Speaking … Truce to Power Reflections of a “guilty” bystander to the Israel-Palestine conflict (Part One)

by Dr Lambros Fatsis

Having borne witness to seven weeks of fighting in Gaza which resulted to a multilateral ceasefire and a relative media silence ever since, anyone armed with a basic, cosmopolitan civic conscience, cannot help but feel helpless and hapless even, despite or rather because of the geographical distance which shields a lot of “us” from the immediate effects of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

We can indeed feel helpless for not being able to fully understand or contribute in any direct way to fruitful discussions, and authoritative decision-making processes that could influence peaceful outcomes in the West Bank, but we cannot fully justify to ourselves remaining hapless bystanders to such a deep and longstanding political and humanitarian crisis.

In a similar way, acknowledging both a sense of vulnerability and indirect responsibility for the recent events in the Gaza Strip, involves spelling out what exactly one can do as a geographically distant spectator to respond to images and realities that have surrounded our daily lives so pervasively in the last month or so. Following a recent correspondence with a former lecturer of mine, who voiced similar concerns with characteristic sharpness and brevity, I felt that it should be vital to give even the slightest indication of what academic discourse could possibly have to say, show or come up with in response to such events, especially given its deafening silence so far.

Momentarily restoring my belief in the power of “uttering” as a necessary pre-condition, if not a synonym, of “altering”, but without harbouring any illusions of “speaking truth to power” as the intellectualist cliché has it (Benda 1928, Jacoby 1987, Said, 1994), much of what follows serves as a confessional of a “guilty” bystander who has only his scholarship to offer as an antidote to war, motivated by a desire to speak … truce to power.

Leaving heartfelt declarations of civic virtue aside, it seems rather urgent to immediately introduce the contents of this article, starting with some obligatory caveats and provisos that eventually pave the way to some predicaments of and responses to the Israel-Palestine conflict, as can be identified not only in the relevant academic scholarship on the subject, but in our collective understanding of it too.

For convenience’s sake, the article is divided into three main sections, the first of which describes two caveats which serve as warnings about what this article is not, as well as about what it actually is, followed by a necessary proviso which spells out what the article attempts to show, say and “do”.
The second section of the article recognises two striking predicaments of the Israel-Palestine conflict that hint at its complexity and difficulty, while the third and last section focuses on two potential responses to such a crisis, drawing on scholarly work in sociology and sociolinguistics.

Section I: Caveats and Provisos

1.1 What this article is not

Contrary to the almost built-in ambition of political commentaries, this article does not proffer the pretence of being the product of some authority in the Israel-Palestine conflict, nor does it reflect the musings of a seasoned expert with valuable experience in international relations, international diplomacy and foreign policy. In that sense, it is not a recipe for policy, or an authoritative alternative, a convincing proposal, or a firm (re)solution, much less a rousing call to arms. To make matters worse, much of the above, at least to my mind, might be suspected of committing analytical, moral, and political hubris, oscillating between “omniscient” puffed-up self-importance and ideological posturing, and saturated with irresponsible rhetorical grandstanding that shows little regard for the actual, and very real, sensitivities affected.

1.2 What this article actually is

Having spelled out what the present article is not, it is fundamentally important to establish what it actually is, or may be. Conceived as a modest attempt to fill gaps in the discussion, as observed in the recent coverage of and commentary on the Israel-Palestine dispute, this article aims at:
• Highlighting hitherto unnoticed, routinely by-passed, or deliberately marginalised issues that demand our immediate attention as cosmopolitan citizens witnessing an ongoing crisis of tragic proportions
• Offering a different vocabulary, ideas and interpretations with which to make sense of an unavoidably divisive political issue
• Attempting to break the silence of academic discourse by showing its potential relevance through a discussion of some themes, issues, perspectives and debates that help us understand some rarely remarked upon dimensions of the conflict, and
• Refusing to treat the issue as a bureaucratic turf struggle, or a merely technical, legal, diplomatic matter, thus opposing any discourse which may prioritise (state) interests to (human) rights, or disregard moral and political imperatives in favour of dispassionate diplomatic solutions drafted by professional policy-makers abroad

What is attempted instead is an invitation to:
• Acknowledge the complexity and sensitivity of the matter by describing, albeit passingly, the emotional, psychological, cultural, political and moral dimensions that make this conflict so difficult to (re)solve without taking into account these factors
• Stress the need for a dispute settlement that involves and makes demands on both sides by creating a negotiating space where both sides can meet equally, with the presence of disinterested, balanced, unbiased international negotiating mediators who will host, convene, and “police” discussions, without ambitions to hatch abstract proposals or offer indecent capitulations, like the existing ones.
• Appoint such a neutral international agent with the aim of (a) conducting discussions towards reaching a non-belligerent agreement, (b) to achieve mutually desirable aims, while (c) guaranteeing fair terms, freedom, equality and full protection for both sides.
To do so however, another set of pre-conditions need to be met, which involve:
• Understanding the Israel-Palestine dispute as an international human rights issue, rather than a localised tussle over land
• A publicly announced, official international recognition of the existence and traumatic history of Palestine, which even today appears “not to exist”, ‘except as a memory or, more importantly, as an idea, a political and human experience, and an act of sustained popular will’ (Said, 1992: 5)
• Bringing together perpetrators (the state of Israel), victims (Palestinians), and international by-standers to the same negotiating table, asking the perpetrators to publicly acknowledge and regret the harm that is done, the victims to forgive, both sides to reconcile, while pressing the international community to assume responsibility for its role as a major player in the lopsided and imbalanced pseudo-agreements that have so far been signed, from the callous Balfour Declaration of 1917 to the largely defective Oslo accord of 1995, so memorably criticised by Edward W. Said (1995) in Peace and its Discontents.
• Demanding, funding and supporting a mutual history project and similar educative incentives with the aim of healing existing historical traumas, and turning sentiments of enmity into seeds of and for reconciliation. Fanciful though such a proposition may initially sound, it is only by radically “undoing” the deeply ingrained hatred that both sides feel about each other, that a transition from ‘apartheid’ (Said, 1995: 62) to democracy can be achieved, provided of course that a sustainable peace agreement has been achieved first, in the manner suggested above. Promoting stereotypical falsehoods that intend to demean one side while glorifying the other (see Jiryis, 1976) can hardly be thought as an acceptable state of affairs. Therefore, the teaching of traumatic (hi)stories with a view of co-operatively overcoming them by acknowledging such events and trying to understand them, enriches both national histories, while creating a novel, mutual history that can pave the way towards a more harmonious relationship, providing people on both sides with a new script of learning and “doing” history and politics in a manner that does not fence the ‘Other’ in, or out.

1.3 What it tries to say, show or do

Recognising that the two caveats, or warnings issued above might be suspected of stipulating terms and conditions for a bilateral agreement between Israel and Palestine, it seems incumbent upon the scope of the article to re-emphasize their intended role a mere side-notes towards stimulating a jump in our political consciousness, when discussing one of global history’s most provocative disputes. In doing so, I plead for the reader’s patience, while I qualify what has been said by spelling out my intentions and my intellectual rationale for thinking about and discussing the matter in question, the way I currently do.

To offer any attempt at a discussion of the Israel-Palestine conflict, at least in my mind, automatically means recognising that:
• It is an intricate, emotive, contentious and immensely complicated matter whose discussion, analysis, interpretation and understanding is held hostage to decades of misapprehension and misrepresentation, psychological barriers and cross-cultural misunderstandings (Ellis and Maoz, 2002, Griefat and Katriel, 1989, Cohen, 1990), as well as political status issues (minority, majority, dominance, oppression), therefore making it both a real, material problem of acute political urgency, as well as an issue of inter-cultural miscommunication that underscores much of the “deadlocking” of so many negotiations.
• It cannot be solved by realpolitik alone, although ‘real principle and real justice have to be implemented before there can be true dialogue’ (Said, 1995: 36)
• Peace does not come by one-state, two-state or bilateral, federal state solutions alone, but requires a vocabulary of truce and reconciliation to undo the rhetorical habit of power, defined by Corsini (1984: 63) as a ‘capacity to influence other while resisting the influence of others’. Instead, ‘real dialogue’ and ‘real justice’ is achieved ‘between equals not between subordinate and dominant partners’ (Said, 1995: 36-37).

In the light of such necessary pre-conditions, or provisos for discussing the Israel-Palestine conflict in any responsible way, the argument here proposed is that there exists a body of sensitive, humane, and sensible scholarship on various aspects of the dispute that can contribute to a positive and reconstructive change of outlook that remains committed to replacing intolerance with debate, killing with dialogue, paranoia with real politics, in a manner reminiscent of the wise words of a Palestinian laundry worker who confiding in social anthropologist Rosemary Sayigh (2007: 200), painfully acknowledged that: ‘We know that Israel exists, we don’t want to throw the Jews into the sea. We don’t want to die, we want to live. We want to live, and we want others [i.e. Israelis] to live. But we don’t want others to live, and us to die’.

Section II: Predicaments

2.1 Exiles Making a Home By Means of Exile

Paraphrasing the subtitle of Richard Sennett’s (2011: 3-44) essay on exile, this section starts with an ambitious attempt to understand the ferocity and unshakable conviction with which the modern Jewish State was planted on the ruins of Palestinian land. Whilst it is common, and quite undeniable, to describe the foundation of Israel as a flagrant case of irredentism, it is also extremely vital to understand the reasons why such sentiments have had such a firm grip on the Jewish consciousness, political imagination and policy.

A fundamental aspect of the Zionist movement’s sheer force, tenacity and appeal relates to the historical experience of Jews as exiles. From the Roman siege of Masada and the ghettoization of Jews in Renaissance Venice, to the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 and the Holocaust (Shoah), experiences of segregation, persecution, displacement, and extermination have played a fundamental role in the self-definition, self-understanding and self-identification of Jews throughout history. It is therefore within that historical, cultural and psychoanalytical context that, what Israel Shahak (1998) called, ‘Jewish fundamentalism’ needs to be understood if any clear picture of Israel’s militancy is to emerge.

Such experiences of centuries-old anti-Semitic persecution do not of course justify the uprooting of Palestinians in the War of 1948, but they hold the key to unlocking the paradox of how one people, as Said (1992: xxi) observed, ‘in their new nation [have] become the victimisers of another people, who have become, therefore, the victims of the victims’, thereby extending the tragedy of the Shoah to the Palestinian suffering of alienation, dispossession, marginalisation and exile, (ghourba in Arabic).

Founded on the trauma of dislocation, aided and abetted by the Zionist movement’s colonialist zeal (see Herzl, 2007), Israel came to impose itself as a state on ‘[a] land without a people, for a people without a land’, as Zionist leader Max Nordau’s cynical dictum had it (Sayigh, 2007: 198). This disturbing combination of a ruptured past with the fundamentalism of a dogma of imperialist intent and colonialist tactics, constituted Israel’s “origin myth” forgetting and often openly denying Palestine’s existence, reaching its apogee in post-1948 Occupation where, in Hannah Arendt’s (1973: 290) words, ‘the solution of the Jewish question merely produced a new category of refugees, the Arabs, thereby increasing the number of the stateless by another 700,000 to 800,000 people’. It is in that context of purging a traumatic past, that the subsequent purge of Palestinians was orchestrated with Golda Meir’s ‘flat assertion in 1969 that the Palestinians did not exist’ (Said, 1992: 5), epitomising the whitewashing of history by denying the continuous Palestinian presence on the land of Filastin or Falasteen since the end of the 7th century, despite successive waves of Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, British and Israeli occupation (see, Said 1992: 8-11, and Sayigh, 2007: 1-61 for a historical overview).

What is imperative then is not merely to condemn the long-lasting oppressive and authoritarian settler colonialism of Israel, but to also come to realise that what feeds such fanaticism is the desire to consolidate a spatially fixed national identity in order to heal the injuries of dispersal by engineering, and imposing, a return to a perceived ancestral home, even at the cost of expelling others (Palestinians) from their place of origin. In other words, it is not enough for the international community to merely point the finger at Israel’s aggressive tactics without recognising the deep insecurities that nourish such absolutism, as it is not enough to do just the absolute minimum in intervening to help Palestinians regain their self-respect by simply granting them observer status in the UN. Recognising and allowing Palestine to exist as an autonomous and independent nation is what is at stake, and it is international parties within the UN that need to do that by mounting an opposition to the hypocritical reservations of the US, as evidenced in the General UN Assembly vote of 2012. While it is indeed true that ‘negotiation is the only way to achieve peace’, as Israel’s former ambassador to the UN, Ron Prosor recognised, it cannot happen in a vacuum without openly discussing the source of Israel and Palestine’s embittered relations. One the one hand we have the indiscriminate, wholesale endorsement of a totalitarian dogma (Zionism), which provides a historically transplanted population with the comfort and security of a territorial identity, while on the other hand we have the continuous marginalisation, uprooting and oppression of another people (the Palestinians) in a vicious circle which transforms both sides into warring groups that neither were or needed to be, before the experience of Holocaust which fuelled Zionism, and before the Uprooting which in turn invited armed struggle as a vehicle for revolutionary change. Fighting the root cause of this seemingly interminable conflict does not simply mean doing so rhetorically by drafting UN resolutions as a technical solution to a real, political problem of international significance, but by making decisions that will make such hatred irrelevant in time to come. This can only emerge if the international community commits itself to securing ongoing peaceful negotiations and creating initiatives for educational, cultural and political change that will urge more dialogue and more sociability between Israel and Palestine therefore heralding a long-term period of reconciliation as a pathway to transition from violence to democracy (see Section III of this article).

2.2 Proximity and Distance

Another predicament that is often papered over in discussions of the Israel-Palestine conflict is the paradox of the two parties’ geographical proximity and cultural distance and its negative impact on negotiation(s). Despite ‘overwhelming evidence for the salience of intercultural incompatibility in the deadlocking of talks, formal and informal’ (Cohen, 1990: 152, 136-7), this ‘intercultural dimension’ of the conflict is passed over ‘in silence’ when it should be taken into account seriously, given that cross-cultural antinomies can and indeed do lead to communicational dissonances which soon turn into political discord, thereby hindering the prospect of resolution because of contrasting assumptions about negotiation and bargaining. Sociolinguists such as Cohen (1990), Casmir (1990), Ellis and Maoz (2002), Katriel (1986), and Griefat and Katriel (1989) have produced impressive scholarship on the subject showing the differential emphasis, meaning and understanding that Israeli-Jews and Palestinians place on bargaining. While Palestinian-Arabs act in accordance with the elaborately dialogic, contractual ethos of musayra (or musayara), Israeli-Jews adhere to the dugri code of speech which emphasizes “straight talk”. Whilst this may sound like a version of cultural relativism, if not cultural determinism, what the work of such scholars tries to show is not the impermeability and unchangeability of these communicational codes and cultural traditions, but that such socio-linguistic and cultural differences need to be acknowledged, recognised and wrestled with for any attempt towards establishing peace by dialogue, given the emphasis placed on specificity, preclusive detail, semantic accuracy, precision, and explicitness in the Israeli dugri ethos of speech, contrasted by preference for constructive ambiguity, social contract, deliberate obscurity, and implicitness in the Arabic folk-linguistic habit of musayra.

Although such cross-cultural differences may at first glance appear purely aesthetic, if not entirely decorative, they shed light on a gravely problematic relationship between two spatially adjacent, yet culturally remote parties. If we are to consider peaceful negotiation as a viable solution to longstanding political conflicts such as this, cultural misunderstandings of this kind need to be thought as having serious political implications, rather than be easily dismissed as irrelevant trivialities.

Understanding the contrasting assumptions of Palestinians and Israeli Jews regarding negotiation and bargaining is important for realising why dialogue between the two groups often comes at a standstill. In the ‘other-oriented’, ‘humoring’, ‘conciliatory’, and often exhaustingly long-winded, interactional ethos of musayra (Griefat and Katriel, 1989: 121), bargaining is praised as a value in its own right, and seen positively as ‘a forum for human relationships’ and ‘social integration’ (Cohen, 1990: 138). From an Israeli standpoint however, bargaining has negative connotations and is associated with the ‘rejected and despised’ practices of the Jews’ mercantile past when they first arrived in Palestine as traders; an experience that is seen as ‘part of a struggle for survival in a hostile environment’, if not an ‘aberration’ (Cohen, 1990: 139). Set against this background of conflicting ideas about the virtues and vices of negotiation, any meaningful dialogue cannot but take into account this socio-linguistic and cultural dimension of political exchange, recognising that ‘to be a person […] is to be a person-in-a-culture’ (Griefat and Katriel, 1989: 136). And while it is certainly the divergent political aims, objectives and demands of such debates that make disagreements between Palestinians and Israelis so flammable, the cultural gulf between them can hardly be by-passed when the influence of such factors largely determines the binding powers of contracts. ‘Peace comes from understanding, not agreement’, claims an Arabic proverb (Cohen, 1990: 148), and if it is at all true, political agreement without cultural understanding between Palestinians and Israelis is bound to continue to be difficult to arrive at.

Section 3 and Bibliography are available in Part Two of this article.

Dr. Lambros Fatsis teaches Sociology at the University of Sussex. He also performs as a reggae selector under the alias Boulevard Soundsystem.

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