Ending living reactively
May 29, 2008
The tasks of Arab society predate the Nakba and at issue is Arab will, writes Azmi Bishara
Contrary to the general impression, there is nothing new in Israel's lavish celebrations of its so- called independence. The Israeli celebration of the Nakba, or calamity that befell the Palestinian people, is calculated according to the Jewish calendar, thereby creating a symbolic distance between the two events: the national independence of one people and the national dispossession of another.
"Independence day" is one of those civil holidays intended to forge the new Israeli secular/ religious national faith, which is founded on a creed that fuses elements of biblical mythology, modern nationalist values, colonialist ethics and the legends of the founding fathers with militarism. It is immeasurably more extravagant than any equivalent Arab independence day celebration, which, in itself, has various ramifications on the question of the legitimacy of political entities in public eyes. The Israeli celebrations are popular events, not just official state occasions. People take their children to local fairs, festivals and parades. The media feature an endless deluge of special programmes, films and anthems, all contributing to implant a collective Israeli memory of the so- called "war of liberation" in 1948. People, on that day, visit army units in their camps and military museums and go out on nature hikes. Such are the religious/militaristic customs that have become annual institutionalised rites. One notable rite takes place the day before "independence day", when at the sound of a siren, Israelis throughout the country stand up for a moment of silence in remembrance of Israelis lost. Perhaps the only day that tops "independence day" in terms of popular participation is Yom Kippur, a religious not secular holiday, a day of fasting and atonement.
The Arabs, for their part, have never before commemorated the Nakba as they did on its 60th anniversary. Satellite media undoubtedly helped convey an unprecedented sense of intensive collective remembrance. However, one also had a strong impression that the Palestinian and Arab people's tribute was an adamant response to the unprecedented train of Western and non-Western world leaders (foremost among whom was the US president) to Jerusalem to take part in the celebrations of "Israel's independence".
On this occasion, at least, the internal Palestinian dispute did not prevent the Palestinians and Arabs from stressing their commitment to the Palestinian right of return. After all, the cause of a people who had been forcibly expelled from their land, robbed of their property and dispossessed of their nation is intimately connected to the right of return. This right had been internationally recognised long before the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Fatah were founded, let alone the 20-year-old Hamas and the even younger dispute between it and Fatah, which is the product of Oslo, the creation of the Palestinian Authority and the separation of the concept and the commemoration of the Nakba.
One might ask what the significance is of this dedication to the commemoration of the Nakba in a week in which thousands of people met their death in an earthquake in China, which in turn reminds us of the man-made disaster in Iraq. The occupation and destruction of Iraq is a catastrophe that has claimed many times more victims than the destruction of Palestine. But the Palestinian people make no claims to being "God's chosen people" whose trials and tribulations are more momentous and merit greater concern than others. Quite to the contrary, one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Palestinians is that they are the victims of those who claim to be "God's chosen people".
A second is that their cause is an offshoot of other Arab causes, and intricately connected with and complicated by such issues as the Arab question, the state of Arab governments and their mutual relationships, and the Jewish question in the West. A third distinguishing characteristic is that theirs is the last unresolved cause of conventional colonialist occupation. Because it is unanimously supported by former colonised peoples, particularly the Arabs, the Palestinian cause has become a vehicle for them to vent their grievances in general. As a result, the Palestinian cause has acquired considerable symbolic value, which is something that is difficult for ordinary individuals to bear without seeking to personify that symbolism. The symbolism and the "manufacture" of the cause have, in fact, corrupted an entire generation of Palestinian leaders.
Naturally, the magnitude of human suffering inflicted upon the Palestinian people through the occupation and theft of their land, flight from terror, and then further occupation of their land, constitutes a very important dimension of the Nakba, especially in view of the fact that it is still ongoing without a solution in sight. However, the historico-political projections of the Nakba on the Arab world and peoples as a whole are of a larger and different order. The occupation of Palestine and the creation of Israel is the core complex of modern Arab history. The wound is open and inflamed, and it remains an endless font of pretexts for various nihilistic and rejectionist ideologies, on the one hand, and for capitulation on the other. It is impossible to understand enraged Arab consciousness without understanding the place of the Palestinian Nakba in it. Above all, the Nakba is the most salient embodiment of fragmentation, discord and other forces that have obstructed Arab unity.
Yet, obsession with "what the Nakba means" and "why it happened" is reminiscent of that question that haunted the era of Arab enlightenment: "Why did the West progress and the Muslims fall behind?" The list of possible answers is endless, for ultimately there is no clear-cut answer to the retrospective "Why?" Surely it is more productive to concentrate on such questions as "What happened?" and "What do we do now?" and "How can we best proceed towards our goal?" The "Why?" meanwhile is better treated as a philosophical and moral question, the answer to which is normative.
The Arabs pursued Arab nationalism and then democracy not so much as valid political philosophies in their own right but as ideological instruments for confronting the realities created by the Nakba in 1948 and, subsequently, by the defeat in June 1967. Even the religious option as moulded into a political ideology has not been immune, regarding itself as the only way to confront a train of catastrophes and disasters. The issue was treated as an affront to pride and dignity, and the political and cultural alternatives were thus posed as though they were little more than the tools needed to rise to the challenge of the Palestinian cause. As a result, explanations of the "meaning of the Nakba" changed in accordance with the political forces that presented themselves as the vanguard. However, the challenge remained the same: fixed, eternal, immutable and mocking.
It never occurred to the Arabs that Israel developed its nationalist ideology not as a weapon to wield against the Arabs but because that was the only way to forge a modern state. This was the aim of the Zionist movement. The state was simultaneously an aim and a means; it was a process of nation building. It escaped the Arabs too that Israel did not plump for the rule of law and democratic processes as its internal means of government because these were the best tools to use against the Arabs. It went the democratic route because this political-cultural mode for the management of the relationship between the individual and society and the state was the one that the political and intellectual elite believed would best produce the type of people and the type of society that would best serve their state, this being the state for Jews. The Arabs had nothing to do with this decision. As for such notions as the security of the Jewish state, the "gathering of the Diaspora", and the strategic relationship with the West and the US in particular, these are the fixed points around which the game of political coalitions and oppositions revolve. (A word of caution: "Diaspora" is a religious term that has been given a Zionist bent to imply that the "land of Israel" is the historic homeland of the Jews and that Jews elsewhere are in a state of dispersal or exile. Arab intellectuals and writers would be advised to avoid the term. Jews are actual citizens in the countries in which they live, not scattered exiles from an original homeland called Israel).
The Arabs should ask themselves what Arab nationalism and the process of nation building, democracy and the rule of law, human dignity and citizenship mean in their own right. They should simultaneously contemplate the meanings of tribalism, family dynasties and corruption and how all these conflict with modernism and modernisation, with contemporary institutionalised government and the principle of the right person for the right job, and with a decision-making process founded upon properly relevant considerations. These are questions we should ask ourselves, not as derivatives of the Arab-Israeli conflict or as causes of or answers to the Nakba, but as questions that need to be asked for their own sake and for our own sake. Even if there is a historical connection between such questions and the Nakba, we must structurally separate the two so as to alter our functional relationship with them. There is no necessary link between the questions regarding modernism and the will to resist occupation and reject Israel, and to insist upon one is to convert such questions into political and ideological instruments.
The question, "What does the Nakba mean?" conjures of the image of grief-stricken mourners in a wake. "Why did he have to die? Why him in particular?" asks one. "Why didn't he listen to his doctor and quit smoking?" asks another. At which point a third mourner pipes up with the observation that an elderly friend of his has been smoking all his life and is still fit as a fiddle. Conversation then turns to the meaning of death, which produces nothing but such declarations as, "the causes are many, the end is one," and "it is the fate of us all, so God has decreed," accompanied by many rueful sighs.
Of course, the Palestinian Nakba was not an inevitable fate. But there is little sense in deriving the tasks of Arab society from whatever we presume the Nakba to mean. In all events, we live not to confront death or disasters but because we presume that life has a meaning. If death has any meaning at all, it is derived from life having lost all meaning.
In like manner, the attempt to understand the direct concrete causes of the Nakba does not necessarily demand all that probing and analysis of the modernity gap between the Zionist movement and Arab societies. The Arabs could have nipped the Zionist project in the bud if they had had the political will. It would therefore be more appropriate to ask whether the Arab countries and peoples, as their societies stood at the time, could have fought better in 1948 and 1967 if they had had the political will. After all, were not these the same countries and peoples that actually did fight better in the War of Attrition in 1968-1969, in the 1973 War, and in 2000 and 2006? They fought better in those years without taking into account the remarks and recommendations of analysts and commentaries pertaining to structural and societal impediments and general backwardness. They did not fight well in 1948 because the political will did not exist and in 1967 they did not have the opportunity to put their will to the test. In fact, in 1948, the Arab regimes were fighting more against each other than against the Zionist state.
Modernisation and building the institutions of a modern state are important both as a goal and as a means to an end. Defeat was not inevitable because of the condition of Arab society at the time. Countries and peoples more backwards than the Arabs were then long since succeeded in their drives to resist colonial occupation and win national liberation. The Zionist project before 1967 was not an irrevocable guaranteed success. If the Arabs had had the will, they could have accomplished much. In this sense, the Arab question is the crux of the Palestinian question and not the reverse.
Author's note: This article originally appeared in 1998, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Nakba. Sadly, nothing has happened in the 10 years since then to give the author cause to alter or modify the original text, although this version contains additional segments and ideas.