Thursday, January 22, 2009

A terrible shame.


by Leonard Stern

The reason for the latest fighting in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, so we're told, easy enough to understand: Palestinians in the Gaza strip have been firing rockets across the border into Israel, and Israel has gone in to stop them.

But what really is this about? Israel evacuated Gaza three years ago, so that Gaza could eventually become part of a new Palestinian state. Israel didn't want anything to do with Gaza; couldn't wait to leave the place. Why would Palestinian Arabs engage in a national suicide project and start raining crude rockets on Israel, bringing grief to themselves and delaying the emergence of their independent state?

Richard Landes could have the answer. A professor at Boston University, Mr. Landes last year published a provocative take on the Israeli-Arab conflict. He argues that Palestinian behaviour toward Israel makes little sense until we understand the role of "honour and shame in Arabic culture."

Mr. Landes notes that to westerners, Arab rejectionism - the refusal to acknowledge or accept Israel's existence - seems both irrational and self-destructive. But that's because we in the West believe that conflict between Israelis and Palestinians derives "from a calculus of rights and wrongs" that can be negotiated - for example, swapping land for peace.

What if the conflict is something else entirely from the Palestinian point of view? What if it derives "from a calculus of honour and shame" and thus is not amenable to negotiation but instead can be resolved only "in victory over the humiliating enemy"?

A historian, Mr. Landes argues that outsiders do not appreciate just what a profound symbol of humiliation Israel is to its Arab-Muslim neighbours. For 13 centuries, "Islam had only known the Jews as a subject people … living in exile, forced to live by the laws and at the whim of foreign rulers and kings." To be confronted in the 20th century with an independent Jewish state in the Muslim Middle East was unbearable.

It was bad enough that over the generations Islam had already lost ground at the frontiers of its dominion, in Spain, the Balkans and India. But the Middle East, too? As Mr. Landes puts it, what could be more humiliating than "to lose territory at the heart of Islam, not to a great and worthy foe (the Christian West, hundreds of millions of Hindus), but to a tiny people without honour" - the dispossessed Jews.

It doesn't matter that the modern state of Israel occupies barely a sliver of the Middle East or that its Jewish inhabitants claim ancestral, indeed indigenous rights. In 1948 the Arab armies attacked anyway, but were repulsed. Same thing in 1967. The repeated Arab defeats compounded the humiliation.

This humiliation expresses itself in the dysfunctional behaviours of Arab leaders, such as denial (refusing to recognize or even speak the name "Israel") and the emergence of ingrained conspiracy theories to explain Israel's military victories.

"Not recognizing Israel is a fundamental, one might even say dogmatic form of denial, denial that the Arabs were defeated by a tiny subject people, denial of a catastrophic loss of face," writes Mr. Landes.

"As long as the Arab world does not recognize Israelhonour can still be salvaged. The war continues, the defeat goes unregistered, and the hope of restoring face by wiping out the humiliation can still dominate public discussion."

If Mr. Landes is right about the Arabic culture of honour and shame, it's hard to see how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will resolve. As a western society, Israel has always expected that peace will be achieved through negotiation and compromise. But shame cultures operate on a zero-sum principle. "Any victory for Israel is a defeat for the Arab and Muslim nation," writes Mr. Landes.

A compromise that accepts Israel will make permanent the humiliation of its Arab neighbours.

The Palestinian decision to fire rockets into Israel, while insane from our western perspective, takes on a certain logic. Every homemade Qassam rocket is a symbol of Arab honour. As long as one single rocket launcher remains operational, the Palestinians get to pretend that Israel is but a temporary blight on the Muslim Middle East.

Mr. Landes essay was written before the current troubles in Gaza but it couldn't be more timely. Interested readers can find it in the valuable new book Postcolonial Theory and the Arab-Israel Conflict, one of whose editors is McGill University anthropologist Philip Carl Salzman.

A final point: Analyzing the Middle East through an anthropological lens is a sensitive business. Mr. Landes warns that in some academic quarters it is taboo to discuss the role of Arab honour and shame, and doing so invites accusations of "cultural racism."

That's unfortunate. For six decades Israel has been under siege. If this conflict were an ordinary geo-political one it would have been fixed a long time ago - but it isn't and it hasn't, and it's important to ask why.

LEONARD STERN is the Citizen's editorial pages editor.

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.


 Richard Landes and Philip Carl Salzman are members of the SPME Board of Directors and Postcolonial Theory and the Arab-Israel Conflict (Routledge, 2008) was the resultant publication from an SPME Conference at Case Western Reserve University in 2005.


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