Sympathy versus Empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings and thoughts of others. A good historian is one who can get inside the head and heart of an agent in history and intellectually and emotionally reenact what that agent is going through and the decisions made. Sympathy, by contrast, is an attachment to and identification with the feelings and thoughts of the other such that any critical discernment is set aside in favour of emotional identification. What we find now in a great deal of reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a great deal of sympathy for the Palestinian position in the guise of empathy.

Not a day goes by now when I do not open my computer to multiple stories which provide blatant examples of journalist’s total sympathy with the Palestinian cause and almost exclusive blaming of Israel. That is, of course, Honest Reporting’s (HR) mandate. I expect bulletins from HR along these lines:

“On CBC News and CBC The National, Margaret Evans’ reporting was highly skewed against Israel, to the point that Israel was blamed almost exclusively for Gaza’s destruction, despair and deaths.”

“In The Toronto Star, Michael Lynk, the so-called “UN Special Rapporteur for the situation for human rights in the Palestinian territory,” created a false narrative of Israel as a pariah state, constantly breaking international law, in need of immediate opprobrium and an “occupier” of Gaza. Lynk’s narrative relied almost entirely on factual errors and extremely misleading statements.”

When you check up on HR, the statements are largely true.

S. Michael Lynk happens to be a Canadian now serving as the independent expert and Special Rapporteur for OHCHR (Commission on Human Rights) dealing with the human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. His mandate is to investigate Israel’s violation of human rights, not those of Hamas. That is the first built-in bias. Second, his mandate applies to “Palestinian territories occupied by Israel since 1967,” yet Gaza is included even though Israel withdrew from occupying Gaza in 2006 and the Gazan government indicated its independence in initiating wars against Israel in 2009, 2012, 2014 and most recently in 2021. Further, Lynk, as did Richard Falk before him, indicated his lack of independence and objectivity by joining in a petition, before he investigated, pointing to the “forced evictions of Palestinian families living in Sheikh Jarrah in “Occupied” East Jerusalem “as the spark that set off a full-blown war.”

It certainly was one element, but how can one draw such a definitive conclusion without an investigation. My own previous articles summarizing the conflict over housing in Sheikh Jarrah as simply a matter of “forced evictions” is a travesty, at the very least, even if I and many others sympathize with the situation of those Palestinian families and disagree with efforts to evict them.

The collective letter went on to charge Israel with causing untold destruction to Gaza without any consideration of the role of Hamas, without an investigation as required, and when, in the case of Gaza, the territory is outside his mandate. Instead, the reference is to “indiscriminate” or “deliberate” bombing of civilians. The judgement is made about the disproportionality only by reference to the ratio of destruction, deaths and injured, not to the legal definition of proportionality relative to the military objective. Instead, without an investigation, without hearing a defence of the claims, without any analysis of the actions of the instigator of the war, the actions are asserted without qualification to be war crimes. In effect, Richard Lynk provided ample evidence that he was not independent, was not objective, was not operating within his jurisdiction and had allowed his understandable sympathy with the plight of the Palestinian civilian population of Gaza to undermine whatever discernment and objectivity he might have possibly brought to the issue.

Margaret Evans, a CBC correspondent based in the London bureau, reported on the scene from Gaza Al-Wehda Street, lined with destroyed apartments and stores. She showed two apartments hit on the worst night of the bombing campaign. “a representation of the human toll” Dr. Ayman Abu abu-Alouf, the head of internal medicine at al-Shifa Hospital, died along with two of his children and his wife. The al-Kolak family lost 22 members. It is a bleeding-heart story deliberately intended to pull at the heart strings of anyone watching. The vast destruction in Gaza is captured in miniature. However, the conflict is not put within any context of Hamas policies and initiatives or even the facts that an estimated at least 25% of the destruction was a result of rockets fired off from Gaza but which fell short and landed in Gaza.

These are two examples, one of abstract principled appeal and the other of a direct sensory appeal to sympathy offsetting any responsibility for empathetically understanding the policies of Hamas or why a significant part of the population supports Hamas. These are unequivocal examples of sympathy trumping the responsibility for engaging in empathy. Of course, the responsibility for objectivity and truth are also sacrificed, but that is the focus of the next blog.

There are many other dimensions to the way in which sympathy trumped empathy as the reining methodology of dealing with the events that took place. Sympathy can be indifferent to truth, but empathy can also be at war with truth. Arno Rosenfeld wrote a story for The Forward headlined: “A spate of antisemitism reveals Jewish community fissures.” As I foresaw in my last blog, when empathy is at war with truth, the losers are members of the Jewish community brought to profuse tears by the stories and pictures to which they are exposed. This is the case even though incidents of antisemitism are rapidly increasing in frequency. A Jewish history and Holocaust scholar is murdered in the Ukraine. A Jewish man is punched on a Berlin street, one of 3 antisemitic incidents that day in the German capital.

Ben Samuels wrote a story in The Washington Post (26.05.2021) headlined: “These Young Jewish Staffers Are Bringing Their Disillusionment With Israel to Capitol Hill.” His stories and others bring up these repeated themes:

  • They went to Jewish day schools, attended Jewish camps and often went on birthright trips.
  • They were raised to be cheerleaders of Israel.
  • They grew skeptical as they learned more about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
  • As they launched their careers, they either bracketed their concern for Israel or even became critics.
  • Whatever position they now take, they resent being raised on heroic and mythical histories and leave out evidence that most Palestinians did not leave voluntarily; rather, a great many were forced to depart.
  • There was a narrative, but no interrogation of how Israel came to be, yet they were taught to interrogate every word of Torah.
  • Each Gaza War created a “cognitive dissonance between what they’re seeing and what they’ve learned regarding how Israel can do no wrong.”
  • Killing Palestinian civilians seemed cruel, very disproportionate and did nothing to protect Israelis.
  • Education on human rights further compounded the emerging despair about Israel.
  • Misplaced charges of antisemitism against critics of Israel fueled the direction of disillusionment.
  • Creeping annexation in the West Bank (the expansion of settlements), Netanyahu’s support for Donald Trump, the affirmation of Jewish supremacy in the nation-state law, all added to the new “truth” that Israel deserved to be a pariah state.
  • The United Nations Human Rights and the International Criminal Court, all international institutions dedicated to the universal protection of human rights, indict Israel diplomatically and legally for being an abuser of rights.
  • The fundamental sin is that “Everyone deserves basic dignity and self-determination” and Palestinians are denied both and Jews are the cause of that denial.

Therefore, Jews join Palestinians and human rights activists in demanding that Israel be held accountable for human rights violations and demanding that Palestinians have the rights to peace and justice and that means self-determination.  The divisions within the Democratic Party over support for Israel grow wider and deeper. These Jews no longer accept the claim that Israel no longer occupies Gaza but left Gaza to its own devices and withdrew its settlements in August 2005, but through a blockade, effectively continued the occupation de facto. Even though it is difficult to reconcile Israel occupying Gaza and Gaza being able to shoot well over 4,000 rockets at Israeli civilians, in spite of labour leader, Merav Michaeli insisting that Israel is not in occupation of Gaza, these newborn or evolving critics of Israel point out that:

  • Israel controls access (even though Egypt controls one access from the south).
  • Israeli blockades Gaza on land, sea and from the air.
  • Israel controls the registry of names lest any unregistered person seek to cross into Israel.
  • Israel controls the electricity supplied to Gaza, the entry of humanitarian and development aid.

This is asserted even though the United States controls all land crossings into Canada and has an economic stranglehold over Canadian economic development but no one, at least no one I know, would claim that the U.S. occupies Canada. The claim that Israel continues to occupy Gaza is accepted as truth and its denial is characterized as a lie.

However, the main issue is really the human rights of Palestinians. As Jeffrey D. Sachs wrote, “Human rights are human rights, and they are part of international law under the UN Charter. Whether the case is Xinjiang and the Uighurs, Myanmar and the Rohingya, or Israel and the Palestinian Arabs, the correct way to defend international law is through the United Nations, starting with an independent investigation under the auspices of the UN Human Rights Council.” (25.05.2021)

The defence of human rights comes at the cost of truth. The threats to expel Palestinians from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah area of East Jerusalem along with the Israeli-provoked violence at the al-Aqsa Mosque, compounded by right-wing Israelis marching and chanting, “Death to Arabs,” offer abundant evidence that Israel is a systemic human rights abuser. The fact that Jews owned the land on which the homes were built, the fact that the court offered a compromise to the residents – stay on for life, but pay rent and acknowledge the ownership, is left out.

The violence on the al-Aqsa Mosque is purportedly all one-sided, at least in its instigation, even though a small but significant percentage of the “worshippers” were present to instigate trouble. Arabs marching and chanting “Death to the Jews” is omitted from any part of the story. There is not even a superficial effort at objectivity, only one-sided advocacy in the place of a reflective and thoughtful op-ed. Sack’s screed went so far as to suggest that Netanyahu “may have” instigated the rocket attack from Hamas on Jerusalem in order to cling to power.

Israel’s behaviour is characterized as lawless, ruthless and “reckless anti-Arab violence” contrary to Jewish ethics “causing mass suffering and killing innocent people.” All references to military targeting are omitted. And what are the sources of that authority: Rashid Khalidi’s recent book, The Hundred Years War on Palestine which effectively trashes the tale of two nations in search of a nation-state in the same territory for a narrative of an invasive colonial enterprise determined from the beginning to repress and replace Palestinians in the land. And Human Rights Watch, which declared Israel an apartheid state, has now, effectively, endorsed this version of history. As one headline in Haaretz put it, “The Left Feels Palestinian Pain. It Must Also Recognize Jewish Fears.”

In my next blog I will take up the topic of truth as the last element to formulate a framework that includes peace and justice, empathy and truth to indicate the tensions between and among them and why all have to be brought into consideration to get a balanced and relatively accurate portrait of what is taking place.


On Prophecy

One of my sons was over visiting yesterday. During the conversation he mentioned one way he had of solving problems. He would project possible scenarios of how a situation would look like in the future. He gave as an example a projection for Israel in 2148 on the hundredth anniversary of the state. How would Israel look like and would it have tackled and resolved some or most of the problems that now afflict the state? He would envision different results, the merits and demerits of each and the steps needed to get to each one. In this manner, he could not prophesy an outcome in the sense of a prediction; he could take seriously the small steps needed to produce an outcome that he foresaw as both realistically possible and desirable. He would then focus his energies on those small steps and leave the vision of the future to history.

Is this prophecy? It does not sound like it. However, this is, in fact, the dominant mode in which improvements have been made in human history. Take health. Until two centuries ago, whether you study mortality rates among hunter-gatherers or our ancestors in the classical world, the average person lived only thirty-five years. This started to change in the mid-nineteenth century. Instead of the curve starting to flatten, in Anthony Fauci’s memorable phrase, that flat line on mortality began to curve. More and more directly upward it went until the projections of life expectancy more than doubled.

Why? Not primarily because of eureka moments. Those were rare. But because of the slow and then more rapid introduction of such measures as vaccination. Because of the provision of clean drinking water and the installation of sanitary drainage and sewage systems. These developments over a wide swath of problems and ordinary human activities that resulted in death now produced an extension of our lifespans, particularly in the richer countries of the world.  

Anticipating a future where this could come about by slow steps of amelioration is not how we normally think of prophecy. In the biblical idiom, prophecy is a vision carried through a human about God’s intentions or promised outcomes, provided human behaviour followed one trajectory. That envisioning or prophetic projection was believed to happen because God was capable of addressing us directly or indirectly through signs and portents delivered through His chosen prophets.

There is, however, a naturalistic rather than supernatural explanation for foresight and adumbrating the future. God’s prophets are those who reveal small ameliorate steps that are cumulative and result in better times. Prophecy is naturalized and God’s prophets are grounded.

In this week’s Torah portion, Beha’alotcha, (בְּהַעֲלֹתְךָ ‎ — in Hebrew, literally “when you step up” or “when you ascend”). [Numbers 8:1 – 12:15], we read about how the departure from Egypt is to be memorialized in Passover and the ensuing journey out of Sinai of the Hebrews towards the Promised Land. But the people complain to God about the trip and Aaron and Miriam, for the first time, challenge Moses. This week’s portion is packed with both past history, prophecy and dissent.

Begin with the dominant narrative of the past. For Palestinians, the emerging primary Palestinian narrative of the arrival of Zionism to their shores and land is one of colonizing, conquest, oppression, repression, eviction and replacement; the Palestinians were in place and were invaded. The Zionist narrative, in contrast, is of Jewish return to their ancient homeland, a return that led to a conflict between two peoples seeking self-determination on the same land. There is, however, a Jewish narrative that parallels the emerging Palestinian one; it accepts that the Jews invaded and conquered the land and believes that the task is not yet finished.

The narrative of conquest, the narratives of displacement and replacement, necessarily means vanquishing the enemy no matter which side tells it. The narrative of idealistic settlement and restoring both the land and its ancient people to their former glory is totally open to the land being shared by two peoples who must work out how they will share the land. Currently, religious Islamic zealots are united with “progressives” who have adopted the narrative of conquest, oppression, displacement and apartheid as the dominant story, a narrative supported by religious and right-wing zealots on the Jewish side.

However, though there have been numerous wars, though there has indeed been eviction, the predominant narrative is one of peaceful settlement and of amelioration through small steps that have gradually taught the two competing communities to trust and rely on one another. The narratives of conquest and destruction of the Other are often associated with apocalyptic moments of transition. The narratives of amelioration are more often associated with numerous small steps of improvement.

The ancient narrative as constructed on Sinai is primarily about leaving a place that rejected the people as belonging there, initially through slavery, and then flight. The conflict had turned into a demographic battle with babies being killed on both sides. It is a story of deliverance, not of development.

The past construction of the narrative determined the limits of possible outcomes. From two peoples competing for the same piece of land, the solution envisioned could be a land divided between the two peoples. But when the narrative changed to one people persecuting and oppressing the other, the outcome entailed, on the conquered side, one of vanquishing the enemy, otherwise the people could never be free, combined with one of escape.

The revelation that Moses has on Mount Sinai is most frequently thought of as God transmitting His message through Moses as His spokesperson. But there is another way to view it that depends in large part on the predominant narrative governing the record of the past. If the emphasis is on the conflict with an autocratic leader who regards himself as a god, the transition is sudden, is dramatic, and is marked by departure from Egypt, both physically and metaphorically. It is an external change. But if the focus shifts from the autocracy of the other to the slavish mental way of thinking and behaving of those who flee, a process which turns an enslaved people into a people in quest of their freedom, then leaving slavery is not marked by crossing the Reed Sea, but a gradual transition over four decades of throwing off a slave mentality. The change is primarily internal.

There are two lessons here. The overarching one is that your vision of the future, without distorting the truth, dictates the dominant narrative we must present of the past. The underlying one is that details matter. If amelioration actually results from an accumulation of small changes, then it is the story of the accumulated changes that must get our attention. That means that Maimonides’, the Rambam’s version of what happened at Sinai, as most interpret him, must be rejected.  

In the still predominant interpretation of Maimonides’ version of events, in his eighth priniciple, in his supposedly stenographic interpretation of what happened and the role of Moses in it, revelation has only a heavenly source. The Torah itself is of divine origin and given to Moses by God in its entirety. As Professor Sam Fleischacker summed it up, “every letter of the Torah contains within it wisdom and wonders to whomever the Lord has granted the wisdom to discern it.”

In contrast, and a very different interpretation of Maimonides, the reference to God’s speech is metaphorical. It is equivalent to the saying that “such and such speaks to me.” This is not really a claim about speech, but a claim about identification and understanding. On the other hand, Maimonides still remains an Aristotelian who defines God as perfect and, therefore, as unchanging and, indeed, one incapable of change. For only imperfect things change to realize their potential. God as perfect cannot have potential and cannot change. This is a radically different view than the vision of God immanent in history and revealing Himself through the unfolding of history, including changing in response to the lessons God Himself obtains from that history.

And if we shift from the focus on God to ourselves, what does it mean that we are all akin to Moses on Mount Sinai. It means that we identify with Moses, we empathize with his openness to the Other that is not a projection of human imaginations of the divine as in Egypt. Instead, we are on Sinai because we accept in full the lesson that Moses heard, the lesson about the rule of law displacing the rule of an autocrat.

Second, prophecy is not about Maimonides’ elitism whereby, in order to hear and understand God, we must come as close to perfection as possible in our intellectual development, in our moral standing and in our physical capacity to avoid denigration by a focus on food or sex or the pleasures of the body more generally. One is open to revelation, not by transcending our humanity, but by expressing our humanity, that is, our love and care for others. Humanity is about caring and sharing. It is an affective much more than an intellectual enterprise. And it is one directed at the other rather than the perfection of the self.

God as a God of justice evolves from a dictator of unequivocal moral answers to a judge, an author and originator rather than an authoritative unquestioned source. That judgement must be tempered with mercy, with compassion and understanding. The revelation is the rule of law. Law is not the translation of what is revealed into rules simply that humans can understand. It is through the understanding of the rule of law that one comes closer to God. Moses is not only not a stenographer for God, neither is he a translator. He is a messenger concerning translation, and translation and interpretation as the core of the rule of law.

There is one last point. Unlike the Greeks, and Maimonides bowing before their idea that perception is ultimately knowing the Truth and that the Truth is itself a fixed point that we see, truths are themselves subject to gradual revelation and change. Truths deal with the dynamics of possibility, not the realization of certainty. The human aspiration is not to become an angel, but to struggle on earth to listen to and hear God in our everyday lives.

Torah is then not a presentation of ideal purity and a vision of perfection, but how any vision struggles for acceptance and realization. Rebellion against Moses, dissent even by his brother and sister, may have initially been dealt with by autocratic methods, but the resort to autocracy, the fall back on Egyptian modes of dealing with challenges is, in the end, why Moses cannot enter the Promised Land. He never learned how, ultimately, to extirpate the mentality of master and slave, lordship and bondage, that he had learned in Egypt.

Prophecy in this sense is the encounter with God in the dialectic weaving of our hopes and estimate of possibilities for the future with the narrative we present of the revelations of the past. It does not transcend history but is immanent in it. The issue is not whether God communicates with humans, but how He does so. Prophecy is then about what “can” be and then about how we will it to be. In small steps.

Justice and Peace

Justice is often said to be a necessary condition to ensure a sustainable peace. On the other hand, peace is supposed to be a necessary condition for attaining true justice. Justice and peace, in this view, are symbiotically related, each dependent on the other although they refer to different spheres. Justice, that is social rather than just legal justice, is concerned with minimizing inequality. Peace is concerned with minimizing violence. Inequalities foster violence and violence benefits those who have little interest in human rights.

In the second week of the recent Gaza War, there were protests organized on the front steps of the building in which the Israeli Consulate is located in Toronto. Fake blood was pored down those steps. The organizations behind the protest accused Israel of “brutal occupation, military attacks and ethnic cleansing,” whether the policies and practices applied to Gaza from which Israel had withdrawn, the West Bank in which Israel practiced creeping annexation in Area C, East Jerusalem that Israel had annexed shortly after the end of the 1967 war, and even in Israel itself where Israel was accused of continuing the displacement and eviction of Israeli Palestinian citizens.

In other words, the cause of the violence was not the seven missiles Gaza aimed at Jerusalem, but the continuing violence and injustices Israel perpetuated against Palestinians. The missile attacks against civilian targets in Israel were but justified responses to Israeli violence and unjust treatment of Palestinians. The river of faux blood on the steps was the symbol that Israel had blood on its hands. Jewish Israelis, on the other hand, mostly focus on the injustice of shooting over 4,000 missiles into Israel, even though admittedly at least 25% fell short and fell into Gazan territory.

There is now a cease-fire. The main conviction is that the cease-fire is only temporary. It may last five years. But it is simply a lull in a long-term struggle, no longer between two national groups seeking self-determination in the same territory, but between an oppressed group denied self-determination by an oppressive colonial and apartheid regime that perpetuates injustice both by denying Palestinians the right to self-determination and by the unequal and unjust treatment of even its own citizens who are Palestinian. The logic of this position and narrative is that the only way the rights of the Palestinians can be won is by the end of the colonial oppressive Jewish state. The formulation is a recipe for a fight unto the death until only one group is left standing.

As Khalil Shikaki, a renowned Palestinian pollster, wrote in Foreign Affairs, the recent “Fighting in Gaza Marks the Start of a More Violent Era.” As he subtitled his piece, “The Search for a Two-State Solution is Over.” (19 May 2021) In other words, he pronounced the end of the quest for some justice for both groups, a formula in which the solution might be asymmetrical as well as the justice achieved, but where the goal was not a zero-sum game with only winners and losers. If justice for Jewish Israelis means injustice for Palestinians, there can be no peace other than temporary cessations in open warfare.

Just as there were four different conceptions of peace described in the previous blog, there are four different visions of justice.

Zero-sum games:

  1. Justice for one group and no justice for the other.
  2. More justice for one group and less for the other, but the conception is of a fixed amount of justice to be divided up.

Positive-sum games

  • Even as one group enjoys more justice than the other, the effort is made to raise the degree of justice for the other group even if total equality may never be the result given the history of the conflict.
  • Equal justice for all by making justice rooted only in individuals and equal rights and opportunities are guaranteed to all irrespective of the ethnic origin of that individual.

In the language of can and can’t, the first option is possibly a “can,” but very unlikely given the attitudes and roles of members of the international community. The fourth is almost certainly a “can’t” given the historically ingrained animosity and distrust between the two groups and especially the leaders of each. It has as little chance and probability of a future as the utopian vision of a one-state solution with equal rights for all.

Options 2 and 3 both remain in the “can” category. Most bets currently are on number 2 even as most international efforts are rooted in the effort to pull off number 3, even as the prospects grow dimmer day after day. A good reason for this is the radicals or extremists in each camp believing in and pushing for option 1. That is unequivocally the policy of Hamas which grew in prestige and status among Palestinians in the latest round of fighting. That is true of the extreme nationalist-religious groups in Israel who would easily choose an ethno-nationalist over a democratic outcome if there had to be a choice. Fortunately, these still remain a minority, though a growing one.

These extreme nationalist religious Jewish groups are behind the pressure for evictions of Arab families in Sheikh Jarrrah and in the mixed towns and cities, such as Lod. They are prone to challenge the authority of the Muslim Waqf (under Jordanian custodial responsibility) to which Israel handed back control after the capture of East Jerusalem in 1967. There has always been a tension between Israel, which retains security control over the Haram esh-Sharif, and the Waqf which administers the holy places and the plaza. These extreme nationalists are also the leaders of the settler movement in the occupied territories.

The problem is not simply these extremist pressures, but the role of the state led by “more moderate” right-wingers to foster unequal treatment of Palestinian residents in the occupied territories and even in Israel, even though, in the last ten years, the Israeli government has made a concerted effort to raise the amount of monies invested in Palestinian schools and municipalities. But this gesture was offset by the support for the nation-state bill in Israel which explicitly and formally gave a preference to Jews while reducing the status of Arabic as an official language in Israel. Further, the Knesset defeated a motion to guarantee equal treatment of minorities.

The anti-democratic measures in the Palestinian-run territories have been even much more extreme. Hamas is explicitly anti-democratic, only favouring elections when its election prospects look good. Hamas runs a theocratic government that first achieved power in an election and then staged a coup against the Palestinian Authority (PA). The PA is itself anti-democratic, canceling the planned election ostensibly because of Israeli non-cooperation in facilitating voting in East Jerusalem.  Neither Palestinian government in the West Bank or Gaza supports an independent judiciary or an outspoken civil society, though the PA has shown more tolerance than Hamas that has become more ruthless in its attacks on Israel, risking to its own populace and certainly constitutional rules and norms.

As domestic extremist forces gain strength in each camp, the prospect of option 2 in the justice realm is outpacing prospect 3, though both still remain viable possibilities. The problem is the direction. For as option 2 increases in probability, option 1 moves from the “can’t” camp to the “can” or possibility camp. In that case, diaspora Jews would have to choose between retaining support for an increasingly undemocratic ethno-nationalist state and a decreasingly democratic one. That process is already underway as more Jews raise their voices and participate in  the utopian vision which, in reality, reinforces the extremist number 1 option in favour of the Palestinians. And liberals are torn between resigning themselves to accepting the inevitability of number two while continuing to push for option 3, but are discouraged as option number 1 gradually moves from the “can’t” to the “can” camp.

Next blog on Israel:

The Role of Empathy and Truth in Influencing Probable Outcomes

Physics and Peace

One way to get back to basics is to return to what we consider the core elements, in physics, the elementary particles, that found the science. However, more recent developments in physics have shifted attention away from the basic elements and the laws governing them, such as the Newtonian laws of motion, to the framing constraints and limitations. In physics, attention in Constructor Theory has shifted from those laws of motion to the laws of thermodynamics which determine the limits to the laws of motion. That is, they establish the impossibility of perpetual motion.  Fundamental laws are not the elemental determinants; the limits on the behaviour of those elements are. The primary focus is what is possible and what is not possible.

One enormous advantage of this gestalt switch is that altogether different spheres of study come into view – such as information theory or the understanding of the mind and even the physics of life. Further, in the search for guidelines for consistently reconciling different patterns of forces rather than focusing on the forces themselves, worlds that were once considered irreconcilable – quantum mechanics versus relativity theory ­– suddenly fall within the same frame. For the issue is no longer their reconciliation but the limitations under which each of them operates.

When I taught at the Hebrew University philosophy department as a Lady Davis Visiting Professor in 1977-1978, a colleague there, Igal Kvart, just published his book A Theory of Counterfactuals which he subsequently extended to an analysis of causes wherein causes were transformed from mechanical pushes to influences and knowing was turned into a probabilistic enterprise based on objective probability. Theoretical physicist Chiara Marletto at Wolfson College in Oxford has used this focus on counterfactuals and possibilities into redefining physics as the science of can and can’t. In other words, instead of beginning with norms and key elements to determine preferences, you begin with constraints to reveal what is possible and impossible to focus on probabilistic outcomes of different degrees. Instead of asking how do we get from here to there – say a state that is both Jewish and democratic – you begin by determining the constraints and limitations to combining the various key elements. The goal – to determine what transformations are possible and the probabilities one might reasonably attach to each.

As Marletto has stated, the science of can and can’t operates at an even deeper level than relativity or quantum theory to elucidate deeper principles at work to bring out different laws of motion and change at work. It permits unarticulated possibilities to come to the forefront. New pathways can then be perceived. In physics, according to the Heisenberg Principle, you cannot measure both stasis and change, position and velocity. A perfect measurer of stability and transformation is not feasible. So instead of concentrating on what is happening and the implied consequences – as I did in my opening to this series of blogs – the focus shifts from what has happened and what is happening to what can happen. What are the options? What are the possibilities of each? Which are demonstrably impossible? Are there new regularities that we can identify at the level of political interactions in conflict situations?

The intention is to look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through such a revised shift in perspective in which counterfactuals and theories of possibilities focus on rational choice or agency, on the one hand, and media and mental or ideological representation on the other hand. (Cf. Boris Kment, “Counterfactuals and Causal Reasoning”). To prepare the ground, I begin with an analysis of the concept of peace.

A key element is assessing the conflict is justice. Everyone claims to obey the guiding principle that, “Justice, justice, that thou shalt pursue.” At the same time, the goal is said to be “peace.” But both justice and peace reveal themselves as very different terms occupying competing realms. Humanitarians try to achieve both, as when the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life at Brandeis University organized, “Black Lives Matter Under a New Presidency: What Lies Ahead?” Justice is about egality and distribution. Peace is about reconciliation from places of inequality. The two concepts travel from different starting points and in opposite directions. They are also equivocal terms. I will have to deal with both concepts, but I begin with the analysis of “peace” first and four very different meanings assigned to the concept:

  1. Peace as simply the absence or cessation of violence with no implications for the future.
  2. Peace as having a limited time horizon, the current expectation of the cease-fire ending the recent Gaza War.
  3. Peace as permanently ending the violence between two sworn enemies.
  4. Peace as an eternal state in which, “There ain’t gonna be war no more.”

If we are operating in parallel to particle physics, we must choose how to characterize peace first. Is it simply the bare absence of violence? This is the position of the 138 members of the US Congress who called on Biden to insist on a ceasefire and “to boldly lead and take decisive action to end the violence.” Peace meant the absence of open and violent conflict even if the peace, that cessation of bombing and lobbying missiles, meant not allowing the conflict to precede to a point at which peace might result and betting on the slim possibility, perhaps impossibility, that Israel and Hamas could eventually actually make peace.

Or is peace the second option, something extracted from the battlefield in a very concrete context but with no pretext of any significant sustainability? Peace then is not only the termination of a battle, but a state with a probable guaranteed limited time period? Or is peace the permanent end of belligerency between two enemies. Or, finally, is peace a depiction of some utopian era in which the lion can lie down beside the lamb? There are biblical commentators who take these different positions. They are also reflected in different current political postures.

In Hebrew biblical commentary, Ibn Ezra took the first position, the same as that of the 138 American legislators. Peace simply means avoiding bloodshed. There is no time dimension. It is enough that the launching of missiles and the bombing have both stopped.

The second position is well represented by those who still cling to the Oslo Accords as a peace agreement, even though the agreements arrived at never tackled the core issues. It is best represented in current terms by Israeli negotiators who participated for years in peace negotiations and cling to the idea that eventually the two-state solution will emerge because no other possibility is viewed as realistic. In the case of the conflict with Hamas, where even a two-state solution is not on the horizon, a five-year long-term ceasefire is the goal, shunting aside all other issues – prisoner exchanges, repatriation of soldiers’ bodies, economic arrangements, political conditions. The aim is to buy enough time to rebuild Gaza once again. This doctrine of war did not entail defeating the enemy but only compelling the enemy to stop fighting for a limited number of years based on deterrence. War fought on the basis of such a doctrine does not destroy the enemy’s capacity to wage war in the foreseeable future.

The third position, not peace as the (temporary) cessation of violence nor peace as a longer-term absence of violence in the hope that the interim period can be used to end the violence, but peace as an intended product of war can be associated with the mediaeval biblical commentator, Rabbi Chizkuni. It means that war is not viewed as the polar opposite to peace but as the means by which peace is achieved by, for example, conquering territory as rapidly as possible while simultaneously totally neutralizing the threat.

The problem is that, although the war is truly brought to an end, unless the military victory is also translated into a diplomatic one, the potential for violence just undergoes a metamorphosis and Israel becomes burdened with the long-term weight of administering the territory it conquered, a process that eats away at the very fabric of Israeli society. The conquest of the West Bank and of southern Lebanon both instantiated this general rule. Unfortunately, as one military strategist commented, “Israel’s accumulated experience in times of war shows a disturbing pattern that has become a ritual: a serious gap always emerges between the achievements of the military and the failure of national public diplomacy.”

In the third option, peace is not simply a cessation of violence. Neither is peace the establishment of no war for a limited period. Peace, such as that which the allies achieved after WWII, entails an overwhelming, clear and unequivocal victory such that the enemy cannot rise again to fight another day. The armed forces of one side must rapidly and simultaneously neutralize the enemy’s capabilities. And then, the victor must subdue the enemy without fighting or coercion. (Cf. Sun Tzu)

The fourth utopian view of peace is held by a number of right-wing ideologues as well as Islamicists, including Hamas, and ultra-orthodox, evangelical Christians. For the latter, “A heavenly portal, a spherical opening of light, will soon offer divine protection to the Jews protected from demonic interference by the angels who will then be free to come and go between heaven and earth and deliver perfection.”

If we subject these four alternatives to the logic of “can” and “can’t,” there is easily a consensus that, by definition, the fourth option is not an earthly possibility. But neither is the third in the present context where the international community, especially the Arab and Muslim societies, will not accept the vanquishing of the Palestinians by the Israelis. On the other side, for now, America will not allow Israel to be vanquished. But with a longer time horizon, groups like Hamas hope that this situation will change; when that day comes, Israel will be eliminated from the Middle East. However, given present projections, neither vanquishing the Jews nor the Palestinians seems possible.

Clearly the first choice is possible but is seen as a needed but not a desired outcome. There is a general consensus that the absence of violence is simply a minimal first step, but one in itself unlikely to result in “real” peace. The analysis, therefore, leaves only the second option in the “can” category. So Egypt is active in building upon the temporary ceasefire a longer term solution that will extend well beyond five years. Following its success in arranging the ceasefire, Egypt accepted the leadership in forging a diplomatic agreement for far more than just five years. The goal is peace and stability between the warring parties.

To accomplish that, agreements have to be arrived at for security for both sides and for policies to be laid down which will allow both sides to thrive. The dilemma is that such a prospect seems impossible when the major goal of one side (Hamas) is the elimination of the other. Hamas seems unwilling even to introduce confidence building measures, such as the return of the bodies of two Israeli soldiers and the return of two Israeli civilians held hostage. This presumably would be in exchange for Palestinian prisoners or extending the fishing zone or some other quid pro quo.  The more Israel gives, the greater the possibility that Hamas will agree to limitations on its import of missiles that could induce Israel to lift its blockade.

However, none of these moves change the fundamentals. The most important mission of Hamas is the elimination of Israel even if the pragmatic elements in the Hamas camp are willing to enter into agreements that will strengthen its position. That is why the goal of America, Egypt and Israel has emerged to focus on vanquishing and sideling Hamas by diplomatic means to restore the “can” to this option.

This is what diplomacy is about, translating a ceasefire with an estimated time horizon into longer term arrangements which foster peaceful dialogue rather than a resort to violence between the contending parties. That entails establishing communication channels and the input of other parties, such as Qatar and the UAE, to reinforce such efforts.

If utopia and militarily vanquishing one side or the other are ruled out as possibilities and mere cessation of violence is viewed as not real peace, then the focus is on only one possibility, a diplomatic agreement between the parties. But is that possible if one of the parties is represented by a political movement that regards the other as fundamentally illegitimate and if the other party rejects Hamas as a legitimate negotiating partner because of the latter’s position? Diplomacy “can” lead to peace, but, given the leading parties in the conflict at the present time, that would seem to be impossible. Hence the effort to resurrect both Fatah as the leader of the Palestinian cause and, along with that resurrection, the two-state solution.

For the one-state solution is either a utopian unrealistic option or the result of one side vanquishing the other. Thus, although Oslo can be pronounced dead, its resurrection in some form may be necessary if “can” is to be the ruling framework. Hence, Jordan’s King Abdullah’s willingness to put “all its diplomatic relations and capabilities” both in service to the Palestinian cause and the absence of any alternative except advancing “a two-state solution to achieve just and comprehensive peace”. That means strengthening the Palestinian Authority at the expense of Hamas.

Then other possibilities emerge – such as creating joint industrial zones in the Erez and Karni crossings. To do that, Israel requires guarantees from Egypt and the US that international investment will be used, not for the purchase of arms, but to rebuild infrastructure. To explore these realms of the possible, three other conceptions must be introduced and analyzed – justice, empathy and truth.

The analysis from the perspective of “can” to be continued.

The Latest Gaza War – Back to Basics

Peter Beinart wrote two important pieces in Jewish Currents, one last summer that claimed, “The painful truth is that the project to which liberal Zionists like myself have devoted ourselves for decades—a state for Palestinians separated from a state for Jews—has failed.” Early this month he published a second essay on the right of return for Palestinian refugees in which he proclaimed: “If Palestinians have no right to return to their homeland, neither do we.” While I have written sporadic criticisms of the one-state option and a sustained detailed and comprehensive criticism of his opting for the right of return of Palestinian refugees, unlike Peter, I have not revisited my basic presumptions.

Perhaps it is because I, unlike Peter, began as an anti-Zionist and only came to liberal Zionism later in my life. But the present situation needs, indeed demands, revisiting basics, even though I found Peter’s laudable effort to be both empirically and logically very flawed. The recent Gaza 2021 war has made that fundamental re-evaluation even more imperative and urgent.

A major reason is the huge chasm between what the IDF accomplished in the latest Gaza war and the more important larger failures. When, after prayers finished in the al-Aqsa Mosque and the largest proportion of the worshippers left peacefully, a relatively small group of protesters (in the hundreds) began taunting police, waving banned Palestinian flags and some throwing stones and other even more lethal missives which the police claimed were Molotov cocktails. The police dispersed the “rioters” with batons, rubber bullets and stun grenades. It was this dispersal that was carried in the media, not the provocations.

Why? First, the media coverage was intended to reveal that those who police the al-Asqa plaza are brutal thugs. Secondly, as Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas top official in Qatar, proudly pronounced, though Hamas “concluded eleven long and painful days of war and absorbed enormous damage,” Hamas had the following more important successes worth the sacrifice:

  • The rocket attack took Israel by surprise.
  • Hamas demonstrated it could send its rockets into the population heartland of Israel.
  • Hamas demonstrated that it could surmount the blockade and import long-range rockets.
  • Heavy rocket barrages launched toward multiple locations almost simultaneously almost overwhelmed Israel’s Iron Dome antimissile defense system.
  • Hamas demonstrated that Israel could no longer dominate the Palestinians with impunity.
  • By standing up to the militarily far more powerful Israelis, according to Hamas, Palestinians proved to the whole world that Jerusalem belonged to them.
  • Though a bare majority of Palestinians already strongly believed that the Al-Asqsa Mosque was under threat by Israelis, this perception was heightened, broadened and dramatized, reinforcing a trend that went back to 1921. (Cf. Yisrael Medad “The Roots of the ‘Al Aqsa is in Danger’ Myth: Alfred Mond and a Speech Distorted,” 21 May 2021.)
  • Hamas not only ensured that Palestinians could wallow in their victimhood, but used the collapsing high-rise buildings in Gaza to remind the world of the collapsing New York towers in 2001, but not the radical Islamicist threat that produced that result.
  • Upset the delicate balance of Jewish-Arab relations within Israel.
  • Reversed the effort to erase the identity of Israeli Arabs as Palestinian and reinforced the idea of a shared identity.
  • Hamas has for a period made its own people forget how inept and corrupt its rule in Gaza has been.
  • Hamas emerged in a position to proclaim itself as the undisputed leader of the Palestinian cause.

These were visual and ideological victories, not military gains on the ground. The accomplishments were media ones on the assumption that the media dimension of modern warfare is far more important than actual military victories. Those unequivocally went to the IDF which:

  • Demolished hundreds of millions of dollars of military infrastructure
  • Proved that the Hamas effort to launch an attack by sea, using miniature submarines, was a total failure
  • Destroyed numerous anti-tank missile crews
  • Intercepted Hamas spy and strike drones
  • Most importantly, blew up miles of underground intra-Gaza tunnels and bunkers in the “Metro” as well as cross-border terror tunnels
  • Tricked the Palestinians into emerging from the tunnels only to be met by bombs rather than a land invasion
  • Targeted and killed numerous Hamas military leaders (Israel claimed that at least 100 high-ranking military leaders from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, were assassinated during the conflict.)
  • Proved, thereby, the effectiveness of Israeli intelligence
  • Used much greater precision targeting for bombing buildings and infrastructure
  • Minimized the collateral damage compared to the 2014 war; only 248 were killed, not over 1,400, and only 66 were “children,” noting that some of them were teenage child soldiers and an estimated 25% of the deaths were the result of Hamas rockets falling short and landing in Gaza, not Israel
  • Avoided a ground war in which there would have been many more casualties, both Palestinian and Israeli
  • Prevented Hezbollah from joining the war effort from the north.

However, military shmilitary victory! First, Operation Guardian of the Walls only restored “quiet and security to Israel” for perhaps five years; it did not remove the threat. Further, was acquiring a few years without any measurable violence even relevant when Hamas won the media war? As Honest Reporting noted, “In the past two weeks, we’ve seen an unrelenting onslaught of media bias against Israel waged by Canadian news providers, the likes of which we have never seen before. In the backdrop of recent hostilities between Israel and Hamas terrorists, our [Canadian] media singled out Israel for opprobrium, perpetuated outright falsehoods, and resorted to grotesque moral equivalences.”

Did it matter if the war was not won but merely set the stage for another war within ten years? As Abu Marsouk said, the war will only end when Jews end their occupation of Arab land and leave Palestine. “There will be no compromises allowing Israel to continue existing or the Jews to remain in the land.” This is a declaration of absolute jihad. The Jews are illegitimate occupiers of Arab land, the last expression of European colonialism, and there can be no compromise with colonizers.

Further, the majority of Palestinians believe that Israel’s true goal is to occupy the entire land of Palestine and ethnically cleanse enough Palestinians to ensure they maintain a clear and unthreatened majority. Jews even intend to rebuild their temple on the ruins of the al-Asqa Mosque. Thus, Hamas won an enormous ideological as well as media victory. In the media victory, they were brave victims of an overpowering military force. In the ideological war, they were in the position of David out to totally destroy the threat of Goliath.

  • Hamas declared victory because it survived the behemoth.
  • Hamas declared victory because the international community overwhelmingly identified and supported the Palestinians.
  • Hamas declared victory because it emerged as the pro tem true leader of Palestinian self-determination.

How did Israelis respond to the end of the war? There was a sigh of relef. There were no demonstrations declaring victory. There were some demonstrations of Jewish and Palestinian Israelis who pledged to continue to work to create a nation where all its citizens would have equal rights and there would be no inter-ethnic violence. Israelis, for a short time elated in emerging from the fog of the pandemic, were by and large depressed at the idea that the war had not accomplished anything permanent nor resolved the threat from Hamas. Israel’s readiness to agree to a cease-fire was perceived by Hamas as weakness. 72% of Israelis opposed the ceasefire. Hamas leaders have already threatened to open the next round of fighting. As Deputy Chief of Hamas, Musa Abu Marzouk, boasted, this “was not the final war with Israel. There will be more.” War will end when we negotiate the exodus of the usurping Jews from Palestine. Justice will reign and Palestinians will get what is justly theirs. The sacrifices will be painful. Victory will demand patience. But in the end, the Jews will leave.

The surprise is that, in spite of Hamas clear and unequivocal statements about its intent to exterminate Israel and expel the Jews from all of Palestine, the conversation in America, Israel’s key international supporter, has shifted. More specifically, Black Lives Matter (BLM) has moved the centre of gravity around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (Cf. “’From Ferguson to Palestine’: How Black Lives Matter changed the U.S. debate on the Mideast,” Sean Sullivan and Cleve R. Wootson Jr., Washington Post, 22.05.2021.) Note the following:

  • The BLM organizer who compared her clashes with police to those faced by Palestinians: “A ceasefire ends the bombardment — not the violence.”
  • Melina Abdullah, co-founder of the Los Angeles chapter of BLM: “Being in solidarity with the Palestinian people is something that’s been part of our work as Black Lives Matter for almost as long as we’ve been an organization.”
  • Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), a former BLM organizer, on the House floor stated that the Palestinians have endured “military occupation, policing, and apartheid” and “our own government is funding a brutal and militarized disposition towards our very existence — from Ferguson to Palestine.”
  • The language of “apartheid Israel” has now become mainstream, reinforced, of course, by reports of B’Tselem, Yesh Din and Human Rights Watch;
  • Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY): “As a Black man in America, I understand on a personal level what it means to live in a society designed to perpetuate violence against people who look like me…My experience of systemic injustice, including being beaten by police at 11 years old, informs my view of what’s happening right now in Israel and Palestine.”
  • The official BLM organization called for “Palestinian liberation.” 
  • BLM pressed the Democratic Party to dramatically alter its approach to the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
  • BLM has shifted the debate “from a tangled dispute over ancient, often-confusing claims to the far more familiar turf of police brutality and racial conflict.”
  • As Arielle Angel, the editor of Jewish Dissent, has written, “The Black Lives Matter movement can claim credit for helping masses of people understand the mechanisms of structural racism and oppression, and for consistently linking the Black struggle to the Palestinian one.” 
  • In Toronto Canada, Jews from If Not Now and Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME), alongside Palestinians and other allies, celebrated a shabat in Christie Pits Park immediately after the ceasefire and petitioned Justin Trudeau to stop arms sales to Israel.
  • Instead of a conflict between two peoples over the same territory, the conflict is now seen as one in which, Palestinians have long been evicted, terrorized and treated like second-class citizens.

More significant than the growing split within the Democratic Party in the US between the progressives and traditional liberals has been a parallel split within the Jewish community in the diaspora, particularly the American diaspora. Rabbi Amni Hirsch in an impassioned sermon identified and wept over the growing chasm in the Jewish community and within liberal Zionism. Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) openly supports the BDS movement. I have already written about Peter Beinart, editor of Jewish Currents, shifting from support for a two-state solution to advocating a one-state solution and the right of return of the Palestinian refugees. For a growing number of American Jews on the progressive left, Israel is now viewed as a brutal racist ethnocratic nationalist state founded on continuing Jewish supremacy.

“I don’t feel alone anymore. Though the years since 2014 have seen the growth of a small but committed Jewish anti-occupation movement, the last week and a half has brought an even larger circle of the community to a place of reckoning. We’ve seen Jewish politicians, celebrities, rabbinical students and others speak up loudly for Palestine. We’ve seen a powerful display of solidarity from Jewish Google employees, asking their company to sever ties with the IDF. At Jewish Currents, the left-wing magazine where I am now editor-in-chief, we asked for questions from readers struggling to understand the recent violence. We’ve been deluged.” Arielle Angel, “Jewish Americans are at a turning point with Israel,” The Guardian, 22 May 2021.

The above suggests an enormous paradigm shift underway in America, within the Jewish diaspora community, within Israel and in Israel-Palestinian relations. Those changes disrupt all of our basic assumptions and pressure us to undertake a fundamental re-examination.

Regret, Repentance, Resolve, Restitution, Restoration and Return

Peter Beinart ends his essay on the right of return of the Palestinian refugees with a reference to teshuvah. Teshuvah literally means “return,” more specially a return to God. However, it is often translated as “repentance” or “penitence.” According to Chabad, “Teshuvah means to regret some mess-up you made, and resolve never to do it again.” 

In this week’s parashah Naso, Numbers 5:5-7 reads:

The Lord said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites: ‘Any man or woman who wrongs another in any way[a] and so is unfaithful to the Lord is guilty and must confess the sin they have committed. They must make full restitution for the wrong they have done, add a fifth of the value to it and give it all to the person they have wronged.

Restitution is not the same as compensation. In legal parlance, the law of restitution is the law of gains-based recovery; that is, a court orders the defendant to give up his gains to the claimant. The law of compensation is the law of loss-based recovery; a court orders the defendant to pay the claimant for their loss. Peter Beinart holds the Zionist responsible for the Nakba, the large-scale displacement of Palestinians and dispossession of Palestinian property not only in 1948, but as a pattern of Zionist behaviour in the treatment of Palestinians ever since at least Israel’s independence. According to teshuvah, the Zionists are obligated to accept their responsibility for their actions, express regret for their behaviour, resolve never again to repeat the sin, pay restitution and not just compensation to the refugees, and permit their return to their homes and lands in Israel.

Contrast the concept of teshuvah, of repentance, restoration and return, with the Hindu and Pythagorean concept of “eternal return” resurrected in the modern era by Friedrich Nietzsche. In The Gay Science, Nietzsche asked rhetorically (aphorism 341):

“What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!’

“Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.’ If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and everything: ‘Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?’ would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life?”

Life is hell, akin to the experience of Sisyphus as depicted by Albert Camus in his 1942 volume, The Myth of Sisyphus, wherein, Sisyphus is condemned to rolling a boulder up a steep incline and when he approaches the top, it rolls down and he must repeat the effort. Again and again. Unlike the world of teshuvah, accountability, repentance and restoration, in the doctrine of eternal return, there is no escape from the human condition, from the futility of any effort, from the indifference of the world to what you do. You owe nothing to other breathing and active mammals. They own nothing to you. And no one has any debt or responsibility to God.

Eternal return is not like Groundhog Day, not like Two Distant Strangers, with each day being a variation of the same situation, altered because of what was learned in the previous encounters, each time with a determination to bring a different outcome, but each time with the same result in the end. It is the latter that makes both these movies and the concept of eternal repetition and return to the same place conceptually identical.

In eternal return, one always ends up back in the same place. No one has moral responsibility for making changes. No one is accountable. No one can change what is destined to be. Except the übermensch, the overman who can overcome and leave behind the moral system to which he is enslaved by creating his own value system.

The Zionist cause and the Palestinian one do not rest on an idea of eternal return, on an indifferent universe, or, alternatively, an escape from a slave morality to create your own value system. They are united by a sense of personal responsibility and accountability, by a recognition that qua sinners, humans must repent. Muslims must repent often and turn to Allah in repentance and for forgiveness. In hadith, Muhammad asked people to seek Allah’s forgiveness: “O People, seek repentance from Allah.”  

Without going into the subtle differences between the two conceptions, the key issue is who was the original sinner and what was that sin? Was it the refusal of Muslims to allow Jews to migrate to Palestine, to reject the history that Palestine had been the ancient homeland of the Jewish people and the exertion of trying to prevent Jews from buying land in Palestine? Or was it the efforts of the Jews to colonize Palestine, displace the Arab population there and replace Arabs with Jews. The problem with doctrines of regret and repentance, of restoration and return, is that one must first determine who committed the original sin and what was the character of that sin. Different evaluations result in different narratives to both justify and reinforce the focus on which party carries primary responsibility.

This propensity to create a narrative to show the other as the sinner, the other as responsible for the current calamity, is reinforced by the rise of social media like TikTok with its personalized videos, like instagram with its plethora of stills, and with twitter with its short and punchy feeds. Subtleties in assigning responsibilities are ignored in favour of caricatures of heroic victims and brutal oppressors. Instead of an emphasis on each party taking responsibility for its own actions, the primary emphasis is on assigning blame to the other and claiming victimhood for one’s own side in a collectivist neo-Marxian postmodernism.

The veil of victimhood displaces the robes of repentance. Instead of an escape from Egypt, there is a return to the symbiosis of master and slave. Instead of moving onward by accepting the rule of law and the assignation of responsibilities and penalties, guilt is determined by the overarching narrative rather than by the details of a case. The only escape is by allowing each individual to create and write their own narratives in the attempt to become übermenschen.

What then are the choices before us? In one, there is no escape; we are collectively consigned to roles as victors or victims in competing narratives of exploitation. In a second, there is an individualist escape by transforming and creating your own personal narrative and set of values. A third option requires attending to one’s own responsibility for creating a current conflict without letting the other off the hook. In fact, such a position demands that we use objective criteria of goodness, truth and justice to make such assessments.

The only problem with the latter is that it relied on the political and ideological absolutism of the enlightenment that gave preference to the story of white men liberating the world from oppression and raising the normative standards by establishing the rule of law and the essential role of human rights. That opens the door to a focus and attack on colonialism and patriarchy, on oppression and displacement not simply of peoples but of whole cultures.

That is why there is some difficulty in understanding the current alliance between a patriarchal religious hierarchy that rejects modernism altogether and the postmodernists who have aided and abetted Hamas in becoming the leaders of the anti-colonial revolution because they too abhor modernism, abhor objectivity, abhor a preoccupation with facts, abhor principles of consistency and coherence. For the story told is the be-all and tell-all of everything.

The only blockage standing in the way is the religious moral order of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, each with its own overlapping universal and cross-cultural moral code.  Whether they are religious reactionaries, as found in Hamas and Zionist extremism, or bleeding- heart progressives who equate justice with the cause of those at the bottom of the heap and left behind by evolutionary forces of survival of the fittest, this unholy alliance really rejects the individual need to accept responsibility, the individual need to critique his own personal role and responsibility in the conflict.

The latter is very difficult to do when a confluence of circumstances and serendipity bring together issues from different political arenas to reinforce a common narrative that is indifferent to facts and predominant norms. For example, the current outbreak of violence between Israeli Jews and Palestinians has gained its enormous thrust from four different dimensions of the conflict in four different geographical areas, but where each one reinforces a single narrative.

On the level of a sub-narrative, on the surface the story of the events at Sheikh Jarrah would seem to be the most inconsequential and the least important. Shaikh Jarrah is a tony overwhelmingly Arab area almost two miles north of the Dome on the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque. Since the area was captured by the Israelis in 1967, there has been an effort underway to repossess 28 properties that were under Jewish ownership prior to 1948. With the purchase of the property rights in 2002 by an American company registered in Delaware, and presumed to be an arm of the settler movement, the legal claim then proceeded with some heft.

In a few cases, private financial and legal settlements with the occupants enabled the Jewish owners to gain title and move religious Jews into the reclaimed homes. The current attention was focused on four homes occupied by families originally from Haifa, Jaffa and West Jerusalem. Further, the homes on the property did not exist prior to 1948. The land owned by a Sephardic charity had remained empty. In 1956, Jordan in partnership with UNRWA built homes on the land for the refugees who surrendered their refugee ration cards in exchange for the homes. They were supposed to get legal title in three years, but title transfer never took place.  

As protests took place outside the homes claiming settler oppression and displacement and the misuse of law unavailable to non-citizens of Israel, the dominant narrative became one of a continuation of the Nakba rather than a legal battle over owners’ land rights and tenant occupancy rights. In that narrative, the court offered compromise – that directly reflected Peter Beinart’s proposals in eviction cases, namely, that the occupants would be allowed to stay as long as they paid rent, recognized the legal owners and agreed to vacate the premises on the death of the original tenant – was entirely ignored in favour of a tale of continued dispossession and Jewish settler expansion. It was told as a tale of the Nakba all over again. The simple morality tale easily took the dominant place as opposed to the complicated legal battle.

The violence that broke out on the Temple Mount followed the police request to turn down the loudspeakers on the mosque calling the worshippers to pray when it was Ramadan, but also when Jews were praying at the Western Wall. The authorities in charge of the mosque refused the request. The police cut the electrical supply to the loudspeakers. Crowds within the mosque emerged to throw stones at the police. The police responded with stun grenades and tear gas. Over 205 Muslim worshippers were injured as well as 17 Israeli police officers. The tale that emerged from the conflict was of the instruments of the state trying to infringe and limit Muslim rights on the Haram esh-Sharif. This narrative was reinforced with a video clip showing  Israeli celebrants dancing and singing on the Kotel Plaza to celebrate Jerusalem Day as, in the background, a tree burned on the upper plaza.

 The dominant sub-narrative – the rights of Muslims to pray on their sacred site – was being threatened.

After the end of the fast each day of Ramadan, worshippers gathered to socialize on the plaza in front of Damascus Gate.  An inexperienced Israeli police superintendent, fearing a riot at the end of Ramadan, as a precautionary measure put up metal barriers for crowd control. This was the catalyst for a protest as Palestinians understandably saw the effort as an infringement on their right to assembly. Another sub-narrative reinforced the dominant narrative of Jewish displacement and oppression.

In Arab-Jewish mixed towns in Israel – e.g. Lod and Ramle – gentrification resulted in Jews buying up larger and older Arab homes. The Palestinian-Israelis felt under threat on their own turf. It did not help that Israeli police had neglected those Palestinian neighbourhoods and hooligan gangs had taken over. Hamas instigators used the opportunity to add to the conflict and tensions between Palestinians and Jews by organizing the worst rioting against Jews and Jewish property since the state was formed. Ten synagogues among other structures were torched, three in Lod alone. Once again, the narrative of Jewish displacement and oppression of Palestinians was reinforced, but this time from a very unexpected source.

Finally, there was Gaza itself. Abbas had cancelled the announced Palestinian elections on the pretext that Israel had prevented the election by not allowing voting in East Jerusalem. In 2006, Israel had allowed such voting. Oslo II obligated Israel to permit East Jerusalemites to vote in East Jerusalem post offices. But Israel would not cooperate. Instead of facilitating voting in nearby urban areas under Palestinian control, Mahmoud Annas used it as an excuse to cancel the lection and remind everyone of Israel’s take over of East Jerusalem.

Hamas, resentful of the cancellation of the election in which they expected to do very well and possibly peacefully take over the Palestinian movement, gave Israel a deadline to back down. Israel did not. Gaza sent seven missiles directed at Jerusalem. The barrage of missiles increased over the next ten days to over 4,000 and Israeli reprisal attacks on Gaza destroyed buildings, blew up Hamas tunnels and sometimes houses and apartments with women and children. Over two hundred died, including many Hamas commanders. Israel had only suffered 10 losses in the same period. This time Hamas, though it lost a great deal in the battle, reinforced its image not only as David taking on Goliath, but as the only organized Palestinian political body willing to stand up to the Israelis and challenge their ongoing efforts at displacement and dispossession.

Thus, even though Hamas was the unequivocal instigator of this last war in Gaza, illegally sent its rockets to target civilian areas in Israel and even was responsible for up to 500 of those missiles falling short and killing their own people in Gaza, the dominant sub-narrative was that Gaza was the victim protecting Palestinians against Israeli oppression and willing to bear the costs of resistance.

Israel as the asymmetrically tremendously dominant party just could not win the public relations war for the dominant narrative. It no longer had a tale to compete with the Palestinian story of victimhood.

But it could have – if it played the regret card to the fullest, it Israel openly repented for the terrible costs for which it was responsible, of the areas of insensitivity for which it is to blame, if it insisted on self-critical commentary rather than boasts of military successes, and, most important of all, if Israel initiated a real and strongly driven program of restitution to the Palestinians, then Israelis could come across as penitents and Palestinians as unrepentant perpetrators of violence even though the weaker party.

Israel – and certainly the Netanyahu government – does not seem to recognize that this is war of competing tales and not just military battles on the ground in Gaza, Jerusalem and now in mixed Israeli Arab-Jewish towns.

VIIIC Peter Beinart and the Right of Return of Palestinians

Morality, Policy and Practice

I have gathered Peter Beinart’s arguments into three clusters: a) those based on ethics and morality; b) those based on international law and policy; and c) those based on international and Jewish/Israeli practices. In each of these clusters, there are two trifecta, two sets of three arguments each. These clusters yield a total of 18 arguments in total. Given the large number, I will have to be reasonably succinct in dealing with each one.

  1. Ethical and Moral Arguments

Beinart offers us three negative and three positive ethical and moral arguments to reinforce his claim that supporting return is the morally superior position. The three negative arguments are based on logical consistency, political necessity and just deserts. Addressed primarily to liberals, the first argument claims that it is purportedly logically inconsistent to oppose the occupation and the settlement of the West Bank and oppose return since the underlying principle is the same – the right of a person to his or her home and land and not be forcefully deprived of the same. Second, if the argument against return is conjoined with the argument for a two-state solution, you have an unholy alliance since the two-state solution is now divorced from reality as a possibility. Third, the denial of return is based on an inapplicable principle of just deserts, namely, the Palestinians brought the expulsion upon themselves when the facts of history demonstrate that the vast bulk of the exodus was the result of forced ethnic cleansing by the Zionists.

However, opposing the occupation and the expansion of settlements entails resistance against new actions. Supporting return entails rolling back behaviour that has already taken place. It is one thing to oppose the continuing infringement on indigenous rights and another not to connect such a move with rolling back and reversing the white occupation of North America. It is not a contradiction to resist new initiatives yet oppose reversal moves even when the two situations appear to mirror one another, divided only by a present timeline.

The second negative argument is based on the premise that a two-state solution is unrealistic. But if lack of realism is the basis for dismissing a case, Beinart’s own support for a one-state solution is far more unrealistic and, on that basis, would seem to rule out support for return. Third, there is no necessary connection between the principle of return or non-return and moral responsibility for the exodus. The Palestinians may be partially responsible for the large-scale exodus. Or the Zionists may be largely responsible. However, the decision about what to do about the results is a distinct question on its own with no necessary connection to moral responsibility for the event. The Germans may have been responsible for allowing Hitler to come to power. But that does not mean the Marshall Plan for rehabilitating Germany was not morally justified. There is simply no necessary connection between the cause of a fault and determining the appropriate cure.

The positive moral case supporting return also has a trifecta of moral arguments. The first is the argument that the nakba was not restricted to 1948 but has continued until today; the actions of 1948 and those currently underway by the Zionists in power are the same. However, that moral presumption of commonality is highly questionable; its empirical premise is clearly and distinctly untrue. The international community voted in support of partition in 1948. There would have been no mass exodus if the Palestinians and the Arab neighbours had then accepted partition as Egypt and Jordan now do. In contrast, the international community almost universally opposes Israel’s annexation of the West Bank, even the creeping annexation by means of settlements. Thus, the encroachment upon and appropriation of land as a result of a defensive war, and the rejection of refugee return, may be justified in 1948 because of the need to secure a state. It may not be either necessary or desirable to expand that state.

The second positive moral argument is that refugee return is a necessary condition and prerequisite for Jews and Arabs to live side by side in peace and tranquility that ensures stability since political egalitarian systems are inherently more stable. However, the same voices often argue that for centuries, until the arrival on the scene of the Zionists, Jews and Arabs lived side-by-side in peace. But surely there is no basis for arguing that they did so based on equality. On the other hand, Jews and Palestinians within Israel have been living side-by-side in relative peace for seven decades until the recent riots, and, as Beinart would agree, they do not in practice have equal status. On the other hand, the inequalities for a significant portion of middle-class Israeli Palestinians has demonstrably narrowed, yet there can still be outbreaks of intercommunal violence. The reality is – pre-WWII Germany is an example – relative equality between ethnic groups is no guarantee of an absence of ethnic strife in the future. (See the story of former Yugoslavia below.)

The third argument is based on Jewish economic and political supremacy which return would be crucial in reversing. But Hasidic Jews are even more economically deprived than Israeli Palestinians. Yet much of the extremism against Palestinian Israelis can be located there. It is not the power differential that necessitates economic deprivation of the weaker party, though it certainly does not help. Palestinian return might simply lead to increased numbers among the poor Israeli Palestinians. Some Israeli Palestinians actually oppose return because it might threaten their own status at the same time as it might or would lead to greater average Palestinian Israeli impoverishment.

  • International Law and Policy

Perhaps the most important arguments for return are based in international law and policy. Beinart contends that the dominant international norm endorses the principle that, “People who want to return should be allowed to” based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and UN Resolution 194 which over the decades have assumed the role of a fundamental premise of international law.

Except, it isn’t. International rights law is universal. Refugee law is about membership in a specific state. Nowhere in its many articles does the Universal Declaration refer to refugees. In fact, Article 2 refers to the equality of all polities whatever their status and reads: “no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.”

Given the equal status of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank under international law with respect to human rights, Article 13:2 reads: “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” In the plain meaning of the text, there are two very different rights, first the right to leave a country, which everyone under the human rights charter possesses as an inalienable right, and the right of members of a country to return. Not everyone has the right to return. Jews only have the right of return to Israel because the governing authorities and the people of that country have bestowed that right. Except for Palestinians who are citizens of Israel, Palestinians explicitly do not have a right to return to Israel because Israel was not and is not the Palestinian’s country.

Article 13 is very different than Article 15. The latter insists that everyone has the right to be a member of some state. Statelessness runs against human rights. But the Charter of Human Rights does not specify which state that right applies to, only that it should be some state. “Everyone has the right to a nationality” and “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.”

What about UN General Assembly Resolution 194? Article 11 of that resolution provides that, “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.” This resolution has the status of a moral advisory rather than an assertion of rights. Further, it is conditional on the following: 1) the permission of Israel; 2) the willingness of the returnee to live in peace and cease a state of belligerency; 3) recommends compensation be paid to those who choose not to return (versus those who want to return but are not given permission); and 4) the responsibility for compensation belong to governments (plural) responsible for the exodus and, given the debates at the time, this was a reference to the invading Arab armies that tried to stop Israel becoming a sovereign and independent state.

It is true that over the subsequent decades, particularly after 1967, that Resolution came to be interpreted as the refugees having a right of return, that the right was transferred to descendants of the original refugees, and that this mantra of “right to return” developed as a central belief in the Palestinian cause of seeking their own state or seeking to displace the Israeli state. In any case, UN General Assembly resolutions simply have no legal force.

What about international policy? Beinart insists that, “Return is by far the most general pattern for resolving refugee crises.” In terms of general frequency, he is correct. But the vast majority of sources of refugees result from ideological conflicts or conflicts over power. Inter-ethnic conflicts rarely lead to return. When they do, it is only behind a conquering army. In inter-ethnic conflicts, refugee return is not only not the pattern it is not even the exception except when superior force is used to back return (e.g. the return of Tutsi to Rwanda following the genocide and the end of the civil war). The Palestinian Liberation Organization when it was formed in 1964 recognized that and determined to return with a conquering army.

  • International and Israeli Practice

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on the side on which you are on, the cases Beinart cites not only do not support his position but undermine it. Take the Dayton Accords that brought a form of peace to former Yugoslavia. This was a case of inter-ethnic conflict between Serbs, Croats and Bosniacs. It is true that, “The right of refugees to return to their homes is the central promise of the Dayton peace agreement, which considers rebuilding a united multiethnic society in Bosnia-Herzegovina the key to a sustainable peace.” 

Except it never happened. The actual peace was a result of the Serbs, Croats and Bosniacs consolidating their power and occupancy in their own geographical areas. Like the Palestinians, but in larger numbers, one million refugees were either forced to leave their homes or fled to avoid being caught up in the violence. There were another million IDPs. Each of the ethnic groups strenuously resisted return and the international community met with persistent non-compliance. Further, even the efforts to provide compensation by making the former homes marketable was made virtually impossible by the new economic order undergirded by the United Nations and the international community which, in effect, gave the nationalist perpetrators of the war the initial economic and political power.  (Cf. for example, the United States Institute of Peace, Special Report 26, “Dayton Implementation The Return of Refugees,” which summarized the myriad of obstacles which undermined the goal of return.) Dayton, rather than providing an illustration of a right of return, instantiated the enormous difficulties of enacting return after an inter-ethnic conflict in spite of the enormous support for return from the international community.

The Somali and Afghan examples of passing refugee status down generations applies only to those refugees who remain stateless. Palestinian refugees who fled to Jordan received citizenship. Palestinians who fled to Gaza and the West Bank, in effect then Palestinian territory, were de facto internally displaced rather than refugees under the meaning of the UNHCR as having left their own territory. The reality is that the vast majority of the so-called Palestinian refugees are not refugees in accord with international standards, but followed an older pattern of designating refugees by humanitarian need rather than membership.

In another more far-fetched example, the cases of Jews returning to Spain and Austria whose ancestors were evicted years or even centuries ago are all examples, not of a “right of return,” but of states wanting to make amends and/or wanting the return of refugees who posed absolutely no threat to the home population militarily, politically, economically or demographically. These are simply cases bearing no resemblance to the Palestinian case. These Jews are not even called refugees, which adds another nail to the coffin of stupidity of this argument.

Finally, the attempt to undermine the Israeli resistance to return based on the argument of limited absorptive capacity or the need to balance compensation for the Jewish refugees from Arab lands with Arabs from Israel, and the insistence that return does not entail eviction, simply misrepresents the three points. Limited absorptive capacity is a side issue and is not the central argument against return. Compensation, on the other hand, is accepted in principle, but the issue becomes who pays and the assurance that everyone displaced as a result of the wider conflict be compensated.

The issue of compromise at the end of the essay is a joke if it were not so serious. That is because the description of the compromise of return without eviction takes precisely the form of the Israeli Supreme Court proposed compromise to the inhabitants of the houses in Sheikh Jarrah. No eviction if rent is paid, ultimate legal ownership is acknowleged and vacancy is guaranteed when the existing tenant dies.

When one gets to the end of the paper, it is as if one was dealing with a defence piling argument on top of argument whatever the value of each, hoping at least one would stick. A critical reader feels like he or she has escaped a manure pile.

Tomorrow: Teshuva

 Cf. Howard Adelman and Elazar Barkan (2011) No Return, No Refuge: Rites and Rights in Minority Repatriation.

VIIIB Peter Beinart and the Right of Return of Palestinians:

Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time

History is at war with nostalgia. In history, what takes place in the world – events and actions – matter more than what you think about them. With nostalgia, as in Marcel Proust, the mind has primacy. What you feel, what you think, what you experience is the real determinant of how the world is regarded and how we respond to it.

That is why Part I of Peter Beinart’s essay is so important. As the war rages in Gaza, and emotional identification battles reality within the hearts of both Palestinians and Jews in Israel, as the public relations battle takes place for the hearts and minds of Arabs in surrounding countries and in the citizens of Europe and North America, the symbolism of Jerusalem and the fight over the right of return has once again moved to centre stage as nostalgia has risen to challenge history’s monopoly of power and influence and authority on the political, social and economic dimensions of the conflict.

In that battle, Peter Beinart set down four basic propositions:

  1. Palestinian displacement is recent, within personal memory; Jewish displacement was centuries old.
  2. Jews are responsible for the Palestinian displacement; Palestinians are not responsible for the Jewish displacement.
  3. There is a bitter irony in Jews telling another people to give up on their homeland and assimilate in foreign lands.
  4. Jewish leaders keep insisting that, to achieve peace, Palestinians must forget the nakba, the catastrophe they endured in 1948.

Why does the timing of the displacement matter? It does not. Except in memory. Except in experience. Making that proposition the opening salvo not only prioritizes nostalgia over history but reduces the Jewish desire for return to a nostalgic wish and not a desperate survival mechanism married to an ideology to ensure that Jewish survival.  The intent is to make memory rather than reality the battleground for legitimacy.

And then responsibility. For if memory has priority in determining responsibility, Palestinians, and Arabs more generally, are self-evidently not responsible for the Jewish exile from Palestine whereas Jews in Israel are, at least partially (though that is bracketed and put in a side column) responsible for the Palestinian exodus. But responsible as a cause as history likes to determine, or responsible normatively within a subjective moral framework? To make the latter prior requires omitting the historical fact that the Palestinian leadership, from the time of the Balfour Declaration promising Jews a homeland in their ancient land, adamantly opposed the migration of Jews to Palestine, adamantly opposed the sale of Arab-owned land to Jews. By leaving this out, the demand for self-preservation of a Palestinian domination in all of Palestine is sidelined in favour of a narrative of settler colonialism and the will of the Jews to displace Palestinians and become the dominant demographic force in all of Palestine.

But the reality is that there is no irony. Jews do not insist now that Palestinians give up their homeland and assimilate in foreign lands. The vast majority of Palestinians continue to live in Palestine and Jordan. The goal of the two-state solution is that, given the adamant opposition of Arabs to Jewish return migration and settlement, the homeland be divided into a Jewish majoritarian part and a Palestinian majoritarian part. The push for assimilation in foreign countries, which was a proposal for the relatively small groups of Palestinian refugees in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, becomes the dominant story for Beinart, and not the division of the land.

Finally, the statement that it is a war, and that history would express its domination over memories and nostalgia, is the insistence that Zionists want to erase Palestinian memories and experience by not only denying that the nakba occurred in 1948 but extirpating the memory from experience. Further, in so doing, Zionists can prevent Palestinians from seeing and understanding that the nakba was not something that just took place in 1948 but has been a continuous pattern from the first arrival of the Jewish return to Palestine to the expansionist dreams of the settlers.

However, the nakba is taught – by Jewish progressives and the Jewish Voice for Peace. In that version, the nakba is not taught as if a significant percentage of the 720,000 Arab refugees fled their homes and the land that became Israel, but as “the forced displacement of approximately 750,000 Palestinians that began with Israel’s establishment.” (

Note what is missing. There were approximately 750,000 Palestine refugees from the fighting in 1947 and 1948. But 37,000 of them were Jewish Palestine refugees who were forced out or fled areas that Jordan took over and made judenrein, empty of Jews. Nostalgia works by making history highly selective and restricted, to turning objectivity simply into a reflection of personal memory and experience.

Further, the history initially taught in Israel of the War of Independence was a mythological tale of moral heroes and bravery beyond any expectations. That heroic method of writing and teaching history in Israel has been displaced by far more objective and comprehensive accounts. Since 2007, the Israeli Education Ministry, in response to requests from its Palestinian population, has, in fact, included the tragedy of the Nakba in its curriculum. Rather than being extirpated, it has been adopted and included as part of the understanding of Israeli history and, in particular, of the Palestinian experience that constitutes part of that history.

This raises the issue of the war between mythological memory, a partner often of nostalgia though not equivalent to it, and objective history. Peter Beinart in his comprehensive defence of the right of return, or, at least, one version of it, posed three further propositions, namely that Israeli history itself is founded on myths that stand at odds with the reality of history:

Myth: Palestinians fled because Arab leaders urged them to do so.  

Truth: Arab officials often pleaded with them to stay.

Myth; Zionist militants only fought a defensive war against invading Arab armies.

Truth: Zionist military operations were the major precipitants to flight.

Myth: Arab governments rejected the partition proposal of 1947.

Truth: Jews accepted partition nominally but, in reality, undermined partition.

It is a myth that most Palestinians fled at the urging of their own leadership. This was part of the initial heroic phase of Israeli historiography in which Jews were portrayed as morally pure heroic figures. Some Palestinians did flee as a result of such urging and stay as a result of other urging. But most did not. Most fled to get out of the way of the violence and many fled and were uprooted because of the “strategic” ethnic cleansing of the Israeli military forces, the Hagannah and the Irgun. This militance was a major precipitant to flight but not the major precipitant.

However, the above are all subtle differences between myth and truth. The claim that Arab rejection of the UN partition proposal as a myth is, in fact, a blatant lie. Arab governments did reject partition. They even rejected the minority report of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) recommending a federation of two polities, a Jewish one and an Arab one. Arab initial absolute rejectionism is an incontrovertible element in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

What about the portrait of the Zionist leadership accepting partition rhetorically while working assiduously to undermine it? This is, of course, a more subtle argument when appearance is juxtaposed with opposing reality. Fortunately, the overwhelming proportion of historical evidence supports the proposition that the Zionist leadership, reluctantly since 1936, had accepted partition as the only realistic solution while the Arab leadership adamantly rejected it.

The reason these fundamental historical propositions matter so much is because some critics of Zionism and of Israel want to make the battle one of consciousness, one of memory, one of experience, rather than a battle over what actually happened. There are many areas in which conflicts remain over the details of the story. But the broad objective outline has been established and this nostalgic version on the side of the Palestinians is not worth anymore than the initial heroic histories written by Israelis.

Now to the heart of the matter. The bottom line is, as Beinart declares, that it has been a demographic, and continues to be a demographic battle. But that does not mean that the Palestinian presence in the new Israel was intolerable. It was accepted, but only so long as it did not threaten the majoritarian Jewish character of the state either in terms of numbers or in terms of ideology. The Zionists, both because of internal factors and external forces, were determined to create a majoritarian Jewish state and not just a homeland in a territory ruled predominantly by Palestinians, in this case, Palestinians who rejected the increased presence of Jews and Jewish immigration.

It is simply not true that “in most cases” in the 1948 war, Arabs offered peace agreements with the Jews but that these were rejected out of hand and the Palestinians were ejected. This certainly did happen in some cases. In other cases, Palestinians were ejected without making an offer of peace or threatening resistance. In still other cases, the Palestinians were regarded as a strategic threat given their location. But there was never any effort to make Israel Arabrein or Palestinianrein.

Thus, the big new myth to replace the old myth that Jews bore no responsibility for the exodus of the Palestinians – Zionist forces were responsible for evicting 710,000 to 720,000 Palestinians. Zionists were not responsible for evicting the upper class leaders who left early for the safety of Cairo and Beirut. The Zionists were not responsible for the Palestinians who fled in panic. The Zionists were not responsible for those who fled on the advice of their leaders. The Zionists were not responsible for those who fled when actual clashes broke out between an Arab town and Israeli forces.

That does not mean Jews bore no responsibility. Depending on the case, they carried different degrees of responsibility and, in a few cases, did use Palestinian civilians as human shields, in many cases, stole the property of Palestinians, and in even a few cases executed unarmed Palestinians and raped Palestinian women. But the effort to place the total blame for the nakba on Israel and let Palestinians off the hook is just a myth to strengthen the moral battle for “the right of return”.

Tomorrow: Current Israeli Policy: Displacement and Replacement

VIIIA Peter Beinart and the Right of Return of Palestinians

On 11 May 2021, Peter Beinart wrote and published an article, “Teshuvah: A Jewish Case for Palestinian Return.” In this blog, I summarize his argument. In my following blogs, I will attempt to refute each and every one of his claims. Peter is worth taking on. His summary of claims is comprehensive, succinct and driven by both moral passion and verbal skill. I recommend reading the full article.

I have not grouped the arguments in the order in which they occur but under the headings of memory – general, mythological and truthful –then under international law and policy and then Israeli law and policy before taking up the issue in Part III of Teshuvah. What appears as a long list of clear claims, proves, upon examination, to be a horrific, even if intelligent, combination of misleading, misunderstood confusions and contradictions.

Part I – HistoryOn Remembrance of Things Past and Responsibility

A. Palestinian displacement is recent, within personal memory; Jewish displacement was centuries old.

“The Palestinian families that mourn Jaffa or Safed lived there recently and remember intimate details about their lost homes. They experienced dispossession from Israel-Palestine. Jews…only imagined it.”

  • Jews are responsible for the Palestinian displacement; Palestinians are not responsible for the Jewish displacement. Mahmoud Darwash “You created our exile, we didn’t create your exile.” 
  • The bitter irony of Jews telling another people to give up on their homeland and assimilate in foreign lands. George Bisharat
  • Jewish leaders keep insisting that, to achieve peace, Palestinians must forget the Nakba, the catastrophe they endured in 1948. Beinart: “Peace will come when Jews remember…the better we will understand why they deserve the chance to return.”
  • B. Mythological Memory
  • “The most enduring myth is that Palestinians fled because Arab and Palestinian officials told them to.” “Palestinian and Arab officials often pleaded with them to stay.”
  • Zionist military operations proved “the major precipitants to flight.”
  • Arab government rejection of the United Nations proposal to partition Mandatory Palestine is a myth and misleading. Beinart: “Zionist leaders accepted the UN partition plan on paper while undoing it on the ground.”
  • C. The Historical Truth
  • The presence of Palestinians was intolerable, not because the continued presence of Palestinians personally threatened Jews, but because they threatened the demography of a Jewish state.
  • In most cases, Palestinian residents of Arab towns were expelled even though they offered peace agreements with the Zionists.
  • In roughly 18 months, Zionist forces evicted upwards of 700,000 individuals, more than half of Mandatory Palestine’s Arab population. “They emptied more than 400 Palestinian villages and depopulated the Palestinian sections of many of Israel-Palestine’s mixed cities and towns. In each of these places, Palestinians endured horrors that haunted them for the rest of their lives.”
  • Israelis used expelled Palestinians as human shields. “They forced the bulk of Eliaboun’s residents to evacuate the village and head north, thus serving as human shields for Israeli forces who trailed behind them, in case the road was mined.”
  • Israeli soldiers robbed Palestinian rebels “of their valuables and loaded them on trucks that deposited them across the Lebanese border.”
  • Israeli militants executed unarmed or captured Palestinians in cold blood.
  • Israelis raped Palestinians. [several dozen reported cases but the tip of the iceberg]
  • Eviction was usually followed by theft. The plunder was systematized by the Law of Absentee Properties. “When the United Nations passed its partition plan in November 1947, Jews owned roughly 7% of the territory of Mandatory Palestine. By the early 1950s, almost 95% of Israel’s land was owned by the Jewish state.” 
  • Israelis do not teach the Nakba “because it is hard to look the Nakba in the eye and not wonder, at least furtively, about the ethics of creating a Jewish state when doing so required forcing vast numbers of Palestinians from their homes.”

Part II: Policy and Practice

  • D. Current Policy and Morality
  • Morally, it is currently wrong to oppose Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza but supporting Palestinian return is taboo. Beinart: “If it is wrong to hold Palestinians as non-citizens under military law, and wrong to impose a blockade that denies them the necessities of life, it is surely also wrong to expel them and prevent them from returning home.”
  • The pragmatic argument for opposing the West Bank and Gaza policy and defending the rejection of return is bankrupt. Beinart “Palestinian refugees should return only to the West Bank and Gaza, regardless of whether that is where they are from, as part of a two-state solution that gives both Palestinians and Jews a country of their own. But with every passing year, as Israel further entrenches its control over all the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, this supposedly realistic alternative grows more detached from reality.”
  • What remains of the case against Palestinian refugee return is a series of historical and legal arguments, peddled by Israeli and American Jewish leaders, about why Palestinians deserved their expulsion and have no right to remedy it now.
  • The forced displacement of 1948 and now are equivalent. “The Israeli leaders who justify expelling Palestinians today in order to make Jerusalem a Jewish city are merely paraphrasing the Jewish organizations that have spent the last several decades justifying the expulsion of Palestinians in 1948 in order to create a Jewish state.”
  • “Refugee return “is a prerequisite for building a future in which both Jews and Palestinians enjoy safety and freedom in the land each people calls home.”
  • “Envisioning return requires uprooting deeply entrenched structures of Jewish supremacy and Palestinian subordination. It requires envisioning a different kind of country. “
  •  “Political systems that give everyone a voice in government generally prove more stable and more peaceful for everyone.”
  •           That re-envisioning would require “redistributing land, economic resources, and political power, and perhaps just as painfully, reconsidering cherished myths about the Israeli and Zionist past,” almost impossible to imagine how it could occur.
  • E. International Law
  • On its face, the claim that Palestinian refugees have no right to return is absurd since, “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares that “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” 
  • International law specifically asserts: Palestinians “wishing to return to their homes and to live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date.” 
  • The claim that General Assembly Resolutions aren’t legally binding and, that since Israel was only created in May 1948, Palestinian refugees were never its citizens; they would not be returning to “their country” are legalisms devoid of moral content.
  • In the decades since World War II, the international bodies that oversee refugees have developed a clear ethical principle: People who want to return home should be allowed to do so.
  • F. International Policy and Practice
  • “Since 1990, almost nine times as many refugees returned to their home countries as have been resettled in new ones.”
  • “Resettlement is preferred only when a refugee’s home country is so dangerous that it ‘cannot provide them with appropriate protection and support.’”
  • The 1995 Dayton Agreement with respect to Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia states, “All refugees and displaced persons have the right freely to return to their homes of origin” and “to have restored to them property of which they were deprived in the course of hostilities.” 
  • Jewish leaders endorse the rights of return and compensation for Jews expelled from Arab lands. Ronald Lauder, President of the World Jewish Congress, claims that Arab Jews deserve “equal rights and treatment under international law.”
  • International law strongly favors refugee return.
  • In the trade off between Arab Jews and Palestinian refugees, Israeli leaders concede the very legitimacy of the very rights they don’t want Palestinians to have.
  • Jews are guilty of a double standard re “who counts as a refugee” since the effort to exclude the descendants is both cynical and hypocritical since Jews do not hold to the principle that refugee status should not be handed down when in other protracted situations, in Somalia and Afghanistan, there are multiple generations of refugees.
  • Jews who reclaim the citizenship of their grandparents and parents (and even more distant ancestors – Austria, Spain and Portugal) are hypocritical in denying Palestinians the same right.
  • G. Israeli Policy and Practice
  • Israelis regard repatriating Palestinian refugees as an impossibility since return is not viable for such a small state; but Israel leads the world in demonstrating how false this is.
  • If Jews robbed en masse in Europe deserve compensation, so do Palestinians.
  • It is possible to calculate the value of lost property as proved to be the case when Jewish residents of Gaza were repatriated and they were compensated by the state.
  • It is possible to envision the repatriation of Palestinians without the eviction of current Jewish occupants.
  • If a Jewish family owns a home once owned by a Palestinian, first the original Palestinian owner (or their heirs) and then the current Jewish owner, would be offered the cash value of the home in return for relinquishing their claim. If neither accepted the payment, a further compromise would follow: ownership of the property would revert to the original Palestinian owners, but the Jewish occupants would continue living there until the Jewish occupants moved or died, at which point the Palestinians woud repossess their property.
  • Crimes of the past, when left unaddressed, do not remain in the past; Israel did not stop expelling Palestinians when its war for independence ended. It displaced 400,000 more Palestinians when it conquered the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1967.
  • In the 1950s, 28 Palestinian families, forced from Jaffa and Haifa in 1948, relocated to the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. The Jerusalem District Court ruled earlier this month that six of them should be evicted.

Part III – Teshuvah

  • On Teshuvah
  • Teshuvah, generally translated as “repentance,” literally means “return” and is a requisite to return from moral exile.

Displacement, Replacement, Return and Rights

The Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades of the military wing of Hamas began the Gazan dimension in the current violence on 10 May by launching seven missiles towards Jerusalem, contrary to its previous practice of limiting missiles to the envelope around the Gaza strip. The missiles, with a range of 120 kilometers (75 miles), carried high-explosive warheads. Up until today, over 3,000 missiles have been launched.

The claim was that they were sent as a response to Israeli police actions on the plaza in front of the Al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, the Al-Haram Al-Sharif, what for Jews is the Temple Mount. The Israeli police authorities had cut the electricity to the loudspeakers on the minarets at the mosque when the mosque authorities there would not turn down the volume. With 70,000 worshippers gathering for the end of Ramadan, some began raining stones down on the Jewish worshippers praying below at the Wailing Wall. The Israeli police then attacked the “rioters” who had collected rocks and stones within the mosque. The police threw stun grenades and shot rubber bullets and tear gas at the Palestinians.

That was not the only instigation.

The Israeli police in a step that was unprecedented put barriers up on the plaza in front of Damascus Gate where the worshippers gathered after prayers to socialize and gossip. Further, 2 miles north of Damascus Gate, a dispute had been underway for decades between the Jewish owners of the land under four houses in Sheikh Jarrah as part of an effort to clear out 13 Palestinian families from their homes.

Everyone was awaiting a final order of eviction for the residents that had occupied their homes since they had been built by the Jordanians in 1956. Those residents believed that they had purchased those home in return for surrendering their UNRWA refugee cards, but the legal records did not support that claim even though Jordan attested to its truth. The residents would not accept the compromise offered by the Supreme Court to be allowed to remain in possession until the original inhabitant died, provided they paid rent and recognized who truly owned the land.

The Israeli actions in Jerusalem on the Haram Al-Sharif, the attack on the worshippers in the mosque, and the legal eviction proceedings, had just been preceded by the announcement by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas cancelling the elections scheduled for 21 May on the claimed reason that Israel had prevented the election by not permitting East Jerusalemites permission to vote within East Jerusalem. Hamas saw all these events as an opportunity to seize the leadership of the whole Palestinian resistance movement by grabbing the headwinds of the maelstrom about to ensue. Further, they all reinforced a narrative of displacement and replacement, as did the process of gentrification in mixed Jewish-Palestinian towns that aroused so much resentment by the Palestinians.

Hamas grabbed the mantle of militant resistance and sent forth its fusillade of rockets. What Hamas had not counted on was how strong, sustained and successful Israeli retaliation would be. In the reprisal attacks, the IDF killed the Gaza City brigade commander, the head of Hamas’ cyber unit and missile development, the head of the projects and development department, the head of the engineering department, the commander of military intelligence’s technical department and the head of industrial equipment production.

Israel had wiped out a good part of Hamas’ military leadership. But after misruling Gaza and getting into war after war with Israel, Hamas had nevertheless positioned itself as the Palestinian Authority’s challenger and leader of the resistance against Israel. It had opted to participate in the Palestinian legislative and presidential elections from which it could emerge victorious whether the elections went ahead against a divided Fatah or if the elections were canceled and Hamas could assume the militant leadership in confronting Israel.

However, Hamas could not easily negotiate a cease fire. The odds went increasingly in Israel’s favour. By a feint ground attack by Israel, Hamas militants had sought safety in a warren of tunnels from which they could emerge to attack the Israeli invaders only to find they were trapped and subjected to penetrating bombs of the Israeli aircraft that blew apart the expensively-built places intended to provide security for the militants.

In the meanwhile, relative to the 2014 war, the civilian casualty count had been kept relatively low. Recall that in the 2001 war, over 4,000 Gazans were killed. In 2014, over 2,100 were killed, at least 75% being claimed as civilians, though Israel insisted the majority were militants. Israel in 50 days of warfare lost 65 soldiers and 6 civilians. Thus far in this war between Gaza and Israel, even based on the Gazan Health Ministry count in which a death is counted as a civilian if no armed group claims the casualty as a member, 200 have been declared dead on the Palestinian side after the most intense military barrage in the shortest period in all the battles. The whole of Gaza literally shook. The previous day, 42 Palestinians had been killed, including 8 children and 2 doctors, one a renowned cardiologist.

In Israel, 10 have died and only one a soldier. One six-year-old child lost his life. As each day goes by, the ratio between Gazan deaths and Israeli deaths grows and the gap has already become very wide. The gap between the wounded is not nearly as great, 1,200 on the Palestinian side and 282 on the Israeli side. Never before has Hamas fired off so many missiles in such a short time – 3,000. Never before has a significant number of them landed in Gaza and been responsible for some of the dead and wounded. Never before have so many got past the Israeli Iron Dome defence system.

Israel this time is determined once and for all to wipe out Hamas’ offensive and missile manufacturing capability and to extend the conflict this time until that is accomplished. The question will be when the international outcry against the death and destruction in Gaza will get so loud and so shrill and the pressure on Israel so great that Israel will accede to a ceasefire agreement with Hamas.

One factor propelling the strong Israeli response is the unprecedented large-scale rioting in Israel’s mixed cities in which Palestinian Israelis attacked synagogues in Lod, the mosaic museum there and burned down restored antiquities buildings in Acre. A novel front had been opened up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in which Hamas elements offered leadership to criminal gangs that had been allowed by the Israeli police to take over Arab neighbourhoods. The gangs have now been politicized and Israel was more determined than ever to teach the leadership in Gaza a very severe lesson. The Palestinians counted on the intervention of the international community to cut their losses and deliver them a moral victory as well as the crown for leadership of the Palestinian resistance. Thus far, 19 have been killed in the West Bank as well.

António Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, had warned that the “fighting could have far-reaching consequences if not stopped immediately.” The Israeli authorities could not agree more, but they were looking forward to very different consequences this time that would finally eliminate Gaza as a source of aggression against Israel. No longer would Israel attempt to buy a few temporary years relatively free from missile attacks in return for allowing Qatar to support Gaza with funds. No longer would Israel provide energy to the Gaza Strip. Israel had underestimated the risks Hamas was willing to take to assume the mantle of Palestinian leadership. At the same time, Israel has been unwilling to go all the way and allow the economy of the Gaza Strip to be opened wide in the hope that monies would be invested in infrastructure and not tunnels and missile manufacturing.  

Hamas was far less risk averse than Israel believed and Israel now seemed more determined than ever to deliver a very fast and overwhelming blow to this small strip of land packed with over two million Palestinians.

However, behind the whole conflict has been the victory of a new dominant narrative for the Palestinians that had been percolating in the intellectual underground and the Palestinian propaganda efforts in North America and Europe. Israel is a colonial settler state practicing apartheid and determined from the start to displace and replace Arabs in Palestine with Jews. This story is being widely sold. The conflicts over the Haram Al-Sharif, the barricades at the Damascus Gate, but especially the eviction efforts in Sheik Jarrah, are all evidence to this diabolical plan.

At the core was the question: why should Israeli Jews be entitled to reclaim land in East Jerusalem when Arab residents of East Jerusalem could not reclaim their lost land in Israel? Further, why did Jews enjoy a right of return to Israel when their families had never lived there for at least a hundred generations while Palestinians who remembered living in their homes before 1948 were not allowed to move back and reclaim their homes. Once again, the right of return had returned to the forefront of the dispute when it had finally been conceded unofficially by negotiators at Oslo that the right might be acceded to in principle but in practice there would only be a token return. Once again, Palestinians were insisting on the right of return and insisting that, at the very least, East Jerusalem and the Old City belonged to them, with many arguing that the whole land had to be freed from the clutches of the racist ethnic cleansing Zionists.

Peter Beinart in a recent article, “Tshuvah: A Jewish Case for Palestinian Refugee Return,” (11 May 2021) offered an argument for acceding to the right of return and, in so doing, revealed that, in spite of Peter’s well-intentioned efforts, he neither understands the meaning of refugee return either generally or in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nor offers a sound interpretation of Tshuva.

The first misunderstanding is over the concept of refugees. Beinart opens his essay with a dispute with AIPAC’s challenge to including the descendants of refugees into the category of refugees. It is a charge endorsed by the Zionists of America (ZOA) and Israel’s Ambassador to the US and UN, Gilad Erdan. “The fundamental problem with UNRWA, according to this line of argument, is that it treats the children and grandchildren of Palestinians expelled at Israel’s founding as refugees themselves.”

This is unique in the world. The children of refugees who flee and are born outside the state from which their parents fled generally have no claim on return. They may be refugees still, but, unlike the Palestinians, they are not by necessity defined as refugees. It depends on their circumstances. However, UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, “treats the children and grandchildren of Palestinians expelled at Israel’s founding as refugees themselves. Establishment Jewish critics don’t blame UNRWA merely for helping Palestinians pass down their legal status as refugees, but their identity as refugees as well.”

“In The War of Return, a central text of the anti-UNRWA campaign, the Israeli writers Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf allege that without UNRWA, refugee children ‘would likely have lost their identity and assimilated into surrounding society.’ Instead, with UNRWA’s help, Palestinians are ‘constantly looking back to their mythologized previous lives’ while younger generations act as if they have ‘undergone these experiences themselves.’ To Schwartz and Wilf’s horror, many Palestinians seem to believe that in every generation, a person is obligated to see themselves as if they personally left Palestine.”

But this is Shevuot when Jews across the world are asked to imagine themselves as once again at Mount Sinai when God delivered the ten commandments. Don’t Jews everywhere religiously chant, “Next year in Jerusalem.” Why should Jews not very readily understand this feeling among Palestinians? As Beinart asks, “Why is dreaming of return laudable for Jews but pathological for Palestinians?”

Instead of trying to answer the question, Beinart engages in advocacy. He tries to pull the ground from underneath the question by insisting that if Jews are to be coherent and consistent they must grant Palestinians the same right of return that they themselves now enjoy. It is the height of irony for Jews to tell Palestinians to assimilate in other lands while they themselves insist on returning, or, at the very least, the right to return to their homeland. For Peter, it is not that Palestinians should forget the Nakba but that Jews should remember the reasons for the catastrophe and “understand why they (the Palestinians” deserve a chance to return.” For Peter, the moral distinction between the Jewish “right of return” and the denial of the Palestinian right of return makes no moral sense.

The Jewish argument on which the Oslo Accords were based offered a compromise, a two-state solution in which Palestinians could return to those parts of the West Bank ceded to the Palestinian Authority as the geographical foundation for their own state. But with settler encroachment, that segment of the land became smaller and smaller. The Gaza Strip consisting of 70% of people who were refugees or are descended from refugees is already densely packed. Palestinians who make up almost the same number as the Jews living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea are to be relegated to the Gaza Strip and, at most, one-quarter of the rest of the land – but, of course, the land Palestinians continue to own within Israel is not counted.

Peter argues that the justification of expulsion and the denial of the remedy of return and restitution is a fatal challenge to the very foundational principles of Zionism. Beinart’s position: “Refugee return therefore constitutes more than mere repentance for the past. It is a prerequisite for building a future in which both Jews and Palestinians enjoy safety and freedom in the land each people calls home.”

Tomorrow: Beinart’s defence of his position