Palestine/Israel: Not every problem has a solution?

January 1, 2000
Richard Kuper

Contested Land, Contested Memory. Israel’s Jews and Arabs and the Ghosts of Catastrophe, by Jo Roberts. Dundurn, Toronto. 302 pp. £16.99; and
Rethinking the Politics of Israel/Palestine: Partition and Its Alternatives,
eds. Bashir Bashir and Azar Dakwa, Kreisky Forum and Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament. 146 pp (free to download).

Reviewed by Antony Lerman, Review reproduced by kind permission of Political Quarterly‘s Books Reviews editor.


When it comes to the Israel–Palestine conflict, that baleful piece of advice, ‘not every problem has a solution’, seems to have increasing relevance as we near fifty years of an occupation, the permanence of which looks ever more assured. And yet in these very different but complementary books, problem and solution take on new and more subtle meanings.

Jo Roberts’s account of the role of conflicting perceptions of ownership in Israel–Palestine—of land, space, maps, memory, history—is largely based on her personal encounters with Palestinians and Jewish Israelis, to which she brings a high degree of openness, empathy and understanding. This produces unique insights into the way some individuals live comfortably within their constructed realities and some succeed in shedding such constructions and embrace narratives that fundamentally challenge the ethno-national assumptions they have lived with since childhood. Trained as a lawyer and anthropologist, Roberts found writing for and editing the Catholic Worker in New York a way of expressing both her religious faith and her commitment to a politics of non-violence, social justice and ‘hospitality to all those in need’. Her understanding of Judaism and Jewish history first developed through learning of ‘Christianity’s casual erasure of Judaism’. And it was when she went to the West Bank as a volunteer Human Rights Observer with the International Women’s Peace Service that her rapid introduction to the reality of the humiliations suffered by the Palestinians was made especially acute, as a result of discovering how the erasure of Palestinian villages from Israeli maps ‘denied the physicality of the land’.

Roberts seeks to examine ‘how… we experience and respond to social forces of catastrophic violence’, an approach that ‘gives breathing room to the complexities of experience, the fears and vulnerabilities of human suffering’. The Holocaust and the Nakba (catastrophe) into Gaza ‘marked Israel’s founding’, and although she refuses to ‘parallel’ them, she argues that the way ‘each has been remembered and forgotten has infused both the political and the physical landscape of the country’, and ‘Where echoes pass between these separate yet entwined catastrophes is in the unfinished trauma lived by the survivors’. But because Israel was the victor in the 1948 war, and victors, initially at least, determine how history understands their victory, it’s Israel’s engagement, or lack of it, with the Nakba with which she is most concerned: ‘how contested histories … press through into the lives of Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel today; and ultimately, how they affect the possibility of peace between Israel and the Palestinian people’.

Roberts reveals the fitful, hesitant and yet in certain cases complete way in which some Israeli Jews have come to understand how Jewish collective memory—the biblical claim to the land, centuries of persecution, the statelessness that left Jews with nowhere to flee from the Nazi onslaught—robbed the Palestinians of their historical experience: ‘their own half-repressed collective memories are drowned out by the loud, insistent voice of the state’s creation story’. Too often, that understanding assumes a Palestinian readiness to forgive and forget, to achieve reconciliation and build a future together without fully understanding that the past has not passed, that the Nakba is not just a historical event but an ongoing project. ‘Its results still influence every part of our lives’, says Sami Abu Shehadeh, a Jaffa historian.

Palestinian identity is increasingly shaped by growing Palestinian attention paid to the Nakba. Yet consolidating this identity is constantly hampered by the shame of defeat, a reticence to talk about their experiences, the Judaisation of the map of Israel so that ‘by 1994 6,685 places or geographical features had been (re)named in Hebrew’, making groups that mark Nakba Day ineligible for funding and facing fines, or ‘liv[ing] for mere survival’, as Raef Zreik (Tel Aviv and Haifa universities) puts it.

It’s hardly surprising that Palestinians face such barriers. Zionism sharpened the difference between Jew and Arab. Ben Gurion said ‘We are in duty bound to fight against the spirit of the Levant’. Sustaining Jewish numerical superiority became a core ideological objective, achievable ultimately only by force and exclusion. Physically and psychologically, there was no space for a narrative that wasn’t Zionist. Everything was done to suppress Palestinian memory, but doing so only made Palestinians think and talk more about the Nakba.

For those Jewish Israelis who choose to engage in memory work, having internalised the new historians’ revelations about the reality of Palestinian dispossession or because illiberal trends in Israeli society forced them to reconsider things they already knew but had suppressed, they face the question: where does it lead? Before she came to accept responsibility for the Palestinian tragedy, one Tel Aviv Israeli told Roberts, ‘I knew that the other side had lost, that people left their homes. It is common knowledge in Israel.. .. But I said at the time: we were a refugee people… we had no place in the world, we had to come here. It’s too bad they had to pay the price, but there was no choice’. For Palestinians, if the price of Jews feeling better means normalising injustice, the price is unacceptable. Commemorating, witnessing and acknowledging the Nakba is not enough. Israelis must also ‘repair’, which for Zochrot, the Israeli organization dedicated to making their fellow Jewish citizens conscious of the Nakba, means recognition of the Palestinians’ right of return, ‘their most controversial position, and, for the vast majority of Israelis, the most inaccessible’, writes Roberts. From acknowledging the validity of the Other’s memory to recognition of rights—the granting of which would appear to challenge founding national myths—is a step too far even for many liberal Israelis who say they are ready to share the land. Roberts says ‘Two entirely separate collective memories grow out of this landscape, one visible, one erased, and while this imbalance continues it is hard to imagine peace in the land’. But is the key to peace ‘regarding the Other’s history as valid but incomplete as usually presented’, as Edward Said put it, or is peace only likely to be achieved by first identifying certain fundamental universal principles which Israeli Jews and Palestinians can agree transcend history, identity and memory? Said says ‘these histories can only continue to flow together, not apart’, but will that flowing together mean only increased friction, violence and death, or can it only take place ‘within a broader framework based on the notion of equality for all’?

Given Roberts’s view of ‘how vital an element in reconciliation and healing is the acknowledgement of another’s pain’—the ‘need to be heard’—she understandably argues that ‘A national story that fully encompassed the pasts of both Jewish and Palestinian Israelis would make it harder to justify the current disparities in the value of their citizenship. It would signify the willingness to knit together a new social fabric in Israel, one in which Palestinian and Jewish Israelis were equal’. In contrast, the essence of the volume Rethinking the Politics of Israel/Palestine: Partition and its Alternatives essentially puts the case for principles before crafting a national story that encompasses parallel pasts.

Most of the book consists of short essays written by Israeli Jews and Palestinians, from inside Israel-Palestine and the diaspora, focusing on elaborating principles that ‘would secure the individual and collective rights (including national self-determination), interests, and identities of Jewish Israelis and Palestinians alike’. The fundamental principles themselves are encapsulated in a document entitled ‘The principles of Israeli Jewish–Palestinian partnership’, produced by members of the Alternatives to Partition Group, which met for a series of confidential discussions in 2011 and 2012 in Vienna under the auspices of the Bruno Kreisky Forum for International Dialogue, and issued in October 2012. This document is included in the book, as are the summaries of two public events—the first at the European Parliament in Brussels and the second in Jerusalem at the American Colony Hotel— where members of the group presented their ideas and discussed them with MEPs, diplomats, academics and civil society activists.

The group stresses that it is confronting the ‘unavoidable empirical reality [of] the growing intertwinement of lives, rights and identities of Palestinians and Jews’ and that its initiative is ‘grounded… on the premises of justice (e.g. the Palestinian refugee problem, refraining from inflicting injustices [on] the agents of a previous injustice) and on an inclusive and egalitarian notion of democracy’. The principles ‘transcend the binary predicament of “one state/two states”… as the preordaining principle… of a political solution’, since it has been rendered ‘factually and empirically… obsolete… [and] provide the basis for a different understanding of the possibilities and actualities for a just and durable solution in Israel/Palestine’.

In brief, the principles call for: full and equal individual and collective rights for all between the Jordan and the Mediterranean; no group to have exclusive sovereignty; exclusive Jewish privileges to be abolished; the Palestinian right of return to be recognised and implemented without creating new injustices; and privileged immigrant status to be given to Jews and Palestinians abroad if in danger.

This is a radical agenda, to be sure, but its advocates ground their arguments in convincing analyses of the structural problems and unsustainable principles associated with the failed state-based peace process. For example, they recognise that a de facto ‘one-state’ has long been emerging such that one single sovereign entity, under Israeli political, military and economic dominion, now exists between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. ‘Palestinians and Israeli Jews are living together in a reality of spatial and bi-national heterogeneity’, writes Azar Dakwar, a Co-Director at Sikkuy and one of the book’s editors; this is jeopardising the ‘two nation states for two peoples’ recipe since this is based on ‘national homogeneity and demographic separation’. They point out that the assumption that negotiations over this recipe are being undertaken by two equal partners is wrong; the disparities in power and influence between the parties are legion. Moreover, the Oslo process provided no means by which the Palestinians could call Israel to account for creating new, and expanding existing, settlements, illegal under international law.

For the Palestinians, the statist enterprise, focused almost exclusively on the West Bank, has become ‘hegemonic and tyrannical’, writes Bashir Bashir of the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, the other editor of the volume. It has become a barrier to articulating the Palestinian national cause. Together with other pressures on Palestinian rights, this has contributed to Palestinian nationalism undergoing a ‘gradual shift from an exclusively state-oriented politics’ to a politics focused on achieving Palestinians’ ‘inalienable, individual and national rights… regardless of the exact constitutional frame within which these rights and aspirations would be realised’ .

But how do you achieve equal rights where two nationalisms—one far more powerful than the other—compete over the same small territory and where sovereignty, which is invariably associated with statehood, is a reality only for Israel? First, the writers, pointing out the failure of separation, take the actual, negative ‘colonial bi-national realities’ and turn bi-nationalism into a positive on the grounds that, deprived of its colonial aspects, it simply reflects the fact that Mandate Palestine is a bi-national land. Dimitry Shumsky (Hebrew University) argues that even a two-state arrangement would only work if bi-nationalism were accepted as both a reality and a positive value. Bashir speaks of ‘adopting bi-national ethics, leading to historical reconciliation’. As for sovereignty, statist logic allows it to prevail as invasive and encompassing in its Israeli incarnation, ‘becoming the organizing principle for imposed oppression’. An alternative notion of sovereignty is essential and is on offer in the form of the model of the European Union, where sovereignty is shared and divisible. As Leila Farsakh (University of Massachusetts) argues, the EU ‘shows that self-determination can exist in different configurations by first recognising national and individual rights in a unified state of rights’.

The vocabulary of the rights-based politics advocated in the book can seem somewhat utopian, but it implies hard choices in terms of dismantling discriminatory structures, compromise and overcoming cherished historical positions. Were a state of rights to emerge in which the individual, collective and national rights all who live between the Jordan and the Mediterranean are guaranteed, it would be characterised by multinational democracy, joint-ownership, coexistence, integration, equality, reciprocity, respect and human dignity.

After some initial scepticism, the ideas in the book were received sympathetically by the Socialists and Democrats Group in the European Parliament, raising hopes that the chance of translating the principles into practical policy might gain momentum. Nevertheless, it would be fair to say that the new paradigm of the rights-based politics is still a work-in-progress. How would such a rights-based politics build support, given that so many so-called ‘dovish’ Israeli politicians and PA leaders are still wedded to the two state solution? Can a grass-roots equal rights campaign of Israelis and Palestinians from Israel, the West Bank and Gaza be created and be effective? How would equal rights be guaranteed without state backing? Would coalescing around ‘bi-national ethics’ ever satisfy long-standing Palestinian adherence to a nationalism connected to Arab nationalism? Would an Israeli polity so wedded to an exclusivist national identity voluntarily embrace bi-nationalism as a positive choice?

What the Rethinking book does demonstrate is that Israeli Jews and Palestinians can correct the imbalance in collective memories—one visible, one erased—that Roberts thinks make peace hard to imagine. Those who were involved in the Alternatives to Partition discussions hosted by the Kreisky Forum and who have written for the Rethinking book have taken to heart ‘the need to be heard’, a need which Roberts clearly believes both sides in the conflict have, but they make no false or simplistic equivalences. Both of these texts are clear about where power lies and on whom the burden of compromise will have to fall if there is ever to be a just and peaceful resolution of the Palestine– Israel conflict.

Parkes Institute, Southampton University

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