DevMode
I am a child of World War II. I was born in Sydney, Australia, in 1942. My earliest childhood memories are of my mother's parents, German Jews who had managed to escape from Europe before the war broke out. For my first three years of life, I lived in the midst of the dark cloud of hope, fear and doubt in which they were constantly enveloped: hoping that their many relatives still in Germany would somehow survive the war; fearing (as the war went on and news began to emerge of the dreadful happenings there) that they would not; and doubting whether other people could, in any way, imagine, or even cared about, their anguish.
By war's end, it became clear that none of their large extended family in Europe had survived. As a child I grew up in the aura of their awful pain and I somehow absorbed into myself their terrible loss - a loss for which there were then no words and no name. Now it is called the Shoah, the holocaust.
But my grandparents had some relatives who, in the mid-1920s, for a mixture of religious and political reasons, had gone to live in Palestine. From time to time, amidst the wartime gloom and in the years immediately after 1945, we would receive letters - I still remember their fascinating postal stamps, picturing a domed building, and bearing Arabic as well as English and Hebrew characters - that also provoked mixed feelings in my grandparents: a mixture of relief and hope, of anxiety and fear, as well as some gratitude that others had somehow survived the slaughter in Europe. After 1945, the tempo of my life, following theirs, began to be set by the daily radio broadcasts detailing the collapse of the British Mandate in Palestine, the declaration of Israel's statehood, and the subsequent 1948 war. In many ways, I was formed by those experiences.

Imagination and Demography

From my relation to my grandparents, I formed some of my early understandings of history, politics and identity: ideas about the tragedy of a people's loss of its independence and autonomy; about the pain of dispersion and the erosion of human dignity which it entails; about the vulnerability to which all stateless nations and their members are exposed in this modern world of ours. On that basis, I came to identify with and take a special pride in the achievements of the State of Israel, which in my own lifetime had accomplished such a dramatic reversal in the degraded condition of the Jewish people.
For a while, that framework of historical understanding sufficed and held firm for me. But not really for that long. One central component of the learning experience of my entire adult life has been my coming to terms with what, from the ashes of Jewish destruction, the creation of the State of Israel had entailed. Jews had indeed their ancient religious and spiritual connections with the Holy Land. Throughout their history, they had prayed for and dreamed of Jerusalem and made pious journeys and even returned to live in the Holy City, but the Holy Land was not empty and uninhabited.
The religious imagination and the land's historical demography provided pictures which were far from identical. So the creation of the State of Israel had entailed the uprooting of some 450 Arab towns and villages and of 700,000 Palestinians. Alongside the Shoah - as its uncanny counterpart - the catastrophe of the Nakba, too, was a devastation and a disaster. By force, another dispersion, another diaspora, had been created.
I had wept to read of the destruction of the many Jewish communities, large and small, of Central and Eastern Europe, and was entitled to do so. Now I wept, too, to read of the expulsion, in 1948, of the Palestinians from Lydda and from Ramleh. I was entitled and also obliged to do so. This is not to equate Lydda and Ramleh in 1948 with the Warsaw Ghetto of 1943 - all such events are unique and, in some sense, incomparable - but we can find, and must recognize in them (despite their differences of time and place and circumstance), some common human themes, moral lessons and imperatives.
As new maps were drawn to reflect these newly created "facts on the ground" in Israel/Palestine, legitimization was incrementally given to processes for which the world has since coined the ominous and chillingly appropriate term "ethnic cleansing." This process - of possession, of new map-creation, and of the framing and legitimization of new triumphalist, national narratives on the basis of those newly drawn maps, with all their renamed towns and villages - happened, not once, but twice (the immediate historical events don't matter here) in 1948 and again in 1967.

Learning the Lesson

All this has happened. How are we to live with it? What is essential is to see and to admit what happened, and to draw the human and moral implications which flow from this.
The basic moral and political lesson must be this. Ours is and, perhaps, must be a world of nation-states, where every distinctive, recognizable people may see itself as a community of common historical identity and political fate called a nation; and where every such nation is entitled to organize its common life within the political framework of a state, as the symbol and vehicle of its nationhood. Yet, in such a world, it is clearly impossible, both morally and, therefore, also politically to build one's nationhood upon the denial or negation of the nationhood of another people.
This is the situation we are addressing today. This is the mutual tragedy of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples. How did this situation arise? It is clear that its origins go back to the beginnings of the age of modern nationalism.
Within the Ottoman Empire, a distinctive Palestinian national identity began to take shape from the mid-19th century. Meanwhile, in Europe too, especially within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, minorities asserted their claim to nationhood where they were local majorities. A majority nowhere, Europe's Jews were often defined as lying outside those new national communities.
In a world now reorganizing itself on this new national basis, some Jews too took the same option. If the modern world was a world of nations, and if the Jews, by virtue of their special history and cultural distinctiveness, were not a proper part of anyone else's national community, then they would simply have to create one of their own, many felt.
This movement, the revolution within Jewish life to define the Jewish situation and redesign Jewish identity in modern national terms, took for itself the name of Zionism, orienting its dream of autonomy and local political self-sufficiency, not within an increasingly inhospitable Europe, but to the Holy Land of their remote ancestors, which had remained the focus of their spiritual and religious life during 2,000 years of dispersal, exile and diaspora.
In this form, Zionism won some significant moral and political support in influential circles in Europe, often because, by supporting Zionism, many Europeans could avail themselves of an apparently low-cost and conveniently "offshore" or external solution to Europe's own internal problem: what to do with its "indigestible" Jews who had been declared "unassimilable" into the national life of the great European nations.

Balfour and Buber

So far, all this was just so much day dreaming. What changed things was World War I and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. One week after our Australian Light Horsemen defeated the Ottoman forces at Beersheba in late 1917, opening the way for General Allenby to take Jerusalem, the British government issued its Balfour Declaration, supporting the establishment of a "Jewish national home" in Palestine. Subsequently, as a British Mandated territory under the League of Nations, Palestine was to become the arena for two distinct nationalisms - a local Palestinian nationalism and an initially immigrant Jewish nationalism - to develop their rival agendas. Contested by rival nationalisms, Palestine became (as the philosopher Martin Buber put it) a "land of two peoples."
With his passionate but practical moral logic, Buber was able to admit that even the best of the early Zionists "knew that we were reducing the space for future generations of Palestinians." Ultimately, Buber argued, if things came to an impasse, then - in view of the historical circumstances which had brought the returning Jews into contact with the Palestinians, and in view of the fact that the Zionist project of overcoming Jewish dispersion and homelessness was to be realized alongside and among the Palestinians - it was up to the Zionist side to seek and make possible some mutually agreed accommodation with the Palestinian people.
What no discussion of the Middle East can ignore is that the land then known as Palestine is now a land claimed by two peoples, two nations, two authentic, locally based nationalisms. As Buber continually argued, these two peoples had somehow to work out for themselves the basis for mutual understanding, for historical, political, economic, cultural and religious conciliation.
Given a little historical vision and generosity of spirit on each side, Buber maintained, they had real prospects of achieving some acceptable, even culturally creative, accommodation. Recognition of this fact - in those long-ago pre-Netanyahu days - fell squarely within the limits of acceptable Zionist debate. (In those times, the morally myopic and clich├ęd slogan that Zionism was the project of "a people without a land for a land without people," convinced few who had eyes to see.)
How is conciliation of the kind urged by Buber to be attained in our time and what is its essential precondition? Those now deciding Israel's future must accept what a majority of Israelis now recognize. They must accept the case for Palestinian statehood. As long as the Palestinian people are denied that recognition, there is no basis upon which they can effectively enter into the construction of a common peaceful future with Israel. It was that possibility which, five years ago, Rabin and Peres implicitly accepted; it is that recognition which subsequently Netanyahu has cruelly and even cynically denied.

Conditions for Peace

In the one land of two peoples, there have emerged, like it or not, two authentic local nationalisms, and, now, two nations. One is shaped by its project of return to an ancestral biblical home. The other is born of its experience of Ottoman overrule and neglect, of British Mandatory government, of emergent Israeli statehood, of Arab military defeat and subsequent abandonment amidst the balance-of-power scramble of Arab international politics. It is shaped by Nakba, dispersion, diaspora and the ensuing powerful urge to remedy the pain of national homelessness.
These have been, it is true, two contending nations and nationalisms, but they are now nations which, because of their long-standing, but not immutable rivalry, are intimately intertwined in each other's origins and development. They have developed together, cheek by angry jowl, throughout the 20th century, becoming inseparably part of each other's innermost nature.
To deny - as Netanyahu and his supporters do - the Palestinian entitlement to statehood while asserting their own, to base the overcoming of one's own homelessness on the imposed homelessness of another people, is simply (in the Israeli writer Amos Oz's telling phrase) "moral autism." Between these two peoples, peace is possible only by finding, on the moral as well as on the geographical terrain which they share, the room and also the political will to create two parallel states: one Israeli and the other Palestinian.
The State of Israel rests on a certain logic: that of the entitlement of peoples, in a world of nation-states, to statehood. It is a logic which cannot be applied selectively. It is a logic which, if you accept it at all, pushes inexorably towards the conclusion that Israelis and Palestinians must, somehow, work out together the terms under which both peoples may have a state of their own within that one, small, richly historied, and much contested piece of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.
If Israel is to make peace in this fashion with the Palestinians, with their active cooperation and wholehearted consent, it can only be made under conditions which embody the recognition that - whatever the other disparities between an established nation-sate and an emergent, still stateless nation - each party is an equal part of the process of fashioning the conditions of mutual acceptance. The only basis for successful negotiations is the premise of equality. Each side must accept the other's full entitlement to statehood.

Undermining Oslo

Regrettably, it is this point from which, under Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel has conspicuously retreated. His objective has been not to attack directly the Oslo agreements and the political process of mutual national recognition which it set in motion. Rather, while paying the so-called peace process lip-service and making cynically selective use of the Oslo understandings when it has suited him, he has sought to stall and negate, to empty and cancel, that process from within. His government's consistent policy has been one of calculated provocation, coupled with the speedy disowning and blustering denunciation of its predictably damaging consequences. It is a sickening spectacle.
Each side needs the other's recognition of the historically grounded legitimacy of its national identity and rights. So long as acceptance of this fact is not the basis from which both sides conduct serious, substantive negotiations, there is no prospect of enduring reconciliation between them. And it is Binyamin Netanyahu who now refuses this basis of negotiation, this essential foundation of reconciliation and peace.
Those who desire the end, must accept the means. If Netanyahu and his followers truly want peace, they must accept that the precondition for negotiating and creating peace is nothing other than complete and symmetrical mutual recognition between the Israeli and Palestinian sides, between the Israeli and Palestinian nations. There can be no basis for negotiation that does not recognize and make possible the creation of a Palestinian state alongside, and on equal terms with, Israel.

From a speech delivered at the commemoration of the Nakba at the University of Technology Sydney on May 15, 1998. <

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