Eric Alterman has an interesting meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict and how difficult it is to discuss it. It’s remarkably “even-handed” which, coming in a journal like The Nation is already an immense step forward. But the very evidence it presents makes it clear that this conflict as fearful a-symmetries. How to move forward? Good question for which Alterman offers at least one suggestion.
the liberal media | posted May 17, 2007 (June 4, 2007 issue)
‘Can We Talk?’
The difficulty of solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict stems from more sources than one can comfortably count, but surely one of the most significant is our inability even to discuss it. The emotional intensity of so many people’s investment in their own self-justifying story line censors the effects of any potentially upsetting fact.
For instance, I thought it a pretty significant problem for Israel’s unquestioning defenders when Peace Now revealed that nearly a third of the land currently occupied by Israeli settlements was actually listed as private Palestinian land. In other words, these so-called “facts on the ground” rest on exactly the pattern of illegal seizure that critics have long alleged and successions of Israeli governments have sought to cover up. But I’ve yet to read a word from those dedicated to defending any and every action by Israel explaining how this new information affects their arguments.
I don’t know what Alterman reads, but the responses were immediate, and underline a serious problem with the game of even-handedness that he’s playering here. Indeed, Peace Now had to retract their claims, if grudgingly, by quietly revising their figures for the settlement Ma’ale Adumim (near Jerusalem), from 84% built on Palestinian privately owned land to 0.54%. Notes NGO Monitor:
The Israeli political organization known as “Peace Now” (and funded by various European governments and other donors) is another source used by the World Bank. In October 2006, this NGO published “Breaking the Law – One Violation Leads to Another,” falsely asserting that “a large proportion of the settlements built on the West Bank are built on privately owned Palestinian land.” As initially pointed out by media accountability organization CAMERA, this report is based not on research regarding land ownership, but relies only on Palestinian claims to such rights. Many of the claims, such as those made by the Jahalin Bedouin on Ma’ale Adumim, were examined and rejected by Israeli courts long ago. As a result, Peace Now’s allegation that Ma’ale Adumim sits on 86.4% Palestine land stands in stark contrast to the revised information indicating that only 0.54% of the land is Palestinian. Peace Now admitted these core errors, but also claimed credit for the resulting “media whirlwind”. Similarly, in repeating such false reports, officials at the World Bank are also primarily seeking to create publicity, at the expense of credibility.
In short, we are dealing a classic example of the credulity of Western sources for Palestinian claims. And even when they admit the mistake, they fall back on the rhetorical values of the grotesque exaggerations. Shades of Gitmo=Gulag. This is one of the most dangerous “advocacy” trends in “self-critical” Western discussion of the conflict, contributing considerably to the unfathomable Palestinian sense of grievance.
Similarly, the apparently never-ending deadly violence between Hamas fighters and the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades in Gaza–to say nothing of the murderous hatred both sides openly profess toward all Jews–ought to provide considerable cause for pause among those who demand an immediate end to the Israeli occupation, security concerns be damned. And yet from those who hold that position, one hears precious little about Israel’s entirely understandable worries about the prospects of being asked to live alongside a failed, fanatical and heavily armed Islamic state.
Absolutely. Note the lack of symmetry in this supposedly even-handed presentation. The mutual killing of Palestinians is something amply documented despite the mutually reinforcing tendency of Palestinian sources to downplay it, and the Western press to follow their lead. The accusation against the Israelis comes from advocacy journalists within the framework of an Israeli culture that permits — and critiques — any accusation against them.
Personally, I deal with this problem by refusing to discuss the conflict with anyone, anywhere, assuming that the likely result of any face-to-face dispute is almost always personal fury rather than intellectual enlightenment.
I don’t think this is the right approach. The important thing is to explore what are the verbal “land mines” that set off anger, and how can we at once defuse them all the while permitting important information and opinion to be discussed?
In polite discourse, one does not say certain things lest there be violence. In civic discourse, one can say what is necessary and there won’t be violence.
It’s terribly important to talk these things out, not shout down opponents as recently at UCLA.
As it happens, though, I accidentally undertook a controlled experiment on the topic. On May 2, I attended a fascinating discussion at the New York-based Center for Jewish History in celebration of the recent publication by Schocken Books of Hannah Arendt’s The Jewish Writings. At one point the book’s co-editor, Jerome Kohn, made what struck me as a shocking contention that the only people who found fault with Arendt’s political judgment are those whose personal or material interests she opposed. My admiration for Arendt’s life and work is nearly boundless, but I can’t help thinking she made some serious mistakes of political judgment.
Through the combined magic of BlackBerry, Google and Wikipedia, I was able to come up with exactly the text I needed to make my case. In the May 1948 issue of Commentary (!), Arendt stuck to her rhetorical guns on behalf of a binational alternative to the Zionist proposal for an independent Israel. “The independence of Palestine can be achieved only on a solid basis of Jewish-Arab cooperation,” she argued. “The real goal of the Jews in Palestine is the building up of a Jewish homeland. This goal must never be sacrificed to the pseudo-sovereignty of a Jewish state.” Whatever one thinks of the morality of this contention, it cannot sensibly be said to rest on any notion of pragmatic political relevance. When these words were published, the 1948 war was already under way. The idea that Arab inhabitants of Palestine and the surrounding nations were going to invite the Jews to “build up” their homeland cooperatively without the protection of a Jewish state–and that state’s army–was about as likely as the Jews there deciding to convert en masse to Islam. That Arendt was still pining for this hopelessly utopian vision this late in the process demonstrated, I argued, her lack of political judgment.
Nice point, one which describes the continued foolishness of the radical left ever since.
Neither Kohn nor his fellow panelist, the New School University’s Richard Bernstein, sought to address my point. Instead, both preferred to speak of Israeli mistreatment of the Palestinians and the disjunction between the kind of state the Zionists hoped to build and the one that exists today. The question of Arendt’s judgment was ignored. What was important was how one felt about Israel.
Precisely. This is about feelings. They determine the paradigm… then comes the evidence, like Peace Now’s claims of robbing Palestinian land.
Three days later, I took my customary Saturday morning constitutional across Central Park to Temple Israel on Seventy-fifth Street and Park Avenue, where I’ve lately been going to Torah study class with my learned and eloquent friend, the recently installed Rabbi David Gelfand. This week, however, we were treated to a lecture on the year 1948 by Stephen Berk, professor of Holocaust and Jewish studies at Union College. Berk offered up a reasonably balanced lecture that, for instance, did not skirt the issue of Israeli expulsion of the Palestinians and massacres committed by the right-wing Revisionist Stern Gang (though he was a bit freer with the word “terrorist” when it applied to Arab massacres of Jews than vice versa).
This being a Reform shul, I felt no compunction in retrieving the BlackBerry and reading the same text from Arendt’s 1948 Commentary essay. I posed the same question to Professor Berk that I had asked three days earlier. Berk took the opportunity to lecture the audience about the evils of Hamas. While I agreed with him about Hamas, I failed to see its relevance to my strictly historical inquiry about Hannah Arendt and 1948. Berk replied to my question about this by saying he was certain that the audience’s “next question” would be about Hamas, the PLO and the like. (A congregation member also piped up that this had been “clearly implied” by my question.) Given my assumption of goodwill coupled with the scholarly bona fides of the speakers at both places–to say nothing of the fact that we are all Jews–I left the temple confirmed in my belief that mere discussion of the topic remains impossible.
Let me fill in here. Hamas’ radical refusal to accept any Israeli state represents a current expression of an overwhelmingly popular attitude in 1947-8 before the Naqba, when the Arabs thought they could wipe Israel out. It has been and continues to be the fundamental problem.
As it happens two professors, Sami Adwan of Bethlehem University and Dan Bar-On of Ben-Gurion University, are trying to address exactly this problem under the aegis of the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East. Called “Learning Each Other’s Historical Narrative,” their project aims to develop parallel histories of the Israelis and Palestinians, translate them into Hebrew and Arabic and train teams of teachers and historians to teach in the classroom. If we are ever to have any real hope of solving the Israel/Palestine crisis, then surely this is the place to begin.
I certainly look forward to the results of this effort. But if it’s based on the necessity of even-handedness — the Israelis must be at least as guilty as the Arabs — then it will have only limited success. Actually, come to think of it, if these strivers for peace were able to get Palestinians to accept even half of the responsibility for the mess, then it would represent a major step forward.
UPDATE At the Nation website, among their bletters (mine apparently did not make it), we find the following:
Alterman’s article is a second unfortunate example in as many weeks of a an exemplary Nation writer gone horribly wrong when straying from their field of expertise (the other is Alexander Cockburn writing about global warming)… [snip].
The “horrible” I refer to is mostly contained in these two sentences:
…the apparently never-ending deadly violence between Hamas fighters and the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades in Gaza–to say nothing of the murderous hatred both sides openly profess toward all Jews–ought to provide considerable cause for pause among those who demand an immediate end to the Israeli occupation, security concerns be damned. And yet from those who hold that position, one hears precious little about Israel’s entirely understandable worries about the prospects of being asked to live alongside a failed, fanatical and heavily armed Islamic state.”
“Murderous hatred” professed “toward all Jews”??? I suddenly felt I was reading an ADL or AIPAC pamphlet instead of The Nation. Is this what happens when one goes back to schul? At a time when radical imams and mosques are being singled out for condemnation, perhaps it is time to address what is being disseminated in synagogues, even the reformed variety that Eric attends. I have read too much and talked to too many Palestinians not to recognise the disinformation and paranoia in that statement.
And apparently spent no time at PMW or MEMRI. The Palestinians this commenter has spoken to may or may not be honest with him about their feelings — my guess is he wouldn’t know — but the two groups that Alterman identifies here — Hamas and al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade both express poisonous attitudes towards Israelis and Jews.
The only Jews that are acceptable to Palestinian zealots are the ones willing to be Dhimmi. Your easy dismissal of the terribly serious problem of Palestinian hatred — immensely intensified by their control of media — and your ready willingness to turn the self-critical eye back on any suggestion that this is a problem — as if what Reform schuls are saying is in any way similar to the genocidal vitriol that appears daily in mosques throughout the world — make you a welcome “Jew” to those Palestinians still trying to cover the deep shame of how their culture has been taken hostage to a death cult.
You do the Palestinians, whom you undoubtedly wish to help, by encouraging this “face-saving” denial of a fundamental problem.