I just finished up an anthropology course on the Middle East as a culture area, and for reasons beyond my explanatory power, I got to look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a bit more in depth. A brief narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict follows.
The historical context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can best be understood by breaking it up into three separate but interrelated segments: the collapse of cosmopolitan empires, the emergence of nation-states, and seismic shifts in demography that accompanied collapse and rebirth.
The post-World War I era can be defined largely in terms of the collapse of the cosmopolitan Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. The spectacular collapse of these centuries-old empires has been attributed to the policies of democrats in western Europe and the President of the United States at the time, Woodrow Wilson, by a number of historians. The underlying idea being promoted by Western elites for central and eastern Europe was that of national self-determination, a belief that each ethnic and linguistic group should have the right to govern itself within a free and democratic state. The movement was intended to break the back of “despotism” in eastern and central Europe (as well as the Near East), but the policies unleashed instead a hotheaded nationalism amidst pockets of power vacuums prevalent throughout the now-dead empires.
Jews, a long-persecuted minority in eastern and central Europe, began to scramble for a state of their own. Many Jews argued that there was no place for a Jewish nation-state in Europe because Jews were a minority everywhere on the continent, and many more Jews argued that Palestine would be a good place for European Jews to establish a nation-state. Palestine was chosen not only for its religious undertones but also because of its relatively close proximity to Europe: the distance from Vienna to Jerusalem is about the same as the distance between Los Angeles and Houston. Both the religious appeal and the close proximity were seen by nation-building elites as two key pillars necessary for attracting settlers to Palestine.
While the Jews struggled to find a state of their own, the collapse of the Ottoman empire gave rise to a number of new nation-states, including Greece and Turkey. For Greek and Turkish elites, a population transfer agreement was made by the two sides in the Swiss city of Lausanne in 1921 after a few years of intermittent fighting. The agreement stipulated the following: Greek families who had lived in Turkey for centuries suddenly found themselves ordered to get out and head to Greece, while Turkish families who had lived in Greece for centuries had to do the same thing.
As Ottoman territory in Europe got carved up by aspirant national movements (taking cues from examples in the formerly neighboring Austro-Hungarian empire), Britain and France moved to establish dominance over Ottoman territory east of modern Turkey. The British were more open than the French to Jewish lobbying efforts, and some efforts were made on behalf of London to establish an official Jewish presence in the British mandate of Palestine. However, the British and the French had much more to deal with than a relatively small-in-scope Jewish lobbying effort. London and Paris were losing influence across the globe, Germany was beginning to rearm itself and Russia’s experiment with socialism was supposedly leading to rapid economic and industrial development.
The burgeoning states in eastern and central Europe began policies designed to make their new states ethnically pure, in line with the argument that each nation should have control of its own government. In 1941, Czechoslovakia’s President reaches out to Adolph Hitler with an enquiry about a possible population swap between the two leaders’ states. Along with the Jews, Germans made up the largest minority population throughout eastern and central Europe, a remnant of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Like the Jews, German populations in central and eastern Europe are not treated as well as they were under the cosmopolitan Austro-Hungarian empire. In fact, Hitler’s rearmament campaign was largely undertaken with the policies towards Germans undertaken by the new nation-states of eastern Europe in mind.
The Jews, unlike the Germans, did not end up with a state when Germany began to annex a number of nation-states in central and eastern Europe. Citizens in the West are often flummoxed when the weight and scope of the Holocaust is brought up. What is often hard to conceptualize for Westerners is that Germany was fighting two fronts in World War 2, and most of the carnage took place on the front that didn’t involve the West. Shifting the focus of World War 2 to the eastern front brings the Holocaust into a social, political, and economic clarity that is hard to grasp when looking at the war with a Western lens. The Holocaust is firmly connected to a broader pattern that emerged with the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires and the rise of the nation-state outside of western Europe.
The British and French empires took a bit longer to collapse. Like their earlier counterparts in Istanbul and Vienna-Budapest, though, they too collapsed after a world war, but unlike their earlier counterparts, Britain and France did not lose in World War 2, and as a result both states had more say in how their empires would recede. The historical context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict involves looking at French policy specifically in the Mediterranean state of Algeria just before and during the era of decolonization, despite the fact that it was the British who governed over Palestine.
French policy in Algeria from just after the end of the Napoleonic Wars (around 1830) to the early 1960s is important largely due to a process historians refer to as ‘settler-colonialism,’ but also because Algeria is in the same social, geographic, political and economic region as Israel and the Palestinian territories and thus provides a pertinent example of things to come in the region.
Once the French established control of Algeria, policymakers began the process of removing indigenous inhabitants from their lands by seizing private property, seizing communal religious property, creating laws that favored one indigenous group (the Berbers) over the other (the Arabs), and creating laws that favored French citizens over their indigenous counterparts in the region. Once the property of the indigenous had been seized, and once the two-tiered legal system of imperial France established itself as the sole purveyor of justice in Algeria, the French began to promote Algeria as a destination for poor French citizens. Unskilled workers or small farmers (or political dissidents!) were often given a small stipend and a plot of land in Algeria by the French state as an incentive for people to migrate there.
The French state had two goals in mind when it came to settler-colonialist policies: one, to alleviate the overpopulation in France that authorities felt burdened with, and two, to establish a convenient cash crop economy to feed French industrial centers, much like the British had done in Egypt. The indigenous population, mostly Muslim and lightly peppered with Jews, was offered full French citizenship provided that individuals from these native groups reject portions of their religious mores (marriage rites, rights to property, educational rights) and completely submit to French civil law. The few individuals who did end up disavowing their indigenous culture in favor of becoming full French citizens ended up becoming the intellectual fountainhead of the Algerian War for Independence.
The contextual importance for students concerned with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that settler-colonialism was, and continues to be, an important tool for policymakers in states attempting to establish hegemonic jurisdiction over a certain piece of territory. In the nineteenth century, Europeans and their nation-states perfected the settler-colonial process. In the twentieth century, settler-colonialism has been adopted by a number of states seeking to establish legitimacy and hegemonic jurisdiction, much to the detriment of indigenous populations everywhere.
As World War 2 came to a close the carnage on the eastern front of the war was readily apparent. Nobody had been spared on the eastern front, especially as the Wehrmacht and the Soviet military seesawed back and forth through the eastern and central parts of the continent. One thing that had become clear to many observers both within Europe and around the world is that those peoples who had managed to secure a nation-state for themselves, such as the Romanians or the Czechs, were in a much better position to both negotiate with conquering armies and provide refuge for those who needed it. The peoples who were not able to secure a nation-state for themselves had ended up like Europe’s Jews.
In 1947 the United Nations, a new organization charged with overseeing the orderly transition of British and French territories (amongst other things) voted to recognize the independence of Israel, a Jewish state in the British territory of Palestine. The vote was 72% in favor and 13% against with 15% abstaining. In 1948, Israel declared its independence and a war immediately ensued between the new Jewish state and its Arab neighbors. Like their Jewish neighbors, elites in the newly formed Arab states were attempting to build nations out of the ashes of British and French imperialism. Unlike their Jewish neighbors, however, the domestic legitimacy of elites within the new Arab states was far from established.
Arab states, in addition to attacking their new neighbor, expelled most of the Jews living within their borders. These Jewish communities had been in Arab lands for centuries. The expulsions weren’t a novel idea undertaken to establish domestic legitimacy, though. The expulsions were in response to the new Israeli state’s expulsion of Arabs from within its borders. These Arab communities had been in what is now Israel for centuries.
The population transfer between Jews and Arabs after the 1948 war was much more haphazard than the one between Greece and Turkey. The Treaty of Lausanne gave the population transfers a sense of respectability, even legitimacy, and most of the ethnic cleansing and demographic purges had been done prior to the official population swap anyway. The retaliatory expulsions undertaken by Israel and its Arab neighbors is also different from the post-imperial population transfers that took place on the Indian subcontinent as well. The scope and context of global events after the two world wars is important here, if only to keep larger historical processes connected in some superficial sense. When Pakistan and India split, Muslim families who had lived among Hindus for centuries had to pack up and leave for Pakistan, while Hindu families who had lived among Muslims for centuries had to pack up and leave for India. This process was undertaken just as haphazardly as in Palestine and the Aegean, but the sheer population density of the region ensured higher casualties than elsewhere.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict stands out from other post-colonial population transfers, though, in one important respect: the Arab states who had expelled Jews from their jurisdiction after the various wars with Israel were not interested in actually helping the Palestinians. The expulsion of Jews, the hostility geared towards Israel in state-run media outlets, and the occasional war against the Israeli state undertaken by Arab governments have largely been done so to shore up legitimacy domestically rather than to show solidarity with the Palestinian people. Palestinians, unlike Indians or Pakistanis or Czechs or Germans or Israelis or Turks or Greeks, did not (and do not) have a state of their own to be expelled to. Like the Jews of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Palestinians have been caught stateless in an era of nation-states.
On November 30, 2012 the same body that gave birth to Israel’s sovereignty, the United Nations, voted to grant the Palestinian people a measure of statehood. The vote was 73% in favor and 5% against with 22% abstaining. Partisans on the Palestinian side have lauded it as a big step in the right direction, though the Israelis have accused the Palestinians of acting in bad faith. In response to the bad faith, state-sponsored settlements in the West Bank have begun again after previous negotiations between the two groups agreed to halt further settlements inland.
The prominence of this conflict in Los Angeles is hard to grasp from a historical perspective. The United States is a global hegemon and UCLA, where I did my ethnographic snooping around, serves as a center of education for elites (Westwood is where elites send their youngest daughters to study, of course, but it is considered elite nonetheless) in one of the hegemon’s most important cities. The position of the US, Los Angeles, and UCLA doesn’t explain why the Indian-Pakistani conflict or the Greek-Turkish conflict do not seem to garner the same amount of intensity from the student body, though. One other angle that could be used to understand campus activism on the part of this conflict is that the US is, and has been, involved in most of (if not all) the major Middle Eastern wars since the collapse of British and French imperialism, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been exploited by Washington continuously in pursuit of a national interest.
Washington’s influence in the conflict does not necessarily explain its scope at UCLA either. Another angle to look at stems from a fellow anthropology student’s remark about the conflict. He wrote:
Perhaps the reason why activism around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is more pronounced in Los Angeles is because the US Government gives three billion dollars in aid to Israel every year.
This comment is striking to me as both an ethnographer and a student of politics and war for a couple of reasons, and helps to shed light on the conflict’s influence throughout the world despite the small magnitude of the thing. Three billion dollars is less than one half of one percent of the Los Angeles area’s gross domestic product (economic output). Additionally, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian territories – Israel’s closest neighbors that are on good terms with the United States – received around $3.37 billion in 2009 (Israel received $2.55 billion in 2009). If one takes into account aid that other Arab or Muslim states receive from the United States the amount comes out to around $18 billion dollars.
To logic behind the argument that money plays an important role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on UCLA’s campus thus looks something like this: “The cat is black, therefore it is unlikely to chase the car.” A deeper glance at the comment that money plays a role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at UCLA reveals a much more brighter and broader picture of the 60-year conflict, and one that ties in directly to some patterns in data that was gathered during fieldwork: the topic of Jews, Arabs and Muslims.
Both sides of the conflict on campus have tried their hardest to focus on the political situation of the Israeli state and the Palestinian governing authorities (Fatah and Hamas) and avoid talking about ethnicity or religion at all. We all know, however, that the social (and the economic) is intricately intertwined with the political, so I think there is something deeper that drives or fuels this conflict.
When speaking about Israel or the Palestinians, the students interviewed often slipped in their speech and the keywords mentioned above were uttered in relation to the conflicts in the region. These utterances – these slip ups – did not seem to be consciously undertaken. Both sides have maintained that they are inclusive groups who oppose racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, etc., but there is a sense of a spoken silence about some deeper underlying issues in the conflict: while members of both groups try to maintain a public discourse that is overtly political, the silence surrounding the rhetoric of the social and the economic is deafening (it is also worth noting that the rhetoric employed by both sides is something that may be affected by outside influences such as free speech codes on campus or the relative tolerance that life in the affluent parts of Los Angeles requires).
I suspect that there is still a lot of anti-Semitic prejudice on one side, and a lot of racism on the other.
Just curious: what are your thoughts on the Israeli-Palestinian mess? I know I’ve asked before, but writing is thinking and so is reading!