The Power And Poison Of Nationhood

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Shlomo Ben-Ami and Ram Jethmalani discuss the role of religion and culture in the Israel-Palestine conflict, with Shoma Chaudhury

"Israel is a very small country, yet a kaleidoscope of ethnic groups: the link between them is unity in destiny” Shlomo Ben-Ami
"Israel is a very small country, yet a kaleidoscope of ethnic groups: the link between them is unity in destiny” Shlomo Ben-Ami, Photo: Shailendra Pandey

Shoma Chaudhury: The Israel-Palestine conflict is perhaps the most insoluble and intractable political conflict there has been in the past 60 years. Dr Shlomo Ben-Ami was earlier telling me that the problem has too little geography and too much history. Dr Ben-Ami has written a very influential book Scars of War,Wounds of Peace, which is extremely tough and very fair to both sides. I’m also proud to have Ram Jethmalani with us. He is the most pre-eminent criminal lawyer in India, a constitutional expert, who’s been at the heart of trying to solve the Kashmir issue. We’re going to look at how the idea of nationhood is constructed and why it has created such a poison in the international system. Dr Ben-Ami, which issues are really the stumbling block?
Shlomo Ben-Ami: I would divide them into two. One is the text of the treaty, another is the context. As for the text, it seems to me that the two main bones of contention are refugees, which is a constituent ethos of Palestinian nationalism and the second is Israel’s security. Israelis operate normally within a framework of worst-case scenarios. Every crisis is a holocaust and every irreconcilable enemy is a Hitler. So that’s the collective mentality, the psyche of these nations because of the burden of history. When it comes to the context, the major problem is the politics of the process. Both Palestinians and Israelis have utterly dysfunctional political systems; systems that dissolve when they come close to a historic decision. Also, the conflict is about memory, it’s about holy sites, it’s about identity. These countries are not competing over where exactly the border should be drawn, they’re competing over whether or not the other has the right to exist.

Ram Jethmalani (to Shlomo): On 18 October, you entered into the most unintelligible swap of prisoners: 1,027 Palestinian prisoners for one Israeli sergeant. What were you trying to do?
SBA: It goes back to the national psyche of a country surrounded by potential enemies. You need to uphold the concept that no one will be left behind in case of conflict. So this gives leaders the moral right to tell the people to go to battle. If something happens to you, we will rescue you, we will pay whatever it takes to bring you back home, this is the ethos of a nation in a state of war. Israel believes that it is facing dictatorship, autocracy — they don’t respect human life. So we are different: you uphold the national identity; without this kind of principle, it will become extremely difficult to hold the nation together in times of conflict. So that is essentially the reason.

Israel is a very small country, yet a kaleidoscope of ethnic groups: the link between them is unity in destiny” SHLOMO BEN-AMI

SC: Two things, Dr Ben-Ami. You said that it’s the sense of threat that keeps the nation of Israel together. We had a very interesting conversation: If this settlement were to come through, there would be several internal problems that Israel has to face, a very divided idea of what religion should do in the State, very divided ideas about themselves. Can you quickly run us through that?
SBA:
 Israel does not have a Constitution because they do not know what to do with the religious elements within the Constitution. Therefore, there are practical arrangements rather than a binding Constitution. It will be extremely difficult to get into these issues before we solve the conflict and before having an internationally recognised border, because it is extremely divisive. Israel is a very small country, yet a kaleidoscope of ethnic groups: the link between them is unity in destiny. So once the other is no longer the enemy, you will have to find ways to reconcile these differences. Is Israel going to be a multi-ethnic society, a Jacobian State or a centralist state? All these are extremely important issues but these are the issues for times of peace. Israel is sort of addressing them but not in a radical way. But once you address these in a radical way, these might create divisions and internal conflicts very seriously.

SC: Ram, we have to wrap up. Is there a thought you can leave our audience with?
RJ
: In my view, the solution to the world’s problems is taking the way out from the darkness of religious beliefs to a scientific understanding of knowing what the problem is. It’s science that keeps asking questions, keeps raising questions and making perpetual enquiries and explorations. It occasionally lands us with answers to the mysteries of our problems. That is the only way: we have to do something about blind religious faith. I can tell you, at the age of 16, when I was a law student, I wrote an article: Plea for the Abolition of Religion.

SC: We should certainly amend it to say; A Plea for the Abolition of Religion as a Public Weapon. There are two things we did not have the time to address but Dr Ben-Ami has very interesting answers to my questions to him. For instance, why is America’s relationship with Israel so special and unique? Why is America, that is transplanting democracy elsewhere, so unsympathetic to the Palestinian cause? He had a fascinating answer: “There are two other things that I think we should draw attention to. President Mahmoud Abbas said that 1947 was a mistake — that we know Palestinians should have gone with the two-nation settlement then. And that Hamas is always put up as a deterrent to why the two states cannot come to a solution.” President Abbas said that, like in many societies, there is an extremist element, and Hamas is like an Opposition — it is an Opposition. It has a particular worldview. Let’s leave this with the thought of abolition of religion as a public weapon. Thank you.

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