Thursday, July 24, 2008

On Zionism, Arabs and Democracy.

I was honoured when a Middle East Studies student asked to interview me as part of her thesis on our Gordian-knotted Conflict.

Here is a sampling of her questions and my subsequent ramblings (watch me stray off topic):

Q: As a Palestinian, who do you hold responsible for the Arab refugee crisis of 1948?

I care more about how the refugee crisis is perpetuated rather than about who and what created it. The war preceding and following Israel's creation produced its atrocities, but the Jews prevailed and the rest of history is a half-hearted Arab effort to undo the defeat of 1948 and Israel playing nicely into their hands.

I stress the word "half-hearted" because the Arab leaders need the conflict with Israel to perpetuate their regimes and justify their rule. My father used to joke cynically: "you only get to eat one labaneh sandwich, we can't make a you a second one because we need the money to buy a tank and fight Israel." In reality, that tank was used to keep the leadership in power.

Still, the situation in 1948 could have been a basis for negotiation and settlement, if the people’s interests were a priority, but in come the leaders - who had no interest in accepting the Arabs from former Palestine. They were happy to absorb and the middle and upper classes and their money but used the rest as pawns to fight each other and Israel.

On the same note, Israel needs a measure of conflict with the neighbouring countries to stay buoyant. Talk of peace is nice, but low intensity conflict with an Arab "other" helps unify and solidify the ranks despite differences (and disparities).
The ethos of Israel (and of the Jews in general) is survival in the face of perpetual enmity. Without thousands of years of anti-Semitism, Jews in their present form wouldn't exist, most would have fully assimilated into their respective societies through intermarriage and other means. Except perhaps for a core that would have degenerated into insular and irrelevant Amish-like communities.

To go back to the Palestinians, what you call Palestinians today were Levantines who were living under the Ottoman boot. Their Palestinian identity as it is known today crystallised in the refugee camps in the 1960's. Had they not been corralled into camps, they would have "melted" into their host countries within 1-2 generations at most. I know many Lebanese whose middle-class grandparents fled Haifa in 1948 and purchased their Lebanese citizenship upon arrival in Beirut. It is impossible to differentiate between them and other Lebanese. Impossible.

You don't blame Zionism?

I would differentiate between the authentic Zionist core who came to rebuild the perceived "old country" and maintain their national identity along with humanistic values and with what eventually developed as a result of circumstances and human nature (think of Immanuel Kant's "twisted timber of humanity") .

Achad Ha’am, an essayist worth discovering, once wrote that if the future entity becomes just another Levantine state, full of intrigues and a ball in the courts of world politics, he prefers to close the book of Jewish history rather than add empty pages to it. Lucky for him he died in 1927.

Herzl, Jabotinsky, the socialist Zionists, all had very lofty ideas and ideals about the type of society they wanted to establish in Palestine, and morality and fraternity (some even coopted the Arabs to a certain degree) featured high. In any case, the raison d’être for these Zionist Ideologists was to give the Jewish nation a chance to live a healthy moral life, because the Galut was destroying their souls.

But at the end of the day, Zionism, in all its shades was there to serve Jewish interests. Zionists were not primarily out to eradicate Arabs as some would make you think. We were passive fauna at best, pesky vermin at worst - to be managed when we got in their way. Achad Ha'am criticised that mentality, which I would add, eventually facilitated the cleansing of otherwise peaceful villages that lived harmoniously with their Jewish neighbours (such as my family's that was cleansed at gun-point by the Haganah in Operation Ben-Ami).

Nevertheless, I dare you to find me a single Palestinian refugee who doesn't regret the Arab refusal of the UN partition. Find me one. One.

Anyway, my bigger concern is the forces that have conspired to keep the Palestinians in camps for 60 years.

Q: What forces?

The incompetent Palestinian and Arab leadership - but I won't unroll the giant scroll that lists their sins. I will tell you that the only buffer against them is a very strong (well off and educated) and independent middle class. That’s why Stalin made sure that his subjects were provided with free schools, affordable housing, jobs, etc. But no independence. The Soviet people were dependent on their government for everything, and were thus kept on a short leash.

The same phenomenon is true to a degree in Arab states like Egypt and Syria. Now the proportionally tiny elites in those countries are coopted, with the few dissenters bleating in London and Paris. How many useful, enlightened, educated Arabs disappeared altogether. How many middle-class Egyptians, Syrians and Lebanese who had the means to settle in the west have been absorbed and have melted into the UK/American/Canadian pot. Only Allah knows.

Think of it as a severe brain drain - or haemorrhage, while the Arab countries are left with the poor masses who will back anyone who gives them half a labaneh sandwich.

Would you prescribe democracy as a way to avoid future tragedies such as the war of 1948?

I wish I could, but all leaders I've seen so far, once they get to power, have but one goal: remaining in power. Even if they started out as idealists or good willing and caring about the people, they degenerate into Louis XIV. Think "l'état c'est moi" and “Only I can do the best for the people,therefore my survival in power comes first”.

Pardon my cynicism, but in pseudo-democracies without that solid middle class or the rule of law, leaders are mainly elected due to ignorance about them, or naïveté about their promises. It is assumed that the evil that can be perpetrated by leaders is much less in democracies than in dictatorships because of the limited number of years that democratically elected leaders have. But that's in countries with a system of checks and balances, not the Arab world.

You think an elected Hamas would ever give up power if they were on day voted out? they're the equivalent of the FIS in Algeria. FIS said that if they get elected they would ban democracy.

Wallah, every drop of FIS blood that was shed in the Algerian war is halal. Otherwise, it would have been a matter of time before radical Islamism would have metastasised like a cancer throughout Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Paris. Again, the masses will back anyone who gives them half a labaneh sandwich. Especially when they've been living under corrupt regimes which remain, at least in my eyes, as "nuss-musseebeh" or half a catastrophe, in comparison with the big "musseebeh" of radical Islamism.

So, if that's where democracy would lead us then I'll stick to the hope that benevolent and enlightened strongmen or women would emerge and cultivate a healthy economy and civil society in the hope that it would bring about the middle class I'm talking about.


Anonymous said...


Thank you for your blog. I discovered you by way of your comment at Simply Jews and look forward to checking regularly for new posts.

I'm more than old enough to remember Anwar Sadat's historic trip to Israel that led to the signing of the peace agreement and the return of the Sinai Penninsula to Egyptian control, and a comment attributed to him: They weep crocodile tears over the blood of the sons of Egypt and raise the price of oil.

But it wasn't only the oil sheiks who encouraged war against Israel. Nasser was most certainly duped into closing down the Straits of Tiran in '67 by the Soviets, and, consequentially dragging a not particularly willing Jordan into the fray out of Arab solidarity. (Syria and the others are another matter.)

I went to see Adam Sandler's "You don't mess with the Zohan" a month ago with a friend who came to Canada from Latvia by way of Israel. She laughed so hard she cried, because the truth to her, although she is extremely proud of Israel, is that here in Canada she and other Israelis get along just fine with Palestinians and seek out the Palestinian bakeries, etc. to get authentic pita and other "home foods".

karen said...

I have wondered how you felt about these same questions and now I have the answers. How did you come to your conclusions? Do members of your family feel the same way as you? Do other Palestinians (Christians and/or Muslims)?

Lirun said...

can i copy your interview onto my blog.. its not out of laziness i swear..

Savtadotty said...

Thank you for your lucid description of the situation. It would be totally depressing if there were not clear-thinking, sensible young people (like you) in the world; I just wish more of them could live to old age in the Middle East.

Aviv said...

Can we get married?

The Raccoon said...


Great interview, Nizo.

Interesting point about Israel needing an enemy to stay united. Absolutely true, too. So far all the Jewish states (with the exception of Himyar Kingdom) fell due to civil war. Not surprising, too, given the natural Jewish tendency to bicker and disagree about anything and everything.

This sort of a low-level conflict is good for the economy, too. The military equipment sales are a major export of Israel; spinoff technologies and expertise also play an important role in Israel's hi-tech market.

And since the conflict is so prolonged, costs are declining like in any other production system. The longer the war will go on, the cheaper will it become - and the better the military technology revenues will be.

I reckon Israel needs to half-assedly thank her half-assed (and thankfully incompetent) enemies. Without them we'd have a war between the Kingdom of Yehudah and the State of Israel faster than you can say "V'et zachar lo tishkav mishkvei ishah to'evah hu".

Ah, the sweet irony...

Roman Kalik said...

Not sure I entirely agree about the "Jews needed an enemy to avoid assimilation" thing - otherwise any community that had as much as a century of peace and stability would have been entirely assimilated. And yet they survived. I think you somewhat oversimplify on the matter of what keeps a shared identity together, not paying the due attention to internal factors (which can both stabilizing and destabilizing) and instead focus overtly on external factors.

And yet, by and large, I enjoyed reading the interview. Well done.

Nizo said...

"she and other Israelis get along just fine with Palestinians".

I tend to get along better with Ashkenazim.. Mizrachim, especially Moroccans display a look of disgust when they see me. The same grimace when one encounters a violent whiff of stale, untreated sewage. I curse the Casbah that ejaculated them. I'll blog about it sometime.

Go ahead, by all means. I'm interested to see what your expansive harem of (Arab) fans have to say.

It is that century of (relative) peace and stability for Jews in the US that led many to fear inter-marriage and eventual assimilation. I would go further and say that with time, most of those who do not assimilate are the Amish-like communities I mention in my text. Let's just say that those aren't the Jewish groups that have been known to produce Nobel prize winners. I do acknowledge, however, that I gloss over internal factors.

What you're saying about Israeli technology is absolutely true. My previous job involved extensive dealings with high-tech plants in Petach Tikva. I've seen technology that has yet to be paralleled elsewhere, and it all starts off as military R&D. Call me a nerd, but I once got an erection while fingering a flex-rigid printed circuit board made by a small Israeli design house - nothing the Americans or Asians made ever came close. Fortunately for the competition, Israeli companies are ridiculously regressive when it comes to presentation and PR. Every time I meet with Israeli reps, they're either picking their teeth, noses, or ears or scratching their balls. Rude, uncivilised bunch of bahayem (from behim - beast). But if Israeli firms add a layer between their bahayem and the rest of humanity, the sky is the limit.

I was raised to doubt and question everything. For breakfast we used to eat a bowlful of cynicism and drink a glassful of sarcasm. Seriously, growing up the son of a journalist, we had two dot matrix printers at home, one spitting out Reuters stories, the other AP. We never saw the living-room floor - it was covered with paper containing the latest news and I got to read all of it raw (before censorious editing). Not to mention mountains upon mountains of books by Israeli authors, that we translated for the Arabic media. I can only speak for myself and my family. Let the rest speak for themselves. But I'll tell you that there is no shortage of enlightened Arabs, regrettably the shrieks and shenanigans of the less enlightened make for more interesting news stories.

merci merci..

איפה הטבעת?

Mo-ha-med said...

Extremely interesting, yet allow me to disagree on more than one account.

"I dare you to find me a single Palestinian refugee who doesn't regret the Arab refusal of the UN partition."

I'm sure you're right. Who wouldn't want a beachfront? :)

But it's erroneous to think about that ex-post. At the time, the reasoning was an unequivocal "what the heck? Oh hell no!" to the 1947 partition plan and to jewish claims of sovereignty. Yeah, we know 60 years later that the arab armies wouldn't win the war of 1948, and would get their bottoms kicked in 1967, and that every multilateral peace process would fail as miserably as me in Med school.

In 1947 - they didn't know that. They cannot therefore be judged in today's perspective.

On the camps:
You blame arab and palestinian leaders. Fine. But what about camp inhabitants themselves? I'm talking about refugee camps in the West Bank; people here seem so attached to their decrepit houses in refugee camps that I fail to explain it. Beyond them being kept as a negotiating card ("Oy vey! what shall I do with my million refugees! Give me compensations!") the status of a refugee entails the dream, no, the right to their old house/land/etc. which, especially after 60 or 40 years of grandpa's tales, must have expanded considerably to become a mega-mansion that would put JR's to shame.

FIS and Hamas blood deserving to be spilled
FIS won elections, was denied power, and that led to a quarter million dead persons. That sounds like a smart decision alright.
You are calling for controlled democracy -- democracy as long as people vote for the 'right' candidate. That's just plain wrong ya Nizo.

Nobody said...

I think that because this conflict has been going for so long it became an integral part of the regional order. In fact it's a part of the structure if not one of its cornerstones. Remove it and everything will fall to pieces.

And I am sure that not only on the Israeli side the conflict helps the society to stay united or maintain some semblance of order. It's even more so on the other side even though it's hard to say that there is much unity in the Middle East. Sunni v Shia, Arab v Persian, Kurdish V Arab, Arab vs Black tensions and conflicts seem to be only escalating and getting worse. I bet in the end not even Israeli Arab conflict will be able to stop the inevitable - much of the region will go up in flames.

Nobody said...

Mo-ha-med said.

. . .

FIS and Hamas blood deserving to be spilled
FIS won elections, was denied power, and that led to a quarter million dead persons. That sounds like a smart decision alright.
You are calling for controlled democracy -- democracy as long as people vote for the 'right' candidate. That's just plain wrong ya Nizo.

I disagree. There is nothing particularly saintly about democracy as such and unlike Sharia and other sacred laws there were no divine revelations regarding the need to practice democracy. Democracy makes a lot of sense and functions well under some conditions, in fact it seems to be a natural form of government for any society that goes pass a certain threshold of economic and social development. It's almost as if democracy just happens when right conditions are present.

However, if you live in an underdeveloped nation that's at the point to fall into the hands of lunatics because of another experiment in democracy gone wrong, then it's a very different matter. By the way FIS has lost that war because of its bloody tactics and brutality that alienated even many of its former supporters. One quarter million dead persons notwithstanding, the Algerians were lucky to have had an opportunity to learn about the FIS true nature during the war that started in the wake of canceled elections, and not as subjects of another regime of Ayatollas.

Nizo said...

Hala Mo-ha-mad,
"In 1947 - they didn't know that. They cannot therefore be judged in today's perspective."
You're right - I was lamenting rather than judging.

On the camps:
You killed me with your JR analogy. Let me tell you though, as a registered Palestine refugee with UNRWA ration rights (sugar and flour!), I can assure you that physical location is unrelated to compensation, since many refugees and descendants were displaced up to 3 times due to wars in the West Bank, Lebanon, Iraq; or they have had to relocate to the Gulf for work (where they have no residency or citizenship rights). Those who continue to reside in the camps (which are camps no more) do so for a plethora of reasons, which include economic, kinship (some hamoulas take up whole neighbourhoods) etc. Bon bref,You can continue dreaming about grandpa's mansion even from your rented flat in Riyadh.

On FIS' blood:
Nobody worded it nicely.

Anonymous said...

What a surprise to find a such a human, rational and witty-wise voice from bothered Palestine!

I directly linked your blog here:

title: a human voice from Palestine

Please excuse that I introduced your banner without prior agreement. :(

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Daniel said...

Dear Nizo,

I've just stumbled onto your blog and am drawn in my some of your writing.

I'd like to get your thoughts on how I feel about a general point you make in your post.

That Israel plays into the hands of the regimes and groups warring against it, that Israel needs the conflict.

To suggest that I feel is a bit bigoted. Because the Israeli government is really the Israeli people, it's like you're saying Israeli mothers and fathers, spurred by identity politics, condone the use of their children as pawns in a low-grade war (and it's not low-grade!)

Also, you've heard of the brain drain. The conflict has been driving Jews away from Israel. The smartest ones, especially.

Israel, the people and the government, really doesn't need this shit, especially all the daily, global slander. It's a real bummer, and doesn't unify the Jews -- as much as confuse them.

That 5 million Jews are gathered among a small coastline in the Middle East is enough to unify.

It is the Arab regimes that need and maintain the conflict. But doesn't Arab/Muslim identity need it too?

That it's been framed as a struggle against a war (an imposed Israel) against them, it's become the symbol for so many from disparate backgrounds.


Noor al Haqiqa said...

I just stumbled across this page and was verrry impressed by your interview and your way with language

I have a blog with a pro Palestinian slant and ... well then there are the Zionists... I won't mention the slant I have towards that matter...

If you do not mind, I would like to post this particular interview.... It is definitely a tad different from my usual stuff. And... smile... I do not think posting other folks' material is lazy... it takes time to find what is worth while and present it to one's readers.

As for content, I am too ignorant of the finer points you speak of, being a Canadian and all! There are a few words I do not recognize.

I just know quality when I see it!

Nizo said...

Hi Noor, go ahead, I would be honoured.

TruthSeeker said...

Dear Nizo,

I like the cynical layout of your article. There is lots of truth in it. But I feel a great deal of depression. I understand that the whole situation about the Arabian states is depressive; conflict of interest and treason. Nonetheless the history of the Palestinian case is far more complicated,

The history does not only involve the Arabs, but it also involves a far more greater foreign conspiracy and foreign interest in the Area; masked colonialism and masked imperialism.

Arab states haven't yet been totally free. They are still occupied by colonial imperialism and enemies from with.

In fact the battle is not only with Israel, but it is also a battle with the previous unmasked imperialism. However, I do not regret the rejection of the partition. Had it been accepted at the time, it would has been acceptance of one of two choices, the best of which is bitter. And I do not think the situation would have been better.

The Jews have been from the very beginning - even before 1946 - bent on the creation of Greater Israel. Wherever a Jew walked and touched belongs to the Jews.

Acceptance of the partition by the Arabs as a tactic until they have become ready for a battle with the Jews could have been more rational. Their enemy at the time was far more sophisticated as far as armaments and educations are concerned while Arab states have just shakes off the shakes of their occupiers.

As far as the Jews are concerned, the question is not only occupation. It is fake principles deriving from religious belief of being the chosen people, the land was promised to them by their malicious God; Yahweh who asked them to kill children, women, men, elderly and poison water supply and cut down the trees of their enemy. It is all mentioned in their Tanach and the satanic Talmud.

I am not taking here about religious and Ultra-Orthodox Jews, but also about secular and atheist Jews who fled anti-Semitism in Europe to replace the indigenous people of Palestine.

Sometimes sticking to a principle is costly in the short run, but definitely not in the long run.

Believe me, The Jews failed to keep their Davis and Solomon glory. And they will fail to keep their current glory. As far as civilizations are concerned, theirs lasted only for 400 years, while other civilizations lasted for thousands. The reason is they were crooked people amongst the nations.

Studies of history indicate that they always walked in the shadow of powerful nations. Parasitism is one of their destructive traits. Without the support of the USA and the elite bankers, they won't survive a day.

Also I can not NOT blame the Arabs but partially. They could have had winning cards in their hands before the Jewish cancer has spread so widely.

I need not mention everything in details. You know better. But do not fully blame nations who have come out of the bottle nick of imperialistic blood sucking and exhaustion at wrong time.

Merrily a simple reading of statements said by Ben Gurion, Golda Meir, Menachim Begin, and theirlikes retroactively explain everything.

I am a blogger:http://thenakedtruthinaconfusedworld, (ablog dedicated to Palestine), and I am also a short story wirer:

In my "Literature and Linguistics" blog, there is a short story I have written at the very beginning of my career, originally written in and published in Kuwait in Arabic, and later re-written in English. Events took place in Upper Egypt, but in fact it is not only about about Egyptian corruption. It is about every Arabian country with implicit reference to Palestine, and explicit reference to the enemy within.

Please visit both blogs and honor me with a comment.