Monday, September 27, 2004

Comments on Dr. Uri Davis’ Article, “Naming the Colonizer in Geographical Palestine”

I have a tremendous amount of respect for the personal courage and the intellectual integrity of Dr. Uri Davis. If the reader suspects that this sincere comment is the preface for a severe critique of the contents of Davis’ current article, Naming the Colonizer in Geographical Palestine (NTCGP), which is to serve as the focus of our discussion next week, he or she will be absolutely right.

Davis certainly has the right to choose his own subject and to define the limits of the discussion that he prefers. Even so, this is no reason to be swept along with the rather arbitrary demand that he sets before us. Davis opens his paper by stating:

“Assuming the characterization of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an inter-communal conflict, to be distinguished from an inter-state conflict, namely, a colonial conflict between the colonized native people and the colonial people originating from the Zionist immigration to Palestine..”

Now, any serious discussion of central problems connected with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can and should involve at the least a number of central assumptions regarding its characterization. Surely enough, an additional characterization of the conflict is that the conflict, in its present stage, is one between two national entities. An equally interesting characterization of the conflict holds that that the Jewish community in Israel is so atypical of conventional colonizer attributes, that it prevents categorization of the conflict as a conflict between colonized and colonizers. The Israeli Jews have no other homeland except for Israel. They are not envoys of a metropolitan center. Certainly these facts are sufficient to discard any facile attempt to compress them into the orthodox colonizer category. After all, when dealing with typical colonizers isn’t the main solution to make life miserable enough for them so that they bugger off and leave the indigenous population to work out its own national life. And if they do not understand that it is for the best that they go home, it is the job of the oppressed to make life difficult enough for them, so that they understand that this is the best step for all concerned. This is hardly a viable option in present circumstance,

Moreover, the social and class structure of Israeli society is basically different from that of almost all colonial formations. The colonized-colonizer schema also avoids dealing with the sensitive area of national self determination and the national passions of both Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews. It is rather manifest that it is national self determination and the establishment of an independent state that interests the mass of both peoples. Even those who deny any legitimacy to the current state of Israeli may well find it necessary to discuss the problem of the self determination of the Israelis after they are stripped of their empire in the occupied Palestinian territories (an event to be anticipated with joy by any decent thinking and feeling person).

Instead of ‘assuming’ the characterization of the conflict in a way suggesting that its sole solution is the establishment of a single democratic secular state, as Davis suggests, we must of necessity to deal with two main constructs simultaneously: the two state solution because of the considerable political and diplomatic support the project enjoys and the one state alternative that looms on the horizon if the occupation and the Israeli expansionism close off the alternative for national self determination in part of Palestine.

Justice is an important factor in the evaluation of these alternatives, but it is certainly not the main or dominant consideration. It would seem to this writer that a major reduction in the suffering of the Palestinian people is the major consideration, though I certainly agree that the Palestinians have the moral right to hold out until they determine that they are being offered an alternative that meets their minimal requirements, as determined by them as an organized community.

The ‘justice’ factor which is often mobilized around this issue has very elastic qualities. The appearance of militant anarchists in our midst, many of whom have performed tremendous work against the Wall, suggest that in addition to the two-state and the one-state solution, we will have to discuss the no-state solution. Even if we come to believe that such a social form of organization, i.e., a society without any state power, would be qualitatively more just than any other solution, we will simply and gently discard it, as impracticable. Practicality is a factor in the discussion of even the most theoretical and ideological spheres of activity. As a matter of fact, any serious discussion of justice in a political framework, really refers to attainable justice.Playing by Davis’ Rules

From this point on we will stop being unruly and accept as graciously as possible Davis’s assumption that, on our way to the elimination of colonialism in Palestine, we have encountered a serious problem in the definition of the colonizers.

The path to the elimination of colonialism is presented as a rather simple affair. We will establish a constitutional system based on a number of clear principles. The state formation will be secular and based on a complete separation of religion and the state. The state will be democratic and outlaw any form of discrimination based on national, ethnic, religious or gender status. Citizenship is the core of the relationship between the individual and the state. All the citizens are equal, and this promises formal equality and this formal equality promises real equality, i.e., the negation of colonialism and colonialist domination.

As a matter of fact it is quite easy to recognize Davis’ utopia. It is the modern, Western European - United States liberal democratic republic.

Davis seems rather intent on suggesting this model to the Palestinians and the other Arab countries. He is quite certain that Western [bourgeois] democracy is the next step forward for all societies.

There are a number of serious problems with this model.

One of the more striking remarks by an important Indian post colonialist intellectual about the analysis of Indian society is that this subcontinent of one billion people is presented as something that is ‘not yet’ (Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe). The reference is of course to that extreme form of Euro-centrism which assumes, right from the start, that all societies are tending to develop in this, its own, direction and it is only a matter of time before they reach this point. Then assuming that this is ‘where we are going’ it remains for the ‘enlightened’ Euro-trained intellectuals to point out the right path. This is, of course, what I would call justified criticism of historicism. (Historical materialism would, I hope, refuse to anticipate any historical process without specific data and evidence.)

Now, the first and most striking characteristic of these free, democratic, republican and secular societies is that they enjoy a relatively high standard of living based on their historical role as colonizers. Inadvertently, we have found the really serious colonizers, the ’secular democrats’ who murder, rape, conquer, cheat and enslave whole continents. On the basis of this pillage and the wealth accrued by it, an organized deal is worked out with broad sections of the aristocrats of labor and a social contract is produced based on democracy, secularism, universal citizenship, one man one vote and all the rest.

We do have a problem. The historical foundations of liberal democracy are such that they block the path, historically and currently, to their repetition as the only sure path to the promised land. Davis has shown us the promised land, but it is not anywhere near.

Things are not going too well either in the metropolitan center. The existence of universal citizenship in modern society hints at the very devaluation of the actual role of citizenship in conditions of advanced capitalism. The real process is the concentration of sufficient power in the ruling class as to allow it to use, misuse and abuse democratic processes so as to empty them of their intended content and role.
[See in this respect “Democracy Against Capitalism,” Ellem Meiksins Wood, Chapter 7).

Davis’ liberal democracy will be truly liberal and truly democratic because it is an a-historical utopia. Only as such can it enable Davis to propose a new political and academic narrative to the Palestinians and other oppressed people.

Ironing Out A Wrinkle in Davis’ Utopia

The problem that concerns Davis in this paper is the fact that he feels that we must have, in order to promote a new narrative concerning the conflict and its solution, a better definition of the colonizers in Palestine. Davis, working on the new narrative seems to believe that, in accordance with current fashion, the main problem is lining up the signifier and the signified.

Our Palestinian friends must at some point learn that this problem has been debated by the Jewish entity in Palestine ad nausea. The consensus both on the left and the right seems to be that Israeli Jewish community, national grouping, entity, ethnic group or for short the ‘Israeli Jews’ is a perfectly adequate way to define this group which is problematic in almost every other sense than this simple statement of fact. The fact is the Jews are also defined in different and parallel circumstances as those who practice the Jewish religion creates absolutely no problem, because it is the secular connotations that are in effect regarding the major elements of the relationships between Jews and Arabs. It is also of little or no importance, for the purposes of this definition that the Israeli government employs racist policies – based on anti-Jewish legislation under fascism in order to discriminate against Palestinian Arabs in Israel, unless one wishes to argue, and Davis certainly does not claim this, that calling Israeli Jews, Israeli Jews is the root of Israeli racism.

Now comes the strange part. Davis thinks that it would be quite helpful if we convinced the Jews to stop considering themselves Jews and define themselves as Hebrews. Davis seems to think that building up narratives and formulating them for specific purposes is essentially a subjective project, and he is quite wrong about this, but this is not the main problem with this suggestion.

Been There Done That

A tiny ideological, intellectual and cultural movement in the Israeli Jewish community has been promoting the idea that the Jews in Israel are Hebrews for decades. Their argument is simple: the true nature of this people evolved in direct contact with the Land of Israel. But alas, their Hebrew essence distilled in direct contact with the soil of their homeland was disfigured and distorted over the long agony of the Diaspora. (See Ron Kuzar, Two Brief Introductions to Hebrew Canaanism,

Now the Canaanite movement which advanced these ideas, never had any success against the Jewish-Zionist establishment because it tried to build a regional power base, based on the non-Arab peoples of the region, to restore the Hebrew empire.

Identifying the Jews who came to Israel in modern times with the ancient tribe of Hebrews is a Zionist ploy, par excellent of mythic proportions. Almost 50% of all the propaganda garbage about the renewal of the Jewish people in its ancient homeland is based on this myth. The Zionist and the Canaanites did meet one bit of common ground. The both declared in a style bordering on classic anti-Semitism that little or nothing of value emerged from the Jews in the Diaspora and their contribution to civilization depended first and foremost on the conquest and control of the Land of Israel – Palestine.

The current potential popularity of ‘Hebrew’ over ‘Jewish’ is that many Zionists consider the Hebrew designation as superior. However, the Jewish community already has a distorted sense of superiority. Why try and cultivate it?

The Political Significance of this Discussion at this Time

I felt it a point of honor to debate with Davis, as best I could, regarding the issues that he raised. However, I cannot leave this subject without expressing my deepest concern as to the real significance of this slogan advocating a ’secular democratic state’. Noam Chomsky had this to say in an interview held last spring:

Q. What do you think of a single-state solution, in the form of a democratic, secular state? Do you think such a solution is desirable today? Is it realistic today?

“There has never been a legitimate proposal for a democratic secular state from any significant Palestinian (or of course Israeli) group. One can debate, abstractly, whether it is “desirable.” But it is completely unrealistic. There is no meaningful international support for it, and within Israel, opposition to it is close to universal. It is understood that this would soon become a Palestinian state with a Jewish minority, and with no guarantee for either democracy or secularism (even if the minority status would be accepted, which it would not). Those who are now calling for a democratic secular state are, in my opinion, in effect providing weapons to the most extreme and violent elements in Israel and the US.”

[Interview with Noam Chomsky; Znet; March 30, 2004. Questions by Stephen R. Shalom and Justin Podur]