Think about the Irony of the UN Voting on a Palestinian State
The Palestinians have been
fighting the Israelis militarily and symbolically for decades. After many
defeats they have agreed to try one more thing: if we can’t beat them, then
let’s join them. The Palestinians have adopted the Zionist narrative.
It’s 1947 and the world has
its collective ear pressed to the radio listening to the vote on Palestine. In
1947 the United Nations was only two years old, a child struggling to assert
itself and find a place in the world. A vote like this had never been taken
before, especially for the benefit of a small group of people – the Jews – who
were an evil to some and an enigma to most. World War II was fresh on
everyone’s mind when anti-Semitism was of hallucinogenic proportions. This new
world organization, the United Nations, populated by Christians, Muslims, and
atheists was going to lend its hand to the Jews.
Except for the Arab states,
there was confusion about how everyone would vote. The time seemed to pass
slowly but when the vote was taken there were 33 in favor of partition and the
creation of the Jewish state – just two votes more than was necessary. A
particularistic Jewish state, defined according to some by the anachronisms of
blood and tribe, had been created by an organization with universalistic
values. The Arab states of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq rejected the creation
of the Jewish state and Israel’s war of independence was on. After the last
shot was fired the Palestinian elites had fled to other lands along with a
large portion of the local population.
Now, those who fled want to
“return.” Arafat deserves credit for keeping the dream of
“return” alive. Just as the Jews dreamt of returning to their ancient
homeland, so too the Palestinians dream of returning to theirs. Jewish
leadership and ritual (“next year in Jerusalem”) kept the dream of
return alive for generations. Dispersal from the original homeland, typically a
traumatic dispersal, is a common narrative element of Diaspora communities. The
Jews wandered the earth for 2000 years as the prototypical Diasporic community.
The Palestinians as a Diaspora do not compare to the Jews, but the narrative
elements remain the same. They were dispersed from their homeland, scattered in
neighboring lands, imagining a mythic community to which they would one day
return. These homelands are “imagined” because members never know or
meet the others but still live with the belief that they are in communion. The
sense of communion among Jews around the world is powerful, whether they live
in Israel are not. Palestinians who were not even born in 1947 have grown up
imagining a mythic community to which they will one day return.
The Zionist narrative tells
the story of an ancestral homeland that requires restoration and maintenance.
Jerusalem and the land of Israel over the generations identified boundaries,
sacred documents, and myths. The Jews slowly established a sense of nationhood
before they even met contemporary conditions of nationhood (e.g. land
boundaries, governing institutions, and identifiable collection of people).
After the state of Israel was created the Israelis began to Judaize the
environment. They named streets and landmasses in honor of Jewish historical
figures. The Palestinians are poised to do the same. Increasingly they insist
on calling themselves Palestinians (rather than, for example, Israeli Arabs) and
seek to rename cities and historical sites.
A troubled relationship with
host societies is another feature of the dispersed people and the Jews in
particular. Throughout history, in whatever lands Jews lived, they were
marginal, on the periphery, and certainly viewed as “the other.” The
Zionist narrative tells the story of living as an outsider seeking a place
among the nations. The Palestinians too are outsiders in Lebanon, Jordan, the
West Bank and Gaza. They are the shame of other Arab nations.
Zionism, for all its
contemporary negative connotations, is little more than a belief in the right
of the Jewish people to govern themselves and let Jewish history, culture, art
and literature flourish. The culmination of the Zionist dream was realized in
1947 when the United Nations declared a Jewish state. And now, ironies of all
ironies, and in keeping with the parallels described above, the Palestinians
want the United Nations to declare them a state.
But the Jews had
established the foundation for the Jewish state before 1947. In a future post I
will argue for the differences between the Palestinians and Jews. And I touched
on the issue of the UN declaring a Palestinian state in an earlier post on
April 17 available here. The legacy of Arafat has
left the Palestinians bereft of proper institutions and preparation for
statehood. The Jews had gained world sympathy by 1947 as have the Palestinians.
Even though I support a Palestinian state I remain convinced that it must
emerge from negotiations with Israel. The UN’s declaration of the state of
Israel in 1947 had an authenticity about it those who voted against the
declaration notwithstanding. The proposed UN declaration of a Palestinian state
in September is a procedural trick. And a potentially dangerous trick at that.