Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Politics of Recognition, Part III

Ahmad Samih Khalidi argues in the Guardian against Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, for
behind what may appear an innocuous demand to accept Israel for what it deems itself to be lies an ideologically motivated attempt to force the Palestinians into an unprecedented repudiation of their history. Palestinians' recognition of Israel as a Jewish state implies the acknowledgment that the lands they lost in 1948 are a Jewish birthright. This runs contrary to the heart of the Palestinians' historical narrative and their sense of identity and belonging.

It invalidates the history of the ­Palestinians' century-old struggle and in effect demands that they should become Zionists; for the essence of Zionism lies in the belief that these lands are (and always were) the homeland of the Jewish people, and that the history of Jewish dispossession was rightfully rectified by the emergence of Israel in 1948.

Norm Geras responds:
There are two things wrong with this. First, recognition of Israel as a Jewish state does not at all entail acknowledging some original Jewish birthright or repudiating a narrative according to which the Palestinians have suffered a historical injustice. It involves accepting only that, as things now stand, Israelis as well as Palestinians have a right to national self-determination within the relevant territory. Second, the problem is to find a political solution to competing national claims within that territory, and not to validate the Palestinian narrative. As in a previous outing at the same venue, Khalidi seems to be insensible of the fact that this problem is the result of there being competing narratives - Palestinian and Jewish - to be justly accommodated. No accommodation will be possible if each side insists on the unconstrained validity of its own narrative and on any political resolution having to respect it. Better to find the political resolution and let narrative fidelity, or adaptation, take its course.

I've written before of how narratives clash inside Israel and Palestine, and I think Geras is correct to indict Khalidi's assumption that recognizing Israel's Jewish character necessarily obliterates Palestinian claims of injustice and suffering. What it does do is affirm is that, as I put it previously, Israel's "existence is not a mistake, not an affront, not blasphemy, not colonial, not temporary, and not negotiable." All of these statements are perfectly harmonious with the affirmation that Palestinians have suffered greatly.

Geras accurately notes that Khalidi's fundamental reservation -- refusing to acknowledging any compelling normative considerations on the Jewish side (as opposed to contemporary political exigencies) -- has the effect of simply reserving the maximalist Palestinian claim for a later date. Khalidi's claim that Hamas recognizes the possibility of a long-term peace with Israel reveals more than he thinks: a descriptive acknowledgment that Israel is there is small comfort if not paired with a concurrent affirmation that Israel ought to be there (or at least, that the moral arguments in its favor aren't negligible). Meanwhile, Israelis and Palestinians have to be made to understand that their partners aren't just ranting about gibberish: that their respective experiences are real, that their histories of oppression, violence, and displacement are as they tell them, and that their stories will be greeted with respect and empathy rather than seen as the latest ball to be added to the political playing field. Finally, this is also why Israel's standing on this vis-a-vis the Palestinians is qualitatively different than it is with its other neighbors: as Khalidi certainly recognizes, the legitimacy of Israel's Jewish character -- that Israel came into being due to fundamental elements of the Jewish experience and oppression which deserve acknowledgment -- is implicated to a far greater degree in its conflict with the Palestinians than it is with any other group. Stripping the Jewishness out of Israel strips Israel of any normative rationale whatsoever -- it becomes just another facet of 20th century colonialism. But doing this does violence to Jewish history -- it writes us out of our own story and makes into tertiary characters with no agency, independent interests, or autonomy.

The accommodation comes by recognizing that Israel did not come into existence because of Jewish mal intent -- that it was a response to oppression inside and outside of Europe, that it was reasonable behavior, that for Jews it was perhaps the only plausible route for social survival, that it was not "all about" colonialism and racism and greed and plundering. This does not mean that Palestinians did not suffer -- the world is not a kind place; injustice rarely stays constrained inside the boundaries set for it. It means that Israelis and Palestinians must relate to each other's narratives on terms of empathy and respect. Political settlement is going to require co-existence between narratives as well as people.

Khalidi laments that the demand to recognize Israel's Jewish character means forcing Palestinians to become Zionist. I've often hoped for a day when all Jews would sign on as allies of Palestinian national aspirations, because the Palestinians see that as essential to their liberation as people. In spite of the fact that Jews (including myself) have long seen this movement as a threat, as fundamentally hostile to their lives and livelihoods, and as committed to the erasure of their own history and experience (as I believe Khalidi does), I do not believe it is intrinsically tied to any of these things. Though I will never sign on to statements or positions which buy into these frames, I do not view that commitment as being remotely in conflict with advocating for a Palestinian state. For Palestinian national liberation. Because ultimately, we are all our brother and sister's keeper, and our obligations to each other do not dissolve so easily even in the wake of our justified anger and mistrust.

Zionism is seen by Jews as our own national liberation movement -- what we need to be equal and dignified members of the human community. It doesn't depend on erasure of Palestinian suffering or history, or occupation, or discrimination -- though it may have manifested itself in these things before. Do I ask them to deny the suffering of occupation? No. Do I ask them to disavow that they have as much a claim on the land as do the Jews? No. Do I ask them to abandon advocating for equal rights for persons of all faiths and backgrounds inside and out of Israel and Palestine? No. But I don't view any of these commitments as being remotely in conflict with calling oneself a Zionist.

If the end of all this is a day in which Israelis can say "there is a vision of Palestinian liberation here, and I support their efforts to enact it," and Palestinians can say "there is a vision of Jewish liberation here, and I support their efforts to enact it", in other words, call themselves Zionist -- well, that wouldn't be the worst thing in the world, now would it? Indeed, I'd call that the end game.

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