Christina Harris, one of my students, sent me this morning the article below from the Guardian on the eviction of two Palestinian families of 55 people including 14 children. As refugees in 1948, displaced by the violence of the Irgun and the “transfer,” they had been resettled by the UN in Jordan. But in the 1967 war, Israel grabbed this territory. An Israeli court ruled for a “prior” ownership and has somehow dispensed the property to a company which wants to displace 20 more families and “develop” the site for settlers – since when does occupation permit the occupier to force people out of their homes? Well, might makes right, it seems (what was the objection to the Nazis, then?). As a Jew and a fighter against racism and Nazism all my adult life, I wonder if this is a principle Jews want to or can non-self-destructively enact.
Faced with the crime of genocide in Europe, displaced Jews were allowed to settle, in a place of their own, only in the Middle East by Europe and America. In America, the racism toward Jews was still so thick during World War II that George Kennan could say, speaking for the State Department, that making an issue of the genocide would make the War “a partisan effort” (see Robert Schulzinger, The Making of the Diplomatic Mind). The Israeli slogan was “a people without land for a land without people.” But the Palestinians lived there. The slogan was a lie, the policies a crime against a people who had done no harm to Jews. The crime against the Jews – and what Europe and America would allow – made for these harsh circumstances. But to be secure, Israelis needed then to make peace with Arabs, to act decently where they could, not to become an outpost of “the West,” of “modernization,” of American imperialism in the Middle East. Instead, it has became an armed and after 1967, a (further) occupying paper. The additional conquests from the 1967 war have nurtured daily crimes and increasing desire for revenge on the part of displaced Arabs and madness in the politics of Israel. It is the oldest thought in political philosophy, motivated by Thucydides, that democracies which become imperial destroy themselves (see my Must Global Politics Constran Democracy? which has this as a theme). There is no way out from this spiral except actions, probably nonviolent actions from below, but occasionally statesmanship from above – what Obama is now trying as an American leader to pursue – to draw the murderous heat from the conflict and achieve a decent or at least livable settlement. I should note: the arming of Israel, in particular, its nuclear weapons, grants the Israeli government protection against outside destruction (only Israel can do itself in). It could act as “the strong,” with American support even today, to achieve such a settlement. Whether there is sufficient wisdom or political will in any element of the Israeli leadership to do this - and at the moment, many ordinary Israelis have moved to the right - is, however, a question.
There is growing sentiment now in the United States from below, notably among Jews, that the sort of thing described in this article done by the State of Israel is monstrous. (see The hunting of immigrants here for some other recent examples). All over the world people look at these acts and wonder about the government that does them. Many ordinary Israelis are troubled by the occupation (consider the movement of soldiers, some 800 who have refused to serve in the occupied territories). The movement Breaking the Silence has reported the stories of Israeli soldiers about the crimes committed by the army in Gaza, using Palestinians as human shields to enter houses, shooting ordinary people including old women to “protect your lives.” Up to 1967, the Israeli army self-consciously studied the laws of war and tried not to commit crimes against civilians; Michael Walzer’s striking Just and Unjust Wars, originally published in 1977 and still by far the best book on the subject, was inspired by the Israeli Defense Forces (it does not investigate the ‘transfer’, where the army drove the Palestinians out – if you want a hard dose of truth, look at Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine; a Jewish scholar harassed out of Israel, Pappe now teaches at Oxford), and is probably, as Noam Chomsky suggests, way too favorable to Israeli policy. But there is a large element of truth in what Walzer described then about the army. Read the reports by these soldiers today - a lot like listening to the reports, not publicized in the mainstream American press, of American soldiers from Iraq who testified in Operation Winter Soldier about the crimes they had seen committed by the US army – and it is hard not to be sad for Israel. What the Israeli army does now in Gaza – “the most moral army in the world” the IDF spokesman proclaims with the glassy eyes, deer in the headlights, and emptiness of George W. Bush – is decadent. A great fall from the training that motivated Michael’s book once upon a time (Walzer was my thesis advisor and I once visited him while he was working on a chapter). At the same time, the mainstream Israeli press had adopted a tone of derision, often racist derision, alone in the world, toward Obama. The government includes the racist Avigdor Lieberman and the Knesset has discussed making Israelis of Arab origins swear loyalty oaths. Fear is a driving force in Israel’s politics – more even than in Cheney’s America. But it is American weapons and aid that have licensed the madness of Israel and many of the criminal policies of the Bush period were copied by the neocons from Israel (America has outdone Israel in systematic torture).
In this situation, Obama, to whom the displaced are appealing, represents hope in a very deep sense. Finally, both the American public and even the administration are moving in the direction of trying to nudge the Israeli government away from committing crimes and toward a negotiated settlement. The new Palestine would not be a very viable area economically (it would need a lot of international aid). But two states, both with international help, could probably establish a modus vivendi which would be much more life-sustaining for both peoples. It would also limit the extraordinary threat of nuclear war in the Middle East, complicated by the renewed threats from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even this morning of what the US might do if Iran “gets a nuclear weapon.” Ordinary Israelis are endangered by the policies of the Israeli government (the three major parties, currently) and much of the press. Israel must now finally find a home in the Middle East.
Christina works with ICAHD, the committee which fights evictions of Palestinians. It is a credit to the decency and scholarship of the program at Hebrew University, done with my school, that she is allowed to do this. My colleague Micheline Ishay has organized this program which permits Korbel students to learn in depth about the conflict from Hebrew University scholars and then to work with diverse organizations – the choice is up to them - including in the occupied territories. Despite Israel’s troubles, such programs are a sign of hope.
I have another student Jamie Siers, who has written brilliant papers for me on Socrates and the origins of nonviolence who worked with ICAHD last year, and was thrown down a flight of stairs by the so-called Israel Defense Forces for trying to protect with her body a Palestinian mother who was being again displaced. Those who would defend Israel need to forgo threatening people and telling them to close their eyes. A negotiated settlement and Truth and Reconciliation, as Desmond Tutu suggests, are the only ways forward (see here).