Archive for November 2010
This review was written for Holy Land Studies.
M. Shahid Alam’s latest book “Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilising Logic of Zionism” is a fascinating historical analysis, densely detailed and referenced, of the nature and trajectory of Jewish nationalism. It is bracingly honest, dispensing with the usual Western pieties to describe three elements of what Edward Said called Israel’s “ideology of difference.” These are, firstly, the notion of Jewish chosenness and divine right to Palestine; secondly, the ‘miraculous’ creation and survival of the state; and thirdly, the uniquely tragic history of the Jewish people.
Many studies have deconstructed the first two myths. Less attention has been lavished on countering the third, the “lachrymose historiography” of the Jews (in Salo Baron’s words) and its employment to neutralise criticism of the Zionist project. Alam argues persuasively that Zionism was not simply a response to virulent anti-Semitism but also, crucially, the result of Jewish power.
Until the rise of fascism, the trend of Jewish involvement in modern Europe was one of phenomenal success. This is despite recurring episodes of anti-Semitism, particularly in the east. The European Jewish population increased more than tenfold in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (the general population increase was by a factor of 3.3). In the same period, Jews moved into the West’s urban power centres. Ironically, anti-Semitic discrimination had “endowed the Jews disproportionately with those assets that would give them vital advantages in Europe’s emerging capitalist societies.” By the early 19th Century, Jews owned 30 of 52 private banks in Berlin. In Vienna in 1900, 62% of lawyers, half the doctors and over half the journalists were Jews. An important strata of Jews now had both money and access to political and cultural elites.
I met Gazmend Kapllani, a Greek of Albanian origin, during a recent visit to Germany (for a British Council ‘Our Shared Europe’ conference). He’s a great conversationalist, so I was pleased when he promised to send me one of his books. A Short Border Handbook arrived this morning. I took it back to bed, planning to read the blurb and perhaps the first chapter before adding it to my enormous pile of books-to-be-read. But I read the whole thing in one go.
It’s not a novel but it feels like one, because it’s so lightly yet densely written, full of stories and humour and therefore with a texture more human than journalistic. Part autobiography, part fiction, part philosophy, Kapllani’s book reminds us that a migrant, unlike a tourist, is the weak pole in relation to his host society, and that the weak are never respected, however hard they work. The Handbook’s general ruminations are applicable to any migrant, but it also addresses very specifically the conditions in Albania in the 1990s which forced so many people to move.
It has the following to say about Enver Hoxha. Examples of other fallen dictators will leap into readers’ minds:
Whatever the Western media calls them, the illegal Jewish settlements on the West Bank are very far from being outposts. They are connected to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv by fast, Jews-only motorways. Their villas have swimming pools and lawns (a settler is allocated eight times more water than a Palestinian). Even the most recent and farflung of settlements are tooled-up enough to intimidate the Arabs on whose land they encroach.
It’s the Palestinian villages which feel like outposts, although some have been settled for thousands of years. Even when they’re close to major cities they are vulnerable, intermittently cut-off, and surrounded by wolves (or boars).
An example is Iraq Burin, a mountain-top village just a kilometre from Nablus but one trapped behind a checkpoint. Not only are the villagers unable to access city shops and services, they face violent harrassment from soldiers and armed men from the nearby Bracha settlement.
There’s an unarmed ‘popular’ struggle against land confiscation being waged here. It involves weekly demonstrations which are met by tear gas and sometimes bullets (in March two teenagers were killed). Similar protests are held in villages all over the West Bank, most famously in Bil’in, Nil’in and Budrus.
Me chewing the fat with Ken Livingstone and Nadifa Mohamed.
more after the break..
With different pictures, and very slightly edited, this was published at al-Jazeera’s website.
Nablus is built over deep wells on the narrow valley floor between Mount Jarizeem and Mount Aybaal. Its alleyways brim with ground coffee and spices, abrupt wafts of aniseed, plus honied tobacco bubbling from the argilehs, meat vaporising on the grills, traffic fumes, baking odours, pavement rubbish, and dust. By day there’s plenty of friendly Arab noise; by night barks and cock crows take over. Although this is a city of over 130,000 people, everybody seems to know everybody else. Deeper than that, there’s a connecting air of solidarity.
The intricate Old City, and the view of the ochre mountainside, reminded me of Damascus. In fact, Nablus used to be known as Little Damascus. Before Messrs. Sykes, Picot and Balfour chopped up the world, there was a trade route from Nablus (the West Bank) via Irbid (Jordan) to Damascus (Syria). Nabulsis and Damascenes intermarried. In Syria today the famous sweet knafeh is known simply as nabulsiyeh, the Nablus thing.
Nablus is also famed for its delicious olive oil soap. Although local bedazzlement by ‘modern’ products and (mainly) the obstructions of Israeli occupation have shrunk the industry, factories still operate in the Old City, sourcing their oil from the semi-besieged villages in the nearby hills.
These days life is a little easier than it has been. Palestinians can get to Ramallah fairly fast. They can’t get to Jerusalem (or Gaza, or Haifa) but they can benefit from some of the EU/ PA cash sloshing around if they’re lucky. They can even drive up to the Sama Nablus viewpoint and drink tea without being shot at from the military base above.
“Have you visited Afghanistan? Pakistan? Yemen? Do you have a weapon? Do you have a credit card? Give us your email address. Do you know anyone in Israel? Do you know anyone in Jordan? What is your novel about? What did you do yesterday?”
It only took an hour and a half to get through the border. They were closing early because it was Yom Kippur, yowm al-ghafran in Arabic, the Day of Atonement.
The driver who met me said he couldn’t go to Nablus, not now, it was getting too late, because the car had Israeli plates and settlers were throwing stones, he could take me to Ramallah instead, although it was further.
“Won’t we be alright with Israeli plates?”
“We need Palestinian plates. They’re throwing stones at Israeli cars because they don’t want Jews driving on the holiday.”
So we went to Ramallah, south through the West Bank. We drove down the confiscated Jordan valley. A couple of memorials to settlers shot here during the Second Intifada were set up at the roadside. To our east, closed military zones and then the hills of Jordan rising. To the west, ochre desert mountains and hardly any habitation.
I wrote to the Co-op to ask them to stop stocking Israeli goods. Their reply is below, followed by my reply to their reply. Readers, please feel free to adapt my letter, and send your own.
Thank you for your enquiry about the Co-operative’s stance on stocking products sourced from Israel.
His father used to work at the refinery, which was a good job. His father brought home a new toy every evening, that’s what Bilal remembers. Many of the toys are still at home, stuffed under his mother’s bed: speaking animals, racing cars, things that work if you have batteries.
Bilal thought his father had a round and jolly face, but this thought contradicted the stern, gaunt photograph framed on the living room wall. The photograph was a fact – unlike Bilal’s thought, which was only a thought, as vague and blurry at the edges as thoughts tend to be.
A couple of years ago, a long time now, his father had been arrested and taken away. This happened to a lot of people and was nothing much to cry about.
There was some confusion as to his father’s exact location. One aunt said he was in the local prison. One said he was in prison in the capital. His uncles squeezed his shoulder and said nothing at all.
One aunt said he was in heaven. When Bilal heard her he thought his father had been killed and he began to cry inconsolably. But his mother told him that that aunt was just upset and raving, that his father was in prison in the capital, and that Bilal would meet him again one day when he’d grown up and done something that his father could be really proud of. She said people don’t die in any case. And Bilal was consoled.
He was the oldest child, the only son, in a way the head of the household now. He bossed around his two sisters who were too little to obey him. He knew he bore responsibility for them and for his mother whose wages paid the rent on their flat but didn’t put food on the table. That was his job. But what he suffered in responsibility he regained in freedom.