Posts Tagged Palestinians

A sleepless night in Room 16

A couple of months ago, my wife and I took a 24-hour vacation in Jerusalem, spent entirely at the historic American Colony, one of Jerusalem’s oldest hostelries. The hotel originated in a messianic Christian commune whose members had arrived from Chicago toward the end of the 19th century in anticipation of the Second Coming. While waiting, they diversified into economic activities, including hospitality. Over the last century-plus, the American Colony has hosted an A-list of dignitaries and celebrities from T.E. Lawrence (“of Arabia”) to the British rock star Sting.

The hotel’s location, on the edge of the Arab downtown, has long facilitated its role as a neutral ground for meetings of Israelis and Palestinians; I’d dined there a few times in the distant past for just that reason. Today its old stone buildings remain charming and its many gardens enchanting—nowhere more so than where they conjoin around a bubbling fountain to form the enclosed patio of the main building.

Since ours was not a business trip but a holiday, to be devoted to rest and relaxation, the setting suited us just fine. To our delight, on check-in we received an upgrade to a suite: Room 16.

A bit of intrigue heightened our excitement. A year ago, the London Daily Mail had run a feature on “the ten best history-making hotel rooms.” It included, among others, Lenin’s room at the Hotel National in Moscow, the “Scandal Room” at the Watergate in Washington, and the Plaza Hotel suite that hosted the Beatles on their 1964 visit to New York. Tenth on the list was Room 16, “our” suite at the American Colony.

And what happened in that suite to merit such distinction? According to one telling of the story, a 1992 meeting in Room 16 was the first step in the “Oslo process” between Israel and the Palestinians that led to the accord signed at the White House in September 1993. “We concocted the start of what became the Oslo channel in Room 16 of the American Colony Hotel,” testifies Terje Rød-Larsen, the Norwegian mediator. “And the rest is history.”

In a new essay at Mosaic Magazine, I look into that history. I discover that Room 16 didn’t lead up to Oslo, but it led down the “road not taken”: namely, the road to an agreement between Israel and the so-called “inside” leadership of the West Bank and Gaza, personified by Faisal Husseini, that would have bypassed the PLO. It didn’t happen that way, but was it even a possibility?

For my full essay on the forgotten alternative to Oslo, continue here.

(And as a special bonus for my subscribers, go here for a look inside Room 16. The lovely woman is my wife.)

American Colony Hotel lobby

 

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If so, then why didn’t MLK condemn Israel?

Martin Luther KingYou’ll recall the piece by Michelle Alexander that ran in the New York Times this past Martin Luther King Day. Her money quote: “If we are to honor King’s message and not merely the man, we must condemn Israel’s actions.” It set me to thinking: why did MLK not condemn Israel’s actions in the twenty years between 1948 and 1968? It’s not as though there weren’t opportunities: Israel stood repeatedly in the dock during his lifetime. And why didn’t he say anything about the Palestinian “plight”? Especially as he got a high-level tutorial on the subject during a visit to East Jerusalem in 1959? I try to answer these questions in a new piece for Mosaic Magazine.

Read it here.

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Who wants to celebrate partition?

UNGA session, November 29, 1947

Why is there so little buzz surrounding the 70th anniversary of the UN General Assembly vote recommending the partition of Palestine, passed on November 29, 1947? You know, that dramatic vote that legitimated the idea of a Jewish state, and that famously produced dancing in the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

It’s more than fatigue from the Balfour Declaration centenary. While centrist Zionists accepted the UN partition plan, and the Communists and leftists in Palestine followed the Soviet lead in endorsing it, an ambivalence still attaches to the partition resolution. I explain why, in this sequel to my Mosaic Magazine essay “Who Saved Israel in 1947?”

Over the last month, the essay drew thoughtful responses from Benny Morris, Michael Mandelbaum, and Harvey Klehr. In my “last word” (title: “Why the 1947 UN Partition Resolution Must Be Celebrated”), I also respond to weighty questions posed by each of them. Would Israel have arisen without the UN partition resolution? Did the impact of the Holocaust tip the scales in favor of Israel at the UN? Did Israel follow the same path to legitimacy as other nations, or is there something unique (or deficient) in its standing in the world? If you haven’t followed the discussion, go to my “last word,” and work your way back from there.

Read here.

Image: The United Nations General Assembly in session, November 29, 1947.

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The metal detectors of Islam

Bauernfeind, entrance to Temple MountIsrael has capitulated over the metal detectors (and surveillance cameras) that it installed last week at the entrances to the Temple Mount/Haram ash-Sharif. As anyone familiar with the long history of the “status quo” in Jerusalem knows, the “crisis” is wholly manufactured, and is but the latest chapter in a fifty-year Israeli-Palestinian struggle over sovereign authority.

The Palestinian aim has been to expand the autonomous administration of the Haram ash-Sharif, permitted them in 1967, and turn the esplanade into an extra-territorial enclave by leveraging Israeli and international fears of a wider conflagration. In this long-term campaign, they have had much success, and the latest “crisis” has produced yet another Palestinian “victory.”

The episode has raised the question of just what constitutes legitimate security measures at Islamic holy shrines and iconic mosques. We live in a time when the primary threat to the security of these sites arises from Muslims themselves—notably, extremists bent on using them as launching pads for violent acts designed to destabilize and terrorize. Across the Muslim world, governments are acutely aware of the vulnerabilities of these sites, and have taken measures to secure them. In particular, they have resorted to a very commonplace technology: metal detectors.

At this link, I provide some prime examples, from Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates. How do these states differ from Israel? They are effective and sole sovereigns over the holy shrines and major mosques in their territory. Israel apparently is not.

“The Metal Detectors of Islam,” here, for a quick trip to Islam’s bucket list of top sites. Please place your keys and camera in the basket.

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The decline of Palestine studies

Middle East Studies AssociationThis weekend, the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) is meeting in its annual conference in Boston, on the organization’s fiftieth anniversary. It was also exactly thirty years ago, at a Boston MESA conference, that Edward Said debated Bernard Lewis. This was the last substantive debate about the state of the field at a MESA conference—that is, a debate with two clearly opposing sides. The bearers of the tradition of scholarship represented by Lewis (and Fouad Ajami) subsequently seceded from MESA. Some of them eventually found a home in an alternative association of Middle Eastern studies, known as ASMEA—the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa. On October 28, I delivered the keynote address at its annual conference in Washington, on the state of Middle Eastern studies. (Watch it here, or read a transcript here.)

One of the points I made in my keynote was that the study of the Palestinians in American academe seemed to me to be in decline, at least quantitatively. I’ve since gone back to collect some data. Specifically, I’ve looked at the last program of a MESA conference convened in Boston (it was in 2009), and compared it to this year’s (2016) program. Why Boston? It’s a popular venue for MESA conferences, and it usually draws a larger number of participants than, say, Denver or New Orleans. The sample is correspondingly large. My interest is in the geographic skew of American scholarly interest across the Middle East. So I’ve looked for the names of countries in the titles of papers, a data field that provides a rough measure of what’s up and what’s down in Middle Eastern studies. (The MESA website also categorizes papers by geographic area, but I’m not certain about the criteria used, so I don’t rely on it. Still, I ran those numbers too, and the results were very similar.)

Below are the totals. After the name of each country, you’ll find the number of papers delivered at the 2009 conference, followed (after the slash) by the number of papers to be delivered at the 2016 conference. In the first set of parentheses is the absolute increase or decrease in numbers of papers between 2009 and 2016. In the second set of parentheses is the increase or decrease in percentages from 2009 to 2016. I’ve ordered the countries according to the percentage of increase/decrease. In 2009, there were 850 papers presented at MESA, and this year, 1,012, so you’d expect an average increase for each country of 19%. Anything below that points to underperformance of a country in inspiring new research. (I’m excluding the countries where the number of papers this year falls below twenty.)

Tunisia: 9/45 (+36) (400%)
Syria: 23/55 (+32) (140%)
Egypt: 48/83 (+35) (73%)
Lebanon: 31/38 (+7) (23%)
Iran: 43/50 (+9) (16%)
Turkey: 79/89 (+10) (13%)
Kurds: 27/26 (-1) (-4%)
Palestine/Gaza/West Bank: 56/48 (-8) (-14%)
Iraq: 31/22 (-9) (-29%)
Israel: 32/22 (-31%)

This is a very rough measure, and paper titles don’t capture everything. But the trend is obvious. The dramatic growth since 2009, which was before the “Arab Spring,” resides in researching the “Arab Spring” and its effects. (It would be even more obvious if I’d included the smaller clusters. Papers on Bahrain went from zero to eight; on Libya, from one to thirteen.)

So the upheavals since 2011 are stirring this generation of younger scholars. Palestine? Passé. (So is Iraq.) Papers on Israel have also dropped sharply, but the consequences, overall, are greater for Palestine than Israel studies. Why? MESA is still the largest clearinghouse for Palestine studies. It isn’t for Israel studies, which have their own association (the Association for Israel Studies) and a separate annual conference. And since, for the last couple of years, MESA has been formally debating the possibility of passing a BDS resolution, not a few Israel scholars have packed up and left the organization. Israel studies are expanding—just not at MESA.

Another factor contributing to the relative decline of Palestine studies is BDS. Because the old guard, such as Columbia’s Rashid Khalidi and Lila Abu-Lughod, have so totally immersed themselves in identity politics and BDS activism, Palestine studies are regarded as tainted by advocacy. Why would a promising young scholar enter such a field, when the first thing he or she must do is sign an ideological pledge of allegiance? And why enter it if you can make a bigger mark in a more visible, faster-growing, and less politicized area of study? BDS is driving ambitious young scholars away from Palestine studies, which have become a closed echo chamber.

This is the context for understanding the BDS drive in MESA. It’s a last-ditch effort to assert the primacy of Palestine, by insisting that Israel uniquely deserves condemnation (in a Middle East mired in gross human rights violations), and that the Palestinians uniquely deserve sympathy (in a Middle East awash in refugees and suffering). In the past, there was no need to run such a campaign. Back in 2005, I did a similar paper-count on MESA’s conferences, and found that papers on Palestine and the Palestinians outnumbered those on any other country. Edward Said had turned the Palestinians into MESA’s chosen people. But over the years, that special privilege has been eroded. BDS activism at MESA now functions as a substitute for the conference papers and panels, as a rear-guard tactic to keep the Palestinians from falling further down the scale.

I have no idea what will come out of MESA this year or next—probably nothing good, and possibly some sort of precursor to a BDS resolution. But the easy privileging of Palestine in Middle Eastern studies is over. That’s a good thing. The over-concentration of a whole branch of area studies in one highly politicized corner did inestimable damage to the field’s reputation. The Middle East keeps changing, so does America, and new realities generate new priorities. I can’t predict how Middle Eastern studies will be reconfigured as the ground shifts. But a quiet transformation is underway, even if no one has the courage to acknowledge it. Happy fiftieth, MESA.

The War on ErrorOrder your copy of my new book, The War on Error: Israel, Islam, and the Middle East from Amazon right here. Josef Joffe: “Martin Kramer exposes sloppy or mean-spirited thinking with an incisive mind and first-rate empirical research. This collection is required reading for anybody who prefers intellectual rigor to ideological obfuscation.”

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