Yesterday I woke up early to head to jerusalem with a new friend for a tour of the old city and a chat with Itamar Shapira. The tour was excellent, the best I’ve experienced here both in the sense of the best politically and in the sense that I learned the most.
But none of that grips me right now, I’m gripped by the reflections Itamar made after the tour. After even the lunch meeting, in which he described his experience with combatants for peace and the reasons why he’s left it.
I’m most struck by the flippancy with which he dealt with the refugee question. On the one hand, he said he supports the rights of the refugees. But then he immediately went back on it, rhetorically at least, saying that “no refugees have ever returned” and talking about all the technical problems that a return would involve, and suggesting that what is more important is memorializing the destroyed villages. By saying, or implying, that the problem for the refugees is not that they need to return but that they need to live better lives, he is using his first world privilege to make a decision for them, a decision that they need to make themselves. I suggested that the technical problems with return are the easy part, and the hard part has to do with national self-determination and the idea of “the destruction of Israel”. If the conversation shifts from being about how to maintain Israel’s Jewish Majority, to how to protect Israel/Palestine’s Jewish minority without oppressing the natives or taking their land or excluding them from their homeland, then we are not making a decision for the refugees but making a decision which would allow them to make a decision.
The conversation after that slipped into pretty standard avoidance rhetoric about critics of the occupation – pointing out that “bad things are happening” elsewhere, and that the real war today is between the rich and the poor and it is over resources. And in a sense he’s right, things worse than the occupation are happening in Syria – but the difference is there is no clear way to take sides on the Syrian conflict. And while the Afghanistan conflict is simpler (take sides against the interveners), ok I don’t have a good reason why I’m not in Afghanistan criticizing my troop’s presence over there. Maybe I should be.
This rhetoric is depressing not so much because it criticizes those who criticize the occupation (and, by their very criticism, end up bolstering it because Israel can say “look we have the most humanitarian occupation – you can even come here and speak with Palestinians who criticize it!”, but because the implicit critique of Palestinian nationalism is cynical in the sense that it refuses to see something universal in oppression and resistance against it. And in discussions with Palestinians later last night, I was forced to make clear that this is why I think the Palestinians are a great people, and why I think people all over the world love Palestine – that in resistance against colonization they enact a struggle for freedom which is redemptive in a way that giving someone their freedom can never be. It’s an old idea, Franz Fanon articulated it in “Black Skin White Masks” (is that translated into Arabic?). In comparison to this, Itamar’s analysis was Althusserian (at least in my remedial understanding of Althusser) – emphasizing the way that resistance against hegemony is part of hegemony. But I don’t agree with that in the case of the Palestinians – while Western resistance against the occupation, which includes “peace” organizations which involve Israelis and Palestinians, while those certainly fall into the hegemonic trap of resistance-bolstering-power, real Palestinian resistance does not. And the proof of that is that Palestinian resistance has created a people, and gained some sort of sovereignty over territory which Israel would rather have all to itself. The constant budging of language on the Zionist side proves that Palestinian resistance is not all for not, even if it is today led by traitors. The fact is, Israel would much rather have transferred the rest of the West Bank and Gaza Palestinians and created a hegemonic Jewish state on all the land of Palestine. The Oslo fucks the Palestinians, but it is a compromise which Israel would rather not have made. And the movement from refusing to even use the word “statehood”, to the point now where every Israeli is in favour of some form of Palestinian statehood, these are huge losses from the perspective of the Zionist project. This doesn’t prove that the resistance has succeeded in any way, but it does prove that it wasn’t nothing, that the Palestinians haven’t achieved nothing. On the other hand, it might be true that the NGO work has achieved nothing, or rather has achieved a negative sum – if the gradual improvement of life in the territories has weakened the Palestinian will to resist Israel and its collaborators.
But then later that night, I met a Palestinian from Bethlehem who was PFLP and very critical of Fatah’s collaboration with Israel, who gave me something to chew on – that every time the Palestinians rise up in anger against the occupiers, it is not when things are bad but when things are relatively good. It is when Palestinian stomachs are full, in 87, in 2000, that people start to think about their freedom. So maybe the NGO work is actually something good, it’s just that it doesn’t look like it because the temporality of Palestinian resistance is other than we expect it to be.
I ended the night meeting for coffee and to watch soccer with my Palestinian friends. After feeling very uneasy after the tour, being around serious people who will not say things like “the occupation of Palestine is the most humanitarian occupation in the world”, but will rather talk about the six martyrs in Gaza yesterday, and talk about what is happening in the jails – in other words, people who display what I think to be an appropriate amount of stress and anguish about the oppression by the Israelis, I felt a lot better. And I think these feelings are important. I asked Itamar, in fact, whether in his work doing resistance against the occupation and against the blockade of Gaza if he ever had any moments of vision, or moments of clarification where, through the work, he understood something or knew something was true that he didn’t know before. And he said yes, and that these experiences were not cognitive, not the achievement of a more clear conceptual understanding of something – but emotional, the feeling that this is something good, this is going in a good way. In a world where you can always make a conceptual argument that your actions will have good or bad consequences, or both, the feeling of virtue is the only real guide we have against the systems which bind us but not totally.