Pan-Arabism, lines drawn on maps, and Israel


This map (hosted on Google Maps) of all the protests in North Africa and the Middle East makes the question of which country is “next” seem pretty silly. The regime in Bahrain, home of the United States Navy’s 5th Fleet, has been discredited following violence in which at least five civilians were killed.[1] The map also shows protests in Mauritania, Algeria, Libya, Yemen, Jordan, Iraq, and Iran, as well as in Tunisia and Egypt.[2] And stories just keep rolling in from around the region, making it difficult for me to get any actual studying done (I’m a Ph.D. student). Definitely not to be lost in the shuffle is a story on Daily Kos about Libya, where they apparently don’t need no stinking Internet for people to get killed in clashes with security forces.[3]

There is a message in the protests in Iran and in Libya that this uprising is not about Israel or the United States. But inside the Beltway, there is concern nonetheless, as Marwan Bishara pointed out on Democracy Now!:

I mean, people in Washington, until today, have not realized exactly what is going on. They’re still trying to play catch-up with what’s going on in the Arab world.

So, for example, I was in one of those brainstorming sessions that tried to talk about what’s next for Palestine and Israel. And what amazes me is that everything that they speak about has an Israel reference to it, because that’s where the correspondents for their main networks are, that’s where their people are, and that’s how they’ve seen the region—Egypt, Palestine and so on—from Israel’s prisms. So, every point of reference is, what did Netanyahu say, or what does Israel think, what would the Israeli lobby consider. Would now, for example, President Obama do this and that, and will the Israeli lobby allow him? What does that mean for our strategic interests in the Middle East? Not understanding that there is a complete sweep that requires not only a change of mindset and, if you allow me here, a change of decision makers, perhaps, or a change of aides in Washington. There’s a complete class of bureaucrats in Washington that are not only not in touch with what’s going on in America, they certainly are not in touch with what’s going on in the Arab world.[4]

Looking at that map, the concern is understandable. The entire situation around the Mediterranean Sea and around the Persian Gulf is now in question. Even if only some uprisings succeed, the result seems unlikely to be friendlier for Israel or the United States. And of course, it being the Obama administration that is occupying the White House, it will be the Obama administration that right-wing opponents in the U.S. will blame.

And while we can celebrate the possibility that people will have a greater say in their governments at least in the short term, the question of Israel has to be the elephant in the room.

It is far too easy to look at Israel’s crimes against humanity with regard to the Palestinians and its aggression toward its neighbors, to declare the country a criminal regime, and to declare, as Iran’s Mahmound Ahmadinejad has, that the state (he was not referring to the people) should be erased from existence. After all, it was hardly an enlightened policy that exported Europe’s “Jewish problem” to Palestine, that displaced multitudes of human beings to make way for a new state.

I had not begun to understand the Jewish attitude (to the extent it can be seen as monolithic) toward Israel until I read Avigail Abarbanel’s essay in Electronic Intifada from 2008, in which she explains that Jews have been subject to a history of pogroms over centuries that undermines any sense that Jews could ever be safe except in their own country,[5] and considering that history, it is possible to understand why that country might need to be outside Europe. It’s an understanding reinforced by Albert Memmi in Portrait of a Jew.[6] But the problem seems to run deeper. One of my professors this semester has explained that while it is common for a group of people to identify themselves in words that essentially mean “the people” in whatever language they have made for themselves, thus differentiating themselves from lesser “others,” the word Hebrew means people from the other side of the river. And, he explained, the word goy refers not only to gentiles (non-Jews) but to the state.[7]

In Jews, we have a people who self-define themselves as “others” in the subaltern sense of the word, and as excluded from governance. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around what giving such a people their own country must mean to them. But it seems clear that Ahmadinejad’s solution—to take that country away, and presumably to create a new political order in which both Jewish and Palestinian rights would be honored—cannot address this mentality.

So we have a conundrum, because to deny Jews this culture, this mentality, would be seen under international law as genocide. And at this stage, to take Israel away would seemingly reply to crimes against humanity with more crimes against humanity.

But the very fact of boundaries as a means to exclude “other” people is a crime against humanity—as we see in the dispute over so-called “illegal” migration from Mexico into the United States. That situation is particularly poignant because the United States conquered its entire continental southwest from Mexico in one of its earlier wars. People, who by heritage, are Mexican but were born in the United States are thus separated from their heritage. And while those who insist upon a monolithic cultural hegemony—a “tyrannizing image”[8]—in the United States[9] might welcome a suggestion that such people should “return” to Mexico (within its current boundaries), a land they might have never known, the situation exposes boundaries as a form of genocide.

Which of course is analogous to the situation with Israel and the Palestinians, for the Palestinians were forcibly removed from their own land to make way for the state of Israel. Here too, boundaries amount to genocide, as over sixty years later, humans continue to live in refugee camps.

One of the remarkable things about the current uprisings in the Middle East is that they seem to recognize no boundaries. On the same Democracy Now! program, Bishara also stated,

I think the impact is going to differ from one country to another, but there’s a certain commonality to all of it. See, there is this thing that’s been absent in the mind of many, not only in Washington, but also in the U.S. media. There is something called an Arab. There is an Arab nation. You can fly—you can take a seven-hour flight from Morocco to Iraq, passing through an Arab region that speaks the same language, that has the same heritage. But it has been invisible to American media and to American decision makers. We’ve seen the Arab world. We’ve seen Saudi Arabia, we’ve seen Bahrain, through the lenses of military strategy, oil, prisms of Israel, and certainly terrorism and jihad. But what we’ve seen over the last six weeks has been completely absence. And hence, it caught everyone by surprise. Everyone was caught in the headlights—What is going on? Who are these people?—not realizing that in places like Bahrain, places like Yemen, certainly Egypt, Tunisia and so on and so forth, a pent-up tension has been building up for years. This is not a new thing that’s gone on on Facebook. So, in Saudi Arabia, like in the rest of the Arab world, we’re going to see what has been building up for years. In Bahrain, they used to call it, for the last 30 years, attempts to topple the government, attempts to topple the regime. In fact, they were community organizers. They’re not exactly like Chicago; the risks are far higher in the Arab world. But these are community organizers in Egypt and Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain and other places, trying to live—or trying to root for decent living, but always being called terrorists or always been oppressed under the pretext of terrorism.[10]

Bishara’s view of pan-Arabism may be unduly optimistic. But the boundaries that surround Israel—whether drawn according to the original United Nations partition plan, on 1967 lines, or drawn at the zenith of Israeli conquest—are boundaries of profound hypocrisy. Jews will need to, as should we all, redefine nation, to find security in something other than lines drawn on a map.

  1. [1]Juan Cole, “Bahrain Shiites Withdraw from Parliament, Call for King’s Overthrow,” Informed Comment, February 18, 2011; Jim Lobe, “US Faces New Test Over Bahrain Violence,” Inter Press Service, February 18, 2011; Justin Raimondo, “The Battle of Bahrain: King Hamad – the Mubarak of the Gulf,”, February 18, 2011
  2. [2], “Protests across the Middle East”,18.808594&spn=52.805314,98.4375&z=3
  3. [3]Meteor Blades, “Growing crowds of Libyans publicly reject Gaddafi despite bullets and threats,” Daily Kos, February 18, 2011
  4. [4]Marwan Bishara, interviewed by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzales, “‘The Genie Is Out of the Bottle’: Assessing a Changing Arab World with Noam Chomsky and Al Jazeera’s Marwan Bishara,” Democracy Now!, February 17, 2011
  5. [5]Avigail Abarbanel, “A change needs to come,” Electronic Intifada, May 26, 2008
  6. [6]Albert Memmi, Portrait of a Jew (New York: Viking, 1971).
  7. [7]Richard Shapiro, lecture, “Secular/Post-Secular? Emancipatory Jewish Thought,” California Institute of Integral Studies, January 24, 2011.
  8. [8]Richard Weaver, quoted in Sonja K. Foss, Karen A. Foss, and Robert Trapp, Contemporary Perspectives on Rhetoric, 3rd ed. (Long Grove, IL: Waveland, 2002).
  9. [9]George Lakoff, Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2002).
  10. [10]Bishara

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