09 February 2007

08 February 2006 - Is there Arab agency?

Last month, I attended the Carter-Dershowitz “debate” at Brandeis University. Since Carter refused to actually defend his claims against Dershowitz—or anyone else—Dershowitz had to speak after Carter had already left. Unlike the former President, Dershowitz allowed open questions and gave each of his interlocutors a chance to offer a rebuttal. A lively discussion ensued.

One of the last people to ask a question was a Palestinian student who spoke about the experience of being humiliated at the checkpoints that Israel has set up in the West Bank in recent years. Dershowitz empathized with her, but told her that she was “talking to the wrong people,” since the checkpoints were only made necessary by the decision of the Palestinian leadership to launch terror attacks against Israel.

The young woman, drapped in a kaffiyeh, actually accepted what Dershowitz was saying. In her rebuttal, she struck a different, and almost plaintive tone: “Tell us, then, what we should do. How can we—all of us—bring about peace?” Dershowitz seemed somewhat caught off guard, and advised her that Palestinians should stop supporting extremism. But I had the sense she was seeking something more.

That “something more” has eluded the Palestinians for generations. Palestinians have lacked a coherent national vision, other than the radical vision of annihilating Israel completely, which Palestinian leaders continue to indulge. And while Palestinian intellectuals have documented the culture and history of their people, they have failed to sketch even the crudest outline of the Palestinian future.

Palestinian nationalism remains what Orwell once referred to as a “negative nationalism”—one that is defined by what it opposes. “The Question of Palestine,” as Edward Said called it, remains, for Palestinians, a question of Israel. It is not just that Palestinians have never “missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” as Abba Eban put it. They have never known what to do with opportunity.

Palestinians have never taken their destiny into their own hands. Whenever I point this out, I am told that the occupation prevents them from doing so. Yet Jews began building their future state in the midst of severe repression and persecution. They collected money to buy land. They planted trees and built factories and created collective farms—not just in Israel but in the Diaspora, in anticipation of statehood.

Palestinians are among the most successful and well-educated Arabs. They have sympathy, in some form at least, from Arab states whose governments and notables are raking in the profits of peak oil prices and could provide great financial support. Yet they seem unable to make use of these resources to build Palestinian infrastructure, to improve schools or provide capital for economic growth.

This was true well before the international embargo against the Hamas-led government began last year. The few efforts that were made to build Palestinian institutions during the Oslo peace process foundered, due to the corruption, autocracy and anarchy of Yasser Arafat’s administration. And there is little going on in the Palestinian Diaspora, where Palestinians face no such constraints.

Hannah Arendt, though a critic of political Zionism, praised Zionism for pulling Jews out of a helpless “unreality.” Since the collapse of Shabbatai Zevi’s messianic movement in the 17th century, she argued, Jews as a community had lived outside of history, denying themselves any political agency, leaving themselves vulnerable to destruction at the hands of the Nazis.

Zionism, she observed, had aroused at least some Jews to understand that they could determine their own collective fate. If Palestinians ever experienced that realization, it was during the first intifada, which the leadership in exile had little to do with. The ordinary people of the West Bank and Gaza began to articulate a common vision of Palestinian statehood alongside a sovereign Israel.

These hopes were squandered by Arafat, who sided with Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf War and lost the support of Arab nations as well as western nations for the Palestinian cause. Many ordinary Palestinians, too, were seduced by Saddam’s promise to destroy Israel, an intention made visible and concrete by Scud missiles arcing across the nighttime sky over the West Bank, headed for Tel Aviv.

Much of the Arab world, it seems, is mired in one version of “unreality” or another—whether the fanatical visions of the jihadists, or the everyday haze of misinformation fed to millions by state-controlled media. People are told that their problems are due to Israel, the U.S., and the west in general. They are never told that the solutions are within their reach, nor given the tools to achieve them.

I briefly considered auditing a class on Arabic literature this semester. One of the assigned novels is Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North, which tells the story of a Sudanese man who returns to his home village after earning a doctorate in Britain. He encounters a mysterious stranger in the village who, it turns out, also studied in Britain, and who was convicted there of murdering his British wife.

The stranger eventually commits suicide by drowning himself in the Nile. The narrator is tempted to follow the same path, and is sinking into the river when he suddenly changes his mind: “All my life I had not chosen, had not decided. Now I am making a decision. I choose life.” The novel was published in 1967, the year Israel proved it was here to stay. The Palestinians have yet to choose life.

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