19 September 2007 - Israel/Palestine: Week 2
This week, our seminar focused on the way in which Arab lands were dealt with by the new State of Israel after 1948. It’s an important issue, one that touches on the legitimate and lingering grievances of Arab citizens of Israel. A comprehensive solution to the problem might accompany, or even prepare the way for, progress in the negotiations to resolve the overall Arab-Israeli conflict.
The land issue does not relate directly to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but is important. Unfortunately, the readings for the week seemed to ignore three important contextual factors: 1. The effect of the state of war between Israel and her Arab neighbors; 2. The expulsion of Jews from Arab lands and the loss of their property there; 3. The improvement of Arab land rights in Israel since the 1960s.
Several readings attempted to apply a colonial template to the land issue, casting Arab as dispossessed natives. This analogy fails for a number of reasons. Unlike other settler groups, Jews had an indigenous claim. Furthermore, Arabs lost land through wars started by Arab states, not through wars of conquest. And elsewhere, settlers violated treaties, whereas Israel has sought to negotiate and honor them.
It is worth recounting Hannah Arendt’s rejoinder to the “colonial” charge—and Arendt, let it be noted, favored a binational state: “The building of a Jewish national home was not a colonial enterprise in which Europeans came to exploit foreign riches with the help and at the expense of native labor . . . [it was] without conquest and with no attempt at extermination of natives.” (The Jewish Writings, 434-5)
The real question here, to borrow from Ruth Gavison, is: did the establishment of a Jewish state impose costs on its Arab citizens, and do those costs outweigh the benefits in a universal sense? The land regime imposed after 1948 may have been necessary to protect the state’s contiguity. This imposed costs, but those have been ameliorated over time, and could be ameliorated further within the current system.
On the plus side, the class discussion was rather lively. This is turning out to be a more useful class than I imagined it would be, chiefly because the whole range of opinions on these issues has begun to emerge. That’s to the credit of the professor, and the students as well. Still, Israel is alone in the dock. An Israeli student told me he was glad for my interventions, but that I was just a “fig leaf.” He may be right.