Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Erekat and the right not to change one's narrative

Israeli-Palestinian peace making is, to some extent, an attempt at negotiating the difference between national narratives. Saeb Erekat, chief negotiator on the Palestinian side and someone I have long regarded as the voice of reason and moderation, recently said something curious. I quote from an article by Michael R. Gordon and Jodi Rudoren (NYTimes) that appeared in the Boston Globe of Dec 5, 2013 on p. A7

Erekat told the diplomats [at a dinner held in Jerusalem on the prior Friday] that the Palestinians could never accede to Israel's demand that they recognize it as the nation-state of the Jewish people. "I cannot change my narrative," he said. "The essence of peace is not to convert each other's stories." 

At first glance, this statement is a non-sequitur. The first part of the statement references an Israeli narrative of Israel as a “nation-state of the Jewish people,” while the second part speaks of the right of the Palestinians to their own narrative. In combination, this amounts to saying that Palestians cannot be expected to change their narrative, but they expect Israel to modify its self-understanding as a Jewish state. At the same time, Erekat asserts that peace entails not to convert each other’s stories. So what will it be?

Erekat’s statement can be broken down into three parts, but the relation of these parts and hence the meaning of the statement as a whole is not immediately clear.

First statement [1]: The Palestinians could never accede to Israel's demand that they recognize it as the nation-state of the Jewish people.

This sentence is made up of two sub-clauses:

[1A] Israel demands that Palestinians recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people
[1B] Palestinians could never accede to [1A].

Second statement [2]: "I cannot change my narrative," he said. "The essence of peace is not to convert each other's stories."

This, too, can be broken down into two statements, namely, 

[2A] I cannot change my narrative, and
[2B] The essence of peace is not to convert each other’s stories.

This is where it gets opaque. It is not clear how [2A] and [2B] are related. [2A] is a bridge between [1] and [2] but it is phrased in form of a personal, not a general statement: “I cannot change my narrative” could mean Erekat alone, but the next sentence links it to a claim on the “essence of peace,” defined as the demand of not converting one another’s stories. In other words, what he is articulating is not just his personal view but his view as the member of a nation with its own narrative.

On some level, what Erekat says is clear. He gives us the well-known Palestinian response to a demand first made a few years ago by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others and since reiterated in the debate on a loyalty oath that may be imposed on the Arab residents of Israel, namely, to recognize not just Israel’s right to exist but to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state or as a state of the Jews, i.e., as an ethnic democracy, rather than a democracy based on the equal rights of all of its citizens. This demand, which has ratcheted up the rhetoric of recognition, has irked the Palestinians (and many Jews) because it is widely perceived as creating an insurmountable obstacle to peace and reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians. The shift from recognition of Israel to recognition of Israel-as-a-Jewish-state effectively wants Arabs to accede to Israel’s demographic fear of being overtaken by Arab birth rates and therefore to seal the deal on their own ethnic inferiority within the Jewish state in perpetuity. No wonder this is irksome.

The problem with Erekat’s statement is that he demands the freedom to retain his own narrative, while demanding of Israelis to change theirs. If the condition for peace is not to convert one another’s stories, then what’s the point of trying to pressure Israelis to change theirs? Palestinians and many well-meaning Jews have indeed been trying to use world opinion to pressure the Israeli government and the public that sustains it to change their narrative. The precondition for Israeli-Arab reconciliation seems to be that Israel relinquish the notion of itself as a Jewish state.

I have very good friends who loathe Israel because of its ethnic character. For them, Israel’s treatment of Arabs, Bedouins, and other “others” is colonialist or worse. Zionism seems to them a settler movement grounded in European racism and sustained by American capitalist and imperialist interests. They argue that the only way of rectifying the historic injustice done to the Palestinians and the only way to a lasting solution in the Middle East is to allow for one state to be established in what used to be British Mandate Palestine, perhaps including the territory and populations of what is now the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, a state where Jews, Arabs, and others enjoy equal rights and equal access to all resources and no group enjoys particular privileges as a group.

Historically informed readers will immediately recognize the similarity between this view and the 18th- and 19th-century European debates on Jewish emancipation. As the Count de Clermont-Tonnere put it in the mother of all of these debates in the French National Assembly of 1791, to the Jews as individuals everything, to the Jews as a nation: nothing. We know the outcome of that attempt to solve the “Jewish question.” Zionism was, in fact, the response to the failure of the French Revolution to deliver a lasting integration of the Jews into European societies, a failure for which-contrary to Karl Marx, Bruno Bauer, or Richard Wagner-the Jews are not to blame.

The reason why Palestinians, even the most reasonable ones among them, including Mr. Erekat, are caught in a bind is that they may be right in theory, but they are wrong in light of history. Palestinians carry the heavy weight of a plurality of historic failures that cannot be easily rectified by means of general verities. It is true that Palestinians have suffered the indignities of foreign intervention, political deception, failure of leadership, expulsion, statelessness, and occupation for too long. They deserve better. They should not be paying the price for the failure of European societies to integrate their Jewish minorities. They should not pay the price for the destruction of European Jewry wreaked by Nazi Germany and their many willing helpers across the Continent. We cannot weigh Nakba against Holocaust, or else we will belittle the Palestinian right to self-determination, let alone to a life in dignity and self-respect.

Part of the onus is indeed on Israel. Israel is in a position of strength. Part of its strength derives from the moral right to security it derives from the historic suffering of the Jews. But the power it derives from this past needs to be balanced by responsibility, its moral capital invested wisely and justly. Jewish ethnic power threatens to turn into the pursuit of a natural right, i.e., you act because you can, not because it is legitimate, or at least legitimized by a more general consensus (e.g., sanctioned by the UN General Assembly as the embodiment of a volonté générale of all nations). With time and with the lack of rectification of Palestinian suffering the value of the latter increases as the value of Jewish suffering is eroded and squandered, leaving the Jews exposed as merely self-interested, the very claim raised against them by the likes of Marx and Bauer in the nineteenth century who argued against Jewish emancipation not because Jews should not enjoy equal rights but because everyone should enjoy equal rights, not just the Jews.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

East Jerusalem as the Capital of Palestine?

Jerusalem was a divided city from 1949 to 1967. Following Israel's War of Independence, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan annexed the east (and north and south) and the State of Israel annexed the western part of the city, located at the end of a corridor that linked it to mainland Israel and kept it alive as a frontier town and capital of the Jewish state. This was an ideal arrangement neither for the Palestinians, who, under Jordanian rule, were reduced to provincial status if they weren't refugees, nor for the Israelis, who were banished from the traditional Jewish quarter and denied access to the holy site of the Western Wall.

In June 1967, the opportunity offered itself to the Israeli cabinet to use the pretext of a preemptive war to change the status quo in Jerusalem. As a result, the former Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, with a living memory of desires for independence stirred first under the Ottomans and later under the British (and stifled by the Jordanians), found themselves in a weird new situation: legally severed from the remainder of the West Bank (which remained under military occupation) but geo-physically, economically, and culturally the center of Palestinian life, East Jerusalem was subject to measures of Israelization and Judaization through any number of measures large and small. (Moshe Amirav describes the Israeli policy goals with admirable clarity in his book, The Jerusalem Syndrome.) As many have noted, these policies failed: Jerusalem's Arab population remained linked to the West Bank; the PLO (even before it was accepted by the Israeli establishment as a potential partner for peace) was active in Jerusalem; Jerusalem's Arabs never accepted the Israeli political system as their own; demographically speaking, the ratio of Arab to Jewish residents has been increasing; in short: East Jerusalem has remained a predominantly Arab, Christian and Muslim city with strong ties to the West Bank and the Palestinian diaspora.

In connection with the recent resumption of peace talks brokered by the indefatigable John Kerry, I have read statements by representatives of Americans for Peace Now that emphasized that East Jerusalem should be the capital of any future Palestinian state. It is of course not unthinkable not to have East Jerusalem as part of such a state. One can easily imagine a Palestinian state that excludes a certain territory as long as there is sufficient territory elsewhere to sustain a state. One can also imagine a Jewish state without Jerusalem, in fact such a state was imagined and accepted by the Zionist movement when Israel was founded in 1948. To accept the UN Partition Plan of 1947, as the Zionists did, meant to accept the partition of historical Palestine (meaning Cis-Jordan, as defined on the British map of 1922), excluding Jerusalem and Bethlehem, which the UN plan designated as a corpus separatum to be placed under international supervision. This could have worked then, but it is no longer on the agenda. What is on the agenda is the idea of sharing Jerusalem, of making it the location of two capitals, or rather of having two governmental clusters (buildings, authorities, institutions) located in close proximity and within the vicinity of what is now the municipality of Jerusalem, a city with boundaries created by post-June 1967 Israeli urban planning informed by one-sided nationalistic goals.

The Geneva Accords and other draft agreements have spelled out the specifics of shared sovereignty.  This would entail maintaining free access to holy places and public order, while providing equitable resources and services to all residents of this ever more sprawling urban cluster. What is missing at present is the political will to make this work. Jerusalem's heightened meaning to both sides prevents the political establishments on both sides to imagine how this city could be shared. It's like trying to imagine sharing someone beloved with another lover. Perhaps the idea of an international regime wasn't so bad in the first place. Without such a regime, without an honest broker, without an equitable legal framework and someone neutral to enforce it, it may just be too difficult to imagine a shared Jerusalem (which explains the ubiquitous nostalgia for the days of empire).

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Apropos going back to where you came from

When you have a chance and you find yourself in Madrid, take the train to nearby Toledo, a former imperial city and capital of Castile-La Mancha, a UNESCO designated world heritage site and a medieval town famed for its swords and a particular kind of marzipan. It is also famed for its pre-expulsion co-existence of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, though the manner in which Judeo and Morisco heritages have been Christianized is perhaps even more poignant and an object lesson in more or less benign forms of Christian supersessionism. (A long story in its own right.)

When you get to the Sinagoga del Tránsito (so named for the "transit" of the Holy Virgin), a stunning piece of medieval architecture, don't fail to spend time at the Sephardic heritage museum housed in the former women's gallery of the original synagogue where you can see a documentary from the 1920's where someone went around the Mediterranean (mostly the Balkans) to document the plight, poverty and cultural achievements of the Sephardic diaspora with the aim of persuading these Jewish communities to pack up and return--to Sepharad!
Sinagoga del Tránsito, Toledo (Spain)

Detail from the Women's Gallery of the Sinagoga del Tránsito

This little-known initiative, pre-dating the rise of Nazism but contemporary with modern Zionism, though quirky and of little real impact, nevertheless struck me as quite powerful. It brought home in a manner unmatched by history books or wikipedia the distinctly Sephardic heritage of Jews who had migrated with the Romans, who had settled in Visigothic and Umayyad Spain, and who contributed to the vibrancy of a multi-cultural, multi-religious, perhaps typically mediterranean society (if one is still allowed to use this term). And even after that relatively golden age came to a repressive and violent end through expulsion, forced conversion and inquisition, Sephardic culture continued to maintain its distinctive characteristics (including its languages) in the Ottoman realm and its heirs, especially across the patchwork of south-eastern European countries. (Think: Sarajevo or Saloniki.) Can these Jews go back to where they came from?

Hardly. Part of the sadness of the twentieth century is the realization that one cannot go home again. Part of the promise of the twenty-first century is that home is where (and what) we want it to be.

The Jews are tempted to regard the Land of Israel as their ancestral homeland. They are so tempted because, in some sense, it is. But the Land of Israel is also, of course, the homeland of the Palestinians. It *is* Palestine as much as it *is* the Land of Israel. That's because the land as such is just land, but it *is* ontologically and for us what it means to us, what we associate with it. It is Land of Israel or Palestine because of our memories and attachments, because of our pasts. Two very different sets of memories (and then some) are attached to the same patch of land. To imagine that we can go back home means to imagine that we can make the land of today into the land of the past, that we can merge reality and imagination. Part of the quarrel that is internal to the Zionist movement or what has become of it is the question of the role of land in the Zionist imagination of the past as compared to the role of the land in the Zionist imagination of the present. This quarrel is to some extent as old as Zionism itself, though it was repressed by Herzl in the interest of other pragmatic goals. From the beginning there were those who argued for Zionism as an answer to the plight of the Jews (the Sephardic project documented in El Transito being an alternative answer) and others who believed that an answer to this plight could only be found in the ancient homeland.

But history can be misleading. Revisiting the quarrels of the past raises the false hope that we can renegotiate the past. The Land of Israel, not in its completeness but in part, has been redeemed, a state has been created, society and economy exist and thrive. It turns out that this society is more mixed, less unambiguously Jewish, and more complexly Israeli than one may have imagined or wished for. That's because time does not stop and history is unpredictable, because people act in unforeseen ways. We can't even go home to the Israel of the 1950s or 60s any longer, a time that in hindsight looks like a period of innocence. Israel's muscular society came at a price. The redemption of the land came at the cost of the partition of Palestine, the flight and expulsion of over half a million of its population, and the harassment, indignity, and administrative erosion of Arab life in what remains of historic Palestine. But we can work for a future that is sufficiently capacious for everyone. Let's start by imagining Jerusalem not as a site of biblical phantasy but as a New Toledo, a place of a plurality of societies, without supersession and expulsion. It's worth a try.

Monday, June 10, 2013

"Why don't you go back where you came from?"

That's what a thirteenth-generation Yankee finally said after a long altercation I had with him this morning near Leverett Pond, part of the Olmstead-designed Emerald Necklace, one of Boston's amazing green spaces. It began with me walking my dog off leash and allowing her to chase the resident Canadian geese across the ball park, as she does every morning. One of the geese was flight-impaired, easy prey. As my dog pounced and I called her off, this gentleman started yelling at me, as people sometimes do when they have a chance to berate an obvious "outlaw," which is how the altercation started. I tried to ignore him, focusing on my dog instead who, well-trained and obedient animal that she is, was beginning to back off the goose. As the man continued yelling at me for being a bad person and calling my dog a murderer, the goose saw its chance, lifted its limpid body off the ground and took off toward the water. At that point I was doing everything I could to prevent my dog from taking off after her while fending off the continued verbal abuse. So, I admit, I called the elderly gentleman stupid. After all, if he wanted the goose to get away, he should have left me to do my job. Instead he distracted me by calling me names.  In turn, I asked him to stop talking to me and, yes, I called him a stupid man. That wasn't nice. It wasn't effective either. And after some more back and forth it climaxed in the said suggestion that I should return to whatever foreign country I had come from.

I was perplexed. Ludicrous. Really? The best repartee I could think of at that point was to ask him how long he had been in the country, which is when he lopped back his Yankee pedigree. Not easy to top that. All I could say as I walked off was that we all come from somewhere. Not brilliant, but still true.

I've heard it before. It's the sentence of last resort. Why don't you go back where you came from? The obvious implication being that we have a choice. The other implication is that you're here on the suffering of others who have better, longer claims. And it is they who lay down the law. And if you don't like it, you can always go home again. Except if you can't.

Back in the day, Europeans were eager to send Jews back where they had come from, namely, Palestine, even though Jews had settled along the Rhine before most Germanic tribes became sedentary. Palestinian Arabs in turn have argued that Jews should go back where they came from, by which they mean Europe. Setting aside that Jews were not welcome in Europe even after the horror of the death camps was revealed, not all Jews are from Europe. In the late forties and early fifties, half a million Jews were expelled from Iraq, Syria, Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world in retaliation for the Arab flight from Israel and Israel's refusal to let them return. Jews of Middle Eastern and North African origin cannot go back either. Millennial communities were destroyed in a few years by expulsion and genocide and there is no way for them to be rebuilt. The Jews cannot go back because there's no "there" to go back to. Sorry. Palestinian refugees, though deserving of compensation, cannot be repatriated either. For that, too, we are sorry.

What about the other implication of the sentence of last resort? We've been here longer; we have the better claim. We make the laws--or have divine law on our side--and you better live by our laws, or else you will need to leave or be punished. This was the status of the Jews of the Holy Land under Muslim rule for many centuries. Banished from Jerusalem by Hadrian in 135 CE, a limited number of Jewish families were readmitted to Jerusalem by the early Muslims of the seventh century CE. As one of several protected people (ahl al-dhimma) they were exempt from the spoils of war and subjected to burdensome poll taxes (burdensome because they were not based on productivity and wealth but on heads of household). But they (or a token few of them) were allowed to return and welcomed back.

And now? With the Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem, following the 1967 conquest, Jerusalem's populations are under Israeli civilian jurisdiction. But the annexation of East Jerusalem remains contested. Though Israel's parliament has declared Jerusalem (i.e, the extended municipality, an area of 126 km squared) the eternally undivided capital of Israel, this claim is contested and not internationally recognized. It is a unilateral declaration that bumps up against international law, the Geneva Convention, various resolutions of the UN General Assembly, the right of the Palestinian Arabs to self-determination, and the claims of the Arab and Muslim world to sovereignty over East Jerusalem and its Muslim holy places.

Because the legal status and the future of Jerusalem are contested, history and archaeology are contested as well. The better claims always seem to be rooted in who was here first: a competition between the nativists. We've been here first! According to Arafat, the late chairman of the PLO and first president of the PNA, the Arabs of Jerusalem are descendants of the ancient Jebusites, a biblical fantasy people. In contrast, traditional Arab and Muslim sources never doubted the ancient Jewish claim to the city but made it dependent on divine providence. To prove Jewish antiquity we need neither archaeological forgery nor window dressing. Even though the Torah itself vitiates against all nativism, Jews once emerged from this city and they are back. From a purely historical perspective, let alone theology, no one has a better right to be attached to this city. But does this give us the right to eclipse the Arab and Muslim history of this city? Does it give us the right to impose our law on those who have been here and ruled the city for over a thousand years? It was the Muslims who readmitted the Jews to their holy city. Have we no sense of gratitude? Can the legal status of Jerusalem, its land use and the rights of its communities, be single-handedly determined by a Jewish state that acquired this land by force, an acquisition and annexation not recognized by international law? Perhaps it can, for those are the laws of the jungle. Might is right. But should Israeli administration seek to undermine and delegitimize the Arabs of Jerusalem? Is it a good idea? Even a Jewish idea? Even if we can, does this mean we ought?

The gentleman who called me an outlaw and my dog a murderer was wrong on both counts. A misdemeanor makes no outlaw, and the goose got away. But I should not have called him a stupid man. He acted stupidly, but did that give me the right to call him stupid? I have a foreign accent. Does that give him the right to send me packing? Perhaps we should stay away from calling one another names. Better call one another on our behavior. Tell me what I do wrong. Don't extrapolate from my actions to my character. Don't call me names. I won't call you names either. We may not be friends, but perhaps we can be neighbors, not just in Boston but even in Jerusalem. Does it really matter who was here first?

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Jerusalem Day 2013

This just in from the Jewish National Fund. My notes are in italics. 

Today we celebrate the reunification of Jerusalem, a monumental day in Jewish history. It was 46 years ago that the Jewish people regained sovereignty over their spiritual capital for the first time in 2,000 years.
It is true that June 1967, the Six Day War, was a monumental day in Jewish history. But Jerusalem, more precisely: West Jerusalem, was already the internationally (though not universally) recognized capital of Israel. Only after Israel conquered East Jerusalem by force and annexed the city, extending Israeli civilian jurisdiction to a dramatically enlarged municipal area called "Jerusalem", only then did many countries decide to move their embassies back to Tel Aviv. -- What does it mean to have sovereignty over a "spiritual capital"? Isn't that a contradiction in terms? A forcing of end-times?

Yet the United States, as an ally nation, has not yet embraced Jerusalem with the same enthusiasm as the Jewish nation. As a friend to the only democratic nation in the Middle East, should we not show our support by recognizing the same capital as they do?
Good for the US and others who have resisted the false rhetoric of unification. As Bernard Wasserstein shows in his excellent book Divided Jerusalem, Jerusalem is anything but united. It is a highly segregated city of Israelis and Palestinians, and also includes a significant expatriate community with a strong and long-standing interest in the sacred places in and around the Old City. 
Jerusalem is the lifeblood of the Jewish people and the heart and soul of our nation.

Sentimental nonsense. Our collective soul is damaged by chauvinism and the oppression of others. 

[Addendum: My calling of "Jerusalem is the lifeblood" etc "(s)entimental nonsense" has clearly shocked some readers, as this entire piece seems to have enraged someone enough to call me a 'hater of Israel.' -- So let me clarify: We need to distinguish between Jerusalem shel ma'lah and Jerusalem shel mata, the upper and the lower, the spiritual and the mundane. Our attachment to the lower mundane city must not come at the expense of our spiritual attachment to the upper city. But to be attached to the upper city means that we must heed the warnings of the prophets and sages of Israel. To imbue the mundane struggle for dominance and sovereignty with supreme spiritual importance exploits our genuine attachment to the heavenly city and radicalizes us. It has the potential of rendering us odious to the rest of the world. This is not the Judaism to which I subscribe.]

This Jerusalem Day is the perfect time to show Israel our support and send a message to the world that the United States is, and will continue to be, the greatest ally that Israel has in this world.

I support Israel. It is an amazing place with an amazing history and an interesting culture. As a Jew I am grateful that the US and other states support Israel. I am also grateful when supporters of Israel, Jews and non-Jews, can distinguish between supporting Israel and supporting every policy of the Israeli government. As a friend of Israel and someone who loves Jerusalem, I would like to see Jerusalem's holy basin internationalized and not run aground by Israeli chauvinists or national-religious radicals. The Arabs are people, too. They have rights and interests. Jerusalem's holy places should not be exploited for political purposes. The future of Jerusalem needs to be negotiated and settled between Israelis, Palestinians, and the wider world, which also has a stake in Jerusalem. It is not just a Jewish holy city, it is also a Christian holy city, let alone a Muslim holy city. We need mutual respect, not infinite feeding of the self-assertion of just one party in this cluster of communities.  
Send this message to President Obama urging him to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel today. Be sure to share this message with your friends, family members, and social circles to help us reach as wide an audience as possible.

Don't send this message.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Spotlight on neighborly sentiments

Would you buy an apartment in a place where you're not wanted? Where your neighbors hate you and would like to see nothing better than the day when you will be forced out? Why on earth would you do that? Because the apartment is larger and cheaper than where you lived before? Because your great great grandfather is buried nearby? Because you've been brought up on the belief that this is your place, not theirs? Because it is a "very holy place"? All of the above?  You mistrust your neighbors; they don't love you and you don't love them. -- This, as reported by Jodi Rudoren in today's New York Times, is the state of affairs in Ma'alot David, in Beit Orot, in Kidmat Zion, and many other small apartment complexes that have sprung up across the eastern perimeter of the "holy basin," the area around the Old City that includes the most important sacred sites of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, the Temple Mount/Haram ash-Sharif, with the Dome of the Rock, the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the ancient cemeteries outside the Ottoman walls, the City of David/Village of Silwan, the Garden of Gethsemane, and Mount Olives. -- Whatever happened to the command to "love thy neighbor" (Leviticus 19:18)? Perhaps Francis I can put in a good word. He seems to have the right idea.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

J'lem in the Great War-a talk at BU

What was it like in Jerusalem during the First World War? How was it to live in the transition from Ottoman rule to British military occupation? And how do we know? On Wednesday, January 30, at 5pm, Dr. Abigail Jacobson, author of From Empire to Empire and visiting research fellow in Israel Studies at the Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies, will introduce the diary of Ihsan Tourjman as a source of study for the holy city in transition. (For more on Dr. Jacobson, see Join me at 147 Bay State Road, Room 201.