In Ramallah I was part of an e-learning teaching team from Oslo and Akershus University College. In Jerusalem I was a tourist. The visit brought the personal aspects of the conflict very close. The notes below is an effort to put the immediate experiences into a wider context.
The conflict centered on Palestine has been a concern to the world community since 1947/48. It has been a part of my own political landscape since 1956.
I discovered the Middle East conflict in 1956, when Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal. This was in the early days of decolonization. India, Pakistan and Indonesia had achieved independence a few years earlier.
In Kenya, a violent struggle against British rule – the Mau-Mau rebellion lasted from 1952 to 1956. The Bandung Conference (Wp) was held in 1955. The terrible war for the liberation of Algeria from had started in 1954.
Norway became a single country around 900 CE. It remained independent for five hundred years. After that, we spent four hundred years under the Danish and ninety years under the Swedish king. The country separated from Sweden in 1905.
In Norway, most people took the colonial system for granted. Our own past as a semi-colony tends to be forgotten. At my school (I was 14 at the time) Nasser was seen as a trouble maker. The invasion of Egypt by Israel, France and Great Britain was widely supported. Communism and the Soviet Union was the real threat. France and Great Britain were our allies in NATO. Nasser upset the status quo.
But there was something wrong in the argument, I felt. How could France and Great Britain claim not just ownership, but sovereignty, over the canal zone? I started to read about the history behind the canal. The conclusion surprised me: by ordinary standards of legality and justice, Egypt was in the right.
It is impossible to write about Palestine and Israel, Jews and Arabs, as a neutral observer. Whatever one says will be disputed by somebody. The best one can do, I believe, is to try to be clear and consistent and to remain open for dialogue.
By dialogue I mean an effort to share one’s views openly, to listen with interest and to be willing to learn (about) new facts and perspectives. By consistency I mean a basic principle of rationality: to apply the same rules to cases that are similar.
The first difficulty lies with the words we use. What should I call this conflict?
I cannot understand this as conflict between Jews and Arabs or between Israel and Palestine. Who is a Jew? Different Jewish groups and authorities have rather different answers. Who is an Arab? Here there are no authorities at all.
Israel is a multi-ethnic country. There are 1.4 million Muslim, Christian and non-religious Palestinian Arabs living in Israel. There are more than a hundred thousand Druze (Wp) – a religion that split from Shia Islam a thousand years ago. There are maybe 160 thousand Negev Bedouins (Wp). There are hundreds of thousands of non-Arab Christians, agnostics and atheists, especially from the recent Russian aliya (immigration wave).
The demographic composition of Israel is changing. The number of non-Jews is increasing. This is partly due to immigration and partly to the high birth rates in the Arab minority. The Law of Return grants every Jew the right to immigrate. In 1970, the Knesset amended the law to include any person with at least one Jewish grandparent. After 1989 more than a million people from the (disappearing) Soviet Union emigrated to Israel. In the early 1990s, a quarter of these immigrants were not Jewish. Since 2000, two thirds were non-Jewish.
From a military and economic point of view, Israel has the upper hand. From a political and demographic point of view, Palestine is gaining. This is a process that must be measured in decades and generations rather than in years.
Picture: Israeli forces training in Greece. Source: IDF.
In the Middle East, Israel has been a modern industrial democracy surrounded by backward and autocratic Arab states. The modernization of the Arab world changes this pattern. Israel becomes more ordinary.
In one or two decades China will replace the United States as the greatest economic power. The links between Jews in Israel and Jews in the US will remain strong, I am sure (Appendix A). But the relationship between Israel and the United States will become less important on the world scene.
Palestine is not a state. It lives in a legal vacuum. Gaza and the West Bank has a certain degree of “home rule”, but under strict control by Israel and the United States. The Palestinian Authority gets most of its income from money collected by Israel. Israel also controls the flow of goods and workers at the main border – and decides when and where to expropriate land for new settlements. In addition, the Authority is dependent on aid from the US. Obama’s latest message is: if you apply to the Security Council for statehood, we will cut the aid.
So I end up by calling it the Palestinian conflict or a conflict about Palestine: roughly the area north of Egypt, west of Jordan and south of Syria and Lebanon. This is not a conflict between two independent states. It is not a conflict between two religions. It is not a conflict between two ethnic groups. It is a conflict between many different ethnic and political communities about the future of Palestine.
There are two main parties, currently represented by the State of Israel and the Palestine Authority. But the two parties are themselves deeply divided. The election victory of Hamas in Gaza exemplify the division on the Palestinian side.
The two extreme views look simple:
- the whole of Palestine should be a Jewish state, with Hebrew as the national language and Judaism as the official religion
- the whole of Palestine should be an Arab state, with Arabic as the national language and Islam as the official religion
The moment I try to imagine their actual implementation, things get very complicated, however. These ideas are not political proposals, but phantasies driven by anger, despair and religious visions. The Jews that want (1) and the Muslims that want (2) can not offer plausible scenarios on the ground.
Two states or one?
The Oslo Process and the International Road Map are based on the idea of two states in Palestine. But what kind of state?
The current Israeli government asks the Palestinians to accept a Jewish state. The very concept worries me. It Jewish refers to Judaism, I am definitely opposed. To cope with diversity and change, modern states need to be secular. Iran is not a good model. I do not want a Lutheran Norway, a Catholic Ireland, an Orthodox Greece, a Buddhist Sri Lanka or an Islamic Egypt. In democracies, religious bodies should not have an ultimate political authority. Jews and Muslims should have the same standing as everybody else.
If Jewish refers to ethnic identity in a wider sense, similar problems crop up. States can de facto be dominated by one (self-identified) ethnic group. Norway 1950 and today’s Somalia are good examples. But demographies are not stable. In Norway, the number of immigrants has increased from two to ten percent. In Oslo, first and second generation immigrants constitute one quarter of the population.
In the past, minorities could be expelled or forcibly integrated. Jews have been exposed to forced relocations, forced conversions or worse throughout their history. In the 21st century that is much less feasible. Voluntary migrations are accepted. But in general we accept that people have a right to live were they have been born and raised. In Sri Lanka, a large percentage of the plantation Tamils were expatriated back to India in 1964, but a considerable number were left as stateless people. By 1990’s most of these have been given Sri Lankan citizenship (Wp).
While the diplomats talk, Israel expands its presence on the West Bank. The longer this process lasts, the more difficult it will be to create a viable Palestinian entity. Israel fears for its security. It will only accept a controlled and dependent state as its neighbour, it seems.
Wp: The “one-state solution” refers to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the creation of a unitary, federal or confederate Israeli-Palestinian state encompassing all of the present territory of Israel, the West Bank including East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. … This scenario is being discussed not as an intentional political solution – desired or undesired – but as the probable, inevitable outcome of the continuous growth of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the apparently irrevocable entrenchment of Israel’s presence in the Israeli-occupied territories.
Sociology and identity
From a sociological point of view, nations are imagined communities. Ethnicities are not substances. Being Norwegian or Israeli or Jewish or Palestinian is something we practice. Practices can be changed. By that we change our identities. I can swear allegiance to another state, another religion, another identity group.
Some groups are positive to conversion. Others see conversion as betrayal. The early Christians converted from Judaism to Christianity. The Druzes split from Shia Islam. It happens rarely, but people can become Jews by conversion. Efforts to fuse cultural or religious identities with political power undermines citizenship, which is the basis for civil government. Lebanon is not a good model.
In politics, such ideas have little power. Most people experience their identities as fixed, strong and immoveable. Most groups speak about religious or ethnic groups as if they have a stable and definite character of their own. But if we go back in time, all groups have a genealogy. Historians speak about ethnogenesis (Wp):
Ethnogenesis (from the Greek ethnos ἔθνος, “group of people” or “nation“, and genesis γέννησις, “origin, birth”, pl. ethnogeneses) is the process by which a group of human beings comes to be understood or to understand themselves as ethnically distinct from the wider social landscape from which their grouping emerges.
- Rosenthal, Donna. The Israelis. Ordinary people in an extraordinary land. New York: Free Press, 2008 (2003). – 482 s.
- PL 56/11: Twitter in Palestine
- PL 55/11: A bridge from T to N
- P 54/11: Outside the box. Be the change that you want to see (Gandhi)
- P 53/11: LATINA readings 2011. Intense debate about education and the Web.
- P 52/11: The web and the galaxy. Planning LATINA Fall in Palestine
Wp: The North American Jewish Data Bank has tried to estimate the number of people who consider themselves Jews, whatever their religious affiliation. In 2010, according to this report, about 42% of all Jews reside in Israel (5.70 million), and about 42% in the United States (5.28 million) and Canada (0.38 million), with most of the remainder living in Europe (1.46 million) (Wp: Jews).
According to Nusseibeh President of Al-Quds University], the Palestinians have repeatedly recognized the State of Israel as Jewish in the 1993 Oslo Accords. He also claims that that the demand for a Jewish State was not part of the Balfour Declaration or the First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897.
“Today, however, demands for a ‘Jewish State’ from Israeli politicians are growing without giving thought to what this might mean,” he writes. “The idea is logically and morally problematic because of its legal, religious, historical and social implications.”
Nusseibeh then goes on to explain those implications, which he says most Israelis will not accept. First, he says, “The term ‘Jewish’ can be applied both to the ancient race of Israelites and their descendants, as well as to those who believe in and practice the religion of Judaism. These generally overlap, but not always. For example, some ethnic Jews are atheists.”
“Second, a modern nation-state being defined by one ethnicity or one religion is problematic in itself. The modern nation-state as such is a temporal and civic institution, and no state in the world is – or can be in practice – ethnically or religiously homogenous.”
“Third, recognition of Israel as a ‘Jewish state’ implies that Israel is, or should be, either a theocracy (if we take the word ‘Jewish’ to apply to the religion of Judaism) or an apartheid state (if we take the word ‘Jewish’ to apply to the ethnicity of Jews), or both, and in all of these cases, Israel is then no longer a democracy.”
Nusseibeh’s fourth reason relates to statistics showing that 20% of Israel’s population are Arab. “Recognizing Israel as a ‘Jewish State’ makes one-fifth of the population automatically strangers in their own native land.” This, he says, opens the door to reducing them to second-class citizens or even stripping them of their rights.
“So, rather than demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as a ‘Jewish State’ we offer the suggestion that Israeli leaders ask instead that Palestinians recognize Israel (proper) as a civil, democratic, and pluralistic state whose official religion is Judaism and whose majority is Jewish.
TH: Whether Israel has a Jewish majority or not, is a statistical question. Demographic processes can be guided, but not controlled. Efforts to do so tend to violate basic human rights. With time, any group can become a minority. From a historical point of view, Judaism has a special relationship with the State of Israel. That can be recognized.
“This is a reasonable demand, and it may allay the fears of Jewish Israelis about becoming a minority in Israel, and at the same time not arouse fears among Palestinians and Arabs about being ethnically cleansed in Palestine.”
The Srima-Shastri pact of 1964 and Indira-Sirimavo supplementary agreement of 1974 paved the way for the repatriation of 600,000 persons of Indian origin to India. Another 375,000 persons were to accepted as citizens of Sri Lanka, which made them enter the polity. These repatriation agreements were the harbingers of the destruction of this community, which had evolved into a composite group with a distinct culture of its own.
The overwhelmingly urban concentration of Jewish populations globally is shown by the fact that in 2010 more than half (52.5 percent) of world Jewry lived in only five metropolitan areas.23 These areas—including the main cities and vast urbanized territories around them—were Tel Aviv, New York, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and Haifa (Table 5). Over two-thirds (67.5 percent) of world Jewry lived in the five previous areas plus the South Florida, Be’er Sheva, San Francisco, Paris, Chicago, and Philadelphia areas. The 24 largest metropolitan concentrations of Jewish population encompassed 80.2 percent of all Jews worldwide.
World Jewish Population 2010. p. 20