Palestine & The Question of Israel

palestine map

In arguments about Israel, Palestine, the occupation, and the Palestinian Nakba and right of return little attention goes to assessing in a critical way assumptions about Jews, Judaism, and Jewish history that govern “the Palestinian perspective. While I think these assumptions buckle under just a little scrutiny, I continue to maintain that there is no way to understand the history and future prospects of Israel apart from Palestine, or the same about Palestine apart from Israel. That means that each party needs to get the other right. On this, Rashid Khalidi gets the last word. The comments below appeared in a section entitled “Palestine” in the chapter on “Zionism” in The Cambridge History of Jewish Philosophy: The Modern Era that I co-edited with Martin Kavka (pp.624-626). They focus on place and population.

Over and under the entire Zionist edifice hangs “the question of Palestine” and the problem of violence. In her book on land and power, historian Anita Shapira follows the emerging tension in pre-state Zionist politics between [1] socialist/humanist principles, which during the Arab uprising between 1936-1939 informed an official policy of restraint, as opposed to indiscriminate acts of counter-terror favored by the revisionists, [2] pragmatic considerations, according to which force was one tool of policy with which to advance Zionist interests  –along with settlement activity and securing international opinion, and [3] an overriding, absolute sense of justice on the part of the pioneers of the second Aliyah who denied the existence of a competing Arab national claim, and on the part of youth born in the Yishuv who saw themselves as the sole masters of the land. Shapira observes the fundamental blindness, the complete inability to see the Arabs of Palestine and their rights to the land. She notes too the self- preoccupation with ideological, practical, and political principles and rifts that were internal to Jewish politics, with establishing and expanding the Yishuv, and with the worsening situation in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s.

While liberal Israeli Jews in the 1970s and 1980s began to speak about the tragic clash between right and right, for the Palestinians and their supporters the Zionist claim to any part of Palestine has no moral foundation whatsoever, regardless of Jewish suffering in Europe. In stark opposition to Zionism, the moral basis of the Palestinian cause stands out as the natural right of an indigenous people to its own country. Herzl himself anticipated in The Jewish State the “pressure of the native populace” to stop Jewish immigration, as did Ahad Ha‘am, who in his report from the Land of Israel informed his readers that, Zionist propaganda to the contrary, there was no empty land in Palestine. However, the claim to autochthonous, natural right is two-edged. Because of their basic and immediate appeal, claims to such right are likely to blind one to other (contractual) systems of right and the morality of alternative claims. Indeed, the rejection of Zionism, based on unalloyed natural right, implies historical and contemporary assertions, many of them dubious, about Zionism, the direct object of its opposition, as well as seriously flawed claims about the Jews and Judaism writ large.

“There is no room for the Jews in Palestine, argued George Antonius in The Arab Awakening (1938).

In this classic study of the origins of modern Arab nationalism, Antonius captured the pan-Arab nature of Arab nationalism prior to World War I in the midst of its splintering into discrete national forms under the British and French Mandates. Writing against the partition plan presented by the Peel Commission, which would have earmarked one fifth of Palestine for Jewish sovereignty, Antonius based the Arab right to the entirety of Palestine on the natural rights of possession and self-preservation. Willing to concede limited immigration and the creation of a spiritual home envisaged by the cultural Zionists, Antonius argued that relief to the broader problem of European anti-Semitism must be sought elsewhere. In his view, “the logic of facts is inexorable, that it shows that no room can be made in Palestine for a second nation except by dislodging or exterminating the nation in possession.” By 1938, however, five years after the rise of Hitler to power, open immigration was understood by most Zionists as a non-negotiable priority. For the Jews of Europe, with no place else to go, the claim that “no room can be made in Palestine” had its own inexorable logic, completely unintended and unforeseen by Antonius.

“The Jews are not a people and Judaism is just a religion, with no historical or religious connection to Palestine.

Principled opposition to Zionism is based explicitly or implicitly on a theory of Jewish identity. In its resolutions regarding Palestinian national identity and the movement led by the Palestine Liberation Organization, article 20 of the Palestinian National Charter sharply defined its own other in sharp relief to itself.  “Claims of historical or religious ties of Jews with Palestine are incompatible with the facts of history and the true conception of what constitutes statehood. Judaism, being a religion, is not an independent nationality. Nor do Jews constitute a single nation with an identity of its own; they are citizens of the states to which they belong.”  This uncompromising assertion about Jewish “religion” and about the non-relation between the Jews and Palestine would impose a total theory about Jewish identity that does great violence to the historical record, no matter how one might come to read it.

“The Jews are a minority everywhere.

In “My Right of Return,” his interview with Israeli journalist Ari Shavit, Edward Said opined in opposition to Zionism. “I don’t find the idea of a Jewish state terribly interesting. The Jews I know – the more interesting Jews I know – are not defined by their Jewishness. I think to confine Jews to their Jewishness is problematic.” (The precise point underlying political Zionism was to turn the Jews into a normal people “defined” but not “confined” by Jewishness.) On the status of the Jews in the bi-national state he tirelessly advocated, Said told Shavit, “But the Jews are a minority everywhere. They are a minority in America. They can certainly be a minority in Israel.” Regarding the fate of that minority in Arab Palestine, Said conceded, “I worry about that. The history of minorities in the Middle East has not been as bad as in Europe, but I wonder what would happen. It worries me a great deal. The question of what is going to be the fate of the Jews is very difficult for me. I really don’t know. It worries me.” In addressing this concern, the critic of imperialism looks to “the larger unit” and recalls another empire. “Yes. I believe it is viable. A Jewish minority can survive the way other minorities in the Arab world survived. I hate to say it, but in a funny sort of way, it worked rather well under the Ottoman Empire, with its millet system.  What they had then seems a lot more humane than what we have now.”

Mimicking the master-slave dialectic in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, the future of Zionism may ironically depend upon some form of agreement with those who have the greatest stake in resisting the disaster it forced upon them, and which they were unable to contain. Agreement was perhaps impossible with those historical actors in the 1930s were unconcerned about the extreme nature of Jewish distress in Europe and saw no reason to make room for it in a corner of Arab Palestine; nor with those pan Arab nationalist ideologues in the 1960s re-wrote Jewish identity and the nature of Judaism on their own terms; nor with the wistful fantasies of bi-nationalism that, in Said’s case, ironically hearkens back to the Ottomans. In contrast, Rashid Khalidi provides an alternative paradigm that is critical of Zionism, while challenging the propensity to see it simply as a “colonial-settler movement” and “therefore as necessarily illegitimate, both in terms of its origins and aims.” Khalidi argues that as Israelis come to recognize the existence of the Palestinian people, the Palestinians can recognize that of “the Israeli people” and consider Zionism “a legitimate national movement.”  In the vicious circle that is Israel/Palestine, the types of identity able to make room for their other necessarily depend upon the type of identity first advanced by that other.


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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3 Responses to Palestine & The Question of Israel

  1. Alan says:

    Zachary, given the typography, it is difficult to tell what is Khalidi and what is not..
    In any case, interesting.

  2. Valeria says:

    Very, very interesting. Thanks you!

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