Reply To Yglesias On Palestine Matthew

Reply to Yglesias on Palestine

Matthew Yglesias, a philosopher who runs a very interesting web site, cited my piece on 2/2/04 about Muqtada al-Sadr’s objecting vehemently (and, characteristically, vulgarly) to Iraq selling electricity to Israel. Matt then quoted my last sentence “Most Shiite clerics view Israel negatively because of its treatment of the Palestinians, fellow Muslims” and objected to it.

Yglesias asks, “How reasonable is that, really?” And goes on to ask several more questions.

I am going to reply to his points, even though quite frankly I consider it a waste of my time to do so, not because Matt doesn’t deserve it (he is bright and thoughtful and dialoguing with him would always be worthwhile) but because the Arab-Israeli stuff is a Black Hole that sucks up time and energy with no obvious positive result, ever. I once compared having anything to do with it to “tangling with the Church of Scientology while living through someone else’s nasty divorce.” The problem is that everything one says about it is dissected to death until it doesn’t mean anything anymore. And, most people in public life have frankly been intimidated into just being quiet about it (including every single sitting member of the US Congress, not one of which ever criticizes any action of the Sharon government (and survives the next election); this is an incredible degree of political intimidation).

We historians mostly do not believe that nations are natural or inevitable or “right.” In this we differ from most of our contemporaries, and have done since at least Renan (who rightly remarked that when a historian studies a nation he must first betray it). Nationalists do not like us to question their pieties, especially their essentialism and attempt to justify the nation as always necessary and always right.

Zionist Revisionists, who are the most illiberal arm of Zionist nationalism, are relentless in attempting to impose their rhetorical vision on everyone who speaks about the subject, and if that fails, then to marginalize and demean them as bigots or terrorists or something. When you are in the Middle East, the Arab nationalists are just as annoying and even more ruthless, but the latter have little leverage in the US. In contrast, the heirs of Jabotinsky are ubiquitous and often powerful over here. They are, like all ideologues, intellectually dishonest. (One typical ploy is to insist that one cannot criticize Israel without also criticizing all 189 other countries in the world, which, of course, would guarantee that the critics didn’t end up having much time to criticize Israel. I call this the “189 Case Studies Fallacy.” This sort of trick is an obvious logical error. The proposition, “Action A, Committed by Country B against C, contravenes International Law,” can be a valid proposition even if one did not repeat it for all other countries for which it is true. And in some respects, in any case, the situation in the West Bank and Gaza is unique in the contemporary world.)

So, on to Matt and the electricity boycott and the reasons for its proposal. If Matt wants to know whether the grounds mentioned are reasonable ones upon which Shiite clerics might object to selling electricity to Israel, he will have to ask them and analyze their arguments. I haven’t claimed that it is reasonable, only that it is so.

If he means to say that my statement of causality is not reasonable, then he has to offer another explanation for which most Shiite clerics (both Arabs and Iranians, by the way) support a boycott of Israel.

He asks, “Doesn’t it seem that someone concerned primarily with disliking governments that mistreat Muslims would be able to split its outrage more equitably against Israel, to be sure, but also also Russia, against India, against Uzbekistan.

I’m sorry to say that this is just ignorance on Matt’s part. Activist Muslims do speak out against and denounce Russia’s treatment of its Muslims in Chechnya, India’s its, and Uzbekistan’s its. “Shuravi” or the Soviet Union was a constant bugabear in the sermons of Shiite clerics throughout the Cold War. Many al-Qaeda or al-Qaeda-related fighters cut their teeth in Chechnya and Kashmir. My lord, you barely hear anything from Pakistani Islamists but what a big threat Hindu fundamentalist India is. But Matt’s question here is another instance, it seems to me, of the “189 Case Studies Fallacy.”

To be fair, I think there is something special about the case of Israel and the Palestinians in the minds of activist Muslims, and that is the question of occupation and settler colonialism. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are not citizens of Israel. And yet they have spent most of the period since 1967 under Israeli military rule, their lives shaped by Israeli policy. When the Israeli government plunks down a new settlement in the West Bank and gives it the wherewithal to dig a deep well, it lowers the water level in the aquifer underneath the Palestinian village and causes its wells to go dry, and hurts the agriculture of the pre-existing Palestinian village. When the Israelis criss-cross the West Bank with Israeli-controlled roads that Palestinians cannot cross except at checkpoints, they turn a half-hour journey to a traditional market into an all-day ordeal. They delay women rushing to the hospital to have a baby, sometimes causing tragedies.

Occupation is especially objectionable because it contravenes the basic principle of self-determination.

The United States has conquered Iraq, fair and square. By Israeli logic, the United States would be within its rights to send American colonists in the millions to Basra to settle it. Let’s say 1.3 million Americans would kick Iraqis out of their apartments and just move in. Let the Iraqis go to Baghdad. They’re all Iraqis, aren’t they? Why would it matter where they live in Iraq? The Iraqis invaded Iran and Kuwait and kicked people out of their homes, so surely, an American imperialist could argue, the Iraqis can’t complain if now the same thing is done to them. Iraqi terrorists have threatened the US and killed US troops. The US, it would be argued, needs a permanent colony in Iraq to safeguard its interests into the future.

I think virtually everyone in the contemporary world would find such a project morally monstrous. And yet, it is hard for me to see the difference between such a project and what the Likud is doing in the West Bank.

The case of the Muslims in Chechnya is different. They were conquered in the nineteenth century and have been Russian citizens for a long time. Many of them now want independence, but they have what Anthony Smith would call a sub-nationalism, of Russian citizens seeking to form a nation on primordial claims. Kashmiris are also Indian citizens, and polls show that few of them want to be Pakistani citizens. Some want independence. Again, this is a sub-nationalism (analogous to that of the Scots in the UK).

The Palestinians are not Israeli citizens. Few Israelis want to claim them as Israeli citizens. And yet they are under Israeli military control, their lands and resources being expropriated by a foreign power. Theirs is not a subnationalism seeking to escape Israeli nationalism. It is the nationalism of an occupied people seeking self-determination. (Actually about a third of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories have given up on Palestinian nationalism ever amounting to anything and say they’d accept Israeli citizenship if offered; of course, it won’t be offered. But this is really remarkable, and doesn’t sound like people who want to destroy Israel. Perhaps a plurality has met the enemy and decided it might as well be us.)

So, anyway, there is no analogy to the Chechens, the Kashmiris and the Uzbeks.

If you can find me a country in the modern world that is occupying another people to whom it has no intention of granting full citizenship but which it also won’t let go, that would be the analogy to Israel in the West Bank and Gaza. I can’t think of any such situation. I don’t think such a situation has existed since the colonial era. I think it is essentially a racist situation, and that failure to recognize the injustice here causes racist thinking in the West.

After all, if only “some mistreatment” of Palestinians is going on, of an unremarkable nature precisely analogous to other political situations that do not cause such ire, then one can conclude that the Muslims (and it is not just Arabs) are being completely unreasonable.

Maybe they are just nervous, excitable people. (That is how the 19th century French racist imperialists explained the unreasonable revolts in Algeria against enlightened French rule there. The Semites, the French Aryans sagely proclaimed, are just a high strung, irrational race).

Or maybe they are just unreasonable bigots who hate all Jews for no reason, the imperialist could argue. After all, why else would they object to seeing their fellow Muslims expropriated and oppressed?

Any time, in a political argument, one side resorts to essentialism and ontology, you are in the presence of propaganda. Human beings are all exactly the same. They all laugh, smile, and have the same emotions. Their cultures have different rules for the games they play, but the games are all recognizable. How one gets honor differs, the quest for honor does not. An entire people (and let’s just be honest and say “race”–even though there is no such thing, most people think in these terms) is not characterized by any essential attribute such as “evil” or “violent” or “fanatical,” etc. Individuals and groups within the people can commit deeds that are evil, violent or fanatical. When one departs from the deeds of a specific group into speaking of the vices of a whole race or a people, one is descending to demonization and engaging in pure propaganda.

“This proposal [electricity boycott], for example, like many anti-Israel initiatives from the Arab world, doesn’t really seem well-calculated to make Palestinians any better off.”

Boycotts of one’s political enemies are common in the world, and seldom make anyone better off. The US boycott of Cuba, on behalf of trying to free the people of Cuba from the grip of Communism, definitely does not make the Cuban people better off. I am against most boycotts, and have written against boycotting Israel. But Matt’s charge is invidious.

“Certainly the ’67 war wasn’t a boon to Palestinian well-being or self-determination.”

I don’t know what this has to do with anything. the 1967 war was not instigated by the Palestinians nor for them. Apparently Nasser was convinced by bad Soviet intelligence that Israel was about to attack Damascus. His best divisions were bogged down in Yemen, so he was in a weak position, and he rattled sabers hard as a bluff. Israeli hardliners like Moshe Dayan were alarmed and felt Israel had no choice but to launch a preemptive strike, calling the bluff. (It was a lot like the recent Iraq war in being something of an intelligence SNAFU on both sides). The Palestinians and their fate were not the issue for any of the major players in that war, and only became so afterwards.

“The recent Saudi peace proposal, to take another example, links the un-occupation of the West Bank, clearly a legitimate human rights concern, to the un-occupation of the Golan Heights, which is a fairly parochial strategic concern of Syria’s. If the Saudis were really primarily concerned with helping Palestinians they would make diplomatic recognition dependent on that and that alone.

What the Saudis proposed was complete and full recognition of and diplomatic relations with Israel by the Arab League and all its members in return for Israeli withdrawal from the territories it occupied in 1967. This is an unprecedented offer from the Saudi government (and from the Arab League) and should have been greeted with optimism and joy. Because the Sharon government intends to keep so much of the lands Israel took by military force, quite in violation of the UN Charter and international law, Sharon pissed all over the Saudi offer. Sharon thereby guaranteed continued political tension in the Middle East, tension that produces terrorism that may well come over here and bite Americans in the ass.

And, this situation is then blamed by Fox Cable News on . . . Saudi Arabia!

(By the way, the Saudis are in the majority Wahhabis and have a low opinion of Shiites and their clerics, so we are by now very far afield from Muqtada al-Sadr.)

“More broadly, they (and other local states) might even want to consider (as might the US vis-a-vis a number of countries) that a policy of engagement might serve that end better than a policy of de jure war by eliminating concern among moderate Israelis that a Palestinians state is merely a stalking horse for the goal of destroying Israel a goal that, one would do well to remember, was the avowed policy of the Arab world for most of Israel’s existence.”

Much of the Arab world has a formal peace treaty with Israel (including Egypt, the largest Arab country and Jordan, Israel’s closest neighbor). Turkey, a Muslim country, is a close ally of Israel. The countries with which tension is highest are those where Israel until recently occupied their territory (Lebanon) or still does (Syria, the Palestinian Authority). One could hardly expect them to make peace wholeheartedly while that wound to national pride still stands. Sharon’s occupation of Lebanon, by the way, was a naked act of aggression that backfired badly, and contributed to the invention of Hizbullah and of suicide bombings as a tactic.

The countries that have not recognized Israel are typically small and weak and can’t do it any real harm, much less destroy it. Israel has several hundred nuclear warheads, an air force that can fly more missions than the US air force in the same period of time, and a well-equipped, highly trained, high-tech army that has repeatedly made mincemeat of its much more numerous foes. This idea that Israel, the big kid on the block, is in danger of being destroyed by a puny little backward country like Syria is frankly weird. The Israelis can have Damascus for lunch any day of the week, every week of the year.

The only political force that has managed to kill an Israeli prime minister (Yitzhak Rabin) in recent years is ultra-Orthodox Israeli extremism. And that is a threat to us all, not in its own right but in the backlashes its policies against the Palestinians create.

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