Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Ibish, redux

Hussein Ibish followed up on calling me a "fool" and "moronic" after my response to his earlier article with a full article in Now Lebanon explaining how Israeli nationalism is just the same as Palestinian Arab nationalism, and Judaism has nothing to do with it.

He writes:
In the decades immediately preceding 1948, the word “Israeli” was totally unknown and meant nothing, and the word "Palestinian” meant many things, but certainly not what it means today. Both of these national identities—the Jewish Israeli and the Arab Palestinian—are contemporary constructs born of recent history. They are largely grounded in their encounter with each other. They also embody deep cultural memories, traditions, myths, legends and tendentious narratives that at least to some extent retrofit the past to privilege their own national projects.

If one defines Israeli nationalism and culture in terms of kibbutzim, falafel and Hava Nagila, then Ibish might have a point - Israeli nationalism would be almost as shallow and recent as Palestinian Arab nationalism is. But the modern constructs of Israeli nationalism are built on the foundation of the Jewish nation, and are meaningless without that.

To give one small example, the word "Israeli" may be a recent Western construct in English, but in Hebrew the same word - יִּשְׂרְאֵלִי - can be found in, well, the Bible (Lev. 24:10). I also noted last week that the idea of Zionism - that is, of returning to the Land of Israel and rebuilding it - is pretty much continuous throughout Jewish history, even if the name is relatively new.

Moderan nationalism is a relatively new construct altogether, so it is easy to throw all modern nations in that bucket, but by any sane definition the Jewish people have identified as a nation - by themselves and by others - for millennia.

Again, don't take my word for it. Listen to the words of Haman in Esther 3:8:

There is a certain people (Hebrew: Am, עַם nation) scattered abroad and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from those of every people.

Ibish goes on:
But all of this is entirely beside the point. Neither the Palestinian nor the Israeli national identity is more or less "authentic" or “legitimate” than the other because both are self-defined nationalisms adhered to by millions of people. The extent to which they are based on imaginary constructs—as all modern national ideologies ultimately prove largely to be—is meaningless in practice. Objecting to these mythologies is the political equivalent of complaining about the rain.

Systematized discrimination or exclusion is, of course, unacceptable for any decent society. But modernity dictates a healthy respect for both the human rights of individuals inherent to their status as human beings and the rights of self-defining national collectivities to self-determination. Contemporary political and national identities, including the Israeli and Palestinian, are invariably based on a confused mélange of myth, legend and history. But that is politically irrelevant. They are what they are, say what we will.

Here, without realizing it, Ibish touches upon the reason that Palestinian Arab nationalism is different from other nationalisms.

Palestinian Arab nationalism is the only one whose very definition is based upon the negation of another people.

What do self-defined Palestinian Arabs have in common? If Ibish is honest, the only thing that holds them together is their antipathy to Jewish nationalism. It isn't a common culture or language or history. Arabs who lived in Palestine for two years prior to 1948 are just as "Palestinian" as those who lived there for hundreds of years, thanks to UNRWA having created the main operational definition of "Palestinian."

If there was never any Jewish nationalism, there would never have been Palestinian Arab nationalism. If Israel had been destroyed in 1948, there would be no one today who identifies as "Palestinian," since the land would have been carved up by Jordan, Syria and Egypt. Ibish knows this, and this is why he felt that that a book that created a construct of "Palestinian culture" based on costumes was important. He is pushing the myth, ex post facto, of an ancient history behind what is really a modern construct that owes its entire existence to...Jews.

The very first person who could be called a Palestinian Arab leader was the infamous Mufti of Jerusalem, Amin al-Husseini. Yet even he wanted Palestine to be part of Syria until the San Remo conference made that impossible. And the "nationalist" motivation of this leader, whether it was pan-Arabism or Palestinian Arab nationalism, was always pure anti-semitism. Specifically, his goals were always to negate Jewish nationalism, both by denying Jews access to their holy places and by denying Jews the right to move to their ancestral homeland.

If Palestinian Arabs want to call themselves a people, that is fine. Based on how their fellow Arabs have treated them over the decades they do now have a claim to a cohesive identity. But to put Palestinian Arab nationalism on a par with Jewish nationalism is simply ahistorical and meant to trivialize the Jewish longing to return to Zion.

Zionism is merely a particularly effective instance of ancient Jewish nationalism; it is not a modern construct as Ibish likes to pretend. Ibish, by comparing the two nationalisms, is trivializing a long standing and deeply rooted sense of peoplehood with a shallow and modern attempt at countering it.

The analytical challenge is to recognize that while not all nationalist claims are necessarily equally valid (they may speak on behalf of very few people, for example, and not really have the constituency they claim), in some important senses they are, however, all equally invalid. Championing one's own nationalism as self-evidently “authentic” at the expense of a well-established, deeply-rooted and much-cherished rival identity is a particularly lowly form of self-delusion, chauvinism and fetishism.

Not when one is based on historic truth and the other is based on negation.

Another proof that Palestinian Arab nationalism is simply the denial of Jewish nationalism can be seen in archaeology. Every new archaeological finding that shows ancient Jewish roots in Palestine are derided by Palestinian Arab leaders.They routinely refer to the "alleged Temple."

Jews, secure in their history in the Land, are not threatened by finding pre-Israelite or Philistine or Byzantine or Crusader-era treasures. But Palestinian Arabs are very threatened by Jewish history.

And this is why these attempts to create a Palestinian Arab culture are, inherently, offensive. In reality there is no common history and no common culture for Palestinian Arabs. Attempts to create one are often another instantiation of the attempt to deny Jewish history. (Not that Ibish is doing that here, certainly not consciously.)

If a historian or archaeologist finds an ancient inscription talking about the "Palestinians" of the 2nd or 12th century, I will be more than happy to admit I am wrong.

But until then, claiming that there is an ancient Palestinian Arab history when there is none is indeed offensive because there is a history of fake Palestinian Arab nationalism, and it was aimed at destroying another people.

(h/t AB for "יִּשְׂרְאֵלִי " idea.)