The interview below was published in the Five Books section of The Browser. I chose five books on the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Tell me about the Ilan Pappe book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.
Pappe has written a great historical work on the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1947/8 and he shows that it was organised and planned, called Plan D, or plan Dalit, and he has exploded the myths that were current until his work.
Well, for example, that the Arab leaders told the Palestinians to leave, or that the Palestinians were Bedouin people who didn’t really live there anyway, and he showed that they were ordinary people in brick and mortar homes who were intentionally forced out. This is very important because the ethnic cleansing of Palestine is the original sin of Zionism and the root of the current problem.
Pappe is part of a group called the New Historians or Revisionist Historians who have undermined the traditional narrative of the birth of the Jewish state. Benny Morris (Professor of Middle Eastern History at Ben-Gurion University) is another, and he says yes they were forced out but it was a good thing and let’s do it again. But Pappe is an anti-Zionist Jew, the son of Holocaust survivors, and a proponent of the one-state solution. He’s not suggesting getting rid of the Jews who are already there. This is an accessible book – a good work of history by someone who is unashamedly politically committed.
Now The Invention of the Jewish People by Shlomo Sand.
It’s been a bestseller in Israel, and that’s very interesting because it undermines the blood and soil aspects of Zionism and also the Christian Zionism that is so rife in the United States.
What is Christian Zionism?
It’s a right-wing protestant thing that is actually quite anti-Semitic because it says that Israel is a land promised to the Jews and they must kick out all the Arabs and we will support them in that. The movement goes to apocalyptic extremes, saying the key sign of the ‘end times’ will be that the Jews return to Palestine and then Christ will come again and smite them all.
Well, not anti-Christian because the right kind of Christians will all be orgasmed away to paradise. But obviously it’s against the Palestinian Christians.
But the important thing about The Invention of the Jewish People is that it undermines all that by using science to show that the Jews are not, in fact, a race – that is a 19th-century idea that comes out of the same environment as fascism. Sand shows that there was never a mass exodus of Jews from Palestine – there was the decapitation of the political class but no exodus. The direct descendents of the Jews of Judea are, in fact, the Palestinians. Ashkenazi Jews are converts from the Khazar Kingdom in Russia (Arthur Koestler wrote a book about this) and the Sephardis are converted North African Berbers and the Yemeni Jews are, obviously, Yemeni. Sand again comes to the conclusion that Israel should be a democratic secular state and not a Jewish state. The ethnic underpinning of Zionism is false – the Jews are not a race. I mean, nobody is a race, of course. I think it was Benedict Anderson [the American Professor of International Affairs and specialist in nationalism] who said that we are all imagined communities. Of course, there are other arguments for Zionism that are much more sensible – I don’t happen to agree with them but they are more sensible than saying that today’s Jews are God’s chosen people who must return to the land God promised them. Those people are the Palestinians if they’re anyone and not this Jewish State made up of Russians, Moroccans and Yemenis.
Is Shlomo Sand Israeli?
Yes, he is, and, despite the ideological blindness that afflicts so many Israelis, the book has been a bestseller in Israel.
Now The Israel Lobby and American Foreign Policy, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt.
Mearsheimer and Walt are scholars of great repute, not conspiracy theorists or racists. In this book they argue that the remarkable American financial, military and political support for Israel is motivated primarily by the workings of a powerful right-wing Zionist lobby. This acts against American interests and even against Israel’s long-term security. Mearsheimer and Walt examine who makes up the lobby and how it works.
Controversially, the book shows that the Israel lobby played a key role in agitating for the disastrous Iraq war – the lobby wasn’t the only factor, but was certainly more important than oil. The authors have been misrepresented and predictably accused of anti-Semitism, but many American Jews have expressed appreciation for their work. The lobby often pretends to speak for all Jews, but on Iraq, for instance, a majority of US Jews opposed the war from the start. Mearsheimer and Walt have opened up the debate. Brave souls like investigative journalist Phil Weiss continue the work.
Let’s move on to Ali Abunimah’s book and proposed solution to the conflict.
Yes. He’s the founder of the Electronic Intifada website and he’s written a very short, accessible, reasonable and humane book in which he makes parallels between the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa and the struggle to go beyond the Zionist state in Palestine and he argues that the Palestinians, like the ANC, must articulate an inclusive vision for the future that Jews can feel a part of. He looks at the South African model and at the Swiss model of different ethnic groups managing to live more or less peacefully together. Despite a difficult history, South Africa is now able to move beyond the past. In practical terms this is not going to be achieved by petty nationalism and tribalism and it would benefit Israel and the whole world if a humane one-state solution could be arrived at. He points out that there already is one state with an integrated infrastructure and no borders, but it’s an apartheid state. The West Bank is, in fact, religiously much more important to Jews than the coastal areas, so the Jews should stay in the West Bank but let the Palestinians return to their homes in Israel.
Does Abunimah believe this can be achieved? Is it an optimistic book?
Yes, he’s very optimistic. I’ve actually been to Palestine and seen it myself and there is no way a two-state solution is ever going to work. The endless theatre of supposed process towards a two-state solution just masks the continuing dispossession and cantonisation and barbarisation of the Palestinian people. Every village is surrounded by barbed wire, less than a fifth of the water in the West Bank goes to Palestinians, there is a network of Jews-only roads and Jews-only settlements. It is obvious apartheid. Let’s recognise the reality that a two-state solution won’t work. When it was proposed in South Africa as the Bantustan System it was a joke and the whole world laughed.
One man, one vote, let’s live as equals. That’s what we should be saying. Otherwise the Palestinians get more and more desperate, the Israelis fall more and more into fascism, and it will all end in tears.
I see. And your next book is a novel, Mornings in Jenin.
This comes out in the UK in February and it’s the first English-language epic novel to comprehensively express the Palestinian tragedy. Susan Abulhawa is a Palestinian-American and the novel starts shortly before the ethnic cleansing of 1947/8 in a village near Haifa and it follows a family driven out of their village to a refugee camp in Jenin. It covers the 1967 occupation of the West Bank, the refugee camp massacres in Beirut and finally the Jenin refugee camp massacre of 2002. It is a great interpenetration of fiction and documentary. Although the subject matter is necessarily political, it remains a great work of fiction and the characters are not ciphers for a political message. The main character’s first menstruation and first kiss are as important as the first time she has a gun pointed at her. There are interesting Jewish characters, one who has been a friend of the family since before 1947, escaping fascism in Germany, and another who is an Israeli soldier who discovers he was taken from Palestinian parents and brought up as Jewish.
Is that a true story?
These things have happened. I know of brothers born to a Palestinian father and a Jewish mother so that by Muslim law they’re Muslim and by Jewish law they’re Jewish, and one became a Hamas activist and the other a right-wing settler and apparently they all get on really well. This book is not an ‘us and them’ rant. It recognises complexity.
I include it partly because it’s a good book but partly as representative of the explosion of Palestinian talent that is happening at the moment in hip-hop, films, novels, poetry. I think this is really important, that people are able to represent themselves and be heard. It’s necessary because it means they can’t be typecast as nutters who only shout and blow themselves up. Palestinians now are very much like the Jews were, still are, in diaspora. On the one hand they can’t go from one place to the next in Palestine and on the other hand they are all over the world, building the Gulf and Jordan, in America and Britain.
Palestinians have a strange stateless existence like the Jews had in the past. They can’t really own anything, can’t invest in land because it will be taken away or in business because it will be destroyed, so they invest in education and culture. As the land disappears from under their feet their identity as a nation paradoxically grows stronger and stronger because it can’t be based in land or money.
(end of interview)
I could only choose five books, limited to Israel-Palestine so not including books on the Israel-Arab conflict. I tried to make them representative of broad areas. I could have also included Tanya Reinhart’s books, Edward Said’s The Question of Palestine, Norman Finkelstein’s Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict (despite my disagreement with some of his current positions), and Ben White’s Israeli Apartheid – A Beginner’s Guide.
As for Palestinian writing and culture, I could have mentioned Ramallah Underground, Suheir Hammad, Ghassan Kanafani, Mahmoud Darweesh, Ghada Karmi, Randa Jarrar, Raja Shehadeh, Edward Said, Mourid Barghouti, Elia Suleiman, Hany Abu-Assad and many others.
This film is also a great introduction to some of the issues.
Now please add your suggestions..