The “Palestine Question” has been with us for sixty years. During this time it has become a running sore, its solution appearing ever more distant. Whether the events sixty years ago that created this question solved the previously perennial “Jewish Question” is once again open to debate. This is the case after many years when the apparent triumph of Zionism stilled doubts and drowned out the protests of those who argued that what purported to be the solution to one problem had created an entirely different one.
It is considered by some to be a slur on Israel and Zionism, and indeed even tantamount to anti-Semitism, to suggest that these events sixty years ago should be the subject of anything but unmitigated joy. Commemoration, or even analysis, of what Palestinians call their national catastrophe, al-Nakba–the expulsion, flight and loss of their homes by a majority of their people sixty years ago–is thus considered not in terms of this seminal event’s meaning to at least 8 million Palestinians today (some estimates are over 10 million) but only because it is directly related to the founding of Israel. Palestinians presumably do not have the right to recall, much less mourn, their national disaster if this would rain on the parade of celebrating Zionists everywhere. The fact that the 1948 war that created Israel also created the largest refugee problem in the Middle East (until the US occupation of Iraq turned 4 million people into refugees) must therefore be swept under the rug. Also disregarded is the obvious fact that it would have been impossible to create a Jewish state in a land nearly two-thirds of whose population was Arab without some form of ethnic cleansing.
It is ironic and tragic that the resolution, if indeed it was a resolution, of a Jewish question should have created a Palestine question. It is even more ironic that the former should have been resolved not where it arose in its most acute form, in the West, or at the West’s expense, but rather in Palestine, and to the detriment of Palestine’s people. This was in large part the result of the efforts of a West stricken by a (fully justified) sense of guilt for centuries of suffering inflicted on European Jews, culminating in the Holocaust, a West that compounded its sins by helping to inflict further suffering, this time on Palestinians. It is also tragic that beyond the harm that was done to the Palestinians by the growth of Zionism and the establishment of Israel, these same developments should have led to the uprooting of the world’s oldest and most secure Jewish communities, which had found in the Arab lands a tolerance that, albeit imperfect, was nonexistent in the often genocidal, Jew-hating Christian West.
A few things seem clear sixty years after 1948. One is that if the Jewish question has lost its saliency, perhaps more as a consequence of the enormity of the atrocities of the Nazis than for any other reason, the creation of Israel has raised different questions and problems for its supporters and others. To the extent that Zionism has succeeded in winning acceptance of its assertion that all Jews are part of a national body whose nation-state is Israel, it has linked the status and circumstances of Jews everywhere not only to the fate of that state but to every facet of that state’s policies and actions. Insofar as some of those policies and actions may be unacceptable, their very existence must be denied or elided, and reality bent to suit the tender sensibilities of supporters of Israel: for example, the rank discrimination against the 1.4 million Arab citizens of Israel who are not part of the Jewish ethnicity in whose name and for whose interests the state was created and exists; or the collective punishment inflicted on the 1.5 million people of the Gaza Strip imprisoned for months on end; or the systematic torture and humiliation inflicted on the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who have passed through the Israeli prison system. We see the results of this bending of reality in the travesty that passes for news coverage of Israel and Palestine in the American media.