Palestine: An Introduction.
The Land Imperialism Left Behind.
Summary: Max finally takes aim at the Israel/Palestine conflict with an introduction that frames the approach for the mini-series and sets guardrails for what will undoubtedly be an emotional journey for many UNFTR readers. This essay answers why we decided to tackle this issue and how we’re examining it through a socioeconomic lens and Marxist view of history. It also dismisses two foundational deceptions pertaining to the larger narrative surrounding the conflict. This introductory episode concludes with several “level-setting” statements and a challenge: “If you can hold these thoughts in your mind at once, we can proceed.”
Editorial note: This essay is designed to set the table for subsequent shows that will cover the Palestinian conflict through a historical lens. Any viewpoints expressed along the way, which will be minimal, are mine alone. These entries into the record are not intended to take a stance or sway opinion. They are designed to inform and educate, and all reasonable feedback will be incorporated into our discussions moving forward.
The UNFTR audience is extremely small on the grand scale, but we are interconnected. You’ve given me your trust, and I’ve offered you forums to challenge my assertions and to connect with one another in meaningful dialogue. Most of us identify as progressives, though there are others who listen as part of their own learning journey and might identify on other parts of the political spectrum. On the whole, our exchanges exhibit a high level of empathy, and I expect nothing less moving forward. But it would be foolish not to acknowledge that tensions are running high and humanity is being challenged all around us at the moment.
I expect there will be further bloodshed and horror in the weeks ahead as we plod carefully through this exercise, that will seemingly render portions of these shows obsolete—or late, at a minimum. But the goal is not to provide some sort of magic analysis that, given a wider audience, would somehow positively impact the course of events. The goal is to provide our audience with the tools to discern fact from fiction and a safe space to air out our frustrations.
So, let us begin. What follows is a brief introduction to a series on Israel and Palestine that frames our approach and offers two important disclaimers to consider before we delve any further.-Max
Beware the Origin Story
How should we interpret the rights of the descendants of Abraham over a patch of land to which they all claim dominion? Shall we speak to, as Christopher Hitchens wrote, “The apparent tendency of the Almighty to reveal himself only to unlettered and quasi-historical individuals, in regions of Middle Eastern wasteland that were long the home of idol worship and superstition, and in many instances already littered with existing prophecies.” I should think not.
The only way to speak plainly about the horror of war in Palestine is to literally ignore the original motivations of governments, religious groups and terrorists alike. Otherwise, we must concede the root of the disputes is simply too much to overcome, and that it will be God’s will to favor the victor. Namely, that each participant believes that their particular version of God favors them to such an extent that He would annihilate all others who lay claim to a false version. The most inscrutable notion ever concocted by mankind.
But, here we are again. Here we are still.
Each passing day, this conflict will change. Official stories will conflict with facts on the ground. The fog of war will shroud all rational discourse. The chorus of armchair correspondents on television and social media will pick and choose the version of events that suits them most, then reframe the narrative to fit the polling data. Or is it the other way around?
What role do we have to play in this never ending drama? Who are we to even have an opinion on matters that occur far away? Every pro-Israel or pro-Palestine post you make on social media is an indictor to the power base in the United States. And the power structure is listening. The United States holds more keys than we are willing to concede. Veto power in the United Nations. Weapons bear the symbols of U.S. corporations and of those we claim to be our enemies. Money flows ceaselessly from U.S. bank accounts to stakeholders in the region. We hold carrots in one hand, sticks in the other. Every U.S. president from Woodrow Wilson to Joe Biden has played a diplomatic role in negotiations.
Every demonstration is an expression of public sentiment that will ultimately find its way into the attitudes displayed by our leaders and the policy designs that follow. Every loose and ill-informed take is another brick in the wall between you and your fellow citizen. That’s why it’s imperative that we do the work to understand what’s happening in real-time, but in a historical context. We’re long past talk of isolationism. The Middle East is as much a product of our money and policy as it is the design of the Allied Powers after World War One.
The only end to the tragic story in Palestine will be the end of one half of it. Or the end of all of us.
So why even wade into these waters? What could I possibly offer to you about one of the most intractable conflicts in recorded history? I’ve had the words of an Israeli friend in my ears over the many months that I was preparing an episode on the Israel/Palestine issue: “How can you report on something you’ve never experienced?” It’s a valid question. One that I’ve thought a great deal about.
I wasn’t in Tulsa when white residents burned Black Wall Street to the ground. But I understand the implications of it.
Wasn’t around when Camilo Cienfuegos rolled into Havana in 1959.
Never hung with Marx and Engels.
Wasn’t there the fateful night economic neoliberalism was born as Milton Friedman defended the work of Ronald Coase, who claimed, “when transaction's costs are zero and rights are fully specified, parties to a dispute will bargain to an efficient outcome.”
I’m not a reporter. I’m a writer. The one who synthesizes the work of the chroniclers in the hope of providing perspective that empowers you to think critically about a subject. The difficulty here, of course, is that there are hundreds and hundreds of years of stories, perspectives, falsehoods, evidence, points and counterpoints and interested parties that span generations and empires, each of which have played a role in architecting the present state of affairs. All of it built upon Middle Eastern fictions and hearsay that have guided the affairs of man throughout history.
“Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Every man of you put his sword upon his thigh, and go back and forth from gate to gate in the camp, and kill every man his brother, and every man his friend, and every man his neighbor,’” cried Moses.
"Slay the idolaters wherever ye find them, arrest them, besiege them, and lie in ambush everywhere for them," said the Prophet Muhammed.
Holy books dipped in blood and the language of violence. ‘It’s metaphor,’ some say. Merely parables. You have to read it in context. I won’t wade too much further into these waters. I only offer this as a warning to steer clear of arguing with anyone who stakes a claim in origin stories.
And so, the best I can do is tell a story through our chosen socioeconomic lens and Marxist view of history. The best I can do is apply a secular interpretation as to why the corpses of teenagers and old people lay in Israel’s morgues. Why children’s limbs protrude from beneath bloody sheets on the streets of Gaza. The best I can do is take a step back and contextualize such atrocities with books and journals and historical accounts, knowing full well nothing will change so long as people choose to believe the same God somehow favors differing factions among his children and delights in the transgenerational bloodsport that has, and will ever thus, ensue.
I won’t patronize you with accounts of who stepped on what patch of desert sand when, and whether pig bones were found in an archeological dig here or there. This is a story about real estate. No matter the perceived original sins of the parties involved, the circumstances today are familiar to all who live in the post industrial world constructed by the imperial exploits of nation states.
Palestine has the unfortunate distinction of being the least conducive territory to nationalistic tendencies, and therefore the worst expression of them in a world that demands that we identify as such. Who are you if you do not belong to a nation? Who are you if you cannot define the borders in which you exist? Gone are the days of empire. This is the time of nation states. The Vatican can exist in the comfortable enclave of a predominantly Christian nation state. But what of Jerusalem? The Kingdom of David. Where Muhammed took flight on his night journey. Where Christ was crucified.
What is to be done with this most sacred land, whose infrastructure—from its hallowed walls to the aquifers and sewer systems—was constructed by Ottoman ruler Suleiman the Magnificent in the 1500s? He is as much responsible for the Jerusalem of today than anyone else in history, and yet there are no Ottomans left to lay claim to it because the Ottomans were Turks, Arabs, Jews and Christians. Members of empire. But we no longer live in the time of empires.
And what of the territories that surround it? When the dust settled from the Great War, the imperial forces of the allies blithely carved up the vast region of the Ottoman Empire and created new nation states that ignored cultural, ethnic and religious histories and manufactured Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. Surrounding Jerusalem from Galilee to Sinai, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, a no man’s land.
The French had designs on this territory, given its ties to the newly formed Syria. Winston Churchill, who famously bragged that he created Jordan with a stroke of a pen in an afternoon, considered it the domain of the British. The Jewish Diaspora had visions of a homeland for Jews who had been fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe even prior to World War One. The beleaguered nations that just endured a bloody and costly conflict that engulfed the continent and then some, simply ignored the fact that the land was already inhabited by a patchwork of indigenous farmers and villagers that roamed freely upon the land for generations. These people were never considered in the grand designs of imperialists. They were abandoned by their Arab brethren, who were busy building their new artificially designed territories. And they became a stumbling block to the Zionists who sought refuge in this part of the world.
The Central Thesis
Let me plainly state the central thesis of this analysis. While the roots of the Palestinian conflict are steeped in what I view to be nonsensical historical fictions, the present reality reflects a world that demands the artificial fealty of nationalism; further, the imperialist designs of superpowers, namely ours, reflect an inherent disdain for self-determination—along with poor and working class people—and exudes anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and racist structures of power that devalue human existence.
Nationalism has supplanted religion as the most dangerous development in history.
Now, before we go any further in subsequent episodes on the topic, there are two foundational deceptions we must address. This is the ultimate in level-setting, because if you cannot see past what I’m about to say, then there’s no point in moving forward.
Here are the two most pernicious underlying claims that undergird the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
The first is that there is no such thing as a Palestinian people. Theodor Herzl, a critical figure in this story, is widely considered the father of the modern Zionist movement. In his writings, the people of Palestine were referred to simply as “non-Jews.” But Herzl began organizing a movement well before World War One when there was no Israel, no Palestine and for that matter no Iraq, Syria, Jordan or Lebanon. There was only the vast Ottoman territory of the Middle East. Future Zionists would extrapolate the inference that the indigenous people of this territory simply were non-Jews, nameless and wandering, as they had no formal state as designed by the Allied Powers. It’s a false de facto claim that is as racist as it is ahistorical. But far right leaders of present day Israel from Menachem Begin to Benjamin Netanyahu would repeat this claim and solidify it into the far right ideology of the Zionist movement. Please note that I’m referring to it as the far right of Zionism, as Zionists themselves exist along a spectrum and are lazily portrayed as a monolith in western media.
But the words of Herzl themselves are evidence of the existence of the Palestinian people. More than a thousand villages and migrant farming camps between them existed throughout modern day Israel and Palestine. It’s only through the modern lens of nationalism that we would retroactively revoke their existence simply because they did not identify with a particular nationality; one that didn’t exist. They were Arabs who existed for centuries under Ottoman rule. Nationalism insists that borders lay claim to people within them and ignore historical patterns of migration. People in the United States should understand this concept more than anyone. Natives of this land are no less native because they were banished to the furthest, most resource poor areas of the continent. Such is the plight of the Palestinian people. If there are no historical records of Palestinians referring to themselves as such, it’s because there was no such thing as a Palestinian nation state. It’s the nation that didn’t exist, not the people.
Now, to the other side of the ledger: to those who say that Israel has no right to claim a homeland based upon a cultural and religious identity. One can reasonably litigate the attitudes and approach of the state of Israel toward the Palestinian people. One can even make the claim that the mere presence of a Jewish state nestled deep within a predominantly Muslim region is an invitation for disaster. But on this second point, one must also acknowledge the very real existence of anti-Semitism.
When Herzl and other Jews at the turn of the 20th century began crafting the plans for what could be a safe haven for Jews in the world, they did so because of persistent violent historical persecution. Among the scenarios they envisioned were Argentina, the Baltic region, west coast of the United States and, yes, Palestine. Of all the options, only Palestine offered what they believed to be a tangible connection to a shared cultural identity; a part of the world where Jews once thrived and prospered as a people. As the world repeatedly turned its back on the Jewish people while they were forcibly expelled from Europe, Jews weren’t exactly awash in options. And, as we’ll explore in the forthcoming chapters of this series, there was no guarantee that the Zionist experiment would come to fruition, let alone culminate in an independent state.
I’ve seen critics of Israel say that the Holocaust is not a blank check. While there are survivors of this atrocity who still exist and generations thereafter who are deeply connected to it, the Holocaust should not be viewed as an isolated incident. It was the most recent and unimaginable mass atrocity committed against the Jewish people, but certainly not the first.
Again, we can litigate the politics of Israel, the nation state, where the treatment of Palestinians is concerned. But to suggest that Jews are no different than any other culture or religion is as ahistorical as the notion that Palestinians aren’t a real people. The Jewish experience is singular. It's why I cannot, and will not, condemn those who believe in a homeland where Jewish culture and religion can not just exist, but thrive. Jews are different from every other ethnic or cultural identity on the planet, and I have all of recorded history to back up this assertion.
What I can easily condemn is the settler-colonial attitude of the far right in Israel that refuses to recognize the humanity of the people whose territory they occupy in defiance of international law, and the very tenets of a religion they profess to follow.
What must be agreed upon.
So, before we go any further, can you hold these thoughts in your mind at once?
“This is what you get” is not the same thing as “this is what you deserve.” Meaning, can you condemn the brutal actions of Hamas while acknowledging that they exist for a reason?
The life of a Palestinian is equal to that of an Israeli.
Palestinians are real and deserve the right to self-determination and the dignity of human rights.
Jews are not welcome in predominantly Muslim nation states, and safe harbor in western states provides no guarantee of safety.
The state of Israel has actively pursued a policy of apartheid governance in the region known as Palestine.
Hamas may have been an elected body that rose up against the Palestinian Authority, but it has devolved into a terrorist guerrilla organization.
That many of the nations surrounding the state of Israel have openly expressed a desire to eliminate it.
Just because your ancestors squatted in a mud hut two thousand years ago, does not give you the right to expel people from their land today.
And just because you live in a modern nation state, does not mean that you have the right to dictate terms of existence to people who wish to practice their religion freely or move about the world.
And finally. You. Do you understand that your actions play a role in determining the outcome of this current and future crisis? That you have an obligation to learn the history of this region and people before you post on social media, participate in a conversation or attend a demonstration? That blanket condemnation of one side or the other denies the humanity on both sides?
If you can hold these thoughts in your mind at once, we can proceed.