The Language of Marginality

There is a rumor about that Netanyahu will conduct a major pull out of the West Bank in anticipation of the UN declaration of a Palestinian state. I first encountered the rumor in the publication Isranet which can be found here. More and more Israelis throw up their hands and say, “we can’t fight the whole world.” There is a chilling sense that the world will accept nothing less than the creation of a Palestinian state and that Israel will have to give up much to create any sort of Palestinian state. This is true. A Palestinian state is justifiably called for and an inevitability. But more than the creation of the state Israelis must move the Palestinian identity more to the center. The Palestinians have been the subject of systematic marginalization which has made it impossible for them to coalesce into a viable political entity, and much of this marginalization is associated with settlements. Let’s take a closer look at how this works.

Marginalizing another people is about the relationship between the center and the periphery and how the concept of the periphery, or margin, interacts with the center. The Palestinians live at the periphery of the environment and this informs their dualistic and contradictory identity. Thus, historically Israelis are rational and democratic and the Palestinians violent; Israelis were modern, Palestinians traditional; Israelis future looking, Palestinians backward looking. The Palestinians have been socialized at the margins. They have been told that they are politically, culturally, and economically behind or lagging or outside the mainstream. The language of marginality depends on comparisons of the center to the margins. The difference between the physician and the quack or the polite drinker and the drunk is a matter of centrality and marginality where the image of each contains qualities of the other.

And so it is between the Palestinian and the Israeli, the oriental and the occidental, the primitive and the modern. The efforts of a nation-state to achieve cohesion or a sense of a “center” are an effort to achieve unity as a nation. The current conflict between Israeli-Jews and Palestinians is defined by arguments over control of space. This intractable conflict is fraught with dangers and marginalized identities are characteristic of these intractable conflicts. Read more about intractable conflicts here.

The language of marginality relies on creating power by consigning one group to the marginal and the other to the more powerful center. The Palestinian Arab is not only marginalized through the normal power relationship but this is reflected in settlements where settlers have created a dominant unified center for themselves and work to marginalize the Palestinians.

The local Palestinians are twice alien: once within the state in which they are dominated (Israel and their settlers), and once again by the mother nation (other Palestinian Arabs).

The Palestinians clearly identify with the space they’re claiming for national political identity. According to Anthony Smith it is not necessary that a group even inhabit a space, only that they have the collective identification with the space. Essentially, the Israelis and the Palestinians are competing to construct the identity of the same space. As Smith explains with respect to the establishment of nation states, identities and cultures become politicized in order to create differences that justify claims to the land. The power to rule is based not on tribal or personal loyalties but on a fixed territorial space. Settlers who define the land as “sacred” are politicizing the land in order to create national ideologies that justify a national identity and claim to a territory. The Palestinians must do the same before they can establish a central political identity. The rhetorical battles between the Israelis and the Palestinians group around the question: who arrived first? The ideological clashes that emerge from the politicization of these discourses provide the legitimacy for acts of violence.

It is interesting how national rhetorics mirror one another. One argument used to marginalize the Palestinians is that they historically did not place great importance on the land, that is, their ideas about the land were indistinct. Only after the Israelis arrived, the story goes, did the Palestinian land identity evolve, and it took particular shape after 1948 and 1967 and the idea of a Palestinian state began to arise. Interestingly, the Israelis fashion a favorable history by accusing the Palestinians of constructing history. They go on to claim that it is the Palestinian elite who are most responsible for devising a Palestinian ethnopolitical identity and giving it intellectual justification. It was the Palestinian elite who, for example, sought to shore up the importance of Jerusalem when for Muslims Jerusalem was less important than Mecca and Medina. The Israelis, then, began to delineate whole areas of land between the Egyptian and Lebanese border, and Jordan to the East, and claimed it as “Jewish” on the grounds that the Jews were there in previous centuries and driven away but are the original inhabitants of the region. All other ethnic categories are regarded as intruders. This primordial claim to the land makes it easy to classify others as marginal. To legitimize the right to exist in all of greater Israel settlers needed to establish their descent from ancient Israel and frame the claim as culturally, scientifically, and religiously true.

Settler communication activates a pattern of thinking, a pattern that is social and marks objects such as land and geography as central or marginal thereby giving them symbolic power in society. The Palestinians have been behind in the language of centrality game, although they have made significant progress in recent years. Still, it will be interesting to watch the interplay of identities, and the competition for centrality, that emerges during a new political order that includes a recognized Palestinian political entity. But it is still true that the settlers remain at the “center” of this controversy.

About Donald Ellis

Professor Emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on April 24, 2011, in Israel. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on The Language of Marginality.

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