Sarah Irving

I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic

Hage, Makdisi et al at the Opera House

Sunday night’s cheerful little jaunt was to a panel debate at Sydney Opera House, featuring Saree Makdisi, Ghassan Hage, Naomi Chazan and Peter Hartcher on the subject of what recent events in the Middle East and North Africa mean for Palestine. Below is a jumble of directly reported points (in quotation marks), notable issues raised (in inverted commas where I don’t have the precise versions written down), summaries and my comments.

So, the speakers opened with Peter Hartcher, whose purpose was unclear. He opened with a supposed overview of the Arab revolutions, but without enough time to do it properly (even if he had the ability or inclination to). In his comments he did that fabulously patronising white-male thing of deciding what constitutes a ‘realistic’ position in a debate, which immediately paints anyone who doesn’t agree as unrealistic or extremist. In his world, ‘realistic’ positions seem to equate to Palestinian rights being given up lock, stock and barrel. Similarly, he berated the Palestinians for insisting on ‘revisiting old narratives’ – because apparently he gets to decide what is an ‘old narrative’ and what is still a current one. Ghassan Hage eviscerated him neatly on that one.

One of Hartcher’s main purposes was apparently, along with the somewhat sketchily-informed chair, to mock the Marrickville BDS campaign. Which given that a significant proportion of the audience were BDS supporters from Marrickville may have been a slight own goal. He probably has a pitiably depressing existence though, given that he has to operate as the political editor of a paper that is willing to run this as informed comment on international affairs.

Ghassan Hage
“The framework of the nation-state has not delivered much in this conflict” – “it has delivered crisis after crisis”
The Middle East was “much more thriving before there was a state” – multiplicity of religious and ethnic groups under the Ottoman Empire
“Why are you thinking that you are being ‘realistic’ by restricting your imagination to something that has brought only misery?” – Chazan and Hartcher’s definition of ‘realism’ would breed “an international future of ghettos”
In response to Peter Hartcher’s ‘old narratives’ line, he queried who Hartcher was to decide what was or was not an ‘old narrative’.
As a friend pointed out on the bus afterwards, if the Nakba and Right of Return are ‘old narratives’, then what are the Shoah and pogroms and the other examples key to Israel’s claims to being a necessary safe space for the persecuted Jewish people? These examples precede the Nakba – but don’t get dismissed as ‘old narratives’.

Naomi Chazan
‘Unparalleled opportunities for peace’ as she understands it in a two-state solution
5 main obstacles:
differences in Palestinian and Israeli versions of events
spoilers on both sides
frustration and burn-out amongst those campaigning for peace (compared with the same amongst feminist activists over the decades)
unrealistic aspirations to a one-state solution – not viable, denial of the right to self-determination of the Jewish people, ‘will deteriorate into mutual destruction of the worst sort’
leaderships on both sides lacking good will and good faith
Claimed that ‘70% of Israelis and over 60% of Israelis polled want a two-state solution’ – but gave no definition of what that means in those polls, how many of those Israelis want a two-state solution as long as it means things like keeping East Jerusalem, enforcing land swaps for the settlement blocs, expelling non-Jewish people currently living in Israel (ie over 20% of the population) and continuing to appropriate Palestinian water resources.
No comment on how her claims that most Israelis desire peace meshes with their electoral choices of characters like Lieberman and Netanyahu.
Equates Jewish and Palestinian rights of return – claims she has a ‘new suggestion’ of ‘acknowledging each others’ rights but within the context of sovereign states’ and whilst calling on people to give up claims on specific places – so in return for ‘her family giving up claims on Hevron’ Palestinians should give up theirs on Yafa. Claims that the focus on right of return is an ‘excuse not to end the conflict now’.
Lots of ‘me’ and ‘I’. An extended exercise in self-justification?
One friend summed her up afterwards as ‘the kind of left-wing Israeli who helped to establish the State of Israel and then drank wine and talked about human rights whilst my family were being tortured’.
Quite.

Saree Makdisi
Significance of the common use of the word ‘intifada’ amongst the Arab revolutions – a linguistically and politically noteworthy choice
Emphasis on the “fundamental and non-negotiable” right of return
“Slogans stop us thinking”
Palestine as a “land of many cultures, faiths and identities” – which can only be suppressed through violence, because homogeneity has to be forced where it doesn’t exist
Israel: the only country he is aware of where nationality takes precedence over citizenship, ie where it is more important to be Jewish than Israeli in terms of civil rights – eg: 600 new Jewish communities established since 1948, no new Palestinian communities permitted despite the fact that Palestinian citizens of Israel are the fastest-growing group within the population
Alongside Hage effectively argued for a one-state or no-state solution with full recognition of the individual rights of both Jewish and Palestinian residents, and with full right of return for Palestinian refugees. And alongside Hage pointed out that Hartcher’s demand that the Palestinians abandon their ‘old narratives’ was very much the discourse of the powerful dictating terms to the powerless.
Also pointed out that most (white, male) Western commentators were dismissing the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt as ‘unrealistic’ until the Ben Ali and Mubarak regimes were toppled.

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