This is another in what I hope to be a month long series of aphoristic (ἀφορισμός) essays, meant to provoke thought rather than explain it. The hope is that, built up on each other, the series will provide a matrix of thoughts that together might lead the reader in new directions. Though each can be read independently of the others, they are intended to be read together and against each other.
With the start of the Obama Administration, the American state apparatus again commences yet another round of the struggle to manage the problem of Israel and Palestine to some sort of conclusion acceptable to the Europeans, Russians, Muslims and Americans. See, Hillary Clinton in the Middle East: All Charm, and Smiles, With Just that Faint Hint of Menace, The Economist, March 5, 2009 ("As the emissary of a new president ostensibly still in “listening mode”, Hillary Clinton was politesse personified during her first swing as secretary of state through the Middle East this week."). After over half a century the issue of the legitimacy of a state controlled by Jews is still in doubt. Much is written about the intransigence of the Jews before the logic of this or that plan put before them to which they must, it seems, accede, to win even a grudging acceptance of the possibility of legitimate assertion of sovereign rights over a fixed territory. One might wonder--in the face of this apparently universal decision on the framework for fixing the problem of Israel--why Israel remains unconvinced.
The issue, I suspect, is one of legitimacy--not of Israel by the world community, as is commonly assumed -- but rather of the world community by Israel. To understand the nature of this lack of legitimacy in the eyes of Israel offered by generations of well meaning Europeans, Americans, Muslims, and Russians, one needs to acquire a bit of empathy for their long view perspective of their new found global helpmates. How Israel views the world might well be a key to how it judges the legitimacy of any solution proffered. The problem, though, is that the West may not quite understand the filters (of the West's own making) through which Israel might judge especially European and Russian sincerity. And there is no better source for understanding this than one of the great representatives of modern progressive rational Western thought--Voltaire.
It is surprising that there should remain any Jews. . . . The Jews never ad any country to themselves since the time of Vespasian, except some hamlets of Arabia Felix towards the Red Sea. Mahomet was at first obliged to keep terms with them. But he at length destroyed the little dominion which they had established north of Mecca. It is from the time of Mahomet that they have actually ceased to exist as a body of people.Voltaire, The Philosophy of History, "Of the Jews After Saul" reprinted in The Works of Voltaire 368, 429 (Roslyn, NY: Walter J. Black, Inc., 1927) (1735) (the work was dedicated ironically enough to Catherine II, Czarina of all the Russias and a great fan). Whether liberal or conservative, religious or progressive, there appears to be a cultural sense of the anachronism that is Jewry (I prefer to use the ancient term for the ancient sentiment) from out of Europe and the Middle East. Sadly, these ideas continue to thrive within certain influential circles in Europe and the dar al-Islam. And, of course, at the forefront of these efforts at exploitation, assimilation or destruction have been the states that now make up the so called Quartet who have taken on the task of managing a solution to the problem of Israel in the Middle East (United Nations, Russian Federation, European Union and United States).
Thus the problem. It is not clear, from the perspective of Israel, that the Quartet represents anything other than a continuation of the old Euro-Islamic efforts at containment, assimilation, exploitaiton and annihilation. And there is little to suggest that, beyond the United States, much has changed in the attitudes of the States now seeking to intervene in the management of the Israeli-Palestinian ethno-religious wars. Where these great nations speak the language of modern management of conflict, the Israelis may hear the voice of Voltaire., or that of the great traditional religious leaders whose views on the necessity of a subaltern stratus for Jews as a religious necessity for a people superseded by others, is essential. Where the well meaning speak of even handedness, Israel might hear subterfuge.
Yet this is an age of empathy. While there is much, and well deserved, empathy, for the peoples of that territory that will eventually emerge as Palestine, there remains the usual consternation with the Jews. Only recently publicly abandoning centuries of efforts to exploit or destroy the Jews, it is hardly surprising that the voices of Europe, Russia and the dar al-Islam is viewed with suspicion and little legitimacy. Thus, it is no wonder that what sounds well meaning to the West, has the ring of annihilation in Jerusalem. But the expectation of acceptance of this situation by the Jews
To interpret this perception as mere Holocaust exceptionalism, a common enough stance, is to expect legitimacy constructed out of whole cloth--or the payment of compensation for the latest round of the management fo the Jewish problem. Yet Voltaire is lurking there as well in the efforts that may appear to be a false and presumptuous legitimacy. While somewhat disconcerting when applied in this manner, these ideas are banal and well accepted enough when clothed in the 20th century discourse of post colonialism, not merely deployed in the service of Palestinian identity, but also in the service of Jewish identity within Israel. See, e.g., Ann Laura Stoler, Carnal Knowledge and imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002); Boaventura de Sousa Santos Toward a New Legal Common Sense (2nd ed.; London: LexisNexis Butterworths, 2002). Indeed, both Jewish Israel and Palestinian, in their own ways, appear to be the ultimate post colonial subaltern, each within its own sphere and against different sets of actors that might seek to control them. See, e.g., Systematic discrimination faces Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, World Socialist Web Site, May 15, 2008; Lebanon: End Illegal Discrimination Against Palestinians Says Amnesty, IRIN, October 17, 2007.
History in this sense continues to breed perversity. Until the problem of legitimacy is solved, the management of the situation in the Middle East will remain fluid, and mere legalities will provide no basis for solution. But legitimacy is now something substantially more complex--the legitimacy if Israel as a state, the legitimacy of historically and institutionally pathologically Jew hating states that now constitute the European Union and the Russian Federation to serve as honest brokers, the legitimacy of political action grounded solely in fears of Christianity (the Crusades redux) or the re-establishment of a people superseded in accordance with a certain interpretation of divine command, and so on.
Legions of diplomats seek to develop confidence building measures between Israelis and Palestinians. For them this is enough to foster a manageable solution to the political problems between them. And perhaps it will be sufficient, for that limited purpose. But the greater problem of legitimacy, in the context of political, religious, cultural and social interventions, may continue to make even that limited solution elusive. Voltaire, it seems, perhaps describes the conundrum best.