A Review by Howard Adelman – Part I
I have not seen Rashid Khalidi for over two decades. When I saw him recently in a webinar on his book The Hundred Years of War on Palestine run by The Harvard Divinity School, he has aged much less that I have. He looks great. And he is even clearer and more articulate than I remember. He is a first-class scholar and historian and I have always learned a great deal from him.
This book is clearly very different than Khalidi’s numerous scholarly tomes. It is personal, part family memoir, but also has a clear central political thesis. Khalidi has articulated a position that he has held over the years in a way that is more powerful and more emotional precisely because it is so overtly personal.
Khalidi has never gone along with the mantra that the dispute over Palestine has been a conflict between two national groups each with legitimate claims to the same land. Jews, he argues, certainly have an historical link to the land and especially to Jerusalem, but they have no claim rooted in rights. Instead, for Khalidi, the conflict has been a long colonial war of settler colonialism in which one group, the Zionists, has been propped up by one colonial power after another.
The explicit Zionist purpose was to have that national group displace another as the civil polity in a region – Palestine. The ingathering of Jewish exiles was intended to supplant the local population by those who mouthed words of peace and the slogan ‘Do No Harm,’ such as David Ben Gurion and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. They were hypocrites, unlike Ze’ev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky. The mouthers of the prospect of peaceful replacement knew that such a displacement enterprise would cause a great deal of harm. (I will examine this fundamental claim in greater detail at the end of this series of reviews.)
One of the strengths of the Khalidi thesis that has such a wide purchase among Palestinians is that it does not deny the pogroms and persecution that motivated Jewish relocation from Europe. He also acknowledges the blockages to resettlement in the West. But he refuses to accept the assurances of Zionist leaders at the time that the migration of Jews to Palestine would neither be an invasion nor an imposition on the native population. Instead, he characterizes Theodor Herzl as arrogant, ignorant and disingenuous; Herzl blamed all sources of harm on the resistance of the native Palestinians.
Palestine was not an “empty” country. Zionism, for him, was a Jewish colonization movement which offered the world a narrative line that whitewashed its history of its willingness to sacrifice the local population and to paint itself as simply another anti-colonial uprising. For Khalidi, since colonization had such a bad odour after WWII, the Zionists had to reconstruct their tale even when it is historically clear that their immersion into counter insurgency lasted a very short period. The true story is that Zionism was a stepchild of British imperialism. Further, it only succeeded because of the massive economic and political support behind the enterprise.
Benny Morris, who was the first to document the intentional ethnic cleansing underway, became a revisionist in the twenty-first century asserting that Jews had no other choice. It bequeathed a “them or us” moral dilemma. What Khalidi argues in the vein of Edward Said is that the war was as much a discursive battle as a fight on the ground. Which side would control the dominant narrative? For the tropes underpinning each side were irreconcilable. And the Zionists had the Hollywood propaganda machine behind it – Leon Uris’ Exodus as a novel and a film providing the most explicit example of the propaganda of one side.
The myth, which is what he calls it, of immigration to Palestine as the only option to prevent Jewish annihilation, is countermanded by the fact that other options for relocation were offered to Jews by the Imperial powers – Uganda and Argentina for example. And the Zionists considered each one seriously, but then opted for Palestine. That alone is proof for Khalidi of the complicity of Zionism and imperialism. The real story is how, because of its partnership with great powers, the Zionists managed to establish the dominant narrative of its success into a tale of liberation by a genuine nationalist movement.
The creation of Israel was no different that the creation of Australia, of Canada, of New Zealand and especially of the United States. It was a settler movement built and developed at the expense of the indigenous population. The major difference is that, in Palestine, the native population was not devastated by contagious diseases and not as bereft of other actors to support its cause. Hence it struggled and survived to challenge the Zionists. Thus, in spite of Zionist designs, in spite of its anti-assimilationist underpinnings and the artifice of its nationalism, the opposition of the indigenous population refuses to wither away and die. This is the Khalidi thesis.
And, for Khalidi, every historical step reinforces that thesis, whether it be Jewish collaboration in suppressing the Palestinian revolt from 1936-1939 that killed, wounded or captured anywhere from 10-17% of the adult male population of Palestine and gave the Zionist the manpower advantage in the 1948 war, the 1967 war in which every expert who really knew the strength of the forces on each side predicted an easy Zionist victory, the 1982 exile of the Palestinians from Beirut, the explicit objective of the 1982 war, and Oslo, the greatest fraud perpetrated against the Palestinians in the whole history of the conflict, for, in the name of peace, a Zionist colonial settler enterprise was not only legitimized but given a moral cover, international endorsement and American military backing.
Part of this argument over narratives and the discursive war is to claim that when Britain became exhausted in the 1939-1948 period and withdrew from the trenches and the de facto collaboration, the Americans took their place. Israel could take no steps that did not have the wholehearted backing of the Americans. The Americans were fully and knowingly complicit in the Sabra and Shatila massacres in 1982 that drove the PLO out of the region and that made an unsuccessful effort to make Lebanon a puppet and satrap of Israel.
With Oslo and the effort to craft an accord, the gap between America and Israel kept re-emerging. Americans viewed the enterprise of settlement and displacement as having an iron ceiling while the right-wing Zionists recognized that the matter would be settled in the end by facts on the ground and not American diplomatic posturing. The key was to control both the land and the people.
Israel had the narrative advantage that it could give the whole colonial enterprise a Biblical cast with a very wide appeal in the Christian West. This extracted external support for an imposition enterprise even in the days when colonialism had been sentenced to international death. The Jews could and did argue that they had a genuine historical connection to the land and that Jewish presence of the land had been continuous – a very different colonial tale than that of the American pioneers of the Canadian and Australian and Kiwi settlers.
They also had the advantage, according to Khalidi, that the Palestinian leadership repeatedly betrayed the Palestinian population. But the times have changed and the pace of change has picked up. In universities, the BDS movement is continuing to gain support. Within the redeemed Democratic Party, on the verge of winning re-election in both the Presidential office and the Senate, allies of the Palestinian cause have experienced a resurgence and the old order Zionists apologists are being forced into retirement.
What a plethora of assumptions in creating this alternative discourse. They have revived the will of Palestinian youth to re-engage in the enterprise of resistance, but this time with a network of support and anti-colonial attitudes in the West, for there is a natural synergy between movements like Black Lives Matter and anti-Zionism. Resistance can displace resignation. To what degree do these premises and the narrative built upon them enjoy enough resonance to strengthen the resistance to Zionist hegemony?
Let me list the revisionist assumptions and tropes.
- The territory of Palestine was not empty.
- The conflict is not a fight between two nationalisms with opposing claims to the same land, but a long-term colonial enterprise of resettlement and local displacement.
- The Zionist only won their victories because of support from strong imperial powers.
- The explicit purpose of Zionism from the beginning was to displace a local population by a settler population.
- All Zionist narratives describing the peaceful intent of the settlers are false fronts to disguise true intentions; they knew that they could only achieve their aims by causing harm to the locals.
- A Palestinian population with a nationalist idea of self-determination was already present in Palestine at the end of the nineteenth century when Jewish Zionism had its modern birth.
- Zionism was a stepchild first of British then of American imperialism.
- Zionist success depended less on enterprise and ingenuity from within than on extensive political and economic support from without.
- The war on the ground was matched by a discursive battle between competing narratives.
- Zionism and Palestinian self-determination are irreconcilable.
- Zionism was boosted by the highly influential American Hollywood propaganda machine.
- Zionism discarded its narrative of partnership with the powerful in favour of a liberation movement when colonialism fell into disfavour after WWII.
- In contrast to settlement colonialist movements in the West, the indigenous movement for self-determination did not suffer the enormous loss of population from disease, but it did suffer a huge manpower loss in its war with the British from 1936-1939 that put it at a great disadvantage in the conflict that followed WWII.
- From the start, the Zionists enjoyed a logistic advantage over not only the local population but the Arab states in the region.
- The Palestinians were not only overwhelmed by settler colonialism but by incompetence and corruption of their own leadership.
- The movement for Palestinian self-determination is gaining new momentum with the rise of the people in the West against their own elites and against settler colonialism that delivered so much harm to not only indigenous populations but to mistreated minorities.
My response will follow in a series of separate blogs.