So the Palestinians Want a State?

News Abroad

Mr. Thornton is a professor of Classics at Cal State Fresno and author of "Bonfire of the Humanities" (ISI Books) and "Greek Ways" (Encounter).

Being a liberal is like going to the theater--both require a willing suspension of disbelief. Every day you have to ignore the brutal facts of history and human nature, and reconstruct the world to match the fantasies of perfecting human life once the right-minded people--i.e. liberals--are given enough power to correct the oppressive institutions and practices that have distorted a naturally good human nature.

The current crisis in Israel illustrates this process beautifully. Many liberals see the issue as simply one of unfulfilled Palestinian national aspirations and the suffering caused by an"illegal" occupation. Using the same therapeutic calculus that explains crime as a natural response to material deprivation and wounded self-esteem, such people view the suicide-bombers as desperate neurotics"acting out" from frustration with Israeli recalcitrance and oppression. The solution is simple: give them a state in the West Bank with its capital in Jerusalem.

This interpretation works only if you ignore the facts. The"Palestinian state" has no basis in history, but was invented by the Arabs after the use of force to destroy Israel failed three times. The struggle then shifted to influencing Western opinion and appealing to Western ideals.

The idea of the nation, for example, is one foreign to Islamic civilization but dear to the West. The current nations in the Middle East do not reflect Islamic history or culture but were carved out of the Ottoman Empire by an Englishman with a pencil and a map. Since nationalist aspirations are deeply ingrained in Western culture, though, the Arabs cast the Palestinian problem as the struggle for a national identity embodied in a nation. But if a Palestinian state in the West Bank was so important to the Arabs, why didn't they create one when the West Bank and Jerusalem were both in Arab hands for decades?

Indifference to the facts of history fuels other opinions about the Middle East. Consider the mantra that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank is"illegal" or somehow uniquely immoral. In actual fact, the Darwinian dynamic of human history has been the violent seizure of territory and resources occupied by others. And if aggression fails, loss of territory is the usual price. The contest is not decided by fairness or morality but by force--if you can take it, the other side doesn't deserve to keep it, and if you can't take it, you deserve to pay a price, often in territory. Most civilizations are the consequence of this process. French civilization, for example, is partly the result of Caesar's brutal pacification of the Gauls, at the expense of about one million deaths.

However, if we are going to reject this fact of history and create a moral principal that such occupation is wrong, then let's be consistent and demand that the Arabs leave Egypt and North Africa, and the Turks go back to their ancestral homelands in central Asia. After all, most of the Middle East was Christian for six centuries, and Greco-Roman for more than a 1000 years until this cultural continuity was disrupted by the conquests of Islamic and then Turkish invaders. This is the cruel engine of history. Yet somehow Israel's defensive occupation of territory from which three attacks were launched-- territory to which it has an ancient historical claim-- is uniquely evil. In this one instance we are supposed to suspend the simple law of human conflict: to the victors go the spoils.

A blindness to the tragic human condition illustrating every page of history makes possible another aspect of liberal idealism: the therapeutic obsession with suffering and the cult of the victim. Since humans are basically good and do evil only because of external constraints, their suffering is never their fault. Moreover, when it comes to the Middle East, Western imperialism and colonialism, of which Israel is a manifestation, must bear the real blame for the current troubles.

Hence the Palestinians have become one of the West's favorite victims, whose televised sufferings make a good show. Who can resist those images of children throwing rocks at tanks? Surely we cannot blame the Palestinians, who have been crammed into squalid camps for decades now. Of course, a historical inquiry into why these camps exist would once more raise the issue of Arab responsibility for its aggression, and the callous manipulation of the Palestinians as a propaganda tool, with the collusion of Palestinian leaders. The suffering of the Palestinians is an important weapon in the long-term strategy whose ultimate end is the destruction of Israel.

And we in the West have bought into this strategy. You can see it in the rhetoric of moral equivalency ubiquitous in the media and government, where the inadvertent deaths of innocents resulting from the attempt to prevent the deaths of one's citizens are deemed no different from the intentional deaths of innocents in order ultimately to destroy a whole culture. Suffering and our emotional response to it are the issue, not moral responsibility and the hard price one must pay for one's choices. This moral idiocy also reflects the liberal world-view that ignores choice and responsibility and always blames something outside the individual.

Our response to the current crisis in Israel suggests that the Arabs' strategy of influencing opinion by appealing to our historical ignorance and therapeutic prejudices is working. Why else do we continue to play the game of"special envoys" and staged"summits" while more and more Israelis are blown to bits? Why else do we grasp at vague straws like"normalization" and fail to demand that the Arabs explain exactly how they will stop terrorism and control those among them who do not want Israel to exist? In short, at what point will we wake up to reality and realize that the price of our pleasing fantasies is the blood of our Israeli friends and allies?

This article first appeared on on March 29, 2002.

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More Comments:

larry - 10/7/2002

Your article seems reasonable and unbiased.
Is it true that Israel has broken numerous treaties or agreements and invaded or attacked Palestinians unfairly.
Do you think that the Religious Right is biased in favor of Israel in that they want to maintain Christian hegemony in Israel and/or help the Jews take over Gaza and the West Bank entirely (which I don't think they are legally entitled to at this moment)because they think that the bible gives them that right.
Don't you think the Religious Christian Right and the Jews make strange bedfellows in that Christian Fundamentalists predict the
destruction (for lack of a better word) of Jews who don't convert to Christianity?
Do you think our present threat to overthrow Saddam is related to this issue. That is, overthrowing Saddam extends Christian influence in the region. Also, to what extent is control of oil an issue here. Is Saddam really a clear and present threat or is Bush just using the Sept 11 tragedy as an excuse to advance our interests, given that no clear connection between Sept 11 and Saddam has been established, nor has clear evidence been shown that he is stockpiling nuclear weapons.
If anything, is not Bush's real fear that Iraq will take over Israel, not that Iraq will attack the U.S.
I am neither pro nor con in the debate (I teach history at high school level) but like to cut through propaganda wherever I see it. What do you think.

Comment - 4/23/2002

Dear Editors:

I am a professor of Philosophy at at Illinois Valley Community College
in Oglesby, just outside of Chicago. I would like to offer the
following reflection for your consideration.

It is a sad day for any journal when it succumbs to presenting
bigotry and illogical arguments disguised as "the facts of history," and
such a sad day has occurred in your recent publication of an article by
Mr. Bruce Thornton, entitled "So the Palestinians Want a State?" I
would like to substantiate this claim by making at least six
observations regarding his piece.

First let us examine the bigoted tone of the article. He consistently
refers to "the Arabs," instead of "Palestine" or a more appropriate and
less stereotypical term, while referring to Israel as "Israel" and not
"the Jews," which would be more balanced, if not more honest to his
apparent intent in writing his piece. Furthermore, he seems to assume
that there is no difference between Palestinian, Muslim, and Arab. Has
he never heard that many Palestinians are Christian? Furthermore, not
all Arabs are Muslim, and not all Muslims are Arab. He conveniently
lumps all of these categories together into "the Arabs," thereby making
it easy to paint them all in a negative light with his all-too-broad
strokes of venom.

Second, he claims that "the Arabs" are simply using the idea of the
nation to further "their" agenda in Palestine. The reason for this,
allegedly, is that "the idea of the one foreign to Islamic
civilization." Again, "the Arabs" and "the Muslims" have been
identified as possessing a single identity, a very wrong equation.
Further and equally important, I would like to know where his evidence
is for this claim. I do not find this statement to be at all obvious or
common knowledge, but he does not even attempt to support it. Assuming
the truth of his stated premise, a more reasonable explanation for what
he is getting at is that Islam has adjusted to the modern invention of
the nation-state, an idea which was nonexistent at the time the Qu'ran
was uttered and written by Mohammed and his followers. But, here again,
Thornton conveniently classes Arabs as Muslims, and thus obfuscates the
issues. Furthermore, the idea of a nation was not present in early
Christian tradition, either! Do the same negative conclusions that he
applies to "the Arabs," i.e., that they are using the "state" to further
their interests, also apply to those in the West who are Christian?
Likewise, by the logic Mr. Thornton uses, all "westerners" are
"Christian." But we know that not only has Christianity come to
embrace the concept of the nation, but that indeed not all people in the
western world subscribe to Christianity.

Third, his use of the term "Darwinian" is inappropriate to his appeal to
Realpolitik, since Darwinism has nothing to do with this kind of
thinking. He may well be referring the movement known as "Social
Darwinism," but that is unclear in his diatribe.

Fourth, Realism may be a "fact of history," but that in itself does not
refute the moral principle which condemns the invasion of one state by
another. In fact, the United Nations has several times called for a
recognition of the Palestinian state. This leads to the next point.

Fifth, his attempted refutation of the moral argument against the
incursion of Israel into Palestine is based on a reductio ad absurdam
argument which calls for rectification of historical wrongs by "the
Arab" world against Egypt and North Africa. Again, his historical
purview has been deliberately limited to an attack on historical "Arab"
wrongs, as though the current wrongs that Israel is committing are
justified by the wrongs of "the Arabs" of the past (i.e., the "two
wrongs make a right" theory). But even a basic logic student would be
able to see through this type of superficial reasoning. Further, moral
criticism of contemporary events in themselves have nothing to do with
correction of past wrongs. That is a different argument entirely.
However, if Mr. Thornton wants to be consistent himself, he would have
to argue in the same manner that the United States owes reparation to
many countries worldwide, as well as withdrawal (e.g. Central America;
Bosnia, etc.).

Sixth, he states quite inaccurately that "the Palestinians have become
one of the West's favorite victims." This is patently false, at least
far as the U.S. and England are concerned. The U.S. specifically has
consistently and clearly thrown its weight behind Israel, to the point
where Colin Powell in his latest, very slow and circuitous trip to the
Mideast, almost did not meet with Arafat. A cursory examination of the
U.S. media coverage of the events between Israel and Palestine in the
last three weeks will quickly show that the media has been terribly
"Israel friendly." One can even see it in the articles and headlines in
your own HistoryNewsNetwork! Mr. Thornton presented no evidence for his
assertions here, as is the case for his entire article.

For these reasons and others, I have to reject the argument that Mr.
Thornton attempts to make. It does not stand up to a basic critical
scrutiny. Where it will convince others, it will do so only on the
condition of their own bias favoring Israel. The article is neither
objective nor logical, and it is hard for me to believe that such a
piece could be written by a college instructor.

Robert P. Abele, Ph.D.
Illinois Valley Community College

Chris Messner - 4/22/2002

One point to replay:

"Assuming that there is great bias in Palestinian textbooks, I think it's also safe to assume that there is also bias in Israeli textbooks."

Actually, this is a very visited topic, and you can find many sources on this on the internet (places like MEMRI,

No, it is not safe to assume. Israel has done much to improve its educational texts, and is very pro-western in approach. So the bias against arabs is not safe t assume. However the bias in arab texts is very visiable.

You may have one point, although not directly. The western countries do not have a big market for Arabic textbooks, therefore western textbook manufacturers do not make Arabic textbooks. Perhaps if someone were to fund such a project, this is how it would have to begin.

As to Egypt and Palestinian lack of funds for education; well we have been giving billions to Egypt since 1979, and the Palestinians are well funded by both Europe and the US; this all without Saudi subsidies. Perhaps if the money were spent on education improvements instead of weapons, bombs, and retirement plans, these places wouldn't have the problems they do.



George Wolf - 4/20/2002

Reply to Number 1:
More Israelis come to the United States than vice versa. Jewish "refugees" from the former Soviet Union prefer to come to the United States than Israel. I've talked with a number of them. The "Jewish Homeland" hasn't been such a nice place to live for a long time. To support the IDF, Israelis put up with confiscatory taxes rates. To compensate for the tension of living in a garrison state, they tend to "party hardy" and put our road rage problems to shame; they lose more people to driving accidents in one year than they have lost in all of their wars. The Palestinians too don't like the area that much. Many of them have also come here.

Reply to Number 2:
Perhaps a rich kingdom like Saudi Arabia could afford to refuse textbook aid from the West, but most Arabs don't live there. Egypt -- which has atrocious education budget problems -- would probably accept textbook aid gladly. I will go so far as to say that because we have neglected education in the Third World for so long, we are faced with illiteracy, and the "Madras" problem, in which fanatics offer the aid that nobody else will give. I am also optimistic that there may even be a way to squeeze the Saudis about their own problem. Assuming that there is great bias in Palestinian textbooks, I think it's also safe to assume that there is also bias in Israeli textbooks. I'm pretty certain that there is bias in the "history lessons" that every Israel Defense Force recruit gets on his or her induction.I therefore submit that both sides could agree to a "textbook truce" as part of any reduction in tensions.

Thank you,

George Wolf

Chris Messner - 4/19/2002

Number 1:

what makes you think that the Jewish peole are the ones who will overwhelmingly choose the US over staying in the middle east. Opening up immigration would probably result in more Palestinian immigraion, without changing the overall situation one bit.

Number 2:

the chances of any US sponsered educational program in the middle east, within muslim cultures, happening is zero. They reject western educational values (except for the wealthy, who get sent to the US universities). We'd have as much a chance getting the PA to stop teaching anti-Israeli/jewish concepts as teaching Stalin that murder is wrong.

Duby Diggs - 4/17/2002

George, I think you are not only right, but that your idea of a multiethnic Palestine -which was historically the case before 1948-
acually makes good sense as a long range goal. The very unworkability of it in the short and medium term actually makes it even more valuable as an objective to strive towards, because it would force attention upon the reasons for such unworkability. A true merging of the West Bank / Gaza and Israel (not a conquest of one by the other) would require that the Palestinians accept full-fledged democracy (including free speech, free religion and rule of law) and that the Israelis reject ethnic cleansing (e.g."settlement" building). These are tough stumbling blocks, but thinking of Israel and its surrounding Palestinian zones as one long term entity makes such hurdles more apparent, an important, if small, first step towards ultimately surmounting them.

In the meantime, America could help the process along in two significant ways:

1) For a period of years, allow relatively unrestricted immigration to the U.S. of any non-criminal Israel or Palestinian wishing to come here. That would underscore the reality that the U.S. is more viable as a safe haven for Jews than Israel is (and if Israel is no longer seen as THE Jewish homeland, then the raison d 'etre for a Palestinian state as a counterweight largely vanishes)

2) As part of "rebuilding aid", sponsor a major program of non-violence education for Palestinian children. That would expose to bright daylight the intolerable twisting of young minds which is deepest root cause of suicide terrorism.

George Wolf - 4/16/2002

I agree that history tells us something about the region of Palestine/Israel. Thirty two years ago, I participated in an Archaelogy "dig" at Tel-Sheva; the biblical sight of Beersheba.
The layers upon layers of habitation produced a rounded, flat-topped mound. The builders kept using the sight because the debris mound offered nice defensive high ground for firm city walls. And they needed it. If you looked at the side of a trench dug into the tel, you could see that each level of habitation had left a layer about as thick as one layer of a layer cake. There were even what looked like dark icing layers. In fact, they were ashes left over from whenever the town was burned to the ground by invaders. Archaeologists liked Israel/Palestine because the burn layers were particularly numerous and were a good way to keep the layers unconfused.

What we are looking at today is another cycle of "burn layering" -- nothing more and nothing less. Yes, the Israelis could be called invaders, but the Palestinians too are the descendents of other invaders. I noted when I was there that many of them are blond and blue-eyed, which is appropriate because so many are descended from Crusaders. And the Crusaders were considered troublemakers induced to leave Europe because of a biblical connection to a holy place...

Ah yes, and like the Israelis today, the Crusaders were considered invincible militarily. They held on for several hundred years. That there is at present no Crusader state is because Europe lost interest in "the cause" and stopped sending immigrants and money. Very slowly, the crusaders lost ground to the Turks. I'm not sure what's going on now is all that different. What was it that Santayana said about repeating history?

The only "stable" times in that area's history have occured only when the area was part of a multi-ethnic state, typically a Roman or Turkish empire. "Pure" states -- made up of Canaanites, Israelites, Philistines, Judaens, Crusaders or Israelis have always seemed to be inherently unstable.

I predict that if the Israeli state continues to exist and the Palestinians are granted a state of their own next door, they will continue to feud both with each other and within themselves. I think that their only hope is a combined state that outlaws aggressive nationalism.

I really hope I'm wrong!

George Wolf

Chris Messner - 4/16/2002

Gee, from 1948 to 1967, during the time that Israel was formed and the territories "occupied", Israel lived off the U.S? You must have knowledge no one else does, since we were as uninvolved as possible in this timeframe, except maybe to get them to give back territory won on the batlefield. And lets not forget the self-sufficient arab states; you know, the ones receiving billions in aid from (at one time) the Soviet Union, the Saudis, the EU, and even America! The Europeans are most upset with the Isralis, watching their millions in aid to Arafat get destroyed with the terrorists!

I note you sidestep the issue of lack of Arab support for the Palestinians during the war, when a Palestinian state was supposed to be created but instead areas were annexed by Egypt and Jordon. Of course the Palestinians didn't care then, they even left Israel until the Arab war machine rolled over Israel and they could return in victory. Unfortunately, the Israelis had a thing to say about this; but thanks to the appeal to western nation building they are now 'refugees' looking for a homeland.

I do truly hope our intersets in the middle east are to influence and spread democratic ideals and capitalist successes throughout the middle east, and if so Israel deserves all the support we can get. If the Palestinians forsake terrorist actions and support elected government, I think our support for them can only increase, and dramatically. I don't think the arab states would agree.

Pierre Troublion - 4/15/2002

There is a legitimate historical question here: “If a Palestinian state in the West Bank was so important to the Arabs, why didn't they create one when the West Bank and Jerusalem were both in Arab hands for decades?”

Unfortunately, in the one-sided context of this article, that question is used for rhetorical effect rather than as a tool for even-handed inquiry. If the ultimate objective is to blast propaganda, this works fine. But a counter-propagandist could take another legitimate historical question and twist it to suit an opposing one-sided bombast: “If an Israeli state in Palestine was so important to Israelis, why haven’t they paid for it themselves, rather than live off handouts from American taxpayers ?” Turning historical questions into rhetorical devices in this manner tends to lead to the sort of back-and-forth shouting-past-each-other which characterizes much of what passes for “debate on the Middle East crisis” in the American news media. One might hope that historians could muster somewhat more constructive contributions to public understanding.

If, on the other hand, one seeks to use historical insight, not as grist for propaganda mills, but to understand the current spiral of violence that is undoing 25 years of patient peace-making in the Mideast by several American presidents (and quite a few far-sighted Israelis and Palestinians), then among the initial non-rhetorical questions might be, “What are the long term interests of the United States in the region ?” That such interests (after a dispassionate consideration of historical background and present geopolitical context) could be convincingly shown to be 100% congruent with the actions and ambitions of Ariel Sharon is unlikely, as highlighted in another current article on this website.