On Taking Sides, and “Why Nationalism doesn’t feel as Statist as I used to Think”

One thing I take home from the experience of living and travelling in various parts of Occupied Palestine, including West Jerusalem and many cities in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, is an increased comfort with being partisan, with speaking in explicitly side-taking language about the situation. In the past I consistently and constantly referred to the international community when using language, and when advocating certain positions. For instance, I insisted on calling East Jerusalem part of the “West Bank” rather than part of the State of Israel, because there is virtually no international recognition of Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem despite treating it as part of the State for more than 40 years. Similarly, rather than calling all the land occupied, I made a distinction between the State of Israel within the borders in which it was recognized (the 49-67 armistice lines), and the Occupied Palestinian and Syrian territories, some of which Israel has annexed, and some of which remain under full or partial Israeli military control (it is incorrect to say that Area A in the West Bank, or Gaza, is under full Palestinian military control because Palestinians do not control their borders or Airspace, and incursions/attacks into those areas by IDF remain part of normal life). These distinctions are not explicitly grounded on one’s personal values or allegiances, but on references to international law. Therefore, when they are mobilized in an argument, they are perceived (rightly) as an attack on Israeli exceptionalism, which is a dogma deeply held by Zionists.

The problem with mobilizing the international consensus against Zionists is it creates a situation where one person feels partisan and personally invested in the disagreement, whereas the other is just saying the kind of thing they think anyone should believe. And they are probably right – objectively, Israeli and US rejection of the world consensus on a two-state settlement probably is the sustaining cause of violence and hatred in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But since this is the kind of argument you can understand and make without ever visiting Palestine, without knowing any Palestinians, in a sense it doesn’t require you to personally take sides at all. Instead you make it from a third position of critical autonomy, where your goal is not solidarity with Palestinians or Israelies, and your position is not pro or anti-zionist, it’s simply pro-peace, pro-reconciliation between the communities.

This kind of position confers all sorts of advantages. For instance, it’s the kind of position that lets you work with leftists on both sides, that brings people together, that can create a big happy family. However, perhaps precisely because of the prospects of success for the international consensus on a two state settlement, there is vicious opposition to the idea from within the large portions of Israeli society. Here I mean those who are anti-boycott, anti-67 borders, pro-settlers (“settlers are people too”), anti-peace. Essentially, I think this is the “Masada” strain in Israeli militant ideology – which sees the only options for Israeli foreign policy as absolute military domination of its neighbours, or its own destruction. (In the historical case of Masada, the suicide is not a metaphor).

I think it’s a mistake, however, to engage with Masada-Zionists on a personal level from a third position of critical autonomy – where they have all the emotional investment, and you find yourself simply trying to convince them of something logical, or appealing to the moral principles of universality and hypocricy. In these situations, there is a disjunct of bodies in their ways of dealing with the dialogical conflict – one body is engaged primarily conceptually, in Merleau-Ponty’s terms “cognitive-linguistically”, whereas the Zionist’s body is engaged primarily socio-affectively, or emotionally. This misalignment causes mis-communications, both conceptual and emotional – because each body interprets the other’s performance primarily through the interpretation of the bodily region that they are gripped by. In short: where one body is attending to getting the concepts right and conveying them clearly and distinctly, the other body is hearing the affect and the social implications of what is being said. And where the body that is emotionally gripped is conveying their view with emphasis (whether explicit or not) on their emotional connection to the situation, the body that is cognitively-attuned will mostly hear them getting the concepts wrong.

On the other hand, if you take sides, if you feel and express moral allegiance not for “peace” or “solutions” but instead stand in solidarity with the oppressed – then you can begin to be honest with yourself about your own emotional involvement in the conflict. For myself, this happened when I was taken to a refugee camp cemetery, and I realized vividly that I sympathized not only with bystanders gunned down by Israeli guns and tanks – but also with the martyrs who died fighting the zionists, whether with guns or rocks, it doesn’t matter. I realized that the same logic I believe in North of Ireland applies here – oppression breeds resistance, resistance brings freedom, and that therefore you can not establish a hierarchy of victims. I also realized that these people were from communities which the British failed to defend during the Nakba, the Zionist insurrection (“War of Independence”) of 1948 – and by extension that I might not have been born if Britain had not cowardly pulled out in reaction to Zionist terrorism, and if British troops had been properly deployed to protect the Arab villages, more than 2000 of which were depopulated that year. Moreover, my family’s relative wealth within Canada can’t be disassociated from our British heritage – which made immigration to Canada possible at a time of great opportunity, when migrating here was much easier for the British than people of many other nationalities. As such, I feel an obligation to stand with those who still suffer as a result of this past injustice, and not simply by advocating the international consensus in a non-partisan way, but by taking sides.

Taking sides involves a judgement – which is always both emotional and intellectual – of which side in a conflict is in the right. This can be grounded in other values, such as anti-colonialism, indigenous rights, anti-racism etc, but the decision is not reducible to these values. Taking sides is not the same as declaring that one side is entirely in the right, and the other entirely in the wrong. In any conflict both sides are more than likely to have elements to be criticized, but taking sides means not allowing the complexity of the issue remain a bulwark against action. I think in fact that “complexity”, the idea that a situation can’t be adequately characterized by a simple assertion that says what is wrong, or what some actor should do, is a major power that the status quo can level to defend itself. Worse, it is a power those with the privilege to spend time in a region can often wield over those not in a position to visit (this is likely a key motivation behind the funding of Birthright).

Taking sides on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict for requires for me compromising a value which normally I strongly identify with: anti-nationalism. Normally I take a stance critical of any nationalist movements and against nationalist and patriotic sentiment – because it replaces critical understanding with loyalty, and allows states to convince civilians that their own crimes are virtuous whereas the crimes of the enemy are horrific. However, I’ve come to realize that being in a position to be anti-nationalistic can itself be a privilege. For example, Canada doesn’t need my loyalty to fend of an American invasion which would kill many Canadians, and force others to resettle farther north, or in neighbouring countries. The worst effect of Canadian’s lack of loyalty to Canada would be a reduced ability for Canada to pursue military actions overseas. Palestinians are not in a corresponding situation – without national resistance movements there is a real worry that Palestinians would continue to be pushed off their land, to live as perpetual refugees in neighbouring countries. So, whereas nationalism is normally related to states and sometimes to colonizing or controlling land outside a “nation’s state”, Palestinians do not have a state – so their nationalism cannot be “statist”. Nor can it be imperialist, because they don’t have control even over their indigenous territory, and at this point it seems very unlikely that this control will ever be gained. For the meantime, therefore, Palestinian nationalism seems highly connected to anti-colonial resistance.

Of course, Palestine has statist aspirations – in fact if you are reading this after September 2011, there could even be a state of Palestine. And associated with those statist aspirations there are all kinds of unpleasant aspects to the Palestinian National Authority – corruption, collaboration with the oppressor, and perhaps the worst: abandoning the core demands of the Palestinian people in favour of increasing their own power. This became explicit with the release of the Palestine Papers, which made it clear that Abbas was willing to give up control over virtually every piece of territory East of the Green Line which Israel desired, as well as control over airspace, the Jordan Valley, and specifically abominably – the right of refugees to return. This doesn’t surprise me, nor does it surprise me that the Palestinian “preventative security forces” (a kind of army, but without tanks, anti-tank weapons, aircraft, artillery, or any of the weaponry that you would associate with a modern army) are notorious for breaking up protests. The power centres that have been created through Oslo are creating a neo-colonialist enclave, where Palestinians will be oppressed by their own people rather than the IDF.

But this hasn’t quite happened yet. For now, the Palestinian preventative security forces are made up of the same kind of people who fought the Israelis in the al-aqsa intifada, and I’ve heard that most fight them again if there is another uprising. And while the goal of power centres may be to use the Palestinian people against itself, at the same time the creation of disciplined Palestinian security forces is a symbol and reality of strength for this community. It’s this double-edged sword of Oslo which opens the space in which I’m comfortable respecting and supporting Palestinian nationalism – because it remains a nationalism of the oppressed, and its institutions are strengths which can be turned back against the Zionists if there is another uprising.


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