Sunday, February 1, 2015

Striving to Eliminate the Palestinian Narrative

Israel is a country with indeterminate borders and with an indeterminate population. It's a problem. In 1947 the United Nations declared that there should be two countries, Israel and Palestine, and it outlined borders that tried to separate the two countries along ethnic lines—a Jewish state in the areas where Jews had settled and dominated, and a Palestinian state in the areas where Arabs lived and predominated. The UN vision was for two countries and two national narratives.  But for nearly half a century Israel has controlled the entire area reserved for the two states. Is there still room for a Palestinian national narrative?

The platform of the governing party in Israel for most of the past 37 years declares that no Palestinian state can be created in the territory controlled by Israel, and that Israel and its neighbors should jointly bear the cost of relocating populations. Netanyahu has proposed that the Israeli basic laws define Israel as "the nation state of one people only – the Jewish people – and of no other people." The end of the two state paradigm, however,  raises new questions for this vision of Zionism.  In light of the one state reality, the goal of the proposed nation state bill appears to be to eliminate any competing Palestinian narrative. 

In a talk about the Israeli elections at congregation Kol Shofar in Marin County (San Francisco Area)  on January 13, Einat Wilf expressed the view that Netanyahu's formulation of the Nation State Bill is no big deal. "If you are for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, then of course you must believe all these things" she said (I'm paraphrasing). I shared with her my explanation why I believe it is a big deal. She responded with two emails and she referred me to an article she wrote in Tower Magazine: Towards a Zionism of Inclusion

Einat Wilf supports a two state solution. She also believes the Nation State Bill would not turn the state of Israel towards ethnocracy. I think she's wrong about that--that a country's elevation of the narrative of one ethnic group, and denying the narrative of other ethnic groups is the very definition of ethnocracy.

The solution, she argues in her Tower article, is for Palestinians to accept the narrative of Zionism:  to accept that the state will have open Jewish immigration, and Arabs won't; to accept that Jews will have the right of "self-determination" in the state, and Arabs won't; and to accept, presumably, that Jews will have control of the apparatus of state, and the Arabs won't--forever. In return, the Jewish state will become more inclusive of Palestinians.

In her Tower article, Einat Wilf writes optimistically: "Theodore Herzel's original vision of Zionism included Jews, Christians, and Muslims living in harmony with a shared purpose. The history of Zionism tells us that this moment may not be too far off."  What is this history of inclusion that gives cause for such optimism?

In the beginning ..., says Wilf:
Herzl despised the Jews of the East. In his eyes, they were primitives stuck in medieval times, resistant to the Enlightenment and decidedly un-European. He certainly did not think they could carry the mantle of Zionism and build the state he envisioned. The last thing he wanted for a Jewish state was to replicate the shtetl life of Eastern Europe and Tsarist Russia. But even as Herzl was being rebuffed by the cultured Jews of the West, he was, as Elon wrote, “surprised by the resonance of his tract in the East; he had expected it to strike hardest in the assimilated West, not in the East, which he regarded as backward, even primitive.” But the Eastern European Jews were the ones who embraced Zionism. They were inspired by his vision. They wanted to be the builders of the new state. And they were willing to do what it took to resurrect Jewish sovereignty in the blistering heat of the Land of Israel. ....
Overwhelmed by this reception, Herzl the writer realized that the time had come for rewriting. He recast the Jews of Eastern Europe as the true national Jews. He wrote them into his story as those who had kept their sense of being a nation while the assimilated Jews of the West had not. In Herzl’s rewritten narrative, the Jews of Eastern Europe became better suited to the task of building a Jewish state than anyone else; because they, above all others, knew what it meant to be a nation; and Zionism was first and foremost about the national revival of the Jewish people. ....
The Jews of Eastern Europe became the ... ones who built its foundations against overwhelming odds. By embracing them and rewriting his narrative to reflect their enthusiasm for the cause, Herzl demonstrated that, for Zionism to survive, it would need to include everyone who supported it. He also showed how to achieve this: By rewriting the story to include the previously excluded group; and to do so in a way that not only included the new group, but made it one and the same with the Zionist vision. 
In the beginning, sophisticated Western European vision of Zionism became inclusive of nationalist Eastern European Shtetl culture. Then the Holocaust happened.
[A]s the situation in the Diaspora became more severe and ultimately genocidal, the choice made by many Jews to remain in Europe was scorned. For many Zionists, the growing strength of their embryonic state and the growing danger faced by the Jews of Europe delegitimized life in the Diaspora. The negation of the exile ... was not just about negating the legitimacy of Jewish life in the Diaspora, but also negating its very essence. Zionism created an entire series of opposites expressing this: Active vs. passive, strong vs. weak, proud vs. humiliated, self-sufficient vs. dependent, healthy vs. sick. Zionism came to be seen as a cure for the sickness inflicted upon Judaism by the exile.
So when the Holocaust occurred, it was an affront to Zionism’s core ideology. The Jews who perished in the Holocaust represented everything that Zionism wanted to change. The victims were seen as passive, going to their deaths like “lambs to the slaughter.” They were weak, dependent, and suffered the greatest possible humiliation—an industrial genocide. Whenever they rebelled, it was because they were Zionists. The Warsaw Ghetto resistance fighters, for example, became national heroes, in part because they were members of Zionist youth movements preparing to immigrate to Israel. The survivors were even worse in the Zionist perception. They were suspect simply because they had survived. The suspicion was that they must have engaged in deceitful and treacherous actions in order to do so.
At first, Zionism rejected the Holocaust, but beginning with the trial of Adolf Eichman in 1961 Zionism changed its narrative to include the Holocaust.  "The survivors of the Holocaust eventually became Israel’s new heroes," says Wilf. "Not just the Zionist resistance fighters, but any and all who survived... who were hailed as Israel’s true heroes."

Similarly, the Zionist narrative has changed to become more inclusive of non-European Jews. Jewish immigrants from Arab countries "were not welcomed or included in any real sense.... For decades they suffered overt and covert discrimination," says Wilf.  But gradually their story has been incorporated into the fabric of Zionism.  The same thing happened with Russian immigrants, many of whom--although they could claim citizenship because of their Jewish ancestry--"were not Jews themselves, and some were practicing Christians."

Similarly, Wilf points to the Druze and Bedouin populations (~3 percent of population), which have been integrated into the army, as another success story.
This is not to say that there are no problems with discrimination or other issues, but it does show that Zionism is willing to embrace those who align themselves with it, whether Jewish or non-Jewish. Indeed, it seems that Zionism only finds it difficult to include non-Jews when they embrace competing Arab or Palestinian national identities. Zionism in itself can include non-Jews in its story, so long as they do not align themselves with a hostile narrative.
Zionism has incorporated Eastern Europeans, Holocaust survivors, Mizrahi, Druze, and Bedouin ... and the beat goes on ....
The current frontier of inclusion is that of ultra-Orthodox Jews and Israeli Christians.
In the past, Israeli Christians by and large adopted Arab and Palestinian identities. Christians were among the most important thinkers and shapers of modern Arab and Palestinian nationalism, and often its most zealous adherents. This is due, in part, to their status as a minority among Arab Muslims. In recent years, however, as the Arab Spring revolutions have placed the lives of Middle Eastern Christians in jeopardy, Israeli Christians have begun to explore the possibility of an Israeli rather than Arab Christian identity. As Arab identity is increasingly perceived as exclusively Muslim and even openly hostile to Christians, Israeli identity has emerged as a new possibility for identification. Like the Druze and Bedouin, this is being explored through service in the IDF, as more and more voices in the Christian community look to military service as a means of engaging with “their state.” In response, the IDF is taking steps to make military service more accessible. This process has only just begun and is politically controversial, but it demonstrates again that Zionism is willing and capable of integrating non-Jews who do not embrace a competing identity hostile to Zionism.
This history of Zionism, argues Wilf, suggests that Zionism will continue to be inclusive--and provides hope that it will (of necessity) become more inclusive of Palestinian culture and its Palestinian citizens. How will this happen?
The last frontier of inclusion is unquestionably that of Israel’s Muslims, who currently describe themselves as Arab Palestinian Muslims holding Israeli citizenship, and it is the most difficult. At the moment, it seems almost ludicrous to think about their future inclusion in the Zionist narrative. Israeli Muslims themselves are likely to see the idea as an affront to them and their sense of Arab-Palestinian national identity. But I would like to present the possibility that, sometime in the future, such inclusion could take place. 
Currently, the Palestinian national movement and Zionism appear so at odds that it is nearly impossible to conceive of a situation in which the Zionist narrative could be sufficiently rewritten to include Israeli Muslims. The furthest that most Israeli Muslims are willing to go in this direction is to demand a “neutral” Israeli state, stripped of any signs or symbols of being Jewish or Zionist. The argument put forth by them and especially their leadership is that as long as the state of Israel continues to be Jewish or Zionist, Muslims can have legal rights, but will never truly be a part of Israeli society.
As a result, for many Israeli Muslims, the only path to full inclusion and belonging is an end to Zionism. 
I think this sets up a straw man.  Israeli Muslims don't need the state to be "stripped of any signs or symbols of being Jewish."  What they need is equal treatment, equal opportunities, equal rights to purchase and develop land, an end to discrimination, and support and accommodation of Arab symbols, and an end to an immigration policy that allows all Jews of the world, and only Jews (and their hangers on, like me) to immigrate, while keeping out spouses of Israeli Arab citizens.  Looking at it from the outside, there is nothing wrong with the state of Israel providing preferences for Jewish immigration based on safety concerns--but the state should not permit free immigration to Sheldon Adelson, Diane Feinstein, Chuck Shumer, or Eric Cantor at the expense of Arab Israelis.

"End of Zionism" talk is not helpful because the term lacks all precision.  "Zionism" as conceived in 1896 has accomplished it's goal and purpose.  The Hebrew language has been revived, a secular Jewish state with Jewish culture and holidays has been built in the ancient homeland.  The question now is what will this state look like in the next 50 years.  What is its vision; what are its attributes?

Jewish and Palestinian national narratives are in conflict, observes Wilf in her Tower article, and the solution is for Palestinians to let go of their national narrative:
If Zionism and Palestinian nationalism are in direct conflict, the embrace of one naturally implies the rejection of the other. But it is also, of course, impossible for Zionism to accept, since it demands not the rewriting of the Zionist story, but the burning of the book itself. 
As a result, the inclusion of Israeli Muslims in the Zionist narrative is likely to happen under one of two extreme conditions: Full peace between Israel and the Arab world, or an Arab world so engulfed in chaos and brutality that Israeli Muslims distance themselves from an Arab Palestinian national identity in search of an alternative. Under one of these extreme but not impossible scenarios, Israeli Muslims would no longer be Arab Palestinian nationalists, but Israelis and Zionists.
Should either of these scenarios materialize, the obstacles to inclusion would be lifted, at least in principle. One could begin to imagine the Zionist narrative being retold so that Israeli Muslims are fully included in the story. This inclusive narrative could be about how Muslims tended and kept the land for centuries, welcoming the returning Jews to share it for the good of all. It could be the story of how local traditions of generous hospitality led the local Muslims to provide refuge to the Jews coming to their shores. It could be a story with new heroes—Jews and Muslims who exemplified cooperation long before it was the norm; Muslims who protected Jews from harm; Muslims who sold land to the Jews and shared valuable agricultural knowledge with them; and Muslim teachers who taught about Zionism without neglecting their own side of the story.
It could be a narrative that resurrects the buried history of Muslim support for Zionism in Palestine. This history was recently uncovered in Hillel Cohen’s book Army of Shadows: Palestinian Collaboration with Zionism, which covers the many dissident elements in the Palestine Arab Muslim community that viewed Zionism positively—as Herzl had hoped—and even assisted it through land sales, intelligence, and military assistance against the British. It could be a story that reminds us of heroes like Haifa mayor Hassan Bey Shukri, who wrote to the British government in 1921,
We strongly protest against the attitude of the said delegation concerning the Zionist question. We do not consider the Jewish people as an enemy whose wish is to crush us. On the contrary, we consider the Jews as a brotherly people sharing our joys and troubles and helping us in the construction of our common country.
It could perhaps become the story of how the Muslims, together with Jews, made the land of Israel whole again, bringing together all the religions that originated and flourished within its borders. It could be a story of return and reunification. A story of how the Muslims had to come to terms with being a minority and the Jews with being a majority before both could truly live as one, introducing the key element in any drama of return and reunification: The overcoming of obstacles. 
It must be left to far better storytellers than myself to imagine what this narrative might look like. Right now, it requires the most fanciful imagination. But if Zionism has taught us anything, it is that reality begins with a dream.
I don't think the solution is for Arab Palestinians to give up their struggle for a Palestinian identity and for them to submit to second class status. Arab citizens of Israel will not accept such a solution. A solution will require a vision that can accommodate both Jewish and Palestinian identities and narratives in a positive way.

Peace with the greater Arab world does not solve the Palestinian issue. What Israel needs is an end to the occupation and peace with the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. Such a peace will not come about without room for a healthy Palestinian national narrative, and accommodation within Israel of such a narrative for its Palestinian citizens. But Wilf is surely correct that reality begins with a dream.  The question is what is that dream?  

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