There is a famous dictum that argues that history is written by the victors. But that is utterly untrue. The vanquished have also written history. The question to resolve is not who writes the history, but who teaches it. If we follow the model that there are always two sides to each issue, we know that each side will put forward a specific context to fit their desired narrative. A false context becomes a pretext for explaining, and sometimes justifying, episodes of history or present-day conflicts. We must therefore understand that there is a right to present a context to a conflict, but there is never a context that can explain or justify atrocities and crimes against humanity. Never will the vanquished resort to crimes against humanity, for those crimes will be the source of their eternal vanquishing. The vanquished will one day triumph, but only if the human likeness of their struggle is held firm in the winds of history.
All nation states that exist today are founded on the perceived inherent rights conferred to shared ancestral commonalities. Those ancestry attributes can be biological, historical or simply political, but what all of them share in common is the manipulative illusion that ancestry determines the present and the future. A blood ethnicity is a biological fact that is as relevant to shared communal experiences as would be body weight or a preference for red wine over Goan feni. We would certainly not think of creating a nation-state on the basis of shared weight and vinophile predilections. We prefer to use blood referents and historical narratives to designate national groupings and assert territorial claims. Sometimes it is a shared religion that prompts us to gather as a nation and separate ourselves from others who do not belong to the beloved faithful.
Can we accept the premise that human groups have an inherent right to a nation-state and a territory under their control because they share the same religion? In other words, can religion be the basis upon which to build a national state? The answer to that question depends on the context of time and space within which it is formulated. Are nations more just when the basis to their commonalities is blood-ethnicity? Is a shared past, narrated by those who control its teaching, a proper attribute for nationhood? We do not seem to have an answer to the question whether the continuum ethnicity-culture-territory is a fact of nature or a construction of power and domination.
Let us think of the current situation in the Middle East. Israel and the Palestinians are struggling against each other on the basis of two separate and conflicting contextual narratives. Both narratives are true, and that fact is the source of the pain and the tragedy. Both peoples are equally vanquished and victors and both are victims and victimisers, warriors and peacemakers.
From a philosophical perspective, we should know that peace ought not be held as a goal, for peace is the means and the only path to the goal. That which cannot be accomplished through peace, should not be pursued. If national liberation and social justice are the goals, violence will not build them, it will only destroy them. In other words, only peace can give birth to liberation and justice. In this context, we must affirm that the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and people must end forthwith, and at the same time, the Palestinian resort to terrorism as a method of struggle must also be forfeited forthwith. What context can excuse terrorism while justifying national liberation? But part of the tragedy in this conflict is that each side defines “terrorism” in different ways. In the Middle East, the methods applied and the goals they aspire to are themselves in conflict against each other. Therefore, in light of the current events in the Middle East, it is essential to establish a clear factual context. Disconnecting a text from its context offers the perfect excuse for a dishonest pretext. Likewise, disconnecting facts from their historical context gives the controllers of the teaching of history the opportunity to spread murderous calumnies.
In 1936, the pacifist Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, wrote an extended letter to Mahatma Gandhi on the subject of Zionism and the Jewish right to return and resettle in their ancestral homeland. The Mahatma did not respond. Gandhi had previously written that the Jews should apply ahimsa and let themselves be slaughtered by the Nazis rather than self-defend by means of armed resistance. It took a few years of witnessing the tragic horrors of the Holocaust before Gandhi wrote of the “satanic fury” unleashed on the Jews by the evil Nazis. Buber disagreed with Gandhi on this issue, but for Buber, Gandhi remained a beloved guide and inspiration. Five years after the end of World War II and the slaughter of six million Jews by the Nazis and their allies, the Jewish State of Israel was established in what the colonial powers, since Rome through the Ottomans and the British, named Palestine. In the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) and the Christian Bible (the New Testament), the same land was variously known as Canaan, kingdom of Judea and kingdom of Israel. Buber had argued throughout the entire war and beyond that rather than establishing an ethnic Jewish state, the whole of Palestine should become a joint secular and democratic bi-national republic of Jews and Arabs. For Buber, religion or ethnicity are not legitimate foundations upon which to build a nation state. At the time, however, not many Jews or Arabs subscribed to that idea, and the partition of Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab, was approved by a United Nations (UN) resolution in 1947. India and Pakistan became a model for how to attempt to resolve in practical terms two distinct and uncompromising adversarial national claims. The Jewish government at the time accepted the UN partition resolution, but the Arab side rejected it and war ensued. After the 1948 “war of independence” ended, what the Palestinians refer to as “the Nakba,” the armistice lines stayed in place until 1967. During the war, residents became refugees and civilians became “collateral damage.” That is the law of war: loss of life, limb, property and land, and after all is said and done, what remains is suffering, misery and the memory of oppression. As a result of the war, a large number of Palestinians as well as a large number of Jews from Arab countries became refugees, but in contrast to the Jews, many of the Palestinian refugees still remain dispossessed and exiled until the present times.
We ask: after so many wars, can there finally be a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian people? A number of Arab and Muslim nations have already made peace with Israel and more seem to be heading in that direction. But this is of the essence to understand: in 1996, Yasser Arafat, the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which was recognised by the UN as the only legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, signed a peace treaty with Israel. The PLO recognised the state of Israel. At that time, the hope for a Palestinian state alongside Israel was revived and celebrated by a majority of Israelis and Palestinians.
However, after Arafat’s demise, the PLO was militarily challenged by a new Palestinian radical Islamist organisation. That was the birth of Hamas and their takeover of the Gaza Strip away from the PLO’s rule. Hamas inscribed in its foundational charter that Palestine is an exclusive Muslim land and therefore no Jewish state can or will be allowed to exist. Hamas believes that religion is the only foundation for nation building, and in that sense, this exclusionary principle is a clear and manifest definition of apartheid. Hamas refused to sign the PLO’s peace agreement with Israel and has continued since to engage in armed attacks and other acts of terrorism against Israel and also against their PLO rivals. The Hamas government in Gaza draws its power mainly from the support of other radical Muslim sources, primarily Iran. Iran defines itself as an Islamic republic, again, using religion as the shared attribute for nation building, and again, founding a nation on the basis of principles of apartheid. The Hamas terrorist attack against Israel on October 7, 2023, should not be seen as a continuation of the struggle of dissident factions within the Palestinian people against the state of Israel; for the scope of Hamas’ terrorist incursion into Israel was a radical departure from the norms of conflict and resistance.
The Palestinian people are rightfully frustrated, angry and suffering, and their hope for independence seems to be drifting farther away every day, and that is a rightful context from which to draw hopes and policies. For there is indeed a right to resist, but there is no right to rape women, to kidnap elderly ladies, to kill a mother, father and their three little children, to shoot at a crowd of dancing concert goers and to take babies as hostages. There is no right to murder 1,000 civilians in civilian towns and venues. That was the ISIS and Al-Qaeda war machine, never the Palestinian. In 1997, Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) found it necessary to issue an apology to the people of South Africa for acts of terrorism committed against civilian South Africans. The ANC wrote: “We regret the deaths and injuries to civilians arising from armed actions. We apologize to the next-of-kin for the suffering and hurt.” The context of Mandela’s struggle is right and justified, but Mandela recognised that their methods were not in accordance with the goals of justice, equality and democracy.
Likewise, during the worst of the oppression and repression of Black people in America, many Black leaders announced that they will fight discrimination “by all means necessary,” but Martin Luther King refused to permit the use of violence under all and any circumstances. The Black struggle in America was right and justified, but the methods, according to King, needed to remain within the bounds of humanity and holiness.
Of course, Israel’s violent repression of Palestinians in the occupied territories is reprehensible, but after October 7, the moral equivalence has been shattered. From Mahatma Gandhi, Mandela, King and many others, we learned that never should a crime against humanity be considered a tool of resistance. Always and forever we must distinguish between a particular cause and the methods it utilises. Whatever the cause might be, whatever the grievances against another country, party or institution, the way of fighting determines whether the fighter is right or wrong, whether the fighter is a true resistor or a practicing fascist. There is a context to the struggle but never to the method of violence against civilians, never to the method of crimes against humanity. Hamas is clearly and indisputably wrong, and after October 7, its continued existence is a victory for fascism everywhere. Those of us who support the cause of peace, that is, two states for two peoples side by side in peace and friendship, must support the vanquishing of Hamas, its financiers and suppliers. On the other side of the border—those of us who yearn for peace and democracy—must hasten the end of the extremist right-wing, fundamentalist and messianic government of Israel.
National liberation and terrorism are irreconcilable opposites. Those struggling for revolution must uphold revolutionary values during the struggle as they would after victory. Terrorism is the weapon of choice of fascism and of pseudo-religious fundamentalism. National liberation, decolonisation and revolution, have one sworn enemy: terrorism. Those of us who support the rights of the Palestinian people for a sovereign nation of their own, and wish that nation to be established alongside the sovereign nation of Israel, must unequivocally condemn and loathe the latest round of terrorist murders and kidnappings of civilians inflicted by Hamas on the people of southern Israel. We need to begin to reconsider which are the proper foundations upon which to build human societies: from history we witness how race, religion, ethnicity, shared historical narratives and political programmes have all given us war, suffering and tragedy. Perhaps a more expansive and enlightened view of humanness may be the proper and most fruitful foundation for human nation building.
May peace prevail now and forever.
(Views expressed are personal)
Hune Margulies is founder and director of the Martin Buber Institute For Dialogical Ecology, Goa