The Challenge of Israel: Fifty Years On

Edward Said , Tuesday 16 May 2023

There can be no erasing of the historical truth that the existence of Israel is predicated, indeed imposed upon, the obliteration of another society and people. Every Israeli knows this, as much as every Palestinian does: the question, writes Edward Said, is how long can an intolerable situation of proximity and injury be endured by the victims, and how long can it be deferred by the victors?

Palestinian women and children forced to leave their village of Tantura after Zionist militias seized their homes and executed dozens of men 22-23 May, 1948



From Al-Ahram Weekly archives: Fifty years of dispossession 1948-1998*

Issue: 15 January 1998



The scars are still unhealed, the wounds fester, the past will not be forgotten. And yet there is no overriding consensus in the Arab world as to what Israel represents, and how we should deal with it.

Even using the collective pronoun "we" suggests a unity of views that is more presumed than actual. At some higher level of politics and ideology Israel is an objective ally of some Arab policies and politicians, not all of them right-wing Christian Lebanese. Jordan, for example, has signed a peace treaty with it, as have Egypt and the PLO: still, very few Arab writers, intellectuals, academicians, artists, and even policy makers will say that they are ready for normalization with Israel, so long as it remains in occupation of Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese territory.

An enormous grey area exists in our collective consciousness. Israel is there, but how are we to think about and above all act toward it? Everyone wants and speaks about peace, yet how for Palestinians whose entire territory was captured and society destroyed is one to declare a statute of limitations and say, what is past is past, let us reconcile ourselves to a future with Israel?

When it comes to the present, how are we to say that we will coexist with a state that still has not declared its boundaries and still describes itself not as the state of its citizens but as the state of the whole Jewish people entitled to the entire "land of Israel"? As for the future, where is the glimmer of a new Israel which is neither imperialist and exclusivist but somehow at one with the Islamic Arab world in whose midst it has been planted as idea and as reality since l897.

By posing the challenge of Israel in this manner a number of irreconcilable facts leap out at us. There can be no erasing of the historical truth that the existence of Israel is predicated, indeed imposed upon, the obliteration of another society and people. There has been far too much sustained damage done to the Palestinian people for this easily to be surmounted. Israel, in short, exists as a political fact superimposed upon and intertwined with another fact: the Palestinian people, whose existence and history are denied, and whose claims have never been heard inside the discourse of Israeli life.

Surely every Israeli knows this, as much as every Palestinian does: the question is how long can an intolerable situation of proximity and injury be endured by the victims, and how long can it be deferred by the victors?

Israeli policy has always consisted of two parts. On the one hand, strenuously absolve yourself of any responsibility for the existence of a Palestinian "problem" and, on the other, try to make compromises on the basis of that self-absolution with whatever Arab or Palestinian leadership exists at the moment, and continuing to settle the land.

The premise of both parts of this policy is the same, that given enough time and pressure, Palestinians will forget, give up or variously accommodate themselves to the permanent loss of what was once theirs. In the main, this policy has not really been successful, despite the existence of a peace process and two treaties with Arab states.

Far from forgetting the past, Palestinians and other Arabs have been obliged to recall it because of Israeli insistence on endlessly repeating its original sin. By what perverted, diseased logic can Benjamin Netanyahu proclaim to the world that he wants the peace process to continue at the same time that he says that the West Bank and Gaza are part of the land of Israel?

Every house demolition, every expropriated dunum, every arrest and torture, every barricade, every closure, every gesture of arrogance and intended humiliation simply revives the past, re-enacts Israel's offenses against the Palestinian spirit, land, body politic. To speak about peace in such a context is to try to reconcile the irreconcilable, which cannot be done.

But the fantasy of somehow removing Israel and its people is equally unthinkable. Yes, they can be made to withdraw from the occupied territories, but it is a dream to expect that "they" will disappear or go back to Poland, Russia, America. There is now an Israeli nationalism and a society independent of what we think and autonomous also from the Diaspora. Behind it are memories of the Holocaust and centuries of Western antisemitism from which it would be folly for us to expect Israelis to disconnect themselves.

But there is also a history of anti-Palestinian behavior which demands recognition as injustice and cruelty of the first order. Just as Jews require recognition from the world, we too must continue to make the same demands not on the grounds of vengeance but because justice requires it. Thus the misery of Oslo is that our leaders simply brushed off our history along with Messers Rabin and Peres, whereas it behooves us to remember what Zionism did, and -- no less important -- what Britain, the United States, and other pro-Zionist Western governments have done who conspired in our dispossession.

The signing of Oslo: US President Clinton assists Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, while PLO leader Yasser Arafat walks alone, 1993. Still from the Israeli documentary The Human Factor by Dror Moreh, 2019


The first challenge of Israel then is the need to extract acknowledgement from it for what it did to us and to other Arabs whose sons and daughters were killed in its wars, conquests, military occupations, settlements. This is a moral mission for each of us to pursue by not forgetting, by reminding each other and the world, by testifying to the continued injustice against us.

I simply cannot imagine that history will ever excuse us for failing in this task. But then, I believe, we must also hold out the possibility of some form of coexistence in which a new and better life, free of ethnocentrism and religious intolerance, would be potentially available. It is the present poverty of Zionism and Palestinian nationalism that accounts for the void in vision and moral energy that we suffer from today. I am certain that if we present our claims about the past as enabling a form of mutuality and coexistence in the future (although the response will initially be negative and dismissive) a long-term positive echo on the Israeli and Western side will develop.

It is also evident to me that we cannot detach our views of Israel from our attitudes and policies towards the United States. Since 1949, America has poured about 140 billion dollars into Israel. Not only is this a major financial investment, but the American political establishment has a long-term investment in the country as well.

To expect the US to lessen support of Israel, or even to become critical of it -- these are real possibilities in my view -- is unthinkable without a massive campaign in the United States on behalf of Palestinian political and human rights. This is so obvious as not to require much insistence here. The only question to ask, however, is why has this not been done before?

Everyone of us who knows the West knows full well that Israel's successes on the ground have been prepared for and supported by assiduous propaganda about Arab intransigeance, the Arab wish to drive Jews into the sea, the Israeli desire for peace and tranquility, and, central to all this, that Israel as a Jewish state was created by the national liberation Jewish movement (Zionism) which found the place deserted and made it a garden.

Zionism, along with all the other successful mass movements in the twentieth century (including fascism) learned the lesson of propaganda: that the battle for opinion is the most important one to win. This is something that we still have not completely grasped, and until we do we shall always be the losers.

In short, Israel is the measure of our failings and our incompetence. We have waited for a great leader for years, but none came; we have waited for a mighty military victory, but we were defeated roundly; we have waited for outside powers (the US or, in its time, the Soviet Union), but none came to our aid. The one thing we have not tried in all seriousness is to rely on ourselves: until we do that with a full commitment to success there is no chance that we can advance towards self-determination and freedom from aggression.

Take as a simple case in point the current Palestinian case, where the failures seem the most glaring and the remedies more easily at hand than anyone has suspected. We have been saddled with poor leadership ever since I can remember, and still we persist in supporting the same bankrupt group through all its mistakes and disasters.

On the other hand, we pride ourselves on the many successes of our people -- doctors, lawyers, engineers, entrepreneurs, businessmen, intellectuals, academics, artists. We claim that we want statehood and independence, yet none of the most basic institutions of statehood are in anyone's mind.

There is no basic law where the Palestinian Authority rules today, the result of one man's whim not to approve such a law, in flagrant defiance of the Legislative Assembly. Our universities are in an appalling state, starved for money, desperately run and administered, filled with professors who struggle to make a living but have not done a stroke of research or independent work in years. We also have a large and impressive group of extremely wealthy businesspersons who have simply not grasped that the essential thing for any people is a massive investment in education, the construction of a national library, and the endowment of the entire university structure as a guarantee that as a people we will have a future.

I have attended meetings for almost twenty years in which hundreds of little projects are funded, but without a central vision of what it is that as a society we need. The absence of a collective end to which all are committed has crippled Palestinian efforts not just in the official realm, but even among private associations, where personality conflicts, outright fights, and disgraceful backbiting hamper our every step.

Looked at the from this perspective the fundamental challenge that Israel poses is to ourselves -- our inability to organize, our inability to dedicate ourselves to a basic set of principles from which we do not deviate, our inability to marshal our resources single-mindedly, our inability to devote all our efforts to education and competence, finally, our inability to choose a leadership that is capable of the task. It is no use blaming the failures of the current PLO on a few inadequate and corrupt individuals.

The fact is that we now have the leadership we deserve, and until we realize that we are being driven further and further from our goal of self-determination and the recovery of our rights by that leadership which so many of us still serve and respect, we will continue to slide downwards.

Antonio Gramsci put it very succinctly: pessimism of the intelligence, optimism of the will. Yes, our situation vis-a-vis Israel is calamitous and under Netanyahu the situation will get worse. But we need to ask what it is that we can do, and then by an act of collective will we must do it. The rest is simply a waste of time.

The choice of better leaders is an imperative, but we must also improve our own conditions so that our workers do not have to build Israeli settlements just to put food on their tables, and our students do not have to settle for incredibly backward curricula in an age when our opponents are sending people to the moon, and our people have to accept lamentable conditions of tyranny and oppression where dissent is punished and torture is used to cow the citizenry by our Authority, all in the name of national unity.

Until we awake from the sleep of reason, we will continue to lose more land and power to Israel. But we cannot fight for our rights and our history as well as future until we are armed with weapons of criticism and dedicated consciousness.

In this we need the support of the Arab intellectual and cultural community which has devoted too much time to slogans about Zionism and imperialism and not enough to helping us fight the battle against our own failures and incompetence. The challenge of Israel is the challenge of our own societies. We are now unequal to the task because we are still chained to methods and attitudes that belong to an earlier time.

The struggle of the twenty first century is the struggle to achieve self-liberation and self-decolonization. And then Israel can be properly addressed.



This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly’s special pages commemorating 50 years of Al-Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe when Israel was created on 15 May 1948. These pages, published in 1998, were part of a year-long series of articles documenting the history and nature of the Arab-Israeli struggle, as well as that of Palestinian dispossession and exile.

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