Angry Talking Heads / Reflections on the power of narrative and life in the Zionist-Palestinian Conflict

I don’t watch a lot of videos on the Israel Palestinian conflict anymore, but when I found out about the Levy Report, I felt I should try to regain some hold on what’s being yelled across tables on the internet. I found this video of Ali Abunimah arguing with Jonathan Tobin. The video is pretty much what you would expect, the positions taken by Ali Abunimah are standard, and Tobin looks like a fool re-iterating Israel’s position that the legal rights of settlements are grounded in the League of Nation’s mandate, something no international court has ever agreed with. But if there is something interesting about this video, it’s the part which is even more annoying – the screaming across the table at the end of it, with Tobin convinced that Ali Abunimah’s talk about “equal rights” really means taking rights away from the Jews. For fireworks, start watching from about 10:10. Since Democracy Now kindly offers free transcripts of their shows, I can easily give you the direct quotes:

JONATHAN TOBIN: Well, of course the administration isn’t going to—hasn’t recognized that position. It opposes it. But it also tacitly agrees to the fact that the Jews aren’t going away. I mean, what we heard from my colleague on the show was the Palestinian fantasy that some day Israel is going to be destroyed. All the calumnies, all the slanders about apartheid—

ALI ABUNIMAH: I never said that. I didn’t use those words.

JONATHAN TOBIN: Yes, yes. That’s what—

ALI ABUNIMAH: I said that the system of racism and apartheid is going to be ended.

JONATHAN TOBIN: That is exactly what you are talking about.

ALI ABUNIMAH: And that will happen.

JONATHAN TOBIN: It is not an apartheid state. It is the only—

ALI ABUNIMAH: But don’t substitute your words with mine.

JONATHAN TOBIN: It is a state where Arabs have equal rights, serve in the parliament. And that—that is exactly what they are talking about. They’re talking about the destruction of Israel, and which is why this whole discussion—

ALI ABUNIMAH: Your words, sir. And it’s your fantasy.

JONATHAN TOBIN: It is your meaning. Don’t try to—

ALI ABUNIMAH: Your fantasy is the destruction of Israel.

JONATHAN TOBIN: Don’t try to—don’t try to lie your way out of it.

ALI ABUNIMAH: Was Jim Crow the destruction of Alabama and Mississippi?

JONATHAN TOBIN: You are fantasizing about the end of the Jewish state.

AMY GOODMAN: Jonathan Tobin—Jonathan Tobin, if you could explain where Ali Abunimah talked about the destruction of Israel.

JONATHAN TOBIN: Well, he’s talking about the end of the apartheid state. He’s talking about one state. In other words, no—not what the U.N. did in 1947, which is—

ALI ABUNIMAH: Is democracy destruction? Are you against democracy, Jonathan Tobin?

JONATHAN TOBIN: Excuse me, can I answer—can I answer the question?

AMY GOODMAN: Jonathan Tobin, you’re saying that he’s calling for the destruction—

JONATHAN TOBIN: When you say—when you talk about one state, you’re not talking about an Israeli state, a Jewish state, and a Palestinian Arab state alongside it; you’re talking about one state where the Jews will no longer have their own—the one Jewish state in the world, but a 22nd Arab state in which Arabs—

ALI ABUNIMAH: Where they’ll no longer have superior rights.

JONATHAN TOBIN: —in which Arabs—

ALI ABUNIMAH: Are you opposed to equal rights for everyone?

AMY GOODMAN: Ali Abunimah, let’s get your response. We just have 20 seconds.

ALI ABUNIMAH: Why does that offend you?

JONATHAN TOBIN: That is—that is the point here. Israel is a democracy where Arabs have the right—have the right to vote, serve in parliament—

ALI ABUNIMAH: How is it a democracy, when millions of people—

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to wrap. Ali Abunimah, 10 seconds.

ALI ABUNIMAH: —are living under military occupation without basic rights? How is that democratic?

JONATHAN TOBIN: Palestinian—Israeli Arabs have rights. What you want is to deny rights to the Jews. And that is something that Israel will never accept—

ALI ABUNIMAH: How do I want to deny rights to the Jews, when I’ve said they should have equal rights just like everyone else?

JONATHAN TOBIN: —something that the United States will never accept. It will never happen.

I used to think that narratives were totally essential to this conflict, as in, the conflict was about nothing other than narratives, and also the quick ergo that therefore narratives, stories, are totally central and essential to passing away from it. But I don’t think that anymore, I think there’s a lot more going on than just stories – people live in life-worlds that are only partially constituted by stories, they are also constituted by the events of everyday life, and for Palestinians that means, for a start:


-being shot at

-going to jail

-being tortured

-having your community invaded by enemy soldiers

-running for six hours at a time evading the soldiers

-having your friends and family members killed by your enemy

-being shot at by your enemy while you try to bury your friends and family members

-having your friends and family members die in the inept hospitals

-not being able to move around or leave the territory where you reside

-not being able to find a decent job

-running from your troubles with drugs and alcohol, because facing your troubles will get you killed or arrested.

This is of course a partial list, but I wanted to spell it out in list form to emphasize the gravity of each one of these characteristics of Palestinian’s life-worlds in the Occupied Territories. Of course this is not a people without narratives, but actually if you talk to people here they talk a lot more about the ongoing oppression and difficult life than they do about 1948.

Taking this into consideration, what do I think of the clash between Abunimah and Tobin? They are, of course, both caught in narratives, but they are not equivalent narratives nor are they equally reasonable and healthy. Abunimah’s position is one which tries to balance between what is acceptable in the contemporary political climate for solidarity movements to favour, and on the other hand to be in line with a main-line  Palestinian position, one which has a long tradition in the PLO, of a secular-democratic state with equal-rights for Jews, Christians and Muslims but without the right for any religious sect to claim superiority over others. Tobin’s position is to support everything Israel says or does, and claim that Palestinians are the only barrier to peace in the region. What underlies Tobin’s position is an orientalist hermeneutic which has been prominent in Israeli discourse for years which says that Palestinian talk about “equal rights” really means “throw the Jews into the sea”.

Unlike most pro-Palestinian activists, I take Tobin’s equivocation seriously. It is true that before the PLO adopted the secular democratic proposal, there was no plan for what to do with the Jewish immigrants living in Palestine, and Palestinian factions disputed over whether they should be allowed to stay or not. The position which won out, however, and which is still Fatah ideology (although not reflected in any way by Fatah policy), is that any Jew who renounces Zionism can stay. You can read about it, or at least you could read about it if I could find a PDF copy of this book. I can read about it, however, and you can too if you read French.

Unlike Abunimah, I consider it a serious question whether or not Palestinians and Israelis can live together in the near future in this land. I agree with this fatah document  which argues (you can thank me, I translated this myself) :

The Palestinian revolution assumes a large responsibility in deciding to win Jews to its cause by acts and not solely by words. The revolution ought not, and in fact she will not, let slip the most minor occasion to prove to the world’s jewry and to the jews of Palestine that she will hold them at her side if they are persecuted and that she is resolved to create with them a new life in Palestine that will not be founded on treachery, racism or on discrimination, but on cooperation and tolerance.

Of course, it’s possible for me – an international, a scholar – to find such a document, cherry pick from it, and make it look like the Palestinian revolution loves Jews. But when I’ve presented these ideas to my Palestinian friends, I often get a kind of glassy gaze, and a comment a long the lines of “well, that was a long time ago, they have been killing us for 40 years since then”. The armed struggle against the Zionists has not produced much love for the revolution amongst Jews, and even today although you will find many anti-Zionist Jews, I’ve only ever come across one who supported the resistance. Israel has run a number of successful public relations campaigns, in a sense Zionism is public-relations before it is anything else, in the sense that it is a movement to convince Jews around the world to move to Israel, or at least support Israel financially and politically from wherever they find themselves in the world. It may have been the case that the Palestinian revolution wanted to “prove to the world’s jewry and to the jews of Palestine that she will hold them at her side”, but I don’t think much about the reality of the armed conflict between Palestinians and Zionists since 1970 reflects that ideal.

So why is Tobin so threatened by this old Palestinian discourse of equal rights? One reason is he simply don’t believe it – they think that this talk of equal rights was always just cover for kicking the Jews from Palestine. And why shouldn’t he think this? What has the Palestinian revolution done in the last 47 years to convince him otherwise?  The other reason is that, even if he did believe that the Palestinians wanted equal rights with Jews in Palestine, this idea threatens Zionism – both politically if it were to become a political force, but also ideologically, which is important because Zionism relies heavily for support from the world and it achieves this support ideologically by guilt tripping the world over the holocaust.

ZIonism is an ideology of force before right – it says first we must make a strong country to protect the Jews and no matter if we need to displace and kill a whole lot of people who aren’t Jews in the process, and after the Jews are protected then we can talk about other Jewish ideals like justice, peace, etc… The problem is that arms never brings security – no amount of walls, of armies, of guns, will ever bring about peace because oppression breeds resistance. And therefore it gets stuck in the need for “force”, and doesn’t arrive at the “right” part, and this is why “equal rights” appears as such a danger for it. The Zionists are basically 19th century anti-semites, people who believe that Jews can not live in peace with non-Jews, that equality will always descend into anti-Jewish pogroms, so supremacy, “strategic majority” and a strong army is the only defence against the inevitable anti-semitism which is an essential component of history.

What Tobin, and what Israelis like him don’t recognize and never have recognized, and probably can’t be blamed for not recognizing, is that their reaction to the Palestinian revolution has an effect on it. Every time Zionists refuse to recognize that their ideology is pathological, every time they insist on Jewish superiority rather than equal rights, they not only move farther along the road to instituting the racist aspect of their ideology, they also push the Palestinian revolution away from reconciliation with the Jews.

I no longer believe that the way to peace, the way to freedom and true co-existence runs essentially by the way of non-violent or violent resistance, I think the question of resistance is more importantly a question of hermeneutics – the way resistance is interpreted is the key political event in a conflict. When the one who has no rights resists and has his resistance condemned as hatred of the dominant group, this is the dominant group’s common pathology asserting itself. The way to peace involves changing the interpretation of resistance changing the way you see the other’s seeing of you, opening up to the possibility that you don’t understand the motivation of your enemy.

That said, this idea makes me even more depressed to be in a place like this. Where is the movement in Israel to change the way resistance is interpreted? Where is the intellectual leadership in the resistance which recognizes that they need to fight not first and foremost a violent or non violent campaign, but a hermeneutic campaign? That the key product of your actions are the psychological reaction of your enemy?

What is left of the progressive Palestinian revolution?And what is left of the anti-Zionist movement in Israel? Perhaps what Israel-Palestine illustrates more than anything is just how easy it is for places to become stuck in 19th century nationalist ideologies, and how the march towards liberation and freedom is in no way guaranteed by the onset of time. If anything, liberation remains the exception in this world rather than the rule.


One Comment

  1. This is a good essay. As you know the Yom Kippur War went really badly for Israel the first 2 days. Take a look at what happened to the people captured by Syria. These atrocities were widely supported. One Syrian soldier got a medal for eating the flesh off a POW.

    The notion that the Israelis were loading up nuclear weapons in case their 2nd round tank forces in Golan didn’t hold out long enough for the main armor to arrive. What generally isn’t understood in the west is that what Israel was planning on nuking would have been the Syrian armor in Israel proper, near Israeli cities. Let me just repeat that. When actually confronted with the possibility of the choice, in reality not in theory, Israelis decided they would rather hit their own cities with nuclear weapons than live under an Arab government.

    Now let me compound that. Everyone Israel knows this. And everyone (more or less) thinks Dayan made the right decision. There is a broad consensus in Israel that’s how much they don’t want to live in an Arab state. Jonathan Tobin’s fears are fully reflective of Israeli society. They mean it. Which is why I have so much difficulty understanding why you think BDS is going to get them to agree to live in an Arab state.

    Ali Abunimah is a good guy. If he representative of what the Palestinian population there never would have been an Israeli Palestinian war in ’36, there never would have been the war of independence and left wing peaceful coexistence groups would have been triumphant and the slow progression of Israel to the right wouldn’t have happened. Instead the 20’s are different, a coexistence deal gets worked out in the 30s. Israel is a united state with the Law of Return and equality for all. But that didn’t happen andt the groups that supported coexistence rather than transfer were discredited the same way that in 90s and 00s the two state groups were discredited.

    You are absolutely right that both groups form each other’s beliefs about the conflict. But I don’t see how you go back. Just remember, the fear Tobin has backed by ICBMs, bio weapons a first class airforce….


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