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If This be Praise...

Lerner, Said and the Palestinians

by M. SHAHID ALAM


"Michael Lerner is one of the major prophetic figures of our time."

Cornel West

"Every indigenous people will resist alien settlers as long as they see any hope of ridding themselves of the danger of foreign settlement. This is how the Arabs will behave and will go on behaving so long as they possess a gleam of hope that they can prevent ‘Palestine’ from becoming the land of Israel."

Ze’ev Jabotinsky (1923)

Very few intellectuals in our times would measure up to Edward Said in the eulogies he received upon his death last year. Indirectly, every obituary, tribute, essay, reminiscence honoring his memory was a rebuke to the mercenaries who populate our media, academia and that execrable category, think tanks. But would they notice?

Yet, I chanced upon one obituary notice that I found troubling. I was troubled because it was from Rabbi Lerner, who has earned the opprobrium of America’s Jewish establishment for opposing the Israeli Occupation of West Bank and Gaza. At one time, he had to seek police protection in the face of death threats from pro-Israeli Americans.

It is not that the Rabbi does not praise Edward Said. He pays "tribute to a great thinker and writer whose contribution to contemporary intellectual life deserves our respect and appreciation." Said was a "powerful and passionate advocate for his own people, the Palestinians." Is that all?

The Rabbi reserves his deepest respect, however, for the way in which Edward Said "publicly challenged Arafat and his thuggish ways (emphasis added)." Actually, challenging Arafat was quite a commonplace amongst Palestinians after he traded the rights of Palestinian for policing rights over Palestinians. The pointed reference to Arafat’s "thuggish ways" is gratuitous. The phrase belongs to the lexicon of Zionist demonization of Palestinians.

Then come the accusations. Said did not "sympathize with the plight of European Jews and the way that their returning to the place they perceived to be their ancient homeland was not an act of Western colonialism (emphasis added)." It is a circuitous sentence, a bit jumbled and problematic too.

Here is how I make sense of the Rabbi’s syntax. First, he posits that the creation of Israel was not an "act of Western colonialism," something Edward Said knew or should have known. From this, the Rabbi infers that Said’s opposition to Zionism was due to his lack of sympathy with (a) the "plight of European Jews" and (b) their right to return to "the place they perceived to be their ancient homeland."

The first charge might be serious. Only someone seized with anti-Semitic loathing could lack "sympathy" for the centuries of suffering endured by European Jews. Unwittingly, therefore, the Rabbi accuses Said of anti-Semitism. Or, is the Rabbi saying that European Jews had earned the right–because of their long suffering–to a Jewish state in Palestine, even if this would lead to the destruction of Palestinian society. Said’s sin, then, is that he does not recognize this Jewish right. On this account, we have to acquit Edward Said. The Rabbi will agree that self-destructive sympathy does not come naturally to most people.

The second charge stems from the premise of a Jewish right of return. In this case, we are asked to concede that the "perception" that Palestine is "their ancient homeland" gives European Jews the right to return. And this right is comprehensive. It empowers European Jews to ‘repossess’ Palestine–take it away from the Palestinians–in order to establish a state of the Jewish people.

It is Jewish mythology alone that confers legitimacy of sorts to the Jewish right of return. There is no system of law which converts a perceived claim by an individual or group into a legally enforceable right. Nor does any system of law confer on any people a perpetual right to a country they (may have) once inhabited, much less one they left (or claim to have left) some eighteen hundred years ago. In effect, then, the Rabbi faults Said for not accepting Jewish mythology as the law for the Palestinians. Should he?

Rabbi Lerner also accuses the Palestinians–and Said, by association–of immorality. "He never took the step of acknowledging that Palestinian resistance to Jewish immigration in the years when Jews were trying to escape the gas chambers of Europe or the displaced persons camps of 1945-48 was immoral (emphasis added)." At best, the argument in tendentious.

Is the Rabbi conceding–perhaps unwittingly–that Palestinian resistance to Jewish immigration was moral before Hitler opened the gas chambers? Was it moral then because Jews were entering Palestine under a Zionist plan–first conceived in 1897, and ratified by Britain in 1917–whose end was to create a Jewish state that would dispossess the Palestinians. Jewish immigration amounted to a Jewish invasion that would necessarily lead to the displacement and dispossession of Palestinians.

Should the Palestinians have ceased their resistance because Nazi persecution of Jews in Europe–by accelerating Jewish immigration into Palestine–was bringing their own demise nearer, and making it more certain? Did the Zionists at this time start a dialogue with the Palestinians, explaining to them that the Jews escaping Nazi persecution would enter only as refugees, seeking temporary shelter in Palestine before they could be relocated to countries where they would be welcome? Indeed, Nazi persecution became the perverse–if unintended–engine for realizing the Zionist project. Should it then have mattered to the Palestinians that the Jewish immigrants, who would accelerate their dispossession, were fleeing persecution?

There is another flaw in the Rabbi’s train of thought. His argument assumes that Palestine was the only destination for Jewish refugees escaping Nazi persecution. Could not these Jews find refuge–permanent or temporary–in any of the Allied countries (or their vast colonies) whose war effort could have been greatly aided by the influx of Jewish skills, expertise and capital? All this appears implausible.

In support of this assumption, the Zionists point to the resistance to Jewish immigration in the United States. But this won’t wash. One has to ask if the world Jewish hierarchy, by now fully committed to the creation of Israel, had a real interest in exerting its power to overcome American opposition to Jewish immigration? If the Jewish lobbies in the United States could offset the State Department’s opposition to the creation of Israel, were they not capable of overcoming the Administration’s resistance to Jewish immigration? Moreover, the United States was not the only feasible destination for Jewish refugees.

Rabbi Lerner’s difficulties have their source in the deep contradictions of Zionism. This was a peculiar nationalist project unlike any other because the people–European Jews–it defined as a nation did not possess the territorial attributes of a nation; they did not constitute a majority in any of the territories that they inhabited. In fact, they were everywhere a small minority. It was imperative for this nationalist project, therefore, to acquire territory–a land–where Jews could exercise the collective rights of nationhood, viz. sovereignty and statehood.

The founders of the Zionist project knew instinctively that it would be impractical–indeed suicidal–to try to acquire territory for a Jewish state within Europe. In fact, quickly, they decided that they would harness the support of European powers to create the territorial basis of their state outside of Europe. At first, Britain was chosen to sponsor the Zionist project.

Palestine offered the ideal location. Its historical value–as the site of the ancient Jewish state, and the land promised by Yahweh to the Hebrews–would be useful in mobilizing Jewish support for the Zionist project. Since it was not yet a European colony, it would be easier to persuade a European power to help create a Jewish state in Palestine, serving as a "rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization against barbarism." Palestine contained Christian holy lands too, and this was another incentive for Europeans to take it away from the Muslims and give it to the Jews, a Biblical people. Finally, the project would realize the anti-Semite’s dream of cleansing Christian Europe of its Jewish population.

Inevitably, since its inception, the Zionist project had two defining features. It was an imperialist project–a surrogate imperialism–where Britain, the leading imperialist power, would acquire Palestine in fulfillment of a deal with an influential segment of Jewish bourgeoisie. Necessarily, it was also a colonial-settler project, since it sought to create a state of European Jews on Palestinian land. This would entail, in some combination, the displacement and marginalization of the Palestinians.

These are the "wrongs" that the Zionists regard as right, legitimate, moral, as necessary for Jewish survival, for Jewish power. Rabbi Lerner is a committed Zionist. He makes no bones about that. Though an American himself, he informs us–without any comment–that his son served the Israeli military in the West Bank. As a Zionist, the Rabbi accuses the Palestinians–and Edward Said–for not acknowledging the wrongs done to them as right, as moral, as necessary.

Of course, Rabbi Lerner has more heart than most Zionists. He concedes that the Palestinians too have "rights" to Palestine, the same as the Jews. He concedes this because you cannot be a pro-Israeli without conceding these rights; because there is no prospect of Jewish security without mollifying the Palestinians. The "equal" rights he grants the Palestinians, however, only allows them a "state" on 22 percent of historic Palestine. He does not contemplate any Palestinian right of return. No "equality" there.

The creation of Israel was a power play. It was born out of the contradictions of the history of European Jews, a contradiction that would be resolved by the convergence of Jewish influence and Western imperial power, combining to serve the interests of both. The cost of this project to Palestinians, to Arabs, to Muslims, was not even an issue in an era dominated by Western racism and bigotry–of the Christian, Jewish and secular variety.

As the contradictions of the Zionist project deepen, forcing it to draw the United States directly into the conflict, that same racism and bigotry are being mobilized in the West, and especially the United States, to support another assault on the rights of the Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims. Slowly, reflexively, a segment of the Muslim population, a small segment still I believe, is being energized to take back their lands, their dignity and rights, their place under the sun. Some of them are now imitating the bloody-mindedness of their foes.

Is this the clash of civilizations between the West and the Islamicate world? Was this conflict inevitable given the oil-thirst and Israelization of the United States confronting an Islamicate world, beaten in the nineteenth century, divided, humiliated, now reaching a quarter of the world’s population, and struggling to regain its lost power, to recreate its splintered unity?

Are Islamicate societies seeking to reconstitute their life on the primordial foundations–lost in the crush of modernization–of a perennial encounter "between God as such and man as such," between the transcendent, creative principle of the universe and a theomorphic being endowed with intellect, free will and speech?

Or, are these societies today what their adversaries say they are–in rage, in denial, impotent, after the West overtook them in knowledge and power? Did they fail to modernize because of the flaws in the ‘deep structures’ of their culture? And are they now seeking, out of spite, to destroy the leader of the modern, democratic and dominant West?

Only time will tell who is right, where this conflict will go, what this contest will bring at the end? This conflict may end quickly in the capitulation of the Islamicate adversary producing ‘a thousand years’ of American hegemony over the Islamicate world; or it may go the other way. If it goes the other way, it may restore a balance between the West and Islamdom, an equilibrium shattered in the nineteenth century. Or, it may be the beginning of a long, or precipitous, descent to long and deadly wars, to economic meltdown–to an unforeseen hell.

M. SHAHID ALAM is professor of economics at Northeastern University. His last book, Poverty from the Wealth of Nations, was published by Palgrave in 2000. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s hot new book: The Politics of Anti-Semitism. He may be reached at m.alam@neu.edu. Visit his webpage at http://msalam.net.

© M. SHAHID ALAM