The Gaza slaughter has produced some excellent journalism in the United States. At a time when all of us are spiritually exhausted and despairing, it is worth recognizing some signal interventions by people of historical insight. The question in my headline comes from a superb interview of Henry Siegman at Democracy Now, in which he seems to abandon Zionism before our eyes. That’s at the end of this post. And I’m afraid I won’t get to Charlie Rose’s superb interview of Khaled Meshaal, revealing a supple, calm, mature political actor, but that also must be acknowledged.
First, Wejdan Abu Shammala has a moving piece up at the Washington Post, “The awful decisions I’ve made to protect my Palestinian children from this war,” describing the deliberations she goes through every night when putting her children to bed in Gaza, trying to figure what arrangement will be least likely to result in the family all being killed.
Please notice that the piece ends by recalling elders’ memories of the Nakba, the fundamental Palestinian experience of Zionism:
My children, as with all children in Gaza, will need therapy following this carnage. Most, of course, will not receive it. They will enter adulthood remembering these days and the soldiers, F-16s and drones that were heedless of their nighttime cries and terror. Their mothers and fathers — unable to guard their children from these horrors — will need psychological help. And grandparents may have it worse of all, since the midnight terror this month feels terribly like the nights nearly seven decades ago when they were expelled from their homes in what became Israel, never to return.
Again in the mainstream, Rashid Khalidi has an excellent essay in The New Yorker, titled “Collective Punishment in Gaza,” explaining that Palestinian conditions must produce violent resistance, and we should know this from what happened in South Africa and Northern Ireland. A friend points out that such an argument has rarely if ever appeared in the US mainstream. Khalidi’s thrilling argument (can’t wait for him to be on with Erin Burnett or Chris Hayes or Charlie Rose):
In the past seven or more years, Israel has besieged, tormented, and regularly attacked the Gaza Strip. The pretexts change: they elected Hamas; they refused to be docile; they refused to recognize Israel; they fired rockets; they built tunnels to circumvent the siege; and on and on. But each pretext is a red herring, because the truth of ghettos—what happens when you imprison 1.8 million people in a hundred and forty square miles, about a third of the area of New York City, with no control of borders, almost no access to the sea for fishermen (three out of the twenty kilometres allowed by the Oslo accords), no real way in or out, and with drones buzzing overhead night and day—is that, eventually, the ghetto will fight back. It was true in Soweto and Belfast, and it is true in Gaza. We might not like Hamas or some of its methods, but that is not the same as accepting the proposition that Palestinians should supinely accept the denial of their right to exist as a free people in their ancestral homeland.
This is precisely why the United States’ support of current Israeli policy is folly. Peace was achieved in Northern Ireland and in South Africa because the United States and the world realized that they had to put pressure on the stronger party, holding it accountable and ending its impunity. Northern Ireland and South Africa are far from perfect examples, but it is worth remembering that, to achieve a just outcome, it was necessary for the United States to deal with groups like the Irish Republican Army and the African National Congress, which engaged in guerrilla war and even terrorism. That was the only way to embark on a road toward true peace and reconciliation. The case of Palestine is not fundamentally different.
Roger Cohen has a column up at the New York Times that is getting 100s of comments, titled “Zionism and Its Discontents.” In it he defends being a Zionist (a defense he is sure to continue in a forthcoming memoir) but he is obviously uncomfortable with the Zionist reality of occupation. And he recognizes the inevitability of violent resistance:
What I cannot accept, however, is the perversion of Zionism that has seen the inexorable growth of a Messianic Israeli nationalism claiming all the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River; that has, for almost a half-century now, produced the systematic oppression of another people in the West Bank; that has led to the steady expansion of Israeli settlements on the very West Bank land of any Palestinian state; that isolates moderate Palestinians like Salam Fayyad in the name of divide-and-rule; that pursues policies that will make it impossible to remain a Jewish and democratic state; that seeks tactical advantage rather than the strategic breakthrough of a two-state peace; that blockades Gaza with 1.8 million people locked in its prison and is then surprised by the periodic eruptions of the inmates; and that responds disproportionately to attack in a way that kills hundreds of children.
(Compare Cohen to a hardboiled Joe Klein saying that Cast Lead 2008-2009 was indiscriminate but this attack is very precise, and we can’t trust reports of civilian casualties. Compare him to burnt-to-a-crisp Richard Cohen saying that Israel is the victim in the Gaza conflict and this should be plain to anyone who’s not an anti-Semite.)
Finally, Henry Siegman, the agonized liberal Zionist former leader of the American Jewish Congress, was on Democracy Now and said the civilian slaughter in Gaza makes him question the purpose and end of Zionism. This is great eloquence. I am waiting for younger liberal Zionists to have even an eyeblink of Siegman’s epiphany:
The kind of slaughter that is taking place there– when one thinks that this is what is necessary for Israel to survive? That the Zionist dream is based on the slaughter– repeated slaughter of innocents on a scale that we’re watching these days on television– that is really a profound, profound crisis, and should be a profound crisis in the thinking of all of us who are committed to the establishment of the state and to its success. That leads one virtually to a whole rethinking of this historical phenomenon.
In that interview with Amy Goodman and Nermeen Shaikh, Siegman also undertakes a discussion of moral equivalence, and finds that the Palestinians under occupation are doing what any people would do.
[When Obama says that] No country would agree to live with that kind of threat… What he doesn’t add and what perverts this principle, undermines the principle, is that no country and no people would live the way that Gazans have been made to live. And consequently this moral equation which puts Israel on top as the victim, that has to act to prevent its situation from continuing that way, and the Palestinians in Gaza… who are the attackers. Our media rarely ever points out that these are people who have a right to live a decent normal life too. And they too must think, what can we do to put an end to this?
Seigman went on to give a spirited defense of Palestinian resistance:
What if the situation were reversed, and the Jewish population were locked into, were told, “Here, you have less than 2 percent of Palestine, so now behave. No more resistance. And let us deal with the rest”? Is there any Jew who would have said this is a reasonable proposition, that we cease our resistance, we cease our effort to establish a Jewish state, at least on one-half of Palestine, which is authorized by the U.N.? Nobody would agree to that. They would say this is absurd. So the expectations that Palestinians—and I’m speaking now about the resistance as a concept; I’m not talking about rockets, whether they were justified or not. They’re not. I think that sending rockets that are going to kill civilians is a crime. But for Palestinians to try, in any way they can, to end this state of affairs—and to expect of them to end their struggle and just focus on less than 2 percent to build a country is absurd. That is part of—that’s propaganda, but it’s not a discussion of either politics or morality.
Countering Netanyahu’s allegations of Palestinian incitement, Siegman points out that Israeli terrorist leaders became prime ministers, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir; and that the Nakba is a living memory for Palestinians fighting for sovereignty.
[Ari] Shavit, some years ago, had an interview with Benny Morris and said to him, “My God, you are saying that there was deliberate ethnic cleansing here?” And Morris said, “Yes, there was.” And he says, “And you justify it?” And he said, “Yes, because otherwise there would not have been a state.” And Shavit did not follow up. And that was one of my turning points myself, when I saw that. He would not follow up and say, “Well, if that is a justification, the struggle for statehood, why can’t Palestinians do that? What’s wrong with Hamas? Why are they demonized if they do what we did?”
I can only add that Siegman’s vision and moral clarity are on full display in the second part of that excellent interview, in which he urges a struggle for Palestinian rights within a single state as the way out of this madness (even as he holds out hope for such a struggle producing a two-state solution). I don’t see how you can attain this understanding without also endorsing BDS.