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Europe and the Middle East beyond identity politics – with Ilan Pappé

Ilan Pappé

Setting the background. Do you know who Ilan Pappé is? I’ll briefly introduce him: Israeli historian born in 1954, he studied with the like of Albert Hourani and Roger Owen (who I had the chance to meet at SOAS in 2010). He’s a rather controversial personality, constantly at the centre of heated debates and very little popular among the Israeli establishment. Why? Because he revises the official version of Israeli history publicly unveiling the folly behind the national hero and founding father David Ben Gurion written in his diaries and calling the treatment of Palestinians ‘ethnic cleansing‘.

Prologue. I met Ilan Pappé for the first time five years ago during my extremely productive studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Then, I listened to him, in astonishment, talking about Ben Gurion and reading excerpts of his diary. Today, I was presented with a second chance to meet him thanks to an event (dis)organised in a dust cloud of polemic and suspicion. I won’t talk about that for the simple reason I haven’t enough details to sort the matter out, I’ll just say the problem was that the University of Roma Tre (which is, incidentally, the institution I belong to at present) initially offered its facilities to host the event and withdrew few days before the date for technical and procedural reasons. Anyway, on my part, I’m simply glad I managed to see him.

The event. The organisation was far less than perfect, technical issues, very little room, very few seats, obscure or, worse, irrelevant contributions. The only one I bothered to note down was Ruba Salih‘s, a Palestinian anthropologist grown up in Italy and currently working at SOAS (sorry if I appear to insist on my beloved ex school) who, unexpectedly, cited the femminisit philosopher Judith Butler: not all lives are grievable. Not those of Palestinians.

The man I came for. Ilan Pappé’s accent is remarkably untouched by his long residence in the UK. He starts with a conceptual distinction between colonialism and settler colonialism. The former, refers to the classical European colonialism which entails the exploitation of a territory and its population and eventually ends in decolonisation and independence. The latter, refers to a human group who re-invent themselves as the people of a given territory instead of its indigenous population and to do so it has two main instruments: genocide (as in the case of Australia and if you ever wondered why the only indigenous inhabitant of Tasmania is the Tasmanian devil that’s because the Aboriginal people were killed one by one) or the simple deprivation of citizenship. According to Pappé, settler colonialism is (i) at the heart of Zionism and Israel and (ii) the analytical framework apt at interpreting the Israel-Palestine question. If you take on this perspective, charges of anti-Semitism become ill-placed. It doesn’t question the ethnic, religious or national character but the very matrix of the Israeli presence in the historical Palestina. It doesn’t question the desire to reach a safe place or the Biblical relevance of the locus, but the very nature of Israel as a settler colonialist entity.

Being guests. With some degree of very prosaic common sense – as he remarks – Pappé says: «The only way to come in someone else’s home is as a guest.» Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, who badly wanted Mahatma Gandhi to support the cause of Israel, corresponded with the Indian leader about the very notion of the word ‘guest’. It goes without saying that a guest who’s convinced he’s entitled to the home in which he’s hosted becomes an invader.

The roots. As a scholar, Pappé constantly tries to get back to the very roots of the question and remarks: the peace process will never succeed as long as it’s based on false assumptions, as long as the birth of Israel is interpreted through the category of a Nation-State emerged within the historical Palestine territory in lieu of a settler colonialist entity. The very idea of a partition in two States is indeed impracticable since it’s founded on the same false assumptions. From this perspective, Israel is able to present the partition, both domestically and on the international level, as a generous concession of its own territory to the Palestinians. Moreover, as we appreciate the admirable work done to the goal of fragmentation, the idea of one Palestine becomes laughable. He insists, and I’m inclined to agree, that the detachment from reality operated by false assumptions is a formidable obstacle not only to the reaching of a solution but also to the frank and open discussion of the question. However, this misrepresentation serves well not only the obvious interests of Israel but also the Western world and even some Palestinians. Add to this that we are now at the third generation of Israeli settlers and ousted Palestinians, how complicating is that when the lines of the debate settled on the wrong premises?

Politics. That’s how politics work: detached from reality, the Israelis are not any more – they actually have never been – settlers while the Palestinians are aliens who they’re kind enough to tolerate. You lock Palestinians up in reserves and then you call them State so that you can portray yourself as an ordinary democracy who speaks the language of peace. On their part, Palestinian leaderships in the West Bank and Gaza have diverging points of view: inclined to a legalistic solution the first, still romantically attached to armed struggled the latter. Ordinary people, on the other hand, wish for one thing only: a normal life.

Three points. Pappé summarises his views in three main points:
(1) the issue must leave aside national and religious rights and get back to basics: human and civil rights. On this, Israel should be judged by the same yardstick as anyone else;
(2) religion is not a discriminating factor, hence and again, anti-Semitism is an empty category, anti-colonialism is the perspective;
(3) talking about the Israel-Palestine question is a matter of freedom of speech, as it is the much emphasised right of cartoonists of portraying the Prophet as a dog.

Calling things with their names. Pappé doesn’t use euphemisms or roundabouts, he calls Israel’s policy in Gaza genocide and criticises those who keep quiet, first and foremost the academia that has the duty to deal with unpleasant issues and to name things for what they are: ‘ethnic cleansing‘ and ‘genocide‘. If the academia doesn’t lead this way how can we expect media and politicians to take on the task? After all, semantics do matter. What difference does it make calling Israeli outposts ‘colonies’ or ‘settlements’?

Why the international community doesn’t treat Israel with the same profusion of outrage as Apartheid South Africa?

Why did we deem necessary to change regime in Iraq in the name of liberty, peace and democracy while no one has ever mentioned regime change in Israel?

Why, as we are presented with the collapse of the French-British design in the region, we can’t see that leaving Israel out of the debate on the Middle East makes no sense at all?

Lastly, getting back to Israeli prehistory, during the Paris Peace Conference, when every middle eastern ethnicity (Armenians, Kurds, Alawites, Druzes etc.) petitioned for a homeland, only the Zionist Movement, a foreigner, was satisfied?

I reported here the notes I took during Pappé’s talk, and tried to be faithful to his thought and wording. I know it’s a long entry but if you got here, you just read him, not me.

«Zionists didn’t believe in God, but they believed God had promised them Palestine

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