Ideas matter. But many people seem not to think so.
This explains the continued promotion, even now, especially now, of the classic two-state solution which believes – despite competing national-religious claims to the entire Land that have only being growing in their intensity – that the best solution to this conflict is to simply split an already tiny piece of land in two between peoples that have been fighting violently and bitterly for over a 100 years.
This will not create peace. It is an unimaginative reductionist zero-sum approach that will merely accelerate the conflict to a new phase of bloodiness as unfortunately has already been seen in the mid/late 1990s and early 2000s. I believe there is a better positive-sum approach that is still just and fair for all parties. On this, another time.
In the meantime, Israel fights the war not only against the Hamas terrorists but also for the hearts and minds of global decision-makers and public opinion. Israel wonders, how can international media not call this atrocity for what it is, terrorism? Israel wonders, how can many countries not condemn Hamas terrorism directly by name? Israel wonders, how can so many ‘objective’ academics and scientists deploy so much poisonous bias against this country? Israel wonders, how can so many social activists, those that get so worked up about micro-aggressions across all sectors of society, not bring themselves to condemn directly the undisputed large-scale rape, kidnapping, torture and murder of innocent civilians, women, children and the elderly that is openly and unashamedly broadcast worldwide in celebration by the perpetrators?
Meanwhile, vastly outnumbered pro-Israel campaigners fight myriad small battles, worthy battles, in newspapers, in academia, in international institutions, on social media and more.
But while they may win the arguments that bring victory in some of these battles, they are struggling to win the underlying war. That war is the war of ideas – to create what social scientists call a ‘paradigm shift’ in the overarching narrative that is used to explain the state of Israel and the conflicts it (reluctantly) has faced.
The central idea can be expressed in the form of what has become an increasingly stark dichotomy: is Israel the most extreme remaining example since South Africa’s post-apartheid transition of the exploitative usurping racist European colonialist states that sadly used to be so prevalent until the mid-20th century, or is Israel rather the supreme example of national liberation and decolonisation?
It is not disputed that there were many more Arabs than Jews in this Land until the migrations of the early 20th century. It is not disputed that – like the colonisers of so many other lands – many of those Jews who set up and governed the Israeli state came from Europe (although today, less than half of all Jewish Israelis are European-origin). It is also not disputed that certain events happened in the mid 20th century that led to the displacement of many of those Arabs (although it is less widely recognised that there was at a similar time, the displacement of a greater number of Jews – a two-way flow of peoples reminiscent of other post-War contexts, but no less tragic despite this).
Therefore the simple intuitive conclusion that follows from this, which shapes the predominant paradigm narrative used by global media, academia, activists and international institutions concerning any event in this Land, is that the Jews are colonialist usurpers, and that it is laughable – you can usually see the smirk – to position Israel within the same prism of national liberation and decolonisation that applies to so many African, Asian and Latin American countries. So even when Israeli civilians are raped, kidnapped, tortured and murdered en masse, there is often a ‘sad but…’ and ‘yes but…’ that underpins the resultant global commentary.
I think there are various ways to challenge and change this narrative in the theatre of global opinion. Some of these may be less effective and some more effective. Some of the less effective ways might be, notwithstanding the truth content of these claims – Jews once had a country here 2,000 years ago, and in the Torah, G-d promises this Land to the Jews. Both of which usually bring the answer – ‘so what’?
In my view, the best way to challenge this narrative is with a thought experiment – if you were a black South African anti-Apartheid activist in exile or, yes, for that matter, a Palestinian refugee languishing in a camp somewhere in the region; or if you could imagine an imperial non-Muslim army destroying in its entirety the Grand Mosque at Mecca, ethnically cleansing the surrounding lands of Muslims, and sending them in every direction into exile: how long before you would give up your claim? How would you keep your claim alive despite the passage of time?
The answer to the first question is that Jews over the last 2,000 years have never given up their claim to the Land, irrespective of however many empires conquered it: in every era, Jews have found a way to maintain some presence in the Land, particularly but not only in the holy cities of Jerusalem, Hebron, Tiberias and Safed; and among those that were exiled, in every era Jews lobbied to come back, tried to come back, and did come back, despite great risks and hardships of travel, and despite great risks and hardships of maltreatment at the hands of the imperial power in charge at the time; and in every era, those Jews that were in the Land, or came back to the Land, tried to restore their heritage in the Land on whatever scale they could achieve.
The answer to the second question – how to keep the claim alive – is that the destruction and exile, and the dreams of return, have been embedded into Jewish religious-national-cultural observances that cover almost every aspect of life – most famously, as has now been featured so prevalently in the movies, the breaking of the glass at a Jewish wedding, but more extensively in every prayer to G-d that we make three times a day, in every blessing of appreciation to G-d we say when we eat and drink, on every Shabbat and at every festival we observe throughout the Jewish calendar, and in the four ‘Jewish Naqba days’ we commemorate every year, including a ‘Jewish Naqba’ three weeks when we cut out all expressions of happiness, and a ‘Jewish Naqba’ nine days when we behave literally as mourners, culminating in the Tisha b’Av fast when our level of mourning is equivalent to a person on the day of the death of a close relative, all of this to the extent that exilic orthodox Judaism itself can be considered not merely a religion but also a national liberation movement. (The rise of non-Orthodox denominations since the 19th century has unfortunately reduced visibility in some spheres on the centrality of the yearning for and claim to the Land within Jewish observance, thinking and practice as some of these denominations stripped out to the extent they could the ‘national’ from the ‘purely religious’.)
The main problem we have that obstructs the emergence of this narrative is one word which means so many different things to so many different people, and extends Wittgenstein’s theory – that the root cause of philosophical problems are caused by language – into the realm of politics. That word is ‘zionism’. Zionism is considered to have been established by Theodore Herzl in 1897. Many moderate reasonable people believe (falsely, as described above) that before a certain day in 1897, Jews had very little interest in the Land of Israel. This also explains why many moderate reasonable people can say, and honestly believe (albeit falsely), that zionism is not a part of Judaism. Let us state this clearly – Judaism entails observance of the 613 commandments of the Torah. Of these, only 271 – less than half – can be observed in exile anywhere outside the Land of Israel. A complete Judaism, therefore, requires Jewish presence in Israel.
So, in what way is Israel the supreme example of national liberation and decolonisation? It is because a people who have been exiled, dispersed, degraded and abused almost everywhere they went, their Land conquered and populated by a chain of powerful empires, were able to sustain their claim, keep it alive, for 2,000 years, until they were able to return to their Land, recreate their language, restore their rituals and practices, and worship their G-d. (To emphasise, this is not to diminish or render inferior any other people’s experience of national liberation and decolonisation – all have value, just as every human life has value, as Torah clearly states – but the Jewish experience can, and has, given inspiration to others that, however bleak it may seem, however long it may go on for, national liberalisation and decolonisation are possible…)
Some may ask nonetheless, in what way does any of this matter if the Palestinians remain exiled and oppressed?
The answer is that the root cause of this conflict, why it has been so intractable, has been the historical refusal by the Palestinians, and the Arab world more broadly, to recognise that Jews are a people of this Land – long before there was an ‘apartheid wall’, long before there were settlements, and long before there was a naqba. Every tragedy that has befallen the Palestinian people has its root in a new stage of conflict that arose from ‘resistance’ to the Jewish presence in the Land, premised on a false view that the Jews are alien to this Land.
During peace negotiations, and concerning the supposed Hamas de facto recognition of the 1967 borders, there has been a continued fudge of the underlying question of Israel’s legitimate right to exist, let alone as a Jewish state, casting doubt among Israelis that such peace is serious or workable.
Many people don’t think ideas matter so this fudge was allowed to stand, a price to pay for signing agreements and ‘making progress’. But ideas do matter, and it is precisely this refusal to view Israel as the legitimate product of Jewish decolonisation and national liberation, a refusal reinforced over and over again by global media, that needs to change to win the war of ideas, but more importantly, it is precisely this refusal that needs to change to actually resolve this conflict, classic two-state solution or otherwise.