One of the many unfortunate side effects of the increasingly vitriolic discourse on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the inability to find sustained dialogue between informed partisans who disagree mightily with each other. This is perhaps even more true within the Jewish community than between Jews and Arabs.
Richard Landes is a Professor of History at Boston University and a frequent writer on the conflict from a perspective I very much disagree with. He has also been a friend of mine for over 30 years, since a time when our views on Israel were much more alike. He recently wrote an article on the “Honor/Shame Dynamic” in the Arab culture, which was published online in Tablet. I wrote a response which appears below (and is excerpted in Tablet), which Richard answered (below my response) and then I wrote a brief rejoinder (below that).
I hope this will be the first of other serious discussions between people whose views are very far apart but who nevertheless engage in discussions with respect and even affection. I should note that we started this exchange before the current crisis (or war), but I think it very much bears on the underlying cause for the continued conflict.
Response to Paul Scham
Your response illustrates the problem. You speak of humiliation and how to deal with it, but your notion of what’s involved is basically a projection of attitudes that prevail in the modern west. You and most policy-makers in the West acknowledge that Arabs and Muslims are very concerned with matters of honor and shame, but you all think that you can appease those sensitivities by showing them honor and not shaming them. They, in turn, use our misguided good will to bully us; they lead with their glass chin. Muslims riot around the world and kill innocent people because the pope said Islam is a religion of violence, and the pope needs to apologize. When you lose a sense of irony, you know you’re scared, and you’re probably missing the most important elements of the story.
From your point of view, “It stands to reason that when a people has been defeated and largely dispossessed by another, they want their land back,” a perfectly normal “human” reaction that you think I ignore. For you it’s about justice, fairness, the tragedy of dispossession, the almost desperate desire for nationhood and normalcy, all things that make sense to us.
But that’s precisely my point. I don’t think this conflict is about Israel taking the Palestinians’ land. Even though you write it as a statement of where we agree, I would never write a sentence like “without recognizing and dealing with the humiliation that the Nakba caused Arabs, especially Palestinians of course, one cannot understand Palestinian dynamics since 1948, and that the conflict cannot be settled without doing that.”
The point of my article was to distinguish between the Arab refugee Nakba of 1948 and the Arab global humiliation of 1948. They’re not the same thing, and they’re definitely not an a fortiori. On the contrary, the response of Arab leaders to their catastrophic global humiliation was to redouble the actual Nakba of their refugees.
Those Arab refugees from Palestine, the ones rounded up and put in concentration camps by their brethren to whom they fled, were at the bottom of the heap of the Arab world’s honor-shame system – fellahin, manual laborers, transients, people without protection (which is also why they were dealt with so cruelly). Israeli-inflicted humiliation was the least of their concerns in 1948; they suffered uprooting and, in their new surroundings, deliberate degradation and impoverishment from their brethren. Their original use of Nakba reproached the Arab leadership that brought catastrophe down upon their heads.
The plight of the Palestinians, then, is not the core of the conflict. Indeed, that problem could be solved to everyone’s benefit with a minimum of good will if the Palestinians were a people and their leaders cared about them. The core of the conflict in this “honor-shame” analysis concerns the Arab Nakba, the global humiliation of 1948. Arab leaders loudly promised a world community, that they would deal summarily with this holocaust-wounded people. When they failed, spectacularly, they became the laughing stock of the global community.
For these players, for the current Arab political culture’s honor-group, it’s not about land. By merely coming into existence – a free people in our own land – Israel constituted at blow to Arab and Muslim honor; in that universe, Israel was literally unthinkable. Dar al Harb in Dar al Islam – heaven forbid! By winning in 1948, Israel added insult to injury. Even in the West (which did not fully appreciate what Dar al Islam was about), the military loss blackened the Arab’s face in front of the world community.
That humiliation lies at the heart of key causes and resolutions to the conflict, and the Palestinians are not a reflection of that problem, but a product of the Arab world’s combined denial and attempt to avenge it. The Palestinian people, victimized by Israeli conquest and expulsion, represents a scapegoating narrative by which the Arab elites seek to at once deny and revenge their Nakba by using the Palestinians as sacrificial pawns: they may not make peace with Israel precisely because they literally exist to destroy them, something some on the “left” are beginning to recognize.
This resistance lies behind the irredentist voice we now hear (alas, even from infidel “progressives” on Western campuses): From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free. It really means, from the river to the sea is dar al Islam, over which Islam must rule, in which infidels can only live as dhimmi. That’s why all land-based compromises, i.e., solutions in which the Jews get even a sliver of a slice of land, have failed so far. It’s got nothing to do with Palestinian identity, nationality, rights, or peoplehood. The only people who take Palestinian claims to national identity seriously are progressive infidels; no one in the Arab world pays it any more than lip-service.
But I suspect somewhere you know all this. You just don’t want to admit it, because you are in thrall to the notion to which you’ve dedicated most of your scholarly work “the importance of historical narratives in understanding – and perhaps even solving – the Israeli-Palestinian (and Israeli-Arab) conflict.” If only we would listen to, even affirm the perfectly reasonable complaints of the Palestinians, their demand that Israel and the world “recognize” their “memory of expulsion,” their claim to nationhood, then we could all move forward (which is what virtually every Jew in the world would like to see happen). And who more than Jews should understand wanting one’s nation recognized, wanting to return to one’s land? Win-win!
And you may be right: narrative does have therapeutic value, especially when it’s tied to empirical reality. Your therapeutic history, however, relies a projection of how to deal with humiliation and a misreading of the enormity of the humiliation. So not only will such apologies not work, they will (and have) backfire(d) precisely because the people you seek to move – the “Palestinians” – cannot move without the approval of the Arab honor group, and that group plays by entirely different rules when it comes to overcoming humiliation.
For them the motto is: “that which has been taken by force must be taken back by force.” And this applies triply to situations in which you lost to a (supposedly) weaker “force.” The dream of a negotiated positive-sum solution would make them women in their own eyes. When you say, “history and experience shows that humiliation can be overcome in various ways, and… societies are not condemned to wander for centuries seething from the anger of past humiliations,” that’s the history of the West to which you refer, not Arab history, where to this day, Shi’a and Sunn’i still seethe over events over fourteen centuries ago.
But your strategy has another problem. The “narrative of Palestinian suffering inflicted by Israel that you’ve accepted as “authentic” actually serves as a lethal narrative, fashioned by the very Arab leadership that seeks revenge at all costs, that uses the Palestinians for whom it pretends to speak, as sacrificial pawns. You say, “the Arab and Muslim world saw the Palestinian loss of their homeland as a clear-cut case of their brothers and sisters in ethnicity and/or religion suffering a grievous wrong.”
Nonsense. It’s not clear whether anyone in the Arab world cares about (when they don’t actively dislike) the Palestinians. It’s a classic zero-sum, scapegoating narrative, steeped in denial, compensatory anger, and hatred, a narrative that not only targets the intended victim, Israel, with the accusation of committing the crimes that the Arabs tried and failed to accomplish, and refuses any responsibility for the vicious blunders they themselves committed, but also victimizes the “Palestinians” on whose behalf it claims to speak. And most Palestinian spokesmen, traitors to their people, adopt this narrative that targets Israel rather than the Arab elites who cause their suffering. The way the Nakba has become a weapon against Israel tells the tale of how the Arab zero-sum honor-shame group has appropriated Arab self-critical impulses get appropriated for scapegoating narratives steeped in denial.
And rather than help them pursue the kind of self-criticism necessary for any growth, you (and your colleagues on the “left”) condescend to the Palestinians by adopting their dishonest narratives as a way to spare their feelings. Israel has to acknowledge their narrative editorializes Haaretz, and although they also should acknowledge Israel’s, dialogue advocates tend to give them a pass when they fail. They, being in the weak position, we cannot expect them to publicly self-criticize; “wait,” they tell us, “till we have statehood.” Talk to anyone who goes on a “dialogue trip” to the Palestinian territories in search of understanding: “listen,” they’re instructed, “don’t contradict, don’t argue. They need to tell their story.” It’s the equivalent of saying, “go, drink a toxic stew of lethal narratives designed to make Muslims jihadis and infidels pacifists.”
On the contrary, they need to start hearing the stories of those “others,” those infidels, they’ve wronged in countless ways, with their mass-murdering “resistance,” with their heinous and sadistic accusations of Nazi-like behavior, with their cowardice in the face of their own predatory elites whom they dare not criticize openly. The Palestinians will really become a people, a nation, perhaps the first in the Arab world that is not, in Sadat’s words, “a tribe with a flag,” when they begin to acknowledge their tragic story: how they were betrayed and victimized by their own elites, how that came about because their political culture is driven by a pathological honor-imperative that demands dominion, dominion over the “other”, whether socially inferior, or Christian or Jew, over their women, over each other, how they have the best possible enemy and the worst possible “friends.”
Which brings me to my last comment on your text. You ask: “Could they all be lying to me?” and respond, “no.” This response embodies your cognitive egocentrism, from the allusion to the Protocols (we didn’t like being accused of conspiracy, we shouldn’t accuse them) right down to its formulation, in which lying is a serious accusation. But very few cultures in history value honesty over public honor. Even fewer have public figures “proud” to admit to error and wrong, a tendency so strong in the Jewish community that we have people who are “proud to be ashamed to be Jewish.”
In an honor-shame driven society, however, saving face trumps all; indeed honor demands the shedding of blood. A fortiori, must one lie to save face. As a result, the overwhelming weight of public opinion on the Palestinian/Arab side opposes any form of honesty that shames. What Palestinian spokesmen admit to massacring Jews as a shameful deed? On the contrary, even “moderates” like Abbas, glorify those who mass-murder Israeli civilians.
Your pious defense of Arab honesty – they wouldn’t all lie to me – merely proves either how little you understand, or how you’ll lie to preserve their honor. (Indeed many of your colleagues on the “left” are quick to accuse anyone who suggests otherwise of “racism.”) But in some (many) cultures, lying is a game of wits: I lie to you to test your critical acumen. When you accept their strategic protestations as true – e.g., the settlements are the problem; we Palestinians will be satisfied with a return to the “‘67” borders, we desperately want to live normal lives – you think you’re being generous and sympathetic, but you just demonstrate your folly to them.
As for your Palestinian interlocutors, I don’t know how each one feels, but I think that many fall along the following spectrum: on one extreme, those who want your approval, and at the other extreme, those who would manipulate you into getting Israel to make public confessions that blacken her face before the world community (feeding BDS), and concessions that would fatally weaken her (feeding the Palestinians’ military option). My sense is that you will not allow yourself to suspect your interlocutors of the latter: heaven forbid that they should be so dishonest, and that you should be so easily manipulated.
In so doing you strengthen the very honor-shame forces that you accuse me of being a cultural determinist for identifying as the source of the problem. I actually believe the Arab and Muslim world can change – indeed, for the sake of Muslims and infidels the world over, must change. (As the Taliban and ISIS make clear, nothing would be more disastrous for Muslims than the victory of Islamism.) My academic work focuses on how cultures deal with testosteronic honor, and under what circumstances a more positive-sum voice emerges, especially in relationship to the “other.” (Europe in the Middle Ages was also a zero-sum honor-shame culture.) And my analysis suggests that the folks who claim to represent the “progressive left” from the “solidarity” movement to the J-Streeters, encourage the Palestinians to double down.
The best proof that Arabs have a noble and tolerant past and that Islam is a religion of peace, is not repeating politically correct formulas to soothe their wounded egos, but for the present generation of Muslims to bring that proud identity into reality, not as sadistic rage, but as a courage to show generosity to the “other,” in this case the Jewish other.
Positive-sum westerners see “two states” as the obvious solution to the conflict on the land between the river and the sea. But analyzed in terms of honor-shame reasoning and the players involved, not only is that solution not going to work, but it’s actually designed to pursue the zero-sum dream: “Palestine from the river to the sea.” When we understand that the problem is not “how much” territory is Israel willing to concede to satisfy the Palestinians?” but “how do Arab Muslims overcome the humiliation that is Israel, and find their dignity in the global community,” different landscapes and alternatives arise.
First it becomes crystal clear that resolving this contest in a way that convinces Islamist supremacists to stand down becomes imperative not only for Israel, but for the West and all other peoples around the world, who, in the early decades of the third (global) millennium, are also the target of this zero-sum, honor-driven, imperialist version of monotheism: one God, one rule, one religion. The idea that “land for peace” is an (the only) option, has progressives, Jewish and not, convinced that if only they cram this solution down Israel’s throat (for its own good of course, à la J-Street), they’ll solve the problem. Such a solution will only pour oil on the Jihadi fire.
The alternative perspective, however, by considering real causes, opens up new thinking and new solutions. This means viewing the specific conflict as one between Israel, the only (democratic) state of the Jews, fighting off 22 Arab and 57 Muslim (authoritarian) states driven by a hard zero-sum vision of Islam in the world to oppose its very existence, and beyond that, between Muslim theocratic, authoritarian political culture and the democratic West.
In that framework, I’d like to suggest a Qur’an inspired alternative, also an obvious solution, but one that addresses the heart of the dilemma, not only of the “local” Arab-Israeli conflict, but the global “Muslim-infidel” conflict, namely the inability of Muslims to live peaceably with their neighbors, Muslim and infidel. The greatest challenge of this generation is to the Muslim world to effect major changes in the hard zero-sum way they have historically behaved towards infidels (and women, and anyone less powerful). Everyone’s life, on this increasingly connected planet of the beginning third millennium, depends on Muslims rising to this challenge. Israel is their Dreyfus Affair, their test of modernity. Can they shift moral paradigms? Can they live at peace with the rest of the world without trying to subject them?
To those of Allah’s faithful who would like Islam to stand in a place of honor among the nations of a peaceful and peace-loving world, I make this suggestion that, I think, will set you on a fruitful path. In the Qur’an, Surah 107 explains to people that, at the Last Judgment, Allah will not smile on those who “would be seen (i.e., admired) yet refuse the small kindness.” And yet this is precisely what Arab and Muslims have done to the Jews for the last 66 years.
There are 1.2 billion Muslims in the world, or about a fifth of the global population; there are 12 million, Jews, or about a fifth of a percent of the world population. Of the entire area occupied by Arab-speaking majorities in the world, greater Israel constitutes a fifth of a percent of that total. Given all that Islam shares with Judaism (dare one say, adopted from Judaism), do you Muslims really think that on the Day of Judgment, Allah will forgive you if they refuse us the “small kindness” of being allowed to prosper on this tiny sliver of land? For the sake of world peace – literally – do not refuse us this “small kindness.”
Scham Answer to Landes Response
Your lengthy answer to my response highlights the differences in our world views and I think I don’t need to reiterate my arguments, except for one general point. You are seeking intellectual/ideological solutions as a preface t, or even substitute for, political change, while I see the problem as primarily political and therefore amenable to political solutions. As I wrote previously, I agree that some of the ideological phenomena, even pathologies, that you describe exist in the Arab and Muslim worlds. However, I strongly disagree that they are the dominant themes, even if they appear the most spectacular and therefore seem most newsworthy. I feel you are erecting a huge ideological superstructure based on a lot of intellectual constructs, many of which would collapse in the face of Israeli political action to ameliorate the conditions it has imposed on the Palestinians under its effective control.
Of course there’s a lot more that I could write but I think we have delineated our differences pretty well, at least for a start.
Landes Answer to Scham response:
The very fact that experts in politics call themselves political “scientists” says a great deal about how much they overestimate the reliability and the scope of their discipline. I am not engaged in intellectual/ideological analysis (projection?). I’m engaged in psychological and anthropological analysis as a necessary preliminary to finding practical solutions.