The path to survival
by Maxime Rodinson
french version : Vivre avec les Arabes Par Maxime Rodinson
The path to survival
By Maxime Rodinson
COUNT Sergei Witte, Tsar Nicholas II’s finance minister, explained his position on the Jewish question in 1903 to the Viennese journalist Theodor Herzl, who had just founded political Zionism and was trying to persuade the Orthodox emperor to support it. "As I used to tell poor old Tsar Alexander III," said the count, "if it was possible, your Majesty, to drown six or seven million Jews in the Black Sea, I should be perfectly happy to do so. But it is not possible, so we have to let them live." Others were later to achieve the technical capa city that anti-semitic Russia lacked, but in the end it didn’t do them much good. So perhaps there is something to be learned from Witte’s resigned attitude.
The Zionists decided to set up their state in Palestine, at the centre of the Arab world. This was a dangerous choice. There were plenty of warnings about the danger, not least from non-Zionist Jews, who for a long time were very much in the majority. But in the end the Jews who planned and then created this state stuck to their decision. The consequences of this are now in place and the time for questioning its wisdom is past. A tree must be judged by its fruits.
The current crisis reveals an important new development in the state of Zion (though the course of events may alter our perceptions). Until now Israel has taken a simple and stark line towards the Arab world: "We are here because we are stronger than you. We will remain here for as long as we remain the stronger party, whether you like it or not. And we will always be the stronger party thanks to our friends in the developed world. It is up to you to come to terms with this, to accept your defeat and your weakness, and to accept us as we are on the lands that we have taken from you."
There are only two possible responses to such an attitude: resignation or defiance. Peace could be achieved through Arab resignation. But whether we would welcome or deplore such resignation, it does not look likely. The Arabs will not "hear reason" - that is, they will not accept defeat without compensation, as Ireland accepted (though perhaps not entirely without compensation) the amputation of an Ulster that three centuries of colonisation by the English left with a Protestant majority. Perhaps they will accept it one day. Israeli politicians may well hope so, if they think they can hold out that long.
But from the current crisis, one can only surmise that Israel’s politicians are beginning to doubt whether they can in fact hold out that long, and to suspect that the Arabs have no plans to surrender in the near future.
For what we are observing here gives the lie to one of the Zionists’ most forceful arguments: that hostility to Israel in the Arab world was essentially an artificial phenomenon, an invention of those countries’ leaders. We are now seeing that those Arab leaders who have most to lose from popular revolt are arming their worst enemies. We are seeing Nasser’s bitterest rivals rushing to his aid and even following his orders. Yet it is common knowledge that these Arab leaders’ deepest wish would be to join forces with Israel in crushing the irksome Egyptian president (1). In many cases the feeling is mutual. But no Arab leader is in a position to adopt this line. They have to follow their people.
The only conclusion to draw from this is that popular resentment against Israel is in fact very real and very strong. So what is to be done? Israel could of course continue with its one-sided "dialogue", as Robert Misrahi suggests (2). It could keep telling the Arabs - or having its friends tell them - that they are quite wrong to act this way. It could keep appealing to their sense of humanity even as it stigmatises them as backward, fanatical anti-semitic fascists, among other things. Israel has been applying this formula of beseeching combined with severe criticism for 20 years. The results are hardly encouraging.
Some, like A R Abdel Kader, the world’s only known Marxist-Zionist Arab, are still hoping that pro-Israeli governments will come to power in the Arab lands through social or political revolution. Yet these countries have indeed seen revolutions in recent years, revolutions that have tended to favour ever more anti-Israeli leaders. Those that did initially seek a settlement were soon pressured back into a more standard anti-Israeli position by the tense political climate,which goes to show just how sensitive public opinion in these areas is.
Anyone who wishes to carry on dreaming of some new kind of revolution, like a deus ex machina bringing Israel its miracle, is free to do so. They will not find many realists among them. Last year Abdel Kader dedicated his latest book to Mao Zedong. The chairman has since proved more radically anti-Israeli than any of his predecessors. Perhaps Abdel Kader will learn something from the irony.
The Arabs are hell-bent on defiance, so force is the only option. For the first time, however, Israel seems to be doubting its own strength. At least that’s the impression its allies are giving. Moreover, what if there was a war and Israel won? What would we do with the Arabs? Perhaps we should spare a thought for poor old Count Witte and drown them all in the Red Sea. Even that would be a more realistic option than keeping them under Israeli rule.
What about setting up pro-Israeli governments in all neighbouring states? The Israelis would be the first to tell you that this option is equally impracticable: such puppet regimes would be beset by constant guerrilla warfare and regularly destabilised by popular uprisings.
For better or for worse, Israel must live with the Arabs, with an Arab community that does not accept the existence of Israel on its land. So what is to be done?
The Zionists have rushed headlong up a dead end, much as the Carthaginian mercenaries rushed up Hatchet Pass. But there may be one slim chance of a way out: Israel could propose talks with the Arabs on a new basis. Instead of simply demanding, as it has done for 20 years, that the Arabs accept its presence as a fait accompli, it could offer, in the name of fairness, to compensate for the injustice that has been done. I believe this is the only position that has any chance of being considered seriously by the Arabs. The Jewish state is no longer a dream built on a 2,000-year-old myth; it is a national fact, built on a few decades of hard work and suffering. But the only chance it has of gaining the acceptance it so craves from its neighbours is by adopting a language of conciliation and compromise.
Israel may refuse to make such a concession, even if the impetus for it comes from the top. Large sections of the population are, sadly, highly chauvin istic and, balking at what they would see as cowardice, could prevent their leaders from making such a wise move. Not least because, with the help of its powerful protectors, Israel can win this phase of the conflict. But surely no one believes that it could keep on winning for ever, as the level of emotion in the current crisis shows.
The zealots of Israel and their supporters should remember that the earlier Zionists, back in Herzl’s time, made gigantic efforts to gain approval from the European powers. They lobbied the tsar, the sultan, the pope and the British Empire. And whatever the zealots say, Israel would not exist if it had not been for the Balfour declaration of 1917, a British political act, and the United Nations partition plan of 1947, a joint political act by the Soviet Union and the United States.
It is 1967. Israel should start looking for an agreement with the Arabs from whom they took their land. Not with some fantasy Arab people made just the way it would like them: miraculously converted to Israeli ideas by the world’s pro-Zionist lobbying, or by moral lecturing or readings in the Old Testament and the classics of Marxism and Leninism, but with Arabs as they are: unwilling to accept the uncompensated seizure of their lands. We may denounce the Arab attitude, but that is just a waste of time.
If there is a tradition running through Jewish history, it is that of collective suicide. Pure aesthetes find this darkly beautiful. But perhaps, like Jeremiah to those whose policies led to the destruction of the first temple, like Yohanan ben Zakkai to those who brought about the ruin of the third, we might remind today’s Israelis that there is another way, however narrowed by the policies followed until now.
Could there be some hope that these people, who declare themselves to be builders and planters above all else, might choose this path to survival?
Le Monde, 4-5 june 1967
(1) Gamal Abdel Nasser, president of Egypt 1952-70.
(2) Robert Misrahi was a student of Jean-Paul Sartre and later a professor of philosophy at the Sorbonne. He wrote a series of articles on Jews and Israel published in Les Temps modernes, run by Sartre.
Translated by Gulliver Cragg
The sociologist and historian of Islam, Maxime Rodinson, died on 23 May 2004. He was a gifted self-taught linguist and a prolific writer. Among his most important works are ’Muhammad’ (1961; WW Norton, New York, 2002), ’Islam and capitalism’ (University of Texas Press, Austin, 1978), ’Marxism and the Muslim World’ (Zed Press, London, 1979); ’The Arabs’ (University of Chicago Press, 1981), ’Cult, ghetto and state: the persistence of the Jewish question’ (Al Saqi Books, London, 1983) and ’Europe and the Mystique of Islam’ (Tauris, London, 1989). He was a tireless campaigner for justice for the Palestinian people.