The Israeli Army’s recent killing of nine activists on the Gaza Flotilla has sparked a wave of contemplation on Israel’s morality. These questions are not new. Since the inception of the Zionist enterprise in the late nineteenth century, intellectuals such as Asher Ginsberg, known by his pen name Ahad Ha’am, fretted over how European Jews could realize their national project with the presence of a majority Palestinian population on the land they understood as promised. The question of these Palestinians came down time and again to what its resolution or lack thereof would indicate about the humanity and morality of the Jewish nation. Today, the Palestinian question continues to nag leading writers.
The novelist and activist Margaret Atwood writes of waves, sun, and the warmth of the Israelis on her recent trip to the country when she accepted the Dan David Prize, a literary award for people “who have made an outstanding contribution to humanity,” worth a million dollars. She notes a foreboding presence that she calls the “shadow.”
"The Shadow is not the Palestinians. The Shadow is Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, linked with Israeli’s own fears. The worse the Palestinians are treated in the name of those fears, the bigger the Shadow grows."
There is a dark shadow over Israel’s otherwise idyllic beauty. That shadow is not the Palestinians. Perhaps it would be productive to imagine the Palestinians as the shadow. A traveler and laureate such as Atwood could have then contemplated the living marks that the 700,000 Palestinians, whose presence made the Jewish nation a veritable impossibility, left behind. She could have pondered the position of the Palestinians in Israel as always-already fifth column. She could have reflected on the lives and experiences of those four million Palestinians who have lived under Israeli military occupation for over three decades.
But the shadow in Atwood’s prose is Israel’s “treatment” of the Palestinians. The actor is Israel. The subject is Israel’s “treatment.” The Palestinians are supplemental. But what is this “treatment?” Does it imply a now century long enterprise of separating Palestinians from their land? Does it work to indicate the lives lost, the families separated, the individuals devastated since 1948? Or perhaps “treatment” here means a relentless occupation that began in 1967 and has since 1993, packaged in the folds of the “peace process,” meant the cantonization of Palestinian land and the imprisonment of Palestinian life?
This “treatment,” the reader learns is linked to Israel’s fears. Here, we can trace the resilient narrative that cynically mobilizes the long lasting European persecution of Jews to justify one hundred years of colonialism in Palestine. Atwood goes on to give a cursory and muddled representation of the many voices that urged her not to accept the Dan David prize in protest of the apartheid regime in Israel/Palestine. Atwood’s response to these pleas was that “Artists don’t have armies. What they do is nuanced.” Atwood describes her “immersion course in present day politics” in a cursory and muddled fashion. In her position on the “sidelines” as “not Jewish, not Israeli, not Palestinian, not Muslim,” the feminist writer “hadn’t followed the situation.” “The most virulent language” of a radical stance on Israel in Atwood’s “immersion course” was, she explains, “truly anti-Semitic.”
Her liberal apologetics aside, Atwood explains that the “core nature of the reality…is that the concept of Israel as a humane and democratic state is in serious trouble.” She cites as indications of this “trouble” not the occupation, not colonialism, but rather the refusal of Noam Chomsky’s entry to the West Bank, the “shutting down” of the “rights of [Israel’s] citizens to use words like ‘Nakba,’” and finally the “labeling as ‘anti-Israel’ anyone who tells them what they need to know.”
The “police state” looms Atwood exclaims. Will this police state she worries, “be a betrayal of age-old humane Jewish traditions and the rule of just law?” The only solution, Atwood concludes, is for “Palestine… [to have] its own ‘legitimized’ state with its internationally recognized borders.” Until this happens, Atwood explains, “the Shadow will remain.”
Around the same time, David Grossman writes on the Israeli crime committed on the Gaza Flotilla. He assures his reader that indeed, “Israel did not send its soldiers to kill civilians in cold blood.” This, the reader should be comforted, was “the last thing [Israel] wanted.” Where then is the culprit of this undesired, unintended crime?
"…a small Turkish organization, fanatical in its religious views and radically hostile to Israel, recruited to its cause several hundred seekers of peace and justice and managed to lure Israel into a trap, precisely because it knew how Israel would react, knew how Israel is destined and compelled, like a puppet on a string, to react the way it did."
Grossman identifies Israel’s actions as a continuation of the “shameful, ongoing closure of Gaza,” which is itself the perpetuation of the Israeli government’s “approach.” This “approach” is one that is “prepared to embitter the lives of a million and a half innocent people in the Gaza Strip, in order to obtain the release of one imprisoned soldier.” But if the Israel army’s crime on the Gaza Flotilla is a continuation of its “approach” in Gaza, how then can we understand the power of that “small Turkish organization” which was able to both predict how Israel would act and incite it to act against its own intentions?
These calamities, Grossman continues, are all part of “a larger corruptive process afflicting Israel.” The closure has failed but, he reassures, “the crimes of the leaders of Hamas...must be firmly dealt with, utilizing the various legal means available to a sovereign state.” Grossman hopes that the “frantic actions” of the Israeli Army on the Gaza Flotilla will lead to a “reevaluation of the whole idea of closure.” If Israelis were to conduct such a reevaluation they would be: “at last freeing the Palestinians from their suffering and cleansing Israel of its moral stain.”
These texts come from quite differing points. Atwood’s position as at once an award recipient and “on the sidelines” relegates political engagement in Israel/Palestine to identity politics. Apparently, one must be Jewish, Israeli, Palestinian, or Muslim to take a radical and informed stance on the last one hundred years of colonialism and the ongoing denial of Palestinian freedom. Despite her claims to artist-as-exception, Atwood is not “on the sidelines” but has rather adopted a highly un-nuanced and tired Israeli narrative. That narrative makes no distinction between Judaism and Zionism.
Grossman’s text contains more folds and turns, he writes of Palestinian suffering in Gaza. Not unlike state policy, he disengages the situation in Gaza from the relentless process of land confiscation and occupation in the West Bank. He speaks of the crimes of Hamas leaders, while failing to mention that many of these democratically elected leaders continue to be under illegal imprisonment. He writes of the “various legal means available to a sovereign state,” without naming the occupation, the separation wall, and the various illegal machinations of an Israeli state without borders on a Palestinian people without citizenship.
Despite their differences, these two pieces speak to and through one another in indicative ways. The bottom line is Israel’s capacity to be humane and democratic. The Palestinians and their supporters—“fanatic” or “anti-Semitic”—are supplemental. The ongoing crisis in both these narratives requires urgent resolution, not out of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for liberation, but rather for the informing imperative of guarding Israel’s morality. This urgent, but deeply and not coincidentally unspecified resolution, is the only way to remain loyal to “age-old humane Jewish traditions and the rule of just law” in Atwood’s narrative and to “cleanse” Israel of its “moral stain” in Grossman’s. The fixation here is on Israel’s morality. The fear is that Israel’s universalist, democratic project is under threat from its “treatment” of or “approach” to the Palestinians.
The assumption is that Israel has at one point been moral. But the question of what to do with the natives began not with the closure and siege of Gaza, not with the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, and not with the nakba (decidedly more than simply a “word”) of 1948 but with the very onset of European Jewish settlement in Palestine. The presence of a Palestinian majority in Palestine defined the character of Zionism from its inception. The hope for the possibility of a “cleansing” overlooks the reality that the Palestinian, is not and can never be, outside of history—neither in this specific case nor writ large. The Palestinian question is not a supplement to the Zionist project. It has and will continue to constitute that project. It is not a stain on the body. It is a part of that body, a part that cannot and will not be amputated. To write Palestinians out of that “universal” epic of liberal democracy is to rehearse a broader pattern. That pattern is one that tells the story of an exalted modern European civilization and frets over how colonialism may possibly mar its innocence. But it has never been innocent.