Three attitudes towards the Israel-Palestine conflict and what they mean for a possible solution.

August 4, 2009

I am sure there are more than three attitudes towards this conflict. Not because this conflict is so complex (in fact the conflict is astonishing simple and so are its possible solutions), but rather because there are so many people with opinions about it. These opinions overlap, presuppose and contradict each other. I only want to examine three types of attitudes into which most opinions can be categorized and the consequences of these attitudes for a possible solution.


The first attitude is completely focused upon Jewish identity to such a degree that the existence, identity and/ or history of the Palestinians are being denied. It is usually the first attitude anybody that takes an interest in this conflict is confronted with. It takes on many shapes, often sneaks up on you when the least expected, is the hardest to combat and gives one the experience of operating in the twilight zone where nothing makes sense anymore, where truth becomes lie and vice versa. When it comes to the Israel-Palestine conflict, a lot of things can be denied. A classic denial and one of the most infuriating ones is the denial of the fact that there are Palestinians ( “There is no such thing as a Palestinian people… It is not as if we came and threw them out and took their country. They didn’t exist.”– Golda Meir, statement to The Sunday Times, 15 June, 1969.). If there are no Palestinians then of course there is no problem, because there is nobody to talk to and there is nobody to negotiate with. The consequences of this absurd denial in terms of possible solutions are simple: no solutions whatsoever. The Palestinians that don’t exist will continue to live like animals in their refugee camps, or as secondary class citizens in neighboring countries and Israel itself.

Another famous denial is the denial of the rights of Palestinians as a people. This denial will focus around the idea that the Palestinians don’t really have an identity of their own and therefore shouldn’t have a land of their own. They exist only to bother the Israelis, to take their land and to drive them into the sea. The irony of this argument is that one has to acknowledge their existence to deny their identity. The consequence however is the same, since the identity of Palestinians as a people are not to be taken serious, then again there is no problem and no solution. Again the Palestinians continue to live like animals in their refugee camps, or as secondary class citizens in neighboring countries and Israel itself.

A third variation is that Palestinians do indeed exist and have some sort of identity but already have a country, namely Jordan. In this case the denial is the denial of a difference between Jordanians and Palestinians. So those unlucky people that were living on the spots the Jewish people had decided to settle on, have nothing to complain about, since they can always move to Jordan which is the real Palestine. The consequence of this particular variant is that there are a lot of proponents of the notion that all Palestinians should move to Jordan and Israel might be so generous in that case to give up West Bank to Jordan. They consider this a solution to the problem. Since the Palestinians are obviously not Jordans the consequence of this denial and solution is that the Palestinians will continue to live like animals in their refugee camps, or as secondary class citizens in neighboring countries (including Jordan) and Israel itself.

A fourth type of denial is the denial of Nabka. Nabka is the historical event in which a few hundred thousand Palestinians fled their homes when confronted with Israeli violence. Nabka denial itself takes on a few shapes. Some deny that such mass exodus ever took place; others admit that a mass exodus took place but was caused by Arab leaders urging the Palestinians to flee for the upcoming Arab-Israel war. Others admit that terror tactics were being used that led the Palestinians to flee but still deny responsibility for what is up to this very day an enormous refugee problem. The latter base themselves upon the notion that there is a lot of evil everywhere else in the world as well, that in war everything is justified. In other words, they believe in true Darwinian fashion that the founding of Israel justified terrorizing people out of their home. It is the same logic that is being used to this day in Israel’s expansion politics that demolishes Palestinian houses or simply evict Palestinians out of their houses to make room for Jewish boarders. To the extent that Nabka is denied, Palestinians continue to live like animals in their refugee camps, or as secondary class citizens in neighboring countries and Israel itself.

Finally, the most common type of denial, directly related to the denial of Nabka in all its variations, is the denial of the right to one’s own property and land. Even the most peace-loving activists, who acknowledge the horrors committed by the Irgun, they have no trouble denying Palestinians this basic human right. Whether the Palestinians fled the region on their own free will or out of terror, very few are capable to acknowledge the basic truth that one’s home and land remains one’s home and land, whether one temporarily leaves it or not. It is a fact that forms the basis of our economic system, without which a global market system would collapse, yet this basic right has been denied for 60 years now to the Palestinians. Palestinians that left their home before the 1948 Arab-Israeli war have according to these deniers no right to their old home and land. The consequence of this denial is the fact that no peace agreement can ever be complete as long as this denial is part of it. There cannot be a just peace as long as basic human rights are being violated. It is that simple.


A second attitude towards the Israel-Palestine conflict is what can be called the politics of identity. This attitude acknowledges the identity of two separate people and their right to self determination. Most of the peace activists that work to see this conflict solved operate within this framework. They look at the conflict from a particular identity while at the same acknowledging the identity of the opposing group. From a Jewish point of view, the identity that has to be preserved is one that has been under threat for a few thousands of years culminating in a Holocaust only 60 years ago. This fear of annihilation and the resolve to not let it happen again is not an accidental aspect of the Jewish identity but is central to it. Furthermore the thought took root that the only way for Jews to survive and preserve their identity was through establishing their own nation. The land of Israel thus became essential to the survival of the Jews. Zionism is the expression of this emphasis on identity and survival. To be a good Jew is to be a dedicated Zionist. To be a Zionist is to care for the land of Israel.

Solipsism and dualism both have Zionism in common. Both believe that Jewish identity cannot be preserved without the Jewish land; Jewish land in the sense that it has a majority of Jewish people living on it. What distinguishes the attitude of denial from the politics of identity however is that the latter also acknowledges the identity and rights of the other. While the deniers have no other and therefore don’t have to deal with the rights of the other, the identity politician struggles with the question of how both people can be treated fairly.
From a Palestinian point of view, their identity is equally linked with their struggle for survival. In their opposition to what was happening to them the Palestinians were forced to define and redefine what used to be a dormant identity for centuries. As a consequence of losing their lands and houses they were forced to develop an identity and symbolism of resistance.

Identity thinkers struggle with zero sum thinking. An acre of land can only belong to one people. The more the Israeli have the less the Palestinians have and vice versa. ‘Separate but equal’ is the paradigm. Identity thinking however is inherently false. As identity fundamentally is formed by the exclusion of the other, the other can never be fully incorporated in one’s own thinking. Denial unavoidably sneaks in. The more denial of the Palestinian as other occurs, the more rights of the other are being sacrificed on the altar of Jewish identity. The universe is forever divided between self and other, Jew and Arab, Jew and non-Jew. The identity of the other is being acknowledged, but the question remains to what extent the survival of the Jewish people warrants overriding the rights of the other. This question manifests itself in the proposals that identity thinkers form as a solution to the I-P conflict. Two state solutions are expressions of identity politics. However, as the other (the Palestinian) forever remains juxtaposed to the self (the Jew), the debate of how much the other should, could and will get is endless. The more one side wins the more the other side looses. The more land, water, resources etc the Palestinians get the less land the Jewish people will get. This rephrasing of the same thought is important, as it is at the heart of identity politics and the type of solution that follows out of it. The solution that follows from the identity attitude is always a bargain, the result of a negotiation process in which the strongest side will get the most. Within the context of the I-P conflict, it is obvious that the odds are heavily tilted towards the Israeli. They already carved a state for themselves, they have the support of the most powerful military in the world and have themselves developed the fourth strongest army in the world. It is hard to see how a two state solution could ever deliver a fair deal to the Palestinians.

Solipsism and dualism have defined the terms of the conflict since its beginning a century ago. The results are that the Palestinians to this day are living without a state and in effect under an Israeli occupation. In the most favorable proposals (the camp David proposal is to this day viewed as the most generous proposal the Palestinians ever received), tentative solutions carve up the land heavily in favor of the Israelis, leaving the Palestinians with patches of land that could never function as a sovereign nation. Furthermore, Israel, an economic and military powerhouse demands total military debilitation from the Palestinians as part of the bargain. The rights of the Palestinians to their old homes and land are usually not even part of the discussion as if it is normal to expect from the Palestinians to surrender their basic human rights. It is clear that neither solipsism nor dualism has lead to anything remotely fair for the Palestinians.


The third attitude I would like to discuss is the attitude that transcends both solipsism and the politics of identity. It is an attitude that sees beyond dividing the world into mine and yours; that in fact recognizes the dangers of doing so. This attitude speaks a different language. It has no need to rigidly defend itself because it is at ease in the world and its place in it. It realizes that identity is not dependent upon acres of land but upon the connection with the other. It realizes that there cannot be a self without the other. That both presuppose each other and that an error is being made when one assumes that one can exist without the other. It does not see the world in terms of Jews and Palestinians, or Jews and non-Jews, or Arabs and non-Arabs, but in terms of people that all belong to the same family. It doesn’t deny that there are differences between people, but understands that there is a deeper truth that underlies those differences. This attitude understands that one part of the family cannot take precedent over another part; that in fact the whole suffers when one part suffers. This attitude understands that our inter-connectedness ultimately does not allow for usurping the rights of others in order to preserve our own. By attempting to destroy the other we destroy ourselves as well. This is what Bishop Tutu means when he says that separate can never be equal. Ask anybody that lived under the Jim Crow laws or South African apartheid. Separate always means that some are better than others. Equality is based upon our connection to each other. It is based upon the fundamental truth that we have more in common with each other than we differ from each other. This communality invalidates any attempt to see some people as superior to other people, or to prioritize the rights of some over the rights of others. Communality invalidates the politics of identity. The latter can never lead to an authentic existence as long as it does not understand that what we share is more important than what separates us. If this language sounds rosy and soft it is only because one does not fully understand what this means. There is nothing easy about coming to realize how dependent we are upon each other. It is a lot easier to think of ourselves as autonomous and superior. Dualism is always easier for the mind to grasp than the underlying connection between self and other. Even more importantly, there is nothing easy about making this reality concrete. As anybody that was involved in the American civil rights struggle and had to battle the identity politics of white Americans, or ask those that were confronted with the fears of integration of South Africans if there is anything rosy about the battle for equal treatment. If it seems utopian it is only because it is so hard to achieve and we are so attached to the idea of ourselves as separated from the other. But when this illusion is broken, and we manage to create a society that has a place for everybody, we feel that we come closer to approaching true humanity.

It is obvious what such an attitude means for the Israel-Palestine conflict. True humanism is not satisfied with a bargaining process that emphasizes identity over communality, especially one that is so heavily slanted towards one side. It cannot find peace in the thought that some are worse off than others. It is not happy with zero sum thinking and doesn’t believe in dividing humanity into people we care for and people we don’t care for. While dualism believes that separation is necessary to preserve our identity and therefore our humanity, humanism believes that overcoming this separateness is what ultimately preserves our humanity. Identity is not lost in this process but transformed in such a manner that it includes our connection with each other. Dualism leads to two state solutions, humanism leads to one state solution. The same way that humanism incorporates the merits of dualism (the acknowledgement of otherness) and yet goes beyond it (in that it acknowledges the connection between self and other), so do one state solutions incorporate and transcend the merits of two state solutions. Jewish and Palestinian identities won’t be lost but enriched in such a reconfiguration. The paradox of identity is that it grows and expands when it is let go of. Holding on to old identities makes them bleed with hatred for otherness. Letting them intertwine with that otherness does not annihilate those identities but instead makes them more ‘true’. Jewish and Palestinian identity might blossom when they won’t have to worry about themselves so much. The sadness about battling identity politics is that ultimately it is not even in the benefit for identities to be kept separated from other identities. It is in the nature of identity to be intimately linked with others. Peace activists that are working towards a one state solution are often confronted with the accusation of anti-Semitism. It is the false assumption that identity requires separateness that leads to accusations of anti-Semitism. Once one understands how self and other are related to each other, the accusation of anti-Semitism becomes nonsensical. Instead one understands that the opposite is true, that the Jewish identity only has a future when it understands how it is intertwined with the rest of humanity. The one state solution, as the symbol of this inter-connectedness, does not lead to the demise of the Jewish people but their salvation.

None of this is foreign language to anybody living in a modern day multi-ethnic nation. It may sound high minded, but it is part of daily life for us that live in societies that attempt to be tolerant. We might not walk around formulating high minded thoughts on how connected we all are, but we all live in these connections and we become outraged when we see manifestations of racism and supremacy. The hope is that ultimately, Jews and Palestinians learn to care for each other in such a way that one hurts when the other one is hurting. That people living as animals without water and electricity or as secondary citizens cause as much uproar in Israel/Palestine as they do here in the US. For all the talk about the biblical origins of both Jews and Palestinians, a one state solution might be the only way to make this land truly biblical.


3 Responses to “Three attitudes towards the Israel-Palestine conflict and what they mean for a possible solution.”

  1. owlminerva Says:

    Hi Bob,
    Thank you for your insightful comments. You are right my ‘humanism’ is a little feeble. I also need to label it differently as it doesn’t really cover what is traditionally meant with by humanistic philosophy. I simply want to describe a way of looking at self and other that can be more productive in a conflict such as this one. So far denial (‘right’ Zionist) and identity thinking (‘left’ Zionists and two state peace activists) are the two logics that have been applied to this conflict. I believe that is why nothing has been accomplished so far, both logics lead to more conflict and alienation. I see a logic that transcends both being applied by Ali Abuminah. I worry that this conflict will go on forever if the best both people can come up with is ‘what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours type of thing’. Especially in a conflict as profoundly asymmetrical as this one, I cannot think of how anything remotely fair can be negotiated for those that are in the weakest position. It seems that identity thinking with inevitable lead to a bargaining process where the weakest will have to accept whatever is offered.

    • Bob Row Says:

      I’d like to thank you for point me to Abunimah’s work. I just read a few pages o his book at Amazon and I intend to follow his web pages. Notwithstanding, I doubt he got a wide audience amid the Palestinians.

      But, let me tell you a flaw I perceived at first sight in his tale of the conflict’s origins (one shared also by your text): it is shaped as a “the Zionist (or the Jews) did this or that, the Palestinians (or the Arabs) reacted this or that way” tale. Palestinians looks just as a passive subject of others acts; a sort of minority status which deserves compassionate care. Of course, this is a “half-true” way of presenting it.

      In 1973 (I was 20 y.o.) I wrote my first paper for History at the Buenos Aires U. My chosen subject was “The Bi-National option in the M.E. conflict”. What I found while searching for the preparatory framework was that the Arab nationalistic intellectual movement was as early and as European-style shaped as the Zionist movement was. They relied upon British aid to put an end to Turkish rule. As they dreamed of a united Arab realm, they weren’t aware of the many particular identities still to arise. A second generation started to realize this reality, mainly when under the new French and British colonial rules. Even after reaching independence such differences brought into many massacres both in Syria as in Lebanon, Iraq, etc.

      Religious nationalists like the Jerusalem Mufti Husseini (appointed by the Jewish British Governor H. Samuel instead more moderate, veteran clerics candidates) raised their own agenda of “Solipsism” and “ethnic cleansing”. He also chose the bad side in the war, becoming a close aide to Hitler. Well, he lost.

      At the time of the UNSCOP inquiry, the bi-national option was well backed from the Jewish side (compressed the biggest intellectuals, like Buber or Magnes, and the second Zionist party with most of the kibbutzim). From the Arab side there was a tiny group, led by a nephew of the Mufti, soon to be slain. It was a tragedy that let the Identity option as the sole player.

      A forgotten factor today (but important until 1939) was the Jewish workers Bund party, staunch anti-Zionist, with a stronghold in Poland. They were proponents of (socialists) multi-ethnic states with Parliament level representatives for each people regardless of it’s relative number. They became decimated by the Nazis and the post-War rulers rushed to send the Jewish remnants out of Europe.

      Millions of people got relocated (liked it or not) as the boundaries got reshaped; a lot of territories where assigned to lesser peoples (and East Prusia divided between Poland and the USSSR) but nobody wanted a Jewish State in Europe. They made Israel feasible despite the relative success of the Zionist propaganda amid the Jews before the Holocaust.

      Now, they have the responsibility to amend the damage. Together with the USA and the UN they must conduct fair negotiations (including compensations) and set the economic and military guaranties for a viable Palestinian State.
      The obstacles are immense (namely religious radicals from both sides). A Federation with regulated economic ties with Israel is desirable. But a unified State at this stage is just a call for relentless civil warfare. My best.

  2. bobrow Says:

    Hi, I stumbled into your post while searching for anything related to my last one in WordPress. Your blog lacks an author’s signature (Owlminerva, I believe?) or an About page, but this is secondary.

    The main thing is your thoughts are clear and articulated. I, on the other hand, are no a native English speaking person, so I’ll try to be concise.

    While your description of “solipsism” and “dualism” failed attitudes are well portrayed and discussed, your advocacy of “humanism” looks a bit feeble. It may be true from a philosophical point of view, but philosophies need to be adopted by some human agent (group, social class) interested in the benefits of adopting it.
    Belligerent options have clear beneficiaries (arms dealers, for instance), but the opposite is not so clear.
    The sudden unification of Palestinians and Israelis could show itself not so easy, as wages for Israeli workers would sunk and Palestinians will found itself at the bottom of the scale. To name just one prosaic problem.

    I was raised in a humanistic environment (Hashomer Hatsair) but I left it after the 1967 war, when I realized kibbutzim were profiting from the new colonial situation. I entered Israel on my own ten years after and worked together with Uri Avnery and others in the Peace camp for a while. Despite I met some good hearted Israeli Arabs I was able to notice the anger was increasing between the younger generation (teenagers) of both sides.
    Since then, mutual resentment and grievances increased exponentially.

    I still believe a unified coexistence of some kind is the desirable aim at the end of the road. But the immediate need is to cut the circle of suffering and retaliation. Both sides needs to achieve a respite to gain self confidence; to stop seeing the Other just as the Enemy and to be able to look at each other as the Neighbor (as Israelis and Egiptians do to some extent). For the Palestinians there’s a need to know how the experience of self governing is, before they can reach wider agreements with others as equals.

    This may be “a little step” towards a true coexistence and friendship. But an unavoidable one.

    My best


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