There are so many words written about the "root causes" of the Arab-Israeli conflict, you might think the underlying issue is difficult to understand. But you'd be wrong. For all the mythology that interested parties want to wrap this conflict in, it's really not difficult at all to understand the confrontation that has been going on in Palestine for more than a century now. All you have to do is try to imagine that what happened to Palestine happened instead here in the U.S. Then ask yourself, “What would Americans do in this position?”. And at that point, you find it miraculously stops being difficult to understand.
The problem with this approach is that American Exceptionalism has left us barely able to imagine being in other people’s shoes. So we explain the world to ourselves through ridiculous platitudes like we’re good and they’re evil, that actually explain nothing and leave us as confused as when we started. We just don't do empathy very well.
But let’s try anyway. Let’s try imagining that what has been going on in Palestine for the last 100 years is going on instead here in the U.S., right now.
According to Wikipedia, Jewish Americans currently comprise about 2.5% of the population of the United States. Imagine that tomorrow morning some well-financed and politically connected Zionists in Europe will announce to you – the American people - they are going to build a “Jewish state”. Americans aren’t known for being overly-curious about what goes on in the rest of the world, so probably wouldn’t really care one way or another about what Zionists in Europe are up to. In fact, you might well just shrug your shoulders and say “well, good luck with that”, right up until the moment they tell you that they’re going to build it … here, in the United States.
After picking yourself up off the floor, you might point out to them that the U.S. is already populated thank you very much, and that 97.5% of that population happens not to be Jewish. And that those 97.5% are going to be very strongly opposed to the suggestion that a minority, sectarian state - which automatically excludes them from equal citizenship solely because they don’t have a Jewish mom – should be forcibly imposed on them.
At first, your Zionist interlocutors might respond with some really bizarre justifications for what they’re proposing to do to you. They tell you that Canada is right next door, and suggest you should leave your home and go and live there instead. They tell you that Canadians speak English, just like Americans; and Canada was settled by the British, just like the U.S., so you’d really be just as much at home there as in the U.S. And Canada’s huge, there’s plenty of room for you to relocate there!
Then, when they can tell you’re not really buying these arguments about why you should vacate the only home you've ever had and live instead in some place you've never been to in the frozen north, they tell you it really doesn’t matter what you think as you’re not going to be consulted anyway. They have powerful foreign allies and enough firepower to create the “Jewish state” in America whether you like it or not, and so they do… by expelling about half of the U.S population to Canada and inviting Jewish immigrants to live in their vacated homes, and by disenfranchising most of those indigenous Americans who stubbornly remain.
Imagine if that happened here. And imagine if it went on happening for 100 years, because the sheer persistence of the remaining non-Jewish population meant that their numbers had to be constantly culled in order to maintain the sectarian regime's preferred "demographic balance". What do you think those 97.5% of Americans who are excluded from equal citizenship just because they have the “wrong” ethnic-religious background are going to think of the sectarian regime that can exist in their homeland only through their own continuing dispossession? What do you think they might do? What do you think this sectarian state in America will end up looking like?
I know exactly what it would look like. It would look just like this:
An injured Palestinian is helped from the rubble following an Israeli missile strike in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, Saturday, Dec. 27, 2008. (Hatem Omar, AP)
Religious Jews from the volunteer ZAKA organization collect body parts at the blood-stained scene of a Palestinian suicide bombing February 4, 2008 in the southerm Israeli town of Dimona. (David Silverman/Getty Images)
A sectarian state of America, existing in a land where many different kinds of people live, but granting the full benefits of citizenship to only one of them, would look just like this, and no American would find it difficult to understand why. If the great Zionist experiment were happening at our expense, we would not find this conflict to be complicated, nor would we be inventing silly stories about alleged ontological defects in non-Jewish Americans to explain why so many people are dead, why our conflict is seemingly endless, and why our homeland looks like a moonscape. If this were happening to us, we would understand perfectly well that it is absurd to establish a “Jewish state” in a land where 2.5% of the population is Jewish, and to expect that the disenfranchised 97.5% is going to be just fine with that.
And now, welcome to Palestine.
The analogy I've just outlined isn’t as far-fetched as you might assume. When the first Zionist settlers arrived in Palestine, they claimed they were settling “a land without a people for a people without a land”. But that wasn’t true. And we know it wasn’t true (quite apart from the testimony of the people who lived there) because starting in 1876, the Ottoman Empire compiled annual counts of the population in its subject provinces, including Palestine.
The Ottomans counted their subjects in order to tax them, and in order to conscript them. The really interesting thing is that under the Ottoman Turks your tax rate and your liability for military service were linked to your religion. Jewish and Christian subjects paid extra taxes, but their sons were exempt from military service. Muslim subjects didn’t pay the extra taxes, but their sons were liable for mandatory service in the army. So population counts in Palestine during the late Ottoman Empire didn’t record just the number of people there, they also recorded their religion. Which, for the purpose of countering Zionist mythology, is remarkably helpful.
So, let’s have a look at the official statistics of the Ottoman government, to see what the "empty land" of Palestine really looked like when the first Zionist settlers arrived there to pioneer their Jewish state. The information I’m posting is from The Population of Palestine: Population Statistics of the Late Ottoman Period and The Mandate (Ch 1, Table 1.4D) by Prof Justin McCarthy (Columbia University Press, 1990):
The year of the first aliya was 1299 (Muslim calendar), or 1881/2 of the Common Era. And you can see at a glance that despite what you’ve been told, Palestine at that time was very far from being a land without a people. In fact, there were 462,465 people living in Palestine: 403,795 Muslims; 43,659 Christians; 15,011 Jews. In other words, Zionists were settling in a land where the pre-existing population was just 3.3 per cent Jewish, where a “Jewish state” could not possibly be established and maintained without the dispossession and disenfranchisement of those 96.7 per cent of the population that happen to have the “wrong” ethnic-religious origin, and where that dispossession would have to continue generation upon generation because of the majority population's ability to replenish itself through its high birthrate.
And suddenly, my comparison with the U.S., with its tiny Jewish minority of 2.5%, and the question of how most Americans would react to the imposition of a minority, sectarian state in their midst, doesn’t seem so far-fetched after all.
Despite the endless propaganda we are subjected to, about Palestinians (and Arabs and Muslims) being people who are “not like us”, whose values are inimical to our own, and with whom we are condemned to be engaged in an endless clash of civilizations, the conflict in Palestine is actually rooted in the fact that Palestinians are exactly like us.
Palestinians do not accept that equal citizenship in their own homeland should be denied them because of their ethnic/religious background, any more than Americans would accept ethnic justifications for denying them equal citizenship in the United States. Palestinians do not accept that a population that is 96.7% Muslim and Christian should be ethnically cleansed to make way for a sectarian Jewish state, any more than we would accept that the 97.5% of Americans who happen to be not-Jewish should be ethnically cleansed to make way for a Jewish state here. In short, Palestinians reject and resist Zionism because they do not accept being treated in ways that we, likewise, would never accept for ourselves.
This is not difficult to understand. And yet we wrap the Arab-Israeli conflict in complex, ontological constructs about “The Arab Mind”, about “Islamofascists” who “hate us for our freedoms”, and about mindless, irrational anti-Semites who hate Israel just because it’s Jewish and not because the overwhelmingly non-Jewish population there has to be destroyed in order to make it, and keep it, Jewish. Complicated existential explanations to hide the simple fact that the Palestinians are doing exactly what we would be doing if we found ourselves in their situation.
I understand that if you’re a Zionist you have a vested interest in not understanding all this, and in persuading others that it’s really very complicated. But for the rest of us, really, how difficult is this to grasp?