Another installment of "What has whatsername been working on in school?"
“I pray that all [readers of this book] may unite in the resolve that evil forces will never again be permitted to set one people against another”
– Alicia Appleman-Jurman
The first time I remember coming across the name “Palestine” was in a Holocaust memoir by Alicia Appleman-Jurman called Alicia: My Story. I was probably thirteen years old. Although the facts of this remembering are highly suspect at this point, the truth of it as a personal historical moment was formative in my developing political consciousness and thus cannot be dismissed out of hand. As I remember it, Alicia hears from a fellow Holocaust survivor that European Jews have started congregating in Palestine as a safe haven after the Holocaust and Russian pogroms. Palestine is presented as the ancient site of the Jewish homeland (Eretz Yisrael) and as safely out of the reach of genocidal and antisemitic Europe. At the time, and after having just read in detail how horrible the Holocaust was, this information made sense to me and I recall feeling happy that the people of Palestine were willing to accept this influx of immigrants with something like open arms, something that Europe apparently was incapable of.
As the years went by I remember hearing about the “troubles” in Israel and being puzzled by them. When did this area go from a safe haven to a place where one could not go grocery shopping without fear of a suicide bomber (or so the narratives in the United States media went)? Of course, what I never thought to ask myself was: “When did Palestine become Israel?” Naively, I suppose I assumed that such a transition would have been for the common good, as Jewish people had settled there as a safe haven. Surely these settlers wouldn’t treat those already living in the area the way the United States had treated its indigenous population. But slowly, bits and pieces of information incongruous to my understanding of Palestine/Israel as a welcoming safe haven for post-Holocaust Jews began to trouble me. Finally, well over a decade after my initial exposure to that formative personal narrative I read another memoir, In Search of Fatima by Ghada Karmi. Just a child in 1948, Ghada and her family escaped Palestine for England just before Israel’s declaration of Independence.
What intrigued me most about this second text was the recounting of the author’s childhood up to this point of exodus. The question I should have asked all those years ago began to be answered as I read of the waves of immigration and resistance to them, of the terrorism perpetuated against Arabs as well as Jews and ultimately the British abandonment of the region in an “inexcusably abrupt and reckless fashion” (Shlaim 50) and resulting war between Arab and Jew (such as it was presented in the memoir). The connection between these two narratives, one of a Zionist immigrant and another of a Palestinian, both just, or little more than, girls in that same time and place, will forever be intertwined in my memory as the tragedy and promise of Palestine/Israel. I begin with this recounting as it is important to understanding my stakes and investment in this project.
In keeping with that aim, I must admit that while my knowledge regarding Israel/Palestine has deepened in the months spent working on this current project, I continually feel the immensity of what I still do not know. Knowledge gleaned from one source will be hotly contested by another, where both seem to be intellectually honest, academically rigorous and personally sincere; thus confounding most aims to finding “the truth” of the facts on the ground. This caveat is important to understanding this project because it must be clear that this essay is not comprehensive; the scope is limited. In particular, my interest solidified around the question of Arab expulsion from the areas which would become the present-day state of Israel. I have become fascinated by the recurring rhetoric regarding this expulsion; particularly the discourse around the nakba (catastrophe), otherwise known as Israel’s declaration of Independence in 1948, and it is about this which I will write.
In this paper I will argue that the state of Israel pursued a program of formalized expulsion against Palestinians as a necessary nation-state-building exercise. In proving this argument I will examine the discourses upon which politicians, philosophers and other Zionist groups based their work. To begin, I will justify my project, illustrating why this particular investigation constitutes a puzzle to be solved. Then I will turn to a discussion of the way in which three specific discourses produced national ideological currency. Next, I will discuss the modern subject and the discourse surrounding it, which appears at first to contradict the thrust of the previous three, but in fact buttresses them. Finally, I turn to a discussion of the competing nationalisms within Palestine/Israel and the way in which they were facilitated by the discourses discussed thus far. In my conclusion I will examine how these ideas have maintained circulation in popular media and how they have facilitated Israel’s ability to solidify and preserve their international image as a valid, modern democracy in the Middle East, paying particular attention to the way in which this information may prove to be vital in considering the creation of a lasting peace.
Is this really a puzzle?
The answer to the question posed in this work may seem blindingly obvious. Zionists wanted a homeland, and the land that was Palestine in 1948 had been handed to them by God some two thousand years ago, making it an ideal spot for that new homeland. It may seem natural that Zionist settlers would thus “take their land back” by whatever means were at their disposal. Perhaps this intuitive understanding is why I could find no one asking this question in their work. Expulsion happened; it is simply treated as a fact of life to be documented, recorded, historicized, etc. in the work which informs this paper. Certainly many Palestinian memoirs and Arab Jewish reflections on the expulsion of most of the Palestinians living in Palestine in 1948 ask “how could Israel expel the Palestinians in this manner,” but not, “why did they do so.” Alternatively the question is asked in the frame of “why” this exodus occurred centered around the Palestinians and why they “chose” to leave their homes (Lynd, Bahour and Lynd 3). Thus, this essay sets out to explore rather new ground in the work on Palestine/Israel. In addition, in considering the implications of this question of the formalized expulsion of Palestinian communities, the decision to pursue this path becomes more and more counterintuitive.
If one assumes (as this author does) that Zionist Israel is and has been a settler-colonialist project, one must begin to wonder that other options for settling the land were not explored. Certainly other settler-colonialist nations used varying tactics to achieve their goals. For example, the United States government practiced a variety of strategies: including widespread murder, enslavement, outright subjugation under the law imposed on American Indian nations and eventually containment on reservations. Even as some indigenous nations would survive to the present day and continue to make their presence known through popular demonstration, proclaiming they will not stop until certain demands are met (James), these nations are subsumed beneath the larger hegemony of the United States. And even as the indigenous populations of some areas under the control of the United States work to assert their sovereignty (Trask) (Virgin Island News Online), these efforts share little in common (outside the desire for self-determination) with the resistance of the Palestinian people.
This makes sense when one considers that many of those turned into refugees stayed close to their homeland-turned-Jewish-state and that they now remain as such in quite poor conditions. What becomes counterintuitive as one follows this train of thought is, again, the question “why.” Surely in pushing 1) the Palestinians in “Palestine” to the quite literal margins (in other words, outside the borders) of their new nation, and 2) the Palestinians (and Arab Jews) still present in Israel to the cultural margins of their new society, the state of Israel knew these refugees would not simply vanish into thin air. And yet, the Israeli government pursued the path of expulsion, leaving a significantly sized population of people in awful conditions which they then exacerbated (and continue to do so) through discriminatory policies of apartheid-like proportions (Sa'di 43) along with “scorched earth” policies in retaliation for any kind of “terrorism” against their state (Israel's Scorched Earth Policy and Al Attars). In short, this decision is fraught with serious, long term consequences. So, why would the Israeli’s choose this path of expulsion? And what does it mean that they did?
Justification and Maintenance of Power
"To produce the nation that serves as the basis for the nation-state, that nation must be purified of its heterogeneity except in those cases where a certain pluralism allows for the reproduction of homogeneity on another basis"
– Judith Butler
There is a famous quote whose specific phrasing comes from Edward Said that sums up one of the predominant discourses used by Zionists to justify the creation and maintain control of Israel/Palestine: “a land without a people for a people without a land” (Said 9 and Berry and Philo 5). Although this quote has sometimes been treated as controversial (Wikipedia), and it’s exact origins are debated (Berry and Philo 5) it and variations of it have been used by Zionists and anti-Zionists alike to express their view of Palestine’s “emptiness” (Bickerton and Klausner 25). This discourse is eerily similar to the narrative of the “vanishing Indian” so prevalent in the “Manifest Destiny” rhetoric of the United States (Sky-McIlvain), a belief system in which the native inhabitants of the United States were always already vanishing, when they were not portrayed as having already died. In short, the superiority of the Anglo colonizer was so self-assured in its modernity that the Native, tied to the decidedly pre-modern “forest,” must vanish along with that forest in the face of a “proper” and industrialized nation-building project. To return to the quote which opens this section of my project, the indigenous body, as embodiment of the indigenous way of being, is heterogeneity which cannot be tolerated.
In a less literal sense, “a land without a people for a people without a land” also expresses a persisting Zionist assertion that at the time of Israel’s creation Palestinians did not conceive of themselves as “a people.” In other words, unlike the Jewish nation (so the rhetoric goes), Palestinians did not think of themselves as a coherent who could thus legitimately claim ownership of the land they lived on (Vendour). In this distorted take on the nature of pan-Arabism, and the effect and meaning for a people of having lived under the rule of conqueror after conqueror, the Zionist project of expulsion is therefore justified because the Arabs living in Palestine are seen as easily assimilating into the surrounding countries with Arab majorities.
This justification can be seen in the words of Jabotinsky when he says: “the Arabs already had several states and the Jews had such great need for just one safe refuge, Arab claims on Palestine were like the claims of appetite versus the claims of starvation” (Bickerton and Klausner 46) as well as in the question of “is it asking too much, say the Jewish nationalists, that the Arab world cede Palestine to Jews?” (Lazaron 99). Even putting aside any sort of moral considerations of the ethical implications of literally taking the homes of families and putting new families into them, of exiling whole populations from where they and their families had lived for hundreds if not thousands of years, this “interchangeability” of Arab people relies on some of the more disturbing racist logics explicated in Edward Said’s Orientalism (Berry and Philo 2) (Toubbeh 119).
To build upon this discourse are those which paint Palestinians as willing participants in their own exile. There are a range of rhetorics which utilize this narrative, including those which point to the flight of Palestinians from violence as “voluntary” and their “right of return” as unreasonable (Vendour). Even more prevalent than this particular construction however, is that which points to the sale of Palestinian land. The underlying idea here is an appeal to individualistic capitalist notions of property and what constitutes valid ownership of property. The sequence of events typically articulated is one in which Jewish settlers bought land from its Arab owners, and then built upon, developed, and/or farmed that land. This construction seems, to the capitalist eye, to be quite fair; everyone got something out of the deal.
Unfortunately, however, the chain of events do not quite follow this trajectory. It is true that those settlers who could afford to do so did buy land from the Arab people who owned those lands. But left out of this equitable picture are those who actually lived on the land, tenant farmers, or “peasants” (Berry and Philo 10). These farmers were invariably kicked off the land and out of their homes, and newly arrived Jewish settlers were hired in their place (Nusseibeh 33) (MERIP). Zionist discourse ignores these peasants, thus validating their expulsion through silence and building up a fundamental founding narrative of Israel as legitimate through the economic exchange of money for land/rights to the land.
Building upon the narratives thus far discussed is that of Palestinians as “trespassers.” Most generally, this discourse becomes feasible through one version of the first narrative discussed, because, how can an empty land have indigenous inhabitants? Without any such inhabitants the only people with a rightful claim to the land are those who have settled there, anyone else is by definition trespassing on someone else’s land. The discourse of the Palestinian trespasser is made even more difficult to refute by the more recently discussed “we bought the land fair and square” discourse. Once purchased, the land deed passed from absentee Arab landlord hand to Jewish landlord hand and the tenant farmers do indeed become literal trespassers. From this starting point it is not difficult to extend the discourse to all non-Jewish Arabs within the Jewish state and thus we find that “Western media…persist in portraying [Palestinians] as trespassers or transgressors in their own land” (Toubbeh 6). Within this discourse it is impossible to view Palestinians as anything but trespassers, relegating them always to the margins and never to a space wherein they would become legitimate partners in state-building.
State-building as discussed thus far “in discursive terms, is the notion of a single, authentic…nation…The "national" is produced by eliminating the foreign, the contaminated, the impure, so that the nation can emerge in all its native glory” (Shohat 11). It is within these terms that the discourses analyzed so far unite. Each discourse acts as a support beam for an overall nationalist project in Israel; a nationalist project which required the exodus (by whatever means) of the non-Jewish indigenous population. Only within a space of comfortable majority could the “foreign” European Jews “emerge” as truly “native.” Whether “vanishing,” non-nationalist and interchangeable, bought-out, or trespassers (or, as it turned out, all at once), Palestinian claims to the land they called home were rendered incomprehensible in the face of the discursively homogenous, "authentic," nation of Israel. Yet, while the “authentic” and “homogenous” nation was certainly the ideal to be pursued, the reality for those living within the borders of Israel was (and is) messier. Contradictions appeared in these lived realities that could undermine the discursive trajectory I have outlined. But such apparent contradiction, in actuality, functioned as another support beam of the nation. It is to one such contraction that I now turn.
The Role of Modernization
“It was for me to enlighten you, to let you taste human relations”
– J. Brenner
In his essay “Modernization as an Explanatory Discourse of Zionist-Palestine Relations” author Ahmad Sa’di argues convincingly that modernization discourse has been an important factor in the trajectory of the Palestinian people in Israel/Palestine. In short, this is constituted in the way in which Zionist theorists and leaders expressed the idea that the founding of Israel would be a boon to Palestinians as well as Jewish settlers. There are even moments of idyllic hopes of Zionists and Palestinians getting “together and work[ing] shoulder to shoulder for the sake of the development and prosperity of the country” as a whole (Sa'di 27). This discourse continues today in ongoing claims that Israel has brought modernity to the land, improving the living conditions of all those within Israel, Palestinian and Jew alike (a discourse eerily unchanged since it began being popularized in the 1940s (Lazaron 100)).
Such a discourse is directly at odds with a formalized expulsion such as the one pursued by Israel in 1948 and beyond. Surely, if these settlers were looking forward to working “shoulder to shoulder” with the people also living on the land they wished to settle, chasing those people out did not remotely forward that goal. Similarly, such rhetoric is directly at odds with (despite coming from some of the same individuals, such as Herzl, Weizman and Jabinotsky (Sa'di 27)) the discourses of the “land without people” and “Palestinians as trespassers,” which, as previously discussed, prevents Palestinians from being conceptualized as legitimate inhabitants of Palestine/Israel, and only such legitimate inhabitants could possibly be the sort one would work “shoulder to shoulder” with. Rather, this discourse (while popular) appears to be little more than empty rhetoric. In fact, “modernization has never been taken seriously either by the Zionists or the Palestinians” (Sa'di 44); indeed, this discourse has simultaneously been used as a reason why Jewish settlers were in fact the superior and more legitimate claimants on the territory (Lazaron 100).
Yet, if we return to the quote at the top of the previous section, we glimpse perhaps why this discourse was touted and why it remains so popular, even as the facts surrounding it defy its alleged truth. “To produce the nation that serves as the basis for the nation-state, that nation must be purified of its heterogeneity except in those cases where a certain pluralism allows for the reproduction of homogeneity on another basis” (Butler and Spivak 32) [emphasis added]. In this case, the "homogeneity on another basis” is that of the modern subject. The claim to be in pursuit of such homogeneity, of elevating the living standards of all, is conducive to the Israel’s most naturalized claim: that “it is the only democracy in the Middle East.” The combination of these narratives serves to legitimate Israel in the eyes of the Western powers who could (and did) act in their defense. These are claims to proving that the Zionist project serves as bringing the modern Liberal (Western) subject into the “enemy territory” of the Middle East; a kind of secular Western missionizing project that implies conversion of the backward Palestinians into legible modern subjects (Lazaron 100). Thus, despite the apparent contradictions with other discourses addressed so far, the discourse of modernity aids in the construction of state-building in both the state mythology necessary to bind a heterogeneous “imagined community” together (Anderson), but also by appealing to those with the resources to facilitate and legitimate that state once built (Lazaron 100).
Emerging and Competing Nationalisms?
“The call for that exercise of freedom that comes with citizenship is the exercise of that freedom in incipient form: it starts to take what it asks for”
– Judith Butler
The time periods after the World Wars, in particular World War II, were times of intense amounts of nation building and, in some cases, decolonization. Thinking changed about what it meant to be a nation, what it meant to be a state, and when this was not an indigenous development, it was aided by the Allied powers and League of Nations/United Nations. It is within this context that Israel came into being. But Israeli or Zionist nationalism (theorized and popularized over the preceding decades by people such as Theodore Herzl) was not the only emerging national force in the area that would become Israel. This was in fact also the era of an emerging Pan-Arab nationalism. Both groups pursued efforts to legitimate their movements. To return to a quote previously cited, in this, “what both Jewish and Arab nationalisms have shared, in discursive terms, is the notion of a single, authentic (Jewish or Arab) nation” (Shohat 11). Both groups turned towards developing the “authentic identity” which would bind them together as “one people with one language and one culture;” the cornerstone of the modern nation-state (Shohat 9). Those who were able to wrest and maintain power, to create their nation-state, were those who managed most successfully to convince not only their own people of their membership in a worthwhile imagined community, but those who were able to organize that membership around that idea.
One piece of such efforts, in the case of Israel/Palestine, was also the work some Zionist leaders did to discredit the burgeoning nationalism of their “enemies.” For example, “leading Zionist figures strove to prove that the Palestinian rebellion of 1936-39 was not a manifestation of nationalist feelings,” and chose to describe the motivations of those rebelling “in terms draw from European reality, such as Fascism, Nazism and Imperialism” (Sa'di 29). By associating the rival Arab nationalism with these negative political ideologies Zionists seemingly successfully retained a hold on their image as the only legitimate nationalist project in Palestine such that it could be said that “Arab nationalism can be discounted” (Lazaron 100). These discourses become all the more visible when one considers the problematic case of the Arab Jew, “caught up in the crosscurrents of rival essentialist forms of nationalism” (Shohat 8), and the center of much of Ella Shohat’s work.
“The fact that the "Orientals" have had closer cultural and historical links to the presumed enemy - the "Arab" - than to the Ashkenazi Jews with whom they were coaxed and coerced into shared nationhood threatens the conception of a homogeneous nation akin to those on which European nationalist movements were based” (Shohat 7). In this example one can see the way in which the discourse of Zionist nationalism was forced to contort itself to retain its mission of being the nation for all Jews while still maintaining itself as separate from and superior to the Arab nationalisms which rose up alongside it. Such a project also necessitates the formalized expulsion of the majority Arab population of Israel. Eventually Arab nationalism would also solidify itself and such nationalism contained within Israel could have served to delegitimize the specifically Jewish State, acting as Judith Butler put it, in a way that “starts to take what it asks for” (Butler and Spivak 68). The only way to prevent the possibility of such claims is to expel the bodies that would claim it from the nation-state. Thus we see these nationalist movements today making claims instead for an independent state of their own, not a transformation of and from within Israel, but a nation-state alongside it.
“On it came, over the Wailing Wall, over the huddle of poor Arab housing, over Israel’s brash buildings, its luxury hotels, its noisy traffic. The unmistakable sound of another people and another presence, definable, enduring and continuous. Still there, not gone, not dead…The story had not ended, after all”
– Ghada Karmi
In this paper I have attempted to argue for the idea that as a newly forming nation-state Israel pursued a project of formalized expulsion of their Palestinian population as a necessary element of nationhood as it was then (and is now) conceived. I have gone about proving this thesis in the examination of three major discourses of Israeli statehood, the role of ideas of modernization, and the realities of two nationalisms competing for one territory. In doing this work it is my hope that perhaps by exposing the reasons for al nakba (the expulsion) and synthesizing the scholarship around it that I will help scholars consider a course forward in some small way; perhaps just in allowing for a point of rupture in these ongoing discursive projects and those efforts which reify them.
As my project comes to a close I turn finally to the present day, where we continue to see the discourse and narratives I have discussed in wide circulation. Not only that, but discursive projects outside the immediate scope of this essay have also come into use, as a time when, perhaps, the powerful nations of the world are coming more and more into seeing Palestinians as a coherent people, and not simply the Orientalist Other. For example, a semi-recent commemoration, seemingly celebratory, of the King David Hotel bombing by a Jewish terrorist group raised the ire of more than one newspaper in Europe, and the widely covered attack on the Gaza aid ship Mavi Marmara inspired widespread criticism of Israel’s blockade of the Palestinian territory of Gaza. This slowly developing consciousness, along with the events of the Arab Spring have created the opportunity for new discourses and new understandings of what a legitimate state looks and acts like. It is my hope that perhaps the analysis of past discursive projects will encourage a shift towards solidarity with people across and between borders, and less tolerance of the attitudes of imperial superiority which checker the narratives under examination through this essay. Such efforts are, in my estimation, absolutely vital in any project of “waging peace” in Israel/Palestine and elsewhere for the future.
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 "The old will die and the young will forget" is a quote by former Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion (Alazzeh).