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:
5 The Lord said to Moses, 6 “Say to the Israelites: ‘Any man or woman who wrongs another in any way[a] and so is unfaithful to the Lord is guilty 7 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.