Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Olive Tree Initiative, Israel-Palestine and the Conflict of Nationalisms

So at last, I get around to my grand "reflection" on the trip I took with the Olive Tree Initiative (no, the last article does not count).

When in the process of going through my notes from the trip, my thoughts kept drifting back to the Spring Quarter of my Freshman year of college, when I took a course on the Israel-Palestine conflict with Professor James Gelvin. Gelvin is a truly incredible teacher, delivering presentations with the perfect mixture of clarity and wit. What brings me to remember his course, in recent days, however, is Gelvin's theoretical characterization of the conflcit as a "conflict of nationalisms."

In the course of my travels throughout Israel-Palestine, I could not help be struck by the prominence of historical narratives in determining present political actions.

By history, I do not refer to the past as objective actuality, but rather as perceived narrative, that varies according to one's personal/life experiences. constructed as  so much as the conceptualization .

When our group visited the infamous Hebron settlement, the settlement's spokesperson, David Wilder, justified the imposition of the settlement, as well as the accompanying military regime, on the city on the basis that Jews "had lived there continuously" from Biblical times prior to the founding of the state of Israel (and because Judaism's third holiest site, the Cave of the Patriarchs, lay in the city).

Palestinian entreprenuer Mubib al-Masri, as if to counter Wilder's logic of causation, off-handedly remarked (when showing , when showing off the ruins of a Byzantine church that archaeologists had excavated beneath his house) that "it was lucky that we didn't find any synagogue...for then the settlers would come..." A full-fledged Palestinian national "counter-narrative" could be witnessed (amongst other places) on a historical timeline at the Jenin Municipal museum, which omitted any mention of Hebrew or Jewish events occurring in the region.    the local museum at Jenin,  history  al-Masri declared that he's "glad a synagogue was not discovered on the site, for it would lend legitimacy to Jewish nationalists (who would perceivedly try to displace him).

In a world of nation-states, national identities and narratives (such as the Zionist and the Palestinians) can seem to be primordial (especially when they draw legitimacy from a text as ancient as the Bible). To the contrary, however, most historians and social scientists concur that nationalism can be traced no further back than the early 19th-century, when the societal changes induced by the industrial revolution and the rise of constitutional democracy prompted a transition from older, feudal-based forms of identity. In the case of Israel-Palestine, Zionist and Palestinian identities are especially the first arising in late-19th-century Eastern Europe (in response to problem of Jewish emancipation) and the latter around the same time in Palestine due to economic industrialization. As Mazin Qomsiyeh reminded us, Palestine's Jews and Christian lived and died not as different peoples but as locals until recently.

Statesmen, accustomed to nation-state as predominant form of political arrangement, commonly pitch a two-state solution to the conflict, which would allow both nationalisms achieve "realization" through territorial compromise. For similar reasons, I too have traditionally believed that this would be the only endgame.

And yet, in Israel-Palestine, where the competing nationalisms not only covet the same territory but are premised-at least in recent times- so strongly on the denial of the legitimacy other (nationalism), fulfilling both nationalisms in tandem may add fuel to the conflict rather than manage it.

 As Jerusalem lawyer, Daniel Seidemann noted, this division will not result in hunky-dory coexistence but rather a "bitter divorce," that would require a considerable security guarantee by America and its allies to implement. Ironically, Seidemann made this comment as the bus wound its way through the Arab neighborhood (slated as belonging to a future Palestinian state) of Sheikh Jarrah, situated a mere 600 meters away from the future border (the Green Line) and the Jewish neighborhood of Mea Shearim. Should the future independent states of Israel and Palestine remain beset by opposing claims and grievances, the geopolitical situation in Jerusalem would ensure for a Cold War-like hostility at best (if not fractious bloodshed).

Compounding the problematic nature of the nationalisms is the degree to which religious belief (something that is far more difficult to "assimilate" to than a language or even culture) permeates the political and societal structures of the land. At the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, a strict religious (and ethnic) segregation between Jewish (Israeli) and Muslim (Palestinian) worshippers is maintained by the Israeli security forces,. Entering the country through the security checkpoints at Ben Gurion airport, my party was confronted with questions not about our citizenship but about our religion ("Are your parents Jewish?" I was asked): wrong answers could get students pulled aside for extended questioning. In East Jerusalem, on the other hand, a member of our group who looked  and inform politics on both sides.

Though religion and ethnicity have played a significant social role in the Middle East since the days of the Ottoman Millet System, the construction of national (Jewish-Zionist and Palestinian) identities political systems exclusively around religion is a relatively recent phenomenon.The first Zionist Congress, which laid out for the first time, an explicit goal of a homeland for members of the Jewish faith in Eretz Yisrael, convened only in 1896 . Palestinian nationalism, whose roots lay in the wholly secular process of industrial modernization (in nineteenth century Palestine), only became gradually (and partially) tied to the Islamic religion in light of the conflict with Zionism (e.g. the language of Islamic Martyrdom first entered Palestinian revolutionary rhetoric during the anti-zionist rebellions of the 1920s and 1930s), the flight of Palestinian Christian populations and political changes in the region (e.g. the Islamic Revolution and Hamas).

In theory, one could easily become a "Palestinian Jew" simply by embracing one's regional origins (and perhaps Arabic culture) and proclaiming solidarity with the Palestinian national cause: Uri Davis provides a case in point. Becoming a "Jewish Palestinian," would , on the other hand, be an extremely difficult and painful process: it is for this reason that the Arabic-speaking (many self-identifying as "Palestinian") citizens of Israel suffer such institutional discrimination within the Jewish state.

My point is not to blame Zionism but to argue that a long-term, equitable solution to the conflict will require people on all sides and their supporters (particularly Zionist American Jews) to identify with their neighbors as much as they do with their coreligionists.

In other conflict zones such as Bosnia-Herzegovina and Northern Ireland, where religious-based national divisions once fueled bitterness and strife, a peaceful resolution resulted in a single political entity (backed up by security guarantees), in which people on both sides of the divide were compelled to live side-by-side, preserving their communal identities without negating the presence of the other.

The question, then, is why (rather than another "two-state proposal") can't the same feat be achieved in Israel-Palestine?

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