Friday, December 19, 2008

A Family Correspondence on Israel & Palestine

My nephew Abraham and I recently exchanged a few e-mails about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The subject has gotten very difficult for me to write about during the last few years, but I much enjoyed exchanging thoughts with Abe and have decided that when it comes to writing about Israel and Palestine, the perfect is definitely the enemy of what might be only barely adequate. What follows here is, at least, heartfelt.

Hi guys,

As you know, I'm going to Israel in a little under a week. I'm going to have a ton of time on the plane, and probably on buses and etc., to read; and I'd like to get a better understanding of the place and its history. So I'm asking for suggestions.

I have relatively little knowledge of Israel/Palestine's history, so I don't want anything too specialist/arcane. And it would help if it's well-written and engaging (though I can work around that).

But what I really want is a quality product, an essential book. If one (or both!) of you regard the book and/or author highly, I'll feel pretty confident that I can trust it. I worry, given the subject matter, about being propagandized to (especially since I kind of expect the trip itself to be a 10-day propaganda festival).

So. What would you recommend?


Hey, Abe,

Wish you were here. I've got so many books, but you’re going to have to go out on your own, I guess.

First off, for years anything put out by the American Friends Service Committee was about the best resource one could get. "A Compassionate Peace," which is probably out of print, was a great one-stop for the 20th century history of the region. But it wouldn't be enough, anyway.

Anything by Edward Said is a great critical resource, though sometimes a difficult read. A collection of essays by him would be an easy way to go.

Noam Chomsky, who is a friend of Said's, has written extensively about the region. "The Fateful Triangle" is a pretty comprehensive backgrounder. Not incidentally, don't carry a book by either author on your trip. That would invite debates that you can't win and that you will quickly tire of. When it comes to Israel/Palestine, everybody you meet will act like they know better than you, regardless of the facts.

A safer alternative to Chomsky and Said might be David Hirst's "The Gun and the Olive Branch: The Roots of Violence in the Middle East." It first came out in '70s, but it has been released twice in new editions since then. All of these books are, of course, strong dissents from orthodox pro-Israel history.

I know you don't want arcana, but Baruch Kimmerling's "Politicide: Ariel Sharon's War Against the Palestinians" has a lot of good recent history. I think it's a pretty easy read, too, but I don't know how much my off and on immersion in the subject may have prepared me to read it.

Norman Finkelstein is the son of Holocaust survivors. He's got a book called the "The Holocaust Industry" that you might want to read after you get back. Or maybe not.

Jerome Levin of the Jewish Peace Lobby always seemed relevant to me, but it has been a few years since I looked at his stuff. But you might want to check out JPL's website.

Detail matters and, in the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, oversimplification is especially dangerous, but I'm gonna oversimplify a little bit here. Remember, at all times while you're thinking about this, that two wrongs don't make a right—meaning that the Nazi war against the Jews cannot justify the expropriation of Palestinians.

A 60-year Arab propaganda war (much diminished, of late) against Israel is reprehensible, certainly. But it does not justify the Occupation. The propaganda campaign the Arab states waged against Israel matters, of course, but citing that as though it is the whole story and defines the Palesintian attitude toward Israel and Jews is wrong. There are plenty of Palestinians of enormous goodwill who believe the whole question of peace is not a moral one, but a political one. In other words, they believe that Israelis and Palestinians are peoples with a common fate who can and must settle their differences with compassion and a willingness to share the loaf.

That said, there are plenty of smart, well-meaning people who think that a two-state compromise can never be a permanent or stable solution. This is chiefly because an Israel that exists as a Jewish state will always be an anachronism, however compelling the arguments for a homeland for the Jews may be. The fact is that a Jewish state is a theocratic state and a fundamentalist one. Democracies cannot thrive, let alone endure, as theocratic states.

Jews won't thrive in a garrison state, either. And there is no argument that can justify forcing Palestinan citizens of Israel to live with fewer rights in what Desmond Tutu and others call an apartheid state.

Despite phrases like "a land without a people for a people without a land," the Palestinians have always existed in Palestine. Any account of the history of the place that does not acknowledge the enduring and productive presence of Palestinians is a colonialist account, as was the description of North America as wilderness when Europeans arrived on the continent.

It is obvious that few who live in or lead this country would suggest that we should return the continent to the descendants of the Native Americans who were here first, but we should never deny their existence in favor of a fairytale that pretends they weren't here (or were savages, or lost their rights to it because they didn't develop it the way Westerners believe[d] was appropriate). Jewish immigrants to Palestine in the 20th century were frequently good neighbors for Palestinians, but the development of the land was very capital intensive, even though the myth is that it was accomplished almost entirely by Jewish labor in the Kibbutzim.

Finally, a one-state solution is not a continuation of the "war against the Jews" by other means. Jews could live as well and probably more sustainably in a Palestine with an Arab majority. By the 22nd century, such a place could develop as a model of peace and tranquility for a world badly in need of such examples.


P.S: You're probably sorry you asked about all this, but the damage is done. I would appreciate your feedback--I would like to edit this and put some version on my blog. You will not be included in any version without your review prior to full blogification.

Hi Jeff,

I wish I was there, too :) But this is the next-best thing.

Sometime later today, I'm going to take this email and head over to Moe's, which is an amazing 4-story palace of used books on Telegraph, just a few blocks south of Bancroft, so I might in fact find some of the items you list as being hard to locate.

That said, a few thoughts:

First, thanks for looking out for me re: Said and Chomsky. I can only imagine the shitstorm I would endure if I spent hours on the bus in Israel, surrounded by fellow pilgrims, reading the latter. Said, I think I'd have an easier time defending (and probably wouldn't raise as many eyebrows in the first place, though who knows.) But he seems a bit too academic for my current purposes.

Second, I've thought for a long time that a two-state solution was the way to go. My argument usually makes its way down, at some point, to the "demographic timebomb" and the underlying assumption that Israel can't exist the way it's "supposed to" under an Arab majority. I suppose it's also premised on the idea that a theocracy based on a by-definition racist policy of exclusion of some kind is acceptable, though I'd never condone such a thing for my own country. Characterizing it that way makes it seem too anachronistic to persist for much longer, but after all, even pirates are making a comeback these days...

Anyway, I hereby condone any and all parts of this exchange for blogification. Do with it what you will!

Thanks and love and see you soon,

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