Thursday, July 24, 2014

Thoughts on Historical Arguments in the Israeli Palestinian Conflict

As is often the case, these blog posts are prompted by a reaction to something I read or some video I encounter. In this case, I wrote the following in response to someone who sent me this video: 

Here is my response:

Well it seems like the central argument here is that the idea of Palestine having its own national identity is either a fabrication by the Romans and the Brits, or it is a sort of counterweight concocted by terrorists to combat the presence of Zionism in the region. Then, this is counterbalanced by a narrative about a long suffering Jewish people who were forcibly kicked out of their homeland, forbidden to return throughout the millennia, often persecuted, yet somehow they managed to maintain cultural cohesion throughout this extended period, and finally they were able to return to their homeland only to find it relatively empty at which point they proceeded to peacefully acquire it and prosper on it. 

I think this argument is just stating the obvious that the Muslim society that had developed in pre-1930s Palestine was tribal and therefore it did not fit modern, Western definitions of nationality. I disagree because the direction they're going with this sort of thinking, implies that this is somehow less valuable than a Jewish heritage that better conforms to arbitrary Western ideals about culture and identity, ultimately contributing to the fact that the modern descendants of these peoples are denied things like security, self determination and prosperity for questionable reasons.

The Arabs living in the region didn't think of themselves as Palestinians in the same way that Native Americans didn't really think of themselves as Indians with a cohesive identity when the Europeans began to settle their lands. In the case of Native Americans, as history progressed the outside influence and common adversity they experienced due to European conquest caused them to coalesce around a sort of national identity that was actually an entirely European construct. In a similar vein, it is true that the delineation of borders that have come to define modern ideas of Palestine are ultimately traced to British, Ottoman, or even Roman political realities. These gradual geopolitical maneuvers took place over the course of millennia and they represent the result of a complex mixture of self-interest, religious fervor and pragmatism that was in constant flux depending on the empire of the moment. At times these forces were responsive to local ethnic and religious boundaries, but more often than not they weren't and therefore - much as it did with the Native Americans - these forces gave rise to new national identities of which Palestinians are only one example. The geographic and cultural boundaries that define countries like Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and so on, are generally a result of British imperial policy and not some sort of longstanding, cohesive cultural heritage that gives a particular group of people a claim to the land. 

And this is exactly why I have very little regard for arguments that focus on the existence of a certain narrow definition of cultural identity amongst the Jews and the lack thereof amongst the Palestinians - especially when we are talking about events surrounding a specific grouping of people who lived over 100 years ago, let alone millennia. The dynamics that governed and influenced the formation of those societies and borders were always more complex than contemporary "birthright"-style arguments of any stripe permit, and furthermore these dynamics were generally unfair to significant factions of locals living on the land at the time depending on their relationship to the empire that happened to be in power. If these historical decisions were so unfair and disconnected from the local populations of the day, why in the world would we hold to their often destructive consequences with such tenacity and attempt to solve today's problems by giving them contemporary authority?

We should definitely strive to have an accurate understanding of these dynamics so that we can be better informed about how they have influenced the realities of today - I think we should even make decisions that are considerate of the modern day consequences of these influences - but we really need to stop trying to inflate simplistic understandings of these dynamics with some sort of divine or even moral authority. 

Hamas does this; Jewish settlers do this; it is a significant contributing factor to creating a citizenry that is excessively pro-Israel in the United States; it feeds anti-Semitism around the world; it helps create and bolsters the expansionist policy that Israel has been pursuing for the past sixty years or more; it helps create and bolster the extremist elements within Palestinian society; etc... etc... etc... 

Everyone needs to stop it as soon as possible, but someone - I really don't care who, but I tend to be hopeful that the Israeli side is in the best position to do this - will have to be the metaphorical adult and stop it first, because as long as all parties believe that they have moral or divine rights to a particular plot of land - people will suffer and die. 

Now I could get nitpicky about the veracity of various facts in the video and I could write volumes illuminating those that are true in a more neutral, contemplative light. I can bring up additional facts that are a testament to Jewish aggression towards a large native population, and I can come up with more comparisons with other historical events that show that humans don't generally respect historical claims to land, and so on, but ultimately I really don't care about all of these factors. 

The history is long and it is way too messy. Any honest assessment is going to find plenty of dirt on both sides so let's stop trying to selectively use it to prove one side right, and instead selectively use it to understand where the other side is coming from, what their concerns are and how they have been damaged. 

When and if that sort of thinking becomes widespread in either society, a lot of really big and daunting problems will disappear. 

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