Jewish State Nakba – A One Narrative Solution

Truman letter recognizing Israel

Palestinians today say that they cannot recognize Israel as a Jewish State because it would violate their own national narrative, just as most Israelis are as jealous as to the coherence of their own narrative. One would think that after 100+ years that we could enjoy some historically informed political perspective about Israel and Palestine. But this kind of political perspective gets overwhelmed by the moralizing that saturates the discourse, especially when it comes down to narrative. It too often seems as if the narratives about either place are mutually exclusive. As a critical outsider, albeit one with a definite and obvious bias, I don’t understand why one cannot grab both sides of the narrative horn. It would require that one recognize reasons, i.e. the reasons that motivated both competing sides to what could be a single historical narrative.

I can’t see why Palestinians cannot recognize the reasons why, historically, as many Jews that did decided to organize or re-organize themselves as a people in the face of intensifying waves of anti-Semitism. With strong historical and cultural connections to the Land of Israel and with nowhere else to go, especially after 1924 when Congress shut off immigration to the United States, where were they going to go? Given the state of emergency suffered by the Jews of Europe, immigration was the one thing the mainstream of the Zionist movement could not compromise. If Jews hadn’t started coming to Palestine in mass waves of immigration, starting in the 1920s, again in the 1930s with the rise of Hitler, and then again after the Holocaust, there’s no way that the Zionist project in Palestine would have ever taken root as a “nation state.” It would have foundered, demographically, as a variant form of “settler colonialism.”

I can’t see why Israelis can’t recognize the reasons why, historically, the Arabs of Palestine wanted nothing to do with this mass immigration. They did not want to lose their country, any part of their country, an Arab majority culture to foreigners no matter how in need of refuge they might have been. That’s the simple reason why Zionism was resisted to the bitter end, without compromise, without cutting a deal. Morally and demographically, there was no reason to cut such a deal, even if, in hindsight it might have made sense to do so, tactically and politically.

Maybe after all and over time it turns out to be one single narrative, an amalgam forged out between the micro-narratives of two opposing sides in an asymmetrical conflict over power. What’s surprising about the historical drama is that every character played the part one would expect, precisely. Ideally and perhaps practically, any form of mutual recognition between Israelis and Palestinians would begin with the historical recognition of the genuine reasons prompting Jewish immigration and the genuine reasons prompting Arab resistance to it so many years ago already. That might be a more interesting place to start than Zionist “settler colonialism” and Arab perfidy.

Rights and responsibilities devolve into each other. One of the problems with Prime Minister Netanyahu wanting to impose the Jewish narrative as a political negotiating principle is that it is one-sided. One should have to ask what Israel should offer Palestine in return for such recognition? Regarding historical narrative, in return for recognition of a Jewish State, I don’t see why Palestinians should not insist upon a formal recognition on the part of Israel as to the historical catastrophe suffered by the Palestinian people as a result of the establishment of Israel in 1948. Or is it simply the fact that neither side is prepared to recognize the other? On the other hand, the idea that you can compel someone to recognize you as a political condition seems fatally flawed. And if Palestinians balk at the idea that Israel is Jewish State because they believe that such a state would be an exclusive one with no democratic rights and protections for a Palestinian –well, it’s not hard at all to figure out from where they might have gotten that idea.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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6 Responses to Jewish State Nakba – A One Narrative Solution

  1. David Sucher says:

    I am puzzled by your statement
    “I can’t see why Israelis can’t recognize the reasons why, historically, the Arabs of Palestine wanted nothing to do with this mass immigration. ”
    and I question its historical much less contemporary accuracy.

    • zjb says:

      David, I’m confused. Do you mean to say that it’s not historically accurate that the Arabs of Palestine rejected Jewish immigration? Or are you claiming that Israelis have always recognized the reasons for this rejection? Let me know what you’re thinking.

      • David Sucher says:

        I think that Jews have been aware that Arabs wouldn’t be happy about Jews around since Arabs became Muslim in the 7th century. So 19th century Jews understood that Arabs wouldn’t like them moving into the area. (The irony is that if you look at current populations relative to even 1948 much less 1900, there is ample physical space for all.)

        I think I see your attempt at fair-handedness (“I can’t see why Arabs don’t recognize…” …”I can’t see why Jews don’t recognize…”) but I do not think it is historically accurate. Jews understood very well the Arab response to Jews moving to the Holy Land (it started in the 19th century) but Jews did not have a choice to push out Arabs. Unless one prefers to be murdered.

        Jews should say “We are sorry that it had to happen and we will try to make amends as we can and in light of all the deals you turned down and your past violence to Jews.”

      • zjb says:

        thanks for the clarification, David. but i would suggest that there’s a lot of sense that a lot of the Labor Zionists did not really recognize the Arabs of Palestine as a people with their own national interest. Anita Shapira talks about this a lot in her book on Land and Power, the inability of young Palestinian Jews to see “the Arabs.” Jabotinsky was an exception. He understood full well the national nature of the clash in his Iron Wall essay. As for today, it sometimes seem that most Jews simply look at Arab and Palestinian rejection of Zionism as based on unreasoning hatred.

      • David Sucher says:

        From what I have been reading, there was no “Palestinian” consciousness until the Jews arrived.
        Putting it simply — without Jews, no Palestinians.
        There were Arabs, of course, but no discrete “Palestinian” sense of self. No national state. No sense of peoplehood.
        There was sense of being Moslem and there were many tribes and clans and villages which offered identity.
        But “Palestinian”? I don’t think much. Was there much/any/all evidence for a discrete “Palestinian” identity before the Jews? Is there documentation to show otherwise?

        As to “As for today, it sometimes seem that most Jews simply look at Arab and Palestinian rejection of Zionism as based on unreasoning hatred.” most people don’t know very much. Anywhere. About anything. So to an extent I agree that it would healthy for Jews to acknowledge that “We had no choice. We had to make a place for ourselves. There was a war. We won. We would like a just resolution, a just peace, but unfortunately the Arabs never accepted unconditional surrender and so we are still at war.”

      • zjb says:

        Do you know Rashid Khalidi’s book Palestinian Identity? He makes the point you’re making about the emergence of a discrete Palestinian national identity, but without using it to look past what was a genuine sense of local and regional place among the indigenous Arab people. George Antonius’ classic The Arab Revolt is also very helpful sorting out the sense of place in Palestine at the start of the 20th c. Perhaps the problem is unconditional surrender. At any rate, I appreciate the comments and pushback. Best, –Zb

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