Welcome to Palestine, even if it’s a century later. Now let’s reset the relationship. You came from faraway lands claiming an already inhabited one. Oppressed, massacred, and socially separated in Christendom/Europe, you felt as outsiders subject to anti-Semitic threats. Eventually, with the colonial age, a group of you, Eastern Europeans called Zionists argued your right to Palestine, from which ancient Jews were virtually absent from the 1st century and of whom you claimed tenuous descent. You claimed that Jews had a three thousand year cultural and emotional attachment to the holy land; that you are a single group whose roots are to this land and whose heart, spirit, character and center is Jerusalem. That your project wasn’t settler-colonialism, conquest through immigration under the aegis of a colonial power, but return or restoration, rendered moral by your religious roots in the land and in your suffering, hence giving you title to the land that transcends Palestinians rights, claims, attachments, and needs. You insisted that Jews require sovereignty for their safety, protection, and, in the aftermath of the Nazi genocide, survival.
At the time you arose in the late 19th century, the Enlightenment had made great progress and emancipated Jews from ghetto enclaves, accelerating integration and erosion of identity leading some Jews to argue for cultural assimilation and others for distinctiveness and autonomy. Zionism in particular looked on emancipation and cultural integration as a threat, the death of a mythical Jewish nation. You insisted on a “Jewish problem,” a congenital Christian/Western anti-Semitism as natural as darkness in nighttime. As Zionists, you were a part of Judaism gone nationalist, and other Jews saw you as a contradiction to liberal, pluralist tradition that could only cause problems for Jews. Because you organized, politically lobbied and agitated, you, political Zionists, took the stage, getting increasing support among Jews in Europe and the US. Still, Zionism remained a tiny minority and did not significantly spread until the rise of Nazi Germany and the genocidal horrors that followed. At that point, the argument for a Jewish state seemed unassailable and found supporters among many non-Jews.
Of course, the reality from the very beginning was that another people existed in Palestine, becoming alive to its national identity and, by the end of WWI, aspirations for self-determination and independence. They populated villages, towns and cities, cultivated the land, had marvelous citrus groves, owned businesses and shops, traded and built factories. They were naturally everywhere you looked. They were by the end of the Mandate, one of the most prosperous and educated people in the Middle East. This reality, their existence and your determination to ignore it, and the injustice and violence it has caused ever since, is the root of the conflict in Palestine.
It was not that you were blind to the fact that this place contained, when the World Zionist Organization was formed in 1897, over 95 percent Palestinian Arabs, both Muslim and Christian (12-15 percent of Palestinians) who constituted the overwhelming owners of the country, with the remainder constituting Jews, most of whom were non-Zionist, and others. Nor were you unaware that, by 1917, before the British took over and began to implement their promise to you for a “Jewish national home,” the Jewish colonist population constituted less than 10 percent of the total (50,000 to 60,000) and owned a tiny fraction of the land area. You could not create a viable Jewish state out of thin air, but only at others’ expense and who had nothing to do, and still don’t, with anti-Semitism, who did you no harm. You steadily came to Palestine, though you constituted a tiny fraction of the millions who preferred immigration to the US. By the time of the Nazi ascendance in Germany, immigration to Palestine accelerated as the US and Europe closed their doors. Still, by 1948, at slightly over 600,000, you constituted about 30 or so percent of the population and you owned 7-8 percent of the land surface, despite all your efforts of over fifty years.
So you took Palestine by force and ethnic cleansing, turning over half its population into refugees. Irony of ironies is that those Palestinian villagers whom you cleansed, or those you oppress in the occupied territories, were most likely more Jewish in lineage than you were, many of them descendants of early Jewish converts to Christianity, then to Islam. So are many of the current Palestinian Christians. The UN, after prodigious US arm twisting against its member states, recommended you get 55 percent of the country, gratis. You said you were reasonable and compromising by accepting this, but your argument was devilishly ingenious: you were “giving away” half of a whole you did not own, just as you claim to be compromising today, by merely considering the idea of “giving up” current occupied territory. In any case, your strategy was to wait until an opportune moment to expand. That happened immediately in 1948 as you ended up with 77 percent of Palestine, 22 percent more than was allotted to you by the UN, then again in 1967 when you took the remainder, now the West Bank and Gaza, at which point the Zionist colonial project proceeded in earnest where it left off in 1948.
Your dominant response to Palestinians’ existence was denial and the assertion of a transcendent moral right; the Palestinians after all were part of a larger Arab population of the Middle East, thus justifying exclusive Jewish possession in Palestine. As European colonists, you viewed the Palestinians with a racist lens, as Europeans did peoples of Asia and Africa. Palestine’s colonization was merely a “project” that could be implemented against the wishes of who to you were poor and illiterate people who should make way. Palestine’s Arabs became invisible, non-existent, literally less than human, needing to move over, disappear, for those with superior cultural and intellectual civilization. According to this logic, their resistance then and now is ascribable to their fear and repudiation of the benevolent progress and development Zionists bring with them, not to a natural defense to invasion and oppression.
There was a strong degree of self-delusion in your attitude. The Palestinians were both there and not there: to admit their existence, the reality of “the Arab problem,” was to confront unpleasant truths, to admit that your dream, your colonial project, was unrealizable, to be relinquished. So the Palestinians were imagined, canceled, and interpreted away, denied their humanity, and continue to be relentlessly and violently disbarred from unhindered, unequivocal self-representation. You assumed superiority that emanated in Jewish tradition, exemplified by the biblical phrase, “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” You, as Jewish Zionists, are a superior, chosen, elevated people, People of the Book, who used your minds in religious, intellectual, and sublime pursuits while the inferior Goyim, the Gentiles, used their hands and muscle in pursuit of brawn, prostitution, and drunkenness. You were pure; the other degraded. Your life in the urban ghetto or rural village (shtetl) exaggerated the psychological differences.
Your superiority masked an equally strong sense of inferiority caused by centuries of humiliation and shame. This may have led you, Zionists, to overcompensate by emphasizing not only a sort of spiritual rebirth and redemption through labor in a hallowed soil, an activity Jews previously despised, but also a drive to unreflective military and material power, to crush opposition to your project and “threats to Jews.” The Palestinian Esau’s intellectual and cultural inferiority also justified the dismissal of his humanity, eliciting the Palestinians’ pounding with merciless violence and rage. European colonial racism was thus overlaid with the psychological complexity of the Jewish experience that has characterized Israeli Jewish attitudes to this day. This psychosis, the need to wish the Palestinians away and the sense of Jewish superiority mixed with humiliation, is at the core of your violence towards Palestine’s indigenous people.
So here you are. You got your state of 1948, including all you took by force, accepted by the international community. You have a prosperous economy, a vital society. You sport the strongest military in the Middle East. You possess ample stockpiles of fearsome WMDs, and not only nuclear, including the means to deliver them to distant cities, and are furtively engaged in advanced research to develop weaponry that annihilates the enemy without hurting the land.You have the West prostrated at your feet, so guilty are they for their inhumanity against the Jewish people. You plumped 500,000 Jews into the West Bank/Palestinian Jerusalem, many of them fanatics hailing from the US, and want the remainder of Palestine, all of it. You war against Palestine and Arabs and you reject all peace overtures and normalization. You energetically work to undermine yourself. You also continue Jewish separation and superiority, socializing a generation of confused young people and racists, insistent that the Palestinians do not share a common humanity with you. The gun falsely empowered and freed you from your historic weakness and humiliation, for you got oppression and chauvinism in return. You deny, with all the psychosis at your disposal, your guilt, unable to reconcile your moral exceptionalism with your tyranny against the Palestinians. How could they possibly be as human with real grievances and needs?
But the world goes around, and our sins catch up with us. You can’t cover the sun with your palm, as an old Arab proverb has it. Your might and power, your clinging to great powers and their elites to protect yourself and maintain your hegemony is beginning to fall apart. Your strategic environment is changing, your great power patron may not be up to the task in the coming decade or two. You’ve exhausted him anyway, cowed his politicians, confused his public, distorted the meaning of right and wrong. Yet, despite all this, all the craziness, you will not let go of your notion of an indivisible Jewish land, the Land of Israel, as if others are mere trespassers. It’s not that there’s only one narrative, that of the Palestinians, it’s that theirs is as truthful as truth gets, and it is logically and epistemologically false to claim the truth is in the middle. You can’t split the truth.
You seem ready to take down the Middle East with you if you have to. You will not leave your tormented victims alone by relinquishing the occupied territories, you will not award them citizenship, you will not establish an authentic peace, you will not accept being a part of the Middle East, your gaze firmly fixed to the west. Your leaders’ imagination is fossilized. Your young people can’t think beyond themselves because they’ve internalized, thanks to your education and socialization, the idea of besieged victims surrounded by violent Arabs ready to take them down. You teach them that the whole world is against them, you take them on trips to concentration camps to bolster the idea of Zionism and justify Israeli might and right, you scare them with the omnipresence of anti-Semitism and that they can exist only by force. What a future you’re constructing for them! Surely, there is a better way, for your young people and for the Palestinian young people. There is sharing. There is forgiveness. The Palestinians are the door to your redemption, the revivification of ethical Judaism. But you won’t grasp any of this.
Still, Palestinians and Arabs, Muslims and Christians, Palestinian children, welcome you. Let’s reset the past, yours and ours. Pretend you just arrived in the Middle East. Start anew. Take justice and peace, take reconciliation, take compassion, acknowledge your sins against the Palestinian refugees and the Palestinian people generally, embrace their humanity, live with them in peace, security, and coexistence. This is all possible even at this moment, but you must make “radical” decisions, transcend your psychosis. Most of all you must look deep inside yourself. There is no other way, except the way of destruction.
(14 February 2011)
Issa Khalaf (Ph.D. Oxford University) is author of Politics in Palestine, Arab Factionalism and Social Disintegration, 1939-1948.