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The Seventy Year Nakba

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May 18, 2018 by IJV

By Barnaby Raine

 

Never again can anyone ask, “but where is the Palestinian Gandhi?” That, one might think, is the pitiful victory gained by the loss of 60 lives at the hands of Israeli snipers in Gaza this week. The world’s journalists watched streams of unarmed people walk towards soldiers and then return on stretchers. The dead included an eight-month-old baby. They had only stood near a “border” imposed on them to keep them from their homes. Amid the abject despair of a people’s public strangulation, this is the nadir when the dying think, “we might as well die in front of cameras”, when all they can do is to show the world just what the world is permitting.

The tragedy is that people will go on asking for those Palestinian Gandhis. Even when Palestinian children fill morgues the Israel Defence Forces will blindly, wilfully plough on with its insistence that Palestinians are violent and threatening and we should all fear them. Nothing Palestinians ever say or do can shake the certainty, as they are pummelled, that they are beasts because the fear of Palestinians only masquerades as a fear about their behaviour. It is really a dread that they might not be beasts, that the disinherited might be human beings and might demand recognition as such. That is the claim made by slaves and the colonised that those who chase them from their land can never abide. It is the claim Palestinians make now in Gaza, and all that Israel can do is to open fire.

This is the Palestinian impasse. In order to understand this condition, the world must talk not only of violence and suffering but of the two worldviews that collide in Gaza too, the two opposed languages of politics that pit Palestinians against Israelis. There are journalists who write powerfully of horrors on the ground in Palestine. But our everyday political debates in the West also require much better, more critical understandings of the ideological presuppositions of contemporary Zionism and its discontents if we are to see why the Nakba endures, and what might end it.

“One person, one vote”, the slogan hallowed by democrats elsewhere, means only terror to Israeli “democrats”. On a certain rendition, the aspirations that ostensibly radical Palestinians have long held should sound basic to any Western liberal – they want the dissolution of a regime predicated on ethnic difference and its replacement by a state that guarantees equal rights before the law irrespective of ethnic origin. That was the alternative to the “two-state solution” championed by a confident Palestinian liberation movement in the period from 1968 to the ill-fated Oslo Accords.

That those really are radical aspirations discloses something about liberal democracy the world over. Liberal democracy prospers through its exceptions. It isn’t that liberal values are simply disingenuous, but they are contingent on the maintenance of order. The right to a home, to water, to basic physical safety are all thought to depend on the construction of a world in which stability is assured and so those who threaten the only democracy in the Middle East with slingshots and their bodies are threats to the liberal order rather than worthy beneficiaries of its protection.

A century ago the Balfour Declaration turned Palestinians into a negative in their own land – they were defined only as “non-Jews” unworthy of the political rights that Europe could safely entrust to its settlers. They became natives: problems. They were entered into a global chorus of the trafficked, traduced and penned in from South American barrios and favelas to the bloody Mediterranean, people whose role is to be dispossessed so that others might be free. This is how the seventy-year Nakba is connected to so much else around the world; every time property and power shoots down poorer, hungrier people to keep them away from food and freedom that is not theirs, the dead are honorary Palestinians.

That truth separates protestors in Gaza from global liberal democracy and inserts them into a different coalition. The Palestinian struggle is a universal struggle. This is too little understood. When Palestinians march in Gaza, when they unfurl their national flag they carry a lofty banner with a long history; they refuse, even from a position of great weakness, to let crimes go forgotten and unpunished. We should all share that. When they demand “return”, Palestinians refuse to accept as inevitable a future of exile or the miserable fragments of statehood gifted by a coloniser and instead they envision lives lived as equals, with all the glory and the dignity of communal belonging and popular sovereignty. Victimhood and vulnerability are popular catchphrases in radical politics today, but Palestinians cut against that grain. They inspire not only for their suffering but also for their courage. Wiped from the map, they refuse to be wiped from the earth. They want their children to live as all children should live, though that now looks like such a distant fantasy.

This is universalist politics, but it is not the bare universalism that merely seeks equality for abstract citizens. A certain depth of passion results from having one’s home denied, one’s community chopped apart. Palestinians yearn for obviously universal goods – breathing free of rifle butts – but they also want their land, Palestinian soil above all others. That might seem to be their particularism, but a politics of universal particularity reads such things as rights for all.

Particular, communitarian claims can take a full spectrum of political forms: they can be domineering and militaristic, paranoid of others, or in the liberal vein they can compose their particularity through the dovish embrace of others. One alternative hue is an old revolutionary anti-colonial mould. Here the celebrated qualities of a given people are defiance and tenderness; generosity in strength alongside insubordination in oppression; indignation at all unnecessary cruelties; lines of solidarity spanning the “fourth world” of the landless and reaching well beyond it too. On this view a particular people, by their battle against their particular enemies, can make a world fit for all; this is also the structure of old claims about the proletariat, and even older claims about a “chosen people” tasked with summoning the Messiah. This language of politics shocks some, because it speaks not just of mercy but of righting wrongs with a mighty hand – is this not why the Seder shocks too? This is the egalitarian, subaltern conception of particularity familiar to cadres in struggles around the globe, long the language of Jewish militants and utterly alien to the paranoid particularity that structures the Zionist state.

Plenty have noted the horror of American and Israeli elites partying on Monday in Jerusalem, just miles away from the slaughter in Gaza. The contrast that matters is not only between experiences of privilege and pain but also between two spirits. America and Israel are, as Hannah Arendt long ago predicted, anxious Spartas. Their violence dooms them to anxiety, fearing the vengeance of the oppressed. Among the thousands marching in Gaza lives a very different vision, of a world with all its walls and checkpoints torn away. They talk of dignity, in struggle and in freedom. They are unimaginably weak. But theirs is the only way of thinking about politics that might offer some slim hope of salvation in the killing fields of Palestine – hope, ultimately, for all who live there.

 

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