In this episode of the Telos Press Podcast, Camelia Raghinaru talks with Jon Simons about his article “Divine Violence, Profane Peace: Walter Benjamin, Rabbis for Human Rights, and Peace in Israel–Palestine,” from Telos 192 (Fall 2020).
By Norma Musih and Jon Simons
The proposal of peace plans, for Israel-Palestine or anywhere, are opportunities for political imagination. Even when all that is imagined is the cessation of hostilities, peace plans embody a remarkable human capacity to picture a situation that does not yet exist, to compare it favorably with the current situation, and to act towards making real the vision of a better future. Who could disagree that the people of Israel and Palestine deserve a better future in which they are not condemned “to live by the sword”, in which they can live in security, prosperity and the fulfillment of their human rights? The drafting of peace plans is a crucial step towards diplomatic negotiations and reconciliation of combatants. The Trump plan casts itself as such an act of political imagination, as a “Vision for Peace, Prosperity and a Brighter Future” which people should read so they can “imagine how its concepts will actually dramatically improve their lives,” and which will be the basis for a future peace agreement.
The Trump “deal of the century” has rightly been condemned as a fake peace plan for Israel-Palestine by many potential participants in the peace process. Trump’s initiative is not the first intervention by a western power seeking to “bring peace to the middle east” on behalf of the Palestinian people. The colonial roots of such efforts can be traced from the Balfour declaration to the Oslo agreements. Palestinian official and popular rejection came quickly, including demonstrations in the West Bank. On Saturday February 1st 2020 Israeli anti-occupation groups rallied in Tel Aviv under the banner “Yes to a peace agreement; No to an annexation deal,” in response to the Israeli’s government’s interpretation of the plan that it had been given a green light to annex the Jordan Valley and the settlements in the West Bank by the Trump administration. The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem condemned the proposal for a Palestinian “state” comprised of fragmented enclaves as apartheid, like the South African Bantu states.
Certainly, the most appalling failure of the vision is that it has been conceived in the absence of Palestinians. This is also a failure of the imagination. Hannah Arendt conceived of political imagination as the relationships that emerge among people who can envision each other’s points of view. Famously, in her 1963 report on the trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann, she faulted him not with being an evil monster but with a “lack of imagination,” an inability to imagine himself in the place of the others whom he sent to the concentration camps. The authors of the Trump plan, led by his son-in-law Jared Kushner, are guilty of such lack of imagination.
Nowhere in the plan is this lack of imagination more shocking than its scant and biased treatment of refugees. While acknowledging that the conflict is about refugees as much as territory and security, it sets up a false equivalence between the Palestinian refugees who have “suffered over the past 70 years” and the “similar number of Jewish refugees [who] were expelled from Arab lands.” No mention of Palestinians being expelled by Israel, of the Nakba, of the systematic erasure of Palestinian presence in what became Israel. No mention of the systematic discrimination faced by Jews from Arab lands in Israel, which promised to be their national home. The plan claims to seek a “just, fair and realistic solution to the Palestinian refugee issue” but it flagrantly denies the “right of return” established in the 1948 U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, Par. 13, Section 2: “Every person has the right to leave any country, including their own, and to return to their country.” Palestinians must renounce not only their individual and collective right to return to their former homes in Israel according to the Trump deal, but also accept that Israeli security concerns will trump (pun intended) their right to return to what would become Palestine. The failure of imagination is enormous, as if people have no attachment to home, as if the violent loss of home can be bartered away by a financial compensation scheme under US control.
Arendt’s condemnation of Eichmann’s lack of imagination was controversial, as if she were being dismissive of the enormity of his crimes. Those criticisms missed the point of her claim about the banality of evil, about how such a horrendous event as the Holocaust happened not because of deep evil intentions but because of thoughtlessness, the failure to imagine oneself in the shoes of another. The Trump deal is banal because of its lack of imagination. And if it is imposed on the Palestinians, who can not accept it without ceasing to be a people with rights, it will be as disastrous for them as the disaster – the Nakba – which has already befallen them. Moreover, it will be disastrous also for Jewish Israelis. Not only will they be condemned to be perpetrators of an increasingly apartheid regime, but also their citizenship will be flawed: they will not be equal until the Palestinians are equal.