How to Ruin a Good Point about the Israeli Presence in the West Bank

The usually excellent Issandr El Amrnani lets himself down on the admirable Arabist blog, podcast etc site.  He picks up on an item in the Israeli daily Haaretz about restoring Arab translations of the verdicts of military courts in the West Bank.  Arabic is an official state language along with Hebrew in the state of Israel, and it would seem rather obvious that Arabic translations of all court proceedings affecting the Arab majority (expanding Israeli settlement notwithstanding) in areas of the West Bank of the River Jordan should be available.  The item is not signed by El Ammani but the site is mostly his work, so I think I can assume he wrote the item in question.  

El Ammani briefly refers to this with a bit of sarcasm thrown in, all very understandable.  I could say particularly understandable given that El Ammani is an Arab, but you don’t need to be an Arab to see the injustice and that the Israeli Defence Forces has done no more than reverse a grossly unjust practice.  

The Arabist, in all its part including the podcast which is really good and not as regular as I’d like it to be, is very balanced, moderate and objective.  It reflects the views of secular left (personally I’m a secular but non-leftist Brit, living in Istanbul) Arabs in Egypt, and like minded foreign residents, in a well informed moderate manner which could only give offence to those on some extreme point of some political spectrum.  There is certainly no ranting about Israel, just thoughtful comments about its relations with the Arab world.  

Unfortunately El Ammani undermines his reasonable point in that post, by referring to the ‘banality of evil’, a phrase the German-American Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt used to refer to Nazi evil in the person of Adolf Eichmann, a major architect of the Holocaust.  Her most popular book Eichmann in Jerusalem is subtitled The Banality of Evil, because she considered Eichmann to be an empty conformist who acted out of respect for authority rather than because of any inner evil.  Arendt was not much of a Zionist, Eichmann in Jerusalem was very unpopular wit the most aggressive Zionists, and I doubt she would have been greatly offended.  Nevertheless it is bizarrely inappropriate for the generally reasonable El Ammani to compare Israeli military administration in the West Bank since 1967, inherently unjust though it is, with the evil of the Nazi Holocaust.  El Ammani does not sound like a political theorist to me, and possibly just does not know where the phrase ‘banality of evil’ originates.  Whether or not  he was conscious of this, I hope he realises he made a mistake and does not make it again.  

I have some misgivings about putting this on my blog and possibly putting people off what is a really good, well informed, humorous and politically tolerant website on Egypt and the Arab world.  I was just going to leave a comment on the site, but the comment form does invite commentators to comment on their own blog and leave a link.  So that’s what I’ve done.  If you don’t follow the Arabist, please do, and if Issandr El Ammani does happen to read this, I hope he does not spoil a good thing in this way in future.  

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2 thoughts on “How to Ruin a Good Point about the Israeli Presence in the West Bank

  1. Actually I think my post is faithful to Hannah Arendt’s point in coining the phrase “the banality of evil” (and yes I did not its origins and context, and was perhaps being somewhat provocative in using it precisely because it _needs_ to be used in other contexts than the Holocaust, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.) I think the case I illustrated is quite apt because it is so humdrum — a territory under occupation through direct military rule has a small procedural change in the larger architecture of oppression. Just like in the case of the Holocaust and other repressive projects that muster vast bureaucratic and military resources as well as an ideological justification, a trail of banal paperwork, laws, regulations, standing orders, and standard operation procedures that are dehumanizing are left behind. That’s the entire point, as I see it, of Arendt’s phrase.

    The issue here is not to say the Holocaust and the occupation of Palestine are the same things. They are incomparable, and not just because of the difference in the death toll or the unimaginable, rationalized cruelty which the Nazis displayed. They are also incomparable because they hold different places in the collective imaginations of people in the West and the Arab world — for many Arabs, the Palestinian issue is as emotionally potent and central part of 20th century history than the Holocaust is for Europeans and Americans (who vice-versa do not give the same importance to the Palestinian cause). One of the reasons I like to highlight the similarities is because it triggers an emotional response of discomfort just like yours. Among the left, they call it PEP — progressive except Palestine.

    The bottom line: after 64 years of occupation, and three generations of Palestinians (assimilated into Israel, living under occupation and ruled, officially, by a military governor, or in exile in refugee camps and elsewhere) the principle that Arendt highlighted is very much relevant.

    p.s. Interesting blog that takes me back to college days when political philosophy was a passion. And sorry about the podcasts, we have a newborn and are still adjusting our timetable!

    • Thanks for your comment. Good to see I bring back student memories. I hope I didn’t sound patronising when I suggested you might not know the Arendt book, since you don’t make any claim to be a political theorist I just don’t know how likely it is you’d know. A lot of people use it who look like they don’t know the source. I don’t disagree with anything you say here except for two points: 1. This way of speaking arouses people who don’t pay proper attention to the situation; 2. the possible suggestion that I’m not ‘progressive’ on Palestine. I can’t really say anything about 1. except I hope it works for you, I’d never make the point that way to someone I didn’t think was sufficiently aware and concerned with regard to the Palestinian situation. I just hope it doesn’t backfire. On 2, I’m not sure if I’m included in the PEP camp or not. I make no claim to be a ‘progressive’ in the sense normal in America of left of centre, I’m libertarian in a rather moderate kind of way (American libertarians seem to generally have dismal attitudes to Israel/Palestine, and I’m not happy with what they come out with which is basically Israel = liberty; Arabs = religious medievalism and ethnic tribalism, so don’t count for much). I see my views as progressive, but American Progressives might disagree, at least on economic issues. Do I fail to give weight to Palestinian rights in the manner of PEPs? I guess that depends on what you regard as giving adequate weight. I certainly think it’s an important issue and I want to see a sovereign Palestinian nation side by side with Israel, though I despair of progress since the failure of the Oslo accords. I’m inclined to blame Palestinian leadership as well as Israeli leadership. If what remains of the Oslo process completely disintegrates I’m open to ideas which come from right wing Zionists, like complete annexation, presuming that all Arabs are given full citizenship, and not on condition of some oath of loyalty to Israel. I guess that hard core Zionists intend to exclude Arabs on the loyalty pretext, or something like that. That would be unacceptable, but a few years down the road if there is no other progress, if settlements keep expanding then a single state with equal rights (which used to be a ‘rejectionist’ Arab position) should be explored. Maybe the current military administration plus settlement expansion is meant to set up a repartition of Palestine/Israel, with Arab areas of what is now Israel going to Palestine. That would be acceptable if the resulting Palestine was genuinely sovereign and not an Israeli protectorate. I think the current situation is a moral outrage and should concern people throughout the world, which might keep me out of the PEP camp in your eyes; but I also think Palestinian political leadership has varied between poor to extremely unacceptable and has been part of the problem. Arafat’s failure to evolve from guerilla leader to bourgeois politician is a big part of the problem. I’d like to see better leadership and I’d like to see a lot of Palestine solidarity people emphasise this more, more than boycotts of Israel and dramatic sea trips which never do any good that I can see. Maybe that casts me deep into the PEP camp. I think Israel’s attempts to make a Palestinian state less than a normal state are dismal, but I also think Palestinians should accept some exceptional limitations on sovereignty to satisfy security concerns ın Israel which are genuinely held by most Israeli Jews. Where does that leave me? PEP, not-PEP, some grey area in between?

      I look forward to the next podcast whenever you have time.

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