The Lemon Tree: friendship and debate across the Arab-Israeli divide

The Lemon Tree: friendship and debate across the Arab-Israeli divide

Remains in Imwas, al-Ramle today (photo James Morris, That Still Remains)

Remains of Palestinian homes in al-Ramle today (photo by James Morris, That Still Remains)

They fettered his mouth with chains,
And tied his hands to the rock of the dead.
They said: You’re a murderer.
They took his food, his clothes and his banners,
And threw him into the well of the dead.
They said: You’re a thief.
They threw him out of every port,
And took away his young beloved.
And then they said: You’re a refugee.

– Mahmoud Darwish, ‘Refugee’

I was ten years old when a small branch library opened in the Cheshire village where I grew up.  Week after week I devoured novels, many of them beyond my childish comprehension.  One of the books that did made a powerful impression on me that year was Exodus by Leon Uris.

Published in 1958, Exodus was a hugely influential book, and  I was one of those who were deeply affected by the romance of its story of Jews fleeing from post-Holocaust Europe and struggling to establish a new homeland against tremendous odds. However, as I learned more about the origins of the state of  Israel and watched as the Arab-Israeli conflict intensified I discovered that Exodus was little more than duplicitous propaganda.

In Exodus, the story of 1948 is exclusively one of the heroic establishment of Israel out of the ashes of the Holocaust. There is no sense of the corresponding catastrophe of uprooting and exile that Palestinian Arabs came to call the Nakba. Writing last year in Jewish Journal, Alan Elsner found re-reading Exodus a disquieting experience:

When I first read the book at age 16, I responded to it mainly with my heart — whereas now I read it mostly with my head. Then, I fell in love with Uris’ Israel, which was populated by healthy, strong, lusty young men and women, the latter invariably described as ‘high-breasted’, which was thrilling in itself at that point in my development. They spent their days wearing blue shirts and short pants, working the land and fighting off Arab marauders, and their nights dancing the hora and making love while murmuring verses from the Song of Songs.

‘There was an aggressiveness and pride about them … and they were always filled with the songs and dances and ideals of the redemption of the homeland … These were the ancient Hebrews! These were the faces of Dan and Reuben and Judah and Ehphraim. These were Samsons and Deborahs and Joabs and Sauls,’ Uris breathlessly tells us.

Uris’ Israel is very much the Israel of Labour Zionism and the kibbutz and moshav (agricultural co-op) movements. He buys into the concept of the ‘new Jew’ – the independent fighter so unlike the weak Jews of the Diaspora who had been left defenceless against the Nazis. Ari Ben Canaan himself is a ‘strapping six-footer with black hair and ice blue eyes who could be mistaken for a movie leading man. He doesn’t act like any Jew I’ve ever met. You don’t particularly think of them as fighters,’ one British character says.

The most disturbing facet of the book is Uris’ depiction of Arabs. In fact, the word ‘Arab’ rarely appears without the adjective ‘dirty’ or ‘stinking’ appended. Two examples: ‘Nazareth stank. The streets were littered with dung and blind beggars … filthy children were underfoot. Flies were everywhere.’ ‘How pathetic the dirty little Arab children were beside the robust youngsters of Gan Dafna. How futile their lives seemed in contrast to the spirit of the Youth Aliya village. There seemed to be no laughter or songs or games or purpose among the Arab children.’

Like many others, I have made a long journey from Leon Uris’s racist fairytale in my understanding of the Israel – Palestinian question, a journey whose way-stations have been events on the ground such as the occupation and illegal settlement of the West Bank and the indiscriminate slaughter in Gaza, but also films and books which have documented the origins of the state of Israel and the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes and land.

Palestinian Walks, Raja ShehadehI recall 5 Broken Cameras, a superb documentary shot entirely in and around a Palestinian village near Ramallah in the occupied West Bank and Palestinian WalksRaja Shehadeh’s brilliant amalgam of a walker’s lyrical account of the landscape he loves and of the unfolding political tragedy of occupation that has transformed the landscape, making him and many other Palestinians exiles in their own country. Both film and book share a similar approach to the subject of the Israeli occupation but approach the issue at a tangent. Raja Shehadeh comes at it by way of seven walks through the landscape he loves; for Emad Burnat in the film it’s watching how his youngest son Gibreel, born in 2005, is shaped by growing up in a village in the occupied territories while the Israeli Army builds a section of the Security Wall between their village and a nearby Jewish settlement. In both book and film, Palestinians reveal their profound emotions for the land that has sustained them for generations.

Perhaps the most remarkable novel published after the 1948 ‘War of Independence’ aka Palestinian Nakba, or catastrophe, was written by an Israeli. Khirbet Khizeh (The Ruins of Hizeh), published in 1949, tells the story of the expulsion of Palestinian villagers from their home and land in 1948. The book was published under the nom-de-plume S. Yizhar, who was actually Yizhar Smilansky, an an intelligence officer in the Israeli army.

Sabbagh Palestine coverTwo more books have made a deep impression on me. In Palestine: A Personal History, Karl Sabbagh combined his own family story with a historical outline of the Palestinian case against the Zionist project. While Sabbagh’s mother was English, his father was Palestinian, the descendent of a long line of Christian Arabs whose history he traces in the book as far back as the 18th century, when Palestine was an Ottoman province and his ancestor Ibrahim served at the Ottoman provincial court. Sabbagh wants to demonstrate the continuity and richness of the Palestinian Arab presence, both Christian and Muslim, in the region, and reject the Zionist assertion of  title to ‘a land without people for a people without land’.

The book is humane, compelling and meticulously written using both Jewish and Israeli sources. At the outset, Sabbagh writes ironically, ‘I am the son of a Palestinian father, but… I am not poor, unshaven or a speaker of broken English. I do not know how to use a gun or manufacture a bomb. I have little to do with camels, sand or palm trees. But I both sympathise and identify with the Palestinian people.’


City of Oranges cover

Adam LeBor’s City of Oranges: Arabs and Jews in Jaffa covers similar ground. Through the stories of six families – three Arab and three Jewish – LeBor tells the story of the ancient city of Jaffa, for centuries the main port of the eastern Mediterranean, home to Muslims, Christians and Jews, famed for the produce of its orange groves.

LeBor begins his narrative in 1920, when the British took over the administration of the city under the Mandate. He traces Jaffa’s transformation from the second city of Palestine to a crumbling, semi-derelict and neglected suburb of the Israeli capital, and then its revival during the last two decades as an artist’s colony and a possible model of Arab-Jewish co-existence. LeBor draws upon hours of interviews with several generations of Jaffa families, on memoirs, letters and personal archives to tell the story of six families, three Arab, three Jewish.  In the process he illuminates the underlying complexity of the makeup of modern Israel, by telling the story from both Ashkenazi and Sephardic perspectives, as well as from Christian Arab and Muslim points of view. Through the eyes of these families LeBor builds as picture how the founding of the state of Israel was simultaneously a moment of jubilation for the Jews, and a disaster for the 100,000 Arabs who fled Jaffa in 1948, most of them never to return.

Reviewing City of Oranges for the Guardian, Mark Cocker noted why, apart from common humanity, British citizens should have a particular interest in supporting progress towards a just settlement of the Palestinian question:

It is salutary to reflect that the 75 years of political strife, civil conflict and outright war that LeBor covers in his book were the result of a promise made by a British politician, Arthur Balfour, former Conservative prime minister, to the then leader of the Jews in London, Lord Rothschild. Known as the Balfour declaration, these 69 words of contradictory obfuscation offered the same land to two different peoples, and was the very moment that the dark genie of Arab-Jewish conflict was released from its bottle. A British administration then presided over the ensuing troubles for 30 years until they abandoned it, exhausted and baffled that the peoples of Palestine had not thanked them for the confusion and injustice. Not least for these reasons it is important that Britons remain morally engaged with the fate of the region. A good place to start would be to read Adam LeBor’s excellent and courageous book.

Lemon Tree coverThis brings me to the most recent book that I have read about this seemingly intractable conflict.  Highly recommended by several friends, Sandy Tolan’s The Lemon Tree was published in 2006. Tolan is an experienced American journalist and his book is a meticulously-researched work of intelligent journalism. What he has attempted in The Lemon Tree – and has largely succeeded in achieving – is to  present an accurate history of the Palestine-Israel conflict through the true story of a Palestinian family driven from their ancestral home in the town of al-Ramla in 1948 by the Palmach, the elite Israeli fighting force, following an order from Yitzhak Rabin, (decades later to be awarded the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize for his  role in the signing of the Oslo Accords, which created the Palestinian National Authority and granted it partial control over parts of the Gaza Strip and West Bank before being assassinated a year later by a right-wing Orthodox Jew who opposed the signing of the Oslo Accords).

Tolan’s good fortune was not only to find a dispossessed Palestinian family, but also to discover the story of how, in 1967 following the Six-Day War which had overnight made him a citizen of the newly-occupied territory on the West Bank, Bashir Al-Khairi returned with two cousins to his childhood home, lived in since 1948 by the Eshkenazis, Jewish refugees from Bulgaria. There they were met by Dalia Eshkenazi who welcomed them into the old family home, an encounter that is the starting point for Tolan’s story of a relationship forged against the odds between two families, one Arab, one Jewish, and specifically between Dalia and Bashir, two individuals with very different perspectives on the conflict.

Refugees being removed from Ramla in 1948

Refugees being removed from al-Ramla in 1948

I would recommend this book to anyone seeking to understand the origins and course of the Arab-Israeli conflict.  In a balanced, even-handed narrative Sandy Tolan weaves the stories of Israeli Dalia Eshkenazi and Palestinian Bashir Khariri into a readable history of the conflict. Bashir’s father, Ahmad, was the scion of a prominent Arab family.  In 1936 he had built a home from cream ‘Jerusalem stone’ in the ancient town of al-Ramla:

Before long, Ahmad would turn his attention to the garden.  In the corner of the yard behind the house, he had chosen a spot for a lemon tree.  Once the tree was in the soil, Ahmad knew it would be at least seven years, and probably more, before the strong Palestinian sun and sweet waters of the al-Ramla aquifer would nurture the tree to maturity. The act of planting was thus an act of faith and patience.

But, in July 1948, when Bashir was six years old, the Khariri family were amongst the thousands of Palestinians forced to flee from their homes in al-Ramla as war erupted between the Arab and Jewish populations  of Palestine in response to the UN Partition Plan to divide Palestine into an Arab state and a Jewish state. On 15 May 1948 the civil war transformed into a regional conflict between Israel and the Arab states when a combined invasion by Egypt, Jordan and Syria entered Palestine and took control of over half of the area allocated for the proposed Arab state,  including the Jaffa, Lydda and the al-Ramla area:

At home the Khairis … and the rest of the people of al-Ramla had left behind their couches and tables, rugs, libraries, framed family pictures, and their blankets, dishes and cups.  They left their fezzes and gallabiyas, balloon pants, spare keffiyehs, sashes, and belts.  They left their spices for maklouheh, grape leaves in brine, and the flour for the dough of their date pastries.  They left their fields of wild peas and jasmine, passiflora and dried scarlet anemone, mountain lilies that grew between the barley and the wheat.  They left their olives and oranges, lemons and apricots, spinach and okra and peppers.  They left their silk and linen, silver bracelets and chokers, amber, coral, and necklaces with Austrian coins.  They left their pottery and soaps, leather and oils, Swedish ovens and copper pots, and drinking goblets from Bohemia.  They left their silver trays filled with sugared almonds and sweet dried chickpeas; their dolls, made with glued-together wood chips; their sumac; their indigo.

The people of al-Ramla were among around 700,000 Palestinian Arabs who were expelled from the area that became Israel and became Palestinian refugees. On 15 July 1948, notes Tolan, while the families from al-Ramla and Lydda were trudging through the hills in blazing heat, David Ben-Gurion, the Jewish leader, wrote in his diary:

The Arab Legion has wired that there are 30,000 refugees moving along the road between Lydda and Ramla, who are infuriated with the Legion.  They’re demanding bread.  They should be taken across the Jordan River’.

In other words, removed from Palestine to the Kingdom of Jordan – ethnically cleansed if you will. In mid-July, the Khairis arrived in Ramallah, along with thousands of other refugees.  Ramallah ‘had been transformed from a quiet Christian hill town in northern Palestine to a depository of misery and trauma’, writes Tolan.  This was where the family would remain, and where Bashir would grow up, eventually training to be a lawyer.

Dalia Landau Eshkenazi

Dalia Landau Eshkenazi

Meanwhile, in the three years following the war, about 700,000 Jews immigrated to Israel – one third of them having fled, or having been expelled, from countries in the Middle East, while others came from the countries of Europe ravaged by the Holocaust.  Moshe and Solia Eshkenazi were Bulgarian Jews who moved to Israel in the autumn of 1948 – beneficiaries of an emigration scheme agreed between the Bulgarian government and the Jewish Agency. (The story Tolan tells of how the Bulgarian Jews survived the war in a country allied to Nazi Germany only because of the decency of a handful of Gentiles forms one of the most interesting chapters of his book, and was certainly a revelation to me.)

On 14 November 1948, Moshe and Solia were among a busload of immigrants (mostly Bulgarians, Romanians, Hungarians and Poles) who arrived in al-Ramla:

They were greeted by a representative of the Jewish Agency. … It was a simple procedure, immigrants would recall; they were free to enter a house, inspect it, and claim it.  The paperwork would come later.  Moshe and Solia came upon a house to their liking.  It was in good shape and virtually empty, though not brand-new.  Clearly, someone had lived there before.  It was a stone house with an open layout and plenty of space. … In the yard in back there was a lemon tree.

So the empty Khariri house became the Eshkenazi ‘s new home, and the house where Dalia grew up:

In a black and white photograph taken in the backyard of the stone house in Ramla, Dalia stands beside a lemon tree, looking into the camera with tears in her eyes.  The image was taken in the summer, perhaps of 1950; Dalia would have been two and a half.  She’d been crying briefly, offended by the sparrows who had chosen to fly away rather than stay and eat bread crumbs out of her hand.  ‘Why should they fly?’ she cried to her aunt. ‘Why? I love them.’ It is her earliest memory.

In another passage we get a glimpse of the settlers from eastern Europe easing into their new life:

In the evenings, Moshe and Solia would invite Bulgarian friends for gatherings in the backyard.  They laid out plates of black olives, watermelon and Bulgarian chees, pouring glasses of boza, a sweet Balkan drink made from wheat.  They’d talk of news from Bulgaria, and Dalia would hear them telling off-colour jokes in Ladino, the fading language of earlier generations that she could understand only slightly.

It is important to note, when reading passages such as these, with their fictionalised tone, that Tolan has been meticulous in ensuring that everything in the book, down to the smallest detail, is fact, gained from the journalist’s tools – interviews, archival documents, published and unpublished memoirs and diaries, newspaper clippings, and primary historical accounts.  ‘I have not taken liberties with the history, no matter how minor’, he writes.  ‘At no point do I imagine what probably happened, for example at a family event in 1936 and state it as fact; nor at any moment do I describe what someone was thinking unless those thoughts are based on a specific recounting in a memoir or interview’.

So, when we read a passage such as this, in which Tolan describes Dalia’s growing awareness – and confusion – about the place where she has been born, we can sense the truth of how a generation of young Israeli’s came to see their place in the world:

Growing up, Dalia would frequently ask her parents and teachers: ‘What are these houses we are living in?’

‘These are Arab houses,’ she was told. ‘What are these Arab houses that everyone talks about?’ she would reply.

Dalia’s school was in an Arab house, and there she would learn Israel’s history. She learned about the creation of the state of Israel as a safe haven for the Jews. She studied the War of Independence as the story of the few against the many. The Arabs had invaded, Dalia would read, in order to destroy the new state and throw the Jews into the sea. Most nations confronted with such hostilities would have been paralyzed, but tiny Israel had withstood five Arab armies. Little David had defeated Goliath. As for the Arabs, Dalia’s text-books would report that they ran away, deserting their lands and abandoning their homes, fleeing before the conquering Israeli army. The Arabs, one textbook of the day declared, ‘preferred to leave’ once  the Jews had taken their towns. Dalia accepted the history she was taught. Still, she was confused. Why, she wondered, would anyone leave so willingly?

One afternoon when she was about seven or eight years old, Dalia climbed up the black metal gate that Ahmad Khairi had placed at the end of the stone path in the front yard. Atop the gate perched a delicate piece of wrought iron in the shape of a star and crescent: the symbol of Islam. It bothered Dalia. ‘This is not an Arab house,’ she said to herself, and she grasped the delicate crescent and began wrenching it back and forth, back and forth, until it came loose in her hands. She clambered down and threw the crescent away.

Tolan sets the story of his two families against the background of the history of the conflict, told in the clearest way. Every statement is supported by references, not in footnotes in the text itself, but in a 70-page appendix and extensive bibliography which together constitute a quarter of the book.  Tolan skilfully shows how Dalia and Bashir are both swept up in the fates of their people, and reveals their lives as a personal microcosm of more than half a century of Israeli-Palestinian history.

Iyad Rafidi, left, principal of the Arab Evangelical Episcopal School in Ramallah, West Bank, talks with Bashir Khairi, 2011

Iyad Rafidi, left, principal of the Arab Evangelical Episcopal School in Ramallah, West Bank, talks with Bashir Khairi in 2011

Meanwhile, the Khairis had lived as exiles in their own land – first in Ramallah, then in Gaza, and finally returning to Ramallah when Bashir was fifteen years old.  In the early 1960s, in Cairo studying law, Bashir had become deeply involved in activist politics, and particularly with the Arab Nationalist Movement led by George Habash, himself a refugee from Lydda who had been among the refugees who had walked in the heat through the hills to Ramallah in July 1948.

In  June 1967, Bashir was practising law in Ramallah when news came of  Israel’s surprise attack on Egyptian airfields following a period of rising tension between Israel and its Arab neighbours.  When the Six Day War was over, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank meant, paradoxically, that it was now easier for Palestinians exiled in 1948 to visit their old homeland.  That is how Bashir and his cousins found themselves in al-Ramla in the summer of 1967, ringing the doorbell of the house where Bashir had lived as a child. ‘Come in, feel at home,’ said Dalia:

It was a universal welcome – Make yourself at home; Mi casa es su casa; Ahlan wa-sahlan; Baruch habah – yet these particular words seemed especially strange to Bashir as he approached the front door: Feel at home.

Life cover 23 June 1967

As the cousins are shown around the house they see the bedroom that is now Dalia’s but was once Bashir’s. On the wall above her bed Dalia has tacked a poster of an Israeli soldier celebrating in the Suez Canal after the overwhelming Israeli victory in the Six Days War of 1967. For Israelis the image stood for liberation and survival, but standing with Bashir in the doorway to the bedroom, Dalia suddenly realises, for the first time, that Bashir might see the poster differently. In his childhood home, in the lemon tree his father planted in the backyard, Bashir sees dispossession and exile; Dalia, who arrived as an infant in 1948 with her family from Bulgaria, sees hope for a people devastated by the Holocaust.

Nevertheless, from this unpromising encounter a long friendship develops, even though Bashir becomes a senior member of the politburo of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and is charged with being  involved in the bombing of a supermarket in Jerusalem  in 1969.  Bashir spends two decades in a total of 17 Israeli prisons, detained after hearings in closed Israeli military courts on suspicion of links to acts of terror carried out by the PFLP, and for helping to organize the first intifada. Bashir remains committed to a programme of resistance to gain for dispossessed Palestinians the right to return to their homeland.

Despite Bashir’s circumstances and politics, Dalia maintains a friendship with the Palestinian, and begins to understand Bashir’s grievances about his family’s lost home. In 1991, she donates the house as a kindergarten for Arab children in al-Ramla and as a peace and educational centre called Open House which is still operating today.

Writing in the Huffington Post in 2008, following publication of The Lemon Tree, Sandy Tolan commented on the central place of 1948 in both Israeli and Palestinian narratives. ‘In Exodus,’ he wrote, ‘ the story of 1948 is exclusively about the heroic birth of Israel out of the ashes of the Holocaust. Arabs are alternately portrayed as malicious or pathetic’.  But for Palestinians, 1948 was the Nakba, or Catastrophe, a story not of survival and re-birth, but dispossession and loss:

The Nakba remains little known in the West, despite the rivers of ink and forests of newsprint that have chronicled the last six decades of struggle between the two peoples. Yet it is as central to Palestinian identity as the Holocaust is to the identity of Israel.

Seen through a Palestinian lens, the creation of Israel, sanctioned by the United Nations vote, in November 1947, to partition Palestine into two states – one for the Arabs, and one for the Jews – was not ‘western civilization’s gesture of repentance for the Holocaust,’ as the historian Michael J. Cohen has written. Rather, Palestinians saw themselves as ‘the indigenous majority on its ancestral soil,’ as the Harvard scholar Walid Khalidi has noted, and therefore ‘failed understand why they should be made to pay for the Holocaust.’ Neither did they grasp why the Jewish side, with one third the population, should be awarded 54 percent of Palestine and more than 80 percent of its cultivated citrus and grain plantations. This helps explain why the Arabs of Palestine, in peace talks five and six decades later, would fail to see Israeli concessions as ‘generous’: From their perspective, they lost 78 percent of their land to Israel in the 1948 war, and are ill-inclined to make further compromise on the 22 percent that remains.

Curiously, although Tolan’s book takes as its focus 1948 and the story of one house that changed hands in that year, I gained a greater sense from his historical account of the greater significance, not of the Holocaust, but of Zionism as being fundamental to understanding Israeli justifications for policies of territorial conquest and occupation.  A liberal delicacy often surrounds the question of Israel, rooted quite naturally in the idea of the state as a refuge for Jews who had survived the Holocaust in Europe. But the historical background sketched in by Tolan (or contained in many other histories) confirms the origins of the problem: the Zionist dream of Jewish homeland, a religious state in which Jews would be a majority in their own nation in a territory closely approximating the historical Eretz Yisrael.  With its roots in 19th century Europe, and gathering pace following the British acceptance of ‘the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’ in the  1917 Balfour Declaration, the Zionist project clearly pre-dates the Holocaust.  The Zionist belief that the settlers were returning to a ‘land without people for a people without land’ soon provoked the first stirrings of nationalism among the Palestinian Arab population.

Remains of Palestinian buildings in al-Ramle today (photo James Morris, That Still Remains)

Remains of Palestinian buildings in al-Ramla today (photo James Morris, That Still Remains)

The house and the lemon tree.  However the history is interpreted, the evidence is plain: in 1948 some 700,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes.  Although they maintain their friendship and shared commitment to the Open House, Bashir and Dalia cannot come to any kind of agreement about the ‘right of return’: in other words, the right for Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in Israel and have access to their stolen property. Dalia can understand the right to return as a recognition of a past injustice, but for her it can never be, practically speaking, put into place because of the suffering it would cause Israelis and its implication for the state of Israel. For Bashir, return is simply everything he has believed in and worked towards.

In the most recent encounter between Bashir and Dalia that Tolan records in his book, in 2006 Dalia travels the short distance from Jerusalem to Ramallah, through military checkpoints and in the shadow of the Wall – the ‘security barrier’ that in the previous four years has been constructed to separate the West Bank from the rest of Israel. When the pair meet their differences are revealed in a passage in which Dalia urges Bashir to recognise the value of negotiation and compromise, exemplified by the peace process established under the Oslo Accords of 1993-5:

Bashir leaned forward.  ‘For Palestinians it didn’t change the daily life.  It went from bad to worse.  I didn’t go back to al-Ramla.  We don’t have our independent state, and we don’t have our freedom. We are still refugees moving from one place to another place to another place to another place, and every day Israel is committing crimes.  I can’t even be on the board of Open House.  Because I’m Palestinian, not Israeli.  If somebody comes yesterday from Ethiopia but he’s Jewish, he will have all the rights, when I’m the one who has the history in al-Ramla.  But for them I’m a stranger.’

Dalia’s arms were folded tightly across her chest.  She unfolded them and took a breath.

‘Bashir.  Maybe I have no right to say what I’m going to say.  We need to make sacrifices if both of us are to live here. We need to make sacrifices.  And I know it’s not fair for me to say that.  I know. I mean, you cannot live in your house in Ramla.  I know it’s not fair.  But I think we need to strengthen these people who are willing to make some compromise. Like Rabin, who paid with his life. … By not accepting the state of Israel or by not accepting the state of Palestine, I think none of us has a real life here.  Israelis don’t have a real life here, either.  But if you’re not okay, we’re not okay.  And if we’re not okay, you’re not okay.

Now in his seventies, Bashir Khairi continues to live in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank, barred from the country of his birth.  Jerusalem is only 10 miles from Ramallah  but given Bashir’s circumstances it might as well be Timbuktu.  I tried to find how the relationship between Bashir and Dalia has evolved since the publication of The Lemon Tree, but there isn’t much to go on.  This is Dalia, quoted in ‘Enemy at the door‘, an article on the Sofia Echo website, in 2011:

The last time I saw Bashir was with Sandy Tolan in about 2006. He can’t come to Israel; he doesn’t have a permit because he was allegedly involved in an act of terror (a supermarket bombing) in 1969.

Has he ever admitted his crime?

I don’t know what he admitted or didn’t admit in court because it was behind closed doors. I have confronted him with this and he has never said that he did NOT do this. He just said ‘why do you call these people terrorists? They are freedom fighters’, so what do you understand from this?

But he’s still your friend and that’s how you see him?

I see him as something that grows from the same earth, from the same hole, in a way somehow part of my fate, shall we say, like family. It’s a very strong connection, to know that you’ve been living in someone else’s house.

That same year, Bashir Khairi was quoted by Noozhawk columnist Karen Telleen-Lawton in ‘Sustainable Peace and The Lemon Tree’:

She has an extraordinary conscience. She offered me back the house because it released her conscience from having a house belonging to someone else.

‘Dalia was willing to sell and give me money, or rent and give me rent,’ he said. ‘My reaction was that the house represented Palestine and Palestine was not for sale or rent. I suggested this house go for Arab children and be called ‘Dalia Kindergarten for Arab Children’ to appreciate and mark her high-class humanitarian position.’

Dalia supports a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. This is the official U.S. position despite the Israeli settlements throughout the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza that put to question its feasibility. Khairi disagrees.

‘I still back a one-state democracy for both, with everyone having the same rights and duties,’ he told us. ‘I believe this is the best guarantee for future peace living together. Palestinian land is available for all — Christians, Muslims, Jews — all can live here. We have previously. Thoughts that we can’t live together on one land — this is a short-sighted vision that doesn’t serve peace.’

For me, too, one state seems the solution. Though it might appear as much pie in the sky as a democratic South Africa with a black president would have seemed 40 or 50 years ago, I have believed it to be the only outcome that guarantees any justice and security since reading the late Tony Judt’s Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century.  This week  the House of Commons voted overwhelming in favour of recognition for the state of Palestine.  But how can there be a viable Palestinian state when Israel refuses to relinquish control of the occupied territories where illegal Jewish settlements continue to spread?  Surely there is a matter of principle here?  When the world demanded the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa, there was no suggestion that a just outcome would be white control of the greater part of the territory while granting black South Africans independence in the bantustans or homelands. Like Bashir, I believe that only a single secular, democratic state will guarantee peace and justice for all.

Remains of the tomb of Ali imam, Ramla (

Remains of the tomb of Ali imam, al-Ramla (photo:

Write down!
I am an Arab
And my identity card number is fifty thousand
I have eight children
And the ninth…will come after a summer
Will you be angry?

Write down!
I am an Arab
Employed with fellow workers at a quarry
I have eight children
I get them bread
Garments and books
from the rocks..
I do not supplicate charity at your doors
Nor do I belittle myself at the footsteps of your chamber
So will you be angry?

Write down!
I am an Arab
I have a name without a title
Patient in a country
Where people are enraged
My roots
Were entrenched before the birth of time
And before the opening of the eras
Before the pines, and the olive trees
And before the grass grew
My father.. descends from the family of the plow
Not from a privileged class
And my grandfather..was a farmer
Neither well-bred, nor well-born!
Teaches me the pride of the sun
Before teaching me how to read
And my house is like a watchman’s hut
Made of branches and cane
Are you satisfied with my status?
I have a name without a title!

Write down!
I am an Arab
You have stolen the orchards of my ancestors
And the land which I cultivated
Along with my children
And you left nothing for us
Except for these rocks..
So will the State take them
As it has been said?!

Write down on the top of the first page:
I do not hate poeple
Nor do I encroach
But if I become hungry
The usurper’s flesh will be my food
Beware ! Beware ! Beware !
Of my hunger
And my anger!

– Mahmoud Darwish, ‘Identity Card’ (1964)

See also

Tony Judt: born at the right time

Tony Judt: born at the right time

Memory-Chalet- cover

In 2008, the historian Tony Judt learned he had ALS, a variant of motor neuron disease. He was at the pinnacle of his career, having completed Postwar, his epic and ground-breaking history of Europe since 1945, just three years earlier.  Now the disease that afflicted him meant that, although he was ‘effectively quadriplegic’, he was able, with ‘extraordinary effort’, to move his right hand a little and to lift his left arm about six inches.  He was in no pain and he could still express his thoughts precisely and acutely. But that was both a blessing and a curse, a ‘cockroach-like existence’ that bore down most heavily during the long nights unable to move a limb or scratch an itch, ‘entombed ‘like a modern-day mummy’, alone but for his thoughts.

Those night watches led Judt, each night, to set himself a challenge: drawing on the memory-tricks of the Jesuit missionary in 16th century Ming China,Matteo Ricci (documented in Jonathan Spence’s book, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci), in his head Judt would draft an autobiographical vignette, recalling and reciting it to a friend the following day.  This is Judt in his own words, in the opening essay, ‘Night‘:

I suffer from a motor neuron disorder, in my case a variant of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS): Lou Gehrig’s disease. Motor neuron disorders are far from rare: Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and a variety of lesser diseases all come under that heading. What is distinctive about ALS—the least common of this family of neuro-muscular illnesses—is firstly that there is no loss of sensation (a mixed blessing) and secondly that there is no pain. In contrast to almost every other serious or deadly disease, one is thus left free to contemplate at leisure and in minimal discomfort the catastrophic progress of one’s own deterioration.  In effect, ALS constitutes progressive imprisonment without parole. […]

I suppose I should be at least mildly satisfied to know that I have found within myself the sort of survival mechanism that most normal people only read about in accounts of natural disasters or isolation cells. And it is true that this disease has its enabling dimension: thanks to my inability to take notes or prepare them, my memory—already quite good—has improved considerably, with the help of techniques adapted from the “memory palace” so intriguingly depicted by Jonathan Spence. But the satisfactions of compensation are notoriously fleeting. There is no saving grace in being confined to an iron suit, cold and unforgiving. … My nights are intriguing; but I could do without them.

These short essays first appeared in The New York Review of Books, and then, after Judt’s death in book form as The Memory Chalet, which I recently read. The book is both a collation of autobiographical fragments and a concise restatement of the ‘self-questioning and uncomfortable truth-telling, the … quality of awkwardness and dissent’ (Judt’s own words) that he became well-known for through his books and essays,such as those written for The New York Times.

In these essays Judt meanders through his past life, recalling childhood holidays in Switzerland with his parents. He remembers the chalet they stayed in, and every room, every cupboard becomes a location where a component of memory is stored. Through the long night watch he paces from room to room, reviewing and reinforcing the components of fragments of autobiography as he goes, ready for dictation to a friend who will write down his words the next day.

Judt recalls his childhood, growing up in the 1950s in Putney.  He remembers the food his lower-middle-class Jewish family ate;  the fearsome teacher whose old-fashioned rote learning methods nevertheless gave Judt the facility in German that opened his way to being a European historian, and which led to his learning Czech in middle age and expanding his scope to embrace the history of the eastern half of the continent. He recalls life as a student at King’s College, Cambridge, in the 1960s and summers spent, as an enthusiastic Zionist, on an Israeli kibbutz – describing, too, the process by which he shed his illusions about the state of Israel and the nature of Communism in Eastern Europe: ‘Before even turning 20 I had become, been and ceased to be a Zionist, a Marxist and a communitarian settler: no mean achievement for a South London teenager’.

Judt writes in an easy-going manner about ordinary, everyday matters, but in so doing he returns frequently to issues he has raised in previous books.  For example, in one piece Judt writes about how, as a schoolboy in the 1950s, he frequently rode the Green Line bus from the southwest London suburb of Putney across the city and as far as its northern extermity. Remembering its distinctive livery transports him back to the days before English bus services were privatised:

The conductor, paid a little less than the skilled driver, was usually but not always a younger man (there were hardly any women). His function was ostensibly to keep order and collect fares; but since large tracts of countryside were often covered with relatively few passengers and stops, his task was hardly preoccupying. In practice he kept the driver company. [Now] the conductors are long gone and the drivers, insulated from the interior . . . have no dealings with their customers beyond the purely commercial. [The Green Line is] owned and run by Arriva, the worst of the private companies now responsible for providing train and bus services to British commuters, at exorbitant prices.

The short essays proceed chronologically, and as they move into adulthood and Judt’s academic career they begin to focus on the issues and ideas that have defined the man. In ‘Midlife Crisis’, for example, he writes about the process that lead to his most important book, Postwar , his history of Europe since 1945, which integrated Europe’s two halves into a common story in a way that had not been done before.  It began with his own midlife crisis, ‘divorcing Wife #2’, as he puts it:

Other men change wives. Some change cars. Some change gender. The point of a midlife crisis is to demonstrate continuity with one’s youth by doing something strikingly different. To be sure, ‘different’ is a relative term: a man in the throes of such a crisis usually does the same as every other man – that, after all, is how you know it is a midlife crisis. But mine was a little different. I was the right age, at the right stage (divorcing Wife #2) and experiencing the usual middle-aged uncertainties: What’s it all about? But I did it my way. I learnt Czech.

Learning Czech led him to Czechoslovakia in the mid-1980s, one of a little army of western book smugglers.  He made contact with eastern European dissidents and began teaching East European history. If he hadn’t learned Czech, he muses, he would not have found himself in Prague in November 1989 watching Vaclav Havel accept the presidency from a balcony in the town square, and, above all, could never have written Postwar.

In Eastern Europe he also encountered his East European Jewish past. In ‘Toni’ he explores his feelings about being Jewish and his attitude to Israel (controversial in the US).  The essay begins:

I never knew Toni Avegael. She was born in Antwerp in February 1926 and lived there most of her life. We were related: she was my father’s first cousin. I well remember her older sister Lily: a tall, sad lady whom my parents and I used to visit in a little house somewhere in northwest London. We have long since lost touch, which is a pity.

I am reminded of the Avegael sisters (there was a middle girl, Bella) whenever I ask myself—or am asked—what it means to be Jewish. There is no general-purpose answer to this question: it is always a matter of what it means to be Jewish for me—something quite distinct from what it means for my fellow Jews.

Judt continues, over three or four pages to explore this question – how he feels, for instance, when challenged at a dinner party with: ‘You really must stop writing these terrible things about Israel!  We Jews must stick together!’  Then this:

Unlike my table companion, I don’t expect Hitler to return. And I refuse to remember his crimes as an occasion to close off conversation: to repackage Jewishness as a defensive indifference to doubt or self-criticism and a retreat into self-pity. I choose to invoke a Jewish past that is impervious to orthodoxy: that opens conversations rather than closes them. Judaism for me is a sensibility of collective self-questioning and uncomfortable truth-telling: the dafka-like [contrarian] quality of awkwardness and dissent for which we were once known. It is not enough to stand at a tangent to other peoples’ conventions; we should also be the most unforgiving critics of our own. I feel a debt of responsibility to this past. It is why I am Jewish.

Toni Avegael was transported to Auschwitz in 1942 and gassed to death there as a Jew. I am named after her.

In the concluding essay, ‘Magic Mountains’, Judt circles back to Switzerland and the Memory Chalet:

During the 1950s, my parents and I took a number of trips to Switzerland. This was their brief parenthetical moment of prosperity, but in any case Switzerland then was not so very expensive. I think what struck me as a child was the uncluttered regularity of everything. We usually arrived via France, in those days a poor and run-down country. French village houses were still pockmarked with shell damage, their Dubonnet ads torn and crumbling. The food was good (even a London schoolboy could tell that) but the restaurants and hotels had a damp, tumble-down air to them: cheap and cheerless.

And then you crossed the border, always at some windswept, snow-drenched pass or summit…and entered a land of neat, flower-bedecked chalets, air-brushed streets, prosperous-looking shops, and smart, satisfied citizens. Switzerland seemed so untouched by the war that had just ended. Mine was a black-and-white childhood, but Switzerland came in color: red and white, brown and green, yellow and gold. And the hotels! The Swiss hotels of my childhood evoked fresh pine, as though they had sprung organically from the surrounding forests. There was warm, solid wood everywhere: thick wooden doors, padded wooden staircases, firm wooden beds, chirping wooden clocks. […]

My happiest memories are of Mürren. We first went there when I was eight years old: an unspoiled village halfway up the Schilthorn massif attainable only by rack railway or cable car. It takes forever—and a minimum of four trains—to reach the place, and there is little to do once you arrive. There is no particularly good food and the shopping is unexciting, to say the least. […]

I have never thought of myself as a rooted person. We are born by chance in one town rather than another and pass through various temporary homes in the course of our vagrant lives—at least that is how it has been for me. Most places hold mixed memories: I cannot think of Cambridge or Paris or Oxford or New York without recalling a kaleidoscope of encounters and experiences. How I remember them varies with my mood. But Mürren never changes. Nothing ever went wrong there.

There is a path of sorts that accompanies Mürren’s pocket railway. Halfway along, a little café—the only stop on the line—serves the usual run of Swiss wayside fare. Ahead, the mountain falls steeply away into the rift valley below. Behind, you can clamber up to the summer barns with the cows and goats and shepherds. Or you can just wait for the next train: punctual, predictable, and precise to the second. Nothing happens: it is the happiest place in the world. We cannot choose where we start out in life, but we may finish where we will. I know where I shall be: going nowhere in particular on that little train, forever and ever.

Like me, Tony Judt was born in 1948, one of a lucky generation of westerners born at the right time:

I was born in England in 1948, late enough to avoid conscription by a few years, but in time for the Beatles: I was fourteen when they came out with “Love Me Do.” Three years later the first miniskirts appeared: I was old enough to appreciate their virtues, young enough to take advantage of them. I grew up in an age of prosperity, security, and comfort—and therefore, turning twenty in 1968, I rebelled. Like so many baby boomers, I conformed in my nonconformity.

Without question, the 1960s were a good time to be young. Everything appeared to be changing at unprecedented speed and the world seemed to be dominated by young people (a statistically verifiable observation). […]

However, in ‘Revolutionaries’, Judt writes pretty scathingly about the delusions of western European radicals, obsessed with Paris in May ’68, but missing the real revolution that was kicking off at the same time in Prague, Warsaw and elsewhere in the communist east:

No-one should feel guilty for being born in the right place at the right time. We in the West were a lucky generation. We did not change the world; rather, the world changed obligingly for us. Everything seemed possible: unlike young people today we never doubted that there would be an interesting job for us, and thus felt no need to fritter our time away on anything as degrading as “Business School”. Most of us went on useful employment in education or public service. We devoted energy to discussing what was wrong with the world and how to change it. We protested the things we didn’t like, and we were right to do so. In our own eyes at least, we were a revolutionary generation. Pity we missed the revolution.

Though I don’t agree with all of Judt’s opinions – there are moments when he comes across as a bit of a grumpy old man – The Memory Chalet is an honest, absorbing and at times moving memoir from a courageous man who refused to abandon his intellect to the very end.

See also

Ill Fares The Land

Tony Judt cover

In 2008, Tony Judt was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. By October 2009, he was paralysed from the neck down. Nevertheless that month, from a wheelchair, he gave a major public lecture on the crisis of social democracy, which was published in the New York Review of Books in December 2009.  That lecture became the basis of his book Ill Fares the Land published posthumously in 2010, that I have just been reading.

Judt begins with a ringing opening sentence:

Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today.

In words that carry even greater resonance in 2011, with the global Occupy movement questioning deepening inequality and the unregulated nature of the capitalist system, he continues:

For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: Is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world? Those used to be the political questions, even if they invited no easy answers. We must learn once again to pose them. […]

We cannot go on living like this. The little crash of 2008 was a reminder that unregulated capitalism is its own worst enemy: sooner or later it must fall prey to its own excesses and turn again to the state for rescue. But if we do no more than pick up the pieces and carry on as before, we can look forward to greater upheavals in years to come.

Judt’s purpose in the opening chapter – ‘The Way We Live Now’ – is to describe the extent of ‘private affluence and public squalor’ in America and Europe today.  ‘To understand the depths to which we have fallen’, he writes, ‘we must first appreciate the scale of the changes that have overtaken us’.  From the end of the 19th century, up to the 1970s, western societies all became less unequal.  But, Judt argues, ‘over the past thirty years we have thrown all this away’.  Countries where the enthusiasm for deregulated market capitalism has been most enthusiastic – the USA and UK especially – evince the greatest extremes of private privilege.  Much of his evidence is drawn from The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.

The following chapter – ‘The World We Have Lost’ – is, essentially, a paean to the postwar ‘Keynesian consensus’ that emerged out of the devastation wrought by world war and depression.  Here, Judt places less emphasis on Keynesian economic tenets, and more on the moral precepts that underpinned them – community, trust and common purpose.  In the 30 years following the Second World War, there was a widespread belief that the state could do a better job than the unregulated market. A benign welfare state would ensure that there was no return to the poverty of the 1930s. It would protect all from cradle to grave. He shows how these assumptions underpinned the postwar consensus in Britain, the Great Society in the United States and European social democracy.

However, in the 1970s, confidence in the efficiency of the state and belief in the necessity for a larger public realm fell apart. Judt advances several explanations for this – the failures of planning, the inefficiencies of public enterprises, the influence of free market economists like Hayek,  and – most surprisingly – the individualism of the ’60s generation.  He writes:

Social justice no longer preoccupied radicals.  What united the ’60s generation was not the interest of all, but the needs and rights of each.  ‘Individualism’ – the assertion of every person’s claim to maximized private freedom and the unrestrained liberty to express autonomous desires … became the left-wing watchword of the hour’.

This is a portrayal of sixties radicalism that I find unrecognisable.  Certainly those currents were present, most markedly on the hippie fringe, but such preoccupations also led radicals to challenge previously invisible forms of social inequality , such as ethnicity, gender, sexuality and disability.  And I can recall considerable energies being devoted to analysing and challenging the failings of the welfare state: think, for example, of the emergence of Shelter and the Child Poverty Action Group in this period.  It was, I recall, Margaret Thatcher who said, ‘There is no such thing as society; there are individual men and women, and there are families’.

Tony Judt

These chapters form the strongest part of the book, Judt setting out his case that we have become obsessed with money and have lost any sense of community. His chosen title, Ill Fares the Land, comes from Goldsmith’s ‘The Deserted Village’, in which the poet writes of a country ‘to hastening ills a prey, where wealth accumulates, and men decay’. As Judt sees it, the ills from which we presently suffer come very largely from a failure of morality and historical memory.

Judt is much better at describing what went wrong than at setting out how it might get better. He succeeds at conveying the urgency of the present, but becomes vague when it comes to indicating ways forward. What he suggests is that the way forward begins by looking back – to the moral judgements that lay at the heart social democracy after the Second World War.  Judt doesn’t pretend that the social democracy that prevailed in Britain, Europe and (the politics that dare not speak its name) America in the three decades after the war can easily be wished back into existence. The book ends with this sentence:

Social democracy does not represent an ideal future; it does not even represent an ideal past. But among the options available to us today, it is better than anything else to hand.

It’s a rather insipid conclusion, with no sign at present that much rethinking of this sort is taking place within the social democratic parties of western nations.  Another weakness is that the book focusses almost entirely on Europe and America, with hardly any mention of the problems flowing from economic globalization.

And yet – in 2011 the exact moral questions that Judt wanted to see posed have been at the forefront of the global Occupy movement.  As evidence for this, take a look at an article written by Naomi Wolf on The Guardian website: The shocking truth about the crackdown on Occupy.  The scale and ferocityof the coordinated crackdown against Occupy protesters in cities across the USA this past week set Wolf  to wonder: why this massive mobilisation against these inarticulate (according to the media), unarmed people?

It was, Wolf thought, a puzzle: until she found out what it was that Occupy actually wanted.  She went online and solicited answers from Occupy supporters to the question: What is it you want?  The answers were, she says, ‘were truly eye-opening.’

The protesters top agenda item was: get the money out of politics.  The second: reform the banking system to prevent fraud and manipulation, and in particular restore the Glass-Steagall Act – the Depression-era law, done away with by President Clinton, that separates investment banks from commercial banks. The third item was, she says, the most clarifying: make it illegal for members of Congress to pass legislation affecting corporations in which they themselves are investors.

When I saw this list – and especially the last agenda item – the scales fell from my eyes. Of course, these unarmed people would be having the shit kicked out of them. … Occupy has touched the third rail: personal Congressional profits streams. Even though they are, as yet, unaware of what the implications of their movement are, those threatened by the stirrings of their dreams of reform are not. …

Americans this week have come one step closer to being true brothers and sisters of the protesters in Tahrir Square. Like them, our own national leaders, who see their own personal wealth under threat from transparency and reform, are now making war upon us.

This could just be the return to the kind of principled and morally-assertive social democracy that Tony Judt dreamed of.

Something is profoundly wrong…

‘Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today.’  That is the opening sentence of Tony Judt’s book Ill Fares The Land that I’m reading at the moment.  There could be no more pertinent assessment of the present crisis. Yesterday, one commentator compared Europe’s current predicament to the phenomenon of approaching a black hole and reaching the event horizon – the point beyond which it is impossible to escape guaranteed annihilation. The fascinating thing, he said coolly, is you can cross this point of no return without realizing that your doom is certain.

This lunchtime, on The World at One, a commentator spoke of the ‘bond vigilantes’ who are now closing in on France, which is now suffering a full-blown run on its debt, with investors dumping French bonds to move their money to safer havens.  So the second largest economy in the eurozone could lose its triple-A credit status very soon, purely a victim of speculators.

Mulling over all this I feel a bit like the character in Bono’s lyric, ‘The End of the World’:

Last time we met was a low-lit room
We were as close together as a bride and groom
We ate the food, we drank the wine
Everybody having a good time
Except you
You were talking about the end of the world

Just possibly, there might be a positive aspect of the present situation.  In an article in today’s Guardian, John Harris considers whether 2011 will go down in history as one of those years that redefined global politics – such as 1968 or1989. Certainly there has been a mood of mass resistance sweeping around the globe – from the uprisings across the Arab world to the Occupy movement that has become global in short order.  The mood is best summed up in the words of  flyers that Harris found pasted to every available surface in the streets in Berkeley, California, where an Occupy camp has sprung up outside a branch of Bank of America:

Are you pissed [off] yet? You should be!
No taxation of the rich. Endless war.
Bankers not held responsible. Corrupt politicians.
Destruction of the planet due to politicians’ and corporations’ greed.
Can it get any worse than this?

As Harris notes, some elements in the Occupy movement are inspired by the legacy of 1969.  The editor of the Canada-based countercultural magazine Adbusters recently put it like this:

We are not just inspired by what happened in the Arab spring recently. We are students of the situationist movement. Those are the people who gave birth to what many people think was the first global revolution back in 1968 when some uprisings in Paris suddenly inspired uprisings all over the world.

Occupy Oakland poster

Back in August, Harris notes, in an article for the Financial Times, 2011: The Year of Global Indignation, Gideon Rachman wrote:

Many of the revolts of 2011 pit an internationally connected elite against ordinary citizens who feel excluded from the benefits of economic growth, and angered by corruption. … The creation of a global mood is a mysterious thing. In 1968, before the word ‘globalisation’ or the internet were even invented, there were student rebellions around the world. The year 1989 saw not just the fall of the Berlin Wall but the Tiananmen Square revolt in China. Perhaps 2011 will come to rank alongside 1968 and 1989 as a year of global revolt?

Basta! Enough! The Indignados of Spain

Back in August, Rachman observed that America was the one striking exception to this pattern, despite exhibiting many of the social and economic trends that had got people out on the streets in other countries: rising inequality, a threat to middle-class living standards, anger against the political and business elite.  That’s not the case now, with Occupy camps established in every major city and many smaller towns.

Police clear the Occupy Wall Street camp early yesterday

Is there anything that connects these events in the USA, Europe and the Arab world? In answer to this question,  John Harris argues that something BBC Newsnight’s Paul Mason wrote on his blog last February titled Twenty reasons why it’s kicking off everywhere, remains among the most incisive analyses of this year’s events.  Mason wrote:

At the heart of it all are young people, obviously: students; westernised; secularised … a new sociological type – the graduate with no future … With access to social media, they can express themselves in a variety of situations ranging from parliamentary democracy to tyranny … They are not prone to traditional and endemic ideologies … They all seem to know each other … I was astonished to find people I had interviewed inside the UCL occupation blogging from Tahrir Square … The common theme is the dissolution of centralised power and the demand for ‘autonomy’ and personal freedom.

Not only the young: 84 yr old activist pepper-sprayed in Occupy Seattle protest

Harris asked Mason to expand on this thought (he’s writing a book to be published in January). Mason’s feels the tumultuous events of 2011 are tangled up with newish means of communication, and a new sense of what it is to be politically organised.  Once you’re networked via social media, he says, you’re open to profound changes in ‘who you are and what your personal space is’. The idea of any seemingly arbitrary authority standing in the way of all that can easily become an affront – and at the same time, your means of communication offers you a method of opposition and resistance: online, in the real world, or both. As support for his case, he quotes the example of the hundreds of thousands of people who responded to the 2010 death of the young Egyptian Khaled Said by joining the massively influential We are all Khaled Said Facebook group, or this summer’s Direct Democracy Now! protests in Athens, organised almost entirely through social media.

Occupy St Paul's
Occupy St Paul's

For Mason, all this is epitomised in the year’s most iconic symbol: the tent communities springing up in the financial heart of the world’s major cities, home to ‘the flickering blue light of laptops and the incessant hubbub of intense conversation’. Mason says:

One thing that there has been in common between the Arab spring and the European and American events is this drive – which is almost pathological – to secure space, and live in it. In one sense, it’s a meme … and I think it does satisfy a desire … [for a] spontaneous, communal, utopian sort of existence

Occupy Wall Street poster

Interestingly, Paul Mason opts for an entirely different historical parallel: ‘a much more distant year, when abortive revolts spread across Europe at speed, and two fired-up German radicals wrote The Communist Manifesto‘:

I think it’s going to be seen more in terms of 1848.  1968 was a cultural thing: it only came to street-fighting in Czechoslovakia, the black ghettoes of the US and Paris. In 1989, apart from Romania, there was as much coming from above, through diplomacy, as there was from below. Only in 1848 have we had an explosion that goes from one country to another as fast the mode of communication of the time, and then doesn’t stop, and feeds off a zeitgeist that is about freedom, which crosses borders, and involves people identifying with each other from very different cultures.

The revolutions of 1848 were crushed, but left a longer-term legacy of political aspirations and ideas, as did 1968 which also looked in the short term as if it had been crushed by reaction. The organisational methods and symbolic actions of 2011 are new, but is there a programme here that will challenge the economic might and political power of the ‘1%’ in the long term?  With that in mind, I’ll carry on hopefully reading Tony Judt’s book.

Eviction notice on an Occupy tent outside St Paul's Cathedral - served this afternoon


One state for Palestinans and Jews?

I’m reading Tony Judt’s Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century. There’s so much in the essays collected here that’s interesting and stimulating; but in this post I’ve chosen to note the chapter on Edward Said, originally published as the foreword to Edward Said’s From Oslo to Iraq and the Road Map in 2004, and as an essay in The Nation.

In particular, it was the following section which impressed me, in which Judt explains how Said moved from favouring the two-state solution to the Palestinian problem to favouring a single, secular, democratic state. I hadn’t been aware of this development in Said’s thinking, and it struck me forcefully because I’ve felt for some time now myself  that this has to be the only way out of the impasse – it may seem fanciful, but perhaps no more than the idea of Mandela and de Klerk negotiating the end of the apartheid regime that had been busy selling the idea of bantustans as a solution to that problem.

This is the concluding part of Judt’s essay; it seems even more pertinent after the Israeli military action in Gaza earlier this year:

In 1980, when he first publicly pressed for a two-state solution, Said was attacked and abused from all sides, not least by Arafat’s own Fatah movement. Then, in 1988, the Palestine National Council belatedly conceded that the best possible outcome was indeed the division of Palestine into two states–one Israeli, one Palestinian–echoing Said’s insistence that there was no alternative to reciprocal territorial self-determination for Jews and Arabs alike. But as the years went by, with half of the occupied territories expropriated; with the Palestinian community a shambles and the putative Palestinian territory a blighted landscape of isolated enclaves, flattened olive groves and ruined houses, where humiliated adults were fast losing the initiative to angry, alienated adolescents, Said drew the increasingly irresistible conclusion.

Israel was never going to quit the West Bank, at least not in any way that would leave it in a coherent, governable condition. What kind of a state could the West Bank and Gaza ever constitute? Who but a criminal mafia would ever want to take on the task of “governing” it? The “Palestine” of PLO imaginings was a fantasy–and a rather unappealing one at that. For good or ill, there was only going to be one real state in the lands of historic Palestine: Israel. This was not utopia; it was merely hard-headed pragmatism shorn of illusion. The genuinely realistic approach lay in accepting this fact and thinking seriously about how to make the best of it: “Much more important than having a state is the kind of state it is.” For the last decade of his life Edward Said was an unbending advocate of a single, secular state for Israelis and Palestinians.

What grounds did Edward Said have for his faith in a single-state solution, a nonexclusive, secular, democratic alternative to the present impasse? In the first place, the status quo is awful and getting worse: two peoples, each sustained by its exclusive victim narrative, competing indefinitely across the dead bodies of their children for the same tiny piece of land. One of them is an armed state, the other a stateless people, but otherwise they are depressingly similar: What, after all, is the Palestinian national story if not a reproachful mirror to Zionism, a tale of expulsion, diaspora, resurrection and return? There is no way to divide the disputed “homeland” to mutual satisfaction and benefit. Little good can come of two such statelets, mutually resentful, each with an influential domestic constituency committed to the destruction and absorption of its neighbor.

In the second place, something fundamental has changed in the Palestinian condition. For four decades millions of Palestinian Arabs–in Israel, in the occupied territories, in refugee camps across the Arab world and in exile everywhere–had been all but invisible. Their very existence was long denied by Israeli politicians; their memory of expulsion had been removed from the official record and passed unmentioned in history books; the record of their homes, their villages and their land was expunged from the very soil itself. That, as Said noted, was why he kept on telling the same story: “There seems to be nothing in the world which sustains the story; unless you go on telling it, it will just drop and disappear.” And yet “it is very hard to espouse for five decades, a continually losing cause.” It was as though Palestinians had no existence except when someone committed a terrorist atrocity–at which point that is all they were, their provenance uncertain, their violence inexplicable.

That is why the “right of return” had so central a place in all Palestinian demands–not because any serious person supposed that Israel could take “back” millions of refugees and their descendants, but from the deeply felt need for acknowledgment: a recognition that the initial expulsion took place, that a primordial wrong was committed. That is what so annoyed Said about Oslo: It seemed to excuse or forgive the Israelis for the occupation and everything else. But, as he wrote in Al-Ahram in March 2002, “Israel cannot be excused and allowed to walk away from the table with not even a rhetorical demand [my emphasis] that it needs to atone for what it did.” Attention must be paid.

But attention, of course, is now being paid. An overwhelming majority of world opinion outside the United States sees the Palestinian tragedy today much as the Palestinians themselves see it. They are the natives of Israel, an indigenous community excluded from nationhood in its own homeland: dispossessed and expelled, illegally expropriated, confined to “bantustans,” denied many fundamental rights and exposed on a daily basis to injustice and violence. Today there is no longer the slightest pretense by well-informed Israelis that the Arabs left in 1948 of their own free will or at the behest of foreign despots, as we were once taught. Benny Morris, one of the leading Israeli scholars on the subject, recently reminded readers of the Israeli daily newspaper Ha’aretz that Israeli soldiers did not merely expel Palestinians in 1948-49, in an early, incomplete attempt at ethnic cleansing; they committed war crimes along the way, including the rape and murder of women and children.

Of course, Morris notoriously sees nothing wrong in this record–he treats it as the collateral damage that accompanies state-building. (“I don’t think that the expulsions of 1948 were war crimes,” he told Ha’aretz. “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.”) But this brings us to the third ground for thinking Said may be right about the chances for a single state. Just as the Palestinian cause has begun to find favor in public opinion, and is gaining the moral upper hand, so Israel’s international standing has precipitately collapsed. For many years the insuperable problem for Palestinians was that they were being expelled, colonized, occupied and generally mistreated not by French colons or Dutch Afrikaners but, in Said’s words, by the Jewish citizens of Israel, “remnants of the Nazi Holocaust with a tragic history of genocide and persecution.”

The victim of victims is in an impossible situation–not made any better, as Said pointed out, by the Arab propensity to squeeze out from under the shadow of the Holocaust by minimizing or even denying it. But when it comes to mistreating others, even victims don’t get a free pass forever. The charge that Poles often persecuted Jews before, during and after World War II can no longer be satisfactorily deflected by invoking Hitler’s 3 million Polish victims. Mutatis mutandis, the same now applies to Israel. Until the military victory of 1967, and even for some years afterward, the dominant international image of Israel was the one presented by its left Zionist founders and their many admirers in Europe and elsewhere: a courageous little country surrounded by enemies, where the desert had been made to bloom and the indigenous population airbrushed from the picture.

Following the invasion of Lebanon, and with gathering intensity since the first intifada of the late 1980s, the public impression of Israel has steadily darkened. Today it presents a ghastly image: a place where sneering 18-year-olds with M-16s taunt helpless old men (“security measures”); where bulldozers regularly flatten whole apartment blocks (“rooting out terrorists”); where helicopters fire rockets into residential streets (“targeted killings”); where subsidized settlers frolic in grass-fringed swimming pools, oblivious of Arab children a few meters away who fester and rot in the worst slums on the planet; and where retired generals and Cabinet ministers speak openly of bottling up the Palestinians “like drugged roaches in a bottle” (former Israeli Chief of Staff Rafael Eytan) and cleansing the land of its Arab cancer (former Housing Minister Effi Eitam).

Israel is utterly dependent on the United States for money, arms and diplomatic support. One or two states share common enemies with Israel; a handful of countries buy its weapons; a few others are its de facto accomplices in ignoring international treaties and secretly manufacturing nuclear weapons. But outside Washington, Israel has no friends–at the United Nations it cannot even count on the support of America’s staunchest allies. Despite the political and diplomatic incompetence of the PLO (well documented in Said’s writings); despite the manifest shortcomings of the Arab world at large (“lingering outside the main march of humanity”); despite Israel’s own sophisticated efforts to publicize its case, the Jewish state today is widely regarded as a–the–leading threat to world peace. After thirty-seven years of military occupation, Israel has gained nothing in security. It has lost everything in domestic civility and international respectability, and it has forfeited the moral high ground forever.

The newfound acknowledgment of the Palestinians’ claims and the steady discrediting of the Zionist project (not least among many profoundly troubled Israelis) might seem to make it harder rather than easier to envisage Jews and Arabs living harmoniously in a single state. And just as a minority of Palestinians may always resent their Jewish neighbors, there is a risk that some Israelis will never, as it were, forgive the Palestinians for what the Israelis have done to them. But as Said understood, the Palestinians’ aggrieved sense of neglect and the Israelis’ insistence on the moral rectitude of their case were twin impediments to a resolution of their common dilemma. Neither side could “see” the other. As Orwell observed in his “Notes on Nationalism,” “If one harbours anywhere in one’s mind a nationalistic loyalty or hatred, certain facts, although in a sense known to be true, are inadmissible.”

Today, in spite of everything, there is actually a better appreciation by some people on both sides of where–quite literally–the other is coming from. This, I think, arises from a growing awareness that Jews and Arabs occupy the same space and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Their fates are hopelessly entangled. Fence or no fence, the territory now ruled by Israel can only be “cleansed” of its Arab (or its Jewish) residents by an act of force that the international community could not countenance. As Said notes, “historic Palestine” is now a lost cause–but so, for the same reasons, is “historic Israel.” Somehow or other, a single institutional entity capable of accommodating and respecting both communities will have to emerge, though when and in what form is still obscure.

The real impediment to new thinking in the Middle East, in Edward Said’s view, was not Arafat, or Sharon, or even the suicide bombers or the ultras of the settlements. It was the United States. The one place where official Israeli propaganda has succeeded beyond measure, and where Palestinian propaganda has utterly failed, is in America. As Said observed in a May 2002 column for Al-Ahram, American Jews (rather like Arab politicians) live in “extraordinary self-isolation in fantasy and myth.” Many Israelis are terribly aware of what occupation of the West Bank and Gaza has done to their own society (if somewhat less sensitive to its effect on others). In the words of Haim Guri, an Israeli poet who served in the 1948 war, “Rule over another nation corrupts and distorts Israel’s qualities, tears the nation apart, and shatters society.” But most Americans, including virtually every American politician, have no sense of any of this.

That is why Said insists in these essays upon the need for Palestinians to bring their case to the American public rather than just, as he puts it, imploring the American President to “give” them a state. American public opinion matters, and Said despaired of the uninformed anti-Americanism of Arab intellectuals and students: “It is not acceptable to sit in Beirut or Cairo meeting halls and denounce American imperialism (or Zionist colonialism for that matter) without a whit of understanding that these are complex societies not always truly represented by their governments’ stupid or cruel policies.” But as an American he was frustrated above all at his own country’s political myopia: Only America can break the murderous deadlock in the Middle East, but “what the U.S. refuses to see clearly it can hardly hope to remedy.”

Whether the United States will awaken to its responsibilities and opportunities remains unclear. It will certainly not do so unless we engage a debate about Israel and the Palestinians that many people would prefer to avoid, even at the cost of isolating America–with Israel–from the rest of the world. In order to be effective, this debate has to happen in America itself, and it must be conducted by Americans. That is why Edward Said was so singularly important. Over three decades, virtually single-handedly, he wedged open a conversation in America about Israel, Palestine and the Palestinians. In so doing he performed an inestimable public service at considerable personal risk. His death opens a yawning void in American public life. He is irreplaceable.

Edward Said lectures on Palestine and Human Rights in 2003

Full, one and half hour lecture by Said, Memory, Inequality and Power:Palestine and the Universality of Human Rights at Berkeley University in February 2003, six months before his death.