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From The Unthinkable To The Probable In Israel/Palestine


Since our birth in 1776 and Israel”s rebirth in 1948, the two nations have had some important thngs in common. Most important for present purposes is that in both countries most of their peoples — if never all — have seen their nation’s birth as an historic act of heroism; and have seen their nation as above reproach.

The dissenting minority has always been small, much smaller in the USA than in Israel, until just now. It is useful to give at least a brief glance at some of the similarities, without forgetting how very different the two nations have been and remain.

What strikes one first is that both came into being by ferociously displacing the peoples who were there prior to, during, and after their birth processes: the Palestinians, in Israel, the numerous “Indian” tribes in North America. In neither case have most of the people of either nation ever comprehended the deep wrongs — war crimes? — committed over their entire existence to the original peoples.

Indeed, something like the opposite of comprehension defines the attitudes of most of the citizens of both countries. In the USA such attitudes have been long and continuously represented in books and films, implanted in our minds from childhood on, where “the redskins” are caricatured and bestialized, their killers given heroic status.

In Israel, the Palestinians who fight against the loss of their land, their rights and their lives, are similarly misrepresented when they are almost uniformly described as “terrorists.” In our earliest days, those who sought to oust the British were of course called “patriots”; those who blew up Jerusalem’s King David Hotel in 1947 were and are seen as heroes by Israelis, but that act was described by the British as “a terrorist attack”: the first recorded usage of the term. Terrorism, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

One could go on and on with such a discourse concerning similarities. But let me turn to some differences. The Jews who created the Zionist movement over a century ago also began gradually to settle there in the early decades of the 20th century. That process was much speeded up and its numbers greatly multiplied after World War II.

The first settlers had good reasons to leave the lands where they had been ghettoized, those who from the 1930s on who faced mass slaughter had even stronger reasons, of course. The emigrating Jews in both cases were also able to see themselves as returning to the lands of their distant ancestors.

Nothing like that was true for those who created the American Revolution, of course. In both cases, however, the “newcomers” were stealing the lands and ruining the lives of those already there.

And now we can see an all too close comparison between the “Indian removal” of the entire 19th century and that of Palestinians’ removal, after the1967 occupation, seen as illegal by all but the USA and Israel. The “removed Indians” were robbed of what they saw as their sacred lands and the culture and governments associated with them.

“Removal” was preceded, accompanied and followed by intermittent wars. Between the wars and the direct and indirect consequences of their displacement, it is estimated that sone 6 to 9 million “Native Americans” lost their lives, from starvation, illness, or murder; and those who survived on the euphemistically entitled “reservations” had much shortened and debased lives.

Those processes were spread over three centuries. Israel has existed for but half a century. But consider what has happened to the Palestinians in that half century, what is happening to them today, what will happen to them tomorrow.

They have “not only” lost a goodly portion of their lands, which is disaster enough. They have also lost their livelihoods, have lost the power to control their own destinies as individuals or as a people; and they have lost their freeedom and their dignity. What hopes can Palestinians have now, except by fighting? And how can they fight and possibly win against the massive — U.S. supplied — weaponry of Israel?

The fighting is done mostly by young men, and by all too many children. Their parents and grandparents once had better lives that were stolen out from under their feet. Their grandparents could have some large hopes that what seemed to be an incredible disaster would be short-lived, or, at worst, limited in its scope.

Their parents learned that matters were considerably worse than that after 1967. The massive theft of their lands was ineluctably accompanied by militarization, increased surveillance, and violence: the elements of a police state.

After 1967, it was often noted that the distinctions between the daily life of most Palestinians and that of South African blacks were tending to become indistinguishable. But with each ensuing year bringing us to the present, the South Africans were moving toward throwing over their oppressors, while the oppression of the Palestinians, if with intermittent moments of hope, was deepening.

In retrospect, it is clear that for Israel to maintain its military occupation of Palestinian lands, not only those lands but also Israel itself would inexorably and unconsciously become militarized, both in attitudes and in practice; as has happened to the attitudes and practices of the USA, consequent, most recently, upon the Cold War.

So it was just a matter of time until Israel would accept the murderous General Sharon as its Prime Minister; until its slogan would become Cry Havoc! and let slip the dogs of war!

Is this what the Jews of the late 19th century had in mind when they created the Zionist movement? Not at all, of course. Is a militaristic beast like Sharon the sort of person they would ever have allowed to “lead” them? Of course not.

Those earlier Jews would find many differences between their ghettoization and all that connoted and what has long been happening to the Palestinians. But would those differences be sufficient for those pioneering Jews to say “Ishkabibble? (My mother was a Jew; I have a right to use that word.)

And that brings us back to the USA. Earlier, I noted that Israel’s coming into being depended upon the support of the USA. The USA’s continuing economic, military, and political support over the decades has been even more so, up to this moment. What has motivated the USA? And how was it so easy for us to ease Israel into the Middle East?

The movtivations were many, but the two most important were 1) that the Middle East is the oil pot of the world. 2) It is one of the geographic hot spots on the globe. That has long been so, beginning no later than the Crusades.

Oil and the Cold War served to transform those two elements into an irresistible rush by the USA to control the area. What would have been difficult before World War II became relatively simple at its end. Britain had long been the Mediterranean power, and, as regards Palestine, directly so after 1917.

But World War II was devastating for Britain at home and abroad; if was flat on its back, economically, militarily, politically, desperately in need of a multibillion dollar grant from the USA simply to survive. Which it got, in 1947.

At a price – just when the soon-to-be-Israelis began their uprising in. And were called “terrorists” by the British. The would be Israelis might have had a chance without U.S. help, but 50-50 at best.. However, kicking the British out was only a first step, comparatively easy compared with persuading the Palestinians to step aside.

That would have required not just courage and rifles and hand grenades, but heavy weaponry — from tanks on upward. From 1948 on, the Israelis got just what they needed in that weaponry and in political support in the UN and Europe from, of course, the USA.

And they have been getting all that ever since, air and ground weaponry and, quite probably, nukes. All that free from the USA, along with billions every year in non-military assistance: Israel has been # 1 on the gift list for the USA since WWII. Nor has the USA deigned to show embarrassment in its UN record of usually being the lonely supporter of Israel’s violent policies over the Palestinians — among others close by — most recently in its veto in the Security Council of a quite sensible proposal for making peace in the area..

Dismal stuff. More than dismal, however, as the tragedy continues and deepens for the Palestinians — as it does for the many Israelis who also have been killed or suffered, whether or not in support of the kind of Israel they now have.

Now it is clear that Sharon is determined to “settle” the Palestinian question by any means necessary. The “second intifada” that began in September, 2000 has killed just under 1,000 Palestinians, and close to 300 Israelis. That intifada was, it is widely-agreed, deliberately provoked by Sharon. An old trick.

His new trick is to call Arafat “irrelevant.” That carries with it the probability that Arafat will be deposed, or even assassinated — from either side. If or when he goes down, it is likely that the Hamas will become the effective power for the Palestinians: Just what Sharon wants?

He will then have even more reasons to increase his violence. The question now is how far will he go? Sharon being what he is, the answer is likely to be found in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. More and more he brings Conrad’s Kurtz to mind; Kurtz, who had dedicated his life to civilizing the Congolese, but with his last breath wrote “Exterminate the brutes!” Except that Sharon doesn’t even have that familiar “mission civilatrice” as an excuse.

But Sharon can go only so far before Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria, to say nothing of Iraq and Iran, will find themselves pushed or encouraged to take a strong stand against the USA, to end whatever deals they have with us. Or to face the internal consequences. And then what? It is impossible to know, but the very possibilities are terrifying.

Writing before World War I, as Zionism was becoming a movement that had to be taken seriously, Thorstein Veblen wrote a short essay entitled “On the Intellectual Pre-eminence of the Jews in Modern Europe.”

(It can be found in the 1945 collection The Portable Veblen, edited by Max Lerner.)

The Jews were in “diaspora” from their Middle Eastern beginnings soon after the Christian era began; most importantly, and, for present purposes, most relevantly, from the mediieval period on, when they began to settle in the cities of both eastern and western Europe.

In all those cities, they were ghettoized. Over many centuries and up to the beginnings of Zionism, each successive generation of Jews led two lives: one in their ghetto living quarters, the other in the always more rapidly changing cities, changes consequent upon the accelerating emergence of what became modern Europe.

In the ghetto, where the rabbi dominated both education and power, the millennial-old Torah formed the entire and unchanging basis of his teaching. But in the other life outside the ghetto modern society was racing forward. The sharp daily contrasts, Veblen argued, could not help but to create skeptics of a substantial portion of each generation.

And skepticism — questioning, wondering, inquiring, imagining, each feeding and fed by the others — is the sine qua non of the intellectual energies that produce science, art, literature, and music. Thus did the Jews in Europe, always a slender minority of its population, provide a disproportionate percentage of its scientific and cultural growth.

From that analysis, Veblen went on to wonder: “And if and when the Jews succeed in having their own nation state?” Then, he argued, they will become just like all other nation states — greedy for resources and power, nationalistic, expansionist, militaristic. Warlike. What a pity he was right.

Is there anything to be done? One thing more than others. The Israelis must be made to halt and to reverse their history in Palestine; while, in exchange, the Palestinians must face the fact that a pre-1967 Israel is there to stay.

The USA must take the first steps, and do so with vigor and conviction. Yet, at the moment we are the one nation least likely to do do so, especially with Bush and his ilk in power.

But steeply uphill fights have always faced us, in everything worth fighting for. And, in this case, “we” are less of a minority than usual; and such a process would receive at least a third and very probably more than half of the Ixraeli people.

It is now being forgotten that before the second intifada, such percentages of the Israelis were in favor of Israeli withdrawl from the occupied territories and for the existence of a genuine Palestinian state. Now many fewer are, so scared are they of the rising viiolence; but that fear can be productive of good sense, given half a chance.

Most Israelis know that left to themselves without continuing U.S. support they cannot hold out forever, and would prefer a decent alternative to “extermination of the brutes.” The USA, were it to announce such a new position, must at the same time express its recognition that the USA itself cannot be a dominating party to any ongoing processes of settlement. That can only be done through the UN. And it is a certainty that the UN would vote for it.

But this USA will make no such proposal. So it is up to us, and many others we don’t know to do what we can to make that possible, to shorten the odds. We are not alone. And even if we were?

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