I have been thinking lately of the fictions people tell themselves. The trigger was a series of discussions with religious students in Israel when they related to me historical fictions they firmly believed in as fact, and I realized that all religions (except perhaps Buddhism) begin with a fictitious event, a myth, extrapolated from history, and this, paradoxically, is what gives the religion its drawing power because the event, never verifiable, can only be accepted and understood in a leap of faith.
I’m thinking of this also in regard to Trump and his rather infamous litany of lies and falsehoods, his fictions as it were, and his loyal supporters, for it strikes me that they are believers, and therefore, it is pointless to rail at his countless exaggerations and downright lies, for faith has no truck for rational proof.
I also wanted to write about the Palestinian national identity, although some might take umbrage at an Israeli writing about the subject. There were national movements in Palestine but until 1920 when the French defeated Syrian forces and entered Damascus, the Arab nationals regarded Palestine as part of a greater Syria. The creation of the French mandates in Lebanon and in Syria and the creation of the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan necessitated restricting the nationalist goals to the British mandate in Palestine.
And it was not clear what those goals actually were. For the Mufti, Amin el-Husseini, the envisioned entity (ruled by him) was a religious, Muslim nation, and, if he could have wrested part of Syria and Lebanon, he would have. He was essentially fighting for pre-WWI ideas when the greater Arab-Syria had still seemed a reality, and his antipathy toward Zionism remained a constant.
In the thirties, George Antonius, a Christian, wrote the superb history of the Arab nationalist movements, entitled The Arab Awakening. He, too, rejected any compromise with Zionism, as he regarded the European newcomers as impinging on the rightful claims of the indigenous Arabs. But that is not the issue here. The question is who, after all, regarded himself as a Palestinian?
We can never really know. Did Antonius? Or did he rather view himself within the Arab culture of which he and others like him in Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon were a part, in which the only disturbance was the settlement of non-Arabic speaking Jews? The Arab Higher Committee, which rejected Jewish settlement, met with British and international committees three times, but it essentially represented the Mufti.
Noticeably, the war for Israeli independence was not fought by locals for the most part but by troops from the neighboring Arab countries and volunteers from all over. The Arab Legion from Jordan also fought. The local middle class fled. To get support from the nearby fellahin in his attacks on the supply trucks on the road to Jerusalem, Abd al-Qadir al-Husseini promised them the spoils of every raid. This is not to say there weren’t locals who fought — there were, but I doubt they fought for Palestine. They fought to rid the land of the foreigner.
It was the loss of Palestine that created a national identity for most Palestinians who, previously, had divided their loyalties among clan, village, religion, and vague national identities. It was furthered by those who remained in exile and were treated as unwanted by neighboring Arab countries. When Palestinians talk about themselves, they invariably see themselves as hapless victims of Israel as if they were not in any way responsible for their situation. In addition, the Palestinian identity is bound to a longing for a land that no longer exists, for that illusive olive tree and magical bustan (a garden with fruit trees, typically, lemon and pomegranate trees and a grape vine). It’s not just that the UNWRA has fostered this longing in the camps but that this longing is the essence of the Palestinian identity. It would be hard to claim that it has been translated into anything constructive. And because it is inevitably bound to the Nakba (the loss of Palestine, again, for which the Palestinians are not responsible), it also ineluctably takes on hatred for Jews and a desire for revenge.
The creation of a national identity in the struggle against a colonialist power is in no way exceptional. What was unique was both that a general recognition of a national identity rose out of defeat and the struggle afterward took the form of terrorist activity. The Jews also engaged in terrorism, especially against the British (but against Arabs as well), but its main struggle was led by other means.
This is not to deny the Palestinian claims for self-determination. That is another matter entirely. In the 1950s, when the great European powers abandoned their colonies, numerous states based on the principle of self-determination were created with no clearly adhesive national identity. To Palestinians, the Jews, too, were colonialists, and they often refer to the Balfour declaration, that pact between England and Zionists, as the origin of their downfall. What they were incapable of realizing was that the Jews already had a national identity; their settlement in Palestine was a realization of that identity, and therefore, they never regarded themselves as colonialists. They hadn’t come to conquer or convert; they had come to reclaim. However, to foster their own success, the Jews behaved like colonialists. They promoted a Jewish not Arab work force, lived in separate communities, which had better facilities than their Arab counterparts ; they regarded themselves as Western unlike the Arabs, and in no way attempted to integrate into Arab society or have Arabs integrate into theirs.