by Shelby Steele
The Arab-Israeli conflict, is not really a conflict, it is a war — a war of the Arabs against the Jews. In many ways, this conflict has been a conflict between narratives. We who strongly support Israel have done a poor job in formulating a narrative which will combat the story spun by the other side. We can do better.
The Durban conferences, the request for UN recognition of a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood, and the general animus in the Middle East and elsewhere toward Israel and toward the Jews, what are they really about? Is the Durban conference and the claim that Israel is a racist nation really about reforming the people of Israel and curing them of their racism?
I think their real interest is to situate the Palestinian people within a narrative of victimization. This is their ulterior goal: to see themselves and to have others see them as victims of colonialism, as victims of white supremacy.
Listen to their language; it is the language of colonial oppression. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas claims that Palestinians have been occupied for 63 years. The word oppressed is constant, exploited. In this, there is a poetic truth; like poetic license, in a poetic truth a writer will bend the rules in order to be more effective.
I will give you one example of a poetic truth that comes from my group, black Americans. We make the following claims: America is a deeply, intractably racist society. It may not be as conspicuous today as it was before. Nevertheless, it is still there today structurally and systemically, and it still holds us back and keeps us from achieving the American dream.
To contradict this claim, one can come forward with evidence to suggest that racism in America today is about 25th on the list of problems facing black Americans. One can recount one of the great untold stories of America, namely, the moral growth and evolution away from that problem. This is not to say that racism is completely extinguished, but that it no longer prevents the forward progress of any black in the United States. There is no evidence to suggest that it does. Yet, this claim is still the centerpiece of black American identity — this idea that we are victimized by a fundamentally, incurably racist society.
Poetic truths like that are marvelous because no facts and no reason can ever penetrate. Supporters of Israel are up against a poetic truth. We keep hitting it with all the facts. We keep hitting it with obvious logic and reason. And we are so obvious and conspicuously right that we assume it is going to have an impact and it never does.
Why not? These narratives, these poetic truths, are the source of their power. Focusing on the case of the Palestinians, who would they be if they were not victims of white supremacy? They would just be poor people in the Middle East. They would be backwards. They would be behind Israel in every way. So this narrative is the source of their power. It is the source of their money. Money comes from around the world. It is the source of their self-esteem. Without it, would they be able to compete with Israeli society? They would have to confront in themselves a certain inferiority with regard to Israel — as most other Arab nations would have to confront an inferiority in themselves and be responsible for it.
The idea that the problem is Israel, that the problem is the Jews, protects Palestinians from having to confront that inferiority or do anything about it or overcome it. The idea among Palestinians that they are victims means more to them than anything else. It is everything. It is the centerpiece of their very identity and it is the way they define themselves as human beings in the world. It is not an idle thing. Our facts and our reason are not going to penetrate easily that definition or make any progress.
The question is, how do they get away with a poetic truth, based on such an obvious series of falsehoods? One reason why they get away with it in the Middle East is that the Western world lacks the moral authority to call them on it. The Western world has not said "your real problem is inferiority. Your real problem is underdevelopment." That has not been said, nor will ever be said — because the Western world was once colonial, was once racist, did practice white supremacy, and is so ashamed of itself and so vulnerable to those charges, that they are not going to say a word. They are not going to say what they really think and feel about what is so obvious about the circumstances among the Palestinians. So the poetic truth that Palestinians live by carries on.
International media also do not feel that they have the moral authority to report what they see. On the contrary, they feed this poetic truth and give it a kind of gravitas that it would never otherwise have.
Consequently, we need to develop a narrative that is not poetic, but literal and that is based on the truth. What would such a narrative look like?
It would begin with the presumption that the problem in the Middle East is not white supremacy but the end of white supremacy. After World War II, the empires began to contract, Britain went home, France went home, and the Arab world was left almost abandoned, and in a state of much greater freedom than they had ever known before.
Freedom is, however, a dicey thing to experience. When you come into freedom, you see yourself more accurately in the world. This is not unique to the Middle East. It was also the black American experience, when the Civil Rights bill was passed in 1964 and we came into much greater freedom. If you were a janitor in 1963 and you are still a janitor in 1965, you have all these freedoms and they are supported by the rule of law, then your actual experience of freedom is one of humiliation and one of shame. You see how far you have to go, how far behind you are, how little social capital you have with which to struggle forward. Even in freedom you see you are likely to be behind for a long time. In light of your inability to compete and your underdevelopment, freedom becomes something that you are very likely going to hate — because it carries this humiliation.
At that point formerly oppressed groups develop what I call bad faith. Bad faith is when you come into freedom, you are humiliated and you say, "Well you know the real truth is I am not free. Racism still exists. Zionism is my problem. The State of Israel is my problem. That is why I am so far behind and that is why I cannot get ahead."
You develop a culture grounded in bad faith where you insist that you are less free than you really are. Islamic extremism is the stunning example of this phenomenon. "I have to go on jihad because I am fighting for my freedom." Well you already have your freedom. You could stay home and study. You could do something constructive. But "No, I cannot do that because that makes me feel bad about myself." So I live in a world of extremism and dictators.
This is not unique to the Middle East. In black America we had exactly the same thing. After we got the civil rights bill and this greater degree of freedom, then all of a sudden we hear the words "black power." Then all of a sudden we have the Black Panthers. Then we have this militancy, this picking up of the gun because we feel bad about ourselves. We feel uncompetitive and this becomes our compensation. It is a common pattern among groups that felt abandoned when they became free.
This is the real story of the Palestinians and of the Middle East. They will never be reached by reason until they are somehow able to get beyond bad faith, to get beyond this sort of poetic truth that they are the perennial victims of an aggressive and racist Israeli nation.
Challenging their narrative with this explanation will enable us to be more effective. Until now, we have constantly used facts and reason and have not progressed.
Durban is a perfect example of bad faith because Durban is way of saying Israelis are racist and they are our problem. Durban really is a way of saying I am not free. I am still a victim. That is the real purpose of Durban. The Palestinian unilateral claim for recognition from the UN is also a perfect example of bad faith. If Palestinians proceed to the Security Council, they will very likely be turned down, and will respond by saying: "I told you we were victims. I told you the West is racist," and so on. It refuels the same sad identity.
The irony and the tragedy of all this is that it keeps these groups in a bubble where they never encounter or deal with the truth. This becomes a second oppression for all these groups. They have been oppressed once, now they are free and yet they create a poetic truth that then oppresses them all over again.
How are you going to have good faith if you are raised being told that the society in which you are trying to compete is against you, is racist? It is always the Palestinians who suffer, and will continue to suffer, because all of their energy is going into the avoidance of their situation rather than into being challenged by it and facing into it.
The strength of our argument is that it gives the Palestinians a way out. Development is the way out. The West can help you to compete. It may take a little while. But the alternative is a cycle of violence and hatred and poetic truths about constant victimhood.
The pattern of bad faith in certain places comes to embrace a kind of ethic of death. As Osama bin Laden claimed: in the West, you are all afraid of death, but we love death. Why would you love death? If you are not afraid of death then you are aggrandized; all of a sudden you are a big man. You are not a little, recently freed, inferior. Instead, you are somebody who manages, who conquers his world, who has power. For terrorism is power, the power of the gun. This poetic truth leads to a terrible, inconceivable fascination with death and violence and guns and bombs. It consumes a whole part of the world every single day — rather than the boring things that good faith requires, like going to school, raising your children, inventing software for instance, making money.
This is the way the narrative must be retold.
Shelby Steele is Robert J and Marion E. Oster Senior Fellow, Hoover Institute, is a member of the Working Group on Islamism and the International Order.