of their Embassy in Jerusalem, and Benjamin Netanyahu and his friends mindlessly exulted in the relocation of the Embassy as a great day for “peace”, 58 Palestinians were shot dead at and near the border between Gaza and Israel. It was Tacitus who, centuries ago in writing of Roman expansionism, declared: “They make war and call it peace.” We have heard, and will certainly hear for some more days, international expressions of “outrage” over the events. The United States has already blocked a call by Kuwait for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council. Nothing here takes one by surprise; but in the midst of all this, it is the images that have emerged from Gaza which sear the conscience—Palestinian youth organizing tires and setting fire to them to create smokescreens; a young man, Sabir Ashqar, who lost his legs in earlier round of conflict in the Gaza strip a decade ago, using a slingshot from his wheel chair; and kites, prepared with incendiary materials, being flown over agricultural lands in Israel in an attempt to set them on fire. Is a Third Intifada on its way?
Part One: Edward Said and an Exceptional Conflict
It is nearly a century since a British official, the foreign secretary Arthur Balfour, who might justly have been forgotten but for an infamous pronouncement associated with his name, committed the British to assist in the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Five years later, in 1922, this commitment was given further impetus when the Mandate for Palestine was authorized under the jurisdiction of the League of Nations. The seeds of the present conflict between Israel and Palestinians are thus most likely to be viewed as having been sown then, even if Jews still comprised less than ten percent of the population of Palestine; but some commentators might well point to the fact that the long history of anti-Semitism in Europe, where Jews were overwhelmingly concentrated, was, in the age of nationalism, perforce calculated to lead them eventually to a more vigorous assertion of the demand for a Jewish homeland. On the other hand, historians could equally well dispute whether the idea of Israel was, even on the eve of World War II, at all inevitable. The White Paper of 1939, after all, appeared to be sensitive to Palestinian demands: it held out the promise that the British would withdraw from the Balfour Declaration and place limits on Jewish immigration into Palestine, and that at a time when the position of the Jews in an Europe that would soon be reeling under Nazi attacks was exceedingly bleak. [This history has been ably recounted in Ilan Pappe, A History of Modern Palestine (2nd ed., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), and Rashid Khalidi, The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle Statehood (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006), among other books.] However, whatever the precise point at which Jews and Palestinian Arabs became locked in battle, it has become common to characterize their conflict as intractable. Seventy years to the day since the establishment of the state of Israel, the search for a just and sustainable peace between Israel and Palestinians does not merely continue, but is likely to strike most viewers of the contemporary Middle East as unattainable.
If the Israel-Palestine conflict is scarcely the only conflict of our times, it nonetheless has an exceptional character, indeed a poignancy peculiarly its own. The late Edward Said, lionized as one of the leading intellectuals of the second half of the twentieth century, was perhaps the most well-known advocate (barring Yasser Arafat) of the Palestinian cause for at least two decades before his death in 2003. In left circles and even among many of those who are content to describe themselves as liberals, Said came to be celebrated as the conscience of our times. He often remarked that, in the United States at least, “the last permissible racism—and by permissible, I mean it’s okay publicly in the media and elsewhere—is to be racist against Arabs”. This is from an interview in 1987 with Matthew Stevenson of the Progressive magazine, Madison; five years later, while speaking to Richard Kearney in Dublin, Said gave it has view that respected writers such as Conor Cruise O’Brien and David Pryce Jones could openly and without any consequences speak of “Arabs and violent and depraved people”, but something similar “could not be written about any other ethnic cultural group in the world today.” [These interviews are collected in Gauri Viswanathan, ed., Power, Politics and Culture: Interviews with Edward W. Said (London: Bloomsbury, 2004).] Moreover, among the Arabs, the Palestinians appeared to Said to bear the brunt of an oppression which had the tacit and often explicit approval of all sectors of the establishment.
It would be churlish, I think, to quibble with Said on the question of whether Arabs are subject to opprobrium unlike any other group in the world. We have only to recall that a billionaire publicly described Mexicans as “rapists” and “killers” and got rewarded for his egregious indeed revolting behavior and rank racism by being elected to the most powerful office in the world. Whatever one’s view about the state of Israel, I daresay that in many countries of the world it is still perfectly respectable to indulge in the vilest anti-Semitism and get away it. The attacks on Jewish cemeteries in scores of countries should be enough to disabuse one of the idea that Arab Muslims represent the last frontier in the effort to rid the world of racism and ethnic hatred. One could go in this vein; and yet there may be a modicum of truth in Said’s suggestion, considering that Muslims, and not just Arab Muslims, do not seem to have the goodwill of a great many other people around the world. Putting it rather differently, many states—and here I speak of countries where the majority population is not Muslims—have proceeded to treat their Muslim populations as second-class citizens on the supposition that other countries will not be excessively bothered by such acts of discrimination and, on occasion, outright violence. Myanmar scarcely took a risk in purging the country of its Rohingya population: there was the customary hue and cry over the ethnic cleansing of the country’s Muslims, but the country’s leaders calculated, and not without reason as events have shown, that the world would not be much bothered by the dispossession and killings of the Rohingya. What Said did not say, though he may have intended to convey as much, is that there is not much will in what is called “the international community” to prevent violence against Muslims.
However, there is another, more serious, criticism to be made of Said. For all of his sensitivity to injustice and oppression, sometimes he barely seemed capable of seeing beyond the conflict over Palestine. He gave a number of interviews in 1994, the year of the Rwandan genocide, but this macabre set of events, leading to some 800,000 deaths in a little over three months, appears not to have left any impression on him: there isn’t the slightest mention of Rwanda, in interviews peppered with thoughts on racism, violence, statelessness, and so on. If “the Holocaust”—and it is often spoken of in the singular, as if any attempt to pluralize the conception of the holocaust was itself tantamount to diminishing the suffering of the Jews (and its many other victims, among them homosexuals, gypsies, and the ‘mentally retarded’)—has become the paradigmatic instance of a descent into barbarism, an evil that utterly escapes comprehension, then to Said and some others the injustice perpetrated against the Palestinians appears uniquely to embody the pain of all those who have been displaced from their lands and who now face brutal odds against a nation-state armed to the teeth. The conflict over Palestine has gone on so long that exhaustion has set in; a few years ago, many people ceased to apprise themselves of the latest twists and turns in what used to be called the ‘peace process’, and which is now all but finished.
Yet, while many other conflicts have been forgotten, or are struck from our conscience on account of their remoteness to our experience, Palestine has implanted itself firmly on our conscience. It may be that the Palestinians are a gifted people, and not all oppressed peoples can claim the good fortune of having poets of the likes of Mahmud Darwish:
I am an Arab
I have a name without a title
Patient in a country
Where people are enraged
Were entrenched before the birth of time
And before the opening of the eras
Before the pines, and the olive trees
And before the grass grew. [“Identity Card”, 1964]
(to be continued)
For a Norwegian translation of this article by Lars Olden, see: http://prosciencescope.com/ekspropriering-fortvilelse-og-defiance-sytti-ar-med-okkupasjon-i-palestina/