Israel: A reply to Steven Friedman

Mike Berger & Milton Shain caution against the peddling of simple-minded solutions

In a week when Netanyahu's government has decided to build more houses in a disputed section of Jerusalem, one can understand the exasperation of commentators like Steven Friedman (‘Talk Rights, not real estate', Sunday Times, 15 November, 2009).

But in his eagerness to advance his ideological agenda and to squeeze extra mileage out of the apartheid association, Friedman does not so much distort history as to ignore it altogether. Serious scholars talk of "two nationalisms" because that is indeed an important element in the Israel-Palestinian conflict; important but far from the only component.

Jewish nationalism was born and constructed in the nineteenth century out of despair at the failure of Jewish emancipation and burgeoning European antisemitism. It focussed on the historic land of Israel where Judaism was born and where it had maintained a continuous presence over the millennia.

Palestinian nationalism which arose in the inter-war years was an offshoot of an earlier and wider Arab nationalism. Although influenced by cultural diffusion from the West, it has recently become infused with powerful Islamist elements, represented in the rise of Hamas.

But Palestinian nationalism only became a significant factor when it appeared that the Jews had gained a foothold on a small stretch of the vast Arab territories dominated by Western powers in the early years of the twentieth century. In response, regional Palestinian loyalties were elevated to the ranks of a true nationalism to oppose Jewish settlement.

Even so this development was only taken seriously when Arab, not Palestinian, forces failed to dislodge the Jewish state in 1967 from the Middle East. Thus began the potent narrative of "occupation" and human rights taken up by the camp of which Friedman is a representative.

This is not to deny the lived reality in the minds and hearts of a few million Palestinians. They must be accommodated. Since the Oslo process began in the early 1990s, Israel has shown its willingness, albeit erratic, to work towards "two states for two peoples", a pragmatically vague compromise to enable the peoples of the region to get on with normal life - including, contrary to Friedman, economic development and autonomy for the Palestinians.

But this suits neither the extremists of the region nor Western ideologues, and in some cases antisemites, for whom the existence of a Jewish state is anathema. As the military option has failed so far, the diplomatic-economic strategy has come to hold out the best current hope for the elimination of the Jewish state.

Friedman, like Goldstone, is a soldier in the diplomatic-economic project as he admits when he openly advocates the "boycott, disinvestment and sanctions" strategy. That, in a nutshell, is why the Goldstone Report is widely regarded as political document rather than an impartial enquiry. Friedman only confirms what everyone knows, but that will not stop the Report becoming yet another stick to beat Israel with - as evidenced in a recent polemic by Costa Gazi in Politicsweb (24 Nov 2009).

But the crowning act of self-deception comes when Friedman and his supporters hold out the Utopian ideal of a binational state in which Jews will be contented, equal citizens of some democratic paradise. If Friedman knew anything about Jewish memory and self understanding - especially as it evolved in the last two hundred years - he would realize how problematic the notion of a single state is for Israeli Jews. There is a deep yearning for self realization. The same applies to Palestinians.

Put simply, Friedman has a profound misunderstanding of Jewish and Palestinian aspirations. Jews and Arabs/Palestinians have been in conflict for over a hundred years. Many Israeli Jews remember being expelled from Arab countries from the early 1940s. Many remember their families being butchered, just as many Palestinians remember friends being killed and others ending up as refugees in 1948. Two national narratives exist.

None of this seems to enter into Friedman's South African-centric worldview. When reflecting on his single state, he ought to consider the fundamental tenets of Islam, the concepts of the dhimmi and dar al-Islam and the absence of a democratic tradition among Palestinians and indeed the Arab world. In the twenty-first century, pluralism may look enticing from the vantage point of Johannesburg. In the Middle East or in Eastern and Central Europe it is far from evident. In the Arab world it is still an unrealised dream.

Unitary states in seriously divided societies (and who would deny that Israelis and Palestinians are not seriously divided) have failed in Lebanon and Yugoslavia, to name just two recent examples. For Jews, national identity was realised through the Zionist movement and achieved in 1948; for Palestinians, the PLO has carried the dream but the yearning remains unfulfilled. For Zionists, national expression was a renaissance - a ‘return to history' and an opportunity to be actors rather than subjects.

Forged in conflict and suffering, the Jewish national ideal is not something that will be sacrificed to dubious guarantees from the international community. In short, the Jewish state will reject any solution which smacks of self-genocide.

Certainly the ‘settlements' are a problem and the potential (not inevitable) balkanization of a Palestinian state would be messy. But this is precisely what needs to be negotiated. There is evidence of an economic revival in the West Bank and any advance towards compromise and reconciliation must go hand-in-hand with the promotion of economic prosperity and democratic norms.

The dream of a constitutional single state in Israel-Palestine, however pleasing in theory, simply ignores basic realities and visions. Put simply, the ‘negotiated revolution' in South Africa is precisely a lesson in differences. To continue to promote the unrealisable over practical measures to restore peace and human dignity to a conflict-ridden region, is to perpetuate the abuse of human rights which so concern Friedman and all those hoping for a better world.

Michael Berger is a retired Professor of Chemical Pathology and Professor Milton Shain is the Director of the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Cape Town.

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