Alain Gresh’s book, De Quoi la Palestine est-elle le nom? (Les liens qui libèrent, Paris, 2010) considers the place of Palestine in colonial history and, more broadly, in colonization. This is a translation of the book’s final chapter.
Chapter VIn which the author concludes, giving free rein to his utopian spirit
It is easy to overlook terror: it hides behind the indifference of those who aren’t involved, that is to say, the overwhelming majority. Manès SperberHere is what the journalist Hugues Serraf wrote during the attack against Gaza by Israel (in 2008-2009). The question is valid even if the conclusion is questionable:
Et le buisson devint cendre,
(Burned Bramble), Odile Jacob, Paris, 1990
To understand how Israel has become the ideal wicked one; the one that you love to hate without limit because there is no risk of being contradicted by other than a “Zionist”; the one whose crimes you compare consistently to those of the Nazis […] These concrete reactions concerning Israel have possibly reasonable roots that I am honestly incapable of grasping. It is actually possible to decree that the conflict with the Palestinians is more serious, more intense, more tragic—in short more than everything no matter what. You would have to prove it to me.Let’s try to “prove” it, even if Serraf’s opinion appears fixed beneath his feigned naiveté: it is anti-Semitism that explains this “fixation” on Palestine and allows this “eternal hatred” against the Jews to be expressed without shame or guilt. Is Palestine the new name for anti-Semitism?
The place of Palestine at the heart of the Holy Land and of a Middle East so rich in oil explains, in part, why it has often appeared, at least since 1967, at the forefront of the news. Yet, for a long time this cause excited little indignation. Neither the millions of refugees parked in the camps nor the disaster of an entire nation in 1948-1949 moved a Europe traumatized by the Second World War. After 1967, the mobilization of a few groups of the extreme left in Europe in support of the Fedayeen was enlisted in global anti-imperialist solidarity, the exaltation of the “armed struggle” and the great dream of revolution, but it was limited to circles without much influence. It took the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the outbreak of the first intifada in 1987 for solidarity with Palestine to extend beyond militant groups.
The issue of Temps modernes, edited by Jean-Paul Sartre and published at the start of the 1967 war, illustrated the malaise of the French left, including those who had fought ardently for Algerian independence and, more generally, for decolonization. In his preface to the issue Jean-Paul Sartre did not conceal his embarrassment:
I only wanted to recall that many of us have a strong feeling, which, while subjective, is not unimportant, but rather the result of historical and perfectly objective circumstances which we are not about to forget. And so we are allergic to anything that could in the least resemble anti-Semitism. To which many Arabs reply: “We are not anti-Semites, but anti-Israelis.” Surely they are right: but can they prevent these Israelis from also being Jews?The reservations of the European left concerning the Palestinian cause could not be better stated.
These are reservations that amount to blindfolds; the Palestinians as such were not even mentioned in 1967, while the threat to Israel, put about in the most alarmist terms in the 1960s, had no basis in reality; the country, with the support of the United States, could defeat all the united Arab armies. In Europe, as Sartre explained, the conflict was seen in terms of anti-Semitic persecution and “the legitimate aspiration for a homeland of the Jewish people,” driven from their land two thousand years ago.
Before coming back to the question of anti-Semitism, we can reformulate Serraf’s question and ask why, after such a long period in which little was heard, Palestine has become, in the words of the philosopher Étienne Balibar, a “universal cause”; why, in January 2009, Latin-American peasants, but also young French people and veterans of the fight against South African apartheid, went out on the streets to denounce Israeli aggression against Gaza.
What makes a cause mobilize opinion across the world? Starting in the 1960s, Vietnam (and Indochina) and South Africa dominated world news. Was this justified? The United States said that communism was responsible for far more serious crimes than its own intervention in Vietnam. Meanwhile, the apartheid regime claimed there were fewer deaths in South Africa than under such or such a dictatorship in Africa. The assassination of the student militant Steve Biko by the apartheid police in September 1977, one year after the Soweto riots, created more indignation than the elimination of thousands of opponents by the Ethiopian dictator Haile Mariam Mengistu. This is the same argument advanced by Serraf when he explains that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is far less murderous than the “little wars” in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Just the same, international public opinion does not measure its reactions in violence alone. It is also sensitive to the symbolic meaning of a situation. At a given moment, a conflict can express the “truth” of an era, exceed the narrow frame of its geographic location and gain a universal meaning. In spite of their differences, Vietnam, South Africa and Palestine are all three located on the fault line between the North and the South. The history of the past century has been marked by the two world wars, by the emergence, apogee and fall of communism, and by the affirmation of US power. But, as I have shown in the previous chapters of this book, it has also seen the great majority of the world population liberate itself from the colonial yoke, seeking the right to decide its own future. Vietnam symbolized the struggle of a small people of the Third World against the power of the North; South Africa illustrated the revolt against a segregationist system dominated by Whites; and Palestine, the last bastion of European “colonialist settlement”, crystallized aspirations to a world that had moved on from two centuries of western domination.
What defines Palestine? First of all it is defined by the colonial domination of the West; by persistent injustice under permanent violation of international law; and by double standards, imposed by governments, backed by the United Nations, and theorized by a good number of western intellectuals. Palestine – at the intersection of East and West, North and South — symbolizes at once the old world, marked by the hegemony of the North, and the emergence of a new world founded on the principle of equality of peoples.
Cloaking itself in a reading of the genocide of the Jews, which a priori exonerates the state of Israel of all responsibility in the war crimes of which it can be accused since 1948, the West refuses to apply the same criteria of analysis and judgment to this conflict as it does to Iraq, Serbia or Iran. Elsewhere it lays claim to “international law”, “human rights”, freedom of the press and the right of journalists to cover wars, and proportionality. The impositions of the Serbs against the Kosovars, often real, sometimes exaggerated by the international media, served to justify NATO’s military intervention in Serbia in March 1999. But when one of the most powerful armies of the world bombarded the tiny, crowded territory of Gaza, with a population of a million and a half, ruining its infrastructure, destroying its schools and hospitals, and killing hundreds of civilians, western governments found excuses and justifications for what would otherwise be described as “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity”.
Can the “Jewish question” be said to be unrelated to the conflict? This is clearly not the case, and it has gained a weight that cannot be ignored through the dual aspect of pro- and anti-Semitism which we need to examine in a new context: whereas at the beginning of the 20th century the Jews were perceived as a threat to European civilization, from the start of the 21st century the Muslims replaced them in the unenviable position of “scapegoat”. Since September 11, 2001 Palestine has often been presented as one of the battlegrounds where western civilization confronts Islamism, Islamic terrorism, in short, Islam. In this configuration, Israel takes its place, in Herzl’s dream, within the advanced position of the West against the “barbarians”.
The new European radical right, from Geert Wilders in Holland to Oskar Freysinger in Switzerland, has relegated anti-Semitism to the shop of obsolete accessories. Freysinger, author of the “plebiscite” on the prohibition on the construction of minarets in November, 2009, explains:
Our party has always defended Israel because we are well aware that if Israel disappeared we would lose our front-line of defense. [….]As long as the Moslems are concentrated on Israel it will not be difficult for us. But the instant that Israel is gone they will come after the Occident. (1)Pro-Semitism has spread from the narrow framework of the radical right to become widespread among European intellectuals, including those of the left. This phenomenon has been subjected to a stimulating analysis by two Israelis: the secular Yitzhak Laor and the religious Ivan Segré. (2) Pro-Semitism, says Segré, is the keystone of “a sweeping ideological operation” seeking to impose the password of "defense of the Occident” – a term which was disqualified after its use by Hitler, followed by the militants of several powerful groups in Europe which proudly populated the Latin Quarter in the 1960s, one of which even called itself “Occident”. Just when condemnation of Nazism seemed to be unanimous, the concept of “defense of the Occident” found an unexpected renewal.
This “ideological operation” aims first of all to identify the Jews with Europe and proclaim as self-evident the immemorial existence of a “Judeo-Christian civilization”. The enterprise appears all the more piquant if we recall that this expression originated in the 1930s precisely to oppose Hitler’s line of defense of the West and Christian civilization against the Jews. The French-Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain wrote in this sense in 1942 that the Judeo-Christian tradition was the source of western values. This vision, based on praiseworthy intentions, continued to be used, notably in the United States, to affirm the values of the “free world” against the atheist Soviet Union. And yet, since the 1960s it has fallen into disfavor, the anti-colonial wars of liberation overcoming the idea of a war of civilization in which the North would represent the Good. (3) Paradoxically, it was with the fall of the Berlin Wall that the notion of the “Judeo-Christian civilization” experienced a rebirth, in an unexpected form since the Jews were included in a revived Occident, to the detriment of the new pariahs, Muslims.
Nobody has expressed this anachronistic position of identifying Judaism with Europe better than the Israeli writer Amos Oz, however reluctantly. In a talk on the 1930s in Frankfurt in 2005, Oz explained:
At the time three fourths of Europe only sought to free itself finally of all those pan-European polyglot enthusiasms, passions for poetry, convinced of the moral superiority of Europe, lovers of the dance and the opera, of the pan-European patrimony, dreaming of a post-national European unity, prizing the courtesy, the European toilette and modes, unconditional admirers of a Europe that for years […] they had striven to coax, to enrich themselves in every domain and by all means, forcing themselves to integrate by making frantic court to render it tender, to make themselves loved, accepted, to satisfy it, to take part in it, to be loved.To this improbable distortion of the facts Yitzhak Laor replied:
The murdered Jews of Europe were not a nation of “Europhiles.” […] They were not “polyglots, wild with poetry, convinced of the moral superiority of Europe, lovers of dance and opera,” etc. Such an idea is an offense against the victims of genocide, the majority of whom never went to the opera nor read European poetry.Quite simply Oz denies the Otherness of the Jewish victims, who resemble today’s immigrant workers more than “well-raised” Europeans, as shown by photos of the East European ghettos and the restrictive measures against Jewish immigration imposed by the European governments and the United States in the first part of the 20th century.
This rejection of the idea of a “Judeo-Christian” civilization, existing for millennia, does not emanate solely from a secular milieu, but also since the 1930s from religious intellectual circles. Later the great philosopher Yeshayahou Leibowitz joined them in a famous text published in 1968 by Haaretz, “On the supposed common Judeo-Christian heritage”.
More recently, analyzing the statements of a number of French intellectuals, from Bernard-Henri Levy to Alexandre Adler, Pierre-André Taguieff and Alain Finkielkraut, Ivan Segré denounced the disintegration of Judaism and its singularity in Christianity and the West. For him, it constitutes the second act of the “large-scale ideological operation” seeking to impose the slogan of “defense of the West”. Finkielkraut claims that America represents the “inverse image to Auschwitz” and that “the memory of Auschwitz” has become the moral law of the democratic conscience. To oppose US policy thus becomes proof of a more or less shameful anti-Semitism.
At the same time we witness the relegation of genocide “far from Europe”. Shlomo Sand, an Israeli historian and author of a famous essay “The invention of the Jewish people”, (4) had earlier published an interesting work The 20th Century on the Screen [in French (5)], in which he returns to Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah (1985). Aside from the fact that this documentary was financed by the Israeli government through a film company, Sand notes
He proposes a total break between the world of high culture and the “final solution.” Effectively Shoah relegates the mass murder into the darkest corners of Europe. All the physical locations connected with the Holocaust are Polish villages and the ruins of the camps are likewise in Poland. Thus the film totally avoids the fact that the decisions, the organization, and the logistics of this industry of death emanated clearly from the centers of German high culture. [...]Part of the western genealogy of genocide is thus deliberately concealed. Neither the colonial massacres nor eugenics nor the brutalization of European life with the First World War are mentioned, for they would oblige us to attempt to understand why Western civilization and its “high culture” have given birth to Nazism – even if there were no predestination making the genocide of the Jews the West’s “truth.”
…and Arab anti-Semitism?
But would this genocide be the “truth” of the Muslim world? Anti-Semitism, born well before the Israeli-Palestinian conflict clothed in the religious rags of Judeophobia, became its companion. We see the persistent equating of Judaism with Zionism as well as the use of expressions such as “Jews and money” or the “international Jewish conspiracy”; and we cannot overlook the recourse by some defenders of the Palestinian cause to anti-Semitic arguments which spread throughout the Arab world. Without going into the fate of Jews in Muslim societies over history, we can say that, at least up to the beginning of the 18th century, it was better to be a Jew in the Ottoman Empire than in Europe, even if long periods of tolerance alternated with short spells of persecution. Incidentally, it was here in this same empire that the Jews expelled by the Catholic Reconquista from Spain in the 15th century found refuge. Their emancipation in Europe, the start of the colonial adventure, Europe’s defense of the religious “minorities”, essentially Christian but also Jewish, contributed to the changes in the situation of the Jews and in their perception by the Arab environment. Thus, the Crémieux Decree of 1870 made French citizens of the Algerian Jews, removing them from their Arab culture and their human environment. But it is above all the Palestinian conflict that revived the tensions and rendered the situation of the Jews more fragile, as I remarked in the case of Egypt in the 1950s.
Among the Islamist movements the struggle for Palestine has given rise to a Judeophobic speech with a religious, but not racial connotation. At the same time, a “racism of war” has been reinforced, as we can see in every drawn-out conflict: between French and Germans, Serbs and Croats, Turks and Armenians etc. The continuation of confrontations has nourished this exchange, fed by the frustration and repression of the Palestinians. Sometimes it has borrowed from traditional European anti-Semitism – think of the spread across the Arab world of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. These hateful harangues, encouraged by the Arab governments, including those that have signed peace treaties with Israel, offer a useful diversion to help people forget the authoritarian and corrupt nature of their regimes. Is the liberation of Palestine in itself any the less legitimate for all this? Yesterday the despotic powers of Africa decried apartheid in South Africa; did that discredit the legitimacy of the struggle against “white power”?
The self-definition of Israel as the “Jewish State” feeds the confusion between Judaism, Zionism and Israel. How can we differentiate among them when Israel itself does everything to confuse them? How can we avoid joining them when French or American Jews can do their military service in an army of occupation?
Furthermore, the way Israel and the western countries use the Jewish genocide to justify crushing the Palestinians leads some, reacting against this impunity, to go so far as to deny that the genocide even took place. It becomes a case of: “If the genocide allows Israel to be exonerated, we will deny it.” Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is one such, though he denies any anti-Semitism (after all, Iran has the highest number of Jews in the Middle East outside of Israel itself). As Gilbert Achcar suggests, we should distinguish between extreme anti-Zionism and a real anti-Semitism.
The most widespread attitude, far from being silent or denying Shoah or the Nazi horrors, accuses Israel of imitating or reproducing them—and sometimes even of exceeding them.Beyond this language of the auction place, so widespread in the Middle East, we need to note the contradiction between the “reference to Nazism as total degeneration to stigmatize your adversary” and the “negation of Shoah or, still worse, the justification of the Nazi crimes.”
To those Arabs or Muslims who put the genocide of the Jews in doubt and praise the French intellectual and holocaust denier Roger Garaudy, Edward Said replied:
Why do we wait for the entire world to realize our suffering as Arabs when we are incapable of realizing those of the others, even when it touches our oppressors? [… To] say that we should realize the reality of the Holocaust does not in any way mean that we accept the idea that the Holocaust excuses the evil that Zionism has inflicted on the Palestinians. (6)Clearly the continuation of the conflict feeds the most obscurantist and dangerous visions for the peaceful future of the region and for all hope for coexistence in the meanwhile.
In Europe and the United States traditional anti-Semitism has been marginalized. Yet after the Second World War Leon Blum gave up the presidency of the Republic because French society was not ready to see him hold that post. Now, in France as in the majority of European countries, at least in Western Europe, any position can be held by a Jew. All the major political groups, except for the far-right Front National, oppose anti-Semitism and France has acknowledged, though late in the day, its responsibility for the Vichy crimes. The new generations have grown up being taught about the Nazi genocide: from programs in school to television, commemorations to political speeches, there is hardly a week in which the subject is not brought up. If we see in recent years a resurgence of anti-Semitic acts, they are limited and follow the curve of events in Palestine, broadly relating to “war racism,” mentioned above. There is no parallel with the situation of the 1930s, when anti-Semitism was not only an “opinion” but the banner of major political currents, even the official policy of certain states. Although it has to be fought without concession, like all forms of racism, anti-Semitism is no longer a major threat in western societies, contrary to Islamophobia and the rejection of Muslims.
Dreams of Peace
The state of the Palestinian conflict is easily summed up: a deadly impasse, fed by hatreds and fears, intolerable injustice, hidden “under the indifference of those who are not involved.” The only realistic solution up to now, two states living side by side, is vanishing at the same speed as settlement building advances in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Yet at the same time, the immense majority of Israelis and a major part of the Palestinians reject the idea of a single state from the Jordan to the Mediterranean.
For some decades, we have seen attempts to reach a negotiated settlement between the two sides’ leaders: the Camp David Israeli-Egyptian agreements in 1978, the Oslo accords (including the Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin handshake in 1993), the negotiations between Damascus and Tel Aviv (1994-2000). In spite of the bilateral treaties concluded by Israel, first with Egypt and then with Jordan, and in spite of the creation of the Palestinian Authority (limited to tasks of management and maintenance of order), this strategy has failed. In this region, forever between wars, animosities and armaments accumulate. We can find endless explanations, but the main one is rooted in the colonial nature of the Zionist enterprise. This fosters a feeling of superiority towards the “indigenous” population, which makes the Israelis refuse to recognize the equality of the Palestinians and their right to self-determination. Even the Oslo accords failed to dent this arrogance or the idea that “one Palestinian life is not worth the safety of one Israeli.” Israeli leaders have used the hostility of their neighbors, and the genocide of the Jews in the Second World War, to build a conception of security based on absolute domination – which has drawn the country into endless wars, this objective being beyond the reach of any state.
The perspective of absolute security becomes even more remote as the Zionist enterprise has proved incapable of pushing out the native population: the millions of Palestinians still cling to their soil. The “demographic threat” remains the Israeli leaders’ greatest fear. All means have been used to fight it, including the immigration of those who may not even be Jews but at least have the merit of being “White”: of a million ex-Soviet citizens granted Israeli citizenship, 300,000 to 400,000 were not Jewish. Some of them even openly expressed anti-Semitism: in 2007 the Israeli press reported that swastikas and anti-Jewish graffiti were found on the walls of schools and synagogues and that religious Jews were attacked. (7) In February 2008 the Israeli parliament decided to prohibit … the promotion of Nazi ideology.
Separation of populations — rather than peace — is all the more unrealistic a goal considering how intertwined they are geographically. This was recognized openly in February 2010 by Ehud Barak, the Israeli Defense Minister:
As long as only a single political entity, called Israel, exists between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, it will have the choice between being non-Jewish or of being non-Democratic. If the Palestinians voted, it would be a binational state; otherwise it would be an apartheid state.And since, in fact, these same leaders refuse to create an independent and sovereign Palestinian state, the conclusion to this statement is easily reached….
Unexpectedly, this inextricable reality reveals a solution, less utopian than any envisaged up to now. There is an unavoidable fact: the presence on the historic land of Palestine of two communities of equal population. We could weigh the injustices, enumerate the misfortunes, analyze the errors at the root of this imbroglio, but the facts remain: the Israeli Jews as well as the Palestinian Arabs are here to stay; neither protagonist is able to expel the other. Who could hope, moreover, on the moral as well as on the political level, to repair the denial of justice to the Palestinians by a different denial of which the Israeli Jewish people would be the victims tomorrow?
Whatever the institutional form – two states, a single confederation, a binational state, a unified state on the South African model – any solution will necessarily involve the two peoples. This concept was the basis of a project of a democratic state proposed at the end of the 1960s by Yasser Arafat’s Fatah, where Christians, Jews and Muslims would have co-existed. Observing its inability to mobilize in its favor a significant fraction of the Israeli Jewish population, pushed to see itself recognized by the international community after the war of October 1973, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) had to finally give up this option, and rally behind the two-state solution.
If we accept this reality — the presence of two peoples in the land of Palestine — we have to draw the conclusions: a solution cannot be imposed by one of the two sides: it calls for a joint struggle for a joint solution. Is such a vision no more than a chimera? Not more than the wager of South Africa’s ANC working out its program for a “rainbow” society in the early 1960s, in face of both the partisans of apartheid and of “black power”. One man (or one woman), one vote… It wasn’t here a question of fixing the exact outlines of an ideal outcome, which cannot be drawn by the protagonists, but rather to reflect on the path to take.
First of all, peace cannot be solidly constructed on ambiguity and the pretences that marked the Oslo process. It calls for recognition of the oppression of the Palestinians and the domination of Israel, and for the denunciation of the feeling of superiority that allows Israel to disregard not only international law and conventions but also the humanist values that it pretends to incarnate. During a demonstration organized in the Sheik Jarrah quarter of Jerusalem to protest the evictions of Palestinian families, the Israeli writer David Grossman acknowledged: “We have cultivated a kind of carnivorous plant that is slowly devouring us.” If it is no longer good for Palestinians to live in Israel, it is also the case for all for whom “humanity”, “morality” and “civil rights” are not just big words. Racism has implanted itself in Israel, including in schoolbooks. The atmosphere is upsetting to Avraham Burg, former President of Parliament, who recalls Germany of the 1930s on the eve of the seizure of power by the Nazis:
In what do our slogans “Out with the Arabs” and “Immediate transfer” differ from the cries of the unleashed mobs screaming “Juden raus”? […] Don’t say “These are just words.” They reflect reality. (8)Likewise, the growing repression of Israeli human rights organizations, in particular since the intervention in Gaza, confirms the assertion of Karl Marx according to which “a people that oppresses another is not itself free.” We can imagine what France would have become if the Algerian war had lasted fifty years.
This rejection of oppression and domination can foster a joint struggle that is constant and concrete, as illustrated by the mobilization of Palestinians and Israelis to destroy the “apartheid wall”. Constructed in Palestinian territory along the Green Line that separated the West Bank from Israel before the war of 1967, this wall, 700 km long, is supposed to separate the two populations. In reality, it has allowed Israel to annex additional territory and enclose tens of thousands of Palestinians.
Similarly, there is joint mobilization against colonization, including in East Jerusalem, which chases Arab families from their houses and their lands. And against the militarization of Israel, where the recruitment of youth and weight of the generals have no equivalent in the other democratic countries. The refusal of troops and officers to serve in the occupied territories or during the wars of aggression are seen as sources of hope.
All of these opposition movements have had only limited expression in Israel up till now; and they remain subject to multiple difficulties because of the ongoing repression and their small impact on the Israelis who, in the large majority, are gripped by the security policies of their successive governments. They cannot develop without a vast international movement like that which has begun under the “Boycott, disinvestment and sanctions” campaign, whose basic aim is to make the Israeli people understand that the continuation of the occupation has a price – following the example of the boycott and international sanctions which struck the South African apartheid regime and sped its decline and fall.
What about violence? The oppressor’s violence always provokes that of the oppressed and legitimizes the right of resistance to the occupation, including the recourse to arms. The dream of the conqueror is to find an occupied people that accepts collaboration. And always, the violence of the occupied who refuse to accept that is qualified as “terrorist.” But the right to use violence should be subordinated to its efficacy and should therefore remain in step with the intended objective.
When the ANC decided on recourse to violence at the beginning of the 1960s it had, according to its leaders, three options: sabotage, terrorism or guerilla struggle. The last was unrealistic and the second was contrary to its objective, to win over a part of the Whites to its cause. Sabotage was finally decided on.
The armed struggle engaged by the PLO during the 1960s and 1970s allowed it to rally the mass of Palestinians, in particular those in the refugee camps, but it could never demonstrate its military efficacy. Terrorism beyond the Israeli borders, used at the start of the 1970s, was soon abandoned. Its negative effects on world opinion soiled the Palestinian cause. However the rhetoric of armed struggle survived these setbacks and has regained vigor since the start of the second intifada in September 2000, with the recourse to suicide attacks. These actions present a double stumbling block: on the one hand it is difficult to accept attacks on civilians; on the other, they have a disastrous impact because they alienate sympathizers from the Palestinian cause, and also because they rally Israeli Jews even more strongly to their government. It is therefore not surprising that the movements of Palestinian and Israeli citizens against the construction of the wall or the confiscation of Palestinian land are mobilized around non-violent strategies. This attempt is difficult, considering the brutality of the Israeli repression and the desire for vengeance that it provokes, as well as the despair created by the absence of any political or diplomatic prospect.
A new strategy also assumes that these movements take into account, from now on, the two major traumas that have afflicted the two populations: the genocide for the Jews and the Naqba (the defeat of 1948-1949) for the Palestinians. Yasser Arafat understood this in part—he had tried, but failed to visit Auschwitz. During the negotiations at Taba in January 2001, Yossi Beilin, then Minister of Justice, accepted to recognize, at least partially, the responsibility of his country for the expulsion of the Palestinian refugees.
It is not a question of establishing an absurd equivalence between two tragedies, nor to pretend that the genocide of the Jews “justified” the existence of Israel, but to acknowledge on both sides that a profound suffering was at the origin of their existential fears. This suffering has to be addressed since, as Avraham Burg writes, one cannot build a durable identity on the “basis of one of the greatest traumas that humanity has ever known.” (9)
Beyond that, it is Israeli and Palestinian citizens who must together combat the occupation, not to construct a joint history but two parallel, if not compatible, stories. In this respect too, South Africa offers several useful lessons. Mandela tells in his memoirs how, meeting President Pieter Botha for the first time, he raised with him the revolt of the Boers against the English at the end of the 19th century—an uprising of the colonists against the homeland.
I said that in my opinion our struggle was a parallel to that celebrated revolt, and we talked about that historic episode for several hours. Obviously the South African history looks very different to the Blacks and the Whites. They saw their revolt as a fraternal quarrel and my struggle as a revolution. I say that we can also consider it as a struggle between brothers of different colors. (10)Mandela wanted to “heal” the wounds of history. The “Battle of the Blood River” offers another surprising example. On December 16, 1838, to escape British rule, the Boers, who had begun a long interior exile called the “Great Trek”— an epic that would shape the Afrikaner community— encountered the Zulu king on the banks of the river Ncome. The king, several days before, had executed Piet Retlief, a Boer leader, along with seventy of his companions who had come to negotiate. During the battles, several thousand Zulus were killed and the stream, colored with blood, took on the name “Blood River”. This anniversary, celebrated every year, is a central element of the Afrikaners’ mythology and identity. Since the end of apartheid, December 16, kept as a public holiday, has become known as the “Day of Reconciliation”. In 1998 one of the Black ministers of the government apologized for the massacre of Piet Retlief and his companions, while recalling the historical sufferings of the Zulus: "This day,” he said, “should mark a new pact to construct together a new country.” Can we imagine that in a future entity erected in the land of Palestine certain events in Judeo-Israeli history could be celebrated along with others from Palestinian history?
In the meantime, the interminable conflict has dug a chasm between the two communities, forged from countless crimes. If we cannot compare the violence of forced exile, occupation and oppression with resistance, there is still no doubt that both sides have created permanent wounds. The pain of a mother who has lost her child is the same, whether it is the result of an Israeli bombardment or a Palestinian suicide attack. Edward Said called for the creation of a commission of Truth and Reconciliation on the South African model, in order to make public the violations of human rights, whether committed by Palestinians or by Israelis. The United Nations commission, created after the Israeli offensive on Gaza in the winter of 2008-2009, presided over by Judge Richard Goldstone, (11) is an example. Along with the totally justified demands that those responsible for the Gaza massacres be arraigned before the International Criminal Court, can we imagine that, starting today, Israeli and Palestinian citizens could create forums of inquiry and witness in order to overcome the wound of the conflict?
Such a prospect could be called utopian, both in political terms and at the level of international and regional power relations. This is certainly true. But it is possible to foresee stages, through which to lower tension and make such a path more feasible. Has President Barack Obama truly committed to imposing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital? Would such a state, with all its limitations, enable a new page to be turned in the relations between the Jews and Arabs of Palestine? We may hope so, but the future must belong to a world based on universal values that transcend ethnic and national divisions.
Let us cite the great South African writer André Brink, who tells this story about his post-apartheid country:
At five years old, the son of one of Cap’s friends began pre-school. To my White friend’s great pleasure, his son soon became very friendly with a small Black boy. It was not an ordinary friendship. The two children were inseparable. One afternoon, after several months, the little White boy was there when the father of his Black comrade came to fetch his son at the exit of the school. The child looked at the man in great astonishment. The next morning he came to school very early to await his comrade. As soon as he saw him he ran to the door, so excited that he was panting: “You never told me,” he exclaimed, “that your father was Black.” (12)
(1) Cited by Oliver Moss in Patrick Haennni and Stéphane Lathion, Les Minarets de la discorde, Religioscope, Paris, 2009.
(2) Yitzhak Laor, Le nouveau Philosémitisme européen et le « camp de la paix » israélien, La Fabrique, Paris, 2007, and Ivan Segré, La Réaction philosémite et la trahison des clercs, Lignes, Paris, 2009.
(3) For this entire paragraph read the analysis of Mark Silk, “Notes on the Judeo-Christian Tradition in America,” American Quarterly,” vol. 36, no. 1, Spring 1984.
(4) Sand, Shlomo, The invention of the Jewish people, London; New York, Verso, 2009.
(5) Sand, Shlomo, Le XXe siècle à l’écran, Paris, Seuil, 2004
(6) Le Monde diplomatique, Paris, Aug. 1998, op. cit.
(7) Le Figaro, April 22, 2007.
(8) Avraham Burg, Vaincre Hitler, Fayard, Paris, 2008.
(10) Mandela, Nelson, Long Walk to Freedom, Boston : Little, Brown, c1994
(11) South African judge. He was the prosecutor for the International Tribunal for ex-Yugoslavia and Rwanda. He is of Jewish origin and displays Zionist convictions
(12) Brink, André, Fork in the Road, London, Harvill Secker, 2009.