A Fable About Palestine

Let’s start with a story. Imagine that Africa has become rich and powerful, and that Euroope has become poor, divided and without real independence. Imagine next that, tired of being repeatedly massacred, the Tutsis decide to found a national home elsewhere. Certain of their leaders designate Wallonia, in Belgium, as that new home. Other Africans, to solve what some call the “Tutsi problem”, approve of the project. Thus a flood of Tutsis pack up, weapons and all, and begin to settle in that region, while proclaiming that the people already living there have to go somewhere else. With their wealth, their determination and their weapons, the Tutsis rapidly manage to take possession of the farms, forests and towns and chase away most of the natives, either by legal means or by intimidation. A large part of Wallonia becomes a new Tutsi State, which boasts of being particularly well governed and democratic. All of Africa looks on in admiration.

However, to the surprise of the Africans, most of the Walloons are against that arrangement. Bewildered, sometimes supported by other Europeans who are nevertheless divided and whose leaders are weak and indecisive, they engage in several last ditch fights which only allow the Tutsi State to expand. The Africans can’t understand why the Belgians and other Europeans are unable to appreciate the superiority of the system introduced onto their continent by the Tutsis. While Tutsis from all over the world are invited to come and settle, it is explained to the inhabitants who are being pushed out that there are other French-speaking States where they can go. All those who, in Europe or elsewhere, denounce that situation risk being called “anti-Tutsi” racists. When, parked on various scraps of ex-Wallonia, completely surrounded by the Tutsi army, a certain number of natives throw themselves into violent and desperate acts, commentators vie with each other to come up with theories on the peculiarities of Walloon culture that push them to such fanaticism.

It is doubtful that our principal concern, if we found ourselves in such a situation, would be to “put an end to the violence” of the original inhabitants of Wallonia, or to be fair to both sides, or to convince all the Belgians, as well as the other Europeans, to guarantee first and foremost the security of the Tutsi State within “safe and recognized borders”. And yet, the responsibility of Belgium in the misfortune of Tutsis, through its colonial policy, is incomparably greater than that, non-existent, of the Palestinians in the persecution of the Jews in Europe.

The aim of this fable is not at all to compare or to pretend to establish any equivalence between two tragic histories, that of the Jews or that of the Tutsis, but solely to illustrate the fact that the attitude of the Arabs toward Israel is not necessarily due to a strange and violent culture or religion, but is no different from the attitude anyone might have if put in a situation similar to theirs . It is above all the situation that is strange. Recognizing it doesn’t mean that one can or should undo what has been done in the past . But if one wants to arrive at a genuine peace, not only between Arabs and Israelis, but also between the West and the Arab-Muslim world, then one must begin by understanding why the others see the world as they do, and by honestly distinguishing the aggressor from the aggressed.

This fable is also also meant to illustrate the fact that, so long as one sees the conflict in terms of the war against terrorism, of conflicts between States, or even of human rights violations, an essential element is being left out, that is, the fact that the State of Israel is a continuation of European colonialism. It is that aspect (often invisible in Europe) that makes it unbearable to so many people in the Arab-Muslim world, and in the rest of the Third World. Any child in Rabat knows that if the State of Israel could be created in the way and place where it was done, it was because the local population that paid the price of the operation was made up of Arabs (like himself) and not of Europeans organized in powerful States who considered themselves superior. And that is difficult to accept.

One can argue as to whether Zionism is a form of racism, but what is certain is that that project owes its triumph both to the determination of the European powers (and subsequently of the United States) to control a region of great strategic importance and to the racist prejudices shared by almost all Europeans at the time. As the Palestinian writer Edward Said observed, “if one thinks of Churchill, Weizmann, Einstein, Freud, Reinhold Niebuhr, Eleanor Roosevelt, Truman, Chagall, the great conductors Otto Klemperer and Arturo Toscanini, plus dozens and dozens of other like them in Britain, the United States, France, and elsewhere in Europe, and then tries to produce a list of Palestinian supporters at the time who might have balanced this tremendous array of influence and prestige, one finds next to nothing” . And the situation has not radically changed since then. Leaving aside any demographic data, if a book asserted, among other niceties, that Jews, or Blacks, or Asians “breed like rats”, it would not be received like Oriana Fallaci’s The Rage and the Pride, which says exactly that of the “sons of Allah”. Anti-Muslim racism is the only racism that it is still possible to display openly without fear of disgrace.

To illustrate the injustice inflicted by the West on Arab countries and the rest of the world, one can also compare real events. What would happen if one applied to the American invasion of Iraq the same principles that the Americans invoked against the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait? It would be necessary to bomb the United States extensively, destroy their industrial potential, impose an embargo costing countless lives, until the Americans got rid of every trace of their weapons of mass destruction. Or else, imagine that, out of concern for the Palestinians, Israeli leaders are summoned to a palace in Saudi Arabia, ordered to immediately accept the deployment of Arab troops in Israel itself, and then, following their foreseeable refusal, bombed until they give up the occupied territories. It is not cetain that such a procedure would arouse the enthusiasm of all those who, in 1999, applauded when the West acted in a similar fashion toward Yugoslavia.

The conflict also needs to be seen in a broader context. The expulsion of the Palestinians was a catastrophe not only for them, but also for the neighboring countries. Which European country would accept on its soil tens of thousands of armed foreigners living in camps? What destabilizing effects did that situation have on fragile societies such as Lebanon and Jordan? It is all very well to say that the Arab countries should have integrated them, but how do we treat refugees who are our political allies, like the Albano-Kosovars, the Iraqi Kurds or the Afghans? We try to get rid of them as soon as possible. It goes without saying that the rich countries have the right to refuse to “take in all the world’s misery”, but that right is impossible to enforce in many poor countries. And what about Israel’s actions in the rest of the world? In numerous countries from South Africa to Guatemala, Israel has supported hateful regimes more openly than the United States was able to do. Note that, parallel to that Israeli policy, many of Israel’s defenders tend to support the United States against the Third World, even outside the Middle East, in Venezuela against Chavez for example. Finally, there is the matter of the arms race. The most responsible are the front runners, as their advance incites others to keep trying (rightly or wrongly) to catch up. That was the case of the United States vis-à-vis the Soviet Union in the past, and today vis-à-vis the rest of the world. On the regional level, in the Middle East, it is the case of Israel in regard to the Arab countries and Iran. That dynamic, which contributed to the militarization of less developed countries, barely emerging from colonial rule, like Egypt, Syria or Iraq, has no doubt strengthened there the hold of dictatorships whose misdeeds then cause our Western humanists to shed crocodile tears.

All of that is perfectly obvious, but not easy to say. When Jews like Norman Finkelstein or Noam Chomsky dare to criticize the policy of the Zionist movement, one attempts to silence them by accusing them of a strange psychological disorder, “self-hatred”. And as for non-Jews, a single word does the trick: anti-Semitism. All such “explanations”, offered without evidence, only serve to avoid rational argument. Even if Finkelstein and Chomsky did hate themselves, that would in no way prove that what they say is wrong.

There is however an argument frequently used by Zionists, linked to the accusation of anti-Semitism or self-hatred, which deserves to be taken seriously. That is the argument of selective indignation. How do Europeans dare criticize Israel, when they are responsible for the misfortunes of the Jews? As for the Americans, it is enough to see what they are doing in Afghanistan and in Iraq, or what they did previously in Vietnam . Unlike many others, I don’t think that Europeans or Americans can simply reply that they are not responsible for the past or for what their governments do. We have built our high living standards and our stable institutions on the basis of a bloody past. We cannot simply forget what our development costs, and continues to cost, to others. Moreover, we are primarily responsible for the actions of our governments; because they are the ones we can in principle influence most easily. Consequently, the criticism concerning selective indignation is valid when it is addressed to those who focus on the State of Israel alone, while forgetting all the other American and Western interventions in the world, which do far more damage than Israel is able to do. The correct response is to adopt an overall anti-imperialist attitude, in which, however, the criticism of Israel finds a central place, both for factual and for symbolic reasons.

JEAN BRICMONT teaches physics in Belgium. He is a member of the Brussells Tribunal. His new book, Humanitarian Imperialism, will be published by Monthly Review Press.

He can be reached at : bricmont@fyma.ucl.ac.be



This text is part of my preface to the French language edition of the introduction to the second edition of Norman Finkelstein’s Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict, Verso, London, 2003 (first edition, 1995), published as Tuer l’espoir: Introduction au conflit israélo-palestinien, Aden Brussels, 2003.

I also want to make it clear that it is not my intention to discuss here the relatively complicated question of the legitimacy of migrations or of how immigrants and refugees should be received. Note only that the latter come to our countries unarmed and without the intention to create their own State on our soil, which is altogether different from the Zionist project. Moreover, it should be remembered that that project, which was bound to lead to conflict with the Palestinians, was formulated well before Nazism (at the end of the 19th century) and thus cannot be justified as a response to Nazi atrocities.

Still, the problem with this argument is that it risks being used to legitimize the de facto annexation of parts of the occupied territories.

Edward W. Said, The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After, Vintage Books, New York, 2001, p.217.

Another version of this argument consists in saying that those who wax indignant over the situation in Palestine would do better to worry about Tibet or Chechnya. But here the answer is easy: in contrast to the situation in Palestine, practically nobody in our countries defends the Russian or Chinese positions. More to the point, Western governments do not support Russia or China the way they do Israel, and they are obliged to take the relationship of forces into account.




JEAN BRICMONT teaches physics at the University of Louvain in Belgium. He is author of Humanitarian Imperialism.  He can be reached at Jean.Bricmont@uclouvain.be