When I started this blog I didn't intend to comment on the Israel/Palestine conflict, despite it being an area of personal and academic interest. My research had moved on and the web is plastered with observations. However, I read David Grossman's impassioned sense of war weary despair and Ahdaf Soueif's response - an insightful, if imperfect, dialectic between two distinguished writers - and decided to write this post.
I do not intend to enter their debate. The arguments are too well rehearsed. Grossman despairs at successive Israeli governments' failure to realise the promises of the peace process whilst reaffirming his deep commitment to Zionism. Soueif argues that the Zionist dream was flawed from the start due to the realisation of Jewish statehood necessarily being at the expense of the indigenous population. Though an advocate of a single, secular democratic state as a solution, she interestingly places a "truth and reconciliation" process at the centre of the creation of peace and this is what I want to focus on.
It will not be an easy task. The mutual incomprehension of the national aspirations of both sides has never been greater, nor has it been more understandable. Palestinians see dispossession, violent death, military occupation, land confiscation and the wall - behind which their economy crumbles. Israelis see a political movement elected which has a covenant that contains the European genocidal myth of the Jewish world conspiracy and who has sent its bombers to inflict random slaughter on its streets. Every day is an experience of violent mutual negation.
Reading the comments on the Guardian web site is deeply dispiriting. Scrolling through the historical misrepresentations, half-truths and outright falsehoods is a depressing experience and a prime example of the misuse of history. A proper understanding of history is a precursor to truth and reconciliation and so this post is an appeal for intellectual liberty and empirical research, the subject of my first guest spot on Normblog.
The power of a process of mutual recognition is more than a liberal fantasy or idealistic aspiration. I have seen it happen in person. In the early 1980s, I was a young volunteer teaching English to Palestinians on the West Bank. It was an experience that has lived with me ever since. The most memorable and moving occasion was the time I was the recipient of more than typical Arab hospitality in a refugee camp outside Ramallah. My groaning stomach was rivalled by the crushing sense of Western guilt and humility as my fellow volunteers and I were taken for a tour of the camp. Amongst us was a Jewish woman volunteer. Islamism was just beginning as a movement and we were introduced to a young man who was an early recruit, challenging the dominant nationalist ethos. The Islamist suddenly said, "I understand one of you is Jewish". My colleague didn't hesitate and stepped forward. The young man smiled nervously and slowly shook her hand, withdrawing it with a hesitant, semi automatic wipe on his trousers. Nevertheless, he shook the hand of a woman and a Jew in a Palestinian refugee camp. In that moment, I saw the possibility of reconciliation, that the gap between even a radical Islamist and a Jewish woman could be breached by recognition of the suffering of the other and a gesture of support.
Soueif feels that Israeli historical understanding of Palestinian suffering would lead to the abandonment of Zionism. I am certain she is mistaken. Even an instinctively anti-statist writer as Helen Willis, could assert her Zionism, most notably in this essay on "anti-anti-Zionism" (via Engage). Edward Said recognised this tendency to underestimate the strength of Israeli identity and society in his "The Question of Palestine",
So effective have Zionist ideas about Palestine been for Jews … that what these ideas expressed to Arabs was only a rejection of Arabs … The internal solidity and cohesion of Israel, of Israelis as a people and as a society, have for the most part, therefore eluded the understanding of Arabs generally".
Much the same could be said of the other side, many of the posts critical of Soueif were denying the existence of a Palestinian nation. We have seen these two nationalisms locked in a process of mutual denial, recrimination, war, murderous violence and retaliation contesting the same territory. Could it now be possible for them to engage in a process of mutual recognition and development in that territory, even in these dark times? Empirical truth has a part to play and if you doubt the possibility of reconciliation just remember that handshake.