Israel and the Islamist prototype

Largely unconsciously, Israel has become one of the main sources of radicalism in the Arab and Muslim worlds. I am emphasizing that this may be unintentional because the very idea of Israel as an exclusively Jewish entity has served as a rallying point for a whole range of partially violent movements, from the socialist "lefties" to the Islamist "jihadist". In other words, this radical opposition to the "Zionist" ideal at the heart of Israel would be out there irrespective of the actions of the state.

Of course, Israel’s self-identification with the "West" (i.e. western Europe and the United States) and its Machiavellian power politics toward the "East" (i.e. the Arab and Islamic worlds) have not been conducive to its intellectual and political integration into West Asia and North Africa. But one tends to concur with Jacqueline Rose when she writes in The Question of Zion, that "’Zionism’ has always felt itself under threat and often for good reason." The idea of Israel–its foundational myths, its exclusionary tenor, its us-versus-them taxonomy–has been rejected by the region from the outset.

Within such a context, "hard" power politics has been the only way to address Israel’s apparent "legitimacy dilemma" vis-a-vis its neighbors. Israeli decision-makers have never made a secret out of this strategy. It is discernable from Ben-Gurion’s admission that the early Zionists were far from benevolent toward the Palestinians; Yitzak Shamir’s statement that "neither Jewish ethics nor Jewish tradition can disqualify terrorism as a means of combat"; in the language of Berl Katznelson, the major theorist of Labor Zionism, who declared in 1929 that the "Zionist enterprise is an enterprise of conquest" and that "it is by no chance that I use military terms when speaking of settlement"; and the poems of Yosef Brenner (1905): "Hear O Israel! Not an eye for an eye! Two eyes for one, and all their teeth for any kind of humiliation!"

There is no suggestion here that there were no opposing views. But no serious historian of Israel, certainly not critical ones such as Shlomo Zand, Haim Gerber, Avi Shlaim or Ilan Pappe, would deny that systematic violence was instrumental to the consolidation of Israeli power in Palestine between 1947 and 1948 and that it was deemed necessary to sustain the infant Israeli state during recurring periods of crisis thereafter. This violence, which has ruled over the ordering of Palestine, led to seven inter-state wars, numerous acts of terrorism on both sides and caused Jenin and Sabra and Shatila, that same violence has been taken over and reified by the "natives", by the people who populate the region into which the idea of Israel has been implanted.

It is in this sense that Israel has produced the "Islamist" prototype, i.e. the Nasrallahs and Haniyehs of this world and why I have started with the assertion that Israel is one of the main sources of radicalism in the Arab and Muslim worlds. One could say that the Cain of Israel’s self has given birth to its own offspring: Hamas in reaction to the prolonged occupation of the Palestinian territories and Hizballah in reaction to the violent invasion of Lebanon in 1982. These movements could not function politically or mobilize their constituencies ideologically without the Israeli enemy image. To my mind, this is why both Hamas and Hizballah are never exterior in relation to Israeli aggressions; why none of them can escape the other’s reach. They are captured within one dialectic. This explains why the sustained attacks on Hizballah in 2006 triggered Palestinian counterattacks in the occupied territories and why the recent bombardment of Gaza increased the support for Hamas ! throughout the Muslim world. It also explains why the rightwing factions surrounding Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmedinezhad intend to keep Iranians in a perpetual state of alert about Israel’s policies, in Palestine and in the wider West Asian area. Indeed, who would talk about Ahmedinezhad today if it were not for his infamous rant about the foundational myths of the Israeli state?

In today’s "Middle East" there is quite literally no intellectual and geographic "territory" that Jews, Turks, Iranians, Palestinians, Arabs, Christians, Muslims, Copts, Kurds etc., could claim for themselves in total independence of the other. It is within this constellation that any effort to define Israel along exclusive religious/ethnic lines can only be sustained behind "security fences" and barbwire. It is irrational to define a country in contrast to the region it is embedded in, unless, of course, the whole region is recoded culturally, politically and ideologically to suit the preferences of the Israeli state and its US chaperone. But aren’t more and more radical movements with global outreach opposing this type of politics? Aren’t they now (as opposed to 30 years ago) in command of whole bureaucracies, institutions, media outlets and communication channels to propagate their views? Haven’t the internet and satellite television made it that much harder to monopolize! public opinion, both nationally and internationally?

In 1948, Israel self-consciously placed itself in a region that existed without it for several millennia. Thus, it inevitably entered into a relationship of immanent interdependence. It must follow quite logically that the country shares a common fate with the peoples of the region and that it cannot continue to narrate and produce itself without them. The old guard, generations and generations of decision-makers, court historians and embedded activists have failed to make the intellectual case for an exclusive Jewish state, tied to the "western" narrative culturally and intellectually. If they haven’t convinced the rational majority, how can they win the argument against the violent extremists?

Hence, it remains the responsibility of critical intellectuals to deconstruct seemingly primordial identities all the way down to their foundations, to the ideational residues that are so very different from the cocktail of myths, inventions and utter lies presented to us on a daily basis. In relation to Israel, the "new historians" have begun this endeavor and Palestinian intellectuals have long been engaged in a similar project. Other Arabs and Muslims, especially Iranians and Turks have been slower, partially because they are too often caught up in nationalist exaltation or one-dimensional religious constructions. The struggle for sustainable peace in Palestine as well as in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon, can only evolve out of a new intellectualism, a critical consciousness that fosters protests against the crimes of governments and their enforcers amongst us. This is a common endeavor and it is about time that we provide it with an equally common historical archive