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Mark LeVine
Mark LeVine
Mark Levine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine, and distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh.
Overcoming the Nakba: In Israel as well as Palestine
Palestinians have the difficult burden of not merely resisting the occupation but also needing to transcend it.
Last Modified: 15 May 2012 20:59
Nakba day commemorates the mass exodus of Palestinians from their homes 64 years ago, an event sparked by Israeli violence following its declaration of statehood [GALLO/GETTY]


Reality is sharp

It cuts at me like a knife
Everyone I know
Is in the fight of their life
- Ben Harper, A Better Way

Irvine, CA - It was a beautiful early summer afternoon along the road from Jenin to Nablus, travelling through one of the most stunning landscapes in the West Bank, if not all of the Holy Land. There were no checkpoints or Israeli military vehicles in sight; even the small settlements on the hilltops above couldn't disturb the view, as long as you didn't think too hard about them.

And Ben Harper was blasting through the speakers of my companions' car, letting us all know that somewhere, somehow, after 64 years of violence, war, occupation, and terrorism, there has to be "a better way".

For 64 years, Israeli society has tried to keep the Nakba at bay, hoping that denying, defending or ignoring it would somehow innoculate Israelis against the pernicious effects of the violence and ethnic cleansing that characterised the country's birth and drove much of its subsequent history. But as with individuals, nations cannot be involved in that level of violence and oppression and not pay a steep moral and emotional price. No matter how hard one tries to repress it, the violence ultimately corrodes your most basic values and identity.

And so, today, the Palestinian Nakba has become Israel's Nakba as well.

It's never been an even fight, the contest with Zionist Jews and Israelis on the one hand, and Palestinian Arabs on the other. But, then again, it's never been lopsided enough for one side to achieve a final victory over the other.

Israel is not unique in this regard. All empires, great and small, pay a price for the violence they use to bring territories under their control and then subdue and manage the populations inhabiting them. The price is even higher when the violence is inflicted on the nearest "other", living on what’s claimed by the more powerful group as its own patrimony.

Easy to occupy

It's worth noting in this regard, for anyone who remains astonished at the unwillingness of most Israeli politicians to own up to Israel's role in the Nakba, that when the United Nations recently investigated the ongoing discrimination and oppression of Native American communities in the US, not a single member of the US Congress would agree to meet with them.

The problem is that however damaging is the plague of gun violence or the continued oppression of Native American in the United States, it does not threaten the country's existence as a political entity. Tragically, the genocide of native peoples here was successful enough so that most in the US, whether fourth generation citizens or recent arrivals, can largely avoid thinking about it, and even continue to have sports teams featuring blatantly racist logos.

Israelis don't have that luxury. People can sit in a cafe in Tel Aviv or Haifa blissfully unaware of what's going on across the Green Line. But to the extent this is true, the ignorance is wilful, and comes with a steep price. In fact, for most Israelis, the occupation is front and centre every day - no matter how much they try to wish it away. And let's face it, as more Israelis have moved to the right politically, they are no longer bothering to wish it away. Wilful or wishful, its impact on the country's politics, economy and social life are profound.

Just look at the headlines from Haaretz in the past week: "Israel police must stop the brutality and permit protests" - the "brutality" in question is being directed against Israeli Jews, not Palestinians; "While the education corps aspires to pluralism, the military rabbinate has a different agenda" - dealing with the increasingly rabid xenophobia in the IDF; "Israel transformed from democracy to an oligarchy" - with regard to the rise of a small and permanent political class that "shares the spoil of rule" between themselves and those whose actions are outside the reach of democratic accountability.

"The one thing that Palestinian and Zionist/Israeli leaders have long agreed upon was the importance of preventing the masses of Palestinians from deciding and acting upon their own fate. This remains as true in Gaza in 2012 as it was in Jaffa in 1932."

And then there is the broader threat to Israeli society, whether it's the increasingly violent antipathy of ultra-Orthodox to Israeli girls and women, or the long term damage serving in the occupied territories does to young Israelis. The occupation, in the words of one group of IDF commanders who declared their refusal to continue serving in the territories, "destroy[s] all the values we had absorbed while growing up in this country" and leads to the "loss of [the soldiers'] human character and the corruption of the entire Israeli society".

And while Israel's political and economic elite celebrate the supposedly strong performance of the Israeli economy, the poverty numbers in the country remain "startling" and "extremely grim" outside of the relatively wealthy areas along the coast or in West Jerusalem, with inequality increasing at more than three times the average rate for OECD countries.

The costs of the occupation on Palestinian society have, of course, been far higher - and continue to deepen with each passing year. In terms of social structure, the arrival and development of Zionism in historic Palestine distorted the economic development of Palestinian society and strengthened the power of a traditional elite that too often acted in its own narrow interest, rather than for the good of the larger community. As with so many other colonial situations, whether it was land sales to Jews by notables eighty years ago or repressing peaceful protests on behalf of Israel today, Palestinian leaders have too often become instruments of strengthening control over Palestinian territory - rather than resisting it.

In so many ways, the one thing that Palestinian and Zionist/Israeli leaders have long agreed upon was the importance of preventing the masses of Palestinians from deciding and acting upon their own fate. This remains as true in Gaza in 2012 as it was in Jaffa in 1932.

The problem of nationalism

A crucial part of the problem facing Palestinians is that Palestine in the late Ottoman period was developing along a social, political and economic trajectory that would have been better served by the somewhat ambiguous, increasingly globalised identities of the late Ottoman Levant than it was by the much more narrow, exclusivist nation-state identity that emerged to confront the threat of Zionism. A cohesive national identity, one that would enable - or force - various classes to subsume their narrow interests for the good of the nation as a whole didn't have the time to develop in Palestine to compete with a far more focused, well-funded and ideologically determined Zionist identity.

Zionism as an ideology combined three of the most powerful exclusivist and hierarchical discourses known to humanity: religion, ethno-nationalism, and modernity. All three discourses depend first and foremost on separating one's group from surrounding groups and then claiming various forms of superiority to these "others", based on one's identity. In this case, these involve belonging to "the true religion", being the land's "true inhabitants", and being culturally, economically and politically more advanced than the indigenous population - and thus able to "legitimately" claim sovereignty over the territory.

Such an exclusivist and inherently militant identity has succeeded, in the Zionist case, in achieving most of its goals. In the Palestinian case, its main success has been in preserving a Palestinian identity rooted in the soil of the country, despite the majority of Palestinians living in exile for several generations.

"Even Hamas, which prides itself on being the only 'true' resistance force left in Palestine, can do little more than Israel's bidding - when push comes to shove."

But neither identity has proven successful at providing either comprehensive security or an environment in which the two communities could interact outside of a zero-sum contest with the other. And so, for example, Zionist exclusivism was turned on Jewish immigrants from Muslim countries not long after the creation of the Israeli state. Palestinian society has remained mired in class, clan and other factional conflicts that have significantly hampered the ability of the community as a whole to mount a successful resistance against Zionism, which has long exploited the factional structure of Palestinian society to keep Palestinians weak and divided.

For a century, Palestinians have been forced to push for the creation of a political model - a territorially independent state - that, given the balance of power between them and Israel, as well as the larger political economy of the Middle East, would leave them with little chance of creating a democratic polity even if they achieved de jure independence. The difficulties of the region’s countries that have achieved independence in creating stable democracies highlight the difficulties an independent Palestine would have faced.

The burden of transcendence

Even Hamas, which prides itself on being the only "true" resistance force left in Palestine, can do little more than Israel's bidding - when push comes to shove. And so, within a day of the above quoted headlines, the Israeli media was reporting that Hamas was collaborating with the PA to ensure that Nakba Day protests stayed clear of Israeli controlled areas and didn't involve violence. Do anything else, and Israel would have no problem unleashing hell on earth in Gaza once again, which Hamas would be powerless to stop, and which would turn whatever remains of its support base against it.

Unable to defeat the occupation, Palestinians have the even more difficult burden of not merely resisting the occupation but also of literally transcending it, in order to rise above it, and imagine a new set of political and economic relations that could bring them the freedom, justice, dignity and development they deserve.

More specifically, on the one hand Palestinians have to continue with summud, or steadfastness, that is the foundation of a traditional territorial ideology, because the main goal of the occupation is continued dispossession. Yet, at the same time, they must generate new kinds of identities that can reach out, embrace Israelis and even enable them to reconsider and reimagine their own identity in a political system that offers full human, civil, political and social rights to Palestinians.

Many argue that Palestinians have to do little more than sit and wait for demography to take its natural course so that they outnumber Israelis, and then call for a traditional one-state solution, as Israeli leaders such as former Prime Ministers Barak and Olmert have warned. But consider the massive brutality minority regimes in places such as Syria or Bahrain have been willing - and allowed - to commit on their subject majorities to preserve their existence, and the wisdom of such a plan becomes less clear.

Changing the rules

Unable to change the balance of power in the foreseeable future, Palestinians have little choice but to change the rules of the conflict so that the odds are more even.

As the biblical landscape of the Nablus region came into view, Ben Harper's lyrics bounced around my head. Having just spent two days with the Jenin Freedom Theatre, I couldn't help but imagine that there must be a plan that, as Harper put it, looks the world straight in the eyes and creates a different future. The clue for me was in the very sound of Harper's song: Hawaiian guitar mixed with Indian Tambura and various types of global percussion, all over a grooving beat and powerful lyrics.

The hybridity of the song was what made it so powerful, and hearing it as I passed through a landscape that has seen so many peoples call it home, it fit the surroundings perfectly. In the same way, the Freedom Theatre, whose work I've discussed in several columns, has become so important precisely because it has created spaces where the occupation and myriad other forms of oppression are not merely resisted but also overcome.

Artists in the lead

The task is not easy and the price is not cheap; the murder of Juliano Mer-Khamis and his comrade Vittorio Arrigoni in Gaza demonstrates that in spades. But if you spend time with some of the main forces behind the theatre, namely former Tanzim fighters who have traded guns for words and young people who have seen so much violence but refuse to succumb to it, the power of art to help heal the wounds of conflict is impossible to deny.

I've seen it among rappers in Gaza, who, having lost fathers, brothers, and uncles to Israeli bombs, only to then face arrest and even torture by Hamas, are still willing to forget new identities that move beyond revenge or submission. And in Israeli artists who refuse either to ignore the conflict or merely champion a chauvinistic identity - and instead labour to use their music to build bridges with Arabs across the region.

 Palestinians mark Nakba day with protests

What unites all these actors, artists, writers, musicians and other cultural creatives is precisely that they have the power to create a new vocabulary and new language through which old paradigms can be challenged, and new identities and strategies imagined. And they can communicate these new ideas far more effectively to the public than can politicians and policymakers, many of whom either sold out or lost the ability to think creatively long ago.

One of the best young rappers in Gaza explained it this way: "Our role is to give space and make space inside for our people, because there is no place outside to take people to. Hamas takes them to religion. We take them somewhere else."

Similarly, one of the members of the pioneering hiphop group Ramallah Underground explained it, not long after I arrived in Ramallah from Jenin: "Art is the only place that is clean and brings truth; it brings truth from society to the stage. In life people see the truth very narrowly and with blinders. We expand it."

Ultimately, it seems clear that if there is to be a breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it will have to come from artists, activists and other cultural creatives who have the skills and imagination to build futures that most of the rest of us can't yet see. It's not always a pleasant experience, forcing people to ask new questions and consider new answers. But it's necessary, and ultimately probably the only chance either Israelis or Palestinians have to come out of this conflict with their dignity and highest ideals still intact. Artists are likely to be the only force that can turn the catastrophes of the past century into the promise of a better day.

Mark Levine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine, and  distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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