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Kevin Williamson is one of my favorite National Review columnists. Few people are as deft as Williamson when it comes to making an argument in 1,000 words. So I’m going to use his new piece, which is up today at NR, to make some points I need to make about Palestine.
I’ve been mentally arguing with pundits in my head for the past few weeks now, so maybe it’s time to bring a bit of this to Ricochet. Some of you know that I lived there for about eight months in the year 2000. I spent the spring in at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute, which is in Jerusalem, but sits right on the green line bordering Bethlehem. (There was an Israeli checkpoint just outside our building.) We took classes both at Bethlehem University and at Hebrew University. Then I spent the summer teaching English in Gaza City.
While I was abroad, I talked politics constantly, both with Israelis and with Arabs. It’s like Washington that way; everyone wants to discuss politics. I found that most people on both sides were pretty prepared to hash things out, drink some tea and still be friends. I sat in the living rooms of Palestinians and told them that their ideas about “returning home” were totally unrealistic, and some people got mad at me but not mad enough to serve me cold tea. I guess when you’re used to wars of bullets, you’re not easily intimidated by wars of words.
When I came home though, a funny thing happened. I couldn’t talk to anyone about the Arab-Israeli conflict without getting into a huge, ugly fight. It didn’t matter what the person’s views were. For the residents of Palestine, this is their life, so they live with the moral ambiguities every day. For Americans though, it’s all about picking a side and digging in. Cheering on your team. Creating a manufactured “moral clarity.” After awhile I just avoided talking about it.
With the next tragic chapter unfolding now in Palestine, I keep reading the news and getting that same indignant feeling. I don’t want to school anyone in the geopolitics, because I’m certainly no expert there; nevertheless I can’t but notice that 90% of what I read is a more or less sophisticated reiteration of: it’s the other guy’s fault. He made his bed. That’s the kind of moral confidence that no one should have concerning this awful conflict. All of the relevant actors bear some blame for the situation in the Middle East, and justice in such a case is very, very elusive. But manufacturing a sense of justice by focusing all of our attention on the other person’s missteps just looks to me like moral cowardice.
Now, I believe that the United States has a serious responsibility to support Israel. They are our allies. The existential threat they face is very real. They are at the front lines in the West’s confrontation with the brutal forces of radical Islam. Also, as a conservative, I have a deep respect for the Jews, who have in so many ways been the authors and cultivators of Western culture. I have met Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe and other parts of Arabia who took refuge in the Jewish state and made new and wonderful lives for their families. That’s an amazing and wonderful thing.
Right now, the hellish conditions under which Israelis are living are causing many in the West to jeer, which is inexcusable. No one deserves to live that way, and heaping the sins of the past on the heads of Israeli children is no more fair than heaping it on the heads of Palestinian children. We should let Israelis know that we stand with them in a difficult time. We should certainly heap curses on the heads of Hamas and other terrorist leaders, whose tactics and objectives are both despicable, and cause indescribable suffering to innocents on both sides.
But we should not curse Palestinians. Their story is properly seen as a tragedy, and one for which Western nations rightly feel some guilt. History still hangs over the Holy Land and we can’t stop talking about it; conservatives, for their part, like to downplay Arab complaints by suggesting that in fact, Israel’s creation wasn’t a particular violation of the local (non-Jewish) population’s political autonomy, or at least no more so than “normal” political changes that happen all the time. Let’s look at Williamson’s account of this:
Until the day before yesterday, the word “Palestinian” referred to Jews living in their ancestral homeland. During Roman rule, Palestine was considered a part of Syria: The prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate, was subordinate to the legate of Syria, Palestine being a not especially notable outpost. (It is perhaps for this reason that no physical evidence of Pilate’s existence was unearthed until 1961.) That situation obtained for centuries; as late as the 19th century, the idea of an Arab Palestine distinct from Syria was a novel one, and one expressed in Ottoman administrative practice rather than in anything resembling a state as the term is understood. The notion of a Palestinian Arab nation dates to only a few decades before the establishment of the modern state of Israel.
He goes on to observe that the Western notion of statehood may itself be part of the problem, and this is a good observation. But using the complexity of history as a screen to dismiss the legitimacy of Palestinian grievances seems to me like a slightly low trick. No, the Arabs never had their own state in Palestine. They were under the administration of the Ottomans, and then of the British, before Israel was formed. The British tried to balance the interests of the long-standing Arab communities and the incoming Jewish immigrants (Jews were about 10% of the population at the start of 20th century), and mostly threw up their hands in despair. Then the UN “invited” the Arabs to give the (mostly) newcomers their own autonomous state (while themselves occupying their own, neighboring state). The Arabs responded, in effect, “over our dead bodies.” So the West obligingly forged a Jewish state over dead Arab bodies.
If there is blame to be distributed here, I’m much more inclined to blame Western nations than Jews. The Jews’ motivations for returning to their ancient homeland were eminently understandable and admirable; Western nations’ motives were far more suspicious. That we now want to expiate our own sins by cheering the further suffering of Jews depresses me beyond belief. We owe them much better than that.
But I still can’t suggest that it was unreasonable for the Arabs to resent the Jews’ (Western-backed) demand for autonomy. I think it’s fairly impossible to understand from the standpoint of a 21st century American how exactly that must have appeared to them, but at least we should acknowledge that they weren’t throwing a fit over nothing. The fact that the Arabs didn’t have a modern, democratic state is hardly good reason for suggesting that their homeland and freedoms and sense of cultural identity weren’t all gravely threatened by the massive influx of Jewish settlers and by the West’s very evident determination, in the wake of WWII, to give them their own state. It’s sort of ironic how conservatives at this moment are simultaneously thundering on about our right to control our borders (which obviously has something to do with our desire to protect our home and society and culture), and also glancing over the situation of displaced Arabs in Palestine and saying, “Pshaw, stuff happens.”
But that is really where Williamson ends up. From near the end of his piece:
The story of humankind is that peoples move around and bump into each other, and the results are often unpleasant. Somebody wins, somebody loses, and, after some period of time, whatever temporary situation endures comes to be considered normal.
Is this just another way of saying that might makes right? Western nations were stronger, so they imposed their will on Palestine, and that’s that? We won, so we now get to tell you to stop your historical yammering and live where we tell you? Come on.
The thing is, I don’t think most Westerners are comfortable thinking of ourselves that way. We like to think that, as global powers go, we’re fairly benevolent. Bringers of freedom and democracy. Lovers of liberty and justice. We’re not the sort of people who get caught up in political ideologies and impose a political arrangement on a volatile region (over and against the strenuous objections of the majority of the current residents), relegating the displaced to tiny reservations for decades to come. Right?
Except in Palestine, that’s pretty much how it happened. And if the Gazans show a strong disinclination to accept the situation as “normal”, that’s partly because they’re still trapped in a tiny reservation (the whole Gaza Strip is about the size of Philadelphia) that they’ve never been able to see as home. Gaza City is a giant maze of concrete and corrugated tin. It feels like what it is, namely, a giant refugee camp that was thrown up in a hurry when hundreds of thousands of people were suddenly stuck there, with all their worldly possessions left behind. If you make any comment about the nature of the city, residents love to tell you that it’s not a city at all but rather, “the biggest prison in the world.”
I’ve recently read a number of reflections from conservatives suggesting that the Palestinians could have it pretty good there if they had used their aid and international goodwill to make Gaza into an amazing, beautiful coastal city, instead of building death tunnels into Israel. I’m not sure how possible this really ever was (the logistical obstacles seem formidable, and I have trouble picturing Stanford professors and world-class architects strolling the streets of Gaza) but I think it’s pretty clear that, given their situation, even trying it would have taken a pretty massive conceptual leap. The Palestinians regard Gaza as a giant holding cell. It’s a city of despair, where simple villagers suddenly found themselves herded into concrete bunkers, where they kept hope alive by cherishing the house keys and other tiny mementoes of their remembered homes. Perhaps a truly amazing leader could have gotten them past that, and kindled an enthusiasm for decorating their “prison” and embracing a totally new, urban, cosmopolitan lifestyle. It would have been awesome to see. But it would have taken a pretty extraordinary person to make that happen. A Perseus or a Cicero. Miserable, displaced people don’t re-envision their whole cultural identity just like that.
And at this point, “occupied people in diaspora” has become a central identity in itself. Compared with their cousins in the West Bank, Gazans had relatively little contact with Israelis. (Though when I was there, the settlements were still present, not accessible but eerily visible, like little heavily-guarded bits of Pleasantville dropped in amongst the concrete slums.) But of course they all appreciated the situation for West Bank Palestinians as well. The Palestinians I knew in Bethlehem dealt much more regularly with curfews and minor incidents of bullying (heavily armed young men don’t make great cultural ambassadors) and not being able to visit grandmothers 10 miles away because they couldn’t get the traveling passes. I witnessed some of these little indignities for myself (little insults, water bottles confiscated for no apparent reason, that sort of thing), and heard about many more. It’s just the day-to-day of occupation.
I fully realize that Israeli security concerns are not fanciful, and that a few stolen water bottles are small beans in the larger scheme of this conflict. But in our admiration for Israeli “restraint” (obviously heavily motivated by their desire to remain in the Western Nation Club) we shouldn’t kid ourselves into thinking that occupation is anything but ugly, or that Palestinians who have lived with it their whole lives, and been denied what we would regard as very basic civil liberties, can reasonably be expected to be placated by the observation that, “well you know, back in 1947, the Arabs fired the first shot.” From what I saw in 2000, it seemed that Israelis were a lot more anxious to win Western hearts and minds than Palestinian ones. Courtesy did not seem to be a point of emphasis for the IDF, at least in those days, and those memories of the little insults and petty acts of bullying (which have to be endured when the other guy has the gun) are burned into many Palestinian hearts.
Anyway, at this point the Palestinians have been infected by radical Islamists, who now use their reservations as a base of operations. These are despicable people with totalitarian aims, and it causes me tremendous grief to see the Palestinians used in such a way, and even more to know that some of them support it. At such a juncture Williamson is right: we can’t just ask Israelis to lay down and die in an act of expiation for the sins of the West. They have to take some action to defend their people, and we should recognize that right. The outlook for the Palestinians, individually and as a culture, is grim. I could offer you my dreams for Palestine (which wouldn’t involve anyone being slaughtered or forcibly displaced), but they’re only dreams, and there isn’t any point in dwelling on them.
But if we are indeed freedom-loving conservatives, we shouldn’t allow our justified anger over the sufferings of Israelis obliterate our pity and shame over what has happened to the Palestinians. Western nations interfered rather largely in Middle Eastern politics, and they ended up living under conditions that are dramatically less free and less dignified than what I as a conservative believe that humans deserve. In our justifiable sympathy for Israelis, we could focus all our attention on the missteps of others (“If only the Arab nations had… if only Arafat hadn’t…”), and of course many of those negative evaluations would be very fair. But that doesn’t change the fact that our (and our allies’) involvement in this mess was very significant indeed. Significant enough that we don’t deserve the comfort of shrugging off the fates of the victims as someone else’s problem.
Everyone in the Holy Land deserves a much better life than they currently have. For both sides life has become intolerable, in no small part because Western nations can’t stop litigating the history, holding one side or another accountable for historical sins. The history is certainly relevant, but with innocent lives at stake, nations have to be permitted to look beyond. At least in the United States, however, I think we may reach that point more quickly if we can discuss the situation with more perspective and evident compassion for suffering people on both sides. Preaching to the choir with oversimplified histories and thinly veiled assertions that might makes right will not, I think, win Israel broad-spectrum support. Sometimes, maybe, we do have to look at history and sigh that “the world is hard.” But when the incidents in question have happened in the lifetimes of living men, sponsored in significant part by our own nation’s aid, that sort of blithe hand-washing simply lowers us. The West does bear some responsibility here, and as virtuous people we should accept that for what it is.