Defiance, dignity, and the rule of dogma

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During the discussion period that followed a lecture of mine at Oxford three and a half years ago I was stunned by a question put to me by a young woman, whom I later discovered to have been a Palestinian student working for her doctorate at the university. I had been speaking about the events of 1948, and how it seemed to me necessary not only to understand the connection between our history and Israel’s, but that as Arabs we needed to study that other history as one concerning us rather than avoiding or ignoring it totally as has been the case for such a long time. The young woman’s question was to raise doubt about my views on the necessity of studying and learning about Israel. “Wouldn’t that kind of attention paid to Israel,” she said, “be a form of concession to it?” She was asking me if ignorant “non-normalisation” didn’t constitute a better approach to a state that had for years made it a point of policy to stand in the way of and deny Palestinian self-determination, to say nothing of having caused Palestinian dispossession in the first place.

I must confess that the thought hadn’t occurred to me, even during those long years when Israel was unthinkable in the Arab world and even when one had to use euphemisms like “the Zionist entity” to refer to it. After all, I found myself asking in return, two major Arab countries had made formal peace with Israel, the PLO had already recognised it and was pursuing a peace process with it, and several other Arab countries had trade and commercial relations with it. Arab intellectuals had made it a point of honour not to have any dealings with Israel, not to go there, not to meet with Israelis, and so on and so forth, but even they had been silent when, for instance, Egypt signed large deals selling natural gas to Israel and had maintained diplomatic relations with the Jewish state during frequent periods of Israeli repression against the Palestinians. How could one possibly oppose analysing and learning everything possible about a country whose presence in our midst for over 50 years has so influenced and shaped the life of every man, woman and child in the Arab world?

In this young woman’s understanding therefore, the opposite of conceding was supposed to be defiance, the act of defying, resisting and refusing to bend under the will of a power that one perceives as unjust and unreasonable. That, I took it, was what she suggested we should be practicing towards Israel and not what I was trying to propose, which was a creative engagement with a culture and society that on all significant levels had behaved and (as the ongoing Israeli brutality against the Aqsa Intifada shows) continues to behave with a policy of deliberate dehumanisation towards Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular. In this the egregious Ariel Sharon is scarcely distinguishable from Barak, Rabin and Ben-Gurion (leaving aside the truly vicious racism of many of Sharon’s allies like Scharansky, Liberman and Rabbi Ovadia Yousef). What I said in contrast was not only a matter of understanding them but also of understanding ourselves since our history was incomplete without consideration of Israel, what it represented in our lives, how it had done what it had, and so forth. Besides, I continue to believe as an educator that knowledge — any knowledge — is better than ignorance. There is simply no rational justification from an intellectual point of view of having a policy of ignorance, or using ignorance as a weapon in a struggle. Ignorance is ignorance, no more and no less. Always and in every case.

I remained puzzled, dissatisfied with my groping answer and put off by the question which has remained with me until the present. But once again it has appeared to challenge me unexpectedly. Let me explain. A short time ago it was revealed in the New York press that Hilary Clinton had been compelled by federal law to return $7,000 worth of jewelry given to her by Yasser Arafat; and, according to the same official US government source, Madeleine Albright, Secretary of State during the second Clinton presidency, had received $17,000 worth of jewelry from the same generous donor. Suddenly it became possible to see the relationships between public and private attitudes in the Arab world and to understand the connection between the young student’s defiant ideas about what she considered to be concessions to Israel on the one hand and, on the other, the Palestinian leadership’s abject and profligate generosity to American politicians who are in some measure directly responsible for the woes heaped upon the Palestinian people. Even as I write, American weapons of mass destruction, supplied in unlimited number to Israel, are being used illegally — according to US law — to attack, kill, and maim unprotected Palestinian men, women and children, to demolish their houses, raze their refugee camps, make their lives basically unlivable. Yet for some years a policy of trying without reason or dignity to woo American leaders in the most vulgar way possible has been implemented, as if the personal pleasure and satisfaction of Hilary or Madeleine bought at the expense of Palestinian public money were a form of policy rather than an indecent display of bribery of a sort. The grotesque assumption has been all along that countries like America and Israel are mirror images of Third World states in which, like Mobutu’s Zaire, for instance, policy is made according to the ruler’s whim or for his family’s enrichment. What is missing here is any apprehension that these are complex, on the whole democratic, countries whose civil societies and their interests play a large, if not decisive, role in each country’s behavior. But rather than address and try to change the mood or ideas of their civil societies, our leaders ignore them and concentrate instead on a quick fix, i.e. buttering up, flattering, or bribing the leader. Anyone who knows anything about either Israel or the US will tell you that such tricks are absolutely useless; they may gain one a dinner or a scowling handshake from the late General Rabin in the White House, but little more than that.

The proof of what I am saying is plainly evident in the calamitous recent history of our dealings with the US and Israel during the period since the Oslo accords were signed. Since the Palestinian leadership betrayed its people’s trust and sacrifices by entering the Oslo process the way it did in the first place, and remaining in it as a weak and, alas, all-too-willing partner, it has at the same time maintained a public stand that can only be described as defiant — a defiance, one must immediately add, that is principally rhetorical and completely contradicted by official Palestinian behavior which has remained (to say the least) mysteriously servile to the US and to Israel. Unsolicited presents of expensive jewelry to American officials illustrate the point all too well. Now, while Palestinians, armed with a few rifles and stones, are bravely defying Israel’s military the leadership is still acting like a supplicant in trying to re-open negotiations with Israel and the US. The same things can be said about the Arab regimes and even their intellectual sectors, who roundly proclaim their enmity towards Israel and the US while in fact either collaborating with them politically and economically, or loudly and clamorously denouncing normalisation. The sad thing is that this contradiction is not generally perceived as a contradiction, but as a necessary part of life today. I would have thought that better than denouncing Israel from top to bottom it would have been a smarter thing to cooperate with sectors inside the country who stand for civil and human rights, who oppose the settlement policy, who are ready to take a stand on military occupation, who believe in coexistence and equality, who are disgusted with official repression of the Palestinians. For only in this way is there any hope of changing Israeli policy, given the gigantic disparity in military power between all of the Arabs and Israel. I would also have thought that it is the better part of honesty to have dissociated oneself from crude anti-Semitic attacks such as those emanating from Damascus recently: what do these do except display to the world a mind-set that is both sectarian and viciously stupid?

I know perfectly well that passions regarding Israeli repression of Palestinian today are genuine and that people everywhere are disgusted with the policies of the Sharon government. But is that passion enough of an excuse to abandon rationality altogether, and for intellectuals, in particular, to flail around incoherently instead of trying in a serious way to come up with a serious political and moral stand based on knowledge rather than uninformed and blind ignorance, which cannot under any circumstances be described as a political position?

Take the recent campaign against the translation of Arabic books into Hebrew. One would have thought that the more Arabic literature is available in Israel, the better able Israelis are to understand us as a people, and to stop treating us as animals or less-than-human. Instead we have the sorry spectacle of serious Arab writers actually denouncing their colleagues for “allowing” themselves to “normalise” with Israel, which is the idiotic phrase used as an accusation for collaborating with the enemy. Isn’t it the case, as Julien Benda was the first to say, that intellectuals are supposed to go against collective passions instead of trading in them demagogically? How on earth is a Hebrew translation an act of collaboration? Getting into a foreign language is always a victory for the writer. Always and in each case. Isn’t it a far more intelligent and useful thing than the craven “normalisation” of the various countries that have trade and diplomatic relationships with the enemy even as Palestinians are being killed like so many flies by the Israeli army and air force? Aren’t Hebrew translations of Arabic literature a way of entering Israeli life culturally, making a positive effect in it, changing people’s mind from bloody passion to reasonable understanding of Israel’s Arab Others, especially when it is Israeli publishers who have gone and published the translations as a sign of cultural protest against Israel’s barbarous Arab policy?

All these confusions and contradictions I have described are signs of a deeper Arab malaise. When we mistake puerile acts of defiance for real resistance, and when we assume that know-nothing ignorance is a political act (when in fact it is nothing of the sort), and when we shed all dignity and clamour for American patronage and attention, surely our sense of dignity and self-respect is in tatters. Who hasn’t cringed at the memory of Arafat on the White House lawn in 1993 repeating his three “thank yous” with fawning abjection, and who hasn’t felt that our leaders lack a sense of self-esteem when they are unable to decide whether America is the enemy or our only hope? Instead of a policy based on principles and norms of decent behaviour we wallow instead in futile acts of defiance based on silly, unreflective dogmas about opposition to Israel while at the same time we only offer our besieged Palestinian compatriots lip service and patriotic formulas. No model helps us to guide our actions. The Arab world today is the triumph of mediocrity and opportunism, but given the leadership’s failures on nearly every front, it becomes the intellectual’s role to provide honest analyses and indications of what is reasonable and just, instead of joining the chorus of hand-clapping flatterers who decorate the royal and presidential courts and the corporate boardrooms with their oily, unremittingly approving presences.

I shall conclude with a concrete example of what I mean. In all the din about normalisation, I have noticed one startling absence, namely, the current status of the Palestinian refugees living in every major Arab country, whose condition everywhere — there are no exceptions — is unacceptably miserable. Wherever there are Palestinians in the Arab world, there are rules and regulations forbidding them full status as residents, forbidding them work and travel, requiring them to register with the police on a monthly basis, etc. It’s not only Israel who treats Palestinians badly, it is the Arab countries who do so also. Now see if there is a sustained campaign by Arab intellectuals against this invidious local treatment of the Palestinian refugees: you won’t see or hear one. What excuse is there for the horrible refugee camps in which so many of them live, even in places like Gaza and the West Bank; what right do local mokhabarat forces have to harass and generally make their lives miserable? And why is there no protracted press campaign to end this appalling state of affairs? Why, because it is much easier (and less risky) to rail against normalisation and Hebrew translations than it is to dramatise the unacceptable condition of Palestinian refugees in the Arab world, who are always being told that they cannot be “normalised” because it would implement Israel’s design. What rubbish!

We must return to basic values and honesty of discussion. There can be no military solution to what ails us, Arabs and Jews alike. This truth leaves only the power of mind and education to do the job that armies have been unable to accomplish for over half a century. Whether Israeli intellectuals have failed or not in their mission is not for us to decide. What concerns us is the shabby state of discourse and analysis in the Arab world. For that, as citizens, we must take responsibility and try first of all to release ourselves from the jejune clichs and unthinking formulas that clutter our writing and speaking.

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