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.