Raimond Gaita replies to my letter (reprinted in full)

Because you wrote to me seeking clarification about what I had meant and also to clarify what you had meant, I will reply, though I had said in my previous blog that I would not do so.

You are right to suspect that I believe that you have misunderstood me. I’ll therefore go straight to the part of your letter where I think it shows – your first analogy, intended to reveal what you find objectionable in my claim that it is misleading to call the Palestinians Arabs the indigenous inhabitants of Palestine.

To remind your readers:

[S]uppose a woman were discussing Hamas. She notes that there are disagreements over whether Hamas is a terrorist organisation. In the context of the blockade of Gaza on the grounds of Hamas as a terrorist organisation, she says, it is misleading to suggest that Hamas has used suicide bombers and massacred civilians in the heartland of Israel. If you admit that Hamas has committed terrible atrocities, it invites comparisons to other terrorist groups, like al Qaeda. Therefore, it is misleading to talk about Hamas atrocities in the context of the Gaza blockade, as this will play into the hands of those who support the blockade.

Okay, now how would you react to that? I imagine, an ordinary person might react as follows. They would note that Hamas’s atrocities are simply a fact. It may not serve the interests of an opponent of the blockade to acknowledge this fact. However, that does not make it non-true. The view that it is okay to deny such facts in the interests of a political argument is morally shocking. It displays an extraordinary callousness to those whose reality is being denied. Furthermore, if you accept that Jews and Palestinians are equal, and deserve the same rights and considerations, it seems difficult to square this with the view that the factual record should be distorted in the interests of one of the people, at the price of the other.

The analogy gets things exactly backwards. In it, the person opposing the blockade denies that Hams sent suicide bombers into Israel. But I have denied no factual claims about crimes committed by Jews against the Palestinians before and after the founding of the state. We would, I am sure, disagree about some of those facts, but that is irrelevant to our dispute about the application of the concept ‘indigenous inhabitant’. The analogy would have been more appropriate if the person claimed that the application of the concept of a terrorist is misleading because of the many important differences between Hamas and al Quaeda.

The second analogy, with the Holocaust, fails for a number of reasons, the most salient being that the dispute you envisage in that analogy is not about the application of a concept, in this case the concept ‘Holocaust’, but about the uses and misuses (intentional or otherwise) of appeals to it to argue that the establishment of the state of Israel was morally and politically necessary.

I therefore want to stress yet again that nothing I said entails denial of the crimes committed against the Palestinian Arabs, crimes that preceded and then culminated in their dispossession and that continue to this day. I denied no factual claims about how long they had lived in the land that the Jews took from them or in what ways they were rooted in it, or facts about where the Jews came from. I opposed only the claim that the Jews who came to Palestine from foreign lands had no right to establish in Palestine the cultural and political institutions that would realise their ideal of a homeland. I denied that morality requires that they should have come as mendicants, pleading a case to establish those institutions or even to live there. I denied it because it fails to do justice to the ways (note the plural) that reference to Palestine in Jewish (mostly religious) life nourished in many, perhaps most, Jews a sense that they are a people, or a nation. The role that Palestine – its cities, and towns, its seasons, its harvest rituals and so on played in Jewish life was therefore very different form the role it played in Christian religious life, for example. In my lecture I said “ the strong feeling ofmany Israeli Jews, that living in Israel marks a kind of return, takes nonsensical and sometimes very dangerous, forms. But it is not always nonsense and not always dangerous”.

For me that is not a theoretical matter, not a matter for speculation. My wife who was born in Israel comes from a family that had lived in Jerusalem for at least eight generations. I learnt form her how deep love of country can be and that it can be entirely free of jingoism, or other distortions of the kind that Ghassan Hage calls paranoid nationalism. I went on to say:

“[F]rom her – from the nature and quality of her love for Israel – I came to understand that when the country one loves commits serious injustices, love for it need not die. If it remains lucid and does not yield to the temptation to deny those injustices, then pain is the form that love takes and severe criticism of one’s country will be one of the forms of its expression. For that reason, more than others, my concern for the welfare of the Jewish state goes deep, and, for that reason I also know that for its citizens to be able to love without shame and without lies is inseparable form a lucid conception of that welfare. It is therefore inseparable from a lucid conception of loyal citizenship.

I spoke personally in that way for a number of reasons two of which are important to our disagreement. Firstly, because I wanted to remind uncritical supporters of Israel that genuine love of country is distinguished from its corruptions (from the many forms of jingoism) by its need for truthfulness. Secondly, I wanted to remind people who were uncritically hostile to Israel that the reality of this kind of love must be part of the complex narrative that tells of the relations between Jews and Palestinian Arabs. It is, importantly, love of country, not love of the state and its particular institutions. In different circumstances it could have been realised politically in a homeland that was part of one of the many possible federations proposed by anti-state Zionists before the founding of the state. It is a love whose historical depth in the region extends to times prior to the establishment of the state, partly because it is nourished by the same sources that sustained a sense of nationhood in Jews living in the Diaspora and is therefore continuous with that sense of nationhood. In answer, therefore, to the question, “What kind of attachment could an 18th century Lithuanian Jews have to Palestine, never having seen it, neve having breathed its air or walked on its soil, who didn’t even now where on this earth it was located?” I would say it is an attachment that could naturally grow into the kind the love I have described without becoming something of a quite different kind. Sometimes one comes to understand the nature of something, the kind of thing that it is, only by seeing what it can become.

The love that I have described had painfully to come fully to terms with the knowledge – a knowledge that had to penetrate the heart – that though it yields to them a different sense of country, the Palestinians love the same land and the Jews dispossessed them of most of it. The great historical injustice of that dispossession, justifiably called the Nakba by the Palestinians, appears to have so distorted the moral imagination of Israel’s harsher critics that they cannot acknowledge that the Palestinians had obligations to the Jews that were not consistent with their persistent rejection of a Jewish political presence in Palestine that would be adequate to their sense of nationhood.

The aspect of what I said that I suspect offends you most, is my claim that before the establishment of the state the Palestinians Arabs were obliged to respect the political aspirations of the Jews as much as Jews were obliged to respect the political aspiration of the Palestinians. The nature of those obligations, their stringency and their scope is, as I said in an earlier response to you, contestable. Nothing I have said by way of elaborating my claim that it is misleading to call the Palestinians the indigenous inhabitants of Palestine entails that the Palestinians were obliged to honour Jewish aspirations to statehood. An argument to the conclusion that Jewish political aspirations were justifiably to a state rather than a homeland would need more support than I have given it, and an argument to the conclusion that the borders of that state should be much as they were before June 1967 would need even more support. I believe both conclusions, but neither is germane to our disagreement.

You claim that I dishonestly deny facts in order to prosecute a political agenda. I repeat that I have denied no facts relevant to our dispute. Let the facts be as Ilan Pappe claims they are. I have denied only that the concept ‘indigenous inhabitant’ can discard sufficient of the connotations that have accrued to it because of its association with the evils of colonialism for it to play a dispassionate part in the assessment of the Jewish relation to Palestine, Jewish political aspirations there and the consequences of those aspirations for the Palestine people. Narratives are not just chronologies of facts, but ways of making sense of those facts. Rather than attempting to undermine a truthful narrative, I have tried to expose a conceptual obstacle in the path to reaching it. The point of doing so in the lecture I was, it is true, political. It was to press on my audience the question: “Do you think – as Hamas does – that justice requires that the Jews should from the outset have been and should continue to be mendicants for a way of living in Palestine that would be an expression of their sense of nationhood. Hamas, in fact, will not even grant that Jews who came after 1917 have a claim to live in there.

I come now to your claim that I am an anti-Muslim racist because I said in my lecture that if one goes by their words, one must conclude that millions of Muslims have a murderous hatred of Jews. Your remarks have made me realise that I should have expressed myself differently. I should have said that judging by the enthusiasm with which they greet the words of some of their politicians and religious leaders, one should conclude that millions of Muslims have a murderous hatred for the Jews because murderous hatred of the Jews is what they applaud. They do so in the Middle East, in Asia and in Europe. That does not, of course, mean that they will take matters into their own hands and kill Jews; not even the Germans did that during the years when Hitler ruled them. But they applaud the murder of Jews by suicide bombers and, again going by their cheers, would applaud the mass murder of Jews if Israel were to be seriously defeated in war. Perhaps their leaders and religious teachers don’t mean it. Perhaps their enthusiastic cheering means nothing much. Maybe it’s just show. If it is, then it’s an appalling show.

As I said in my previous response to you, I regard this as a factual matter. You might reply that racists always regard the stereotypes they profess to be factual claims, which is true. But racists always hold a number of hostile stereotypes about the groups they denigrate and they allow only token exceptions. I have no generally hostile beliefs about Muslims and given that you might reasonably have assumed that I also believe that millions of Muslims do not hate Jews (the Muslim population across the globe is well over a billion), you might with only a little of the respect for other human beings that you deny that show to the Palestinians, have assumed that I am mistaken or given to hyperbole rather than that I am a racist. Given that you have not the slightest grounds for believing the latter rather than the former, I will continue to ask for an apology. As for your claim that I am ignorant, dishonest etc, I will let that pass as a regrettable expression of what appears to be your more or less permanent state of embattlement over Israel. I assumed that not even your most uncharitable readers would take seriously the idea that Alan Howe is my more plainspoken counterpart.

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