Category: Israel

In Search of a Higher State: A Short Essay Interview with Sari Nusseibeh by David Garyan

Sari Nusseibeh (photo by Dinu Mendrea)


In Search of a Higher State:
A Short Essay Interview with Sari Nusseibeh
by David Garyan

October 8th, 2023



“Truth is white, write over it / with a crow’s ink. / Truth is black, write over it / with a mirage’s light.” So begins the fourth stanza of Mahmoud Darwish’s piece, “To a Young Poet.” With the very next lines, however, the poet raises the stakes: “If you want to duel with a falcon / soar with the falcon.” If Mahmoud Darwish is Palestine’s poet, then Sari Nusseibeh is Palestine’s philosopher. Born a mere month before the conclusion of the Arab-Israeli war in 1949, the future thinker was in a sense defined by a moment. Since the creation of Israel in 1948, he was witnessed his homeland change. Anwar Nusseibeh, his father, was shot in the leg that same year by Israeli forces. He subsequently lost the limb.

Fortunately, neither loss nor history went on to embitter the son. Having led numerous peace efforts and spoken out vehemently against the use of force, Sari Nusseibeh has not gone down the predictable road. Instead of trying to dismantle the state of Israel, Professor Nusseibeh has spent much of his life trying to understand Israel’s true aspiration. In his view, this has been a limited success. When asked what it is that Israel really wants, the philosopher seemed not so much tongue-tied, but rather frustrated with the nation’s unidentifiable essence: “answering the question ‘What is it that Israel really wants?’ for me remains something of a mystery.” A powerful statement, especially when it comes from a man whose family can speak of a 1,400-year presence in the Holy Land.

Professor Nusseibeh is a sensible man. He understands the nature of nation-states. Competing interests—along with real and supposed threats against their existence—have prompted even the most democratic ones to take heavy-handed measures. The US’s internment of its Japanese population is only one examples of this.

Thus, Nusseibeh’s frustration with trying to understand the country that holds his homeland is, to say the least, understandable: “These are questions that continue to bother me—whether we are thinking of Israel or of other places. There are two components to these questions. Does Israel (or any political organism) have a core identity and a determined path that allows the observer to predict its future? For example, one might say—next to other essential features it has—that it is a colonial enterprise, set to possess itself of what doesn’t belong to it, and to dispossess natives of what naturally belongs to them. One could then look around for concepts associated with colonialism—e.g., expansionism—that will allow us to fine-tune our diagnosis and draw help from these in an attempt to better read Israel’s future trajectory.”

Many contemporary philosophers and activists have rightly branded the country’s actions as “colonial.” Others have even referred to it as an “apartheid state.” About the matter, Professor Nusseibeh had this to say: “If it [Israel] is bound by its core identity to appropriate the land it conquered in ’67, then of course, one could dismiss its declarations about being ready to withdraw from those territories.” That is precisely what seems to be happening. Others argue that Israel’s 2005 disengagement from Gaza runs contrary to the colonial, apartheid argument.

When looking at the facts closely, however, another picture seems to emerge. Not only was the enterprise of disengagement difficult from a logistical standpoint, it was even more gruesome from an emotional one. Many Israeli settlers—in Gush Katif, for example—refused to leave; they staged demonstrations; many broke down in tears, and some even referred to their own forces as “Nazis.” Eventually, authorities didn’t just accomplish their goals of disengagement, they also accomplished another, more important thing: They were able to make the rest of the world ask: “But at what cost was it all done?”

For better or worse, the government had made its point: The PR campaign associated not only with that specific disengagement, but disengagements in general, remains a telling story. Yet, there are more subtle issues besides land—the question of identity. Being a philosopher, Nusseibeh understands the complexities, challenges, and controversies behind the issue all too well: “the other component to this kind of question (What is Israel?) is whether Israel knows itself, i.e., knows itself to be exactly what its core identity defines it. This is a tricky issue. How do we define the ‘subject of knowledge’ here? The only measurable way for us to define this ‘subject’ in a ‘democratic’ system is by its elected governments and their actual policies. But here we come up against a difficulty that questions our initial assumptions: for many years after ’67, Israel’s labor leaders seemed willing to cede some conquered territory back to Jordan. This changed once the Likud came to power. Unless we take this change to be a mere con, what it tells us is that our definition of Israel’s core-identity was wrong: that its identity is not fixed in this respect but is changeable … for instance, that it can claim to be able to remain itself as a nation-state, even a democratic one, alongside a Palestinian state to which it cedes conquered territory. This, after all, is the creed of a sizeable part of its population.” The fact that Israel is a place where beliefs, opinions, and ideas are not homogenous is a trait it shares with many countries claiming a democratic essence. Israel, however, isn’t just another so-called democratic state—its borders also encompass the Holy Land. And so, even the seemingly straightforward issue of what to do with land (and how to use it) is something not universally agreed upon. While ceding territory may be unthinkable today, Israel is in fact no stranger to the act.

Years after its astounding success in the Six Day War, the victorious leadership eventually ceded the entire Sinai Peninsula to Egypt. Why? To make peace. The question thus becomes: Why are today’s leaders not willing to take similar steps? Perhaps, unlike Egypt, they don’t see Palestine as a formidable enough enemy. Nusseibeh seems to hint at this possibility. In his closing remarks to the question about what it is Israel really wants, he states: “But beyond trying to answer such a question, there is a yet more vexing one: perhaps Arab (military and political) failures have inexorably driven Israel (or its elected leadership) to become the voracious animal it has. If this is true, then we need to add another dimension to the problem of identity: that it is affected by the circumstances surrounding it, and therefore by the actions (or inactions) of its neighbors!”

But what about the past? The Jewish people have suffered a genocide (the Shoah). The Palestinians have suffered a catastrophe (the Nakba). I asked Professor Nusseibeh about the possibility of using this joint historical suffering as a starting point for a new “road map” for peace. His response: “I believe that the Shoah and the Nakba are incomparable, except by saying they are both causes of deep pain affecting entire communities. As an after-effect, the Nakba stripped the Palestinian people of their land. The Shoah stripped the Jewish people of existential security. The pains are thus generically different from one another. Does one party’s pain help them sympathize with that of another party? This is hard if the first party’s pain was caused by the second party. And it is also hard if the second party believes that its solution for existential insecurity consists precisely in that which they know is a cause for the pain of the first party. That is to say, their different and somehow mutually exclusive pains make it hard to use them as the stepping-stone for a reconciliation between the two. I think this leaves us with having to look elsewhere … maybe for pragmatic considerations affecting the lives of the two communities. I think practical wisdom will be needed here. As matters stand now the future does not bode well for either community. That future is what needs to be looked into, and it is perhaps future pain that must be avoided or minimized.” Sari Nusseibeh’s response offers neither optimism nor pessimism—only a sobering reality. Where do we go from here? Is Palestine destined to become the title of the brave professor’s book—“once upon a country?” Only time will tell.


For the purpose of reference and transparency, the following questions and responses (exchanged via email during the period of April 2021 through October 2022) were used to craft the essay interview.

David Garyan: Ever since the creation of Israel in 1948, authorities there have continually instituted various measures to prevent the assimilation of non-Jews into mainstream Jewish society (mainly to ensure that Palestinians cannot participate in Israel’s political and civic process); the 2018 Nation-State Law may perhaps be considered the most outward manifestation of that policy, granting only Jews the right to pursue national self-determination in Israel, establishing Hebrew as Israel’s official language while downgrading Arabic to the level of special status, and, lastly, establishing Jewish settlement as a national value, meaning that the state can now openly promote such developments. It seems to be that Israel neither wants a two-state solution, nor even a one-state solution in which all citizens are considered equal, able to participate fully in all aspects of life—such approaches, whether we support them or not, have led newspapers like Al Jazeera and even an Israeli general to make the rather cliché yet emotionally charged parallel to Nazi Germany. While the comparison is rather inappropriate and more or less futile, it nevertheless makes sense to ask what it is that Israel really wants—and not just with regard to the Palestinians living there but also for itself, if not a two-state solution or even assimilation?

Sari Nusseibeh: These are questions that continue to bother me—whether we are thinking of Israel or of other places. There are two components to these questions. Does Israel (or any political organism) have a core identity and a determined path that allows the observer to predict its future? For example, one might say—next to other essential features it has—that it is a colonial enterprise, set to possess itself of what doesn’t belong to it, and to dispossess natives of what naturally belongs to them. One could then look around for concepts associated with colonialism—e.g., expansionism—that will allow us to fine-tune our diagnosis and draw help from these in an attempt to better read Israel’s future trajectory. If it is bound by its core identity to appropriate the land it conquered in ’67, then of course, one could dismiss its declarations about being ready to withdraw from those territories. But the other component to this kind of question (What is Israel?) is whether Israel knows itself, i.e., knows itself to be exactly what its core identity defines it. This is a tricky issue. How do we define the ‘subject of knowledge’ here? The only measurable way for us to define this ‘subject’ in a ‘democratic’ system is by its elected governments and their actual policies. But here we come up against a difficulty that questions our initial assumptions: for many years after ’67, Israel’s labor leaders seemed willing to cede some conquered territory back to Jordan. This changed once the Likud came to power. Unless we take this change to be a mere con, what it tells us is that our definition of Israel’s core-identity was wrong: that its identity is not fixed in this respect but is changeable … for instance, that it can claim to be able to remain itself as a nation-state, even a democratic one, alongside a Palestinian state to which it cedes conquered territory. This, after all, is the creed of a sizeable part of its population. So, answering the question ‘What is it that Israel really wants?’ for me remains something of a mystery. But beyond trying to answer such a question, there is a yet more vexing one: perhaps Arab (military and political) failures have inexorably driven Israel (or its elected leadership) to become the voracious animal it has. If this is true, then we need to add another dimension to the problem of identity: that it is affected by the circumstances surrounding it, and therefore by the actions (or inactions) of its neighbors!

David Garyan: Today, a word like Nakba does not capture the same cultural consciousness as Shoah. And yet, this is not a “competition.” We must look at both tragedies for what they are—unnecessary suffering. Do you see any parallels between these events, and could this shared plight perhaps serve as the foundation for a new “roadmap for peace?”

Sari Nusseibeh: I believe that the Shoah and the Nakba are incomparable, except by saying they are both causes of deep pain affecting entire communities. As an after-effect the Nakba stripped the Palestinian people of their land. The Shoah stripped the Jewish people of existential security. The pains are thus generically different from one another.

Does one party’s pain help them sympathize with that of another party? This is hard if the first party’s pain was caused by the second party. And it is also hard if the second party believes that its solution for existential insecurity consists precisely in that which they know is a cause for the pain of the first party. That is to say, their different and somehow mutually exclusive pains make it hard to use them as the stepping-stone for a reconciliation between them. I think this leaves us with having to look elsewhere … maybe for pragmatic considerations affecting the lives of the two communities. I think practical wisdom will be needed here. As matters stand now the future does not bode well for either community. That future is what needs to be looked into, and it is perhaps future pain that requires to be avoided or minimized.


About Sari Nusseibeh

Sari Nusseibeh is the former President of Al-Quds University, the only Arab university in Jerusalem. He is also a professor of philosophy. He co-founded The People’s Voice, an Israeli-Palestinian grass-roots organization which advocates peace between Israel and Palestine. In 2001 and 2002, he was the chief representative of the PLO in Jerusalem, advocating a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. He is the author of Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life. He lives in Jerusalem.

Looking in From the Outside: The Arab-Israeli Conflict, an article by David Garyan

12/05/2021
Ravenna, Italy

 

Looking in From the Outside: The Arab-Israeli Conflict

For a sensible person, aware of history’s complexities, it should not be difficult to feel sympathy for the plight of the Jewish people; aside from the well-known atrocities committed against them during WWII, the more “obscure” cruelties, such as those perpetrated by the Russian Empire, for example, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, are mostly topics for academics; in other words, everyone knows places like Auschwitz or even Dachau, but rarely do you ever hear about the Odessa pogroms, which, starting in 1821, occurred on average every twenty years or so until 1905.

In addition, the historical persecution of Jews, which, according to some scholars can not only be traced back to a place in antiquity, the Roman Empire, but also be given a specific date, 38 CE—the advent of the Alexandrian riots, which began under Emperor Caligula when he sent the King of Judea, Herod Agrippa, unannounced to Alexandria, something that angered the Greeks, causing riots to break out. Subsequently, the more brutal 66 CE riots of Alexandria reveal a continuation of tensions between Jewish inhabitants and their neighbors. A primary account by the historian Josephus describes the following: “The Romans showed no mercy to the infants, had no regard for the aged, and went on in the slaughter of persons of every age, until all the place was overflowed with blood, and 50,000 Jews lay dead. And the remainder would have perished as well, had they not put themselves at the mercy of city’s governor, Tiberius Julius Alexander. He felt pity and gave orders to the legionaries to retire.” A gruesome picture and it only gets worse four years later, when Emperor Titus together with that very same governor, Alexander, at his command, go on to capture the city of Jerusalem, totally razing both the city and its Temple (indeed, this is that destruction which many Jews to this day view as the ultimate catastrophe for their people because, for one, unlike the first time under Nebuchadnezzar II, it was never rebuilt, and secondly, in many ways, the Jews once again became an “exiled” people).

Throughout the Middle Ages, things don’t change much for the better. Jewish communities are blamed for the Black Death, accused of witchcraft or poisoning wells, and many innocent people are killed as a result in massacres such as those which occurred in the German city of Erfurt in 1349.

Indeed, right down from antiquity, the Jews have not had the most pleasant historical legacy, and this by any stretch of the imagination. Consequently, the curious question we must ask ourselves, hence, is the following: Why do Jewish authorities in Israel now subject Palestinians to experiences which aren’t radically different from the ones they themselves suffered living under the Roman Empire, and later all across Europe? With poverty rates as high as eighty-five percent in some Palestinian areas, the conditions depicted below not only rival but exceed those of the historical Jewish ghettos.

After the 2007 Battle of Gaza, the narrow stretch of territory with access to the sea, bordering Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, fell under the control of Hamas, which can be considered the more “militant” wing seeking Palestine’s liberation, and things have not improved one way or another; the problem is that, precisely, in some ways, it may not really matter who ultimately governs Gaza—saints or sinners, for lack of better words; the area, although under de facto Palestinian control, remains utterly dependent on Israel. According to a recent article in Al Jazeera, Gaza “relies on Israel for most of its energy needs. Its population of two million currently receives about six hours of electricity followed by a 10-hour power cut.” In addition to this, Israel has exacerbated the situation by closing “its lone commercial crossing with Gaza and banned sea access, shutting down commercial fishing.” Routine actions like this are naturally a response to Hamas’s occasional escalations of violence; these phenomena, however, can likewise be interpreted as a reaction to the frustration of living under Israeli occupation, and it would be rather hard to believe that the only thing Hamas really wants to do is harm innocent Jewish civilians.

Aside from electricity, water sanitation is another major problem. As with electricity, Palestinian water resources are largely controlled by Israel, and, according to a report published in 2017 by the Rand Corporation, «a five-year-old boy died in the Gaza Strip after swimming in seawater polluted with sewage.» Further, the report states that incidents like this, unfortunately, are more common than we want to believe. While the West Bank certainly fares much better in terms of the aforementioned issue, «less than 11 percent of Gaza’s population had access to safe drinking water through the public network,» according to the same report. In addition, the highly-prized Area C of the West Bank, where, according to the UN, Israel retains near exclusive control,» is precisely the place in which most of the «West Bank’s natural resources and open spaces, including the sparsely populated Jordan Valley, are located,» according to a National News article. And yet, according to a 2013 World Bank report, less than «one percent of Area C, which is already built up, is designated by the Israeli authorities for Palestinian use; the remainder is heavily restricted or off-limits to Palestinians, with 68 percent reserved for Israeli settlements, 21 percent for closed military zones, and 9 percent for nature reserves.» Having access to Area C, hence, would perhaps not cure all of Palestine’s economic woes, but it could «expand their struggling economy by a third and halve their budget deficit if Israel allowed them to use the 61 per cent of West Bank territory that is now largely off-limits.» The image below from Gaza summarizes the entire situation quite well.

It can thus be said that the majority of Palestinians living in Gaza and some of those in the West Bank as well have nothing but poisonous water to draw from their wells, literally and metaphorically speaking; this is unacceptable and regardless of which position we may choose to take in this conflict, the dignity of people must be protected, but this is merely the humble opinion of a human rights student.

Being Armenian, I sympathize greatly with Palestine, mainly because of Jerusalem, which, as many know, is divided into four quarters: Jewish, Christian, Armenian, and Muslim (listed in no particular order of preference); appropriately, then, we can say that the city is neither Jewish, nor Christian, nor Armenian, nor Muslim, but it’s all of those things at the same time. In this respect, the easiest way for Christians, let’s say, to best feel the plight of Palestinian people is to be told that Jerusalem is entirely Jewish in character and has no connection to Christianity whatsoever. Just for a second, take a look at this photo—it depicts the Church of Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and it has stood there since approximately 335 CE; this, however, isn’t the most fascinating part. In the most unexpected fashion, the main caretakers and guardians of this church, for over a thousand years, have been the Nusseibehs—an aristocratic family of neither Christian, nor Jewish origin, but, followers of Islam, capable of tracing their roots back to Jerusalem more than 1,300 years, all the way to the prophet Muhammad, that is. As you may have noticed by now, Jerusalem is complex, and it belongs to everyone who has a genuine claim.

It’s infuriating, hence, to hear Israel tell not only Palestinians but also the entire world exactly the opposite—indirectly for years and now overtly with the 2018 Nation State Law, that Israel is a country “that is different from all others in one way, that it is the nation-state of the Jewish people.” And yet, even the most ignorant simpleton strolling through Jerusalem’s Armenian or Muslim quarter will somehow sense that Israel isn’t just the nation-state of the Jewish people. For thousands of years, different people have inhabited the Holy Land—some are still there while others are gone—and telling Palestinians that Israel is a Jewish state is precisely like telling me, an Armenian, for example, that I have absolutely no connection to Jerusalem, even though there’s a quarter there. A well-written Reuters article from ten or so years ago describes how with gradual measures such as refusal of identity cards and withdrawal of residence rights, Israel is slowly trying to edge out its Armenian presence as well.

The 1980 Jerusalem Law, which is nothing but a covert guise for East Jerusalem’s annexation—utterly and totally unrecognized by the UN—is an ideology that not just politicians hold in high regard. Initially-innocent-looking, well-meaning, but really rather ridiculous articles such as this one from 1975, by what must’ve been, and probably still is (if alive) a disgruntled rabbi by the name of Yakov Goldman have attempted to use words instead of missiles or rather a missile of words to achieve their political objectives.

Ah, fascinating! Indeed, quite fascinating, Rabbi Goldman. So, you’re telling me that if other people live in the Armenian Quarter and we call it the Armenian Quarter that, somehow, is a travesty? Well, if that’s the case, why don’t we go ahead and stop calling Jerusalem a Jewish city, and, while we’re at it, let’s also stop pretending that Israel is a Jewish state, because, clearly, the Palestinians have and continue to live there, and if, by God Almighty, it has to have a name, as you’ve so correctly pointed out, let’s find a different moniker for your state—isn’t that a more wonderful suggestion? I think so.

Both the American historian David Howard-Pitney and US President Barack Obama (two figures whose level of fame is diametrically opposed—nothing we should hold against one or the other) believe that history is a burden. “For both of them,” according to Jennifer Mercieca and Justin S. Vaughn, authors of The Rhetoric of Heroic Expectations, “it was as much a burden foisted upon them by tradition as one taken up by choice. And for both of them, this burden inspired action. Whether it is the divine history of the Exodus or the divinized history of the Founders, the memory of the past functions as a goad to social action, a profound investment of political agency.” History, in this sense, has been precisely that burden for both the Israelis and Palestinians; for the former, the Holocaust was and continues to be viewed as a great tragedy and yet it was exactly this event which at once and finally convinced later Zionists of the key tenet in Herzl’s philosophy—that anti-Semitism will always exist and, thus, the only resolution is a Jewish state, which was eventually formed.

For Palestinians—a people fortunate enough never to have experienced the horrors equivalent to such destruction—the burden of history has paradoxically been far less kind than it has to the Jewish people; as of today, they’re individuals of a nation without a state living under the occupation of a nation who for the longest time didn’t have a state themselves, but were forced to create one precisely on those territories which the current people without a state had historically inhabited, and the reason for the creation of this state had to do with the persistent historical persecution of those people who had lacked statehood before but are now inhabiting precisely those territories on which the current people without a state feel they have a right to establish their own.

It’s all very complex and the history isn’t something that will be dealt with here, but what isn’t complicated at all is something I’ve not only hinted at but have said directly: Human beings deserve to be treated with dignity and respect and Israel, being the occupying power, has largely not lived up to those ideals. Problems largely stem from Israel’s aggressive expansionist and annexation policies, most of which, if not all, are considered illegal under international law. To be fair, as part of the peace plan with Egypt in 1979, along with agreements in the 1993 Oslo Accords, Israel did dismantle many of the settlements in Palestinian territories, but since then, it has largely continued its previous modus operandi of encroaching on lands which aren’t meant for them. When Israel annexed the Golan Heights (territory internationally recognized as part of Syria) only two years later, along with Trump’s subsequent recognition of that annexation in 2019, it was under the guise of providing a safety buffer for its actual borders, but, in reality, such encroachments are merely strategies to give Israel a more Jewish character; tactics like this may seem appealing in the short-run, but given that no nation state is really composed of one homogenous population, the subjugation and repression of minority voices is always bound to backfire, and, indeed it has.

Not only have the decisions of Israel and Trump led to an escalation in the conflict, but they have also seriously crippled whatever diplomatic channels may have existed in helping to foster dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in 2017 has formally brought an end to what was achieved during the Oslo Accords in 1993—the PLO’s recognition of Israel and its right to exist, along with Israel’s recognition of the PLO as the sole voice of the Palestinian people. Since those most recent events two and four years ago, respectively, the PLO has withdrawn its recognition of Israel and cut ties with the US; in addition, Palestine threatens to sever relations with all those nations which move their embassies to Jerusalem, a move which could potentially further isolate Palestine, as some US allies will invariably choose to go ahead anyways.

Most news outlets, naturally, portray the conflict with broad brushstrokes—Palestinian “terrorists” launch rockets from Gaza and Israeli “forces” defend against this “aggression.” No subtlety, little historical awareness, and even less understanding, in many ways, also of current events—strangely. For some odd reason or other, no one is really quick to point out that Netanyahu’s constant, and, more unfortunately, blatant disregard of international law is a type of terrorism—indeed, there are no guns or rockets fired, but people’s lives are uprooted and metaphorically disfigured forever. Why should Palestinian residents freely give up their homes to illegal Jewish settlers in Sheikh Jarrah, for example? In addition, the (not) good PM’s pledge to annex all Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territories have led a major Jewish newspaper to label him the “undertaker of the two-state solution.”

It’s no secret that this so-called funeral director for all non-Israeli ambitions has repeatedly stated, according to The Guardian, that no Palestinian state will ever come into existence so long as he’s in power; this, ladies and gentlemen, is terrorism in its most white-collar form, and yet the only thing that most major credible news outlets besides Al Jazeera choose to focus on are the horrible actions of perhaps some frustrated Palestinian «terrorists» in Gaza who’ve somehow managed to get a rocket past Israel’s incredibly sophisticated air defense system (the notorious Iron Dome in service since 2011); when the rockets, however, start flying the other way—to a place which cannot shoot down 90 percent of trajectories coming their way, it’s all for the sake of defending the state, all because Palestinians simply don’t have one, and, thus, have nothing worth defending.

In response to a friend’s despair that General Burgoyne had been defeated at Saratoga, which effectively brought about the end of British ambitions in Colonial America, Adam Smith said the following: “Be assured, young friend, that there is a great deal of ruin in a nation.” The quote has been interpreted in a number of ways—from strong countries can cope with poor policies to it takes a whole lot of work (in this case bungling) for political leaders to bring down a country which is prosperous and powerful. Despite what Smith may or may not have meant, I prefer the following interpretation: For a new nation to rise, it must first be ruined in order to be truly born anew. It’s hard to deny that Israel has done anything but bring Palestine to that brink. If Palestinians can hang on long enough, I truly believe that like all people who’ve ever wanted to be free, they may not get everything they wanted, but they will eventually find their freedom.

 

About David Garyan

David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with (DISS)INFORMATION, a full collection with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He is currently studying International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage at the University of Bologna. He lives in Ravenna.

Armenia and Israel: Politically Divorced, Culturally United, an article by David Garyan

30/10/2020
Ravenna, Italy

 

Armenia and Israel: Politically Divorced, Culturally United

In this time of war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the latter being supported by Turkey and Islamic jihadists, I really don’t know if the ordinary people of these respective nations can really be friends anymore. Even before the conflict, it’s difficult to deny that ethnic tensions—between common individuals as well—have always existed. Indeed, as mature adults, we can all take part in the song and dance of politeness; we can even smile at each other without placing any warmth into our gestures; we can pretend and continue to live as if nothing serious is happening or has happened in the past, but this would all be a lie. In the end, the shallow politeness thoroughly meaningless because, let’s face it, for a Turkish person, it’s easier to establish a sense of camaraderie with someone from Azerbaijan, and, likewise, an Armenian would face fewer challenges becoming friends with individuals from Greece, just as an example.

Many times already I’ve stated that as an idealist in the Don Quixote style I’ve always thought and continue to think that everyone deserves to be judged based on their own experiences and traits, but why is this so difficult to do? Moreover, why can it be that the former premise’s logic sounds so true on the surface, yet, the very fundamental argument itself should be so hard to embrace in real life? In the most realistic sense, I don’t think it’s quite controversial to say, just as an example, that ordinary Jews and Palestinians would have a harder time forming lasting friendships with each other than with another party whose nation both individuals, respectively, aren’t engaged in a conflict with; let’s stop being idealistic for a second and recognize that wars between states (whether historical or current), genocides (again, historical or current), or any other conflicts certainly do affect, to a large extent, how everyday citizens affected by them will engage one another.

Why is the truth so hard to accept? The victims, in the case of the Jewish nation, for example, can be comforted in their suffering (relatively speaking) if the perpetrator—Germany—takes every conceivable step to not only apologize but also make amends. Even after all the reparations Germany has paid over the years—even after all the genocide memorials it has erected (like the one below in Berlin, which I visited in 2018) to commemorate the Shoah, many survivors of that tragic event, like Sonia Warshawski, still refuse to “forgive,” which is understandable, as per her logic.

For Warshawski, who stated the following, forgiveness was something that had to come from God, not herself: «I shall never forget. I shall never forgive. Why I say I cannot forgive? Because forgiveness, in my opinion, has borders. How in the world can I tell you I forgive? I will feel ashamed, embarrassed, what I have seen those people dying, those terrible things. Who am I that I can forgive? This has to come from a higher power. Not from me. This is impossible. I would be wrong.» Her statement makes sense in the end because she ultimately concludes it by saying there’s no hatred in her heart; that would be self-destructive, but forgiveness is another thing.

If that’s the standard we were to apply, then, how are Armenians supposed to feel anything but animosity towards the Turkish state, which has, for one, made no attempt to pay any reparations, and secondly, refused to recognize our own suffering; in addition, what are we supposed to do when, to this day, the vehement campaign of denial continues? It naturally benefits the perpetrator’s state (both in terms of politics and mentality) for the victim to stay silent and pretend like nothing has happened. In this respect, to be quite honest, I’m always a little upset when Turkish people are extremely nice to me. Although I appreciate it, I often feel cheated because while their gestures can be interpreted in very positive ways, the positivity of such “friendliness” also plays a large role in pushing this unresolved issue of the genocide, along with the general tension between us (which does exist), further into the corner; that’s exactly what I mean by the song and dance of politeness—the more “positive” it is, the more damage it really does, and the harder it tries to be friendly, the more forceful this effort of taking out the obvious “tension” from the equation becomes.

Now, am I saying Jews and Palestinians can’t be friends? No, because there are plenty examples of that and even marriages between the two (the most famous being a celebrity union between Lucy Aharish, the «first Arab to anchor a Hebrew-language program on Israeli television,» according to Deutsche Welle, and Tzachi Halevi, an Arabic speaking Jewish actor who appeared in a Netflix TV show called Fauda). Suffice it to say, there was plenty of backlash, according to that same Deutsche Welle article, which only proves my point, but still, things like this happen and are by no means an impossibility. «We’re signing a peace accord,» the couple joked to an Israeli newspaper.

Likewise, am I saying Armenians and Turks can only hate each other? No, because there are plenty examples which prove the contrary and marriages too. Like in the case of Israelis and Palestinians, just think of the Turkish-born Armenian academic Daron Acemoglu (one of the pre-eminent economists in the world and the most cited one in the past ten years who married his Turkish spouse—another academic, Asuman Özdağlar, with whom he has two children).

Indeed, things like this may and do happen, but that’s not the point at all. While Acemoglu’s marriage hasn’t brought about the same criticism as the aforementioned Israeli-Palestinian one, it’s nevertheless a rare occurrence because of the animosities that such marriages can create, as we’ve already seen. What I’m saying, thus, is that it’s better, especially now, not to deceive ourselves regarding the tension which exists and has always existed between our peoples. To say that Armenians respect Turks and Azeris as much as they respect everyone else would be a mistake because that’s not true by any stretch of the imagination, and neither is it true for the other parties involved. If we pretend there are no problems and continue going about our business, smiling at each other, continuing the song and dance of politeness, then we miss the chance to solve the very issues we have—entirely for the reason that we do continue going about our lives in a manner that suggests there are no problems at all. We pretend there are none, so there must be none. Resolutions, however, don’t come out of nowhere; they arise precisely out of conflicts, and only through our willingness to face them can they truly manifest.

Well, why am I saying all of this—the article is about Jewish and Armenian cultural connections, solidarity, and similarities. Like all of my pieces that meander, however, there’s also a point, here, for all that I’ve written as well. Now that Israel is openly selling weapons to Azerbaijan and making no qualms about it, the natural tendency would be to ignore the problem and go on with our existence; nevertheless, I think this approach would entail making the same mistake as I’ve described above—the pleasant song and dance of politeness that means absolutely nothing to anybody.

Instead of playing games with my emotions and hiding the way I feel, I would like to come out and say that, yes, I’m deeply troubled and upset by the realpolitik Israel is conducting. As a nation which has endured genocide as well, and one which actively promotes their suffering as “unique” from what other people have suffered, I find it rather discouraging that their government would act in this manner.

Naturally, it’s quite unfortunate that, unlike Azerbaijan, Armenia has very little it can offer Israel, as highlighted by a recent opinion piece published in Haaretz, aptly titled, «Disunited by Genocide: How Armenia’s Relations With Israel Have Come to a Dead End.» Indeed, as the author says, firstly, we don’t have oil; secondly, we neither have money to buy Israeli weapons nor can we provide the much-needed bases for their planes to use in case Iran gets belligerent—it’s imperative for us to get along with Iran because together with Georgia (the only other border open to us) we have no more outlets to the world. However, Israel hates Iran because it’s their number one enemy, and so it goes ad nauseam; furthermore, Israel has been relying on Azeri oil for decades and the former’s relations with Iran aren’t exactly great. Isn’t it just a wonderful example of having your hands tied? As the author writes, «From Israel’s perspective, the notional brotherhood between Armenians and Jews, sharing the same destiny as victims of genocide, was not as meaningful as robust economic, strategic, and cultural relations with Turkey.» Enough said.

Truly, in the end, it doesn’t matter that Jerusalem—one of the holiest sites in the world—has an Armenian Quarter; it doesn’t matter that both people suffered unspeakable horrors and that there are many Armenians who protected Jews during the Shoah (according to the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, there are 24 such names to be found among the Righteous Among the Nations); it doesn’t matter that Armenians will forever be indebted to some of the greatest Jewish writers like Franz Werfel, Vasily Grossman, and Osip Mandelstam (pictured below in his more fortunate years) for bringing international attention to their suffering. None of this culture, solidarity, and history really matters for politics because it’s no different than trying to feed a starving person with religion; it’s all good and well, but the lofty sentiments are simply of no use for the person who needs something tangible—food, clothing, and oil, perhaps.

By no means am I drawing a parallel between Israel and a starving person; what I am doing is highlighting the fact that for countries to ensure political stability, they need something more than lofty ideals to bring it about. We can’t offer Israel any of that because like them, we find ourselves, once again, in the same position of being surrounded by hostile powers—the US, thousands of miles away, is basically the only lifeline Israel has, while Russia, much nearer for us, is our own equivalent. We must play by their tune or risk being wiped out, and, thus, any Western reform that Armenia wants to institute—well, it better think twice about that, because if Russia doesn’t like it, then goodbye to that security, which is by and large exactly how things transpired during the leadership of the progressive Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who most likely took it a little too far with his ambitious Western reforms; Russia is, hence, not to “rushing” to help us during our most pressing time of need. After all, it’s not difficult to imagine what Putin is thinking: If you want help, go ask America and Europe, both of whom you’ve been courting these past two years. Fair enough, I guess.

Again, what’s the point? The point is precisely politics and it’s nothing personal. At the end of the day, although I’m angry with Israel’s continued selling of weapons to Azerbaijan, I can’t let go of my sympathy towards the Jewish people themselves, along with the solidarity our people ultimately share, and the impact their writers and artists have made on our culture, and visa versa. I still plan on visiting Israel, walking among the streets of the Armenian Quarter, touching the Western Wall, visiting the Dead Sea, and lively Tel-Aviv.

When all the dust has settled, so to speak, at least in the context of politics, I really don’t think this hypothetical question is relevant to our discussion: Would Armenia, for example, placed in the same difficult geopolitical position of necessity, sell weapons to Palestine—with the knowledge that they would use them to attack Israel? I don’t like to think about it because, if forced, as Israel today is, Armenia would probably act much the same way, and the reason for this being that culture and religion, like I’ve already said, provide no sustenance for the physical body; ultimately, politics deal very little with the metaphysical realm, insofar as ideals concern their existence, at the very least.

This article, however, is about culture and history; on these pages, the shared pain of genocide and suffering do matter. Werfel, Grossman, and Mandelstam can be heard. The historical presence of Armenians in the city of Jerusalem is relevant and is certainly felt. I must admit that I feel positively overwhelmed as I write this. In a strange way, I feel more connection to Israel than I’ve ever felt. I want to go there, take in the history, talk to the people, listen to their stories, tell them where I’m from, and just connect with them on a human level—outside the context of politics. I know this is possible because of how much we really have in common with each other. It’s a history that no amount of money, oil, economic advantage, or military superiority can equal.

Anyone who studies the past will be aware that the Ottoman Empire had to collapse in order for the Jews to have a chance at statehood in Palestine, a territory which the aforementioned empire controlled at that time. After WWI, as most of us know, that empire crumbled, and with this development arose the opportunity for the English finally to realize the goal of the Balfour Declaration, effectively leading to the creation of a Jewish state some thirty years later, something which wouldn’t have been possible without the Ottoman defeat that necessitated their relinquishing of Palestine to the victorious British. And today, while the mighty Turks have long gone, the Armenian presence in Jerusalem has remained.

I feel incredibly proud that we should have the distinction of having our own quarter, and while many people feel that it separates us from the rest of the Christian community in the city, I feel just the opposite, despite the fact that according to Adnan Abu Odeh’s article, “Religious Inclusion, Political Inclusion: Jerusalem as an Undivided Capital,” published in the Catholic University Law Review, “Armenians consider their quarter to be part of the Christian Quarter.” I certainly sympathize with this notion; however, Christianity itself is something unique for the Armenians as they were the first nation to adopt it as their official state religion.

Indeed, the Armenian presence in Jerusalem predates the Turkish arrival by at least a thousand years, when the former began arriving to the holy city shortly after their conversion to Christianity in the fourth century, whereas the Turks entered Europe only in the 14th century, and Jerusalem even later, in the 16th century; clearly, then, it isn’t “our city” or a city “from us,” as the great dictator known as Erdogan recently claimed—one of his most outrageous but nevertheless not his sole asinine remark.

Places aren’t the only thing which links Jewish people with Armenians. There are also important figures. I will not discuss every last person, historical personality, and event that connects our people; my aim will be to mention those Jews, like Werfel, Grossman, and Mandelstam, who’ve spoken and written at length about Armenia, mainly to try and convince my fellow countrymen that while it’s completely acceptable to be angry at Israel at this moment (let’s not fall prey to the song and dance of politeness), we shouldn’t forget that the Jewish people themselves are really not our enemies. In my heart, I’m convinced that the majority of Jews don’t approve of this particular action their government has taken, if only on a moral level. I believe that the people living in a nation which has endured the Shoah (an event so recent that some survivors are with us to this day) stand in solidarity with Armenians during our difficult time and it’s completely inconceivable to me how so many people with a direct and indirect connection to such a horrific event could be anything but upset—on a moral level—with the current actions of their government.

As I’ve said, there’s no room for politics in this article; it’s about people like Franz Werfel, without whom the Armenian Genocide would’ve been mostly forgotten had he not written The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. So powerful and popular was the book, that the Turkish lobby had to go through considerable lengths just to stop the movie from being made by MGM. In his foreword to the almost 900-page novel, Werfel wrote the following: “This book was conceived in March of the year 1929, during the course of a stay in Damascus. The miserable sight of maimed and famished-looking refugee children, working in a carpet factory, gave me the final impulse to snatch the incomprehensible destiny of the Armenian people from the Hell of all that had taken place.” When I read the book a year ago, I couldn’t for one second—nor did I want to—ever put down the book. I must reiterate that it’s definitely not an understatement to say that the event would’ve been largely forgotten were it not for Werfel’s efforts. Here he is pictured with representatives of the French-Armenian community, most likely in Paris.

A less well-known example is Vasily Grossman—the great Russian novelist, and dissident. Born on December 12th, 1905, in Berdichev, Ukraine, he volunteered to become a frontline correspondent after the outbreak of WWII. Along with being present at the Battle of Moscow, the Battle of Stalingrad, the Battle of Kursk, and the Battle of Berlin, his account of the horrors at the Treblinka and Majdanek concentration camps are among the first eyewitness accounts of Nazi atrocities committed against the Jews. His extensive 1944 account, The Hell of Treblinka, was used at the Nuremberg Trials as evidence by the prosecution.

After the war, Grossman (pictured below) returned home, but became increasingly dissatisfied with the Soviet Regime and its repressiveness. In the 1950s, he began writing his long novel, Life and Fate, whose central premise was that communism and fascism are essentially alike, despite the fact that the former defeated the latter and liberated Europe from it. Shortly after submitting it for publication in 1959, the KGB raided his apartment, seized the carbon copies, his notebooks, and typewriter ribbons—it was naturally to Grossman’s advantage, however, that they didn’t know he was keeping two other copies of the novel with his friends. Still, Grossman died, in 1964, never knowing whether his work would ever be read. In 1974, with the help of the great dissident, Andrei Sakharov, the novel was smuggled out of the country by his friend Semyon Lipkin and it was published in 1980 in the West for the first time. Russia itself followed along in 1988.

When Grossman got into trouble with the Soviets, he was sent to Armenia by the authorities with the hopes that the trip would take his mind off the matter and get him to write something different. It was precisely this trip which produced the non-fiction work, The Armenian Sketchbook, the cover of which you see below.

Grossman spent his time in the country visiting the country’s most important sites, such as the Etchmiadzin Cathedral, the oldest one in the world, along with Lake Sevan, and the Temple of Garni, the only Greco-Roman structure in the post-Soviet states, built in the first or second century of the Common Era. One of the most poignant passages from the book is the ending, where he describes a wedding scene: The speeches and toasts seem to be unrelated to the occasion, but he finally understands that they have everything to do with the wedding and Grossman at last realizes that he has been accepted into the Armenian circle, so to speak. He writes: “Never in my life have I bowed to the ground; I have never prostrated before anyone. Now, however, I bow to the ground before the Armenian peasants who, during the merriment of a village wedding, spoke publicly about the agony of the Jewish nation under Hitler, about the death camps where Nazis murdered Jewish women and children. I bow to everyone who, silently, sadly, and solemnly, listened to these speeches.” It’s for writers like this—books which will exist for as long as humanity lives—that Armenians must be thankful for. We must look past the politics and somehow reconcile our anger with Israel (which, again, like in the case of Turkey, we are justified in expressing) to see that the issue Armenian-Jewish relations is far more subtle and complex than we think it to be.

The last important Jewish figure who wrote about Armenia is Osip Mandelstam. Considered one of the greatest Russian poet, if not the greatest of the twentieth century, Mandelstam was the quintessential dissident. In the 1930s he was twice arrested by Stalin and sent into exile—the second time he was given five years in a labor camp, where he ultimately died. Due to the sensitive nature of his work, he often couldn’t even write it down. His wife, Nadezhda, a name which means “hope” in Russian (certainly a tragedy for him to have a wife with that name when there was so little of it left for him), would usually commit his poems to memory and write them down later.

Mandelstam visited Armenia in 1930 and stayed for eight months. In the midst of the ancient culture and picturesque countryside, the great poet rediscovered his creativity and composed one of his most powerful poems, inspired by the burnt-red landscape, ancient churches, and mountains. His visit produced the prose work, Journey to Armenia, along with his Armenian poetry cycle, which Ian Probstein so generously translated for Interlitq, along with commentary, and it can be read here. An excerpt worth quoting:

I always feel that my spirits are lifted when I read Mandelstam’s words, because as Probstein said, for Mandelstam, “even in Voronezh exile (1935-1937), which he perceives as ‘a lion’s den’ alluding to Daniel, he is still thirsty of life and thinks of an earthly paradise. Hence he viewed his brief journey to Armenia in 1930 not as escape from his harsh reality but as a discovery of the roots of humanity and civilizations.” It’s with this thirst for life, I believe, that we Armenians should move forward and continue living. We now face the same difficulties that Mandelstam encountered during his own life and we owe it to this great Jewish poet to continue fighting our own battles with the same courage and determination—until the very end.

 

About David Garyan

David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with (DISS)INFORMATION, a full collection with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He is currently studying International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage at the University of Bologna. He lives in Ravenna.