Historical and Hopeful Perspective on Israel/Palestine Situation

This essay appeared on my Facebook wall this morning.  Historically-informed and tightly argued, I would have considered it worth sharing widely–even if it wasn’t written by my son Nathan. 

Ireland and Palestine: A Historical Comparison
Nathan Goldwag

In an election characterized by racism, incitement, and the triumph of the Far Right, one of the few bright spots was the victory by the Joint List. The raising of the electoral threshold, designed to drive the Arab parties out of the Knesset, instead resulted in their unprecedented unity and a healthy electoral victory. Still, now that the heady success of Election Day has come and gone, many have begun to question the Joint List’s credentials. Israel is an apartheid nation; with the Palestinian population either living under direct military rule in the Occupied Territories or as second-class citizens within the Green Line itself. How then, many have wondered, can the Joint List hope to fight for its constituents when it is itself a part of the oppressive process? By serving in an organ of the Israel government, does it not legitimate or normalize the current situation? Even among those who did not oppose participation in the electoral process, many questioned whether the Joint List could have any real impact beyond the symbolic. These are valid concerns that should not be dismissed out of hand. It has been less than a year since the election, and it remains possible that the Joint List will fade away to irrelevance. However, there is another option.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the struggle for Irish autonomy at last began to bear fruit. Slowly but surely, the various aspects of the British colonial administration were peeled back and destroyed, culminating at last in the formation of the Irish Free state in 1922. Today, most people remember the bitter fighting and bloodshed that it took to reach that victory; from the so-called ‘Land War’ of the 1870s—1890s, to the ill-fated Easter Rising of 1916, to the Irish War of Independence in the early 1920s. Throughout this period Irishmen and women fought and died for their beliefs and in the hope they could bring an end to the Imperial domination of their island. But at the same time, another, equally important struggle was being fought on behalf of Ireland, fought not in the streets and fields of the Emerald Isle, but by Irish parliamentarians in the halls of Westminster Palace.

In 1882, a man named Charles Stewart Parnell founded the Irish Parliamentary Party as the official voice of Ireland in the British Parliament, replacing the loose alliance of Irish nationalists who had preceded him.  From that moment, until its dissolution in 1922, the IPP would be at the forefront of the battle for reform in Ireland. Today, many question whether Ayman Odeh and his compatriots can successfully combat the occupation while serving in one of the institutions that enforces it. Over a century ago, Parnell provided this was possible. From the very heart of the British Empire, the representatives of Ireland steadily pushed forward a series of bills drastically improving the situation in their homeland. The 1889 Local Government Act, which gave the Irish people control over their local administration for the first time, the Land Purchase Acts of 1903 and 1909, which granted tenant farmers the right and ability to purchase their lands, and finally, the long-awaited Home Rule Act of 1914, which would have granted self-government to Ireland, if it hadn’t been for the interruption of the First World War.

Throughout all this, the connections between the fighters and activists on the ground in Ireland and their colleagues in Westminster Palace remained strong. In addition to his leadership of the IPP, Parnell was the first president of the Irish National Land League, an organization dedicated to reducing the power of the landlords over the Irish peasantry. It was this organization that fought the ‘Land War’, a struggle waged by rent strikes, protests, agitation, and occasional violence. A greater contrast cannot be imagined, perhaps, between the ragged tenant farmers of the Irish countryside and the sophisticated, cosmopolitan MPs who served in London. And yet, it was a combination of efforts from both the Irish Parliamentary Party and the Irish National Land League that brought about the land reform of the early 20th century. This was the secret of the success of the Irish nationalists: their ability to work for their goals both within and without the political system they were attempting to abolish.

The situations in Ireland and Palestine are, of course, very different, but there is one important similarity to keep in mind: the democratic nature of the occupying power. Obviously, both Israel today and Britain of the 19th century were extraordinarily flaws democracies to say the least! Both ruled over vast populations of non-voting subjects, both were willing to exercise their power brutally and capriciously to uphold their power, but the fact remains that in both cases, the nature of the society made it impossible to totally lock their subject populations out the power. London and Jerusalem both have had to choose between giving up even the façade of democracy and allowing those they oppressed a toehold in the halls of power, and both made the same choice. In the case of Great Britain, those choices eventually lead to the end of the centuries-long rule over Ireland. We have yet to see how it will turn out in Israel.

Right now in Palestine, there exists a strong and robust extralegal opposition to the Occupation. Even discounting armed militant groups like Hamas, popular committees are organizing protests across the West Bank in villages like Budrus and Bilin, while the BDS movement continues to gather traction worldwide. But Palestinian efforts to work within the Israeli ‘democratic’ system have never amounted to much. Now, however, that may be subject to change. Though it was unable, as some hoped, to prevent Netanyahu’s far-right government from forming, the establishment of the Joint List as Israel’s third largest party has already brought the oft-forgotten Israeli-Arab political parties into the international spotlight. For now, the Joint List remains marginalized, shunned by both Government and Opposition, but that can change. In 1881, Parnell and many of his colleagues were thrown into jail without trial for protesting British law. By 1910, the Irish bloc in Parliament had the power to make or break the government. A lot can change in thirty years.