“For history itself is destroyed, and its comprehensibility—based upon the fact that it is enacted by men and therefore can be understood by men—is in danger, whenever facts are no longer held to be part and parcel of the past and present world and are misused to prove this or that opinion.” – Hannah Arendt, “On Origins on Totalitarianism”, 1951
May 14 is seen as the day of Israel’s founding.
May 15 is known as the nakba, or “catastrophe” in English, by Palestinians. The day of proclaiming independent nationhood for one community was accompanied by the loss of the very same nationhood by another. The Nakba led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their ancestral lands. One massacre by the brute Israeli forces led to another, leading to the forced expulsion of millions of Palestinians.
According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, almost five million Palestinians are registered as refugees with the organisation currently. The conflict between Israel and Palestine is often presented as a claim to disputed territory by two equal sides. Whether Palestine is recognised as a sovereign state varies from nation to nation.
Currently, 137 States in the world recognize Palestine as a State. In 1969, the then-Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir claimed that Palestinians “did not exist”. It was (and still is) argued by pro-Israel factions that Arabs of Palestine do not have a language, religion or culture that is markedly different from the ones of Arabs of Jordan and Syria which distinguishes them.
Israel and the US argue that demands for separate Palestinian nationhood are thus not legitimate. The US and the UK may be seen as two of the biggest powers to have aided in the creation of a separate State of Israel, with the former recognizing Israel as a sovereign state first in 1948.
Before 1944, Politicians, academics and thinkers all over the world had argued for and against the status of Palestine as a separate state. Various scholars had come up with various theories and opinions on the matter, with much of the debate being immersed in ideological considerations. Two of the most notable voices on the same may be seen in Judith Butler and Hannah Arendt – both of whom were Jewish, with Arendt claiming her explicit support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine during the war. During this period, she referred to Zionism as “the national liberation movement of the Jewish people”. It was her belief that Jews’ would be able to successfully win over the Arabs by, and earn their right to Palestine, through their labour. Hannah Arendt’s book The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) can be seen as one of the first seminal works to explore the Holocaust and its aftermath both, historically and politically.
Arendt’s recognition of the (political) anti-Antisemitism that ultimately resulted in the Holocaust was a distinctly modern phenomenon. Arendt has been an active voice on debates surrounding the aspirations for a Jewish homeland. She was very much for the politics of Zionism from 1941 to 1948. Furthermore, she was a proponent for the bi-national solution of Palestine, i.e. having one nation representing equally the voices of two distinct national identities – the Arabs and the Jews. She wanted these two communities to come together in a federation.
She strongly opposed the UN Resolution of 1947 which recommended that Palestine be separated into two states: one Arab, and the other Jewish. She instead opted to support a UN trusteeship which allowed for Jewish immigration as only a temporary measure till a better permanent solution was found. She supported the idea of a “Confederation of Palestine”, which would have an Arab and a Jewish political component. She did not want one to dominate over, or override, the concerns of the other. Hannah Arendt was not a member of the German Zionist youth group, nor was she a part of groups that called for a “rejuvenation of Judaism”.
For her, the term “Zionism” simply meant Jewish politics. She saw the Jewish people as having a lack of power and a lack of a place to call their own. The very inception of Israel may be seen as finding roots in frustration with this perennial lack of belongingness. The Jews were constantly at the mercy of the more powerful, oftentimes outright cruel and unjust, forces.
One must keep in mind that during the time Arendt was a proponent of establishing of a Jewish homeland, the second World War was still going on – Jewish politics was the political response of the community of this feeling of powerlessness. Arendt’s Changing Position on Zionism One can see a sort of hostility towards the very idea of the nation-state emerge in Arendt’s later writings. A nation-state may be seen as (especially in the Jewish context) a state that is not only subordinated to the idea of the nation but which was actually conquered by it (Zertal, 2007). It is a state ruled by a majoritarian government and one united by traditions, shared culture, and a common history. It marginalises and acts against ethnic minorities within its territories.
Arendt believed that the mobilization by the population or ethnic group in power resulted in bias amongst state institution. The state, then, began functioning not as an instrument of law, but instead as one of the nation, furthering the cause of populist nationalism. The state turned a blind eye towards its duty of looking out for all its citizens – instead favouring the majority. Arendt saw the same being mimicked in newfound Israel. For Arendt, a true nation-state is a federation – one which diffuses claims of national sovereignty and the ontology of individualism (Butler, 2007).
She opposes any form of the nation-state which creates its nationalism by creating statelessness and destitution for another community. While she did not perhaps consciously attempt to do so, her criticism of fascism came to inform her criticisms of Zionism. Her position on Zionism can be seen as dramatically shifting from 1944 onwards – three years after her arrival in New York. This was a period of political setbacks and disappointments:
i) The Jewish Agency was unable to back an autonomous Jewish army
ii) An outright rejection of concerns voiced by the Arab faction in Palestine
iii) Resistance to demands for partition. Between May and October of 1944, Arabs no longer even feature in the resolutions by the World Zionist Organisation.
Arabs in Palestine would instead be given a choice between voluntary emigration and second class citizenship. In October 1944 Arendt wrote an article titled “Zionism Reconsidered”, in which she spoke up against these recent developments within Zionist circles. This article may be seen as one of her most extensive writings on Zionism. Arendt’s criticised the very idea of the Jewish State.
She claimed it be a misguided response to antisemitism and predicted that this project in nationalism will turn into something darker – a product of the very colonialism and oppression that it had set out to resist. She correctly diagnosed that Jewish identity was ultimately a European identity. Establishing a nation-state explicitly for the Jews mimicked the colonial project. This time instead of having the Africans or Asians as its victims, it was Palestinians. Arendt also foresaw that this existence of a “Jewish island in an Arab sea” would lead to second class citizenship for the Arabs.
One can see parallels between the Nazi actions and those of the Israels. Arendt believed that political Zionism was fundamentally mistaken in its aims and desires. For Arendt, the notion that one’s enemies may be used for the sake of one’s own salvation is the original sin of Zionism. In Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), Arendt’s goes on to emphasize the inevitable truth of the twentieth century: one of forced expulsions and statelessness. German-Jews became a non-recognized minority in Germany during Hitler’s reign.
The same fate now meets Palestinians. Arendt precisely saw the reality: the antisemites and the Zionists both had in common that desire for Israel. It was the perfect match – the former wanted Jews out of their lands and the latter wanted these expelled Jews to come and settle down in what is now the State of Israel.
The current discourse on the conflict between Israel and Palestine finds itself caught between two alternatives: one state or a two-state solution. In reality, however, history has taught us that these solutions have been rendered obsolete. Israel has again and again, since 1948, demanded the world recognized its status as an autonomous nation, and do so at the systematic eroding of even a possibility of Palestine’s very existence. It may perhaps be safe to then say that the conflict is left with just one solution: a one-state, seen in Israel. Palestine will altogether cease to exist and its Arab population would become stateless. All that would remain of the Palestinians would be either in the form of diasporic communities outside of Israel or as a people trapped within the land they used to call home.
Arendt, H. (1958). The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Meridian Books.
Butler, J. I merely belong to them. [Review of the book The Jewish Writings.] London Review of Books, 29(9), 26-28. Retrieved from https://www.lrb.co.uk/v29/n09/judith-butler/i-merely-belong-to-them.]
Rubenstein, R.L. (2012). Hannah Arendt, the Holocaust, and the State of Israel. New English Review. Retrieved from: https://www.newenglishreview.org/Richard_L._Rubenstein/Hannah_Arendt,_the_Holocaust,_and_the_State_of_Israel/
Zertal, I. (2007). A State on Trial: Hannah Arendt vs. the State of Israel. Social Research, 74(4), 1127-1158. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40972043