The news of an outbreak of violence in Gaza with the Israeli Defence Forces was not much of a surprise for anyone. It mobilised some to protest outside the Israeli embassy in Kensington, while others joined the counter-demonstration further down the road, the vast majority of people probably languished in passive ignorance to the history of the crisis. The wars waged to establish and expand the state of Israel surprise no one with a modicum of knowledge of the history of the nation-state. Like childbirth the memory of the founding of a state is repressed precisely because it’s so traumatic. The majority of states in the world were either founded in violence or have been perpetuated through violence in some way. So it should surprise no one that the state of Israel was founded out of a theft - what Palestinians call the Nabka - in which 700,000 people were expelled from their land and their villages were destroyed to make way for a new country. And we can safely say, in retrospect of six decades, that expansionism is inherent to the state-founding project.
Expulsion from the land was the only way that the state could be established. It was necessary given that at the time Mandate Palestine consisted of a population that was 95% Muslim and Christian Arab. Today the millions of descendants of those Palestinians who were first displaced in 1948 are scattered around the world. The largest concentration outside of Israel and the occupied territories is in Jordan, where Israeli nationalists argue the Palestinians really belong. Part of the problem is the ambiguity of where Israel’s borders actually end. If the international borders are disregarded (which they are inside Israel) then the eastern frontier of the country reach across the Jordan River and that would mean Jordan can be absorbed as well. This is the irony of the nationalist line that the Palestinians should go live in Jordan. Originally the border was meant to be at the Alawi River in the middle of Lebanon. Until the borders are clarified and set at the internationally recognised limit, which is at 78% of what was once Mandate Palestine, then there won’t be peace.
The UN vote to bestow non-member observer status on Palestine demonstrates that the Palestinians are hungry for a peaceful settlement. Incidentally, Palestine now shares the same status of statehood as the Holy See. This is contrary to the picture that the Israeli Right put forward of murderous rabbles of Arabs too bloodthirsty to settle for anything less than the demise of the Jewish state. Yet it is the Israeli government that won't budge on the question of settlements and 60% of the West Bank already consists of Jewish settlements. That's a major obstacle to a two-state settlement if Palestine is meant to be constituted by 100% of the West Bank. Then there's the wall of annexation that has been extended around arable land and resources in the West Bank. This wall is called a 'defensive barrier' in Israel, which is what the Berlin Wall was called in East Germany. It gets even more absurd, in the US media the wall is called a 'fence' and it's longer than the Berlin Wall.
This is somewhat appropriate as the US was itself born out of a revolt on America's East Coast only for the colonies to expand westward into Indian territory. It isn't often discussed that there may have been as many as 18 million, possibly even 25 million, people living in North America when European settlers first arrived. The fact that the US would consist of a narrow slither of land if it weren't for genocide, war and slavery was long suppressed by historians. This denial of these origins was nothing exceptional. In the same way that the trauma of childbirth is suppressed in all of our minds, the horrors of nation-building are quickly wiped from the national memory. What follows then is the creation of a national mythology, the shibboleths of American exceptionalism were crafted by English colonists quite early on. Ronald Reagan liked to describe America as "a shining city upon a hill"; well it was Puritan colonist John Winthrop who coined that phrase in 1630 and along with it the notion that America is a nation with a divine purpose.
The new world was a venture first pursued to escape the horrors of European nationalism and in a way Israel was a similar project. Yet it would seem as though the nation-state, a European invention itself, has brought with it all the destructive tendencies of the old world with it. This isn’t just the violence inherent to the project, it’s racism as well. Not just towards Arabs, who are victims of discrimination on all fronts. In May race riots broke out in Tel Aviv a Likudnik at the Knesset commented that black immigrants are a ‘cancer’ on the Jewish state. Keep in mind the black immigrants are Sudanese refugees fleeing the slaughter in their own country. Racism is never too far from nationalism, wherever it hangs its hat. The violence of founding states pukes it up almost automatically. Now Bibi Netanyahu has made it clear he is running with Avi Lieberman – a man who believes in segregation and loyalty oaths – at the upcoming elections. We can take all of this as a sign that Israel has yet to really finish its ‘founding’, and that means this could go on for much longer.
This article was published at the Heythrop Lion on December 11th 2012.