08 May 2008

Israel Sixty Years On

This sort of thing wasn't supposed to happen in the 20th century: a slow-motion invasion capped by a political and military takeover of another people's land. Israel marks its 60th anniversary today, and with each commemoration comes new expressions of impatience with the country's Arab neighbors. Why don't they come to terms with Israel? Why don't they get over their hatred? But think of it from an Arab perspective for a second. How long did it take for them to drive out the Crusaders? It was something like 200 years. Why should they give up after 60? The implicit answer is: because they have no right to resist. They have no veto over Israeli nationhood. The Jewish people's right to a nation outweighs Arab or Muslim notions of sovereignty over the land of Palestine. These thoughts come easily enough to the American mind, but for some reason it's hard for Americans to empathize with the Palestinians and at least see why those people might consider the entire Zionist project unfair or unjust.

Why should the Arabs of Palestine be treated as if they were aboriginal people like the Native Americans or Native Australians, after all their years of civilization? Why, in the middle of the 20th century, was their land considered eligible for conquest? Were they the only people on Earth obliged to make room for other people they didn't invite to their land? For that matter, why did the Jews have a special right to return to a lost land after 2,000 years? What about people who had been more recently dispossessed? Did they have a right of return, or a right of conquest, in their own stomping grounds? If you granted the Jews a special right to return, was that because of the way you read the Bible? Did Zionists have a right that other diasporic or dispossessed peoples did not share, because they were chosen by God? What if you didn't believe in God, or in the Bible? What if you said that Judaism was a religion rather than a nation, and that the Jewish people had no more right to a country of their own than the Mormons did? Why should you ever acquiesce in the Zionist conquest?

The simple reason, of course, is that the United Nations said that the Jewish people could have a country. If we want the United States to be governed by the international community, than the Arabs and Muslims must submit to the same rules. You might protest that the U.N. was relatively unrepresentative while much of the world was still colonized by Europe, and you might speculate that the partition vote might have gone differently if the Third World could have had their say, but just as Americans are still bound by laws made by less democratic legislatures than our present bodies, so the law remains the law internationally. This answer won't make the Arabs feel better, and it won't open their eyes to any sudden light of reason. But it tells us that if we really believe in international law , we have to demand some kind of final reconciliation. But to appreciate what's necessary to reach that reconciliation, we have to take seriously how the Arabs and Muslims feel about what happened, instead of dismissing their protests as hateful, puerile bloodlust. Reconciliation will probably require some kind of compensation from one side, just as it will require some final admission of defeat from the other. Simply demanding unconditional surrender hasn't really gotten us anywhere. It's been sixty years already, so it's probably time to try something different.

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