By Patrick Lawrence / Original to ScheerPost
When the topic is Israel, you have to be very precise if you write for The New York Times opinion page. There is no endorsing the racist grotesques who sit in a coalition with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s also racist Likud Party. That is out. But Michelle Goldberg, Thomas Friedman, and other columnists must parse their views with calculation these days. There is Israel, and there are the freaks who govern Israel. Different.
“Biden must realize that Benjamin Netanyahu is unfit to manage this war as a rational player,” Friedman wrote in Monday’s editions. “Israel’s government is not normal,” he asserted a month ago. “The Israel We Know Is Gone,” was the head on a piece he published a year ago next month, when Bibi was forming a government with people who are, among much else, a disgrace to Judaism. “What in the world is happening in Israel?” he wondered a month after that.
You get the drift, surely. Israel is O.K. It is the people in charge who are not O.K. This has been the common trope well beyond The Times’s opinion page since Netanyahu, desperate to avoid prison on corruption charges, maneuvered his way back to power in late 2022. Let’s call it the “if only” dodge. If only Israeli politics would shift back to what passes for “the center” all would be well in the Jewish state—the apartheid state, as we must more honestly call it.
“If only” has been the hottest game in the casino since Hamas mounted an assault in southern Israel on October 7 and the Israeli Defense Forces began another of their savagely disproportionate attacks on Gaza. If only the U.S.–backed I.D.F. could “eliminate” Hamas–or “eradicate” it. If only Israel could once-and-for-all destroy Hezbollah and incapacitate Lebanon. In both houses of Congress you get poorly traveled know-nothings who want to bomb Iran and who say—incredible, this—Russia is behind the mess in Gaza. Where do these people come from? I want to rename Capitol Hill the Mount of Cretins.
Israel has to build a wall around itself to keep out the people it forced into refugee camps at its formal founding in 1948, but that is O.K. Incessant violence against the Palestinian population: This is O.K., too—part of the story, as they say. For the sake of its security it must bomb the airports in neighboring countries, as it did this week in Syria and Lebanon. But Israel is Israel, Israel is a great post–World War II success, a monument to human decency and the rule of law, and Israel must be.
And amid this cacophony, all this grating noise, a vast, rueful silence. Among the Western democracies’ countless unsayables, the greatest of these is that the state of Israel, founded on injustice 75 years ago, is a failed experiment. Instead of jubilee celebrations, it is ethnic-cleansing a helpless population—a monstrous memorial to the six million whose names it was intended to honor. In the same way, no one in Washington or among the European vassals can say what needs to be said about the long record of America’s “unconditional support” for Israel: It is the gravest foreign policy failure—among many, of course—in the postwar period.
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It is no good merely complaining all the time about the rain, Ray McGovern, Raymo, the Great Raimondo, said in a speech he gave out West some years ago. The project is to build arks. Buckminster Fuller, no stranger to imaginative edifices, put the point this way: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
I am moved to these thoughts, amid the atrocious spectacle of Israel’s latest and most inhumane persecution of Gazans, by a video Roger Waters recorded on October 11, four days after this round of violence began, and posted on YouTube two days later. Musician, political voice, honorable supporter of independent media, Waters titled his reflections, “To whom it may concern: Please stop.” Let us consider what Waters had to say. There is something essential in these 5 minutes and 28 seconds—the suggestion of an ark, or a new model in Bucky Fuller’s terminology.
“My heart is heavy. I am sad and angry,” Waters begins, stating the obvious as he leans his head on his left hand and gazes into the camera with eyes fairly filled with sorrow. “I’ve been banging this drum for nearly 20 years,” he continues. “My message is simple. All these years it felt to me almost as if we’re deaf to Mother Nature’s calls for equal human rights for our brothers and sisters. Equal human rights being the only antidote to war.”
It is refreshing to hear the thoughts of an intelligent, plugged-in man who is neither a technocrat nor a government official nor a think-tank inhabitant nor even a practitioner in your columnist’s troubled trade. Instead we get discernment from a useful distance in this presentation. Equal human rights as humankind’s natural state, and as the fundament of a peaceful world order: I had not thought such questions could be reduced to so essential a principle. And I am still thinking this over, to be honest. But I am not thinking over what Waters had next to say: I am dead certain of his point.
“Here’s my suggestion of what should be done,” he says, adding modestly, “It’s only an opinion.” And then:
One. An immediate and permanent ceasefire. No more killing by anyone, Hamas and the I.D.F. included.
What next? How to prevent future bloodshed.
Two. Get ’round a big table and hammer out the bones of a one-state solution to this whole unholy mess, one based on respect of equal human rights under international law—a new state with equal human rights for all its citizens irrespective of their ethnicity or religion or previous nationality. This new state would be—and I’ve written this in italics—an actual, real democracy.
Three. My suspicion is that the new state’s constitution would need to include promises for truth and reconciliation hearings like they had in post-apartheid South Africa.
Waters’s fourth and final item, an ancillary as he describes it, has to do with the status of the Golan Heights: “They are part of Syria, where they belong.”
This is a very bold list, especially in the present context. To state the sense and justice of a one-state solution is a stain upon the prevailing silence—the official silence, the media silence, the silence that denies the failure of the Israeli experiment and the extravagantly destructive backing of the nation that has long propped it up. It is to push aside all the phony, weak-minded “if only’s” in favor of the “what is” and then, honorably, the “what can be.”
Roger Waters is not the first to argue that Jews and Palestinians must live in a unitary, secular nation if they are to find their way to a settled coexistence. But his timing, let’s say, has the precision of an accomplished musician.
The late Edward Said published “The One–State Solution” in The New York Times Sunday Magazine on January 10, 1999. Maybe a few readers recall this remarkable piece—remarkable for where it appeared as well as its argument. (And alas, how far the newspaper has since descended into mediocrity and servitude.) Said wrote after the failure of the Wye River Memorandum, a weak attempt to breathe new life into the Oslo Accords. The Oslo Accords presented a framework for what we call the two-state solution. Said had no use for them from the first, wise man.
The failure of Wye River brought down the first Netanyahu government. It was at this point Said wrote his piece for The Times:
It is time to question whether the entire process begun in Oslo in 1993 is the right instrument for bringing peace between Palestinians and Israelis. It is my view that the peace process has in fact put off the real reconciliation that must occur if the hundred-year war between Zionism and the Palestinian people is to end. Oslo set the stage for separation, but real peace can come only with a binational Israeli–Palestinian state.
“The real reconciliation,” “the hundred-year war between Zionism and the Palestinian people:” Others had previously advocated a one-state solution, Hannah Arendt among them, but there was no beating Said for clarity of thought on “the question of Palestine,” as he titled his 1980 book.
The two-state solution as the basis of an enduring settlement, the thought that Palestinians would accept forcible relocation to assigned lands elsewhere, was the path to calamity long, long before the Oslo Accords came along in the early 1990s, Said astutely pointed out. Even some of the great names among the Zionists understood this. “David Ben–Gurion, for instance, was always clear,” Said wrote. “‘There is no example in history,’”’ he said in 1944, “‘of a people saying we agree to renounce our country, let another people come and settle here and outnumber us.’”
Oslo—“to its great discredit,” Said wrote archly—made the inevitable mess worse. It consigned the Palestinians to non-contiguous specks of land, about 10 percent of the West Bank and (at this time) 60 percent of the Gaza Strip, that sit there on maps to this day as faithful reproductions of the bantustans of apartheid South Africa. “The more that current patterns of Israeli settlement and Palestinian confinement and resistance persist,” Said wrote flatly, “the less likely it is that there will be real security for either side.”
Whatever happened to clear, blunt, nuanced language?
Said’s argument rests in some measure on historical precedent:
Palestine is and has always been a land of many histories; it is a radical simplification to think of it as principally or exclusively Jewish or Arab. While the Jewish presence is longstanding, it is by no means the main one. Other tenants have included Canaanites, Moabites, Jebusites and Philistines in ancient times, and Romans, Ottomans, Byzantines and Crusaders in the modern ages. Palestine is multicultural, multiethnic, multireligious. There is as little historical justification for homogeneity as there is for notions of national or ethnic and religious purity today.
Excellent stuff, as I recall thinking 24 years ago.
But the bedrock of Said’s case is what interested me most. It rests on the principles of a modern secular state as we have known them since the late 18th century. Said is perfectly aware of how Jews and Palestinians, for their different reasons, will find it difficult to set aside their pasts—or in the case of many Israeli Jews an imagined past, we had better say:
The initial step … is a very difficult one to take. Israeli Jews are insulated from the Palestinian reality; most of them say that it does not really concern them…. My generation of Palestinians, still reeling from the shock of losing everything in 1948, find it nearly impossible to accept that their homes and farms were taken over by another people.
From this sober observation Said moves without a stumble into the enduring truths that make Oslo and all such subsequent efforts to get the two-state solution to stick seem like so many soggy paper towels:
I see no other way than to begin now to speak about sharing the land that has thrust us together, sharing it in a truly democratic way, with equal rights for each citizen. There can be no reconciliation unless both peoples, two communities of suffering, resolve that their existence is a secular fact, and that it has to be dealt with as such….
The beginning is to develop something entirely missing from both Israeli and Palestinian realities today: the idea and practice of citizenship, not of ethnic or racial community, as the main vehicle for coexistence. In a modern state, all its members are citizens by virtue of their presence and the sharing of rights and responsibilities. Citizenship therefore entitles an Israeli Jew and a Palestinian Arab to the same privileges and resources. A constitution and a bill of rights thus become necessary for getting beyond Square 1 of the conflict because each group would have the same right to self-determination; that is, the right to practice communal life in its own (Jewish or Palestinian) way, perhaps in federated cantons, with a joint capital in Jerusalem, equal access to land and inalienable secular and juridical rights. Neither side should be held hostage to religious extremists.
As sound today as it was at the turn of the millennium.
I met Edward Said only once, and it was a noisy dinner party, but I am positive beyond doubt he read, probably in French, Ernest Renan’s “Qu’est-ce qu’une nation” (“What Is a Nation”). I have considered Renan’s 1882 lecture, delivered at the Sorbonne, previously in this space (here and here), so I will not go long on it again. Not race, not religion, not language or what Renan called “community of interest,” not even geography (by which he meant natural boundaries, rivers and such) count in the making of a nation. A modern nation, he famously asserted, is “a daily plebiscite”—a vote each citizen casts by his or her participation each day in the life of the polity.
It is shocking to me—well, maybe it isn’t—that so many people attending to the Israeli case as influential statesmen and stateswomen could miss a truth I had thoroughly in my head by the time I was 35, and so many Jews with first-class intellects, I will add, for whom Zionism appears to have trumped history and the kind of logic Ben–Gurion acknowledged.
How faithfully Roger Waters reflects the ideas of Edward Said and, further back, Ernest Renan, whatever his reading habits may be. With what superb simplicity does he bring their thinking to life in the here and now, in the “what is” and “what can be” of our time.
Waters ends his remarks with a reference as poignant as any I have heard in the course of these past 10 days. “Do we dream of a world where all men and women are equal under the law? Or not?” he asks. And then:
My father, 1914 to 1944, dreamed that dream. He died in Italy fighting the Nazis to defend that dream. I dream that dream, too. No ifs, no ands, no buts, I dream that dream, too. So to whom it may concern: Please stop.
Consider the reality with which Waters leaves us: A man whose father gave his life to fighting the Reich to liberate six million Jews is now brought nearly to tears watching the violence the descendants of those Jews inflict on an equally helpless population.
A lot of wise things have been said in the days since October 7. And a lot of ill-considered things, too—things reflecting unfiltered anger, the indignation aroused at the spectacle of prolonged cruelty and injustice. I will single out one of these latter for its very destructive aspect.
An independent journalist who need not be named recently posted a comment, “Never forgive, never forget,” when Israel gave al–Awda Hospital in Gaza City two hours to evacuate. This thought is the product of an immature mind. It is the most wrong advice to give if we—we, the human race—are to find our way out of this catastrophe, this descent into official unreason. If you want the bitterness and brutality separating Israel and the Palesinians to go on indefinitely, these four words will ensure it.
Of the virtue of forgiveness, it does not seem a great deal need be said. For the sake of brevity and at the risk of oversimplification, I will offer this: Whatever our beliefs, even if we have none, whatever we may think of Christianity’s temporal institutions, Western civilization—what remains of it—has been defined in many important respects by the books of the New Testament and the man whose story they tell. They bequeathed to us an ethos. At the core of this ethos is a culture of forgiveness, of reconciliation. They opened the way for humanity to leave behind a culture of revenge.
There is too much of this latter animating the disaster unfolding in Gaza to conclude this thought. However difficult we may find the way, it is imperative for the sake of Roger Waters’s dreams to learn, when the time is right, to forgive.
As to forgetting, as I have written in this space, I will say this quickly: There is the erasure of the past, as the apartheid state’s “if only” apologists incessantly attempt, and this is not what I mean, but rather, I mean forgetting as a way of liberating ourselves from the burden of eternal remembering such that we are prisoners of the past, captives of previous events, unable to act autonomously in the present. The mechanism necessary for this kind of necessary forgetting is history. With a proper recording of events in history, we are able to unburden ourselves of the past, to live creatively in the present, constructing what future we wish to enjoy–to forget, confident that what occurred in the past is inscribed, in public space, as written history.
I cannot say what Israelis may have in mind on these questions. Those in power certainly appear to live by the Old Testament’s culture of revenge. I seriously, seriously doubt there are many Palestinians who, when looking forward to life after liberation, think the burdens of eternal remembering and eternal unforgiveness are an uplifting part of the picture. I doubt, to invoke Roger Waters again, this is part of their dream.
Edward Said, the honorable, principled scholar, wrote works generously veined with the ideas of forgiveness and forgetting. Read his Times essay, as linked above: You will find these thoughts all through it. Israel as it is now constituted is a failed state. It is time, long past time, to begin again. Is there any question this can be done unless many, many, people forget about never forgiving and never forgetting?
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Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a media critic, essayist, author and lecturer. His most recent book is Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century. His web site is Patrick Lawrence. Support his work via his Patreon site. His Twitter account, @thefloutist, has been permanently censored without explanation.