Joseph Levine: History Matters ... Why we must acknowledge the claims of the Palestinians

Roundup: Talking About History

[Joseph Levine is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He has been active in groups devoted to Palestinian Rights and a just resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 1982.]

I have often been involved in arguments about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that focus on its history. Usually, the defender of current Israeli behavior urges the importance of appreciating all that Israel has been through and why it exists in the first place. I respond by reviewing the dispossession of 1948, terror attacks on Arab villages in the ’50s, Israeli provocations over the DMZ on the Golan Heights in the ’50s and ’60s, and on and on. Eventually and invariably, the defender of Israeli behavior insists that we not be so distracted by the history, that we need to focus on resolving the current conflict, not rehearsing the past. And thus we are struck by a larger question: is the history of Israeli-Palestinian relations important in our attempts to solve the present problem?

I would answer affirmatively. Understanding the history is crucial—not all the details, of course, but the fundamental themes. It is not hard to identify the major elements of the two conflicting narratives of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, sixty years after Israel’s founding, the two points of view were crystallized in the competing responses to the event: celebrations of Israeli Independence Day on the one hand, and remembrances of the Catastrophe (Nakba) on the other.

In the mainstream Zionist narrative—which includes liberal supporters—the State of Israel is the realization of legitimate Jewish nationalism. That project, having been sanctioned by the international community through both the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine (awarded to Great Britain with the understanding that the British would carry out their commitment described in the famous Balfour Declaration) and the UN partition resolution, was rejected by the Arab world. Because of this violent rejection, Israel has been forced to maintain a strong military and fight many wars as well as remain vigilant against constant terrorist attacks from its enemies. The liberal version here will admit that the settlement enterprise in the West Bank and Gaza was a mistake, and that often the Israeli government acts unwisely and unjustly. But the basic parameters of the narrative remain.

On the Palestinian side (which includes many Jews who fall outside the mainstream Zionist camp), the fundamental theme is that Zionist settlement in Palestine was a colonial enterprise, which flourished behind the guns of a major world power that did not have the right to dispose of this land, and that in order to erect an exclusivist Jewish state, the Zionists, once they achieved sufficient power, threw out most of the indigenous population and treated those that remained as second-class citizens. By and large, the Zionist enterprise is seen as similar to the European colonization of North America and Australia.

These are obviously broad-stroke descriptions, but they will do for now. With regard to these conflicting historical narratives, I have two points to make: first, there is a fact of the matter about their relative accuracy, and second, that it matters.

Liberal Zionists often grant some degree of legitimacy to the Palestinian narrative, but then put it alongside the Zionist one and bemoan the lack of understanding. The idea is that they each represent an extreme, and the truth has to be in the middle.

Of course the notion that the truth is always in the middle is nonsense, and those making this assumption would not for a minute apply the principle to, say, the Nazis or the Soviet Union. (What is supposed to be the Nazi side? “Well, yes, the German Jews were getting a little uppity”?) In fact, in this case, the truth is clearly not in the middle. Sober historical reflection shows that the Palestinian narrative is substantially correct. My purpose is not to make that case now, but rather to explore the consequences, assuming it is true.

Suppose I am right that the Palestinian narrative is substantially correct, and the Zionist one is largely apologetic. Why does it matter now? Aside from a perfectly understandable concern for historical truth, how does taking a stand on the events of 40-60 years ago make any difference to the practical task of forging a durable peace between Israelis and Palestinians? Does a properly pragmatic attitude not demand that we leave these historical controversies aside in order to focus on the task at hand?

Quite the contrary, it is a mistake to assume that pragmatism requires inattention to history. Without a proper appreciation of how we got here, the task at hand—forging a durable peace—will be extremely difficult, perhaps impossible to achieve.

To be sure, the history and associated balance of blame is not all that matters: it is but one—albeit important—determinantthat ought to govern what ultimately happens. Jewish claims resulting from one hundred years of settlement, new realities on the ground, and political and material constraints all enter into the mix. Still, the history of the conflict matters for two essential reasons. First, and most important, acknowledging the substantial truth of the Palestinian narrative will shift the dynamic of the peace process from concern for Israel’s security to commitment to redress for the Palestinians, a necessary new direction if talks are to succeed. The change in attitude would usher in a new framework for negotiation. Second, an appreciation of the history will provide a perspective from which to better understand how Israel’s current practices reflect a sixty-year history of obstructionist tactics. With the accurate historical context in mind we may gain a better sense of how Israel can reconcile with Palestinian interests and negotiate in good faith...

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