Thinking the Unthinkable about Israel

Faisal Bodi’s determination to think the unthinkable this week (Jan 3) in advocating the disappearance of Israel does not break a taboo, but it does represent a psychological leap from wishful thinking to respectable argument. It is, in reality, a sanitised reading of the Hamas platform (the major Palestinian Islamic grouping) which rejects the two-state solution and suggests a return to the PLO’s fantasy days of the 1960s.

Mr Bodi’s view is not so much a demonisation of Israel as a full frontal attack on the idea of Jewish-Muslim dialogue and the peace camps in both Israel and Palestine whose members overcame their emotional attachments to their particular version of the past and accepted the compromise of partition. This was where real courage was shown.

It is always easier to believe in a polarised black-and-white version of the past when paradise prevailed and only one narrative exists. The fact that such reactionary views are given a platform indicates that we have travelled a long way since Nye Bevan and the left defiantly supported the right of the Jews to national self-determination in the face of the Labour establishment’s colonial ambitions in the Arab world and its antipathy towards Jews.

Such sentiments also represent the power struggle between the Islamic maximalists and the Arafat loyalists in the PLO. Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount certainly provided a religious incentive to the former. Moreover, the issue of Palestine – and the manner in which it is presented – offers a convenient political instrument to draw in disaffected and discriminated Asian youth in this country.

What informs such an analysis? In part, Mr Bodi’s limited understanding of the Israel-Palestine question is related to the fact that no Palestinian or Arab archives have been opened to discerning academics. Palestinian history remains at the service of the politicians. Are there no black spots in the Palestinian saga?

Unfortunately, there are no equivalents of the Israeli “new historians”. The Hebrew University academic, Benny Morris, was the first Israeli to reveal that some Palestinians had been expelled after examining newly opened archives in the 1980s. This didn’t exactly ingratiate him to the many Israelis who grew up with a different image of 1948. Morris, however, also pointed out that the majority fled in a mass hysteria catalysed by the fear that they would be murdered in their beds by the Jews. Too many are quite happy to go along with the notion that the Zionists forcibly expelled all the Palestinians. Morris’s version of history is now taught in Israeli schools. But what sort of history is offered to Palestinian youngsters?

There is also real confusion between the biblical heritage and the modern Jewish nationalism which was fashioned by the French Revolution, Marxism and the legacy of 19th-century European nationalism. Orthodox Jews for the most part opposed Zionism since they claimed that it forced God’s hand in bringing the Messiah before his appointed time.

If the Zionists adhered to God’s promise to Abraham that the land would stretch from “the river of Egypt” to the Euphrates in Iraq as a yardstick for their political ambitions, then why did the first Zionist map of November 1918 posit Israel’s northern border only a few miles further than its position today? Why was the border with Egypt to be negotiated? Is Islamic nationalism an answer to Palestinian frustrations?

As with Judaism, it is not always the case that people of great religious learning are good political leaders. The Mufti of Jerusalem was the great instigator of Palestinian nationalism, yet his legacy was 30 glorious years of total failure. He rejected the partition in 1947 (which Arafat accepted in 1988) and embraced Hitler’s Germany with enthusiasm, sojourning the war years in a Berlin suburb before returning to lead the Palestinians into exile in 1948. Even Arafat sidelined him when the PLO was founded. Does Mr Bodi believe that if Rommel had been successful in the Middle East and conquered Palestine, the Mufti and the leaders of Islamic Palestine would have pleaded with their allies, the Nazis, not to herd Jews into the death camps?

Unlike the PLO, Hamas holds the world of secular inquiry and openness at a distance. Their website includes an article on the origins of Zionism and, in true McCarthyite style, the Zionists are held responsible for most of the world’s ills. Mr Bodi’s vision of the future is endless war until his version of history is accepted. It is not the worldview of many Muslims and Jews who have worked for peace for decades. As in Ireland, history eventually brings the participants back to the negotiating table. Better a flawed peace than a perfect war.

Guardian 5 January 2001

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