March 11, 2008

Speaker Pushes for Middle East Compromise

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Is it possible for a single nation of Israelis and Palestinians to exist? In light of recent violence in Israel, as well as in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, it is a difficult proposition to comprehend. Yet, Ali Abunimah, co-founder of the Electronic Intifada, put forth this notion as the only viable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict last night in the Kaufmann Auditorium of Goldwin Smith.
Speaking before a small audience of 30 people, Abunimah, whose online publication is concerned with Palestine and its conflict with Israel, was aware of how his proposal sounded.
“It may seem like a very strange idea,” he acknowledged. “We’ve just come out of two weeks of the most appalling bloodshed. It is hard to imagine a context in which they can live together … ­­­it seems rational to separate them. What I argue, however, is that it is the attempt to separate them that has caused this cycle of bloodshed and misery.”
To explain his argument, Abunimah said that it was necessary to avoid the inclination of people to view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as unique, an inclination he saw as false.
“The reality is that it is a very squalid struggle,” he said. “It is very similar to other situations around the world.”
Abunimah cited the religious conflict between the Protestants and Catholics in Ireland, which began in the 18th century, as an example. He noted that the British who controlled Ireland concluded — much like many in the world who observe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — that the best solution was to institute a partition, creating the Catholic Republic of Ireland, and the semi-autonomous Protestant state of Northern Ireland.
“Rather than solving the conflict as the British had hoped,” Abunimah said, “it reignited the conflict in a new form.”
Abunimah noted that eventually, due to international pressure and an apathetic British public, as well as stronger and larger Catholic population in the region, the Protestant state collapsed.
“It still exists officially,” he said. “But you have a government that is based on full equality of all citizens regardless of religion … what you have is a de-facto reunification of Ireland in many ways … it is quite a remarkable transformation.”
“One of the things I find so hopeful is that people there still hate each other,” he added, receiving a confused bout laughter from the audience.
“It seems strange, but it shows that peace can be made without liking one another,” he said.
Abunimah went on to explain that Israel’s actions as it faced the inevitability of a growing Palestinian population that would eventually become the majority, were as futile as South Africa’s attempts to prolong apartheid in its last decades by giving the black population a new country of its own.
“What if there are too many babies?” he asked. “What you find is that there is no option that is not abhorrent; there is no option that is not ethnic cleansing.”
He noted the clear historical precedents of reunification to be the best option.
“Can [reunification] happen in Palestine? I believe it can,” he said. “You hear arguments that the bitterness and hatred is so great that they cannot live together. That was not true in South Africa. That was not true in Ireland.”
In a question and answer session, a member of the audience asked Abunimah about the validity of the analogy to Ireland, noting that it did not account for linguistic differences, a standard which many political theorists use to designate people.
Abunimah answered with what would prove the most contentious point of the otherwise relaxed evening.
“The notion that they [Israelis and Palestinians] are antagonists is a recent one,” he said. “The majority of Israeli Jews are of Arab origin … they were, until sixty years ago, considered Arabs who were Jewish. Zionism stripped them of their Arab identity and gave them a European identity.”
Abunimah response was met with strong, if polite, disagreement by two members of the audience, both of whom were Jewish of Arab descent. One explained that her family — which had lived in Baghdad for more than two thousand years — had been driven from their home by Arab gangs when Israel came into existence.
“You’re trying to paint a picture of commonality and peace. In Baghdad, a lot of those gangs were supporters of Nazism in Germany,” another said.
“I’m not trying to tell you how to view your history,” Abunimah responded. “The Jews in Baghdad were once the majority and the wealthiest there.”
“The general story is one of Jews doing pretty well in the Muslim world compared to how they suffered in the Christian one,” he added. “Christian Europe tried to exterminate them.”
Abunimah went on to explain that, as a Palestinian, he claimed the Jewish history of Palestine as his own.
“I resent the Zionist attempt to seize all the Jewish history of Palestine and claim it for European Jews, their attempts to rewrite the history of the Arab world with the mirror of the European history with Jews,” he said.
As his talk drew to a close, Abunimah reiterated the importance of halting the futile and dangerous attempts to separate Israel and Palestine, and focused on putting them together into one state.
“Is it utopia?” he said, “No. But it is a good alternative to hell.”
Maurice Chammah ’10, a Sun columnist and opening speaker for Abunimah, found the dialogue that the Abunimah created to be very productive in pushing forward the peace process.
“I liked that he was able to take the Israeli-Palestinian context and put it in terms of larger world processes, finding pragmatic ways of dealing with it,” Chammah said. “He took a position that was hard to swallow and spent the hour forcing people to challenge the positions they normally would take.”
Chammah said that although Abunimah took some fairly strong personal stances in favor of Palestine, the fact that he was still pushing an ideology of compromise made his argument even stronger.
Abunimah’s speech comes less than a week after Palestinian Liberation Organization Ambassador to the United States Afif Safieh spoke about a similar vision for the future of the Middle East.
“The major flaw of the last 17 years of attempts was that too much was left to local actors to sort out. I believe in the role of third parties,” Safieh said. “I believe in the decisive nature of American diplomacy, and that is the necessary locomotive to bring solutions to the region.”
Abunimah’s lecture was sponsored by the United for Peace and Justice in Palestine Group, whose goal is to engage dialogue about Israel-Palestinian conflict and present Palestinian viewpoints on campus.