On Thursday, April 19, at 7:00 pm at the Gelber Centre, veteran British journalist Ian Black will be speaking on “Israelis and Palestinians: Contested Past, Uncertain Future.” Ian and I both studied the history of this conflict at the same school in London, under the same supervisor, although in different years.
In the early 1970s, I felt that I had penetrated the true essence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when I discovered a 1919 speech by David Ben-Gurion in which the young labor-Zionist leader had proclaimed:
Everybody sees a difficulty in the question of relations between Arabs and Jews. But not everybody sees that there is no solution to this question. No solution! There is a gulf, and nothing can fill that gulf. … And we must recognize this situation. If we don’t acknowledge this, and try to come up with “remedies”, then we risk demoralization. … We, as a nation, want this country to be ours; the Arabs, as a nation, want this country to be theirs. The decision has been referred to the Peace Conference.
I was equally impressed to discover a forthright explanation of the conflict offered by Palestinian nationalist leader Awni Abd al-Hadi to Haim Arlosoroff, head of the Jewish Agency’s Political Department, four years before the outbreak of the Arab Revolt in 1936:
Some time ago he [Awni] had come to the definite conclusion that there was no point whatever in negotiations or attempts to reach a mutual understanding. The goal of the Jews was to rule the country, and the aim of the Arabs was to fight against this rule. He understood the Zionists quite well and respected them, but their interests were fundamentally opposed to Arab interests, and he saw no possibility of an agreement.
In those days I was uninhibited about sharing these revelations in my scholarly writings and talks. I can also look back on one occasion when, as an invited member of a panel of “experts,” I unwisely chose to deliver this bleak message to several hundred members of the Montreal Jewish community who had assembled, it turns out, to have their downcast spirits uplifted in the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur war. Needless to say, I would never become a fixture on the local Jewish speakers’ circuit.
Still, the more I read and learned over the years, the more I became convinced of the accuracy of those early confessions by Ben-Gurion and Abd al-Hadi. But such expressions of pessimism, rare and realistic, were often eclipsed by Pollyannaish pronouncements intended as morale-boosting propaganda or stemming from self-delusion, sentimentality or wishful thinking. I found myself among a minority of skeptics who regarded Israel-vs.-Palestine coldly as a “zero-sum game” – a protracted conflict amenable at best to limited forms of “management” but not to definitive “resolution.” Among my publications are four volumes aptly entitled Futile Diplomacy, dedicated to the history of failed attempts to find a negotiated end to the century-plus-old conflict.
And yet, why is it that, with all this hard-headed pessimism, I have for years supported the work of groups like the Canadian Friends of Peace Now and Canadian Friends of Rabbis for Human Rights? How is it that, despite this negative historical diagnosis, I still subscribe to “two states for two peoples” as the best available solution … to be had perhaps far down the road? Am I, too, a victim of the wishful thinking that I criticize in others?
I have no satisfying answers to these questions, although I am asking them ever more insistently as I grow older. This is one of the motives I have for going to listen to that April 19th talk by my old friend. Ian Black is now retired from his work as Middle East correspondent and editor at the Guardian newspaper. The publicity for his new book, Enemies and Neighbors: Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel 1917-2017, includes an endorsement by veteran Israeli commentator Meron Benvenisti, who calls the book “a tragic tale, full of blood, agony and missed opportunities, but [a] brilliant, dispassionate work [that] leaves us, curiously, optimistic.”
Optimistic!? Curious indeed. I look forward to Ian Black’s talk on April 19 to see what effect it may have on my own continuing tug of war between despair and hope, between pessimism and optimism.