Friday, August 8, 2014

Palestine, The Myth Slayer

Palestine, we all know, is a heartbreaker. The homes wrecked, the lives spent, the hate fixed between neighbors, families and friends--and still she devours a century on.  

Through decades of bloodshed in her name, there have been a few---fools mainly—who have wondered what the fuss is all about. Juxtapose her, they keep insisting, against World War I and II and the hell they unleashed across continents, the millions they killed, the wholesale population transfers they provoked. What for, then, all this surely manufactured mayhem?

Others--fools, really—till this very day believe that if only the Palestinians had been nice, Palestine would have been saved a paradise for all her children, newcomers and millennium old alike. Here’s Woody Allen’s eye-popping recent thoughts on the subject:

But I feel that the Arabs were not very nice in the beginning, and that was a big problem. The Jews had just come out of a terrible war where they were exterminated by the millions and persecuted all over Europe, and they were given this tiny, tiny piece of land in the desert. If the Arabs had just said, “Look, we know what you guys have been through, take this little piece of land and we’ll all be friends and help you,” and the Jews came in peace, but they didn’t. They were not nice about it, and it led to problems…

And still Palestine confounds. Because she doesn’t just break hearts, she cuts down heroes, infects dreams, turning them into nightmares and—most consequential of all—she slays myths and mocks those who think they can, as masters would their slaves, possess her.

For the longest time, as Israel looked contentedly on, it seemed that only Arabs and Palestinians would fall at her altar. After all, we’re the fantasists who, through innocence or idiocy, could not keep her. But, of course, arrogance is its own kind of buffoonery. And would that it were just the government of Netanyahu’s, then Israel’s supporters might be forgiven for entertaining the faint possibility that her once magnificently woven script is still salvageable. But it isn’t, and the implications for Israelis are nothing short of earth shattering.

I refer here not to the clear breakdown in the European consensus on Israel, although that matters. Nor do I have in my sight American public opinion’s gradually less subtle questioning of Israel, although that matters even more. Nor am I focused on the progressively louder soul searching within the American Jewish community, although, eventually, that could well prove vital. I am not even hinting at the thorny debate occupying wider circles in the West—some earnest, others not--on how well Israel has done in finally laying the Jewish Question to rest.

I actually have in mind the disintegration of the extraordinary dichotomies that Israel, at conception, had so painstakingly constructed in order to impregnate herself against the damage wrought by her own actions. I speak of the notion that Israel, Western bastion that she is supposed to be, belongs in the Middle East but not to it; that in system and culture she stands apart from—blatantly superior to--the Arab Other; and with all the exceptionalism these extend her, that she could proceed to lay absolute claim to Palestine and crush the Palestinians.

It is understandable for Israeli leaders to have thought that they could get away with it, because they did up until 1967. It took such a unique turn of events, a story so finely tuned, to make 1948 and the “resurrection of a nation” so impervious to the catastrophe inflicted on another. Had a victorious Israel ceded the lands conquered in the six-day war, the narrative is almost sure to have held. But she didn’t, succumbing instead to her insatiable appetites--and, over 40 years, the tearing at, first and foremost, the very fabrics that knit Israel into such perfect shape for all her lovers.

You want it in photos? Then put Avigdor Lieberman against the legendary Abba Eban. You want it in the currency of hate? Try and argue the difference between “death to the Arabs” and “death to Israel.” Bloodshed? Then yours is the face of a dead child in Gaza right next to his twin in Aleppo. You prefer zealous beards and their gibberish uttered in the name of God? By all means, stop by the settled hilltops of the West Bank on your way to Zarqa in Amman.

Of all the divides that Israel had erected to convey an acute sense of her glorious, enlightened self, none stood grander than the one between her and us barbarians pressing against her ever expanding borders. More significantly, none, Israel believed, could be more effective in shielding her on the inside from the fallout of her misdeeds on the outside. But ironically, it is precisely this racist license that Israel had devised for herself (in the European colonial tradition, as it were) that tricked her into thinking that she could proceed, blessed and unshackled, to occupy, thieve and oppress without so much as a trace on her body politic, her culture, her character, her future.

Of this existential dilemma, the late Tony Judt wrote in 2003:

The problem with Israel, in short, is not—as is sometimes suggested—that it is a European ‘enclave’ in the Arab world: but rather that it arrived too late. It has imported a characteristically late-nineteenth-century separatist project into a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law. The very idea of a ‘Jewish state’—a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded—is rooted in another time and place. Israel, in short, is an anachronism.

You might be feeling the urge to widen the lens onto Syria, Yemen, Libya and Iraq, for example, to provide kinder context for the Jewish state’s case. And I would, in turn, thank you. The mere fact that you feel compelled to draw attention to the bigotries of the neighborhood to dilute Israel’s makes exactly my point.
In the end, only fairytales withstand the ravages of time. And Israel is not one of them.

What now? Nothing--and everything. Beyond the immediate spectacle of balloons deflating all around the Middle East, the coming years are extremely hard to predict. Ours today is a wasteland of epic tales. There is something cathartic about the experience, and something devastating as well.