Response to Norman Gellman on Empathy for the Palestinian People

A recent post of mine elicited from Norman I. Gellman the following response which, after a short remark on the post, became a coherent argument which, I think, deserves a serious response:

Like Daniel Gordis, Richard Landes makes entirely too much of an expression of sympathy for the people of Gaza.

I read Gordis’s critique of Rabbi Sharon Brous’s remarks. Where he saw moral equivalency and therefore the elevation of universalism as a greater value than solidarity with fellow Jews, I saw a recognition — which I believe is ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY — that there are “rights” on both sides. Raining missiles on Israel is not any kind of right. Ordinary Palestinians should, however, enjoy the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (in our peculiarly American formulation).

So why should it apply to them? There is no country in the Arab world that comes anywhere near these rights. Indeed, many places in the world, most prominently in the Arab world, find the effort to assure these rights for everyone as a direct threat to their notion of their rights (which are those of dominators).

Both the people of Israel and the ordinary Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank deserve to live and to seek to prosper under their own flag.

You’ve now used this term twice. What does “ordinary Palestinians” mean? The people who voted for Hamas? The people who regret that they (or their neighbors) voted for Hamas, but don’t have the courage to admit it to our (largely clueless) reporters? The people that sincerely tell reporters they like Hamas?

Is “ordinary Palestinians” your abstract category of folks on the “other side” on whom you feel comfortable projecting liberal mindsets, people who are “just like you and me?” Is this a version of “the vast majority of Palestinians want peace, it’s just the extremists who don’t?

Hamas is the enemy, not the people who become collateral damage when Israel retaliates.

If you have read any of my previous posts on these matters, you’ll know that I think that their damage is not collateral but intended and sought after by Hamas, a strategy that can only work if the West accepts their narrative in which Israel gets blamed. Your formulation, especially in the context of the Gazan’s “rights” focuses way too much on the Israelis. The impediment to their “deserv[ing] to live and seek[ing] to prosper under their own flag” is not Israel, which would like nothing better than to have a neighbor similarly in pursuit of such mutually beneficial prosperity. Hamas is as responsible for the inability of Palestinians to exercise/enjoy their rights as it is for the “collateral” damage caused to their own people.

There will never be peace between Israel and the Palestinians until each side tries to understand the narrative of the other.

This is something of a truism. The problem, which you don’t seem to understand (or acknowledge) is that the Israelis have done a great deal to understand the Palestinian “narrative” (your subsequent remarks reflect that effort, however imperfectly), while the Palestinians have done nothing of the sort. I challenge you to cite one (even non-official) Palestinian source that reflects the self-critical and empathic analysis done by many Israelis, academics, journalists, bloggers, etc.

Having participated in “dialogues” with the Palestinians, my experience is that they consist of them accusing us, and us apologizing. And if ever I objected, and accused them, they yelled “you’re dehumanizing us” while the other Zionists in the group yelled at me for upsetting them. This, I gather, is the basic pattern of the allegedly even-handed groups that take Jews into the territories to “dialogue” with Palestinians.

Israel’s independence WAS a Nakba for many Palestinians, and the UNWRA has perpetuated that tragedy with the cynical collaboration of the Arab world for these 60-plus years.

Israel’s independence did not have to be a Nakba for the Palestinians, even after they (with the urging of their leaders and other Arab elites) chose the hard zero-sum approach that they did – all or nothing. Had their response to losing been to say, “oh well, we tried, let’s get on with life” they could have cut their losses and also gotten independence. Instead, they chose the negative-sum approach: “we’d rather rot in misery in the hopes of bringing the Israelis down.” That’s why the refugee problem became permanent. To suggest (as you seem to) that Israeli independence is built on Palestinian misery fails to hold them in any way responsible for their (disastrous) choices.

And, of course, the reason they made those choices is because the Israeli narrative – to be a free people in our land – was completely unacceptable to them (both from the perspective of Arab and Muslim imperialism. It remains unacceptable. Indeed, the “narrative” whereby Israeli independence “WAS” a Nakba for them is part of their totalistic narrative in which the solution was only zero-sum. It targets Jews and Zionists who believe in the positive-sum way, and who feel guilty that their happiness is built on another’s misery.

They’re the ones who, all along, have predicated their happiness on Jewish subjection. The ball, when it comes to “recognizing the other’s narrative” is in their court. If you want to help, put the pressure on them.

What’s so difficult about accepting the truth of Palestinian suffering?

I fully admit that the Palestinians suffer, indeed that they are virtually defined as a people by their fellow Arabs as sacrificial victims who must suffer. (There are others, even in the Arab world who suffer far more, without anyone insisting that we feel their pain, but that’s another matter.) This sacrificial strategy was most recently demonstrated by Hamas’ war strategy of maximizing civilian casualties among their own people. It only works when the journalists tell it as Israel’s fault, and when Zionists feel guilt at the accusation.

The Jews, after more than 2000 years of suffering, needed a home where they could become a nation among nations. After the Holocaust, why should it be impossible for Palestinians to understand the aspirations of the Israeli people?

It’s not impossible, but it’s very hard. Both Islam and Arab “nationalism” find the existence of an independent Jewish state an unbearable humiliation. Were these folks capable of transcending such primitive “honor-shame” concerns, this conflict would be over.

That was the logic of Oslo: win-win. Each side makes concessions, each side gets something. But, as the Arabic saying goes: “What was taken by force must be regained by force.” For Arafat to have gotten statehood at the price of recognizing Israeli legitimacy, would be an unbearable (and dangerous) shame. He knew he had less to fear from the Israelis than his own people.

I am committed to Israel. Nothing I’ve said implies that I excuse terrorism. But neither does it imply that I endorse settlements on land that I do personally regard as “occupied,” nor will I excuse the retreat from democratic values and the discriminatory policies that will ultimately be required if Israel continues to rule over a fecund Palestinian population and is unwilling to negotiate a two-state solution.

A friend of mine, a big supporter of Oslo, said to me after Arafat’s “no” at Camp David (July 2000) and the outbreak of the Oslo Intifada (three months later), that he realized, “it’s not in our hands.” You speak as if it were in Israel’s hands to find a two-state solution. In some senses, I don’t think you’ve either empathized enough with Israelis, who are in a horrible bind, nor with the Palestinians, whose leaders have put them in an even more horrible bind.

Yes, it is true that the Palestinians have refused to negotiate. But that ought not blind us to the fact that the present government of Israel is in no hurry to negotiate, preferring the status quo.

This is something of a nonsensical statement. You admit they refuse, but then you throw responsibility back on Israel. It’s obvious that Israel isn’t eager to negotiate with people who have shown nothing but bad faith, who pocket every concession and then demand more, who will use whatever concessions to push for it all (the “staged” strategy). If you want negotiations to work, the pressure needs to be on the Palestinians, whose leaders are the source of the problem.

And the next government of Israel may very well wish to go far beyond the status quo to actively seeking a Greater Israel.

Note that such an option was, until recently, an almost totally marginal position. If it’s made its way closer to the center of Israeli politics, it’s because of the interminable commitment of the Arabs to a zero-sum solution. No Zionist wants to dominate others (despite Arab projections to the contrary). The situation is impossible. But your “solution” is also impossible.

Both Gordis and Landes regard themselves as clear-sighted. I regard them as blind to the larger realities that underlie the conflict.

I’ve discussed at length what I think are the “larger realities” that underlie the conflict. Please let me know why you think the Arabs refuse to grant Israel recognition and peace. As far as I can make out from your remarks, what you consider the “larger realities” is just a warmed over version of the logic that led Israel into the Oslo disaster: make peace before you become an apartheid state. What you think is clear-sighted and profound thinking strikes me as superficial and somewhat ineffectual.

Yes, as a supporter of Israel, I approve the carefully targeted attacks that were made on Gaza in response to the indiscriminate rocket attacks on Israel. My sympathies and my prayers are with family and friends in Israel. However, I can spare a part of my heart for people on the other side who also suffer as a result of the conflict.

I think you need to think of this, not as a conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, but between Israel and Palestinian/Arab/Muslim elites, who have designated the Palestinian people as their sacrificial victim in an all-out war designed to erase their shame at having a dhimmi people (and the smallest and weakest of the dhimmi to boot), throw off the Arab-Muslim yoke.

If you have empathy for the Palestinians – we should all have that – then attack their leaders, rather than insist that Israel needs to find a solution. In doing the latter, you reaffirm the cannibalistic strategy of the Arab elites. It’s not something that I think clear-sighted people should be doing.

12 Responses to Response to Norman Gellman on Empathy for the Palestinian People

  1. SAMUEL RABINO says:

    Sadly ,Norman Gellman is another Jew who feels the need to present the other side ‘narrative’ (a common Jewish disease), in a world where for the most part no such sentiment is reflected by the other side What we hear are code words from intellectuals striving to destroy Israel and those who are more direct. Ultimately, the Nakba is not a complicated concept. The Palestinians were offered the 2 states solution in 1947,rejected it,tried to annihilate the Jewish state,failed, and declared declared a Nakba(a disaster)because they lost the war,and because losing a war had consequences. For this failure to exterminate fellow Jews 3 years after the Holocaust, Jewish intellectuals,who write safely from the US ,apologize 65 years later.Amazing! As a sidebar-each time I see the word ‘narrative’ ,I ready myself for an anti-Israeli fiction,similar to anything originating from an ,institute for peace in the middle east’.

  2. Does Mr Gellman refer to the same Gaza that Israel unilaterally surrendered in 2005, only to be met with rocket fire as an expression of Palestinian gratitude?

    Why should Israel expect anything different if she surrenders part or all of the West Bank?

    Does disregarding the above dilemma evince enough empathy for the Israelis?

  3. Norman Gellman said

    “Both Gordis and Landes regard themselves as clear-sighted. I regard them as blind to the larger realities that underlie the conflict”.

    If i may point at a larger reality that underlies the conflict, i would urge that with the daily incitement perpetrated by the Palestinian Authority(it’s perfectly documented in Palestinian Media Watch) the young ones that have already swallowed the anti-Semitic poison from their textbooks and favorite TV shows will never acquiesce to any two-state solution compromise (“ALL of Palestine should be liberated”).

    So even if PA incitement were to end today, peace wouldn’t be forthcoming until the contemporary Palestinian youngsters grow too old to wield weapons.

    The solution is to pressure the PA to eradicate the brain-washing of their kids TODAY, and then be patient enough (thirty years?) to wait out the growing-old of the last of the terrorist-minded Palestinians.

    But it seems that intellectuals these days are very busy empathizing with how their peer group views them to spare some time empathizing with innocent Palestinian minds that are corrupted by honor-shame minded leaders.

  4. sshender says:

    Reading pieces like Gellman’s, I constantly have to remind myself that this is a fresh piece that just happens to bear remarkable resemblance to thousands similar pieces penned by Americans with rhyming surnames. It offers nothing in the way of original thought or new insights, rather we are treated to the same regurgitated naivete, misunderstandings, wishful thinking and plain obtuseness over and over and over again.

    It feels like one Liberal American Jew repeating what he/she read last week by another Liberal American Jew who in turn did the same and so it goes, ad infinitum.

    I’m just so sick and tired of seeing otherwise very intelligent people willingly duped into playing Israel’s willful executioners.

    • Ben says:

      It’s “speaking truth to power,” dontcha know. It’s what LAJ’s do best. I think this all comes down to the inability of otherwise very intelligent people to understand that “the larger realities” of which Gellman wrote are not the “larger realities” that Israel in fact faces. The largest of these realities is that among the Arabs (Pals included) there is no desire for, no will to pursue, and no ability to achieve any two-state solution, let alone the two-state solution for which so many of Israel’s supporters have advocated for so long.

  5. [...] Richard Landes, in Aegean stables, reproduces an insightful analysis of arguments made by a US Jew who is desperately trying to be even handed – see here [...]

    • The Ozi Zion Blog » Blog Archive » A discussion on Israel says:

      “in Aegean stables”.

      Actually, it’s “Augean” not “Aegean”.

      They are both Greek names, but the first refers to a person, the second to a sea.

  6. Rich Rostrom says:

    I object to your formulation ‘the “collateral” damage caused to their [Hamas'] own people.’

    This implicitly concedes that Hamas truly represents or embodies all Palestinians, or feels any genuine responsibility for them.

    No, I am not questioning that most Gaza Palestinians voted for Hamas or that many (perhaps most) support them. But Hamas is a near-totalitarian dictatorship, which controls Gaza through a mixture of propaganda and intimidation, not a legitimate government.

    Gaza Palestinians are their victims, not their people.

    • Rich, if the Palestinians that have voted for Hamas have not regretted it, then they are victims of themselves primarily.
      And i would bet that Hamas will win any future election once again.
      Those who vote for Hamas deserve no sympathy.

    • Ben says:

      To Hamas, the population of Gaza really is “their people” – for their use – in their campaign to destroy Israel. Of course some Gazans don’t favor Hamas. Were it possible for Israel to negotiate a just and lasting peace with those individuals it would have happened a while ago.

  7. Cynic says:

    Is “ordinary Palestinians” your abstract category of folks on the “other side”

    To my mind he is creating a distraction from the “nasty folks” to be able to include the Israelis in “fair and balanced” criticism.
    He is totally ignorant of the tribal/clan strictures on attaining the following:

    Ordinary Palestinians should, however, enjoy the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (in our peculiarly American formulation).

    Multiculti claptrap which does not exist as the Muslims of Britain are demonstrating.

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