Sunday, November 16, 2008

Joseph Levine: Why we must acknowledge the claims of the Palestinians

History Matters: Why we must acknowledge the claims of the Palestinians
By Joseph Levine, Boston Review, Sep/Oct 2008


"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."

See the full text here.

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