A few years ago I was asked to give a presentation at my alma mater on the 1948 Israeli massacre of Palestinians in Deir Yassin. Despite a nasty cold on the day of the talk, I grabbed a page of horrifying statistics and a handful of tissues and headed off to criticize Israel, wondering how many Zionists would come out and complain this time.
It turned out that I had only one dissenter (from an admittedly small audience), an old professor of mine whose intellect and pedagogical style I had admired as a student (and still admire as a professional). I took three classes with this professor, finding all three valuable and interesting. I knew at the time that he was Jewish, just as he knew that I was Arab, but we transcended assumed political differences through a mutual passion for literature. I am still indebted to him for having written me a generous letter of recommendation for graduate school.
When my old professor turned up for the presentation, I had a feeling that he wouldn’t like what I was about to say despite the fact that I carefully avoided polemics and prepared a factual account of Israel’s early war crimes, referencing standard historiography. I struggled not to cringe when he raised his hand immediately after I finished speaking. A minute later we were arguing vocally with one another. I was mildly enjoying the opportunity to have at it with a former mentor and authority figure, but disturbed by the vitriol of his reaction to what I conceptualized as a tepid presentation. I’ve certainly said worse things about Israel on other occasions.
We soon reassumed our composure and attempted to think through our discrepant viewpoints. As audience members and the event organizer, another former professor of mine, interjected their commentaries I could see my antagonist growing progressively agitated.
“You don’t believe in the right of Israel to exist,” he suddenly declared. I was taken aback not by the intimation of the declaration, but by the fact that nowhere in my prepared comments or in our argument did such a topic arise.
“I don’t think anybody here has heard me say anything about destroying Israel, professor,” I responded coolly. He wouldn’t drop the subject, though, bringing it up over and again, each time impelling me to affirm Israel’s right to exist. Each time, I ignored him or flatly refused. He left the event shaking, inconsolable despite the doting of the event organizer.
There are lots of reasons why I declined my former professor’s demand that I recognize Israel. The first reason is practical: I never advocated for its destruction, and so it seemed peculiar to be asked to affirm its existence. Nobody has ever asked me to affirm another nation-state’s existence, a demand that I would in any case likewise decline. Like anybody who values humanity above capital and hierarchy, I believe it is people and not national institutions that require our empathy and attention. Besides, I was unhappy with the congenital violence implicitly ascribed to me while Israel’s entrenched violence, which I had spend 45 minutes illuminating, once again benefitted from an uncritical perception as normative.
The other reasons for my reluctance to acquiesce to my former professor’s peculiar demand are philosophical and political. It is remarkably brazen for a nation founded on the destruction of Palestine and now embroiled in vicious forms of ethnic cleansing to ask the victims of its malevolence for recognition. It is also a rhetorical trick that scarcely conceals some propitious imperatives: the legitimization of Israel as a Jewish-majority state; the whitewashing of Israel’s ugly past; tacitly absolving Israel of its immoral behavior; the privileging of Israel’s needs at the expense of basic recognition of Palestinian needs.
I have no desire to encourage these imperatives. Even if I did have the desire, I don’t have the authority: it is not up to me or to any other individual to relinquish Palestine under the pressure of a spuriously humanistic insistence by Zionists that their perfidy be excused because it will somehow make me a more respectful and responsible person.
Many people, anyway, have written in more detail about the insidiousness underlying affirmations of Israel’s “right to exist,” a phrase so ambiguous it should invoke any thinking person’s suspicion. Rather than limiting my discussion to philosophical, political, and practical factors, I’d like to mention a worthy psychological reason to refuse the demand that anybody who wants to enter into a conversation about the Israel-Palestine conflict must first proclaim devotion to Israel’s existence: principle.
Indeed, I would suggest refusing to acquiesce on principle. Zionists hold nearly all the power in the Israel-Palestine conflict and much of the power in the culture wars the conflict inspires. They have more funds, better access to corporate media, and the backing of the American military. The Palestinians, however, hold one form of power that doesn’t require money, media sympathy, or weaponry: the legitimacy that Zionists so desperately want us to confer to Israel. It is a small power, one without a material apparatus, but it is power, nevertheless, one I am unwilling to relinquish, one I have no moral obligation to relinquish. Zionists already took Palestine. Now they’re trying to appropriate our right to resist, too.
I am happy, eager even, to affirm the right of Jewish people to live in peace and security, wherever that may be, a right that all humans deserve in no particular order of worthiness. But I won’t celebrate Israel’s bloody founding and its goal of retaining a juridical ethnocentrism. Ultimately, when Zionists demand that you affirm Israel’s right to exist, what they are really asking for is your validation. Don’t give it to them. Until Israel treats the Palestinians equally and humanely, it won’t have earned the right to a celebrated existence.
Steven Salaita’s two latest books are Israel’s Dead Soul and Modern Arab American Fiction: A Reader’s Guide. Read other articles by Steven.
This article was posted on Monday, April 20th, 2009 at 10:00am