Hussein Ibish

Debating an extremist Israeli settler

Last week I had a fascinating debate with David Ha’ivri, an extremist Israeli settler—an event loosely connected to a conference of the pro-settler Christians United for Israel organization.
I call Ha’ivri an extremist settler for two reasons. First, many settlers are living in the occupied Palestinian territories not for ideological reasons but for practical ones. They have been induced to do so by generous Israeli government subsidies. Second, Ha’ivri’s worldview—that all the occupied territories belong exclusively to the Jewish people and that Palestinians there are not entitled to national or political rights—is by any standards extreme.
His vision involves permanent Jewish rule in all of Palestine, but no citizenship or votes for the Palestinians in the occupied territories.
In our exchange, Ha’ivri opened with a recitation of Jewish theological claims to all of the “land of Israel,” including the occupied territories, interspersed with a tendentious narrative about recent history. He and the audience, mainly of his supporters, probably expected me to counter with a tendentious Arab historical narrative or Muslim theological arguments.
I did neither. I pointed out that those arguments exist, and are as passionately held on the other side, but equally unhelpful. In his opening he never mentioned the word Palestinian, and neither described the problem nor suggested a solution.
I continuously emphasized that there are two peoples of approximately equal numbers in a small area who show no signs of being willing to share power or abandon their national agendas. Therefore, the only way to avoid continuing and intensifying conflict is a solution that involves creating two separate states.
My main point was that this was not so much a debate between an Arab and a Jew, as one between a modern mentality and a medieval one. Modern thinking, I explained, recognizes both the inherent rights of individuals as human beings and the rights of self-defined peoples to national self-determination. Medieval thinking, on the other hand, relies on holy texts and symbols, and conceives of people not as individuals and groups of individuals, but as fixed categories in a divinely ordained hierarchy. Though he was born in New York, Ha’ivri really believes that he possesses many rights in Palestine that Palestinians do not.
When the moderator, a friend of Ha’ivri, suggested there was deep significance in the fact that Jerusalem is frequently referred to in the Bible but not in the Koran, I dismissed this as irrelevant on two counts. First, historically this has not been, and it must not become, primarily a religious conflict that is by definition irresolvable. Second, ancient texts of whatever variety have nothing constructive to tell us about how to solve the real problems we face.
This modern, rational evaluation drew snickers from some of the audience. Most of them were clearly more comfortable with the religious absolutism Ha’ivri was offering, and deeply but erroneously and dangerously believe this is a religious struggle.
Many of them seemed more comfortable with the childish caricature he was offering of a morally pure Israel, relentlessly pursuing justice and friendship that is opposed only by degenerate Arab and Palestinian venality. The realistic evaluation I put forward, in which there were faults on all sides and no clean hands, has little appeal to absolutists. Nonetheless, I invited everyone present to join me in the modern world.
While I recognized the deep Jewish attachment to the land, neither Ha’ivri nor most others in the room showed any signs of acknowledging the deep Palestinian history, attachment and presence in it. His arguments, such as they were, boiled down to this: We have returned; we are not leaving; God is on our side. The organizers were distributing a pamphlet entitled “This Land is My Land,” which says it all.
Yes, I told him, you are there and you are a reality everyone must deal with rationally. But Palestinians are also there in equal and growing numbers, and they have the same rights you do, but you do not factor them into your thinking in any realistic manner. I noted neither he nor anyone in the audience would ever agree to be denied their basic rights, as he was suggesting Palestinians should, and that they would fight to restore them if they were taken away. To this, he offered no answer.
The whole conversation was, not surprisingly, deeply reminiscent of a debate I once had on Iranian TV with a leader in Gaza of Islamic Jihad. Nonetheless, some audience members plainly were listening to me and left with at least some challenging and unfamiliar ideas to grapple with.
Ha’ivri was amiable enough, but his mentality is extremely dangerous to Palestinians and Israelis alike. If mindsets like his guide Israeli policy, it would probably drag both Palestinians and Israelis, much of the region and possibly the world, into an apocalyptic cataclysm. This, sadly, is what some of Ha’ivri’s Evangelical friends, intoxicated with fantasies of a “second coming,” are gleefully anticipating.

Hussein Ibish is a senior research fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine and blogs at www.Ibishblog.com.

  • Henricanan

    Words and illusions. You can always try to ignore the reality and want to replace it with voluntarism. It is likely that you will reach the opposite effect. All the Arab states, including the Palestinian Authority and except Lebanon, have included in their constitution Islam as state religion and primary source of legislation. That’s a fact. Your approach can be an intellectual and purely formal. Do you think that Ramallah, Nablus or Hebron we can afford, even to a non-Muslim to eat in public during Ramadan? Do you think that Muslim religious authorities are ready for Gender Equality and against what the Koran calls? What about a community that calls “Shahid” any combatant killed in action? Which calls for jihad to "liberate the holy mosques"? Is able to think in terms of modernity? Finally, who do you think is closer to the modernity? Tel Aviv or Ramallah? Israelis or Palestinians?

    August 3, 2011

  • Solomon2

    No go, Mr. Ibish. Extremists don't set Israeli policy. Jews' rights to settle in the West Bank were set out by the League of Nations: settlement, as long as the civil rights of the Arab inhabitants were not violated. The thing Ibish wants to hide is that the West Bank is still, legally, under this legal regime. In turn, Arabs were supposed to let the Jews in their lands retain their civil rights. Over two generations - sometimes, as in Jordan, within months - the Jews were expelled from Arab-ruled lands. In most of these their properties went to the new dictators who distributed the stolen wealth to their followers, justifying their actions by compelling their subjects and the Arabs of Palestine into a what they were promised would be a short campaign of genocide but turned out to be a perpetual state of war with Israel. In the words of General Sherman, "it began in error and is perpetuated in pride."

    July 29, 2011

  • OmarS

    No excuse me mowaten, like all muslims, the aforementioned islamist resistance organisations believe that society is best served by Islamic law and rule however this does not mean that they want to impose on people a taliban style caliphate: remember there is no compulsion in religion according to the Holy Quran. Anyhow, lets not get off the topic here on islamophobic inspired scare mongering, my point is why is it that anyone suggesting a One state democratic solution for Palestine is labelled barbaric/medieval/terrorist?

    July 29, 2011

  • Jean Estiphan

    Good for you Huseein - it is indeed a conflict between modernity and the medieval mindset - and guess what? Modernity will always win, which is why the national socialist project in Palestine will of course fail - even if many innocents die in the process

    July 29, 2011

  • Brian Smith

    Well spoken, sir. The only way this conflict will be resolved is when all participants turn their eyes and hands to the future, and stop trying to recreate the past.

    July 28, 2011

  • mowaten

    Sorry OmarS but Hamas HA and Islamic Jihad all call for an Islamic state and government even in a diverse society.

    July 27, 2011

  • Antoinette Crowne

    Very well said, modern thinking at war with medieval thinking rooted in blind theological beliefs, how ironic that such still exists in the 21st. century

    July 27, 2011

  • OmarS

    Way off Hussein, One state with equal rights for all the inhabitants of Palestine whether they be Christian, Jewish, Muslim is not extremism. Its what we expect in modern day democracies and there is nothing medieval about it. The Palestinian people, Hamas, HA, Islamic Jihad in Palestine and all other resistance groups are not calling for a God given right to set up a Caliphate. All they want is to be able to return to their homes, lands and obtain their basic rights. On the other hand ALL Zionists dream of an exclusively jewish Israel.

    July 27, 2011

  • F-Kay

    Classic case of a modern humanist citizen of the world with advanced values like Mr Ibish debating a medivel dogmatized extremist whose view of the world cannot extend to those who do not look like him. The debate should logically and rationally favour Mr Ibish but in this extremly cruel and unfair world that we live in tends favoring the extremist who plays on people's tribalistic emotions. People are tribal and territorial by instinct, but this is where tens of thousands of years of progression of society and civilization should show, yet with many it doesn't. Great debate Mr Ibish, I salute you!

    July 26, 2011

  • Fundamentalist Pastafarian

    Religious zealots are dangerous whether they are named David, Anders, Omar or Hassan, you can't defend one without defending the others, after all they get their "missions" from the same source.

    July 26, 2011