13 November 2009

The colonial legacy: why the Third World supports the Palestinians and we don't

One of the persistent divisions that crops up in the United Nations General Assembly has to do with Palestine. While the West can usually be counted on to support Israel's side on an issue, the Third World can be counted on to support the interest of the Palestinians. Such was the case with the recent votes on the Goldstone report which criticized Israel and Hamas for actions in the Gaza war.

This division in views arises for a variety of reasons, an overriding one being our relative experiences with the colonial enterprise. We in the West were the winners in the imperial adventures of the last few centuries. In North America we were particularly successful. We created our nations by stealing the lands of the native peoples and colonizing them. We have therefore an empathy, a bond, with the Jews in Palestine: noble settlers creating their country out of a wilderness amidst hostile natives. That's our experience, our history.

Third World people, on the other hand, have the opposite experience. They were the natives. They were the losers, the victims of the colonial enterprise. They were deeply humiliated and will take a long time to recover their confidence. The opposite experience gives them the opposite perspective. In Palestine, we see the noble enterprise of building a nation; they see the ignoble enterprise of stealing one from its rightful owners. We see the Jews as builders, they see the Palestinians as victims. We all see events through the lens of our own history.

Bias rooted in historical experience was largely responsible for the U.S. debacle in Iraq. The Americans saw themselves as liberators, the bringers of freedom and democracy. Their self-righteousness blinded them to the fact the Arab people see them as patrons of Israel, the last vestige of colonialism in the Arab world and the tormentor of Arabs. Until the U.S. forces itself to comprehend the sensibilities of the Arab street, its aims in the Middle East will be confounded.

Specifically, its ability to bring peace to Palestine will falter, and there is probably no issue more important to international order. The Palestine situation has created a toxic relationship between the Arab, and to a large extent the Muslim, world and the West. This toxicity has spread internationally, reaching New York on September 11th, 2001. It will continue to make mischief until the West learns to put itself in the shoes of the Arab people and appreciate their animosity toward what they see as a colonial imposition on their region. They may be right about Israel, they may be wrong, but they have to be understood. Trapped within the boundaries of our experience, we refuse to try. Meanwhile, the Palestinians continue to suffer, a just settlement moves further away, and the failure continues to spread its poison.

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