Sunday, July 11, 2010

The "Exodus" and the "Mavi Marmara": Analogies and Inanities

It was only to be expected (I seem to be saying that a lot lately, but such is life) that commentators would attempt to draw parallels between the recent maritime clash, in which Israel stopped a flotilla of activists attempting to break its blockade of Hamas-controlled Gaza, and the case of the “Exodus-1947,” in which the Royal Navy stopped a shipload of Holocaust survivors  trying to run the British blockade of Mandatory Palestine in search of a home (nowadays we’d call them “illegal immigrants").

In the meantime, the sea spray has subsided.  Because today (11 July) is the anniversary of the earlier episode—about which I posted last year—and because I am writing a lot about analogies these days, I thought I’d touch very briefly on the comparisons.

The current public discussion of the analogy really involves two separate but related issues: to what extent are the two cases substantively comparable, and to what extent are they comparable in their reception and consequences?

The answer to the first question is: not at all.
The answer to the second question is:  hardly at all.

Much of the discussion, particularly on the editorial pages and in the blogosphere, was motivated by an instinctive outrage or spirit of partisanship (e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7).  Indeed, some of these pieces (far more so, the talkbacks) displayed a barely concealed Schadenfreude:  look at how they behave! at last they'll get theirs back.  Not surprisingly, most of these writers were not interested in a serious joint consideration of the two cases. The plight of the "Exodus" was not particularly worthy of attention in its own right: it was just a metaphorical stick with which to beat Israel. Several bloggers, notably AKUS (guesting at CifWatch) and Eamonn McDonagh, promptly demolished these tendentious attempts at comparison.

The "serious" commentary was more restrained, asking the question of comparison from the perspective of consequences, which allowed for subtler editorializing (or plausible deniability) under the cover of high-minded analysis.  In the New York Times blog, "The Lede," Robert Mackey, shrewdly citing Israeli bloggers and commentators, asked, “Will This Be the Palestinian Exodus?” He focused on the similarities of the controversy more than the cause: the conflicting eyewitness reports and narratives (as the fashionable phrase goes), the responsibility for violence of the respective parties, the way the press portrayed the passengers after the clashes. That was still a bit too coy for the rambunctious New York Sun, whose anonymous editorialist could not refrain from pointing out that its more demure sister publication had back in 1947 opposed the “Exodus” enterprise as “reckless,” “the first act in a tragic story,” which jeopardized prospects for peace.  "So, what's up with all that?" it in effect asked.  Was the Times now supporting an intervention of a type it had earlier opposed, and why?  A number of other writers tried to pose the question of consequences, not always without controversy (e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4).

So where do we stand?

The only point in common between the two episodes is the basic scenario:  a civilian ship claiming to advance a humanitarian cause, but also with clear political motivations, attempted to break a military blockade in the Mediterranean in hopes of bringing about a change in the policy of a state actor.  Each saw the action as a win-win situation:  breaking the blockade would be a victory, and failure arising from military intervention would embarrass the stronger opponent in the theater of world opinion and attract more sympathy for the cause of the underdog.  There the similarities end. (Add to this the recourse of the "Mavi Marmara" passengers to premeditated violence—a phenomenon hitherto unprecedented in the "Free Gaza" movement—and the gap grows wider.)

The crucial difference is that the Jewish passengers in 1947 were the story:  they were stateless refugees attempting to break the blockade so that they could land, immigrate, and begin new lives in a new state.  In other words, there was a seamless connection between the action, the cause, and the desired outcome. The international "Free Gaza" volunteer activists in the headlines, by contrast, are a side-story, attempting to call attention to the putative real story, the humanitarian plight of Gazans.

In addition, the two problems are in no wise comparable.  The European refugee crisis arising from the greatest war in human history was unprecedented, and in the case of the Jewish Displaced Persons, became inextricably linked with the  insoluble political and military crisis over the fate of the Palestine Mandate.  Although it has become common to refer to the situation in Gaza as "unsustainable," the problems there are of a very different nature and magnitude (an objective description rather than a value judgment).  There is moreover a broad international consensus on Gaza and Hamas, if not on all aspects of Israel's closure.  Finally, the Zionist immigration effort was part and parcel of a concerted and relentless attempt at state-building.  The efforts of the "Free Gaza" movement, even to the extent that they are motivated by pure humanitarianism or support for the broader Palestinian cause, have, among their effects, the propping up of a Hamas regime that has positioned itself as the principal obstacle to the only process that, by international consensus, could lead to creation of a Palestinian state.

I therefore stand by what I said last year:  there is no real parallel between the underground Jewish immigration and "Free Gaza" movements (this, entirely apart from any verdicts on the ethical claims of the respective enterprises).  As I put it then:
Although the "Free Gaza" movement has been trying to replicate the success of the "Exodus" episode, no one really takes seriously the spectacle of the occasional boat setting sail from Cyprus and attempting to land supplies in Gaza, because it is just that: a spectacle. The comfortable celebrities and professional activists are not starved and stateless survivors of genocide, and their little nautical journey represents an outing rather than an odyssey, a destination rather than a destiny.
Consequently, the results would also not be comparable. Despite the new potentially game-changing factor of a tragic clash involving loss of life, I stand by that, too.

At first sight, it appeared that the flotilla incident might indeed bring about a significant change in the stance of the international community.  That eventuality has not materialized.  To be sure there was the predictable massive outpouring of hostility to Israel in the usual circles and some official statements of even friendly powers. To be sure, Israel's UN ambassador described her nation's status in that body as the worst since the days of the "Zionism is Racism" resolution more than a generation ago.  There are other serious developments.

In last year's piece, I noted the rise of worldwide second thoughts about the creation of Israel, which I referred to as the "new discourse of regret."  I attributed it in part to the fact that the "Exodus" incident (also functioning synecdochally for the Jewish underground immigration effort, as such), had succeeded far beyond its organizers' wildest dreams, but with unintended consequences. The intimate linkage with the Holocaust greatly helped the Zionist enterprise to succeed, but in retrospect, inadvertently allowed the former to appear as "the" cause of the latter.  More than half a century later, this enabled frustrated critics to "explain" the intractability of the Arab-Israeli conflict by reducing it to the undialectical, and indeed, untruthful assertion that Europeans, in a misguided attempt to atone for the genocide, had made amends to the Jews at the cost of the Palestinians.  Criticism of Israel's actions may be perfectly legitimate, but if the corollary is the rise of simplistic and inaccurate historical interpretations, this hampers rather than advances the causes of both humanitarianism and peace.  Incidents such as the Flotilla clash invariably highlight this regrettable tendency.  At the same time, not much has changed in practical terms.  Editoriaists will editorialize and bloggers will blog, and neither will seriously affect what goes on in the White House or the Elysée Palace or Downing Street.

So, concerning the consequences, just how do things stack up?

Shocked by the "Exodus" episode, the UN decided that the question of Palestine could not be separated from that of the Jewish Displaced Persons.  The British could not relax their anti-immigration policy without irreparably altering the situation in Palestine and in effect destroying the entire system of the Mandate.  In the end, they threw up their hands in despair and tossed the problem into the lap of the UN, which voted to partition the territory into new Arab and Jewish states.  Not for nothing was the "Exodus" called "the ship that launched a nation."

By contrast, even though Israel relaxed the terms of a closure often criticized by friend and foe alike as Byzantine, counterproductive, and arguably inhumane, the change in policy was far more limited.  What it did, as Barry Rubin has persuasively argued, was simply to recognize a new reality, namely, that the international community has no serious intention of removing or even undermining the Hamas regime. To that end, Israel dropped the politically driven restrictions on civilian material while retaining those dictated by security needs.  The Quartet welcomed these changes and warned against further and unnecessary provocations by the "Free Gaza" movement (1, 2, 3, 4).  The consensus of the Quartet, Egypt, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority on terms for dealing with Hamas remains intact.  Again, no comparison.

So, bottom line:

On the one hand, the spark that set off an epochal change; on the other, a flash in the pan—"the ship that launched a nation" versus "the ship that launched an investigation."

Comparison:  Fail.

If and when the day comes, it will be not a cruise ship, but negotiation, that launches a Palestinian nation.

* * *


Actually, comparing the "Exodus" and "Mavi Marmara" incidents does yield one direct parallel:

At the height of the furor over the flotilla, it was revealed that veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas, when asked about her views on Israel (at President Obama's Jewish Heritage Celebration, of all places; video here), had replied, "Tell 'em to get the hell out of Palestine." Pressed for an answer as to where they should go, she answered, "They should go home. . . Remember these people are occupied and it’s their land. It’s not German; it’s not Poland." Asked just where "home" was, she affirmed, "Poland, Germany."

This was also the response of Great Britain to the "Exodus."  It sent the passengers back to Germany where, when they refused to disembark, "One hundred military police and infantrymen equipped with steel helmets, wooden truncheons, gasmasks, and tear gas canisters stormed the ship." The would-be immigrants were forced into "locked railway carriages with grilled windows," and transported to "two camps with a two metre high and four metre wide barbed-wire fence" and "watch-towers with floodlights."

The military wing of Hamas was delighted with Thomas's performance, but in 2010 as in 1947, most of the morally more sensitive world was appalled.

* * *


Read the original "Exodus" piece from 11 July 2009.

The captain of the "Exodus" died in the intervening period, and here is the post on that topic.

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