13 May 2007 - Ali Abunimah's One Country
A few days ago, in response to my post about Jeb Koogler’s review of Ali Abunimah’s One Country, I received an e-mail from the author himself, challenging me to read the book before commenting on it. Fair enough. I went to a local bookstore, but they did not have it (in fairness, it may have been sold out). I found it in Harvard’s library, where I was the first person to check it out. (Ironically, it’s the gift of the Alperin-Epstein Book Fund for Judaica.)
The first page really symbolizes the book itself, and the fundamental problem in the conflict:
What will it take to make peace between Israelis and Palestinians? Some say we must forget the past. I think we have to start by remembering it. My first memory of Palestine is from a supermarket in London. Before I was old enough to go to school, I remember regularly accompanying my mother to the Safeway in Ealing Broadway. One day we were buying oranges and I pointed at some big, beautiful-looking ones. “No, not those,” my mother said, “they are from Jaffa, they are our oranges.” This made no sense to my five-year-old mind. If they were our oranges, why couldn’t we have them? My mother explained to me that the citrus groves of Jaffa belonged to Palestinians, to people like us, until Israelis took them over.
And so began a young lad’s indoctrination. His natural instinct was to eat the orange, but he had to be taught to defer and deny the most fundamental delights—the sweetness of a delicious fruit, even the sentimental swoon of vicarious nostalgia—for the sake of a distant national grudge.
This is clearly a diaspora book, written from a diaspora perspective, by an author whose second-hand grievances have been cultivated at the expense of first-hand pleasures. Abunimah is a gifted writer—his prose is spare and concise, free from some of the overwrought outrage that makes so much writing on the Middle East unreadable. But his ideas strike me as a mixture of sense and nonsense.
I feel a bit uneasy dismissing this book, because I feel some sense of common interest with Abunimah. I, too, am interested in the lessons of Northern Ireland—and, yes, of South Africa, though the lessons he draws seem to be taken from a fictitious version of the country whose political development I have been privileged to witness. I, too would like to see Israelis and Palestinians work together.
But this book, as I had suspected from its title and from Koogler’s review, offers nothing new. Despite its occasionally gentle tone, all the usual elements of the anti-Israel demonology are there. There is an extended attack on U.S. President George W. Bush in the first chapter, for example, that makes no mention of the fact that he was the first U.S. President to make a Palestinian state a matter of national policy.
And there are the excuses for Palestinian terror, which the author condemns but with this familiar qualification: “. . . one cannot discount the truth that Palestinian violence occurs within the context of much greater and more pervasive Israeli violence.” These are followed up by the predictable—but always regrettable—attacks on the Israeli peace camp for allegedly undermining the Palestinian cause.
The worst elements of Israeli society are emphasized, such as a deplorable racist article in a Russian-language newspaper, which is used to back up claims that some kind of genocide against Israeli Arabs is a serious possibility. To this dystopian vision, the author then proposes “a united, democratic state in Palestine-Israel” as an alternative “based on reconciliation and universal human rights.”
Abunimah acknowledges that this idea is, in fact, Zionist in its origins, beginning with the Ihud (Union) Association of Arendt, Buber, Magnes and others—and even acknowledges that Palestinians viewed the idea with suspicion. By the time Palestinians came around to the idea, they had wedded it to a program of systematic violence and terror perpetrated against Israelis and Jews worldwide.
I am reminded of a classic quote from Alan Paton’s novel Cry, the Beloved Country—a warning to South Africa’s then-white establishment: “I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they are turned to loving, they will find that we are turned to hating.” The latter-day embrace of binationalism that has flourished recently among some diaspora intellectuals (Jewish and Arab) comes far too late.
The delegitimization of Israel, and the demonization of Jews—which is still ongoing, and takes such absurd forms as Hamas’s crazy Mickey Mouse, who teaches children to blame the Jews when they get caught cheating in school—has reached such depths on the Palestinian side, and has caused (or been accompanied by, whatever you prefer) such fear and mistrust on the Israeli side, that the long-dead utopia has been reburied again.
Abunimah argues that a single-state solution will, in fact, be easier than a two-state solution—that the major obstacle is outstanding property claims. That is not just wildly naïve but actually disingenuous. It would certainly be easier for Palestinians, since they would only suffer a few lost land disputes. It would be a disaster for Israelis and for Jews, who are treated in this book with only superficial empathy.
Then there is the chapter on South Africa. Abunimah has learned about the country through the accounts of others, including not only selective readings of the memoirs of Mandela and De Klerk, but choice quotes from left-wing Israelis who have made rhetorical use of the supposed parallels between Zionism and Afrikaner nationalism, and gleanings from Mahmoud Mamdani, who once criticized the Truth and Reconciliation Commission because it wasn’t punitive enough.
The practice of “necklacing” in the black townships—a practice which Abunimah might be surprised to know still continues, despite his claims to the contrary—is in no way equivalent to Palestinian suicide bombings. A possible parallel might be the Palestinian execution of suspected collaborators—but the point is that such violence corrupts a struggle from within, something Abunimah seems to have overlooked.
I agree absolutely with Abunimah’s assertion that “. . . Palestinians need to articulate a vision of the future in which Israelis can see themselves.” That as true of a two-state solution as it is of a single-state solution. More importantly, however, and more urgently, Palestinians need to articulate a realistic vision of the future in which they can see themselves, and this is something they have not really done.
Abunimah misses the essential, moral core of the South African struggle—that, while violent, it was grounded in non-violent origins and aspirations. He also seems not to notice that while Northern Ireland’s struggle ended in power-sharing between Protestants and Catholics, it also affirmed the partition of the island and ended the Republican dream of a united Ireland. A unitary state is not a universal solution.
Has the two-state solution really failed? Perhaps. I don’t think so, but perhaps it has. If so, however, it is likely that the solution will not be a unitary state in Israel-Palestine but Palestinian union with another state, probably Jordan (which the Jordanian monarchy desperately wants to avoid). Ultimately the responsibility for the success or failure of Palestinian aspirations has little to do with Israel.
It has everything to do with Palestinians themselves. And all the boycotts, divestment campaigns, and anti-Israel blogs in the world—which Abunimah praises extensively in his conclusion—are not going to change that. I, too, would like to see a peace built on human rights, on equality, on mutual recognition and respect. I would like to see Israelis and Palestinians share many institutions together.
But as Gandhi said: “We must become the change we want to see in the world.” If the Palestinians want a democratic state that respects the rights of all who live in it—whether for ideological or strategic reasons—there is nothing to stop them. Nothing, that is, but the absence of forward-looking Palestinian leadership—which this book, for all its well-rehearsed arguments, does not address or resolve.
The problem in the Middle East, it seems, is that too many people hold out for lost oranges instead of eating the ones in their hands. I think the young Abunimah should have taken the orange and run away to a distant corner of the supermarket to savor its delights. He has challenged me (I think) to debate him—a challenge I accept, though I would be prepared to have an ordinary dialogue. Over oranges.