We are in the midst of an essential historical conversation. An essential discovery of U.S. policy going back to Partition and a commemoration of the Nakba. Thaddeus Russell is doing it at the Daily Beast, Glenn Loury is doing it in the New York Times (online), I am doing it here by trying to get folks to read Evan Wilson and James Forrestal, Ussama Makdisi is doing it in the Houston Chronicle. This is an amazing moment that we are all part of, it is consciousness raising. All of us are getting at the same truth from different angles, and we all do so because we believe in ideals like the self-determination that Makdisi quotes below:
The perverse irony of where we are today is that a century ago Arabs had a largely positive view of the United States.
Most of us are unaware that throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th, many Christian and Muslim Arabs were inspired by America. American missionaries were the primary catalysts for this early perception….
Arabs appreciated this adaptation, just as they appreciated the lack of U.S. imperialism in the region, the possibilities afforded by emigration to the United States, and Wilsonian principles of self-determination.
The point of knowing this history is not to indulge in romanticism or in nostalgia for a bygone era. Rather, it is to lay the basis for a genuine, historically informed dialogue between Americans and Arabs. It is also to discover the choices made by both Americans and Arabs that transformed this positive history into the fraught relationship that today ensnares both sides. Any honest recounting of this history will inevitably bring up the difficult subject of the creation of Israel in 1948 at the expense of the Palestinian Arabs.
That is when U.S.-Arab relations began to unravel. Pressured by domestic Zionist groups intent on realizing their dream of a Jewish state, and by a post-war sympathy for the plight of European Jews, the U.S. broke with the Arab world by supporting the creation of Israel. In so doing, it lost the capital built up by over a century of educational and philanthropic missionary work. Despite repeated warnings at the time from Christian and Muslim Arabs, as well as the pleadings of many Americans who lived in the Arab world, the U.S. transformed, virtually overnight, an Arab faith in the United States as a paragon of anti-imperialism into disillusionment and anger.
This is because Israel’s creation as a Jewish state has never been simply about ending European anti-Semitism: It has also been about displacing the indigenous Palestinian Arabs. At a moment when most of the rest of the world, including parts of the Arab world itself, were on the cusp of independence, Arab Palestinians were made stateless. The positive trajectory of U.S.-Arab relations suddenly became bitterly negative.
Understanding, rather than shying away from, this pivotal moment and its far-reaching consequences is not the same thing as wishing to undo what has been done, or to dwell self-indulgently on the past. What it does mean is recognizing how Arabs, Israelis and America have been, and remain, bound together in a fateful triangle. As President Obama said a year ago, the denial of the Holocaust or a history of anti-Semitism must end. But so too must a prevailing denial of just how important the traumatic loss of Palestine has been to Arabs and how great an injustice it represented to them. A history of Western anti-Semitism bled into a history of Arab dispossession.