A truly fragile identity

Edward W. Said
March 2002

The Knesset debate over whether or not to include a poem by Mahmoud Darwish as an option (not a requirement) in the Israeli Hebrew school curriculum was about as peculiar and unreal an occasion as can be imagined. That a government could be threatened with a no-confidence motion simply because a poem by a non-Israeli poet might or might not be included in what is an overwhelmingly Hebrew-Jewish-Israeli intellectual diet is a bizarre occurrence. For what after all was being threatened if one poem by a Palestinian was to be read? The first thing that comes to mind of course is some sort of mental or spiritual pollution (remember Shimon Peres's recent Davos remark that Israel is a clean island in a sea of pollution) which is very much an obsession in the Israeli collective consciousness, as it was in classical Zionist ideology. "We are pure and they are disturbers of our purity," is the way one can put this astonishingly profound feeling of revulsion and fear towards the Other. Polls taken subsequent to the Knesset debate revealed that a majority of Israelis absolutely reject the idea of accepting any Palestinian literature, or any formal awareness of the Palestinian as a human being with a history and a narrative, within the narrow enclosure of the official Zionist mentality sanctioned by education.

I cannot imagine nor do I know of any other situation resembling this one anywhere else in the contemporary world. One hears a lot about Islamic orthodoxy and the excesses of Taliban ideology; but while most Western liberals -- Jewish or not, as the case may be -- assume a certain openness of attitude towards the Other everywhere else on earth, for some reason Israel's peculiar attitude, as embodied in its Basic Laws, its punitive attitudes towards non-Jews (regarding return and land-holding, for example), and its hysterical theories of "security," is mysteriously exempt from comment. All the Western liberals, Jewish as well as non-Jewish, who had so much to say about Islamic intolerance during the debate over the Salman Rushdie fatwa have not opened their mouths today about the attacks on Yossi Sarid and Mahmoud Darwish. I read no commentary in the New York Times suggesting that the notion of reading a poem by a "different" author was tantamount to catastrophe, nor any sage advice to Israeli extremists to moderate their furor. To the best of my knowledge, the totally bizarre debate itself was reported without any comment, as if it was the most natural thing in the world for the citizens and legislators of a supposedly advanced Western democracy to treat a mere poem by someone not belonging to the minority as a supreme existential threat to the majority identity. We live after all in the 21st century, with e-mails, newspapers, faxes and innumerable communications bombarding our awareness on a second-by-second basis. Why this hysterical reaction by Israelis, and what kind of fragile identity is in question here that it cannot tolerate even the notion -- only the notion -- of a poem by a Palestinian?

What first comes to mind of course is not the famous insecurity that generations of onlookers in the Arab world and elsewhere have been taught by Israeli and American policy makers lies at the core of the Israeli identity. Real insecurity would have bred curiosity, a willingness at least to explore and look into the possibility suggested by Yossi Sarid's idea that it might be a good idea for Israeli schoolchildren to read a poem by a Palestinian, if only because after almost 50 years of denying the existence of a Palestinian people official Zionism has finally come round to accepting the possibility. Why not then read a mere poem as a gesture of understanding, if not quite accepting? The vehement rejection of Sarid's notion in the Knesset was hysterical anger, not insecurity, as if for the first time an Israeli had dared open what had been decided years and years ago was a closed book, never to be examined, read, or even talked about. Such rejectionism is hysterical: there can be no other word.

What did Darwish's poem in fact threaten? Basically, it allowed the possibility that for an Israeli consciousness maybe the actual existence of a Palestinian was an admissible thing, not as a terrorist, nor as a "peace partner" but as a real human being with a history, presence, and language that had an existence independent of Israel, that is, independent of the various mental barriers that official Israeli ideology had placed around the Palestinian presence mentally and in fact, on the West Bank and in Gaza, where settlements are surrounded by protective roads, hills, barbed wire emplacements, fortifications. But this other Palestinian presence, not enclosed and confined, turned out in fact to be forbidden, not allowed to exist because its presence disturbed the supposedly official Israeli consciousness. It is to the credit of several Knesset members that they tried to make this point rationally and humanely... to no avail.

Looked at more closely, however, this Israeli consciousness is itself more of a negative than a positive thing. To be Israeli is to be a Jew, but to be a Jew is hard, if not impossible to define since to be a Jew seems like a whole series of negative things such as not-Arab, not-Muslim, not-goyish, and so on. When it came to the definition of Jewishness, there has been broad disagreement, as Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform tendencies each had its own ideas. In the real world of identities outside Zionist ideology, an identity can never really be threatened with non-existence by another identity since as a matter of definition no identity exists all alone in the world. The French identity is surrounded by German, English, Spanish, Swedish identities etc., each of them an aspect of the human-historical world crowded with multiple beings and cultures and histories. Only Israel, it would seem according to its strenuously chauvinist defenders, needs to feel itself as existing alone, different and apart from all other identities, all of which must be removed in time and space so as to allow Israel to occupy all the relevant area to the exclusion of everything else.

In fine, what the Darwish debate revealed was a profound instability, if not vacancy at the heart of Israeli identity, an emptiness where there should have been a sense of plenitude and confidence after 52 years of military ascendancy and social affirmation. And this in turn reveals the major problem facing Israel today, namely, the question of Jewish identity itself, which has been left behind by the events of the past half century. In this negligence Israel's friends are complicit for having allowed their own guilt over Western Christian anti-Semitism to ignore the sheer anachronisms and anomalies that Israel has practiced with regard to itself, as well as over both its Jewish and non-Jewish citizens. No state on earth can survive normally when it is not the state of its citizens but the state of something so vague and so general as "the entire Jewish people wherever they may be." Israel has equated modern identity not with actual live people, with rights and obligations, but with a vast collectivity with no limits either in the past, the present, or the future: thus land held in trust by the Jewish Agency for the whole Jewish people in perpetuity is not a formula for political life but an evasion of political life, which will soon catch up with reality. Indeed a recent Israeli Supreme Court ruling acknowledges that fact by permitting an Israeli Palestinian to buy land in a previously restricted area. The point is, however, that the whole issue of identity has been postponed too long and by too many senseless compromises with reality for it to be dealt with rationally. Hence, the surprising, and completely disproportionate furor over the mere reading of a Palestinian poem.

What is most worrisome, however, is that the current peace process in effect enshrines Israeli attitudes about identity rather than forcing compromises on them. Israelis who feel that there will be a Palestinian state at the end of the road are, like Yasser Arafat, blind to the fact that in all essential features this "state" has no real meaning at all except as a furtherance of Israeli dominion. True independence and self-determination for the Palestinian people is a condition of genuine equality between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs rather than the apartheid that is being projected now as a result of negotiations among Jews rather than between Palestinians and Israelis. But equality can only be based on the principle of equal identity, which itself has to have the positive content of an open tolerance both of oneself and of the Other. And this, alas, is completely lacking in Israel, where Jewishness is basically negative and mysterious as the Knesset debate quite unequivocally revealed. That the media today is full of references to the enormous amount of new military aid being promised Israel in return for a Golan withdrawal suggests, sadly, that we are still very far from challenging Israeli premises about the actualities of existential identity in the real world of human beings, history and geography. I wonder, though, how many Israelis really believe that this dreadful irrationality is in their best interests. It cannot possibly be, and it therefore behooves Arabs as well as Israelis to submit this primitive and finally unacceptable mind-set to true intellectual critique. Otherwise the prospects of anything resembling normal life for all of us are very dim indeed.

A footnote: how many Arabs today feel that their identity is clear and positive? Haven't we also allowed irrational xenophobia to inhibit clear thought on the issue? But that is a question for another occasion.


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