Do Palestinian Arabs Care Enough about having a Nation to Self Criticize?

Shlomo Avineri has written an interesting meditation on the Palestinian Nakba. He makes his criticism carefully, peppered with constant efforts not hurt anyone’s feelings by suggesting that the Palestinian national movement is not legitimate, strong, etc. But the thrust of his argument suggests just the opposite: the institutional weakness he identifies reflects a much broader weakness in “nationalist” aspirations. In order for the Palestinian Arabs to engage in the kind of self-criticism he calls for, they would have to confront the issue he refuses to raise: i.e., that the only real solidarity that Palestinian Arabs manage to muster among all the mutual rivalries and hatreds they feel among each other, is their hatred of Israel. And that, alas, is not enough to make a civil polity. On the contrary…

The real Nakba
By Shlomo Avineri
Last update – 12:35 09/05/2008
Tags: Palestinians, Israel, Nakba

When the Palestinians mark what they call the “Nakba” (catastrophe) on May 15, they would do well to consider that their real failure did not occur in 1948: It had already happened earlier, and it continues to happen now. The real Nakba occurs before our eyes – and theirs – every day, at every hour, and Hamas’ violent coup in Gaza is only the most recent example of it.

While Palestinians may see themselves, with much justification, as the victims of the Zionist movement’s successful establishment of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel, the reasons for their historical failure should be sought elsewhere: in the inability of the Palestinian national movement to create the political and social institutional framework that is the necessary foundation for nation-building. The history of national movements teaches us that national consciousness, strong as it may be, is not enough: Movements that could not create the institutional system vital for their success failed.

I assume this remark about “strong as it may be” represents Avineri’s effort to acknowledge Palestinian “national consciousness.” I actually think that any serious national consciousness is a key ingredient in “creating the institutional system…”, and that the Palestinians’ failures in this area come specifically from a lack of national consciousness except insofar as it articulates a passionate hatred of the Zionists. Beyond this, Palestinian nationalism seriously lacks any sense of “national” solidarity.

It would be a mistake to underestimate the power of the Palestinian national movement, as quite a few members of the Zionist camp did in the past; it is an error that many continue to make today. But it was Haim Arlosoroff – then a young man in his early 20s – who as early as 1921 recognized that what the Zionist movement faced was not a series of violent events, but a national movement.

This warning not to underestimate Palestinian nationalism misses an important point. To the Western (including the Israeli) observer, it’s hard to tell the difference between national resistance to Zionism and the resistance of a religio-cultural tradition that needs to dominate minorities, especially religious ones. Since the Palestinians long ago learned that the West did not like hearing about religious dreams of genocide, they have systematically presented their resistance as national. In fact “national sentiment” may be the least distinctive dimension of the resistance to Israel. What we need not to underestimate is the depth of the resistance; and by emphasizing the role of nationalism, we indulge our cognitive egocentrism and make just that mistake.

Thus Arlosoroff was absolutely right to argue that Zionism did not face a series of (presumably unconnected) violent events, but he was wrong to assume that it was a “national movement.” Indeed, as Steven Plaut just pointed out, for the Arabs living in Palestine in 1920, the “Nakba” that drove them to riots was the creation of a separate politico-administrative unit, Palestine, that separated them from Syria. The resistance Arlosoroff detected was real: it had a consistent and powerful ideology behind it. But it was a mistake then, and continues today, to think of this resistance not in religious and cultural terms. It is not an act of empathy to project Western egocentric notions about nationalism on people who had and continue to have radically different religious and cultural orientations. (Ironically, that projection may be the supreme example of Western cultural imperialism, one which, in the hands of avowed anti-imperialists, may destroy the West.)

The Palestinian national movement, however, has been accompanied by a long string of failures, which have been rooted in its inability to form frameworks of consensus and solidarity; these failures weakened and fragmented it, and it seems that this is a problem the Palestinians have not been able to overcome to this day.

The first and sharpest expression of this failure came in the years 1936-1939, during the Palestinian uprising against British rule. This rebellion failed not only because it was brutally suppressed by the British colonial authorities or because the Haganah (pre-state underground) forces were able to defend the Yishuv (Jewish community in Palestine). What happened is that the Palestinians were unable to establish institutions that would be acceptable to all parts of Arab society in the country, and when internal disputes arose over the nature of the struggle, the rebellion evolved into an intra-Palestinian civil war. More Palestinians died at the hands of rival armed Palestinian militias than were killed in clashes with the British army or with the Haganah. Within Palestinian society there is tendency to suppress the memory of this violent struggle, which took place between the militias associated with the Husseinis and those tied to the Nashashibis. But this suppression only deepens the failure and makes it more difficult to draw lessons from it.

The price of a lack of self-criticism. Mind you, the means the Arabs living in Palestine used to supress the memory of this internally-generated catastrophe is a narrative about evil Zionists and evil British… in other words, a narrative of grievance and victimization.

A similar failure came in 1948: Although most of Palestinian society was opposed to the plan for the partition of Palestine adopted by the United Nations on November 29, 1947, the Palestinians proved unable to create a unified military and political apparatus for confronting the Yishuv. The Arab Higher Committee was never more than a group of traditional dignitaries, and it did not oversee an effective system comparable to the Yishuv’s “state-in-the-making.” The violent Palestinian resistance to the partition plan consisted of attacks by armed militias in the Jerusalem area, in the Galilee and around Jaffa, militias that operated without centralized coordination and guidance.

The Palestinian defeat was to a large extent the result of an inability to establish a central military command. The leaders of the militias – Abdel Qader al-Husseini, Fawzi al-Qawuqji, Hassan Salameh – never answered to any central authority, and if the Yishuv referred to the militias as “gangs,” the term had propagandist value, of course, but it also contained a great deal of truth.

That’s because they all operated from the world they came from, where anarchic violence and destruction wins. They also, apparently, thought that their call to violence would trigger widespread support among the Arabs in Palestine, and that a massive campaign of plundering and slaughter would ensue. After all, Arabs were the vast majority of the people. Murderous riots nationwide seemed like the obvious response, especially among Arab Muslims. The fact that it failed says many good things about the civil inclinations of the Arabs who lived side-by-side with the Zionists (the most committed among whom stayed and enjoyed the fruits of taking refuge with the Israelis and not their fellow Arabs).

The tragedy is that, with the help of the Western “left” (!) the thug’s version of the story has won the day.

Critical movements

Anyone familiar with the history of the Yishuv may comment, and accurately, that the Jews had their own splinter groups that refused to accept the authority of the majority, which called itself “the organized Yishuv.” This is true, of course – but at the critical moments it was David Ben-Gurion who made the fateful decisions, thus ensuring the unity of command and of political legitimacy. The Altalena affair [a violent 1948 confrontation between the newly formed Israel Defense Forces and the Irgun, one of the pre-state militias] was the watershed moment in this matter, and so the fledgling state guaranteed what German sociologist Max Weber has called the defining feature of state sovereignty: the existence of a monopoly based on the legitimate use of force. The same did not happen within the Arab community in Palestine in 1948.

That’s actually a “monopoly of the legitimate use of force, not “based on.” But the point is key, and critical. To achieve such a “monopoly,” means having a “citizenry” that is ready to trust its governing bodies to fight for them. No national sentiment of mutual trust could hope to overcome the combined intra-Arab rivalries on the one hand, and the sport of manhood, attacking the upstart Jews.

The consequences were swift in coming: not only a failed struggle with the Yishuv, but an inability to extract from the defeat even a remnant of national authority. Had the Arab community possessed a leadership with broad legitimacy, it presumably would have been able to create a Palestinian national entity in those parts of Palestine that remained under Arab control. But even when an “all-Palestine government” was established in Gaza, headed by the mufti, it was an Egyptian puppet government, which could never impose its authority on the West Bank, then under Jordanian control, and it soon disappeared. Palestinian history might have been different if the Palestinians had had institutions and an organizational system capable of confronting the Egyptian occupation in Gaza and the Jordanian annexation of the West Bank, and which might have tried to extricate a Palestinian state even out of the clutches of the 1948 defeat.

Of course, that would mean that the Palestinians had a sense of solidarity that came from anything beyond their hatred of the Zionists. The fact that with both Jordan and Egypt occupying “Palestinian” territory for almost 20 years — and far more oppressively than the Israelis did in the next 20 years — the Palestinian national movement never mounted any significant protest against the behavior of their fellow Arabs.

When Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas founded Fatah, they focussed entirely on the part of Palestine the Israelis had. The West Bank and the Gaza Strip’s Palestinians, under occupation by Arabs, had no interest for them. As Churchill once remarked, “The Arabs don’t mind being oppressed as long as it’s by one of their own.” Precisely. There is no solidarity here in any sense that might produce a civil polity.

When confronting this series of failures, the Palestinians tend to attribute them to their own weakness and to the difficult conditions that prevailed after the military defeat to Israel. In some ways this is true, but it is irrelevant: National movements are not built under convenient conditions; they must always face enemies, foreign rulers, occupation. We need not go very far to compare the Palestinian failure with the success of the Algerian national movement, which confronted an occupying regime far stronger and crueler than the Zionist movement, and yet managed to create an organizational, diplomatic and military system that not only successfully confronted the French, but was able – not without problems – to create the foundation for an independent Algerian state.

That’s a problematic example, but nonetheless instructive. Algerians did do better than Palestinians in building a state, but not that much better, certainly to judge by the current disastrous situation there, where far more people die on a daily basis than anywhere in the area the British once called Palestine. But the two other points Avineri makes here are well worth pondering: a) that Israeli hostility to Palestinians is irrelevant to the failure to build national institutions (indeed it should have provoked greater solidarity), and b) the French were far crueler to the Algerians than the Israelis to the Palestinians.

(One of the responses at Avineri’s article comments that the French didn’t have the stomach for the violence that it takes to colonize Muslim lands but the Israelis do. He clearly knows nothing of the willingness of the French to massacre populations in Algeria and in Paris.)

The de facto shattering of the Palestinian Authority following the Hamas coup in Gaza is the extension of this failure. Even now the Palestinians are inclined to blame Israel, the Americans, the international community; but the real, essential responsibility ultimately lies with the Palestinians themselves. Elections were held, Hamas won, Fatah lost – and both groups have been unable to sustain a framework whose legitimacy is accepted by both sides. Fatah and Hamas, after all, are not just two parties operating within a democratic consensus: They are also armed militias, and their electoral strength is to a large extent rooted in their military power. All pan-Arabic attempts to unite them, such as the Mecca agreement brokered by Saudi Arabia last year, have failed in the face of this reality, which shows that ultimately power in Palestinian society grows (as Mao Tse-tung once said in a different context) out of the barrel of a gun.

It was also Arafat’s favorite quote. It pervades all the thinking of the Palestinian “resistance” which was essentially breaking down open doors in its effort to wrest national sovereignty from the Israelis. If the Palestinians had been willing to settle for their own state — i.e., the autonomy national movements prize most — then they could have gotten that at any point in the process. But they desired the destruction of Israeli nationalism far more than they desired their own. It’s not really Palestinian nationalism we’re talking about here, but Palestinian anti-Zionism. And to pursue that, you need guns.

Hamas’ violent military coup in Gaza against what was supposed to be the locus of Palestinian legitimacy is only a repetition, under different conditions, of the Palestinian gang wars of 1938-9. The fact that there is no model of an Arab democratic state to follow also does not help.

To be clear: These words are not written in order to question the legitimacy of the Palestinian movement or the Palestinians’ right to a state. They are meant to point out a profound internal social failure, one the Palestinians avoid confronting and which many Israelis ignore, since so much of the Israeli discourse on the Palestinian issue is conducted from the narrow perspective of security concerns. Moreover, parts of the Israeli left, rightfully troubled by the ongoing occupation, avoid holding the Palestinians responsible in any way for their situation, out of reasons of political correctness. Such a patronizing approach is not helpful to the Palestinians.

This is a welcome reflection. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that the whole embrace of the Palestinian “victim narrative” with the “Nakba” at its center, represents a patronizing approach that harms the Palestinians. It basically says, “we progressives who want to support you poor oppressed people think you Palestinians are so incapable of self-criticism and real effort to do something for yourselves, that we will show our support by affirming the scapegoating narrative that your leaders use to blame Israel even as they prolong, intensify and exploit your suffering for their own purposes.” It’s either that, or “we hate the Israelis so that we are only too happy to join the people who thrive on your suffering in order to strike at the Zionists.”

What is now happening in Gaza is the real Palestinian Nakba: the tendency to blame outside factors only blurs matters. Clearly, Palestinian society is in distress, and much of it is owing to 40 years of occupation. But this is a too-easy excuse: In the years after 1945, it would have been easy for the Yishuv to blame British rule, the Arab opposition, and the trauma of the Holocaust, and to wallow in the mire of self-righteousness as a way of explaining why a Jewish state could not be established under such difficult circumstances. But the framework of the Zionist movement, as established by Herzl, with its elected institutions, its multi-party pluralism anchored in a basic solidarity, and the formulation of national authority despite the instances of dissent and splintering – all these provided an organizational and institutional foundation that made it possible to marshal the human and economic resources necessary for coping with the harsh reality that followed the UN partition resolution.

While I agree with the description, I don’t think it’s as explanatory as Avineri presents it. It was not so much the existence of the Zionist institutions that succeeded — institutions can fall apart (as have so many Palestinian institutions since Oslo), especially under pressure. It was the spirit behind them. Israelis (Jews) have an exceptional degree of solidarity. The idea that Jews would kill Jews for political reasons constitutes an anathema of the highest order (Zionists are still agonizing over the Altalena affair, one of the few times this has happened). No matter how bad things got, no matter how panicked over the dire situation, Zionists did not fall into the paranoid trap of viewing inner dissent as treason. (This is, by the way, the path the French took from their glorious revolution of 1789 to the “Terror” of 1793.)

It’s not the institutions the Palestinians need, it’s the commitments to each other that they need. From a civil point of view, one of the more shameful aspects of this conflict for the Palestinians is that Arab Muslims kill more of each other every month than the Israelis have killed each other in 60 years of sometimes desparate warfare.

The fate of the Palestinians now lies in the balance, and it is in their own hands. Those who look at their history will have trouble imagining Fatah and Hamas settling their dispute by creating a joint, legitimate framework. Perhaps Egypt or Saudi Arabia can foster the signing of some piece of paper or another, like the Mecca agreement. What matters, however, is not a piece of paper but an effective organizational and institutional framework and a commitment to shouldering the burden of a common legitimacy, which is necessary for constructing a nation. Such a framework must encompass the disarming of militias and entrusting one national authority with a monopoly on the use of force. Without this, there will also be no chance of an agreement with Israel, which is vital for the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Said by someone who thinks that the primary concern of Palestinians is the establishment of a decent state that governs for its people. But what if the overwhelming majority of the Palestinian elite (i.e., those who can dominate the public sphere) is much less interested in creating their own viable state that destroying someone else’s? Then for them, the worse things get for everyone the better off they are: the worse the Palestinians suffer the more they learn to hate Israel and plead to the world to intervene; the worse the situation in the territories, the worse it is for the Israelis who cannot tolerate the abysmal living conditions of the rest of the region; the less national unity, the more the weapons-bearers can dominate the society.

These things should be said clearly, as difficult as they may be: If the Palestinians do not find a way to extricate themselves from their harsh historical reality, they ultimately will not have a state. It will be bad for them, and bad for Israel.

Precisely. Which is why the awful coalition of Arab/Muslim elites bent on vengeance against a rebel Dhimmi people and a “left-wing progressive” movement addicted to moral Schadenfreude, will continue to pursue Marx’s politique du pire [the politics of encouraging the worst].

While I share Avineri’s analysis of the deficits of Palestinian nationalism, I do not share his sense that that nationalism represents a particularly strong element in the conflict. All the weaknesses Avineri identifies in Palestinian nationalism reflect the powerful operation of prime-divider culture: mistrust, rule of the strong, dominating imperative, zero-sum. The kind of nationalism Avineri admires (his own, whether he’ll admit it or not), is civil nationalism, based on mutual trust, rule of law, empathic imperative (at which he excels), and positive-sum.

Only when the Palestinians are willing to give up their driving passion — destroy the humiliation that is Israel — and develop a civil culture, will they be able to develop the national institutions Avineri admonishes them to acquire. And in order for that to happen, the peace camp will have to stop reaffirming the Palestinian’s victim narrative. It’s a dangerous path to tread given the predictable response of bullies who consider any criticism an attack on their manhood, but one would expect no less from warriors for peace.

4 Responses to Do Palestinian Arabs Care Enough about having a Nation to Self Criticize?

  1. Gringo says:

    The lack of self-criticism: hit the nail on the head. In decades of listening to the words emanating from the Arab world, blaming the West, blaming the US, blaming the Joos, the lack of self-criticism has long been apparent.

  2. oao says:

    It is astounding that the west fails to see what has stared them in the eye for decades so clearly. I consider that failure of not a lesser magnitude and impact than that of the arabs to develop a civil society culture. And it is actually one critical factor in ensuring that that culture won’t develop, which is difficult even without the western support of the bullies.

    When chomsky was once asked what prompted him to embark on his political activism, he referred to an incident in his childhood where he witnessed a bully operating on his victim, went and stood with the latter but then chickened out and left; he then promised himself he would never do that again.

    Yet today Chomsky is standing with the bullies (hezbollah, fatah, hamas and others). The problem is that the ideology of “support a victim against the bully” is critically dependent on correctly identifying the bully and the victim. This is where chomsky and the lunatic left fail: they blindly associate grievance propaganda with the victim and powerful self-defence against violence with the bully, which is upside down.

    that chomsky is so good in some of his analysis and critique of the US system (part. corporate power) and such an utter failure when it comes to foreign cultures is precisely because the western leftist framework does not accommodate factors such as culture and religion (except to dismiss their importance). it is too poor and materialistic a framework even for interpreting western society, let alone the arab one. indeed, that’s why leftism in arab society never got anywhere.

    it is therefore no coincidence that the left is the most cognitively ethnocentrist segment in the west when it comes to the ME and islamic threat, inverting the bully and the victim.


  3. oao says:

    here’s from a post by noah pollak in commentary about obama displaying the left delusions and lee smith’s riposte. The full cognitive ethnocentrism.


    Then there is the absurd prescription:

    It’s time to engage in diplomatic efforts to help build a new Lebanese consensus that focuses on electoral reform, an end to the current corrupt patronage system, and the development of the economy that provides for a fair distribution of services, opportunities and employment.

    So that’s the problem in Lebanon? Economics and the electoral system? As Lee Smith points out in a scathing post,

    Obama’s language is derived from those corners of the left that claim Hezbollah is only interested in winning the Shia a larger share of the political process. Never mind the guns, it’s essentially a social welfare movement, with schools and clinics! — and its own foreign policy, intelligence services and terror apparatus, used at the regional, international and now domestic level. But the solution, says, Obama, channeling the man he fired for talking to Hamas, is diplomacy.

    In the Lebanon crisis, Obama is rhetorically cornered. Since his only prescription for the Middle East is diplomatic engagement, every disease gets re-diagnosed as something curable through talking.

  4. […] He earlier patiently addressed Israeli dove Shlomo Avineri’s essay on the status of Palestinian national identity (one that cares enough to call itself a civil society and not simply an aggrieved unity). Both are recommended. […]

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