Monday, July 12, 2010

The desire for symmetry doesn't mean it exists

James Carroll, in the Boston Globe, defines the Palestinian Arab/Israeli conflict neatly symmetrical terms that are very elegant, and very false.

Against the usual perception, the Israeli and Palestinian stories are not contradictory but parallel. Jews and Arabs did not dig the ditch that keeps them apart.

To shift the analogy, Israelis and Palestinians are trapped in a corner. But the walls of that corner were constructed by someone else — an unacknowledged third party. Those walls are anti-Semitism and colonialism, each of which is thought to be well understood. But their recombination begets something new — a lethal feedback loop, as the historic hatred of Jews mixes explosively with the contempt for native peoples that defined imperial expansion.

Now Europe, together with its legacy culture America, sends representatives, such as Mitchell and Blair, claiming to offer disinterested “help” to the stubbornly warring parties. Yet that broader culture is fully complicit as the source of the two momentous animosities. Because that complicity is never reckoned with, energetic diplomatic interventions, going back past Jimmy Carter and Henry Kissinger to successive British “white papers,” have come to nothing....

The return to the land of Israel was momentous for people who had prayed for most of two millennia, “Next year in Jerusalem.” From the Arab point of view, however, Zionism could only be taken as a manifestation of the colonialism that native Palestinians had by then every reason to detest. Just as it is wrong to take Zionism as colonialism, it is wrong to take Palestinian hatred of Jewish arrival — and, even more pointedly, of Israeli occupation — as anti-Semitism....
Carroll seems to be a nice guy, and he is not the first to think he has come up with a unique perspective that could help break the impasse.

Creating false equivalences does not help to solve the problem, though.

The Zionist viewpoint is not that Palestine was filled with anti-semites as Jews returned from exile. To be sure, there was anti-semitism among the Arabs - to deny that it exists is as foolhardy as to compare it to the far worse traditional European anti-semitism. Even so, today the problem is not the underlying implicit anti-semitism that still festers in the Arab world, but the explicit and festering anti-Zionism - the utter inability to accept a Jewish state under any circumstances in what they consider Arab land. That is a problem that cannot be wished away. Whether modern anti-Zionism is congruent with traditional anti-semitism is not the pertinent issue - rabid anti-Zionism, which I once termed misoziony, is in itself a roadblock to any chance for peace. When Palestinian Arabs are claiming that Jews in Israel are colonialists, it is not merely the opposite of the truth - it is a manifestation of an underlying hatred that is endemic and every bit as toxic as traditional anti-semitism.

When Carroll tries to create a symmetry between Arab views of Zionism as colonialism, and Jewish views of anti-Zionism as anti-semitism, he is missing the point. Even if anti-Zionism is not a specific manifestation of anti-semitism, it is no less hateful and no more tolerant.

When Palestinian and Israeli negotiators finally face each other across one table, these common notes of experience should be paramount — but only for the sake of moving beyond them. Two peoples who have each defined themselves positively by negative hatred of the other have been at the mercy of a broad culture that created this very habit of mind. Jews and Arabs can renounce this history without renouncing themselves. Each can then receive the other’s account of the past, and, perhaps for the first time, hear it respectfully.
Again, he is ascribing to the Zionist side the hate that exists on the Arab side. While it is undoubtedly true that Palestinian Arabs define themselves in negative terms, by their shared hate of Israel, Jewish nationalism is a far richer and naturally positive historic trend. Before 1948, and even before modern Zionism, no one doubted that the Jewish people were a nation as well as a religious group. Jew and Gentile alike recognized this fact as a given, and newspaper clippings from the 19th century are as likely to use the term Israelites as they were to use Jews. While modern Zionism was partially a reaction to anti-semitism, it was European anti-semitism that the Jews were trying to find an antidote to: Arabs were considered irrelevant to the issue, and often even regarded as potential allies in creating a parallel national movement.

Carroll also errs when he tries to imply that misoziony is merely a Palestinian Arab phenomenon - it is at the very least a pan-Arab psychosis, perhaps the only true pan-Arab mindset that exists. There is precious little else that the Arab world can agree upon.

Another problem is that Carroll (and many others) think that Zionist Jews' false understandings of the Palestinian Arab narrative is partially to blame for there being no peace, when in fact Zionism has almost always shown an almost superhuman ability to empathize with the other side. Consistently, Zionist peace plans have attempted to address the purported issues  in a way that would support a win-win solution. The real problem is that the other side has shown zero interest in a solution that still allows a Jewish state to continue to exist, and these continuous attempts to compromise will inevitably fail because they are not regarded as confidence building gestures or goodwill measures, but as steps on the way to the annihilation of Israel. There is a vast gulf between the Western perception of a solution being a win-win for everybody and the Arab mentality of the zero-sum game.

The unfortunate truth is that the Arab world will never accept Israel except as an entity too strong to defeat or dislodge. The only thing protecting Israel is its strength. Pretending that there are myths on both sides that can be transcended to reach peace is not realism, but another case of wishful thinking. It assumes that peace is the goal for both sides, and that is simply not the case.