It seems very important to some Zionists to find the origin of Palestinian and Arab resistance to Zionism in religious hatred. The latest example of this tendency is in the newly-fashionable term, “islamofascism”, to describe the outlook of movements such as Hamas. This is a very comfortable cop-out. It reassures us that any opposition to what Israel is doing to the Palestinians is simply the latest manifestation of the same old antisemitism, and so absolves us from having to think rationally or critically about what we are actually witnessing in Israel and the Occupied Territories.
It’s not too difficult to swallow that line of reasoning if you have grown up on the Zionist narrative of history that many people my generation did. The logic behind it 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.
I occasionally get emails like that, and I’m never really sure if the people who are writing to me really don’t see there is a problem with this logic. It’s hard to tell from an email whether someone is being disingenuous, and deliberately ignoring the obvious, or whether they are sincere. They sound sincere to me, so I generally assume they are.
Nevertheless, there is a logical gap in this narrative: it’s big enough to drive a bus through it, and it’s called “the Palestinian people”. Zionism has always sold itself – right back to Israel Zangwill’s coining that catchy little phrase, “a land without a people for a people without a land” - by pretending that the Palestinian people aren’t there. Because once you acknowledge that there are already people in Palestine, you have to acknowledge that your Zionist narrative is a very partial truth. Zionism suddenly becomes not just a programme to build a national home for the Jewish people, but a programme to build a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine, which is already home to an indigenous population – 95% of whom (at the time of the first Zionist settlement in 1882) – happen to be non-Jewish. And once you acknowledge that, the issues Zionism raises become suddenly much more complex.
It was probably the late Professor Edward Said who did most to bring this previously-invisible Palestinian reality into a Western discourse that prior to him had determinedly ignored it. Quietly but emphatically, Said insisted that Zionism – as long as it is conceived as Jewish sovereignty over a land where Jewish people are not a natural majority - is not just an ideology of self-determination and liberation, but also of violence, and theft, and exile. And these realities are not incidental, unexpected accompaniments to the project, but an inevitable and integral part of it. Simply put, there is no way to turn Arab Palestine into a “Jewish democracy” that does not involve the killing, dispossession and displacement of Palestinians on a massive scale. And Zionism has to do this to the native Arab people not because of anything they do, but simply because they exist.
Edward Said had the rare gift of being able to assert the reality of Palestinian suffering without demonizing the other side, or belittling its history, its tragedies or its national aspirations. Not that that mattered: he was still much-vilified for daring to insist on the reality of Palestine and the Palestinians, simply because no matter how sympathetically you do it, you are inevitably opening up a whole can of worms that popular Zionism would rather not open. Once you recognise that Zionism might be a liberation for some people, but is by its very nature an ideology of death, displacement and discrimination for others, then opposition – and resistance – to it is not so irrational at all. Suddenly, Palestinians are not antisemites who reject Zionism because it is about Jews, but ordinary people who react exactly like anyone else would at the prospect of being forcibly evicted from their homes to make way for univited mass immigration by foreigners – regardless of whether those foreigners are Jewish, Buddhist, Martian or anything else. That’s why Said was so vilified: he told the dirty secret that Palestinian opposition to Zionism does not originate in an irrational race hatred (which can be easily dismissed as unworthy of discussion), but is the most natural reaction in the world to being forced out of your home because you are the wrong “sort” of people (which cannot).
I was reminded of Said’s role in explaining what Zionism feels like from a Palestinian perspective a couple of weeks ago when I read A Fable About Palestine, an article by Jean Bricmont. It reminded me of Said because it required the reader to look at Zionism from the point of view of the person who is dispossessed by it, not the one who benefits, and pointed out that from this perspective there is nothing at all irrational about being a non-zionist or an anti-zionist. I decided to post that article here, along with several other prominent articles that have looked at Zionism in the light of what it means for the Arab population of Palestine, and asked us to consider how we would react to it if we were them. The first is Mahatma Gandhi’s The Jews In Palestine of November 1938; the second is the classic exposition of the Arab view of Zionism - As the Arabs see the Jews – by King Abdullah I of Jordan, first published in The American Magazine in November 1947. Third is Let Us Rethink Our 'Special Relationship' with Israel, written by the late Professor Charles L. Black, Jr., Sterling Professor of Law Emeritus at Yale University, and published during the first intifada in 1989; and finally Bricmont’s Fable about Palestine.
I’m posting extracts from each, but if you have time the full articles are well worth reading. They are a useful reminder that the central conflict in the Middle East is not a clash of civilizations that can be resolved only through all-out war, but a political dispute that is open to resolution through rational argument and honest if painful dialogue. Anyone who tells you otherwise - who insists instead that we are in an unavoidable ideological war-to-the-death against “islamofascists” - is telling you that, not because they really fear that the Palestinian cause originates in antisemitism, but because they fear you’ll find out it doesn't.
1. The Jews In Palestine by Mahatma Gandhi
[extract] Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French. It is wrong and inhuman to impose the Jews on the Arabs. What is going on in Palestine today cannot be justified by any moral code of conduct. The mandates have no sanction but that of the last war. Surely it would be a crime against humanity to reduce the proud Arabs so that Palestine can be restored to the Jews partly or wholly as their national home. The nobler course would be to insist on a just treatment of the Jews wherever they are born and bred. The Jews born in France are French in precisely the same sense that Christians born in France are French….
And now a word to the Jews in Palestine. I have no doubt that they are going about it in the wrong way. The Palestine of the Biblical conception is not a geographical tract. It is in their hearts. But if they must look to the Palestine of geography as their national home, it is wrong to enter it under the shadow of the British gun. A religious act cannot be performed with the aid of the bayonet or the bomb. They can settle in Palestine only by the goodwill of the Arabs. They should seek to convert the Arab heart.
The same God rules the Arab heart who rules the Jewish heart... There are hundreds of ways of reasoning with the Arabs, if they will only discard the help of the British bayonet. As it is, they are co-sharers with the British in despoiling a people who have done no wrong to them. I am not defending the Arab excesses. I wish they had chosen the way of non-violence in resisting what they rightly regarded as an unwarrantable encroachment upon their country. But according to the accepted canons of right and wrong, nothing can be said against the Arab resistance in the face of overwhelming odds.
2. As the Arabs see the Jews by King Abdullah bin al-Hussein
[extract] We Arabs follow, perhaps far more than you think, the press of America. We are frankly disturbed to find that for every word printed on the Arab side, a thousand are printed on the Zionist side.
There are many reasons for this. You have many millions of Jewish citizens interested in this question. They are highly vocal and wise in the ways of publicity. There are few Arab citizens in America, and we are as yet unskilled in the technique of modern propaganda.
The results have been alarming for us. In your press we see a horrible caricature and are told it is our true portrait. In all justice, we cannot let this pass by default.
Our case is quite simple: For nearly 2,000 years Palestine has been almost 100 per cent Arab. It is still preponderantly Arab today, in spite of enormous Jewish immigration. But if this immigration continues we shall soon be outnumbered—a minority in our home.
Palestine is a small and very poor country, about the size of your state of Vermont. Its Arab population is only about 1,200,000. Already we have had forced on us, against our will, some 600,000 Zionist Jews. We are threatened with many hundreds of thousands more.
Our position is so simple and natural that we are amazed it should even be questioned. It is exactly the same position you in America take in regard to the unhappy European Jews. You are sorry for them, but you do not want them in your country.
We do not want them in ours, either. Not because they are Jews, but because they are foreigners. We would not want hundreds of thousands of foreigners in our country, be they Englishmen or Norwegians or Brazilians or whatever.
Think for a moment: In the last 25 years we have had one third of our entire population forced upon us. In America that would be the equivalent of 45,000,000 complete strangers admitted to your country, over your violent protest, since 1921. How would you have reacted to that?
… I have the most complete confidence in the fair-mindedness and generosity of the American public. We Arabs ask no favours. We ask only that you know the full truth, not half of it. We ask only that when you judge the Palestine question, you put yourselves in our place.
What would your answer be if some outside agency told you that you must accept in America many millions of utter strangers in your midst—enough to dominate your country—merely because they insisted on going to America, and because their forefathers had once lived there some 2,000 years ago?
Our answer is the same.
And what would be your action if, in spite of your refusal, this outside agency began forcing them on you?
Ours will be the same.
3. Let Us Rethink Our 'Special Relationship' with Israel; by Charles L. Black, Jr., Sterling Professor of Law Emeritus, Yale University.
[extract] …In Boswell’s Johnson the story is told (I believe by one of Johnson’s friends) of a woman who was seen frying live eels in hot grease in a large pan, on a street in 18th century London. When the eels struggled up the side of the pan, trying to get out, the woman would strike them with a stick, scolding them angrily: “Down, wantons! Down !”
The eels, it seemed, just didn’t understand their place in the higher scheme of things. There’s a lot of that in what one hears and reads about the Palestinians - the recalcitrant, disorderly, “incorrigible,” “extremist” Palestinians. Why, they even get violent sometimes, though they haven’t the means of coming near to matching in kind or in amount, the violence that has long been and is now being visited upon them. “Down, wantons! Down!”
Well, you can blow all that kind of thing away by asking yourself the simple question: “What would we be doing in their place? What do you think we should be doing?”
In their position, would you rather be known as a “moderate” or as an “extremist”? Would you rather have such a man as Shamir think you to be “docile”, or think you to be “incorrigible”? Just asking such a question might have a broader effect even than that of producing its obvious answer, for the first hesitant step toward sympathy is to put yourself imaginatively in somebody else’s place. It might lead toward a dawn of that most fundamental recognition of all — recognition that the Palestinians, who have been so tortured in body and mind, and so grotesquely caricatured, are real people just like us.
4. A Fable About Palestine by Jean Bricmont
[extract] Let's start with a story. Imagine that Africa has become rich and powerful, and that Euroope has become poor, divided and without real independence. Imagine next that, tired of being repeatedly massacred, the Tutsis decide to found a national home elsewhere. Certain of their leaders designate Wallonia, in Belgium, as that new home. Other Africans, to solve what some call the "Tutsi problem", approve of the project. Thus a flood of Tutsis pack up, weapons and all, and begin to settle in that region, while proclaiming that the people already living there have to go somewhere else. With their wealth, their determination and their weapons, the Tutsis rapidly manage to take possession of the farms, forests and towns and chase away most of the natives, either by legal means or by intimidation. A large part of Wallonia becomes a new Tutsi State, which boasts of being particularly well governed and democratic. All of Africa looks on in admiration.
However, to the surprise of the Africans, most of the Walloons are against that arrangement. Bewildered, sometimes supported by other Europeans who are nevertheless divided and whose leaders are weak and indecisive, they engage in several last ditch fights which only allow the Tutsi State to expand. The Africans can't understand why the Belgians and other Europeans are unable to appreciate the superiority of the system introduced onto their continent by the Tutsis. While Tutsis from all over the world are invited to come and settle, it is explained to the inhabitants who are being pushed out that there are other French-speaking States where they can go. All those who, in Europe or elsewhere, denounce that situation risk being called "anti-Tutsi" racists. When, parked on various scraps of ex-Wallonia, completely surrounded by the Tutsi army, a certain number of natives throw themselves into violent and desperate acts, commentators vie with each other to come up with theories on the peculiarities of Walloon culture that push them to such fanaticism.
It is doubtful that our principal concern, if we found ourselves in such a situation, would be to "put an end to the violence" of the original inhabitants of Wallonia, or to be fair to both sides, or to convince all the Belgians, as well as the other Europeans, to guarantee first and foremost the security of the Tutsi State within "safe and recognized borders". And yet, the responsibility of Belgium in the misfortune of Tutsis, through its colonial policy, is incomparably greater than that, non-existent, of the Palestinians in the persecution of the Jews in Europe.
The aim of this fable is not at all to compare or to pretend to establish any equivalence between two tragic histories, that of the Jews or that of the Tutsis, but solely to illustrate the fact that the attitude of the Arabs toward Israel is not necessarily due to a strange and violent culture or religion, but is no different from the attitude anyone might have if put in a situation similar to theirs. It is above all the situation that is strange. Recognizing it doesn't mean that one can or should undo what has been done in the past . But if one wants to arrive at a genuine peace, not only between Arabs and Israelis, but also between the West and the Arab-Muslim world, then one must begin by understanding why the others see the world as they do, and by honestly distinguishing the aggressor from the aggressed.