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A summary of Alain Gresh's 'Reflections on the meaning of Palestine'

A summary of Alain Gresh's 'Reflections on the meaning of Palestine'Reflections on the Meaning of Palestine
Alain Gresh
Reviewed work(s):
Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 41, No. 1 (Autumn 2011), pp. 67-81
Published by: University of California Press on behalf of the Institute for Palestine Studies
Stable URL:

Dr. Alain Gresh is deputy-director and editor-in-chief of the French monthly, "Le Monde diplomatique" and a specialist on the Middle East. He has authored of a number of books including "The PLO, The Struggle Within"; "An A to Z to the Middle East" co-authored with Dominique Vidal; and "L'Islam en questions" co-authored with Françoise Germain-Robin and Tariq Ramadan.

"Reflections on the meaning of Palestine" is adapted from a chapter of Dr Gresh's latest book, "De quoi la Palestine est-elle le nom?", and published in the Journal of Palestine Studies. It is a compelling, succinct and candid essay analysing the intricacies of the Palestine question within a European context. It addresses such topical issues as why Palestine has become a "universal cause"; and the amplified significance of the Jewish question, in its dual aspects of anti-Semitism and philo-semitism, to the conflict. Finally it reflects on how lessons from the South African experience may be applied to the situation in Israel-Palestine.

What does Palestine represent?

"At the crossroads between East and West, South and North, Palestine symbolises at one and the same time the old world, marked by the hegemony of the North, and the gestation of a new world founded on the principle of equality between peoples."

Alain Gresh's paper begins with a discussion of changing European attitudes to the Palestine conflict following World War Two. Prior to 1988, severe apprehension and reticence prevailed as the conflict was seen through the lens of anti-Semitic persecution of the Jewish people. However, it has been argued that presently, a disproportionate international emphasis and attention is given to Palestinian victims of conflict while the conflict itself is less than exceptional; it is no more extreme, tragic or serious than any other. Yet the intensity of reactions to it, alongside passionate condemnation of Israel appears to obey exceptional rules. This has given rise to a question: could Palestine be the new name for anti-Semitism?

Gresh asserts that at a particular moment, a particular cause is able to mobilise public opinion across the globe due in large part to its symbolism; it may come to express the "truth" of an entire era "spilling beyond the narrow confines/boundaries of its geographic localisation to acquire a universal significance". Palestine, like Vietnam and South Africa before it, represents something beyond a mere death toll. As the last bastion of European colonialism, Palestine "crystallises the aspirations for a world that has turned the page on two centuries of Western domination". Moreover, post-WWII both Western and international attitudes towards Israel persist in that it continues to be judged according to a perception that the Holocaust absolves it of any responsibility for its multitude of crimes.

Philo-semitism in the West

"The Philosopher Alain Finkielkraut … claims that America represents the 'inverse image of Auschwitz', and that 'the memory of Auschwitz' has become the moral law of the democratic conscience. From this perspective, to oppose US policy is tantamount to revealing one's anti-Semitism."

The paper goes on to discuss anti-Semitism's opposite, namely philo-semitism. Whereas once Jews were perceived as the dominant threat to Western civilisation, that unhappy role has now been passed on to Muslims. The radical right and others (including intellectuals on the left) now consider Israel as a vanguard of the West against Muslims and barbarism, with Palestine often representing a battlefield in the "clash of civilisations". Gresh argues that philo-semitism is the underpinning of a vast ideological operation aimed at reinvigorating "Defence of the West" (as advocated by Adolf Hitler). This involves the identification of Judaism with Europe alongside acceptance of a millennial "Judeo-Christian civilisation" in an ahistorical posture rejected, since the 1930s, by both secular and religious Jewish intelligentsia.

It also discusses other philo-semitic trends which include displacement of the German genocide of Europe's Jews away from "civilised" Europe in an effort to whitewash the fact that the Holocaust was planned and co-ordinated in the centres of German high culture.

What about Arab Anti-Semitism?

Achcar reminds us that extreme anti-Zionism must be distinguished from true anti-Semitism: "However, the most common attitude, far from passing over the Holocaust and the horrors of Nazism in silence, accuses Israel of imitating or reproducing them, and sometimes going one better than the Nazis."

Although originating in Europe well before the current conflict, anti-Semitism has become linked to Islam, due in part to the lack of differentiation between Judaism, Zionism and Israel in common discourse. This is exacerbated by the latter through its self-definition as "the Jewish state".

Despite other influences that have altered the position of Jews in the Middle East, it is mainly the conflict that has stirred tensions and placed them in a precarious position. Recourse by defenders of the Palestinian cause in the Arab world to anti-Semitic arguments can be neither denied nor justified. According to Gresh, "in Islamic movements, the conflict has given rise to Judeophobic discourse with religious, though not racial overtones." At the same time, a "racism of war" discourse has been reinforced fed by the exploitation of Palestinian repression and frustration sometimes resulting in borrowings from traditional European anti-Semitism. While Western and Israeli use of the Holocaust to justify Israeli actions leads to shades of Holocaust denial, more typical reactions are the opposite, with comparisons to Nazism being used as the ultimate means of stigmatising one's enemies.

Utopian musings on a future peace

"No solution can be imposed by either of the two sides, and a common solution cannot be achieved except through a common struggle. If this idea of reconciliation seems far-fetched, it is no more than South African ANC's 'rainbow society' project when it was formulated in the early 1960s."

Beginning from the standpoint that the Palestinian and Jewish people are both in the land to stay, Gresh asserts that irrespective of the injustices and errors of the past, any viable solution to the conflict must necessarily involve them both. Efforts toward resolution through negotiations under current conditions have run their course. As such, he suggests the example of the South African experience as a useful source to learn from. Peace would require mass transformations in society and attitudes, particularly given the virulent racism that has taken root in Israel. Joint Israeli-Palestinian action and opposition movements for peace give significant cause for hope. Crucial to any new strategy is for these movements to find appropriate means for addressing the traumas of their two peoples; to reflect together on how their respective historic wounds may be healed; and to create a future founded on universal values that transcend ethnic and national division.


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