Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent comment at the World Zionist Congress attributing the Final Solution to the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem was stupid and ignorant – and he has been justifiably ridiculed around the world for making it. But those who think these kinds of crazy comments will somehow prove his downfall should think twice. Netanyahu has long been willing to take his lumps for his silly behavior as long as it ultimately serves his political purpose. In this case, his purpose is clear: he is attempting frame Palestinian violence as the result of religious (read “Muslim”) intolerance of Jews.
And those of us who delight in ridiculing Bibi the Clown should take heed: there is every indication that his attempts to shift this particular narrative are starting to gain traction.
Just a few days before Netanyahu’s comments, for instance, Jeffrey Goldberg, a well-known mainstream media journalist, published an article in The Atlantic entitled “The Paranoid, Supremacist Roots of the Stabbing Intifada.” His conclusion?
One of the tragedies of the settlement movement is that it obscures what might be the actual root cause of the Middle East conflict: the unwillingness of many Muslim Palestinians to accept the notion that Jews are a people who are indigenous to the land Palestinians believe to be exclusively their own…
In his piece, Goldberg traces this “root cause” as far back as the 1920s. Like Netanyahu, he casually portrays the wretched Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini as a surrogate for the Palestinian people writ large, conveniently neglecting to point out that al-Husseini was not in fact chosen by Muslim Palestinians, but was actually appointed by the British High Commissioner Herbert Samuel in 1921 – and that he was dismissed as Mufti in 1936, five years before he famously met with Hitler. Even more crucially, treating a colonially-appointed Muslim leader as representative of the entire Palestinian people conveniently ignores the presence of Palestinian Christians, who in the 1920s made up one tenth of the population of Palestine.
In its way, his post was even more dangerous than Netanyahu’s silly remark, as it put a legitimate face on the claim that the Israel-Palestine conflict can essentially be reduced to Muslim intolerance of Jews. In contrast to Netanyahu’s remarks, Goldberg’s article was widely respected and went viral across the social media. Much to my dismay, many of my liberal rabbinic colleagues approvingly posted it on their Facebook pages.
In his article, Goldberg also pointed to recent “harsh” statements by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, suggesting that “these sorts of comments…suggest a tragic continuity between the 1920s and today.” Abbas’ comments were odious to be sure, but it is ludicrous in the extreme to somehow characterize him as a wide-eyed Muslim extremist. And it is even more ludicrous to suggest that the majority of young Palestinians engaging in the current violence have been “incited” by his words.
As Israeli journalist Mya Guarnieri has rightly observed:
Those who call this a religious war, and who point to Abbas’ words as incitement, have got it backwards. Abbas — whose term expired in 2009 and has little legitimacy on the Palestinian street — is trying to insert himself into recent events in a bid to regain popularity.
But the Palestinian youth who are protesting and carrying out attacks on Israelis care little what he or other politicians say. Indeed, their actions can also be understood as moves against the current state of politics, including the Palestinian Authority itself. The young people are calling for something new, for something more than endless negotiations that go nowhere or that buy Israel the time to build more settlements and deepen the occupation. After all, this is the generation that was born and raised after the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993 — their difficult lives are a testimony to what negotiations will get the Palestinian people. That is to say, little.
That’s right: the true “roots” of this tragedy are not religious but political. If we are to draw a direct from the violence of the 1920s until today, it should more accurately be traced from a collision between a Jewish ethno-nationalist enterprise and an indigenous population resisting displacement and occupation.
I find it notable that Goldberg does not track his “religious intolerance” narrative further back than the 1920s. In fact, while there has always been a Jewish presence in this land, there was relatively little tension between the religious communities of Palestine before the 19th century – when the Zionist movement began colonizing it with the express purpose of creating an exclusively Jewish state in a historically multi-religious and multi-ethnic land.
Having said this, however, I do fear that the longer this political injustice is allowed to continue – the longer Israel’s oppression of Palestinians is allowed to continue with impunity – the more likely we will witness the rise of religious extremists on both sides. This is clearly Netanyahu’s strategy of course: to “manage the conflict” until the religious extremist meme invariably becomes a reality.
Just yesterday, for example, the Israeli Prime Minister was quoted as saying that although he does not want a bi-national state, “at this time we need to control all of the territory for the foreseeable future…I’m asked if we will forever live by the sword – yes.” Then most tellingly, he added this all-too-familiar analysis: “half of the Palestinians are ruled by an extreme Islam that wants to destroy us.”
Yes, on the one hand it’s just more Bibi-bombast. But don’t dismiss his words too easily. As long as Israel seeks to “control all of the territory,” the more likely the chances that his cynical narrative will tragically become a self-fulfilling prophecy.