Here are statements about some of the ways I think. (1) I find the process of “taking sides” on any given issue—as if all human life could be reduced to a sporting event—useless except for producing bar fights and endless television shows in which people shout at each other. (2) I like to be consistent, and therefore, if I detect an inconsistency in my opinions, I work at it until it’s resolved in some way. (3) I often use “thought experiments” to work things out. (4) I also frequently include limits or extreme instances as part of my thought experiments.
Here’s an example of (2) above. It occurred to me in the last couple of years or so that as a citizen of the U.S.A., I have no standing whatsoever to criticize Israel’s behavior on moral grounds since I am the beneficiary of similar acts of ethnic cleansing and genocide carried out with all due deliberation over a nearly three-hundred-year period by my European predecessors on this continent—newcomers who had every intent of removing all ability of its native inhabitants to resist the theft of their land and the destruction of their economies and cultures—to resist, in other words, their replacement by others as those with the recognized claim of ownership.
Therefore, I decided to cease from criticizing Israel on moral grounds. This freed me to think about Israel in other ways and what I eventually saw was that the difference between us and them is not that we’re good and they’re bad or that we’re innocent and they’re guilty, but simply that we succeeded while so far they have not done so, and, I believe, cannot.
Here’s a thought experiment employing an extreme instance, cf. (3) and (4) above. What if we Americans—all of us who have immigrated here from elsewhere in the last 400 years or so or are the descendants of others who did—overcome with remorse at the injustice of our taking, decided to leave and give the country back to the living First Nations people?
I could be wrong here, haven’t done a poll, but my guess is that there are probably an angry few who would say “How soon can you be out of here?” but that the great majority of native Americans have a long list of grievances they would like to see addressed but that getting the whole place back to run as they see fit is probably not choice number one.
If this conclusion is correct, I am confirmed in my opinion that we settlers have well and truly won; there is now no way remaining to undo what we have done, except to make those amends that we ought to make to the living descendants of those whom we so brutally robbed and displaced—including transfers of territory where appropriate.
Here’s another thought experiment. Imagine that—as opposed to the actual situation—for every settler American (“American”) there remain in 2014 two native Americans (“Indians”). Thus there are 300 million plus Americans and 600 million plus Indians. Most Americans live east of the Rockies. Twenty percent of that population, however, is Indian; in the lower grades of school the number rises to 25 percent. If current demographic trends continue, by 2050 Indians will comprise 50 percent of the population east of the Rockies.
Meanwhile, in the West, Indians far outnumber American settlers. The still-unsubdued country is filled with forts and crawling with soldiers, but the handful of hardy pioneers who, attracted by land grants, have settled there go always armed in daily fear of Indian raids.
At the other end of the country, the state of Maine has been turned into a prison camp where a population of Indians, over a quarter as large as the entire American population, is permanently trapped and periodically subjected to massacres so awesome the attack can be seen from space!
Of course this describes only the situation within the U.S. Half the Indian population has been successfully driven out—but they haven’t gone too far. Most of the refugees live, hopeless and angry, in huge camps just across the borders in Canada and Mexico, while still others live further away, as stateless persons working in Central or South America or the Caribbean.
While all the Indians of my thought experiment, like the real Indians of real North America, come from strong local cultures and feel a deep attachment to their places of origin, nevertheless, unlike the real Indians of real North America, all 600 million of the imaginary ones share a common language and common cultural modes and most of them share a common religion as well. These commonalities are also shared with the—let us say—billion people in the surrounding countries, although not with the Americans, who speak a different language, have a different religion, and generally pride themselves on being nothing like the vast sea of Indians who surround them.
Maybe I should mention that, despite this pride, 50 percent of the Americans are semi-Indian themselves. Having emigrated to the U.S. from the surrounding countries, they do speak the Indian language (although only in private), enjoy the same foods, groove to the same music, and so on as those denoted “Indian.” Obviously, none of the Americans hate the Indians more than these people who share many of the Indian characteristics.
As I’m sure you’ve long since figured out, my thought experiment is a transferred map of Israel’s dilemma. In 2013, the dissident Israeli historian Ilan Pappe wrote an op-ed refuting a recent speech by Israeli president Shimon Peres in which Peres made the still-not-unusual claim that Palestine, when settled by the Jews, had been uninhabited. Pappe said that Peres “denies the existence of nearly twelve million people living in and near to the country to which they belong.”
This is putting the issue from the Palestinian perspective. From the Israeli Jewish perspective, six million Jews are forced to live in “their country” with somewhere between nine and twelve million Palestinians (or “Arabs” as they are called—it is difficult, by the way, to get an exact count) living amongst them (in Israel); next to and amongst them (in the West Bank); next to them (in Gaza); and rather too close (in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria).
When Israelis speak, as they so endlessly do, about their “enemies,” they do not really mean the surrounding Arab countries, which, with few exceptions, have been hard to rouse to actual acts of enmity. They mean the Palestinians, their “Indians,” who vastly outnumber them and won’t go away.
This obvious and indisputable fact is hard to learn or keep in mind because the Israeli Jews—while unable to get rid of the actual people—have done a bang-up job of getting rid of them—or most of them—in the (nearly) universal human discourse. How was this done?
There is a complex answer to this question which I can’t explore here but I will mention one important thing. First they convinced themselves.
One must remember that while the Zionist project did not reach fruition until the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, it was invented in the late 19th century, at a time when many of the so-called Western countries were helping themselves to large parts of the world without bothering to ask the inhabitants how they felt about it. Even before we finished conquering our Western Indians, we were deposing the Hawaiian queen and fighting a brutal ten-year war for the Philippines. Meanwhile the British made Victoria Empress of India and played the Great Game against the Russians in Central Asia. They traded Morocco to the French (who had already annexed Algeria) in exchange for their own free hand in Egypt; just before WWI Italy took Libya. I won’t even bother to mention the Scramble for Africa which left millions of dead in its wake. After WWI, what remained of the Ottoman Empire was divvied up by the British and French in the Sykes-Picot agreement (recently again in the news). In this context, the Balfour Declaration, casually handing Palestine to the Zionists, seems commonplace.
Lately I have read and heard many people, both Israel’s defenders and its antagonists, refer to the Israeli “bubble,” meaning, I think, its extreme insularity, a framing of its issues in its own terms with an ever-increasing disconnection from the rest of the world. Sometimes, despite the crowds in and out of Ben-Gurion, I think of Israel as the North Korea of the Middle East, a walled-off nuclear-armed fantasy island. But the “bubble” can also be seen as a time-warp. The Zionists had the misfortune to conceive their project of colonization and settlement in the age of imperialism but to birth it just as that age was ending, often in hard fought wars around the world. Their “white man’s burden” and “exterminate all the brutes” attitude, which comes out so often and so unselfconsciously in Israeli speech, but above all, their conviction that there are no Palestinians because all Arabs are the same and these annoying people might as well drift off someplace else as stay where they are, is thus a hundred years behind the times.
Why are the Jews of Israel committing a massacre in Gaza once again? Many answers have been proffered, most of them probably correct. But one I think little noted is that in the wake of the revenge slaying of 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir there were demonstrations not only in East Jerusalem but—extremely unusually—in Palestinian (“Arab”) towns within the borders of Israel itself.
Slave owners in the antebellum South, often outnumbered by the slaves they owned, managed most of the time to pretend they were living normal lives—and even managed to do so. Always present, though, was the knowledge they were living on a powder keg. So, at the first sign of unrest, real or imagined, they killed enslaved people. It didn’t matter if the ones they killed were ringleaders or someone else. The important thing was to demonstrate to the subject population once again that resistance was hopeless.
We must understand that from the Israeli Jewish point of view, it doesn’t really matter right now if civilians, including children, are murdered in Gaza. In fact, it’s probably better if they are. Such brutal murders, which have been employed by those displacing native people everywhere, are useful to teach the bitter lesson of who the new owners are. If Israel is to survive, all Palestinians must learn and accept this reality.
But can Israel survive? There have been settler states like ours or Australia’s, for example, where the incomers have simply outnumbered the natives. There have been others, like Mexico or South Africa, where settlers have failed to outnumber but have established dominance as a minority. In movements of peoples all over the earth, sometimes the natives have been eradicated, sometimes subsumed. Sometimes the incoming settlers are themselves assimilated. However, the Zionists have not outnumbered the natives and, since their project requires a state for Jews only, options of minority dominance or assimilation are not available. They would probably like to eradicate the Palestinians (who, let me remind you once again, outnumber them by 1 ½ to 2 times). Many in Israel have in fact called for their eradication.
But would the world stand by and permit such a program of murder? I don’t know. As the death toll mounts in Gaza to inconceivable numbers, there still seems to be a lot of bleating about Israel’s right to self-defense (which, as I am trying to explain, means the right to kill as many Palestinians as Israel deems necessary). However, even “the international community” might balk at tens of millions—and besides, Israel cannot reach them all. So I don’t think this solution is a truly viable one, at least not at this time.
So let us revisit the thought experiment which I tried out with our own indigenous people, the Indians. If the Zionists had, for some reason, a change of heart, could they give Palestine back to the Palestinians?
In a blind minute they could. If all the walls and fences came down everywhere, most Palestinians could walk back to the places from which they were driven in 1948 or 1967 (and in the West Bank since the Oslo Accords of 1993). Sometimes, from where they now live, in prisons or refugee camps or on the other side of border fences, they can see the landscape where their own farms and villages stood before they were bulldozed and built or planted over.
Last night, while thumbing through Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown’s 1971 book about the Indian experience of the American conquest, I came across this quote attributed to the Shawnee leader Tecumseh, who, 200 years ago, saw the coming holocaust and attempted to confederate all the Indian tribes east of the Mississippi to fight against it. After naming tribes already gone, he said: “Will we let ourselves be destroyed in our turn without a struggle, give up our homes, our country bequeathed to us by the Great Spirit, the graves of our dead and everything that is dear and sacred to us? I know you will cry with me, ‘Never! Never!’”
The Palestinian word for that cry of people everywhere who have struggled against the invader, is, as I have mentioned before, sumud, steadfastness. It can take the form of active resistance, violent or nonviolent, but mostly it means simply: we are still here.
So back to statement number one in my first paragraph about the uselessness of yelling at each other about who’s right and who’s wrong. Obviously, if you believe that a state for Jews only is a necessity for the preservation of “the Jewish people,” whatever that may mean, then you accept all the things that Israel must do to accomplish that and all the justifications it proffers for doing so. If you don’t agree with that necessity, then Israel’s actions and its justifications are unacceptable.
But now we come to that group of people, the majority, I think—many who are well-intentioned and others (like the U.S. government, for example) possibly not so much so—who would like to have their cake and eat it too. They believe there is some way to reach a negotiated solution between the six million Jews of Israel and the nine to twelve million Palestinians the Jews have displaced. I should mention in passing that sharing the land is probably not a physical impossibility; the Palestinian researcher Salman Abu Sitta, for example, has spent a lifetime working on this problem. But it would certainly finish off the Zionist project of a state for Jews only. Since 1948 and even before, there has never been the slightest indication that the Zionists are willing to give up their project in any way whatsoever and as long as they don’t have to, I don’t see why they would. Therefore, at least under current conditions, there is no possibility of such a resolution to the conflict. If someone sees a way out of this that I’ve overlooked, please let me know. I look forward to hearing your thoughts. Meanwhile, unless and until conditions are changed in some unforeseen way—and, of course, people can and should always take action to change conditions—I’m convinced the conflict will end only when one or the other is gone: the Palestinian people or the Jewish state.