Events

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Interfaith Dialogue and the Middle East in Amherst (II)



Continuing the educational series at Grace Episcopal Church, my friend and colleague, Hampshire College historian and Dean of the Faculty, Aaron Berman, provided an impressively compact but thorough overview of the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Judging from the immediate response and some private follow-up, it was immensely successful.

He began by saying that what is happening now--i.e. the fighting in Gaza--is inevitable. 

[What he presumably meant--judging from his eventual conclusions--was that it was an outgrowth of two irreconcilable nationalisms, but it would have been helpful to elaborate on the nuances, for such a statement could be misleading.  After all, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, the Arab League, and the leading world powers are all agreed on the necessity and desirability of a negotiated peace based on the existence of two states.  As always, the devil is in the details, and the subjective political conditions on each side are less than ideal, but the fact remains that, for the first time in a century, there is a fragile but real consensus.

If  "inevitable" implies equating Hamas and its policies with Palestinian "nationalism," this could distort the nature of both, which was surely not the intention behind the remark.  Intersecting sets might be the appropriate image.  On the one hand, Hamas represents a powerful Islamist ideology that serves as a vehicle for yet also exists independent of Palestinian nationalism, as such--as many supporters of the Palestinian cause would be the first to argue.  On the other hand, there is perhaps more truth in the equation than Aaron and others would care to acknowledge, for the Islamist element of Palestinian nationalism and anti-Zionism, although suppressed by the dominant "anti-colonialist" discourse of the late 20th century, in fact played a large role in the formative years of the interwar era and has become increasingly prominent in recent years, whether as tactic or doctrine.]

He adopted a method that he has used to excellent effect in his classes and teach-ins, showing how, when viewed objectively or in the abstract, each nationalism makes perfect sense in context or on its own terms.

[Truth be told, this statement could of course be applied to virtually any historical phenomenon.  It's simply a useful reminder that an audience needs to strive for a certain critical distance or empathy, as the case may be. What he perhaps means in addition is that each position has some intrinsic and not merely subjective validity. This would be in keeping with the sound notion of two just causes.]

The premise was that Jewish and Palestinian nationalism developed out of their own local contexts, and then, as they came into conflict, also developed in response to one another.  He thus sketched the origins of Zionism as a response to European antisemitism, and Palestinian nationalism as part of the larger phenomenon of Arab nationalism in the late Ottoman Empire and era of imperialism.

He organized the talk around four historical turning points, showing how the result of each was to shape attitudes and policies that in turn influenced later development.

The First World War, in which the British and the French simultaneously pursued three at least potentially conflicting agendas:  privately dividing the postwar Ottoman Empire into their respective client states, while encouraging both Jewish and Arab expectations of sovereignty--the former, of course, in the form of the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which expressed support for a "Jewish national home in Palestine."

Aaron explained the workings of the League of Nations mandates for the future Arab states and Palestine, as well as the colonization policies of the Zionists, which depended on cooperation with Arab landlords, but almost inevitably caused conflict with former Arab tenant farmers of the purchased properties.

As he correctly pointed out (though in perhaps rather compressed form for this audience), not all early Zionists expected or desired statehood, at least in the short run, for they saw Zionism as the means to cultural and human renewal.  The unavoidable shift, as he correctly suggests, came at the latest with the rise of Nazism, which created a refugee problem for which there was no solution in Europe or the Americas.

The crisis of the late 1930s in many ways arose from this new state of affairs:  the Arab revolt of 1936 (in which the British rulers and the Jews found themselves on the same side), which led to the report of the Peel Commission, recommending a division of the land between Arabs and Jews (the Arabs rejected it out of hand, and the Jews were divided, as a result of which the plan went nowhere).  When, in the 1939 White Paper, the British reneged on the Balfour Declaration by limiting immigration and in effect killing the prospect of Jewish sovereignty, the Zionists intensified efforts to create a state and to that end also created an underground resistance movement now opposed to the British.

Partition and war, 1947-1949: The United Nations partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states, in which Arabs reject the decision and attack the new Jewish state that comes into being.  Among the consequences (aside from the survival of the latter) is the creation of the "Palestinian refugee problem" and the transformation of Palestinian nationalism into a disaporic nationalism (to that extent, ironically, similar to the old Jewish one).

The 1967 war, as a result of which Israel finds itself in control not only of a vast amount of formerly or nominally Arab territory, but also a larger Arab population.  Contrary to Israeli expectations, the Arab nations refuse to negotiate over the territory. Israel establishes scattered settlements in the territories, along the lines of what it expects will be future revised borders. A major shift occurs a decade later, however, with the fall of the Labor government and accession to power of the right-wing Likud, which embarks upon a much more extensive settlement policy, including establishments in Arab population centers that had previously been off-limits. Palestinian nationalism, for its part, now in practice becomes disconnected from the historical Pan-Arab ideal and begins to take on a new identity of its own.

As Aaron correctly points out (most scholars are in the habit of making this distinction, although it is unfamiliar to a popular audience), what we have here is a series of shifts between Jewish/Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab conflicts--in a word, intercommunal vs. international.  The former dominated in the pre-1948 era, the latter between 1948 and 1967 (or 1973).  At least since the beginning of the "Intifada," we seem to have witnessed a return to the former, though growing Iranian influence and the rise of Hizbullah in the past few years in turn revive the simultaneous prospect of the latter.

* * *

His  conclusion was not only that the "two-state solution" that has been at the heart of all peacemaking efforts is becoming ever less likely, but also that it may not be a good thing.  At the outset, Aaron expressed skepticism concerning the possibility of creating states or making peace by "drawing lines"--which is also to say: partition of territory. 

At the end, he confessed that he had in the past few years become ever more attracted to the idea of the so-called one-state solution.

This was of course the most surprising and problematic aspect of the talk.  Leaving aside the inevitable oversimplifications of any brief presentation addressed to a general audience (any teacher, blogger, or journalist can empathize) and one's own specific quibbles regarding historical and political interpretation, this remains a stumbling block.  

When western intellectuals propose this solution, it is generally out of either rank cynicism or sheer fantasy.  In the former case, those who promote it most vociferously are precisely those who were never comfortable with the existence of a sovereign Jewish state.  Some in fact are the same ones who used to advocate its violent destruction.  Now that that prospect seems remote, the new catch-phrase functions as the postmodern equivalent of the old revolutionary call for a single "secular democratic state in Palestine" (almost nobody was fooled by that one, either).  Still, it has proven attractive to some idealists, as well as to those who worry that the two populations are now too tightly linked to permit an effective disengagement, given that the moderate forces on each side are too weak to deliver the necessary concessions.  

To be sure, the latter situation is deeply worrisome, but the idea of a one-state solution is just that:  an ideal outcome with no realistic means of attaining it.  Anyone can come up with that sort of solution.

There was a very narrow--or perhaps illusory--window that seemed to offer a glimpse of a binational state (one can argue as to whether the window was real, and if so, in what year it slammed shut), but the fact is that it has not been an option for decades, and certainly not in the 60 years since the founding of Israel.  Given that both nationalisms have been so intent upon achieving sovereignty, and thus de facto separation, it is impossible to see how or even why both would voluntarily agree on such an outcome under the present circumstances.  

To be sure, Palestinians have taken to brandishing it as a rhetorical device, a threat, or both:  Give us our own state, or give us the vote, in which case we'll out-vote you and take your state.  Not likely.  As the recent Gaza operation should have demonstrated, the Jewish commonwealth is not about to vote itself out of existence any time soon.

In other words, the very circumstances that would make a voluntary one-state solution possible would in effect obviate the need for it.

More likely than the one-state solution is a protracted situation of stalemate or war, whether intercommunal or international. Those who wish to prevent it would be wise to focus on the pursuit of the difficult but nonetheless ultimately desirable, feasible, and unavoidable goal of a mutually agreeable separation rather than pipe dreams. Pursuit of unrealistic dreams on both sides is responsible for the majority of the suffering in this conflict over the years. Haven't we learned that lesson yet?

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