Criticizing the occupation and Israeli policies towards the Palestinians
The Third Narrative Blog
A number of TTN colleagues have noted the analyses of Dr. Natasha Gill, formerly a research associate at Barnard College and a professor of conflict studies at The New School. She is the founder and director of TRACK4, which runs negotiation simulations for diplomats, mediators, journalists, policy makers, students and community leaders. And she is the author of “Inside the Box: Using Integrative Simulations to Teach Conflict, Negotiation and Mediation.”
Her recent article in The Forward (May 16), “Let Israelis and Palestinians Be Enemies,” offers an overview on the purpose and value of person-to-person conflict resolution programs. Dr. Gill concludes:
. . . [I]ndividuals who participate in realistic modules often emerge humbled about their level of knowledge or understanding, pessimistic about the prospects for peace, disgusted by the internal politics and motives of various players, and shocked by the stark contrast between the goals they aspire to and the obstacles to achieving them in light of their adversaries’ mindsets and the realities on the ground.
Yet most participants are also exhilarated by the process itself, which provides them with a unique insider experience into the conflict’s dynamics and a wide range of parties’ perspectives. They emerge as confident, articulate people who recognize that they have a variety of choices for which they can assume responsibility, and are not beholden to prefabricated positions inherited from others. And they feel personally empowered by the sense that they possess a set of new skills and tools that they can deploy to discuss (and possibly address) the minutest details of each issue on a level that astonishes even professionals who partake in or observe the process.
Is there a conflict-relevant dialogue that emerges from this process? Yes, but it is not with the “other.” The most profound dialogue that results from a conflict simulation is within an individual, and between an individual and his or her own community. This kind of dialogue is more likely to help de-escalate the conflict in the long run, by leading parties to consider cleaning up their own house, rather than focusing exclusively on revealing the vices of their enemies.
Back in 2013, Dr. Gill wrote a long, sobering analysis for the Middle East Policy Council entitled, “The Original ‘No’: Why the Arabs Rejected Zionism, and Why It Matters.” It is summarized as follows:
A viable peace process does not require either party to embrace or even recognize the legitimacy of the other’s narrative. It requires that both have an informed and non-reductionist understanding of what this narrative consists of, come to terms with the fact that it cannot be wished away, and recognize that elements of it will make their way to the negotiating table and have to be addressed.
These are key sections of this much longer article:
. . . When it comes to the pro-Israel camp, the key issue that needs to be addressed is the blind spot regarding the pre-1948 origins of the Israel/Palestine conflict.
A remarkable number of Israel’s supporters from across the political spectrum share a common and unshakable article of faith: that the Israel/Palestine conflict was avoidable and unnecessary. If the Arabs of Palestine had accepted Zionism 130 years ago, there would never have been, and would not now be, any cause for bloodshed.
Arab rejectionism has thus served as the equivalent of a cosmological argument: “In the Beginning There Was the No.” The pro-Israel camp often traces the history of the conflict to 1947, when the Arabs said No to the UN partition plan, or to 1948, when the Arab countries said No by launching a war against the recently declared Jewish state. The underlying assumption is that the Arabs had no good reason to reject Zionism or the idea of Jewish self-determination in Palestine: rather, their rejection is interpreted as a consequence of their inherent anti-Semitism, natural tendency toward violence, or self-destructive intransigence. Recently this credo was succinctly articulated by Prime Minister Netanyahu: “The Palestinians’ lack of will to recognise the state of Israel as the national state of the Jewish people is the root of the conflict.”1
In one sense, Netanyahu is absolutely correct: the fact that the Palestinians have refused to recognize the moral right of the Jews to a state in Palestine is a source of conflict, even though the Palestinians may be ready to accept Israel’s de facto right to exist today. What is problematic about this view is that it mistakes the response for the cause. Palestinian rejection did not sprout Athena-like, fully formed from the head of Zeus, without reason or basis; and it is not the root cause of the conflict.
For over 70 years this credo has endured in the face of new thinking, new evidence and new circumstances. It has been sustained by a stunning lack of inquisitiveness about what caused the Original Arab No, and thus about the very nature of the conflict itself. It remains a mystery how otherwise critically-minded Jews and influential policymakers have repeated statements like Netanyahu’s for generations without asking why the Arabs refused to recognize the legitimacy of Zionism — engaging in a form of culpable ignorance that diminishes the quality of their arguments, weakens the credibility of their case, and creates a chasm between the public view of the conflict and the understanding needed in order to prepare the ground for a genuine peace process.
Admittedly, for loyal supporters of Israel, this journey into the origins of the origins — the period between the 1880s and late 1930 — is likely to be difficult. Even more than the thorny issue of the 1948 nakba and the refugee crisis, this early period poses elemental questions about the conflict that cannot be sidestepped via pre-prepared talking points on Palestinian rejectionism. These questions are not of merely historical interest; they expose the underlying patterns, mechanisms and impasses that define the conflict today, almost all of which were already in place by the late 1930s.
But while difficult, this kind of exploration into the core issues is unavoidable. Israel’s supporters can debate about the 1947 partition plan and the 1948 war ad nauseam, but without an understanding of the preceding 60 years they are barely talking about the conflict at all. By avoiding the early period they have denied themselves the knowledge and insight that would allow them to properly assess the positions of the Palestinians, effectively pursue their own people’s interests and recognize the opportunities for de-escalating the conflict if or when they arise. They have also ensured that the history and current state of the conflict will be increasingly articulated, and with greater persuasiveness, by Israel’s enemies.
In order to overcome these barriers and begin to build a space where genuine peacemaking might take place, the Jewish community and its allies must begin asking questions about the Original No: Why, in the period between the 1880s and 1948, did the Arabs of Palestine and the surrounding areas say No to Zionism? To what exactly did they say No? And how did they say No?
. . .
The Palestinian Arabs said No to the idea that in the 20th century a people who last lived in Palestine in large numbers over 2000 years ago could claim, on the basis of a religious text, rights to the land where the current inhabitants had been living for a millennium and a half.
They did not base their rejection on a denial of Jewish historical and religious ties to the Holy Land. Rather, they said No to the idea that highly secularized Jews arriving from Europe, who seemed to abjure religious life, manners and practices, could use the Bible to support a political project of a Jewish state in an already populated and settled land.
Nor did they deny the suffering of the Jews, or the pogroms and persecution they were experiencing in Western and Eastern Europe at the time. On the contrary, many of the most vocal critics of Zionism were extremely aware of Jewish suffering, as they were unsettled by the impact it was having on the British support for the project of the Jewish National Home. What they said no to was the idea that the Jews’ humanitarian plight granted them special political and national rights in Palestine, and that those Jewish rights should trump Arab rights. The Arabs said No to the idea that they should pay the price for longstanding Christian persecution of the Jews, and they expressed deep resentment at the hypocrisy of the Europeans, who were promoting a home for the Jews in Palestine as they closed their own doors to the victims of Christian/European anti-Semitism.
There is nothing shocking or strange about Arabs considering Zionist Jews coming from Europe an “alien implant” in Palestine, and resenting that.2 The logic of most national and proto-national movements — with Zionism hardly an exception — is that outsiders are a threat, and the definition of both “outsiders” and “threat” are influenced by the shifting needs and interests of each movement in its defining moments. In response to Zionism, the Arabs pointed out that the laws of territorial possession were accepted worldwide: had they not been, the Arabs could reconquer and reclaim Spain, a country they reigned over for longer and more recently than the Jews did Palestine. In the view of the Palestinian Arabs, regardless of whether Jews were genuinely attached to or had a history in Palestine, the appeal to the Bible was not strong enough to overturn the rules of a modern, secular world order.
The Arabs and Palestinians still today are taken to task for not having shown enough compassion for Jewish suffering and welcomed them to take refuge in Palestine. But while many Jews can make an intuitive connection between the predicament they faced between the turn of the century and the 1940s and their need for a state, there is no reason that for other parties compassion for Jewish suffering would naturally translate this into an acceptance of Zionism, either then or now. This is especially so in the case of the Arabs in the early years of the conflict, who knew that Zionism would negatively affect their lives in the future.
It is also difficult to sustain the view that opposition to Zionism in the early 20th century was by definition a form of anti-Semitism, given that the virtues of the movement were not always self-evident to the Jews themselves: not to Orthodox Jews, who considered it heretical and sacrilegious, arguing that a return to Eretz Israel could only be hastened by divine rather than human will; not to many Diaspora Jews, a good number of whom remained “non-Zionists” until the 1940s; not to Marxist Jews, who considered it to be a retrograde move away from internationalism; and not to the local Palestinian Jews, many of whom felt alienated from the incoming Ashkenazim from Europe, and initially pinned their hopes for communal well-being onto the Ottoman government. And while it is true that Hajj Amin al Husayni — the Mufti of Jerusalem — and some of his followers’ anti-Jewish rhetoric and support for the Axis powers before and during World War II are legitimate targets of criticism, this does not change the fact that the Palestinian National Movement itself was not fundamentally driven by anti-Semitism. It was driven by a series of responses to the concept, implementation and long-term implications of the Zionist movement for the lives and identities of Palestinian Arabs.
This is not to deny that there were Arab anti-Semites in the early period, or that there are many in the Arab world today: there are good reasons for Jews to fear that the line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism may be dangerously blurred. But it is in the Jews’ own interest to disentangle anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, and find a way to address rather than circumvent legitimate critiques of Israel. Because so few have grappled with the primary reasons why the Arabs of Palestine opposed Zionism, they only have access to one interpretative framework, applicable to both past and present: the critique of Zionism has no reasonable basis but was then — and still is today — propelled primarily by anti-Semitism. This reductive formula does little to help supporters of Israel understand what truly motivates the Palestinians today, or determine how best to negotiate with them in pursuit of Israel’s interests. . . .
Dr. Gill’s conclusion:
… [A]lthough supporters of Israel need not embrace the Palestinian view of the causes of the conflict, they should recognize that the Arab’s rejection of Zionism was not irrational and cannot be reduced to anti-Semitism: and they need to move beyond the long-obsolete mantras about the origins of the conflict that prevent them from identifying genuine points of impasse or making the best of opportunities. This does not mean Israel is the sole responsible party — Israelis are justified in questioning whether the Palestinians are able or willing to fulfill their own side of a negotiated bargain, prepare their public for a compromised settlement or recognize that the Jewish narrative cannot be eradicated by an act of will. But the Jewish community should not hide its own rejectionism behind the Palestinians’ No, or behind rabid circular debates that all slam into the STOP sign of 1947.
For while many Palestinians have (in various agreements and public commitments) been saying Yes to Israel’s de facto existence since 1988, they will continue to say No to Zionism itself. Condoning it would require [that] Palestinians swallow whole the major tenets of the Jewish “narrative” and sign on the dotted line affirming that the creation of a Jewish state on land they considered as their own was a legitimate enterprise; that their own rejection of that enterprise was irrational or morally wrong; and that the Arab’s 1400-year history in Palestine should be seen as a brief and inconsequential interregnum between two more important eras of Jewish sovereignty.
This will never happen. The sooner the pro-Israel camp accepts this and stops trying to change the unchangeable, the sooner they can determine what steps might be taken in the interests of their own peace and security. Schoolyard choruses — “they started it” and “they are worse than us” — cannot serve as an interpretive framework for a 130-year-old conflict, or form the basis of national policy. The Jewish community must breach the blockade that currently stands between moribund talking points and the actual origins of the conflict. An encounter with the Original No might release them from their dependence on the interpretations provided by the salesmen of the Jewish world, who for decades have been pitching an obsolete product to hapless customers in search of certainty — the very opposite of what is required in order to “prepare the public for peace.” And it might provide supporters of Israel with the tools they need to construct their own interpretation of what took place In The Beginning, and formulate their own vision of what, if anything, can be done to address the fallout today.
Click here for the entire article.