[Marxism] NY Times review of Rashid Khalidi's "The Iron Cage"
lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Oct 7 09:07:39 MDT 2006
NY Times, October 7, 2006
Books of The Times
Assessing the Role Palestinians Have Played in the Failed Bid for Statehood
By STEVEN ERLANGER
Its difficult to overestimate the virtues of
secular history, especially in such a God-smacked region as the Middle East.
You could argue that the peoples of the region
would benefit from a little less attention and
devotion; their struggles become both magnified
and abstracted by exiles and co-religionists
whose own passions sometimes seem to have little
relationship to life on the ground.
Rashid Khalidi, American-born, comes from one of
Jerusalems most distinguished families, which
has also provided another distinguished
historian, Walid Khalidi. Together they have done
much to provide a Palestinian narrative rooted in
their personal histories but disciplined by the
standards of Western scholarship.
Rashid Khalidis latest book, The Iron Cage, is
at heart a historical essay, an effort to decide
why the Palestinians, unlike so many other
peoples and tribes, have failed to achieve an
independent state. To Mr. Khalidis credit, the
answers are not very comforting to Palestinians,
whose leaders have often made the wrong choices
and have not yet built the institutional structures for statehood.
He often contrasts the weakness of Palestinian
decision-making, especially before 1948, with the
more organized behavior of the Jewish population
of British Palestine, known as the yishuv.
At the heart of the book is his anguished
question about what the Palestinians call al
nakba, the catastrophe why Palestinian society
crumbled so rapidly in 1948, why there was not
more concerted resistance to the process of
dispossession, and why 750,000 people fled their homes in a few months.
Mr. Khalidi has his own set of external culprits:
British colonial masters like Lord Balfour, who
refused to recognize the national rights of
non-Jews; lavish financial support for Jewish
immigration; the romanticism and cynicism of Arab
leaders, themselves newly hatched from the colonial incubator.
Like Britain before it, he argues, the United
States consistently privileged the interests of
the countrys Jewish population over those of its
Arab residents, helping Israel to push
Palestinians into an impossible corner, into an
iron cage from which, he suggests, a viable
Palestinian state may not, in the end, emerge.
But he has plenty of blame for the Palestinians,
too for the rivalries among rich Palestinian
families who competed to serve their colonial
masters, for leaders who failed to see the impact
of Hitler on Jewish immigration to Mandate
Palestine, for those who mismanaged the 1936-39
Palestinian revolt against the British and
especially for Yasir Arafat, who, along with his
colleagues in Fatah and the Palestine Liberation
Organization, has a special place in Mr.
Khalidis pantheon of Palestinian failure.
While his book is more of an analysis than an
exercise in original research, Mr. Khalidi
provides another service for Western readers. He
gives a relatively dispassionate description of
Palestine in the periods of Ottoman and British
rule, and of the nature of Arab society before
the combination of Zionism and Nazism led an
increasing flow of European-born Jews to settle in the Holy Land.
Whatever the justice of history if the notion
of justice can be applied to history at all it
is useful for Americans to understand that at the
beginning of the 1930s, Jews made up only 17.8
percent of the population of British Palestine,
and annual Jewish immigration was declining to only a few thousand a year.
But by the end of the 1930s, Mr. Khalidi writes,
after the rise to power of Hitler spurred the
annual arrival of many tens of thousands of
refugees, the Jewish population rose to more
than 30 percent. In 1935 more than 60,000 Jews
went to Palestine, which equaled the entire Jewish population in 1919.
Even in 1948 there were 600,000 Jews to 1.4
million Arabs in British Palestine, and Arabs
owned nearly 90 percent of all private land.
Jews did not begin the fighting, but from March
to October 1948, slightly more than half the Arab
population 750,000 people, Mr. Khalidi
estimates (and his footnote on the topic is well
worth reading) fled, were forced to flee or
were expelled from areas that became part of the new state of Israel.
Like a new generation of Israeli historians, Mr.
Khalidi makes the point that a Jewish homeland in
Palestine meant that many of the pre-existing
Arab majority, who owned most of the private
land, had to be removed or transferred, a
dilemma much discussed among mainstream Zionist leaders.
After the fighting halted in 1949, Israel
controlled 78 percent of mandatory Palestine,
compared with the 55 percent allotted under the United Nations partition plan.
These uncomfortable facts, long before Israel
conquered the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 war,
help to explain the anger, bluster and shame that
have fueled so much of Palestinian politics.
This is not to say that Mr. Khalidi, currently
director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia
University, where he holds the Edward Said Chair
in Arab Studies, is without passion. His book is
bound to stir angry responses from those who
think that any Palestinian effort to fight the
soldiers of the Israeli occupation represents
terrorism, or from those, Muslim or Jew, who
think that their divinity gave all of Palestine exclusively to them.
In a long introductory essay, Writing Middle
Eastern History in a Time of Historical Amnesia,
he insists that at almost every stage,
Palestinians were the weakest of all the parties
engaged in the prolonged struggle to determine
the fate of Palestine and remain considerably
less powerful by any measure than the forces that
stand in the way of their achieving independent statehood.
He is overly defensive about choosing to analyze
Palestinian failures, but his book represents a
brave response to Palestinians who see themselves only as victims.
While he is quite critical of the long Israeli
occupation, supported by successive American
governments, that has stunted Palestinian
choices, Mr. Khalidi respects what the Israelis
have built on the ashes of the Holocaust. Though
he doesnt quite put it this way, he would like
his own people to emulate a little more and complain a little less.
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