Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Wrong and Wronger

As empires old in the tooth tottered and died, nation states started to spring up across the world during the nineteenth century. In many cases and in the Old World in particular, this process was accompanied by ethnic cleansing of an often unpleasant kind. 

The scale of this has frequently been much larger than anything that happened to both Jews and Arabs in the Middle East after World War Two. One only has to consider the likes of India and Pakistan, Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria and of course, Poland. 

Our present fixation with the conflicting national aspirations in the Middle East — typically still struggling to transcend multiple prior imperial projects, western and not so western — emerges out of three phenomena.

1) The undoubtedly bloated geopolitical significance of the region.

2) Antisemitism and other forms of twisted chauvinism.

3) Extremist ideology, particularly of the anti-western kind, which assumes both anti-capitalist and anti-liberal forms. 

Any opinions which appear to spout exclusively from an alternative source are, in my experience, often rather contrived. Or blinkered, either accidentally or on purpose. 

Arabs are from Arabia not Israel. Israelites are from Israel not Arabia. That was the starting point for post-imperial ethnic cleansing on both sides. 

The numbers were broadly similar, some 600,000 people displaced each way. Relatively small compared to the 10m Germans forced to abandon their homes in the east, but significant...just not as significant as everyone seems to need to believe today. 

Contrary to what the Pro-Pal marchers chant, Arabs have no fundamental historical business to be in Israel. They are colonial cultural leftovers like white Dutch-speaking people at the base of Africa.

This does not of course mean that they ought to be ethnically cleansed. Nationalism has to be inclusive and tolerant, not only of diversity, but also of the often strange twists of history that engendered it. 

Nevertheless, I generally struggle to sympathise with the Arabs' sense of injustice over what happened in Israel at the end of Ottoman rule, and this goes beyond any inability to plug into any of the three above-mentioned standard sources of opinion on the matter.

Instead, it all comes down to the fact that I cannot get over the way that they refused a perfectly good deal in 1947, an opportunity to coexist peacefully, sharing in the post-colonial, nationalist future. (Not all chose violence and genocide of course. 1 in 5 Israelis today is an Arab Muslim.)

The Jews had been willing to attempt to build a nation state made up initially of a quite a diverse range of citizens, 40% of whom were not Jewish. But the Arabs would not compromise. They wanted the whole territory and to impose their own political and cultural vision on it, and they duly attempted to do so, violently, and lost.

There is just no getting around this. Almost everything which has happened since is surely a consequence, and I find it tiresome to listen to people obstinately re-positioning any future re-conquest as 'freedom', as if there were no blame at all to be attributed to their own past attitudes and actions.

Even Amos Oz's famous remark that at the start of the conflict both sides were right and now they are both wrong, fails to acknowledge that in 1947 the side which chose war was emphatically wronger.

And the creeping wrongness of the ideological positions on both sides today undoubtedly stems from that wholesale introduction of ethnic animus into the equation which, as I said, has been all too familiar in the formation of nation states.

Chauvinsitic nationalism is like a river which along its course always picks up so much sediment that unpleasant murkiness is almost a natural consequence of the flow, but ultimately, the levels of toxicity are at least partially under human control, or so I would contend. 

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, each nationalism has a heaven and a hell in it. 

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