A post-Zionist discourse
By Mazin Qumsiyeh
There are three fundamental questions facing all of us: What kind of world do we want? How do we get there? What will we be doing when we get there? Yet, most people are so busy with their with daily lives (from work to school to activism or whatever) to really reflect deeply on these three questions.
Let us take the example of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? We demonstrate, we write letters to the editor, we do teach-ins, we do civil disobedience, and some of us do violent resistance. But how many of us took time to imagine the future and put our actions today in that context. Such time-out is difficult to come by especially when one is under the gun (physically or metaphorically) and Palestinians have been ethnically cleansed and are being killed and oppressed daily. Bear with me on this exercise.
Let us say the year is 2014 and the Palestinian refugees are allowed back to their homes and lands and stirrings of a pluralistic democratic nation is evolving in the area. What would this be like? Will there be enough economic resources to make the people (Jews, Christians, Muslims) living there prosper? What can we do to prepare for this eventuality? Will this be the end of conflict in that part of the world? What of jobs and economies? Will it be based on tourism, high tech, agriculture, combination, etc?
First, let me make it clear: the future has a way of sneaking up on people so fixated by looking at the past. The atrocities we see today ranging from mass killings, land confiscation, uprooting trees, building apartheid walls, violent oppression and desperate acts. All these things not-withstanding,the intensification of all this violence is actually a predictor of an accelerated phase towards the inevitable solution. In South Africa the worst violence and the maximum despair occurred just before the Apartheid regime collapsed. The night always gets darkest before the dawn. The change in South Africa, just like the toppling of the Berlin Wall was hardly expected events when they occurred. They were not expected even by those most intimately connected to the conflicts. So it is in the struggle about Zionism. You talk to people with varied perspectives but you hear echoes of these other conflicts. You hear things like the wall, the extrajudicial executions (200 in the past three years), and the suicide bombings are acts of desperation and deep hatred.
But in reality, hatred always has rational explanations. I am a geneticist and I can assure you there are no human genes for hatred or violence. Educational and other life experiences shape people. The drive to make a state for a particular religious minority gathered from throughout the world in a land already inhabited by others put us where we are. Basically the discourse that failed is one based on the assumption that you fight the chauvinistic narrow nationalism resulting in discrimination against Jews (or other minorities) in their own countries by creating another chauvinistic narrow nationalist ideology. This discourse basically resulted in nurturing many forms of racism (many times feeding off of each other). These forms of racism included anti-Jewish feelings (otherwise known as anti-Semitism) and anti-Arab/anti-Muslim feelings (most visible in both Christian and Jewish Zionism). Many Israelis and many Palestinians now see the impracticality of solutions based on discredited concepts of “separate and unequal”, and “them there, us here.”
Israel as a military and industrial colonial power of course carries much of the burden to evolve. Just like South African white government finally had to take the first step to remove the main source of the problem (Apartheid), the Jewish Israeli government must take the first step to remove Zionism and its inherent apartheid policies. Palestinians are weak, dispossessed and dependent. However, Palestinians also have a grave responsibility despite their extremely difficult position. Five million of them are refugees or displaced people. 70% of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are unemployed. Even if the occupation ends tomorrow and refugees are allowed to return, the really hard work of reconciliation, rebuilding, and peace will have to begin. We need to prepare for that day as if it will come tomorrow because it could sneak up on us just like it did in South Africa. In fact, in South Africa, it was not a very smooth transition (and it is rather unique) so we must learn from that example.
Last year a delegation of Palestinians (including refugees) and International supporters traveled to South Africa to learn some of the lessons (groups sponsored by Badil.org). There were also intensive discussions about these issues at other International Conferences. As I write this, there is actually a conference in Haifa, which is discussing the return of Palestinian refugees. This is the first conference in Israel that addresses this, previously taboo, subject. The lessons from all are being consolidated (another is our Al-Awda convention planned for NYC April 16-18). I believe there are certain areas that a consensus is developing:
1) Despite the extreme violence created by relentless racist colonization efforts over the past 56 years, it is possible for Palestine to be reconciled just like in South Africa. This entails a truth and reconciliation commission and seriously beginning to address the basic injustices.
2) There is no simplistic answer as to why people fights wars. It is tempting to give a simplistic answer (depending on political persuasions this answer can vary from class struggle to nationalism to tribalism to religious rivalry). Wars and violence may also start out simple and develop their own growth dynamic. We do know that wars and violent oppression (and resistance) are particularly acute when accompanying a grave injustice (e.g. the dispossession of the Palestinanians). Thus we know that restoring justice is a good antidote to the disease of war. We also know that people do occasionally decide that they could do better by working together and coexisting than by competing for limited resources (and sometime destroying them in the process). We do know that in situations were people enlarged their circle and cared about others, the pie got bigger and everyone did better.
3) Zionism is not only harmful to Palestinians (its primary victims), but it is also not good for the Jews in the 21st century and also not good for peace on earth. Its tenets and influences touch on many areas well beyond the immediate Israeli-Palestinian question. This topic is far too lengthy to address here (there is a chapter in my upcoming book about this).
4) Many humans tend to take the easy route away from doing the needed work by blaming others or pleading weakness. Thus we blame leaders, we blame politicians, we blame “the enemy”, and we blame Satan etc. An old Arab proverb (based on a Quranic verse) says: God does not change (conditions of) people until they change what is inside of them. In a similar vein, an old African American saying in the civil rights movement was “free your mind and your ass will follow”.
5) Power is not the same as might. Armies have might but people can acquire real power.
6) Wars leave scars not easily treated but must be treated. Malnutrition among Palestinian Children will result in weak development (intellectually and physically) and the cost will be high. Israeli citizens forced to serve in a brutal colonizing army (Israel conscripts both male and female citizens) has resulted in psychological damage that will be also hard to repair. This is not even counting all the dead and injured (3000 Palestinians killed and nearly 1000 Israelis just in the past three years). While there is no parity between an occupier and occupied people, a colonizer and colonized dispossessed people, there is real concern for the emotional well being and development of the people who will have to ultimately share this land of Canaan. The sooner we begin to plan for this and address it, the better off we will be. There are many ways this is already being done and many other strategies that can be implemented:
a) Israelis and Internationals have worked to help Palestinians directly and to shield them from the violent dispossession and oppression. Some Internationals lost their lives and some Israelis were injured. This, in addition to its obvious physical and educational benefit, contributes to better psychological milieu for all involved (Palestinians and others). Much much more of this is needed.
b) The harsh attempts by apologists for the Zionist movement to vilify human rights activists, Arabs, Muslims, and anybody who disagrees with them has already resulted in increased activity in the West in support of Palestinian rights. People do not like to be lied to and certainly do not appreciate individuals and groups that are racist (attempts to vilify whole people and cultures).
c) Palestinians are human. It is sometimes difficult for some people to accept that fact after 5 million Palestinian refugees, thousands of civilians killed, after walls, and especially after desperate acts of violence and revenge etc. Like in South Africa, Palestinian resistance had a bell-shaped curve because people are variable (minority collaborate with colonizers, majority resist nonviolently, some resist violently, a small minority resists with extreme violence). The tremendous challenge that faced Palestinians since the Balfour declaration of 1917 was simply to survive and hang on to every bit of land possible in the face of the most sophisticated, aggressive, and well financed colonial venture in the 20th century. The human trait of adaptability under stress made Palestinians one of the most educated and cultured in the Middle East.
d) Israelis are human too. It is sometimes difficult for some people to accept that fact after 5 million Palestinian refugees, thousands of civilians killed, after walls, and especially after desperate acts of violence and revenge etc. Nevertheless, Israelis are human too and there are varied opinions and approaches within Israeli society. Some Israelis like Ilan Pappe (hosting the refugee conference at Haifa) and Jeff Halper (Israel Committee against home demolitions) have more in common with many Palestinians than some Palestinians have with each other. But even my language here is wrong because using words like “Israeli’s” vs “Palestinians” is far too artificial and divisive. The land was known as Palestine for 2000 years and people like Ilan Pappe and Jeff Halper could easily be described as Palestinians. There are also 1.3 million Palestinian Christians and Muslims who are Israeli citizens (albeit sixth class living in under a racist system that encourages Jews to fear them and that considers itself a state by and for "Jewish people"). Being human, means that Israeli’s could (and must) also be influenced. As the late Edward Said pointed out in his last published work: we must engage that society in our struggle for freedom. Said notes that this is not “normalization” but engaging with elements of the society that support human rights or that can be made to support human rights. Ultimately collectively we would be saving that society from its self-destructive course (now 30% of Israeli children live below the poverty level).
e) The future is not based on magic or on chance. It is what WE make it. History shows that people working together not only make a difference but can shape their destiny.
I believe serious thought is needed now about how to not only make people aware of injustice (a needed step which we are doing well) but also how to finally bring justice (e.g. how do we bring refugees back). Further it is also important to think what we would do afterwards. How do behave ourselves, form of government, coexistence and reconciliation. These are all things I think need thoughtful analysis and also action. If we want to build a better future, it is certainly not sufficient to point the light at the dark past. We must start looking forward, expanding existing positive programs and institutions and building new ones.
A whole new world is possible. We merely have to imagine it, articulate it, and work on it together (regardless of religion, ethnicity). It is time to begin this kind of discussion of a post-Zionist world that is inevitably coming.