Correcting wrongs: from Rhodes to Ben Gurion

SARI NUSSEIBEH

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THE statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford, which has gathered a growing movement in recent years demanding it be pulled down, is both like and unlike the name ‘Ben Gurion’, the official name of Israel’s international airport. Like, because both statue and name recall similarly painful episodes in human history – a foreign element disempowering an indigenous people of control over their lives and resources in their natural habitats, and appropriating that power for itself. Unlike, in that Rhodesia is now no more, but Israel continues to flourish.

Both Cecil Rhodes and Ben Gurion themselves – in different ways and for different ends – were instrumental in making history. For better or worse, once made, history cannot be deleted. But as the movement to take down the Rhodes statue (and countless similar movements in the United States to pull down statues or rename public institutions) show, a past of which present-day shame of that history is awakened can be expressed by a show of dissociation with a seminal figure from that past or by a re-writing of the historical narrative about him or about that past more generally.

Editing history has thus in some circles come to mean confronting the whitewashed narratives of such pasts, exposing their shaming parts, and pulling down where possible their once-glorified symbols. Its communal undertaking – typically ex post, or in a now-readjusted present, or in a present in the making – signifies nothing less than a moral awakening. Typically, it is near-pasts rather than distant pasts that call for such editing – pasts which still reverberate morally in the present, or where the passing of time has not yet cut them off from the moral purview of the living.

These pasts have not yet become-to quote L.P. Hartley’s famous words – ‘a foreign country’ where ‘they do things differently there’; differently, in that ancient behaviours do not stir public feelings as do past events that still hold significance in peoples’ hearts and minds. The decimation of Melian males by Athenians in 416 B.C. is noted in scholars’ minds and can shock our moral sense but it will hardly manage to raise public support for a movement to bring down the historical statues of famous Athenian generals that celebrate the Golden Age of Athens.

This is why we can still claim to judge the legacy of Cecil Rhodes by present moral standards, and why such an act would not be – as Oxford’s Chancellor claimed at the time – ‘a re-writing of history’ as though to replace one set of facts by another, but would reflect a present moral sensitivity to the shameful side of facts that are buried and hidden from view under a deceptively glorifying memorial.

It is definitely not a ‘re-writing of history on a blank page’, as the Chancellor would have it, but an editing that includes and acknowledges all facts, and respects our moral attitude towards them. ‘Uncomfortable Oxford’ – an organization that provides an alternative tour of Oxford’s landscape – tries to raise awareness of all the facts for visitors by associating the historical periods and occasions of the constructions of Oxford’s monuments and sites with their ‘embarrassing’ episodes in Britain’s colonial past.

 

Thus, editing history is in one sense a conscious public act calling for the disavowal of the shaming part of a contemporary past, and can therefore become part of a renewed and positive making of history, righting past wrongs even if only in public minds and records! However, we must also recognize an opposite side to the picture: an ethnocentric editing that is nothing less than an actual re-writing of history, where not only symbols but actual pasts and place-names are deleted in favour of new facts and place-names that become established on the ground.

Once indigenous inhabitants are forced to move out and homes and villages are erased, their names are then wiped off maps and road signs and are substituted by new ones, and a new demographic and infrastructural reality is created to replace what once was. This is the Israel first brought to life under the leadership of Ben Gurion, armed with Hebrew place-names from a long-gone (real or imagined) Jewish past, and with the means to superimpose a new present: street names, villages, wadis (rivers and valleys), governorates, regions, mountains, etc., Here, simply ‘taking down’ ‘Ben Gurion’ from the name of the airport – if ever such a suggestion were entertained as a positive editing move – would surely not do justice to history. But what would, or can?

 

In a better world, a bolder suggestion in the same vein may be proposed: a more sweeping act of ‘positive’ editing of history could be called for. In addition to – or, maybe, in a still better world, instead of – deleting ‘shaming names’ from streets and places, or historical marks misleadingly meant to represent centuries-old countryside sites as signs of Jewish history, one might consider restoring erased names alongside, and memorializing Palestinian histories in those locations. Signposts inscribing imagined Jewish heritage in a countryside made into national parks where trading trails, rivulets, terraced hills, farmhouses and old olive groves still speak the lives and toils of the Palestinians who sweated their backs making them could reveal to the visitor this vibrant past instead of totally ignoring it.

Old Palestinian houses in towns and cities now occupied by Israelis can have plaques mounted on their fronts stating to whom they once belonged. One might take a further step and consider memorializing names of afflicted persons and families who belonged to destroyed villages and locations… identifying by name who were killed or evicted in 1948. True, these might end up seeming like tombstones of gone communities and disappeared habitats spread across the country; but proper name recognition – far more than blanket political recognitions (between two peoples) – might finally help put personal diasporic grief to rest, anchoring agitated memory, oral history and script to their tangible physical locations.

This was part of the vision of the Israeli organization Zochrot (memories) which was established in 2002. But its purpose was not one of simply exposing to view a Palestinian reality stratum buried underneath a brightly coloured Israeli cover – an independence story hiding the nakba under it; Zochrot’s vision went further to see such exposure as a prelude to decolonization – a return of Palestinians to a democratic state where Jews and Arabs can live side by side as equals. Exposing Mlabbas to view where Petah Tikvah now flourishes, or where Deir Yasinonce existed and is now rubble under Giv’at Shaul, was meant to awaken Israeli conscience, to transform a political psyche and prepare it for a radically different political future.

 

But for this to take place Zochrot saw that Israel would need to be able to liberate itself from its national narrative – from looking upon its birth as a case of an immaculate conception: pure, guiltless, and heroic; or as a demographic surgery operation where the bloodletting and pain caused to others was simply the naturally inevitable but sufferable byproduct of a just act of violence. So, from Zochrot’s perspective, Israel had to be ready for a moral awakening, a radical rehaul of its self-perception. An exposure of its real history to itself had to be achieved. It had to have reached a level of consciousness where its conscience will finally allow it to face its guilt, and therefore to redraw its future.

But Zochrot and like organizations and individuals constitute a mere blip on the Israeli conscience map. This may even become smaller as self-justification grows stronger as a natural reaction to further suppress a subconscious sense of guilt, or to further reinforce its corollary denial. More challengingly, even when true history is unveiled, the acknowledgement of guilt that can go along with it often has to confront and compete with a new reality: namely, an overriding and self-righteous religious imperative to repossess and reinvigorate more ancient pasts; or a newly born but already vibrant national self-interest in the present. I may acknowledge guilt for your misfortune, but I still have my own overriding narrative and interests; and I now stand to threaten my own existence if I dare to take real steps to set matters right.

 

The Palestinian predicament – the wrong done to Palestinians – therefore finds itself having to contend with both distant pasts as well as near pasts: Israel’s ancient history in the land, as well as the disastrous horror that afflicted the Jewish people more recently – histories that have combined together to produce an existential self-concern in the new state that seems impervious to a moral or political national retraction – one that can allow for cancelling wrongs or setting things right: the Palestinian nakba is complicated in ways not experienced in straightforward contemporary colonialist histories.

Palestinians may complain that Israel’s ancient history in the land has nothing to do with the modern Jewish people; or that they themselves had nothing to do with the German death camps. But such complaints will fall on the deaf ears of ‘a people’ that feels its roots to be engraved in that distant past, and that finally now feels secure behind the iron walls of the new state.

In these circumstances, therefore, a radical and positive editing of history, as a necessary prelude to a new making of it, would seem like a far-fetched goal. So, what if the bar were lowered and a mere acknowledgement of guilt is entertained – one that carries with it no material losses to the perpetrator? This, at least, may already have a precedent in a more recent tragic event. During a curfew imposed in 1956 on the Palestinian residents of Kafr Qassem, a village lying within Israeli territory, 49 people returning to their homes from their fields were killed by Israeli soldiers for ‘breaking the curfew’, although there was no way for them to have known about the curfew which had only just been imposed on their village.

 

In 2007 President Peres visited the village and apologized for the massacre. Yet again, in 2014, President Rivlin visited the village to acknowledge guilt to its residents. So, may there be, in the same vein, and more ambitiously, some other way for Israel to address the Palestinian sense of having been wronged? Such a blanket act almost came to pass: a public act of apology by Israel’s Shimon Peres addressed to the Palestinian people through its newly elected Legislative Council was once flouted by an Israeli peace activist. Those were days when Oslo raised hope that a political compromise is possible, and that matters could be settled through partitioning the country into two states.

The public apology was therefore conceived as part of an ongoing reconciliation process. Would such a blanket declaration of repentance now (when Oslo has become buried) and by itself be enough? In 1998 Pope John Paul II issued a sweeping apology by and on behalf of the Vatican to the Jewish people for having turned a blind eye to the horrors of the Holocaust. However, as reported in the press at the time this unprecedented declaration of repentance fell short of appeasing most Jewish authorities. Does a mere apology in retrospect wipe out the guilt of silence while the annihilation of six million Jews was being carried out?

True, the Vatican cannot bring the dead back to life. But while the memory of a past injustice is still live in the consciousness of a people, a declaration of repentance or regret on the part of those who did not act to prevent it seemed feeble to many and certainly incapable of whitewashing their guilt of it. Saying ‘sorry’ here, morally due even if belated, is simply not enough, and can never be enough.

Imagine now how much more poignant it is if not just the memory, but the actual dispossession of a people is live – where the past itself is still breathing? For this, in simple terms, is the state of the Palestinians – those made refugees in other lands and those left in their country as ‘a foreign’ community on account of not being Jewish in what has most recently been decreed by law to be a Jewish state.

 

True, the past as it once was – like the dead – cannot be brought back. But while its flames are still aglow it cannot be ignored or be presumed dead. A mere declaration of apology in the circumstances – while due – will by itself surely strike the aggrieved almost as an insult. Surely, it takes far more to set wrongs right in these cases. What is required is clearly a new making of history – not only in the hearts and minds, but in real ‘flesh and blood’ life as well.

But how is that possible? Israel’s famous peace singer Achinoam Nini, better known as Noa, captures the essence of a remedy by condensing it into three parts: ‘acknowledge, apologize, share’. If the first two terms address the sensitive psychosocial domain discussed above, it is the third that politicians, militarists and theorists have occupied themselves with before and since the failed agreement over the UNSC partition resolution (181) in 1947. ‘Sharing’ can of course and reasonably mean partitioning the land between the two ‘peoples’, and it is no surprise therefore that a ‘two-state solution’ has become almost a mantra in the relevant political discourse over the years, especially since Palestinians finally became visible to the outside world. But long have gone the hallmark borders of ’47, as well as those of ’67.

 

Israel’s practical borders today and for the foreseeable future extend from the river Jordan to the sea, encompassing Palestinians in scattered enclaves each one subject to different degrees of control. A classical geographic partition guided by international standards no longer satisfies a growing Israeli ‘thirst’ for controlling the whole 10,000 square miles of land while remaining politically separate from the other half of the 12 million people inhabiting it. Could a partition in this small territory ensuring Jewish distinctness be conceived differently?

More and more since Trump, the idea has been flouted of a demographically partitioned ‘two-state’ solution where Israeli Palestinians would become attached to a Palestinian state while maintaining the attachment of Jewish settlers in post-’67 territory to Israel. In effect, the geographic product may end up resembling a spotted leopard but leaving no doubt as to who the leopard is! In all partition scenarios, at any rate, Palestinians are conceived to have limited control over themselves, and the land allotted to them, while Israel will retain the lion’s share.

Sharing can of course also mean ‘equal distribution of political rights – a one-person one-vote democratic system. However, if Israel is averse to giving up prized land it is far more so to giving up its Jewish national distinctness. In other words, it is as hard to visualize a radical separation between the two peoples as it is to visualize a radical integration. Failing political closures, diplomats therefore find themselves continuing to focus efforts on ‘managing’ the conflict rather than ‘solving’ it, in effect making it even harder for them to bring about such closures as new facts evolve or keep being created on the ground.

Indeed, while ideas float feebly around, history heedlessly marches on. Its footprints are indelibly marked on the two sides of the green line by the party having the military means. Cumulatively, it is these footprints that determine the contours of the historical trail. But as long as the interests and narratives of the two parties continue to seem to each of them to be existentially in conflict with one another, each of them will harbor and pursue a zero-sum resolution to the conflict between them. Jewish Israelis will continue to seek to bury the Palestinians further under in pursuit of what they believe as a destiny, while Palestinians will continue to seek to replace the superstructure erected on top of them by one they perceive as just.

 

As in a yet disorderly kindergarten class where children are just out for themselves, not Noa’s sharing, but Hobbes’ grabbing remains the order of the day.

But where is the historical trail leading… ten, or one hundred years from now? Does history have its own hidden plans? Empires don’t last, and Israel is no exception. But its downfall need neither be bloody nor dramatic. It can come naturally, as political formations on the ground continue to change, and one generation succeeds another. As past traumas, insecurities, discriminatory religious beliefs, and griefs begin to fade, these can come slowly to be replaced by common interests and pursuits.

Today, the Israeli law that was recently passed decreeing the olive tree – a tree etched in Palestinian hearts and identity – to be Israel’s national symbol is one that may aggravate Palestinian psychology. However, this law may in a probable future become a uniting symbol of convergence – an object of shared love. Today, Palestinians and Israelis may fight over who owns hummus or falafel. Or who owns the word ‘yalla’. But slowly, in the countless human networks already throbbing underneath conflict – in trade, labour market, IT, hospitals, academia, and even security collaborations between occupier and occupied – one can surely observe the slow growth of a new organic system rising from the earthly roots that is struggling for life even as it is still clouded over by ideological storms from the past.

 

Indeed, so ‘successful’ has been the policy of ‘conflict management’ (as opposed to resolution), incrementally erasing the practicality of a partition, that sharing will come more and more to have but one outcome – a single or merged political system.

Israel’s creation and growth into an empire has been legendary, but so – one must recognize – has been Palestinian resistance to this modern creation. Cleansing the territory of the Palestinian population right from the outset just did not work out, while attempts to defuse the people’s collective identity since then by creating political and physical barriers to separate them failed as well. Paradoxically, Israel’s victory in the ’67 war brought both territory and over half of the Palestinian people back together, once again igniting in the contested land the flames of a Palestinian national steadfastness.

The merged system may take generations, and may pursue twisted but transitory political arrangements, but it is only the blind who cannot see the future: a land truly shared by its peoples, one where common human interests far outweigh oversized ideologies and religious beliefs.

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