Last night Ilan Pappe gave a brilliant speech about the cruel illusion of the peace process to a hall at New York University packed with 200 people of all ages. This afternoon he speaks at Columbia, and if you are in the neighborhood you should go. I cannot think of a more cogent explanation of the political outlines of the conflict in this moment. One can differ with portions of Pappe’s thesis, but his analysis of the service of the peace process to rapacious colonization is inarguable. And his argument was lit by empathy toward Israelis; so it is not a program of violence but of peaceful transformation.
What did the Anglo-Israeli professor say?
For decades, intellectuals tried and failed to explain the root of the conflict as a settler-colonial project. Now at last that paradigm has come into fashion in academia; and it is acute and powerful, and helps explain the relevance of Palestine to the Middle East and the world at large.
The settler colonial understanding replaces a discourse of Israel and Palestine as a hegemonic conflict between two national movements, a “business” problem more than a “human” one. In that understanding negotiators could manage the conflict and presume to offer a fair split of the real estate, tilted to one side because it was the stronger one; but the result of that failed model is what we see in the shrinking Palestine maps: less and less land, now mere crumbs for the indigenous people.
The settler colonial model is accurate because it captures the spirit of Zionism from 1882 to the present: a project to settle the land and deal with the indigenous people by a process of “elimination and dehumanization.”
Like the settlers of North America, the Zionist settlers were often escaping discrimination in Europe. “They left because they were persecuted, because they felt unsafe– in fact they were under existential threat, and they were looking for safe havens,” Pappe said. “They left the continent with a one way ticket and the notion that they are not going back.”
The founders had no illusions about what they were up to. Pappe said that plans for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine originated in the early 1940s, as Zionist officials compiled lists of the Palestinian villages and their populations.
The marvel of the Zionist project was that World War 2 was understood to mark the end of colonialism; but in Palestine the colonialism got a pass. U.S. officials on the ground urged the return of the refugees in 1948 and later (as we have reported), but the White House folded. State Department and CIA officials and emissaries of Harry Truman said it didn’t matter how the refugees had left (here Pappe credited Irene Gendzier); they had a right to return, but the White House adopted the Israeli discourse. And a policy of guaranteeing refugees their right to return, a right routinely honored in Europe, was nullified in Israel and Palestine.
When the message from not only the United States– when the message from the international communities was that although settler colonialism elsewhere is something of the past, the genociding of people, eliminating of people, taking over by force someone else’s homeland, is something that belongs to the period before the second world war and not after the 2nd world war– this is the period of decolonization, this is the period that, at least ethically, this is not part of the normative discourse — despite that, the message to Israel is you’re not included in this conversation. And a lot of great philosophers of morality at that time in Europe, in the 50s and the 60s, could do the impossible, as today others are doing… You can adopt universal principles about every place in the world, except Israel. Nobody explains this exceptionalism. Nobody builds any logical infrastructure for this exceptionalism. This exceptionalism is taken for granted.
And the exceptionalism served Israel well. The ethnic cleansing of some 500 villages in 1948 was followed by the ethnic cleansing of 36 Palestinian villages inside Israel between ‘48 and ‘56 and the creation of the Gaza Strip as a refugee camp for expelled Palestinians. From the early ’60s on an Israeli “lobby” of generals and politicians demanded that Israel also colonize the West Bank. David Ben-Gurion stood in the way but in 1964 he was expelled from the government and the lobby gained power. In ’67 they took over the West Bank.
And virtually from 1967 Israel began a discourse of peace that bamboozled the world. This was the most disturbing element of Pappe’s talk. You could say you were in the peace camp and leaders even won Nobel Prizes for a plan to “contain the indigenous population within enclaves that have no bearing on” the larger society. People participate in the peace process to feel that they are doing good but they are only prolonging a disaster for Palestinians. They lose more land by the day. Gaza is a place of “inhumanity, barbarism and starvation.” American Jews who over the years have seen the West Bank five times get to feel that they are doing something to alleviate the awful conditions.
Because if a logic of dehumanization and of elimination of the Palestinian people is implemented in the name of peace, in the name of reconciliation, in the name of coexistence, it has immunity; and that immunity is won not just because the discourse is so clever, but because it also convinces the Palestinians to join in, it also convinces conscientious people around the world to join in– the moment it is about peace.
Israel also sought legitimacy for its settler colonial actions by “amazing projects of humanity.” But in fact the two are not mutually exclusive. During the first phase of Zionism, “it was the building of the infastructure of the state from almost nothing, the creation of a new culture, the integration of 100s of different immigrant societies and molding them into one society. High tech and so on.” In the second and third phase, “communities emerge with modern art, modern literature, quite a lot of freedom for the individual, as the city of Tel Aviv manifests.”
All these achievements can be tolerated within a settler colonialist project. Namely, you can continue to dehumanize, you can continue to eliminate the native population, and yet excel in other aspects of life for the benefit of the settler colonial society.
Israel’s international legitimacy lent an imprimatur to the brutality and carnage of the leaders of Israel’s neighbors. Yemen, Syria and Iraq were oppressive societies in some measure because of the anachronistic influence of Zionism. Though no; not all the blame is on Israel. (This dovetails with the view that Egypt was cemented as a dictatorship for 80 million people for 30 years– because of the blessed peace process.)
Good people were manipulated by the peace process, to believe Israel’s dispossessions were temporary.
People buy into it because people need to solve their cognitive dissonances. But of course 50 years show you that maybe Israel before ’67 was temporary, at 19 years, but Israel with the West Bank is definitely not temporary. This is it. This is the state of Israel, from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean. There is only one state and there always only be one state. It is called the state of Israel…
So we had a lot of energy– diplomatic energy, academic energy, good will energy if you will, invested in supposedly a genuine peace process based on the most sophisticated version of Zionist settler colonialism, which led nowhere… Time was not wasted on Israel’s side. But we wasted time if we were genuine seekers of peace and reconciliation. We really wasted time, we are still wasting time.
It is like the old joke of looking for a lost key where there is a street lamp on the street, though that is not where the key was lost.
The key was not lost in the two state solution, in the idea of partition, not lost in the paradigm of the conflict in Palestine as a war of two national movements. The key is lost in the darkness of the settler colonialist reality.
We have come to a critical moment in the conflict. We need to forsake the historical paradigms that deny that it is settler colonialism. It is important for westerners to insist that it is a settler colonialist project so that a new understanding arises in the mainstream of how to fix the problem, ending Zionism. Great pressure needs to be brought to bear on Israeli society so that radical anti-Zionists emerge. Western professors and students and journalists and activists have great roles to play here. Support Boycott Divestment and sanctions, Pappe said. Talk about apartheid and genocide. When he held a conference at his school, the University of Exeter in the U.K., on settler colonialism, the Israeli embassy and the board of deputies of the Jewish community and even the prime minister’s office all called the university within twelve hours to say they would not allow the “anti-semitic and pro-Nazi” event to take place. The school held firm. (This anecdote struck me as an exaggeration.)
Settler colonialism ended in genocide in eras past. Recent decolonization models are mixed. Northern Ireland took a very long time but the situation today is much improved over what existed there before. The same with South Africa though there is economic apartheid today. Zimbabwe is not an answer and neither is Algeria, Pappe said. Too violent and intolerant. And we must be mindful of the chaos that resulted in Syria and Egypt with the downfall of traditional authority. That is not a reason to preserve Israeli oppression. People learn from mistakes. But he urged care. The Palestinians ought to change their model from that of the FLN (Algeria) to that of the ANC (South Africa), though it is not his place to urge this. And westerners should not legitimize the Palestinian Authority.
The challenge: “Can we help from the outside, can we build from the inside a framework for a relationship between the third generation of the settlers and the indigenous people.” Yes.
For most Israelis such a conversation would be a conversation that comes from Mars. But it does not matter. We have to insist, because we wasted 40 years talking about nothing, doing nothing, injecting millions into the West Bank that did nothing, creating Palestinian institutions that don’t mean anything…. So we lost time, we lost energy. And I’m not going to do it, I’m too old. There’s a younger generation that understands these issues both in Israel and Palestine. And I think they are beginning to build a new discourse.
The end of Pappe’s speech was hopeful. The triumph of Zionism was to fragment the Palestinian people. To separate refugees and indigenous, occupied from exiled, and prevent their communication. Facebook has changed all that. Zionism didn’t anticipate the internet, which is building bridges between all these groups, and giving them power.
And if at this university, you insist on teaching the history of Israel and Palestine as settler colonialism, on teaching about apartheid and genocide, and continue to support movements like BDS–
“and you will have a modicum of conscience in you, then you will not support the policies for Palestinians, and history will judge you as people who have contributed to a better future in Israel and Palestine.”
Three comments seem important to me to add. First, the room was packed. The sense of excitement at seeing this intellectual leader was palpable. People have read Pappe’s book on ethnic cleansing and his recent book with Chomsky. They see him as an expert, they were rapt with attention. There was a lot going on at NYU last night, and yet this is a big deal. People know about Palestine and young people won’t be silent about it. The movement we have long been charting is vital and strong. There was great diversity in the room, as well as listeners who looked to be professors.
Second, a short documentary was shown at the start called “Abu Arab” by Mona Dohar, at the behest of Zochrot. I cannot say enough about this movie. It shows a young woman, Muna Thaher, accompanying her grandfather Abu-‘Arab back to his erased village near Nazareth. Every moment is delicate and unscripted. The old man tells stories of his childhood in the village before his family was forced to leave, and his sister killed, and his mother’s sanity dislodged. He tells his grand-daughter that return is inevitable, if not in this generation then in a later one. The simple human terms of the film touch parts of the mind no analysis can reach. The girl in the movie was thoughtful and sweet, an Everywoman figure who stands in for anyone with open eyes. The documentary leaves the impression: No one can dispute her claim to making a future on her land.
Third, one element of Pappe’s talk struck me as witless. He spoke often of the “lobby” inside Israel to colonize the West Bank but he never mentioned the lobby in America. I imagine he is a Marxist by training who doesn’t go in for a religious treatment of the conflict. But how else do you explain the anomalous exceptionalism of Israeli settler colonialism in the 20th century without speaking about Jewish history? The anomalous protection of Zionism by the west is a product of Holocaust guilt on the part of western powers, yes; but it is not an imperial strategy, it is against the American interest to have the Middle East as chaotic as it is today, an unrest that was perfectly predicted by State Department experts 70 years ago. So why would US presidents overturn the US interest? Because they are dependent on the Israel lobby, on rightwing Jewish donors. Sadly it’s just that simple; it is why Milbank Tweed backs events on CIA torture but pulls its gift to Harvard over a Palestinian event, it is why a Zionist responds to a Palestinian event at Vassar by calling for a”Jewish donor strike,” it’s why Truman violated a deeply-held principle, the separation of church and state, so as to keep donors on his side in a tight election. We must address empowered American Jewish Zionists who regard it as their duty to support a Jewish state. This discussion and decolonization must happen inside the United States if progress is to be made.