I’ve written several times about the importance of the historical narratives of the two sides to both the continuation of the conflict and – eventually – its settlement. In fact, I have a new edited book on the subject that came out recently, entitled Shared Narratives, co-edited with Benjamin Pogrund and As’ad Ghanem. It’s available (for purchase) at http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/israelstudies.18.issue-2 in paper and digital editions. But I’ll write more about it later this summer. Today I want to call your attention to a very recent and extraordinary article by a friend of mine, Dr. Natasha Gill, a former professor at the New School who now lives in London. It’s entitled The Original “No”: Why the Arabs Rejected Zionism, and Why It Matters and it’s available (for free) here. I think it’s essential reading for everyone who identifies with, cares about, or supports Israel – or Israeli-Palestinian peace, for that matter.
I have read any number of articles and books about the origins and nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and written a few myself (hey, it’s a job!). What is different about this one is that it explains, both clearly and passionately, why the conflict was inevitable once Zionist settlement began in Palestine, and why it wasn’t just because of bad people or bad statesmanship or anti-Semitism that conflict wasn’t avoided. You had two national movements that wanted the same land. And yes, the Zionists were willing to divide the disputed land and the Arabs weren’t. And there were other compromises offered that they refused. And they still refuse to recognize Israel “as a Jewish state.” Why? Read the article.
Natasha, a trained historian, explains how the Zionists, the conflict, and the options were viewed by the Palestinian Arabs at the time, and why partition, either the 1937 or the 1948 version, was absolutely unacceptable to the elite and ordinary people alike, with very few exceptions.
In my view (and probably Natasha’s), this article isn’t really “history” as generally understood. or written, though it’s based on a deep understanding of the period. It is a critique of a mindset, one that most Jews – and many others – grew up with. It is written to both raise and answer legitimate questions today about how the conflict got started and continues.
Most non-historians aren’t obsessed with the past. People live in the present mostly, and the future. Americans especially are famously non-historically-minded. We automatically seek compromise in most instances, and we reject rigidity, especially if based on perceived wrongs in the past. For me, even as a historian, the most important question in this article is, what are its implications? Does this mean Israel shouldn’t exist? If it was “born in sin,” as revisionist Israeli historian Benny Morris wrote a quarter of a century ago, does that mean it has no right to exist? Or that Israelis should, at the least, apologize for their national existence?
Of course, many Arabs and others believe exactly that. I am not one of them. I think what it proves is that Zionism, like all political and national movements, was not “pure,” that it caused a lot of suffering, and that it ignored or minimized the rights of its enemies. But ultimately that shows only that Zionism was – like all human creations – flawed, in that it couldn’t provide a solution for everything. Those of us who celebrate – in whatever way and to whatever degree – Zionism’s success in creating the State of Israel owe it to ourselves to understand the cost and circumstances of that success.
At this point, in my view, Israel should exist primarily because it’s there, which is the ultimate justification for most states. And Palestine should exist as a state because it is the only – and fairest – way to solve a burning political problem. But to idolize – or even idealize – either of them is to commit both a religious and a political sin. If you wait long enough, all nations show that they have clay feet. But they are necessary (in my view) for our world as we have arranged it.
So I genuinely urge everyone who cares about Israel to read Natasha’s article, not because it proves the Palestinians were right – which I don’t think it does – but because it gives us tools to understand the bases of their grievances, past and present. I don’t think that the political, moral, or ideological foundations of Israel are so weak that they can’t stand some shaking. I genuinely feel sorry for those who do. And that “Shimshon der nebechdikher” attitude (an expression of former Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, meaning, essentially “poor, weak Samson”) is a much greater threat to Israeli security than is understanding the Palestinians.