Tag Archives: Israel/Palestine

David and Goliath

[I am a posting some autobiographical blogs, I hope towards writing a book about how my ideas and beliefs about Israel-Palestine and the conflict have evolved over the years. I might start here.]

“When David killed Goliath it was God’s doing. When Israel won the War of Independence, it was God’s doing.” That is how I remember the start of the essay I wrote about Israel in 1972, aged eleven, for which I won the Leon and Bertha Gradel Israel essay prize at King David Junior School in Manchester. My good memory at that age plays an important role in the story of the prize, which I was invited to read out an evening dinner for the school governors. I was terrified by the prospect and rehearsed a lot, carrying the essay around with me in the days leading up to the event. On the afternoon of the dinner, I realized when I arrived home that I had left the single copy of my text at school. When my father came home from work, he took me to the school in the hope of finding the caretaker to let us in, but there was no sign of him. So, I sat down to rewrite the essay, drawing as best I could on memory, filling in the gaps with equally florid prose where there were gaps. I spent the evening stuck as closely as possible to my two peers – both girls – who were also at the dinner, so closely that they went to the toilet to shake me off for a while. Needless to say, I made no mention that I was not reading out the actual prize-winning version when called up to the stage to speak. The following day our class teacher, the inspiring and much-loved Mrs. Abrahams, asked me how the reading had gone. When I told her and the whole class about forgetting the text in my desk, she was prompted to call one of the two local Jewish weekly newspapers [check cutting at Dad’s] , which published the story. We omitted just one detail, which was that my father and I had found an open outside door at the school but my classroom door was locked, my desk frustratingly close to it. There was no need to embarrass the caretaker.

On the left is Osmar Schindler’s 1888 painting “David and Goliath.” On the right is 15-year-old Faris Odeh throwing a rock at an Israeli tank during the Second Intifada. He was killed by the Israelis ten days after this picture was taken. Source: Beirut Today

The opening trope of the essay, of Israel as the David to its aggressive and monstrous Arab, non-Jewish neighbours, indicates how deeply I had absorbed a religiously-framed mythical Zionist narrative about the righteousness of the birth of the State of Israel. According to that narrative, Israel was. like David, relatively small and ill-equipped, the young Jewish underdog bravely standing alone against the might of the states of the Arab League, standing in for the Biblical Phillistines, Egypt, Syria, Transjordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, who invaded the newly-declared state on May 15th 1948. So outnumbered and overwhelmed was Israel that it was miraculous that it not only survived but triumphed over its enemies, just as in the First Book of Samuel David accredits his victory to the living God, not to the “sword and spear.” So, it was not just any sort of Zionism with which I had been inculcated, but a religiously-tinged version that saw the hand of God at work in the creation of the State of Israel, just as in the Biblical stories. There could thus be no question about the justice of Jewish nationalism, any more than of the Israelites victory over the Phillistines, achieved “in the name of the Lord of Hosts, the God of the armies of Israel.” (Book of Samuel 1, 17, 45).

The trope of Israel as David and the Arabs as Goliath is still current and potent. A book published in 2012 that posits Israel as the aggrieved party in the conflict, the victim of outrageous global media bias, uses the trope for its title. A blogger in 2019 similarly targets the “Goliath Arab propaganda machine” and bemoans its efforts to rob Israel of its victim-status as David: “we cannot let the Arab Propaganda machine steal the truth, including our very history and identity, and take Israel from the real David back to the evil Goliath.” Another similarly-titled recent book laments that Israel has lost its David status not only because of the size of the Arab and Muslim Goliath but also because of a new paradigm on the Left, a “race-consciousness in which the struggle of the third world against the West … replaced the older Marxist model of proletariat versus bourgeoisie.” Some people are just sore winners, oblivious to the immense power disparity between Israel and Palestinians. I could say more, but it’s not worth the trouble.

Not that I thought of my childhood essay at the time, but my experience of living in Jerusalem throughout the first intifada thoroughly dispelled the mythology of Israel as the small David and Palestinians as the giant Goliath. The uprising pitched mostly unarmed Palestinians in the Occupied Territories against Israel, the regional military superpower. Frequently, Palestinian youths – the Shabab – throwing stones or using catapults confronted and harried Israeli troops whose commanders were ill-prepared for handling a mass civilian uprising.  Although I had no television at home at the beginning of the intifada, I did not need to see live pictures of slingshots pitched against rifles and armored vehicles to understand that the typical media framing of the conflict had shifted and even been reversed in Israel as well as abroad, even in the USA, as noted by Ella Shohat in 1991. Palestinians became David and Israel Goliath. Perhaps the Palestinians did not have God on their side, as did David, but they certainly had justice on their side as the rebelled against illegitimate and unrelenting military rule.

Why don’t the Abraham Accords look like peace?

It has often been noted that it’s easier to represent war visually than it is to represent peace. When did you last go to see a peace movie? But peace agreements provide photo opps of the signing of peace agreements by leaders who synecdochically stand in for whole nations. This has certainly been the case for previous peace agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbours under the auspices of the USA.

Consider two previous occasions on which peace agreements were signed at the White House, first in 1979 between Israel and Egypt, then in 1993 between Israel and the PLO. The hands of the leaders portray reconciliation and the relinquishing of weapons in different ways. President Carter demonstrates his mediating role by joining hands with President of Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Begin of Israel, just six years after the two countries fought each other in a bitter war. President Clinton’s outstretched arms and tall stature seem to create through magnanimous power the space in which Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin come together in an allegedly reluctant handshake. Clinton was also there to observe a much warmer handshake between Rabin and King Hussein of Jordan when the two countries signed a peace agreement on their border in 1994.

If this is the simple iconography of peace agreements, it should be straightforward to represent the agreements signed at the White House between the governments of Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain as peace. Yet, it doesn’t look that way to me.

Perhaps its the absence of hand-shaking, which might be attributed to Covid-19 precautions if there were any evidence of such precautions being taken throughout the event. As it is, it looks as if Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan have all just received a certificate of good behaviour from Trump.

This picture of peace is lacking not simply because of an absent iconographic element, but because of what is missing from it as what scholar W.J.T. Mitchell calls an “imagetext.” An “imagetext” is a hybrid of picture and text and the accompanying texts to the pictures of signing these peace agreements are the stories and dramas for which the pictures are culminating events. If a picture is going to speak a thousand words, you have to know the story. In 1979, the story included wars between Israel and Egypt, the media event of Sadat’s surprise visit to Israel in 1977, and the setbacks and breakthroughs of the negotiations at Camp David. The backdrop to the signing of the Oslo accords was the first intifada, revelations about track-two diplomacy behind the scenes, the apparent conversion of two main protagonists, Rabin and Arafat, from men of war of to peacemakers. To some extent then, as many have said, this doesn’t look like a peace treaty because Israel has not been at war with the UAE or Bahrain. So there has been little drama – other than surprise – to provide the text for this image.

There is more to it than that. This doesn’t look like peace because, even while the agreement claims that the normalization of relations between states is intended to contribute towards peace in the region, including a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it does the opposite. Not only is its context the conflict between the Gulf States and Iran, but like its predecessor, Trump’s “Vision for Peace,” it undermines the prospects for a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Normalization of relations with Arab states was one of the diplomatic carrots held out in the 2002 Arab peace initiative for Israel to end its occupation and creeping annexation of the Palestinian Territories. As things stand, the occupation has become normalized by Israel, especially under Trump’s administration. Israel no longer pays any evident price for its relentless and continuing injustices, except perhaps for erosive moral corruption, as remarked by Raja Shehadeh. On the same day that the agreement was signed in Washington, Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported that a Jerusalem court had ordered the “eviction of dozens of Palestinian residents from their homes in East Jerusalem. The beneficiaries will be settler associations who argued that the homes belonged to Jews before 1948.” Needless to say, Palestinian refugees who owned property in Jerusalem until 1948 are not eligible to reclaim their homes as they are not Jewish. That is one of the injustices that the “Abraham Accords” sanctions, seemingly taking inspiration not from mythical shared ancestry but from the Biblical story of Abraham’s expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael, depicted here by Israeli artist Jakob Steinhardt in 1950, with the refugees of 1948 in mind.