Tue May 22nd, 2007 at 04:44:53 PM EST
[Cross-posted at ProgressiveHistorians, Daily Kos, and My Left Wing. Image: Palestinian tribal boundaries in 1759, courtesy Wikipedia.]
As I wade with trepidation into this thorny and contentious issue, two quotes seem particularly relevant. The first quote comes from John McWhorter's jaw-droppingly good piece on August Wilson (who, as far as I can tell, had no opinion whatsoever on the I/P conflict):
History is important--but not so much that, as Faulkner had it, the past isn't even past.
The second is from a comment by Curmudgette at My Left Wing regarding the I/P debacle:
History is written by the victors, and there isn't one.
By all reasonable lights, the Israel-Palestine conflict is one of the most contentious issues to face the world in recent memory. Reasonable people, heck, even married people, can't talk about it without getting heated and angry and calling long-term relationships into question. The only other issue I can think of in the US that raises such hackles on both sides is abortion, and in the international community, there is perhaps no issue that reaches the level of the I/P conflict in sheer emotional baggage. As in the case of abortion, the actual individuals involved in the issue pale for most people before the larger symbolic clubs they beat one another's worldviews with. Palestinian and Israeli citizens often cease to matter to the heated ideological combatants.
While I'm personally pro-Israel, I don't see myself as having any special expertise on the subject to offer readers. However, when I/P discussants venture into the realm of historical justification for modern political policy, then I have something to say.
Accordingly, if you're looking for a detailed explication of the history of Palestine/Judah, look elsewhere (or elsewhere yet for the ancient component). My purpose here is not to provide historical justification for one side or the other; rather, I intend to argue that both sides, and the foreign forces that support them both in the US and elsewhere, need to move beyond a historical interpretation of the situation on the ground and look at what's actually going on in the present day. That is to say, I'm here to call out people on both sides of the ideological conflict for the improper use of history to back up their claims.
"This Land is Mine, God Gave This Land to Me"
The words are from Pat Boone's lyrics to Ernest Gold's beautiful theme for the 1960 pro-Israeli epic film Exodus, but the sentiment stands for the emotional attachment to the land of Palestine felt by nearly all Israelis. Unfortunately for them, God's "gift" of the land cannot be formally recognized by the UN or by international law. Nevertheless, Israelis and their supporters have a whole host of other historical justifications for why the land is theirs. Jews once owned the land under the Davidic Empire (though they ruled for scarcely a hundred years, only during the reigns of David and Solomon); Jews were granted this homeland under successive British and UN mandates; Jews deserve a homeland because they have been tortured and oppressed throughout history; Israel has made better civilized use of the land during its sixty years in charge than the Palestinians ever did when they ruled the land.
Like the Israelis, the Palestinians have a historical justification for controlling the land, though theirs is simpler and superficially more persuasive: they have controlled the land for the majority of
human recorded history, and they last occupied it only sixty years ago. This last part seems a lot less persuasive when you consider that Japan last occupied the Korean Peninsula only sixty-two years ago; nevertheless, no one would argue that Japan should be returned to hegemony there by "right of return." The vast majority of Palestinians now alive never actually lived in Israel.
Essentially, the historical arguments of both Israelis and Palestinians for occupying one another's territory are flimsy at best. Yet their justifications for occupying their own territory are surprisingly strong. Both groups have lived continuously in their currently-occupied territories for at least sixty years (the Palestinians for much longer). Both groups have nowhere else to go (Israelis because they never had another homeland, Palestinians after the PLO was kicked out of Jordan for insurrection).
If Israelis and Palestinians were simply dropped aerially from another planet into their current territorial formation, I'm willing to bet a solid round of peace talks could bring them to an equitable and mutually acceptable solution. The only thing that is preventing that right now is a series of historical justifications on both sides. And that brings us to a key point about history.
History is not supposed to be used as a club to beat the other guy with; it's supposed to be a lantern, an illumination of current policy questions. In that sense, it is best when taken metaphorically. If I argued that the I/P situation resembled the volatile state of affairs in postcolonial India, I might have a point. If I argued that Israel should take over Palestine because they owned the land thousands of years ago, I'd be full of something unmentionable on a civilized blog.
Israelis and Palestinians have something to learn from the Great Powers in World War I, who battled to the death in the waning days of the war in order to establish a front favorable to their territorial interests. In this case, the "front" between the two nations has been more or less stable for a long time. It's time to end the I/P conflict by carving the boundary into international law and encouraging the combatants to deal with one another instead of abusing history to provide phony justifications for continuing the conflict.