Perpetuating Historic Victimhood Breeds New Victims

by Alon Ben-Meir

A noted journalist and author, Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. His exceptional knowledge and insight, the result of more than 20 years of direct involvement in foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, has allowed Dr. Ben-Meir to offer a uniquely invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, conflict resolution and international negotiations. Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Ben-Meir's frequent travels to the Middle East and meetings with highly placed officials and academics in many Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Turkey provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news. Ben-Meir often articulates

Even a cursory review of the Israeli and Palestinian political landscape conspicuously and sadly reveals the overall self-resignation and apathy expressed by many on both sides, strongly suggesting that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is simply beyond resolution. The sorry truth is that while polls consistently show that a majority of Israelis and Palestinians believe that only the co-existence of two independent states offers a viable solution, they still refuse to divorce themselves from a deep sense of victimhood. Both parties continue to define themselves as historic victims, and to nourish a kind of vicarious victimhood which ultimately serves to justify the policies and goals they pursue, however counterproductive they may be to a solution.

The genocide perpetrated during the Holocaust was surely something new in history: never before had a powerful state turned its immense resources to the industrialized manufacturing of corpses; never before had the extermination of an entire people been carried out with the swiftness of an assembly line. The question, however, is: does the Jewish people’s unprecedented historical suffering somehow transform them from “victims” to “Victims,” guaranteeing them, and by extension the State of Israel, an unconditional status of moral untouchability? The French philosopher Alain Badiou is right to suggest that we need to question the presumption “that, like an inverted original sin, the grace of having been an incomparable victim can be passed down not only to descendants and to the descendants of descendants but to all who come under the predicate in question, be they heads of state or armies engaging in the severe oppression of those whose lands they have confiscated.” The Israelis’ sense of being Victims has led to a lack of empathy towards the Palestinians’ plight. It has further manifested itself through the usurpation of Palestinian land and a shirking of Israeli responsibility toward the refugee problem, all the while promoting self-righteousness. Israelis who would continue occupying land belonging to a future Palestinian state must realize that we do not and cannot honor the dead when we use their memory, and what they suffered, to dishonor and disinherit the living.

For the Palestinians, the experience of the Nakba (the “catastrophe”), precipitated by the 1948 war, was no less calamitous. From their perspective, they were living for centuries in their own land and are absolutely convinced that during the 1948 war, they were forced out of their homes by Israelis– a tragedy that has lasted for decades and which they continue to endure to this day, leaving an indelible impression on their psyche. This traumatic experience has served to bind Palestinians together in the same way that the Jews coalesced following the Holocaust, with each side believing that their tragic historical experiences are unparalleled in scope and magnitude. The Palestinians, as a result, have hardly made any serious effort to appreciate the psychological implications of the Jews’ historical experience. They have either denied the Holocaust altogether, or bemoaned that if it did happen they should not be held responsible or pay any price for the Jews’ historic tragedy—an attitude reinforced by Israel’s building of settlements on their land.

Israelis and Palestinians alike (especially those who, like Hamas, seek the destruction of Israel) must become more self-critical in their use of victimhood; both sides need to realize that neither has a monopoly on the position of “the victim,” and neither is granted a morally unimpeachable status as a consequence of their historical experiences or the changed reality on the ground.

Israel’s national security concerns, however legitimate, have been used as an excuse for the expropriation of land and expanding the settlements under the guise of creating defensible borders. Successive Israeli governments continue to occupy Palestinian territory and by its own actions offers no sign that the occupation will end any time soon, thereby denying the Palestinians not only a contiguous land mass but also the right to live in freedom and dignity. The Palestinians too (Hamas in particular) must understand that their belief in some day recapturing all of Palestine is an illusion, as is the return of nearly 5 million Palestinian refugees (since that would mean the obliteration of Israel through demographics). Such hopes then cannot be fulfilled if the Palestinians want to coexist peacefully and forsake the use of violence to achieve their political objectives.

Neither side’s sense of victimhood can be mitigated by reverting to their historical experiences. It is this state of mind that continues to haunt the majority in both camps while allowing the extremist minority to manipulate the conflict in order to stifle any progress. Together, these sentiments and mindsets inherently endure, particularly when reinforced by Israeli and Palestinian officials’ public narrative that openly promotes the rejection of the other’s claim and rights. Perhaps this explains why Israeli and Palestinian leadership have devised policies and made demands that the other could not accept without abandoning decades-old self-serving political agendas (however skewed) to justify their actions. Moreover, being that Israel and the Palestinians are politically factional, coupled with the lack of visionary and courageous leaders around which they can coalesce, there is little hope that their current leadership, which has lost its moral compass, can change course and accept not only each other’s reality but each other’s rights.

For these reasons, the task must now fall on the shoulders of the silent majority in both camps; it is they who must leave complacency behind, go out to the streets by the hundreds of thousands, loudly and clearly proclaim that enough is enough and that the conflict must come to an end. The time has come for the Israeli and Palestinian masses to engage in collective civil disobedience, lasting as long as it takes to force the leadership in both camps to change course and seek a peaceful solution to the conflict. This means, of course, that both sides must break with the mechanical way of reacting to injury or harm; namely, by nursing the hurt and resolving to hurt the other in return. Palestinians and Israelis must forsake, once and for all, this logic of revenge, which insists on holding on to the hurt (the sense of victimhood) and in refusing to let it go traps us in the past.

If revenge involves taking a bit of the past and letting it determine our future, in effect we have no future; the success, then, of non-violent resistance absolutely rests on its peaceful nature. The smallest violent incident distracts from the purpose of the message and allows extremists on both sides to exploit such incidents to their advantage. Although civil disobedience must not be limited to women, imagine the impact that tens of thousands of Israeli and Palestinian women demonstrating in every major city will have domestically and internationally. The women who no longer want to see their young children die in vain or deprived of a bright future only to serve a blind cause that has long since lost not only its merit but has been rendered morally bankrupt.

Although civil disobedience is essential, it may well be that the Israelis and the Palestinians can no longer resolve their conflict on their own and need an outside power or powers to mediate, pressure, coerce or even threaten both parties to change course before it’s too late. The United States, which has a tremendous stake in the Middle East and enjoys great influence on Israel and the Palestinians, remains pivotal to helping them reach an agreement. Led by Germany, UK and France, the European Union is already preparing a proposal that provides the basis for the immediate resumption of peace negotiations. Outside powers, particularly the US, will have far more leeway and justification to push for a peace plan when tens of thousands of Israelis and Palestinians are on the street demanding the same.

Indeed, unless the people who are paying with their own blood, who are making the sacrifices and suffering for it; the fathers and mothers who want their children to grow up in peace, who seek a better future, better prospects and an opportunity to prosper and flourish; those who want to chart their own destiny; they, all, Israelis and Palestinians alike, have the inherent right to dream, hope and live in peace. The United States must support collective acts of civil disobedience by making every effort to facilitate peace. This is what the Israeli and Palestinian silent majority needs and hopes for, but they must first do their share by going to the streets and making their voices heard.

The continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is now creating a third generations of victims—not the victims of the Holocaust or the victims of el-Nakba but the victims of misguided leaders. So-called leaders, like Prime Minister Netanyahu (who may well form the next government and continue to lead the Israelis astray), are bringing them ever closer to the precipice– he and his like on the Palestinian side, such as Hamas’ Ismail Haniyeh, must be stopped by the public outcry to head off a potentially catastrophic development.

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