Friday, September 21, 2007

Derrida, Forgiveness and the Peace Process

This is a paper that I wrote a few years ago dealing with forgiveness within the context of politics. As we are about to enter Yom Kippur and as I am in the ongoing process of writing about the underlying philosophies of America's and Israel's war against terrorism I thought that this peace is appropiate.

“What do we call forgiveness? What calls for forgiveness? Who calls for, who calls upon forgiveness?” (pg 27) In his essay “On Forgiveness,” Jacques Derrida argues that true forgiveness is to forgive the unforgivable. Derrida defines forgiveness as the willingness to allow the injustice that has already been done to oneself by another to stand. Once a wrong has been made up for it does not make any sense to speak of forgiveness. If someone owed a debt and paid it back then neither of the parties owes the other anything; it would be foolish of the lender to say that after receiving his money back that he forgives the borrower. It only makes sense to talk about forgiveness when that debt cannot be paid back, such as in situations of persecution and particularly mass murder.
Derrida sees the act of asking for and of granting forgiveness as one of the key underlying foundations of modern international politics; the Abrahamic notion of forgiveness has been internationalized[1] and secularized in order to serve the needs of the modern state and society. The main actors in this new politic of forgiveness are not individuals but states. There are two reasons for this. Firstly by focusing upon the state we can avoid the question of: is the apology or forgiveness really meant or is it just feigned? By keeping forgiveness within the dominion of the state we are able to avoid prying into this “secret” and as such we do not interfere with the process of national memory. The second reason is that “all Nation-States are born and found themselves in violence.”(pg. 57) The state itself, in order to justify its own legitimacy, needs to be able to get everyone else to agree to take its own sins off of the table. Since all states have some guilt everyone is agreeing to allow everyone else’s guilt to be covered up in exchange for their guilt also covered over and kept a secret.
Derrida’s theory of forgiveness offers an interesting angle as what the peace-process means and as to why it has so far failed so miserably? The peace-process, in the schematic of forgiveness, can be seen matter of both the Israelis and the Palestinians agreeing to ask and, in return, grant forgiveness for past “misdeeds.” With Oslo, the Israelis were agreeing to renounce their claims over the West Bank and Gaza and forgive the Palestinian Authority for its acts of terrorism. The Palestinian Authority was agreeing to renounce terrorism along with any claim over the pre-1967 Israel and forgive Israel for having occupied “their” land. The reasoning behind both side’s actions was not moral contrition but simple political expediency. Israel wanted an end to Palestinian violence and the Palestinian Authority wants a state. Furthermore each side felt that it needed the support of the European Community and the United States and coul not afford to be seen as being the ones holding back peace.
The peace-process failed because the whole mechanics of forgiveness broke down. Neither side was capable of asking for forgiveness or granting it because doing so would undermine the legitimacy of either side and run counter to the politics of memory from which they have built an edifice to justify their own existence. In discussing the failures of Oslo there has been a lot of emphasis on the religious problems. I think this aspect has been overemphasized. Remember, it has been Israelis, who are by and large secular Jews, and Palestinians, who are by and large secular Muslims, if not Christians, who have failed at the negotiation table.[2] As to why there has been such an emphasis on the role played by religious extremists in bringing about the current crisis, I would suggest that the religious want the credit and the secular want to give them the blame. Most of the religious factions opposed the peace-process, so the narrative that their actions have stopped the peace-process appeals to them. As for the Western secular media, the narrative that they want to tell is of a Middle-East caught in an endless cycle of medieval religious wars, to which the only hope is for there to be a spirit of “Enlightenment,” “tolerance” and “understanding,” i.e. secularism.
The problem with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that which distinguishes it from almost any other conflict in history is the fact that the legitimacy of each side’s claims is almost totally mutually exclusive. If it was legitimate for the state of Israel to have been created in 1947 and for Israel to have fought its various wars with the neighboring Arab states, then the Palestinian Authority becomes a terrorist organization and can therefore claim no legitimacy. If the Arab states were the aggressors in 1948 then it is their fault that so many Palestinians became refugees and the onus for solving the problem would lie with them and not with Israel. If on the other hand the Palestinian cause is legitimate and the PLO can be considered to be freedom fighters then by necessity the state of Israel is an imperialist state, imposed upon the Arab peoples by the West, with no right to exist and as such the Jewish people have no right to the land of Israel.
In most conflicts what is at stake is not the inherent legitimacy of a state. More importantly most conflicts do not involve the legitimacy of the claims of private individuals to their property. It is possible for the French and the Germans to be at peace with one another despite their conflicts over Alsace and Lorraine because the ownership of Alsace and Lorraine does not affect the intrinsic integrity of either France or Germany. It is possible for Germany to declare that it forgives France for its “wars of aggression,” (the Thirty Years War and World War I) and is willing to let bygones be bygones. Germany can even say that it was wrong of them to have fought the war of 1870 and World War II in order to regain control over Alsace and Lorraine and admit that these were “criminal wars of imperialist aggression.” It would be possible for the German people to ask the French people to forgive them for this without affecting the legitimacy of the governments in Berlin and Paris. It would it destroy the concept of being a Frenchman or a German. More importantly neither of these claims would affect the German or the French citizen’s claim to their homes whither they are in Alsace or Lorraine or Berlin or Paris.
Much of the peace negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians can be seen in terms of finding a compromise on what and who is to be forgiven. In signing the Oslo accords Israel was in essence agreeing to forgive Yassir Arafat and the PLO. By accepting him as a partner in peace and by agreeing to transfer specific tracts of land to the Palestinian Authority, Israel was agreeing to wash away Arafat’s actions as if they never happened. In exchange Arafat and his Palestinian Authority were agreeing to forgive the state of Israel for the occupation of Arab land and ask forgiveness for their own acts of terrorism. The genius of Oslo was that it was able to give both sides a diplomatic victory and it did not require either side to make any hard sacrifices; all issues such as a Palestinian state, refugees and Jerusalem were pushed off for later “final status negations.” Meanwhile both sides were able to make the case to their own people that Oslo did not mark a surrender on their part. Rabin and Peres were able to make the case to the Israelis that with Oslo they were buying off Arafat; they were getting him to turn on his fellow Palestinian terrorists in exchange for nominal control over Gaza and parts of the West Bank. Even Peres, in those years, was adamant; there was going to be no Palestinian state, no partitioning of Jerusalem and no return of refugees. Arafat on the other hand was able to interpret Oslo as a cease fire in the struggle against Israel to be ended if Israel did not deliver on his demands for a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capitol along with the return of the refugees.
The failed Camp David accords, with its offer of a state compromising the Gaza Strip along with almost all of the West Bank, was, in the language of forgiveness, an agreement to say that Zionism and the founding of the state of Israel along with the war in ’67 were legitimate and the Palestinians must ask forgiveness for their attempts to destroy Israel. But that it was wrong for Israel to hold onto the West Bank and Gaza, so Israel must ask forgiveness from the Palestinians for that. Barak and the Labor party was willing to accept this line and the Likud could probably have been forced to go along with it as a matter of practicality. In truth the Camp David accords was not even asking the Labor party to ask for forgiveness for any of their actions. The settler movement was by and large a creation of the right so Barak, was in essence, offering to ask for forgiveness for the sins of his political opponents. (Imagine a President Kerry, after having won the 2004 election, pulling American troops out of Iraq and apologizing for America’s, i.e. Bush’s, war of aggression) Arafat could not accept Barak’s offer of post ’67 in exchange for pre ’67 because to do so would still undermine the Palestinian Authority’s legitimacy. The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which is the source of Arafat’s legitimacy, was founded in 1964, before Israel had the West Bank and Gaza, and its purpose was the destruction of a state of Israel which did not then occupy the West Bank and Gaza. To accept Camp David would have meant that Arafat himself would have had to admit to being a terrorist.
What the Palestinian Authority needed to be able to do was get Israel to accept that there is a right of return for all Palestinian refugees. The Palestinian Authority claims to represent all the Palestinian people, not just in Gaza and the West Bank but also the Palestinians in Lebanon, Jordan and Tunisia etc. If the Palestinian Authority were to make a peace agreement that left all the refugees stranded then they would be admitting that there really is no such thing as a Palestinian people, it was just a scam to get sympathy from the West. Israel though is unable to allow the refugees to come back. If all or most of the refugees were to come back to Israel then Israel could of course be destroyed by democratic means. Even if not a single refugee were to accept the offer to come back to Israel the Palestinian Authority would still de facto be gaining its victory over Israel. By agreeing in principle to allow the refugees back into Israel, Israel would be accepting at least a partial blame for having caused the refugee problem back in 1948. This in turn would in turn undermine the founding of the state of Israel; it would show that having a Jewish state was inherently a detrimental act to the Arab natives and so therefore there existed legitimate reasons for the Arab states to reject the formation of a state of Israel.
For the Israelis the notion of forgiving Palestinian terrorism is a difficult pill to swallow, especially for the right. Such an action requires turning ones back on all the blood spilt and put it out of ones political mind and memory.[3] This goes against the ideology of the Holocaust. The slogans associated with the Holocaust are zachor, we will remember, and “never again.” Crucial to the Israeli self image is the notion that we are dealing with the new Jew. The new Jew, created by Zionism is not supposed to be the Jew of Eastern Europe, who meekly allowed himself to be led to the camps and slaughtered.[4] Instead our new Jew remembers[5] what happened, refuses to follow in that path and will not allow Jewish blood to be spilt unanswered.
The Palestinians have, in regards to forgiveness, even less room to work with then the Israelis. The Palestinians have an even greater need for a collective memory because they do not, as yet, have a country which they could claim as their own and because they have a very ambiguous status as a people. Palestine never existed as an Arab country; it was part of greater Syria, which itself for hundreds of years was a part of the Ottoman Empire. The Palestinians are trying to create a country that has never existed before.[6] To further complicate matters the Palestinians have to carry around two national memories. They are claiming to be their own separate group and a part of the greater Arab front. They claim that “Palestine is the homeland of the Arab Palestinian people; it is an indivisible part of the Arab homeland, and [that] the Palestinian people are an integral part of the Arab nation.”[7] Are the Palestinians their own separate group or are they a part of Pan-Arabism? They need to be both. If the Palestinians are their own separate group then why should the various Arab states help, or even tolerate them? If the Palestinians are just an element of the greater Arab peoples the why should the West help them? The West could say: let the Arabs take in and integrate the Palestinians, since they are the same people. If the Palestinian Authority were to cut a deal with Israel, give up the struggle and recognize Israel in exchange for a Palestinian state, the Palestinian Authority would be cutting themselves off from the Pan-Arab cause. If the Palestinian Authority does this then what reason do the other Arab states have for giving it support? The Palestinian Authority needs the Arab support much more then it needs Western support. If the French feel betrayed by the Palestinian Authority they still will not massacre Palestinians by the thousands, as the Jordanians did thirty years ago.
The end result of all this was the Intifadah, which cost thousands of Israeli and Palestinian lives. At a tactical level very little has changed these past few years. Israel still has the military advantage; it is capable of hitting any Palestinian target any time and any place. It is only limited by its moral commitment to keep the actions of its military within the bounds of the Western ethical framework and by how far America is willing to allow it to go. The Palestinians are still capable of carrying out act of terrorism. While not all, or even most, of these attacks will succeed, the Palestinians can still take out dozens of Israeli citizens from time to time.
Sharon’s disengagement plan brought to the forefront a deep fracture within Israeli society. Within the language of the schemata of forgiveness, Sharon and the majority of the country agreed to not just unilaterally withdraw from Gaza and parts of the West Bank, but also to unilaterally disassociate the state of Israel from the settler movement. Sharon in affect announced to the world that Israel viewed the settlements not just as a failure but as a mistake that needed to be corrected. Sharon forced Israel to actually swallow the pill that Barak had been willing to accept. Sharon, because he was on the right, was in a better position to do this. He isolated the settler movement and the far right from the rest of the country. This left the settlers pretty much to themselves to fight this issue. It ceased to be an issue of whither or not Israel should take the blame or if even the Israel right should take the blame. Rather it has become an issue of whither or not the settlers should bear the blame and for the vast majority of Israelis the answer is yes. At a fundamental level the settlers were betrayed. They were left as the scapegoats, the stains on Zionism that needed to be expunged. They came to the territories as an extension of the Zionist dream. They were then written off from the Zionist movement not even as failures, for failures are still allowed their martyrs, but as sins for which one has to ask forgiveness for.
From the perspective of the schemata of forgiveness, what is necessary for the peace-process to work is for the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza to come to view themselves as a separate entity from the Palestinians in refugee camps and from the Pan-Arab cause. This would make it possible for them to accept some version of the Camp David accords. The reconstructed Palestinian people, through their new leadership, would be able to give up on the cause of the refugees and ask Israel for forgiveness for having tried to destroy it. Israel would in turn be able to ask this new Palestinian people to forgive them for the occupation and the settlements.[8] This would create a situation were both sides would be capable of allowing themselves to back down from the politics of hate and vengeance and enter into the politics of peace and forgiveness.

[1] Even the Japanese, who are not part of the Abrahamic cultural tradition, have been putting the politic of forgiveness into practice. For example the Japanese Prime Minister made a formal request of the people of Korea to forgive the Japanese for the horrendous crimes against humanity that the Japanese had perpetrated against them.
[2] One could object to this by pointing to all the terrorist attacks that have been carried by Islamic fundamentalists. I would counter by reminding you that such acts, for the most part, only happened because Arafat, a man who by all accounts was a secularist, allowed them to do it. Why did Arafat allow this? To simply say that he was an irrational maniac is a cope out; Arafat survived on the international stage for forty years, longer then anyone else besides for Fidel Castro. You do not manage to do that simply by being an irrational maniac.
[3] I am not saying that one has to forget what happened; one just has to be willing to take the event off the table and make it not an issue. For all intents and purposes then, it is as if the even has been forgotten.
[4] This is a myth not historical fact.
[5] Because of the image of Jews allowing themselves to be led to their deaths the Holocaust represented a problem for the early Israelis, who wished to distance themselves from that image. During the forties and fifties even survivors kept mum about what had happened. The day that was chosen as Holocaust Memorial Day, commemorates the start of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, an image acceptable to Israeli ideology.
[6] This does not undermine their right to create a country Palestine. There are several million Palestinians and it is their right to try to create a state for themselves by all legal means.
[7] Article 1 of the Palestinian National Charter passed June 17th, 1968.
[8] As I mentioned earlier, no one actually has to mean what they say they just have to be willing to accept the implications, political, historical or otherwise, of what they say.

1 comment:

Alex said...

And what do you think of Obadiah Shoher's arguments against the peace process ( samsonblinded.org/blog/we-need-a-respite-from-peace.htm )?