Thursday, March 25, 2010

Palestinian Identity and the Jews of Israel

I've spent a lot of time with Palestinian Americans who grew up in the first intifada. Palestinians are not evil, they simply look at their reality and read the tea leaves. Palestinian culture, society, economy and polity cannot peacefully resist Israel, but more specifically the Jews of Israel. I write this not to pat ourselves on the back, but because it is the reality and the Palestinians feel it viscerally, desperately.

Jewish identity washes away the purpose of Palestinian existence. This is why the denial of Jewish origins is gaining so much strength in Palestinian and Arab circles. They have all these theories - the Torah is not the true Torah, we're really all Khazars or Turks or Russians, we're not the REAL Jews, look at our skin, our eyes, our hair... as though, if the REAL Jews came, they would relinquish the land without a question.

Palestinians in 1900 didn't question Jewish identity. They didn't think they had to - Jews were a defeated, vanquished people since 500 years before Islam. Not vanquished by the Romans; Arabs are too educated for such an explanation. Islam has an entire tradition about the the sins of Israel and the withdrawal of G-d's support for the Jews. In two thousands years, whoever conceived, in Arab lands, that the Jews, a nation of subjects, would become their own masters and reconstitute their nation in the Levant?

A secure, vibrant Israel means a renewal of traditional Jewish culture, combined with Western hypermodernity - remarkably, for Jews the two are not mutually exclusive. Palestinian society has been reeling under this dual pressure since masses of Jews first set foot in the Levant. Without their culture - particularly land culture - the Palestinians are just a bunch of nouris (Bedouins, a derogatory term - migrants without roots). This is not a war over religion, but identity, and identity is something no "peace process" or political agreement can secure.

I once had an extended conversation with a close Palestinian friend, who I trusted on these matters, about the Islamification of Palestinians. It's not just the youth, although it is most pronounced in the youth. You can see it in the clothing. The young women don't wear a traditional Palestinian head dress, like a smadeh, they opt for hijab. There is little to no interest in traditional embroidery or working the land; everyone wants to leave for the cities, Europe, etc. The ethics and values of a hard working, agrarian people are being swept aside.

The young are turning their back on traditional Palestinian culture. To them, to be a Palestinian is to be a failure. For that matter, with today's last gasps of Pan Arab nationalism, to be an Arab is to be a failure. They cannot synthesize tribal culture and modernity, and they are shamed by their backwardness. With Islam, there is hope. With Islam, they don't have to tie themselves to the land or to the tribe. Islam is a native, legitimate force. Islam can adapt to modernity, and Islam was always intended to holistically supplant local tribal culture anyway.

Without Palestinian culture, however, Palestinians have no connection to the land, and no reason to fight for it. Israel - the dual pressures of Jewish culture and modernity - is the attacker on Palestinian identity. Without violent resistance to Israel, the Palestinians will cease to exist.

Recent years have highlighted the insurmountable divisions within the Palestinian nationalist movement, and this has been the general focus of media coverage. What is rather more important, however, is the cross-generational continuity in overall Palestinian strategic thinking. Where in the Palestinian discourse is there discussion of the failure of 40 years of armed conflict, and another 60 years of communal violence before that? When has a prominent Palestinian voiced resignation to exist without "struggle"?

Whether "moderate" or "fundamentalist", Islamist or secular, the Palestinian leadership, for all its divisions and corruption, is committed to existential war against the Jews of Israel, in stages. On this, there is unity. This war is about identity. This war IS their identity.

Peace, partition and normalization will only quicken the loss of Palestinian identity. Perhaps that outcome will result in peace, but we should be honest about it, and prepare for the Palestinians to fight tooth and nail all the way to cultural extinction.

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