The Blind Man And The Elephant

Moment Of Truth: Tackling Israel-Palestine's Toughest Questions

Has any subject ever been better a fit for the parable of the blind men and the elephant than the Israel-Palestine conflict? You know the one. Several blind men inspect an elephant. Each touches a different part of the beast and that part only; each draws an entirely different conclusion as a result. An elephant is like a tree; like a snake; like a rope, like a fan.

Understood – or rather, not understood – from the outside, Israel-Palestine is that elephant. A set of competing, often incompatible or outright contradictory narratives, more often than not held by people who have constructed a sense of self around one of them, whether individually, as a collective, or both. In the case of Jewish and Palestinian (or wider Arab) diasporas this is, if you like, a rational irrationalism. The narrative may or may not be accurate. (Who can say? Who should say? We shall come to that.) But the connection to it, the strength of feeling, the need for it – that is simple enough to make sense of.

Photos by Mikael Levin, “No Man’s Land”

Yet those with no skin in the game frequently seem just as powerfully animated, sometimes even more so. In particular, when I encounter the contortions demanded and the rhetoric inspired by the issue’s peculiar status as the entry-level requirement for the “community of the good” (as scholar David Hirsh has it) of the modern western left – which happens daily, hourly – I think of George Orwell’s Notes on Nationalism. Orwell wrote of how “transferred nationalism” allows the holder to be “much more nationalistic – more vulgar, more silly, more malignant, more dishonest – than he could ever be on behalf of his native country, or any unit of which he had real knowledge [ . . . ] he can wallow unrestrainedly in exactly those emotions from which he believes that he has emancipated himself . . . all the overthrown idols can reappear under different names, and because they are not recognised for what they are they can be worshipped with a good conscience. Transferred nationalism, like the use of scapegoats, is a way of attaining salvation without altering one’s conduct.”

Still, let us be even-handed. Does this proxy nationalism not also occur among many external – that is, non-Israeli, non-Jewish – adherents of Israel? Yes, undoubtedly. But while some certainly exhibit a degree of zealous monomania, I’ve not observed it to be as prevalent generally as it is among supporters of the Palestinian cause on the left. And in Israel-boosters on the right, it has often struck me more as a cause of convenience. Some of them, I have come to suspect, support Israel chiefly because their political adversaries hate it; “to trigger the Libs”, as they might put it. The “my enemy’s enemy” fallacy is not confined to either side.

But perhaps this observation is due to where I stand and whom I know. Perhaps it is also down to what I know, which is where a book such as Moment of Truth comes in, a compendium of expert essays on and analyses of the current state of the conflict, largely written in an adversarial point/counterpoint form, with individual writers responding to one another: a necessarily complex and convoluted exercise in Socratic method. I certainly need to know more. One always needs to know more.

Here I must disclose: I resent that I need to know more. Maybe it doesn’t speak well of me. But resent it I do. I need to know more because somehow this issue has come to sit at the heart of disputes, where I live, over what is and what is not antisemitic; which is, in my view, a dispute over what most Jews think is antisemitic, and what most antisemites think is not. (It is a curious feature of contemporary racism that nobody is racist – why, the very idea is outrageous; how dare you suggest it? – yet racism flourishes as boldly as it ever did.)

If, for instance, it is antisemitic (as the full International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition has it, and as the hobbled definition Britain’s Labour Party has grudgingly reconsidered only under extreme duress did not) to call Israel an inherently racist endeavour, to say it is illegitimate as a nation, akin to the Third Reich, must one not be equipped with evidence to show that it is not these things? Because you can be sure your antagonists will be equipped with claims of their own that you will need to be in a position to refute.

I resent it because I am not obliged to be painstakingly acquainted with the particulars of events, and the minutiae of the political landscape, in the world’s other trouble spots in order to argue with other left-wing people that racism against minorities other than mine is racism; only that racism against mine is. The same people never require me to make such arguments about other minorities in the first place. (That, it is evident to me, is a form of discrimination in itself.) Moment of Truth is a useful book, or at least, a book of a useful type. But it exasperates me that I must have a use for it, rather than simply an interest in it.

Moment of Truth made for uncomfortable reading for me, for several, often interlinked, reasons. The first of them is that it shows up my resentment, valid as it is, as quite literally a first-world problem. European antisemitism is the kind of first-world problem that is capable, unchecked, of metastasising into a horror as terrible as any part of the world knows. But it is no bad thing to be reminded that these arguments – even though one has no choice but to read them and grasp them (or try to), then apply them to the endless ju-jitsu of defending oneself at home – concern the everyday lives of people, the Palestinians, who have a far more dreadful and urgent plight than one’s own. One should not have to compare. Things that are wrong are wrong independently of one another and regardless of their relative severity. Yet I do compare, myself, reading this book, because it is a human thing to do.

Sara Roy’s account of the day-to-day lives of Palestinians in Gaza is harrowing not because it is dramatic – it is not – but because it presents a forceful picture of grinding, wretched, claustrophobic dreariness in which the lack of money and the lack of opportunity is manifested most appallingly in the lack of hope. Roy is not, to be sure, an impartial narrator – at one jarring moment, she brings to mind a footnote in that same Orwell essay, which remarks on how the nationalists’ objects of transference “are commonly thought of as individuals and often referred to as ‘she’”, by doing exactly this with Gaza. But this does not mean Ms. Roy is a false or unreliable narrator, nor that what sounds like her intimate sentiment for her subject has undermined her intimate knowledge of it.

One of the book’s discomfiting aspects is the simple and familiar disquiet one encounters when reading closely upon any subject in which one is emotionally entangled, and discovering information that does not match one’s picture. For instance: a liberal/left western Jew, or indeed non-Jew, who supports the existence of Israel but deplores the treatment of the people of Gaza, is more or less compelled to advocate the two-state solution. Because what else is there? What else is fair? But one’s idea of fairness, sitting in England, and the situation on the ground do not always match up. The book’s core question is whether they can match up; whether the two-state solution is dead in the water – most of the contributors would appear to think that it is, though it is hard to know how many of them would will it otherwise – and if so, what, if any, are the alternatives?

Photo by Mikael Levin, “No Man’s Land”

But this brings us back to the problem: who can say, and who should say? That all the contributors are experts seems undeniable. Most are from the region; the rest have studied it extensively. All have their expertise detailed: title, organisation, track record. Yet titles and names of organisations and CVs may serve as public relations tools, conferring an air of impartial authority that may or may not be merited. So one looks them up on the Web; one tries to catch flickers of what is written between the lines.

I do not, for instance, know where Nathan J. Brown, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University, stands; but his assertion in the opening chapter that authoritarianism, corruption and factional rivalries have undermined efforts to build Palestinian statehood seems to me worth noting, not least by those who would have it that Israel is the sole cause of all such disappointed labours. Glenn E. Robinson, of the Naval Postgraduate School and UC Berkeley, responds that it is the Israeli occupation that has killed off the necessary institutions. And Yoaz Hendel, Chair of the Institute for Zionist Strategies and Benjamin Netanyahu’s former Director of Communications? I think we may guess where his sympathies lie. He believes the two-state solution long dead, and suggests that those who think otherwise on the basis that Jerusalem can be divided are utopians, “daydreaming out the window”. Presumably he is including here his interlocutor, Israeli attorney (“specialising in the geopolitics of Jerusalem”) Daniel Seidemann.

As’ad Abukhalil, Professor of Political Science at California State University, Stanislaus, writes that, “Zionists never care to distinguish between civilian and military targets”. Once my eyebrows have descended, I think I may surmise his general viewpoint, although his claim sounds more like a slogan than an argument to me – but then, I suppose it would: whenever I hear of what “Zionists” as a category think, an alarm bell starts ringing. Bashir Saade, lecturer in Religion and Politics at the University of Stirling, tells us that “nonviolent resistance [cannot] secure a resolution of the conflict on terms which reflect the full spectrum of Palestinian demands”, which leaves me wondering whether a resolution should be desirable that reflects the “full spectrum” of either side’s demands; surely the point of any resolution that is not victory for one and surrender for the other is that neither side can get everything it wants? In a debate between Palestinian authors on armed struggle, I am struck by a comment from Mkhaimar Abusada, Associate Professor of Political Science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, that “Hamas’s primary commitment to armed struggle [is] an albatross that makes it easier for Israel and US to reject Hamas’ diplomatic overtures while still portraying Hamas, and not themselves, as the rejectionists.” I do not know the extent to which this is the case, but more importantly, I am not sure of which side Professor Abusada is most critical. One of the reasons I distrust anyone who holds a simple view on the Israel–Palestine conflict is that there is no aspect of it that does not get ever more complicated the further one delves into it. I sometimes wonder if believing in statehood for both means I am that very person. I presently wonder if one purpose of this book is to make two-state advocate like me believe that I am – fairly or not.

Some contributors are familiar from the back-and-forth here at home. I can’t help but wince at seeing the name of Norman G. Finkelstein, an American academic celebrated in one camp and notorious in the other, who this August published a blog for Verso books describing British antisemitism as “a chimera”, in which he states baldly that “Jews have too much power in Britain”, then does that hoary routine of implying comparative wealth and professional accomplishment for Jews equates to collective Jewish power, collectively wielded, for collective Jewish purposes, whatever those might be. Mr Finkelstein reminds us that antisemitic tropes are certainly not “a chimera” in America, nor confined to non-Jews. Yet odious as I find this, I can’t say it means Mr Finkelstein’s scholarship in his essay on the lessons of the Camp David Accords is at fault, nor that his analysis is flawed.

Photos by Mikael Levin, “No Man’s Land”

The book’s editor, Jamie Stern–Weiner, is a name I have happened upon in British debates about Israel, Palestine and antisemitic versus anti-Zionist discourse. Perhaps I would have noticed anyway how his opening chronology tends to list Israeli use of force in an active voice, and opposing use of force in a passive one; where violence is concerned, Israel is positioned as almost always the protagonist, almost never the target. The introduction contains nothing factually wrong, that I observed, while telling the story in a very particular way. (“One’s distribution of commemorative energy is not politically innocent,” writes Mr Stern–Weiner, maybe thinking of something else; “Well, quite,” I mentally reply.) Perhaps I would have noticed anyway what seems like a preponderance of viewpoints that are not only pro-Palestinian, but also (which is not necessarily implicit in this) anti-Israeli. But again, I may well be misreading some of those viewpoints, or judging them on how little they chime with my own, less informed one. Perhaps I would have noticed anyway how Gaza is the predominant focus of the book (the West Bank is glimpsed only peripherally), and how, while Palestinian politics is subjected to minute scrutiny, the condition of Israeli politics is largely dealt with as a given. (The question, “What do the Israelis want?” is presented head-on only in one essay, when desperate and baffled residents of Gaza are quoted as repeating it again and again.) Perhaps I would anyway have got the sense that this book, while billing itself as offering the whole picture of the elephant, would have the reader think an elephant is like a tree after all.

But perhaps this elephant is like a tree, or more like one than most elephants. Perhaps my own narratives and biases are over-compensating. That is one of the frustrating things about this subject: it is exceptionally difficult to talk about: it’s a subject we talk around as much as talk about; a subject concerning which we pore over the very terms of the conversation, just as I have done here, in a reflection, a kind of discursive metaphor, of the way the possibility of resolution has been approached for so long: disputing, as it were, the shape of the table at which negotiations might, one almost unimaginably distant day, take place.

 What about the actual questions the book sets out to answer; what about that titular “moment of truth”? My head is swimming with information about the issues. I know far more than I did before about the attitudes and actions of Hamas; about Palestinian political factionalism and the deep disenchantment of Palestinian people with their leadership; about the suffocating sense of paralysis that hangs over the very idea of progress, or of change. The arguments and counterarguments have revealed to me myriad nuances in the anti-Israeli positions (the most intriguing debates are between those who hold these.) I see, perhaps without it being intended I should, how history is applied to suit the case at hand. Which date should one pick as a starting point for one’s thesis? 1936? 1948? 1967? 1987? (The last, perhaps the least immediately evocative to most Jewish readers, marks the beginning of the First Intifada, which many of the Palestinian commentators agree to be the high point of resistance.) Whatever the book’s slant may be, there is no doubt I am much more knowledgeable than I was before I read it. And like many of its contributors, I am no closer to an answer to any of its core questions.

Yet things are worth knowing for their own sake. It should also be noted how many contributors refuse to succumb to a counsel of despair. There are a few who seem to be under the impression that they are making speeches. In this company, amid the statistics, and the analysis, and the careful argument, they stand out even more glaringly than they usually would on a topic that lends itself to grandstanding. Not that they do not have a right to be impassioned; but it is the more measured articles that are most effective. This is just an observation on my part. It is not my business to tell these activists or scholars or politicians how to present their work to best effect, only to note what effect it has on me, a reader.

Photo by Mikael Levin, “No Man’s Land”

That effect, overall, is a depressing one, on an already depressing subject. For which I would blame the subject, not the book. (I remind myself that this is a part of the world in which “shoot the messenger” is not always a mere turn of phrase. Some of these contributors have endured grave risks on the way to acquiring their expertise.) For all that, I found no moment of truth here. The book appears to me premised on casting doubt upon the viability of a two-state solution, the window for which most of the contributors attest is closing or closed. As ever, the blame for this shifts depending on whom you ask: we would not be doing this, now, if you had not done that, then.

That may be the most telling measure of the intractability of the Israel-Palestine conflict. One may learn more, and more broadly, about it (and how nice it would be if more, or even a few, of those outside it who hold such strong and certain and urgent opinions on it would do precisely that), yet end up little the wiser.

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