Thursday, June 16, 2011

My response to a piece in Foreign Policy

Ahmad Samih Khalidi, writing in Foreign Policy, writes:

The official PA/PLO position is that how Israel defines itself is not a Palestinian concern, and that the Palestinians cannot accede to this demand on two basic grounds: First, because it prejudices the political and civic rights of Israel's Arab citizens comprising 20 percent of the population whose second-class status would be consolidated by dint of recognition of the "Jewishness " of the state; and second, because acknowledgement of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people would compromise the Palestinian refugees' right of return as there would be no moral or political grounds for them to return to a universally recognized Jewish state.

But this is neither a complete nor totally convincing riposte. The Palestinians cannot be indifferent as to how Israel defines itself, or how others are ready to define it. In the context of the struggle over the shape and future of the Holy Land, one side's appropriation of a certain definition affects not only the rights of those who reside in this territory, but their very history and identity, their relation to the land, and by extension their rights, future and fate as well. There are, in fact, several deeper layers to this issue that warrant further examination and debate.

First, and perhaps most importantly, if Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people, then the lands that it occupies today -- and perhaps more as there are as yet no borders to this homeland -- belong to this people by way of right. But if these lands rightfully comprise the Jewish homeland then the Arab presence there becomes historically aberrant and contingent; the Palestinians effectively become historic interlopers and trespassers -- a transient presence on someone else's national soil.

This is not a moot or exaggerated point. It touches on the very core of the conflict and its genesis. Indeed, it is the heart of the Zionist claim to Palestine: Palestine belongs to the Jews and their right to the land is antecedent and superior to that of the Arabs -- this is what Zionism is about and what justifies both the Jewish return to the land and the dispossession of its Arab inhabitants.

But this is not the Palestinian Arab narrative, nor can it be. We do not believe that the historical Jewish presence and connection to the land entail a superior claim to it. This we believe is our homeland established over one-and-half thousand years of continuous Arab-Muslim presence, and that we were eventually only dispossessed of it by superior force and colonial machination. For us to adopt the Zionist narrative would mean that the homes that our forefathers built, the land that they tilled for centuries, and the sanctuaries they built and prayed at were not really ours at all and that our defense of them was morally flawed and wrongful: we had no right to any of these to begin with.

...What [the Palestinians] cannot be expected to do is to renege on their past, deny their identity, take on the moral burden of transgressor, and give up on what they believe is their history. They cannot be expected to become Zionists.

As usual in a venue like FP, this is a sophisticated argument that uses a false framework. I responded there:

But the Palestinians also deny Jewish history!

Khalidi purposefully downplays the extent of the Palestinian Arabs' historical revisionism. It is not merely competing narratives; they deny basic history that there is such a thing as a Jewish people, that the Temples existed in Jerusalem, and so forth. These positions have been in official PA media and PLO statements.

Even worse, they co-opt indisputably Jewish shrines as their own - the "Bilal Mosque" that is supposedly at Rachels' Tomb simply did not exist fifteen years ago.

Real peace cannot occur if it is based on lies, and while it may be that Palestinian Arabs will not accept Zionism, they do need to face the facts that the Land of Israel has been the center of Jewish longing since before anyone ever heard of "Palestinians" - or Islam, for that matter. Their denial of those facts is not because of competing narratives - it is from an indoctrination of lies that must stop.

No Jew denies that thousands of Arabs lived in Palestine before 1948. Why can the Palestinian Arabs not accept that Israel, and Jerusalem in particular, has been the object of dreams and tears for the Jewish people since 70 CE?