When I recently challenged Hussein Ibish of the American Task Force on Palestine about his response to Newt Gingrich’s controversial statement about the “invented” Palestinian people, he responded that his “semi-critique of nationalism is equal opportunity” and he suggested that I check out two of his relevant articles. (Twitter exchange Ibishblog – WarpedMirrorPMB December 10; the exchange began when I took issue with Ibish’s argument that “there was no Israel and no such thing as an ‘Israeli people’ before 1948. So the idea that Palestinians are ‘an invented people’ while Israelis somehow are not is historically indefensible and inaccurate;” in response, I pointed out that the “Land of Israel” as well as the “Israelites” are concepts dating back to biblical times.)
I have by now read several of the relevant articles written by Ibish, including the two he urged me to read. In my view, there is no doubt that Ibish’s thoughts on the subject are sophisticated and make for very worthwhile reading; but, for reasons I will explain below, I’m not convinced that his critique of nationalism is as even-handed as he claims.
The first article Ibish recommended to me is entitled “Fetishizing nationalism.” Living up to his claim of being an “equal opportunity”-critic of nationalism, Ibish argues right at the beginning of this piece: “All contemporary nationalisms are based on constructed and imagined narratives about history, geography, culture, ethnicity and religion.” In his concluding paragraph, Ibish again emphasizes:
“The analytical challenge is to recognize that while not all nationalist claims are necessarily equally valid (they may speak on behalf of very few people, for example, and not really have the constituency they claim), in some important senses they are, however, all equally invalid. Championing one’s own nationalism as self-evidently ‘authentic’ at the expense of a well-established, deeply-rooted and much-cherished rival identity is a particularly lowly form of self-delusion, chauvinism and fetishism.”
That last sentence has a seemingly solomonic quality, since it can be read as addressed to Palestinians and Israelis alike. Unfortunately, in the context of this particular article, it seems more likely that Ibish was admonishing those who subscribe to the “traditional Zionist narrative” that Ibish breezily summarizes in a previous paragraph.
The second article Ibish recommended is entitled “Mr. Mileikowsky and the ‘seal of Netanyahu’: the perilous encounter between modern nationalism and ancient history.” Again, at the outset of the piece, Ibish appears to be very much the “equal opportunity”-critic of nationalism he claims to be when he argues:
“the nationalist identities of Egypt or China are not more authentic or legitimate because they claim direct descent from ancient civilizations and kingdoms than is the American one which celebrates its non-ethnic, sui generis (at the time of its founding anyway), and ideological self-definition. All three are equally the products of a set of developments in global history that produced them in their present form at the current moment. The American version of nationalism based on adherence to political principles and a kind of US civic religion can’t be privileged over ethnic nationalisms either, and is also very much grounded in myth, legend and historical fantasy.”
Ibish then proceeds to take on the notion “that there is a hierarchy of legitimacy of nationalist claims and that the Israeli one is simply and obviously superior, older, more ‘authentic’ and more deeply rooted than the Palestinian one.”
In an attempt to demonstrate how hollow this claim is, Ibish quotes Binyamin Netanyahu’s often-told story of “a signet ring, a seal of a Jewish official from 2700 years ago” which was found in Jerusalem near the Western Wall and which is inscribed in Hebrew with the name Netanyahu.
But according to Ibish, this is simply nationalist myth-making at its worst. As Ibish points out, Netanyahu never mentions that his family name was originally Mileikowsky, and that his grandfather Nathan Mileikowsky was an ardent Zionist who adopted the name “Netanyahu” as a pen name for his political writings.
Ibish argues that for those who know Netanyahu’s family history, the ancient ring “actually calls attention not to the authentic, natural and unbroken continuity between ancient history and contemporary Zionism but rather the usually underappreciated artificiality, or at very least consciously constructed nature, of that connection.”
Needless to say, the Mileikowsky-story is quite a favorite among those who think it would be a good idea “for Netanyahu to reclaim his Lithuanian heritage and start addressing us as Bibi Milikovsky – son of a Zionist colonial settler” who really shouldn’t “strut around like he’s a native of the Holy Land and brag about how his ancestors built Jerusalem.”
While Ibish adopts a much more sophisticated tone, he and others who “uncover” the easily available information on Netanyahu’s Mileikowsky lineage (e.g. in Wikipedia or on the site remembering Yoni Netanyahu) conveniently ignore the fact that Nathan Mileikowsky tapped into his heritage when he chose the pen name Netanyahu – which he wouldn’t have known if he didn’t actively cherish this heritage as part of his identity. As explained in an article on the Western Wall excavations:
Another impressive artifact that was found in the salvage excavations is a personal Hebrew seal made of a semi-precious stone that was apparently inlaid in a ring. The scarab-like seal is elliptical and measures c. 1.1 cm x 1.4 cm. The surface of the seal is divided into three strips separated by a double line: in the upper strip is a chain decoration in which there are four pomegranates and in the two bottom strips is the name of the owner of the seal, engraved in ancient Hebrew script. It reads: לנתניהו בן יאש ([belonging] to Netanyahu ben Yaush). The two names are known in the treasury of biblical names: the name נתניהו (Netanyahu) is mentioned a number of times in the Bible (in the Book of Jeremiah and in Chronicles).
I guess you could call the Netanyahu story, as Ibish does, a “consciously constructed” connection, but in the context of Ibish’s claim that he is an “equal opportunity”-critic of nationalism, it is hard to avoid the impression that Ibish finds many more opportunities to criticize Israel’s Jewish nationalism than Palestinian nationalism. Indeed, when it comes to the problematic features of Palestinian nationalism, Ibish seems in denial. At one point, he claims that Netanyahu uses “the seal bearing the name Netanyahu, from 2000 years ago […to confirm] what no one denies: there was an ancient Hebrew culture, among many other communities, in this land.”
Perhaps Ibish has never heard of “temple denial,” but it would be very curious if he managed to overlook the fact that this has long been a very popular meme among Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims. Indeed, there is unfortunately reason to conclude that just as much “as Holocaust denial gained traction in Tehran, Temple denial has become a central tenet of Palestinian nationalism.”
Moreover, it turns out that when it comes to Palestinian nationalism, Ibish is ready to celebrate even minute details of traditional folkloric costumes as proof “that an ancient and unbroken Palestinian history and culture really does exist.” In an ecstatic review of a book on “Traditional Palestinian Costume,” Ibish asserts that this book tells us ‘quite a lot’ about contemporary politics. Ibish praises the book as representing “Palestinian sumud, or steadfastness, at its finest” and argues that “documenting that history and those traditions is not only a vital project of collective memory and an important academic task in itself, it is also a quintessentially political act. It is, above all, an act of passionate, dedicated and deeply meaningful resistance to the continued efforts at the negation of Palestinian identity and history.”
Ibish’s enthusiastic praise for this book shows all too clearly that he is no “equal opportunity”-critic of nationalism. He doesn’t even notice that the book’s title is already misleading, because it is very doubtful that the Arabs who made and wore these traditional costumes would have considered themselves Palestinians; moreover, he ignores the fact that historically, the designation “Palestinians” could also refer to local Jews.
What can you say when an ancient ring is only a symbol of the “perilous encounter between modern nationalism and ancient history,” while some minor variations in local costumes prove “that an ancient and unbroken Palestinian history and culture really does exist”?
I’m not sure if anybody ever denied that some of the traditions and customs of the Arabs of Palestine included local variations of very similar Levantine and Arab traditions and customs – just as traditional Bavarian costumes differ from the traditional costumes worn by villagers in the Black Forrest.
But if Ibish really believes that the traditional costumes of the Arabs of Palestine tell us ‘quite a lot’ about contemporary politics, he only demonstrates that even a sophisticated Arab analyst of nationalism like him firmly believes that Jewish and Palestinian nationalism should be measured by two very different yardsticks.
It is simply a matter of fact that the Jewish people have a very ancient sense of identity, and the Palestinians have a very recent one, which, as Ibish actually acknowledges, “has been shaped more by its 20th century political encounter with Zionism and Israel than any pre-existing distinctive nationalist identity.”
And that is the crux of the problem: Palestinian national identity is to a large degree based on opposing Zionism, but a peace agreement would require Palestinians to give up on this formative part of their identity. That is one major reason why we don’t have peace. But another reason is that even intellectuals like Ibish are apparently unwilling to acknowledge that what the Israelis get to hear so often finally has to be told to the Palestinians: “Championing one’s own nationalism as self-evidently ‘authentic’ at the expense of a well-established, deeply-rooted and much-cherished rival identity is a particularly lowly form of self-delusion, chauvinism and fetishism.”