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Looking beyond the 'curse' of partition

After 65 years of ‘peace talks,’ Ariella Azoulay believes what is needed now is not a new vision but an old one – one envisioned by people who lived in Palestine before the curse of partition.

By Ariella Azoulay

Palestinians march through the streets of Bethlehem to commemorate the Nakba, May 14, 2013. (Photo by: Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)

Over the past few years, it has been fairly common to hear: “the time has come for a new vision for Palestine/Israel.” It is hard to refute the reality of a dead-end implied in this expression, but must a dead-end always lead us to a new vision? As Hanan Ashrawi has previously stated, new forms of talks, dialogue, and inventiveness are not what was missing in the endless peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians.

After 65 years of “peace talks” – they didn’t start with the Oslo accords, but way back in 1949 – we should question the very relevance of the procedures of peace. A peace treaty is usually called for in a situation of war between two existing states. In the case of Palestine since 1949, peace talks were a means for imposing partition, which was rejected by the majority of the population in Palestine in 1947; they were a way to bypass that rejection and implement partition through violence. In 1948-49, 750,000 Palestinians were expelled, the country was destroyed and its face transmuted by the new state; but full partition was not achieved. Ever since, maintaining the fantasy of separation has required the use of more and more violent solutions to the problems entailed in partial partition. Peace talks are a means of ruling that for the last 65 years have kept Palestinians and Jews haunted by the same question that colonialism lethally injected into the Middle East: for or against partition; one or two states. The major difference between then – prior to 1947 – and now is the excessive violence that was exercised in order to achieve what was doomed from inception as opposed by the majority of the concerned population – namely partitioning.

Read more: One state: Stop the hysteria and start thinking

Therefore, instead of inventing more new solutions, forms, procedures, steps, tools, terms, maps and documents to bypass the root of the problem, the time has come to address it. The root of the problem is the Palestinians’ uprooting from their land in 1948. The root of the problem is the fact that they were not allowed to return to their homes. The root of the problem was imposing the outcome of this violence as a fait accompli, as a new board game where Israeli-Jews incarnate sovereignty, and can therefore set the rules. A board game where Palestinians can – and should – be continuously dispossessed and beg for their rights, as if Israelis could have their rights while Palestinians are dispossessed of them.

The Palestine Brewery LTD. (photographer unknown)

Is a new vision really necessary in order to imagine an egalitarian civil contract among the populations of this non-partitionable territorial unit? Since the creation of the State of Israel, it has become impossible to imagine the future. If and when efforts to change the situation were made, they took the form of “solutions” to “problems,” imposed top-down and usually produced by the same – military-security – system. The ideology of imposed “solutions” generated the Nakba as a by-product of an effort to “solve” another “problem”: how to reduce the inadmissible gap between the minority’s desire for Jewish sovereignty and Palestine’s mixed population.

Instead of more “solutions,” the time has come to acknowledge the monumentality of the Nakba: without fully addressing it, all visions for Israel-Palestine are doomed to fail. The time has come to acknowledge the Nakba as a catastrophe not only for Palestinians but also for the Jewish people – the catastrophe of becoming perpetrators, of becoming responsible for expelling the majority of the population living in Palestine in 1948 and for the systematic destruction of one of the nicest places on earth. One should be trained as an art historian or archivist in order to take advantage of the beauty here, as so little remains.

Haifa – Beirut bus service. (photographer unknown)

What is needed now is not a new vision but an old one; one envisioned by people who lived in Palestine before the curse of partition and who were able to foresee partition as a horror to avoid*. What is needed is the renewal of a civil contract of equality among all those affected by the Nakba, victims and perpetrators alike. A renewed civil contract is needed to allow Palestinians to gain their freedom, and this same contract will allow Israelis to gain freedom as well: the freedom of not being perpetrators, the freedom to be governed equally. Born as an Israeli citizen, one is socialized not to know about the Nakba. One has to undergo a long journey to be able to denaturalize the numerous traces, testimonies, images and claims of the Nakba that surround people who live in what once used to be Palestine. Only once these traces and debris are endowed with meaning will common interest tie Palestinians and Jews together to make their common past the basis for the renewal of a civil contract. And it is only within that contract that atrocities like expelling people from their houses and dispossessing them will never recur.

We have inherited the crimes of our parents’ generation, but we can – and ought to – refuse to further inherit the crime of perpetuating the Nakba. We perpetuate the crime every time we refuse to recognize the Palestinians as part of our body politic, as having equal part in the land and its government. The mandate of partition is over. The time has come to explore the options that were imagined when partition was only a threat and not yet a regime under which civil options were violently silenced. The libraries and archives are full of amazing political prose, written by Arabs and Jews, which could be recalled and revitalized. We should revive them because in their language one can find exactly what we have lost – the possibility of speaking naturally – and without sounding as if we claim the impossible – on the basis of a common ground, the ground of sharing the same land.

Lod in the early 50s. (photographer unknown, Imperial War Museum)

The crimes of the past cannot be undone, but their perpetuation can be stopped. Only from an unconditional, common civil contract, can those crimes be healed and compensated for. When this happens, sovereignty will be actualized as the people’s sovereignty, wherein the people are the sovereign.


*Among them one should retrieve from oblivion names such as Albert Horani, Norman Bentwitch, Harold Laski, Yehuda Magnes, and many many others.

 

This text presented at a recent talk titled “Critical Conversations – After Oslo” as part of Brown University’s Middle East Studies program. Ariella Azoulay is an assistant professor at the Department of Modern Culture and Media and the Department of Comparative Literature at Brown University. Her recent books are: From Palestine to Israel: A Photographic Record of Destruction and State Formation, 1947-1950, (Pluto Press, 2011), Civil Imagination: The Political Ontology of Photography (Verso, 2012) and The Civil Contract of Photography (Zone Books, 2008); co-author with Adi Ophir. The One State Condition: Occupation and Democracy between the Sea and the River. Stanford University Press, 2012. She is Curator and  documentary filmmaker.

Related:
Two state vs. one state debate is a waste of time, political energy
Why we can’t stop having the one- or two-state debate
How a Jewish Agency fellow becomes a one-state activist
Why it’s time to discuss the one-state solution

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  • COMMENTS

    1. Kolumn9

      Indeed. It really was terrible that the Jews in Israel did not get defeated and expelled. It could have been such a nice Arab Muslim country with a democratic system of government and protection of minorities had Israel been strangled in its cradle. Oh what I wouldn’t give right now for another paradise of tolerance like Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Egypt. I could have been treated like an equal citizen like the Christians of Syria and Iraq, or like the Kurds of Iraq and Syria or like the Christians of Egypt, oh and of course the Jews of those countries which I shouldn’t even need to mention given how respected and honored those thriving Jewish communities are by their Muslim brothers.

      Oh, yes, let us indeed reopen 1948 and look around and see what kind of wonderful place it could have been had the ‘curse of partition’ been avoided. Paradise awaited us and we tragically managed to miss it.

      It is time indeed to look at the possible solutions and then look around the region to see the chances for their sustainability over time. The libraries and archives of surrounding nations too are full of amazing political prose written by Christians, and Jews, Muslims speaking completely naturally and with beautiful visions of the future. Once we are done living in the illusions of the dreamers of past perhaps we can spend a few seconds tracking down where their descendants live these days and how their visions are playing out in reality. That might be a better indicator of what is possible than the illusions of dreamers written 70 years ago whose vision was abandoned by all sides and drowned in a river of blood.

      Reply to Comment
      • Laurent Szyster

        “Some ideas are so stupid that only intellectuals could believe them.” George Orwell.

        Reply to Comment
      • aristeides

        It doesn’t matter what you would or would not give. It wasn’t your country to take.

        The only question is what the people whose country it was would give to have you out of it.

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          Blah blah blah. It was always ours. Now we are back. And we are not giving it up again. So, the question is how many times the people that want to destroy and expel us will try until they are taught the hard way that we are not going anywhere.

          Reply to Comment
          • aristeides

            that’s right, K9. Own your naked aggression. Just don’t try to pretend it’s good for the people you evicted from their land in the process.

            Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            Indeed, me saying that I fully intend on defending myself against those that try to destroy me is ‘naked aggression’. Orwell would be proud of you.

            Reply to Comment
        • CigarButNoNice

          Back atcha, all of it, you supporter of land-robbing Arab colonialism and imperialist aggression.

          The plane to take you all back to the Arabian Peninsula is waiting. All aboard!

          Reply to Comment
    2. Richard

      Oh, how the Jews yearn to be freed of this cursed state! Let the perpetrators lay down their burden! If only art historians were in charge, there would be peace! Seriously, though, I really don’t see why someone smart enough to get the job that the author has bothers writing a piece just for the purpose of making it clear she doesn’t share the values of Israeli Jews or anyone who cares about their security: “The root of the problem is the Palestinians’ uprooting from their land in 1948. The root of the problem is the fact that they were not allowed to return to their homes. The root of the problem was imposing the outcome of this violence as a fait accompli, as a new board game where Israeli-Jews incarnate sovereignty, and can therefore set the rules. A board game where Palestinians can – and should – be continuously dispossessed and beg for their rights, as if Israelis could have their rights while Palestinians are dispossessed of them.” Yes, you’ve made it clear, in the classic repetitive toddler style, that these are your values, that Palestinian rights just ARE more important than Israeli rights, but why should we care, at all, that a Brown University professor is just one more person who doesn’t care about the existence of the State of Israel? I also question the sincerity of this, since there wasn’t much attention paid to consistency. Did anyone else notice that the contradicts herself on a pretty major point?: “The mandate of partition is over.” Over? I thought there never WAS a mandate, you know, because “In the case of Palestine since 1949, peace talks were a means for imposing partition, which was rejected by the majority of the population in Palestine in 1947…” I see a lot of buzzwords, cliches, overwrought moralizing. This piece is an attempt to be cool, not honest. The attitude is typically Brown.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Richard Witty

      Its a fantasy.

      The nakba is half of the reality. The imagination that the nakba is the primary defining experience, that Jews need to be freed from being perpetrators, is also a fantasy (even if the statement the Jews should not be oppressors is true).

      The reality of the history is that the majority of Jewish residents of Israel are descendants from refugees, from those that were dispossessed of their homes and lives in Europe, and of those that were dispossessed of their homes and lives in the Arab world of North Africa and Middle East.

      You might want to appeal to a commonality of refugee status, kin, rather than invocation of shame.

      Reply to Comment
      • “You might want to appeal to a commonality of refugee status, kin, rather than invocation of shame.” : This sound right, but under a social industry of mutual anger, hatred, and scorn, how to start?

        The piece says ” A renewed civil contract is needed to allow Palestinians to gain their freedom, and this same contract will allow Israelis to gain freedom as well: the freedom of not being perpetrators, the freedom to be governed equally.” One could begin with the Declaration of Independence’s guarantee of equal protection in social and civil rights. “All Palestinians” is a nonstarter. “Palestinian citizens under the Declaration” is a place to begin. Global solutions do not exist, ideologies on both sides using this to prevent any steps toward accommodation.

        Reply to Comment
        • vadim

          This is not a step toward accommodation, this is a step toward destruction.

          Reply to Comment
          • If you deny the equal protection of all citizens as delineated in your Declaration of Independence then there is no hope at all. 20% of your population are not Jews; they were born there, just like you, and were granted citizenship decades ago. Denying equal protection mean denying the future rule of law.

            There is no other way out, in my view.

            Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            There are only two ways – either we do not have the rule of law right now and we are ok with that or we do have the rule of law right now and there is no real change on the horizon and we are ok with that. Some people point to legislation that they don’t like as if it is a threat to the rule of law, while neglecting the fact that the two are contradictory. As such I don’t really think your insistence that the ‘rule of law’ is in danger is terribly effective.

            As for the ‘equal protection of all citizens’. There is nothing particularly problematic with this nor can that not exist in a Jewish State and we are definitely damn close to that in Israel right now. The problem is that those that adopt the absolutist banner of the ‘equal protection of all citizens’ tend to just do so in order to demand the elimination of the Jewish State and to turn it into a place where the Jews have no capacity to defend themselves before turning to the next step of flooding it with Arabs in order to remove the Jews as players entirely. The other article on 972mag by Greenstein pretty much is explicit about using the idea of ‘equal protection of all citizens’ to gradually push for the elimination of Israel as a country. So, because it has been hijacked by such hostile jokers it gets very negative reactions from many Israelis.

            Reply to Comment
          • When asked about the dearth of new Arab Israeli villages (only, what, two or three which are really relocation villages) created post 49, you said that if Arab Israeli citizens had agreed to participate in the government apart from a refusal stance they would have had new villages. Equal protection is not cronyism. If there was a sense of equal access there would have been at least one new village by now. The perpetual wars are a reason why not, but the fact of the skew is still there.

            Legislation in itself is not the rule of law. You need judicial review. But, again, you have said in response elsewhere to me that judicial decisions can be ignored (related to the Court order to close the asylum refugee camp). Your Declaration of Independence will give you much of what you want, but not all; it cannot be all, for some citizens are not like you. This is not about One State at all, nor right of return (which seems to be partly in response to Jewish return based on an ancient warrant), but about the nature of citizenship within Israel.

            There is a natural tendency to conflate equal protection in Israel with Jewish return and with occupation. When one says “It was always ours. Now we are back.” the Israel accepted into the UN (which was its founding event via the Declaration) can become Greater Israel of occupation. There is no reason for this. While I have come to the conclusion that One State is an inevitable outcome, I don’t advocate that outcome, nor think it soon arriving. Israel’s pronounced security imperatives seem to lead nowhere else. Because Israel cannot do what has usually been done to losing populations, it will have to change. “Protection of the Jewish People” depends on how it changes. The rule of law is not the “rule of the Jewish People.” It is a concept that can be transmitted across peoples. You will have to go there, for your own sake; the question is how long it takes.

            Reply to Comment
    4. Laurent Szyster

      I’m sick and tired of leibnizian optimists giving moronic advices from the safety and comfort of an Ivy League university.

      Why bother writing an article while you could as well have simply repeated Dr Pangloss mantra: “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds” ?

      Reply to Comment
    5. Richard Witty

      Two democracies is the best path, even if they have minorities.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Kolumn9

      Equal protection is equal access to lobbying and power. This the Israeli Arabs have and choose to use to challenge the existence of the state rather than seeking accommodations with it and their place (and villages) in it. That has consequences in convincing the majority to pursue certain policies rather than others.

      In Israel there is judicial review of laws as you pointed out, so the rule of law is present and functioning. You choose to use the words ‘rule of law’ to denote something that matches the values you think the laws should be based on, and decry its absence even where it is objectively clearly present. Where the court chooses to rule against a law passed by the legislature, the legislature can pursue other laws that the court has not ruled against. In the case of the illegal migrants the legislature is free to pursue other laws whose overall goal is to expel the migrants even if its hands are now tied on the issue of imprisoning them. This too is the ‘rule of law’. Were Israel to pass a basic law that declares the primacy of Israel being a Jewish state that too would become part of the judicial review process and be the ‘rule of law’. So, obsessing over the ‘rule of law’ seems really stupid.

      No, we really don’t ‘have to go there’. The ‘one state’ in the way you imagine it is in this region in the long-term equivalent to our death, exile and destruction. So, for our own sakes we might have to change in some ways, but it isn’t going to be in that one. This is one of those basic survival things that you should be familiar with as an evolutionary biologist. There is nothing that can force us to ‘go there’.

      Reply to Comment

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