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'Can We Talk?' (cont'd.) | The Nation

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'Can We Talk?' (cont'd.)

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The difficulty of solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict stems from more sources than one can comfortably count, but surely one of the most significant is our inability even to discuss it. The emotional intensity of so many people's investment in their own self-justifying story line censors the effects of any potentially upsetting fact.

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Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

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For instance, I thought it a pretty significant problem for Israel's unquestioning defenders when Peace Now revealed that nearly a third of the land currently occupied by Israeli settlements was actually listed as private Palestinian land. In other words, these so-called "facts on the ground" rest on exactly the pattern of illegal seizure that critics have long alleged and successions of Israeli governments have sought to cover up. But I've yet to read a word from those dedicated to defending any and every action by Israel explaining how this new information affects their arguments.

Similarly, the apparently never-ending deadly violence between Hamas fighters and the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades in Gaza--to say nothing of the murderous hatred both sides openly profess toward all Jews--ought to provide considerable cause for pause among those who demand an immediate end to the Israeli occupation, security concerns be damned. And yet from those who hold that position, one hears precious little about Israel's entirely understandable worries about the prospects of being asked to live alongside a failed, fanatical and heavily armed Islamic state.

Personally, I deal with this problem by refusing to discuss the conflict with anyone, anywhere, assuming that the likely result of any face-to-face dispute is almost always personal fury rather than intellectual enlightenment. As it happens, though, I accidentally undertook a controlled experiment on the topic. On May 2, I attended a fascinating discussion at the New York-based Center for Jewish History in celebration of the recent publication by Schocken Books of Hannah Arendt's The Jewish Writings. At one point the book's co-editor, Jerome Kohn, made what struck me as a shocking contention that the only people who found fault with Arendt's political judgment are those whose personal or material interests she opposed. My admiration for Arendt's life and work is nearly boundless, but I can't help thinking she made some serious mistakes of political judgment.

Through the combined magic of BlackBerry, Google and Wikipedia, I was able to come up with exactly the text I needed to make my case. In the May 1948 issue of Commentary (!), Arendt stuck to her rhetorical guns on behalf of a binational alternative to the Zionist proposal for an independent Israel. "The independence of Palestine can be achieved only on a solid basis of Jewish-Arab cooperation," she argued. "The real goal of the Jews in Palestine is the building up of a Jewish homeland. This goal must never be sacrificed to the pseudo-sovereignty of a Jewish state." Whatever one thinks of the morality of this contention, it cannot sensibly be said to rest on any notion of pragmatic political relevance. When these words were published, the 1948 war was already under way. The idea that Arab inhabitants of Palestine and the surrounding nations were going to invite the Jews to "build up" their homeland cooperatively without the protection of a Jewish state--and that state's army--was about as likely as the Jews there deciding to convert en masse to Islam. That Arendt was still pining for this hopelessly utopian vision this late in the process demonstrated, I argued, her lack of political judgment.

Neither Kohn nor his fellow panelist, the New School University's Richard Bernstein, sought to address my point. Instead, both preferred to speak of Israeli mistreatment of the Palestinians and the disjunction between the kind of state the Zionists hoped to build and the one that exists today. The question of Arendt's judgment was ignored. What was important was how one felt about Israel.

Three days later, I took my customary Saturday morning constitutional across Central Park to Temple Israel on Seventy-fifth Street and Park Avenue, where I've lately been going to Torah study class with my learned and eloquent friend, the recently installed Rabbi David Gelfand. This week, however, we were treated to a lecture on the year 1948 by Stephen Berk, professor of Holocaust and Jewish studies at Union College. Berk offered up a reasonably balanced lecture that, for instance, did not skirt the issue of Israeli expulsion of the Palestinians and massacres committed by the right-wing Revisionist Stern Gang (though he was a bit freer with the word "terrorist" when it applied to Arab massacres of Jews than vice versa).

This being a Reform shul, I felt no compunction in retrieving the BlackBerry and reading the same text from Arendt's 1948 Commentary essay. I posed the same question to Professor Berk that I had asked three days earlier. Berk took the opportunity to lecture the audience about the evils of Hamas. While I agreed with him about Hamas, I failed to see its relevance to my strictly historical inquiry about Hannah Arendt and 1948. Berk replied to my question about this by saying he was certain that the audience's "next question" would be about Hamas, the PLO and the like. (A congregation member also piped up that this had been "clearly implied" by my question.) Given my assumption of goodwill coupled with the scholarly bona fides of the speakers at both places--to say nothing of the fact that we are all Jews--I left the temple confirmed in my belief that mere discussion of the topic remains impossible.

As it happens two professors, Sami Adwan of Bethlehem University and Dan Bar-On of Ben-Gurion University, are trying to address exactly this problem under the aegis of the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East (www.vispo.com/PRIME/leohn.htm). Called "Learning Each Other's Historical Narrative," their project aims to develop parallel histories of the Israelis and Palestinians, translate them into Hebrew and Arabic and train teams of teachers and historians to teach in the classroom. If we are ever to have any real hope of solving the Israel/Palestine crisis, then surely this is the place to begin.

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