Can Obama recognize the ‘Nakba’ nakba?

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 5-17-11

Center Field: The harsh realities of the Middle East have contradicted President Barack Obama’s fanciful notions.

Obama and Netanyahu
Photo by: REUTERS

President Barack Obama came to town riding on a series of assumptions about the Middle East. But the region’s harsh realities have contradicted his fanciful notions. Demanding a settlement freeze increased Israeli mistrust and Palestinian extremism. The “Arab spring” proved that the Palestinian problem was not the keystone to Middle East progress, or world peace. This week’s Nakba Day violence revealed that Israel’s existence since 1948, not its occupation since 1967, remains the Palestinians’ target. Obama must recognize that this “Nakba” nakba – the Palestinians’ catastrophic reading of Israel’s founding as a catastrophe – damages peace prospects. Yet again, Palestinians seem more committed to destroying Israel than building their own state.

Although outsiders cannot tell Palestinians to ignore their anguish over Israel’s founding, Nakba Day is a new, post-Oslo, 1990s phenomenon. Yasser Arafat inaugurated the day in 1998. It feeds Palestinians’ worst instincts – freezing time, distorting history, wallowing in victimhood, dodging responsibility, vilifying Israel, treating the conflict as a zero-sum game. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s New York Times op-ed on Monday epitomizes these vices with ahistorical lies claiming that “shortly” after the 1947 UN Partition declaration, “Zionist forces expelled Palestinian Arabs to ensure a decisive Jewish majority in the future state of Israel, and Arab armies intervened.” Reversing chronology and causation, Abbas ignores that Palestinians rejected the partition plan; that many Palestinians fled voluntarily; and that Arab armies attacked as Israel became a state, not because of any Israeli action.

Yet the Palestinians have snookered the world, seeking a free pass for violence, incitement, delegitimization, exterminationism and intransigence. World leaders function as the great enablers of Palestinian dysfunction, rationalizing Palestinians’ political culture of negation and hatred while according them special treatment – including treating their refugee status as hereditary, whereas tens of millions of other refugees from the 1940s have settled down.

Every president must make post-inauguration adjustments, replacing outsiders’ presumptions with the insider’s perceptions. Obama’s Middle Eastrelated rigidity is not some idiosyncratic shortcoming. He is imprisoned in a groupthink reading that is popular and resistant to reality.

Too many elite Americans mistakenly compare the Palestinians’ struggle for statehood with African-Americans’ struggle for civil rights (when most Europeans hear “occupation,” they think Nazi or Soviet, which is even more inaccurate and problematic). In his Cairo speech, by reminding Palestinians that American blacks rarely resorted to violence, despite “suffer[ing] the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation,” Obama made the comparison. Condoleezza Rice was more explicit, equating her childhood miseries in the segregated South with Palestinian suffering, while comparing Abbas to Martin Luther King, Jr.

This analogy is sloppy, perverse, yet irresistible to many Americans who usually view the world through homemade prisms, with the civil rights movement looming as a compelling, heroic and digestible historical standard.

Additionally Palestinian propaganda has pushed this comparison for decades. The UN’s New Big Lie in 1975 labeling Zionism racism implicitly cast the Palestinians as noble blacks and the Israelis as oppressive rednecks.

The false analogy distorts the story into one of racial oppression, not national conflict. This reading sanctions Palestinian violence, given our abhorrence of racial tyranny.

Perpetuating the Nakba treats Israel’s very founding as its original sin, like slavery is America’s original sin, which had to be undone violently by Civil War. This falsehood also views Palestinians as passive, less responsible players, feeding into a modern liberal condescension empowering those perceived as white rather than those labeled black (ignoring the light-skinned Palestinians and dark-skinned Israelis).

By contrast, recognizing the Palestinian- Israeli conflict as a national conflict – linked to the Arab-Israeli conflict – restores balance. It makes Palestinians responsible for their choices. It highlights their power, as part of the broader Arab assault against Israel, which, unlike the Civil Rights movement, threatens Israel, seeking its destruction. Understanding this fight as a national struggle among more evenly-balanced forces also explains Israeli sensitivity to Palestinian rhetoric. Calling Israel’s founding, its very existence, a catastrophe delegitimizes Israel and dehumanizes Israelis, justifying violence against this supposed disaster of a state.

Restoring historical balance and moral accountability would also restore mutuality. Imagine the outrage if Israeli leaders spoke about Palestinians the way leading Palestinians speak, write, teach, preach and broadcast about Israel. Imagine the scandal if Israel ever proposed, let alone adopted, anything paralleling the Hamas Charter’s anti-Semitic and genocidal wording. Note that this month, while Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is volunteering new concessions, Abbas is embracing Hamas terrorists.

Jews’ culture of acute self-criticism juxtaposed against the Palestinians’ culture of self-righteous condemnation creates absurd imbalances. While Jews, mired in guilt, agonize over how to validate detractors like the playwright Tony Kushner, who spread Palestinian lies alleging Israel committed sins like “ethnic cleansing,” Palestinians, in their enforced no-criticism zone, feel their biased accusations are justified, yet again dodging any responsibility. Similarly, minor Israeli abuses are treated as major human rights crimes; major Palestinian abuses are ignored.

The multi-dimensional war between Israelis and Palestinians includes a clash of narratives. As America’s story-tellerin- chief, Obama can shape a narrative that brings the parties closer – or divides them further. Obsessing about Israel’s settlements, exaggerating the conflict’s international significance, excusing Hamas’s genocidal rhetoric, or encouraging the “Nakba” nakba intensifies Palestinian intransigence and Israeli insecurity.

Obama must affirm that “threatening Israel with destruction – or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews – is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of [Holocaust] memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.”

He said that in Cairo. Now, Obama should show he means it, by insisting that all parties, especially the Palestinians, end incitement, stop demonizing others and learn to preserve their own national stories, including tales of woe, without using words that reveal a collective desire to destroy those whose trust you need to achieve peace.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman research fellow in Jerusalem. The author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, his latest book is The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.


J-Street: Why urge Obama to sic the UN on Israel?

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 1-25-11

J Street’s call on the US administration not to veto yet another biased resolution makes as much sense as turning to Ehud Olmert to teach political ethics.

J Street has joined the latest anti-Israel pile-on: encouraging the Obama administration to support this month’s anti-Israel initiative in the UN Security Council instead of vetoing it. J Street supports the resolution because it condemns the settlements.

Yet urging the Obama administration to sic the UN on Israel with yet another biased resolution makes as much sense as turning to Ehud Olmert to teach political ethics, or asking Hamas to run a seminar on peaceful conflict resolution.

Once again, J Street’s actions have undermined its claim to be the “political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans.”

Those of us championing big-tent Zionism feel no joy when J Street stumbles. It speaks to US Jews seeking a revitalized liberal Zionism which is pro-Israel, yet anti-settlement. The number of dovish American Jews has been exaggerated. There are many ways to reconcile liberalism and Zionism. We should welcome all who love Israel, even if they criticize its policies.

In the 1950s America, Arthur Schlesinger, Adlai Stevenson and others forged a muscular, post-Stalinist liberalism: tough and realistic enough to be anticommunist; humane and patriotic enough to be effective.

Similarly, Zionism today needs a revitalized, post-Oslo left that is tough and realistic enough to be anti-terrorism and anti-delegitimization, yet compromising and patriotic enough to be transformational, not just effective. Is J Street up to that challenge? In 2010, J Street seemed to find a more mature, constructive footing, despite lying about its financial reliance on the anti-Zionist George Soros and other mysterious funders. Whereas it originally so opposed the Jewish establishment it could not even ally with mainstream Jewish organizations when they were right about Hamas or Iran, this teenage rebellious phase seemingly faded. Most notably, J Street denounced the global anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

In repudiating the boycotters’ “punitive approach toward Israel” and their “failure to focus on the responsibilities of all parties to help end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” J Street saw through the human rights masquerade of so many anti-Israeli forces, especially on campus.

Its website condemned the Palestinian BDS National Committee for failing “explicitly to recognize Israel’s right to exist” and “ignor[ing] or reject[ing] Israel’s role as a national home for the Jewish people.”

On campus, J Street commendably endorsed investing in peace projects, not divesting from Israel.

HERE, J STREET drew what I and others call “red lines” when criticizing Israel while respecting “blue-and-white lines” – affirming why Zionism remains a legitimate form of nationalism. These lines – and the unreason of Israel’s enemies – created a big tent to oppose its delegitimization. Of course we can criticize Israel – dissent is democracy’s lifeblood, and the Jewish national pastime. Of course we can disagree about just what formula might solve the conflict – it’s a complicated mess, vexing many smart, moral people. And of course we should unite in delegitimizing the delegitimizers – trying to demonize Israel with human rights talk serves as a smoke screen obscuring hatred while undermining any peace process; compromise is difficult when you ostracize or are ostracized.

All this makes J Street’s recent turn to the UN so foolish. The UN, aka the Third World dictators’ debating society, is the international headquarters of modern anti- Zionism, the delegitimizers’ main legitimizer. Since the General Assembly condemned Zionism as racism in 1975, the UN has targeted Israel repeatedly, spearheading the worldwide attempt to gussy up the toxic combination of traditional anti-Semitism and modern Arab anti- Zionism in idealistic human rights language. In so doing, it has sacrificed its own credibility and reduced human rights talk to a partisan battering ram.

This new big lie that Zionism is racism festers, although it reeks of communism’s rotting corpse. The Soviet Union, which choreographed the resolution to embarrass America’s democratic allies, collapsed. The General Assembly repealed the resolution in 1991. Alas, this toxin injected into the international political bloodstream enjoyed renewed potency after the infamous Durban conference in 2001, and gains strength each time the UN demonizes Israel.

True, the Security Council is not as bad as the UN Human Rights Council. But that is grading with a depressingly low standard.

Assuming goodwill, trusting that secret Saudi funders are not manipulating J Street into ignoring all this, one explanation emerges. It has again succumbed to that contemporary political malady, the occupation preoccupation, wherein opposition to settlements blots out all other aspects of the narrative, undermining all reason.

This UN resolution – and implicitly J Street – overlooks the Palestinian culture of hatred and terrorism which remains the major obstacle to peace.

This resolution – and implicitly J Street – overlooks the continuing challenge Hamas and other Palestinian rejectionists pose. It ignores the latest Palestinian anger that Mahmoud Abbas even considered compromising on Jerusalem. This resolution – and implicitly J Street – overlooks Barack Obama’s settlement freeze fiasco, which gave the Palestinians a new precondition without even getting them to negotiate for most of the time settlement construction was stopped.

Ironically, in planning to veto the resolution the Obama administration reveals that it may be cured of the occupation preoccupation which J Street, among others, championed.

In fighting US plans to veto this latest UN outrage, J Street is failing to “Give Voice to Our Values” – the slogan of its upcoming conference. J Street is failing to be either pro-peace or pro-Israel, because biased UN resolutions undermine trust rather than building confidence. And J Street is forgetting its own repudiation of the boycotters, because this resolution, like the BDS movement, once again takes a “punitive approach toward Israel” and fails “to focus on the responsibilities of all parties to help end the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.”

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman research fellow in Jerusalem. The author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. His next book will look at the UN’s 1975 Zionism is racism resolution.

Settlement subtleties: Not all are the same

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 11-16-10 

Barack Obama and his followers talk constantly about “The Settlements.” Obsessing over this pretends the conflict began in 1967.

Israel remains more popular among American Jews, even among younger Jews – and with most Americans – than the hysterical hand-wringing suggests. Unfortunately, Ivy- League, ivory tower, left-leaning, New York Times-reading Jewish intellectuals are souring on Israel. Typically, these elites claim to represent more people than they do, although, unfortunately, they are in sync with the president of the United States.

Barack Obama and his egghead followers talk constantly about “The Settlements.” Reducing the complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict to any one dimension does violence to the truth. Reducing the conflict to the settlements is an act of historical vandalism, defaming the memory of nearly 30,000 Israelis, very few of whom died in settlement-related violence – most of whom died because of the continuing Arab refusal to accept Israel’s existence.

Obsessing about the settlements blames Israel while absolving the Palestinians of responsibility. It is a form of liberal racism, condescendingly treating the Palestinians as if they are not accountable for their deeds and words. It ignores the fact that the delegitimization of Israel today does not stop at the settlements but attacks the essence of the Zionist project. It glides over the fact that Israel withdrew from 25 settlements in Gaza and Samaria in 2005, then endured thousands of rocket attacks and a Gaza takeover by Hamas, whose charter targets the entire Jewish state – and the Jewish people. It overlooks the fact that when Yasser Arafat led his people away from the Oslo negotiations back toward terror in 2000, Palestinians blew up Jerusalem buses, Tel Aviv felafel stands and Haifa cafes, treating all of Israel as a “settlement.”

Emphasizing the settlements pretends the conflict began in 1967, even though the PLO started in 1964, six Arab armies attacked the new state in May 1948 and the Arabs rejected the UN partition compromise in November 1947.

Emphasizing the settlements circumvents negotiation, caving in to Palestinian land claims, mindlessly embracing their one-sided narrative. Advocates of the two-state compromise must return the multi-dimensionality to this messy problem. Normally, one would expect intellectuals – and an intellectual president like Obama – to spearhead this effort, preferring sophistication to sloganeering, multilateral reconciling to one-sided finger-pointing, truth in all its messiness to propaganda.

Those of us who know the complex history must reframe talk about the settlements by acknowledging different kinds of settlements. Palestinian propagandists describe all buildings beyond the Green Line, the artificiallydrawn 1949 armistice line, as illegal intrusions on Palestinian land. But borders have been fluid, populations have been mobile, in this neighborhood. A house renovated in Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter – overrun by the Jordanians in 1948 – differs from new huts on a hilltop overlooking a Palestinian village. The “settlement” of Kfar Etzion, first established in 1927, also destroyed by the Jordanians in 1948, remembered longingly by its survivors and their children for 19 years, many of whom returned after 1967, differs from a settlement established after the Six Day War.

We also know that traditionally, when countries fight, the winner keeps the territory. I challenge my historian colleagues, asking them to name one example when a country won a defensive war then voluntarily returned the territory it conquered, if it had a prior claim to the land. The only answer is Israel, returning the Sinai to Egypt in 1979, relinquishing control under Oslo in 1994 and leaving Gaza in 2005.

ISRAELIS MUST teach the world to stop talking about the settlements – which includes not talking about building freezes in the settlements – they are not an organic unit. Over the years, four different types of settlements arose:

• Once-settled settlements, restoring communities like the Jewish Quarter or Kfar Etzion.

• Security settlements, following the Allon Plan among other strategies, building outposts along the Jordanian border and at critical military junctures.

• Suburban settlements, within commuting distance of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, absorbing some of the demographic pressure choking the middle of the country.

• Salvation settlements, initiated by Gush Emunim and other diehards, to restore a Jewish presence in biblical lands.

To facilitate compromise, the world must acknowledge at least four distinct Israeli residential initiatives in the disputed territories:

• Jerusalem – which is not a settlement but is and was the capital of the Jewish people. Even if its boundaries are renegotiated, it remains a special case.

• Organic suburban settlements – part of the outer ring of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, which most analysts agree would remain Israeli in a land swap.

• Outlying settlements – geographically more removed from centers of Israeli life, their presence would disrupt the contiguity of a Palestinian state, because almost all assume that a Palestinian state must be Jew-free even as Arabs will continue to live in Israel.

• Outlaw settlements – the few unauthorized settlements which should be dismantled immediately, asserting the rule of law, independent of any diplomatic dynamics.

YES, IT is difficult to reframe international discourse. But while it might take a paragraph to explain settlement subtleties, Israel must take a much tougher stand against delegitimization, which requires one line to explain: Fighting delegitimization is fighting for peace. Just as the Palestinians, and many Israeli and international NGOs, complain each time a Jew breaks ground outside the Green Line, Israel, the US and the entire pro-peace infrastructure must complain every time a Palestinian delegitimizes Israel, denies its right to exist or attacks the Jews. There must be zero tolerance for such language, which only discourages compromise.

In labeling settlements accurately, I do not necessarily advocate holding all of them permanently. But we need a coalition of conscience to stand for the truth in all its complexity, to fight demonization from all sides and to work for peace, improvising a solution based on mutual accommodation rather than stubbornly and artificially freezing boundaries in one random historical moment or another.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.