In this seminal Tablet article Richard Landes (pictured) nails the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict: the centrality of the Arab shame-honour culture. Most shaming of all is to be defeated, not just by one's own subjects - but the most abject and cowardly of them all - the Jews.
In order to understand the role of hard zero-sum, honor-shame concerns in the attitude of Arabs toward Israel, one must first understand the role of the Jew in the Muslim Arab honor-group. For the 13 centuries before Zionism, Jews had been subject to a political status in Muslim lands specifically designed around issues of honor (to Muslims) and shame (to Jews). Jews were dhimmi, “protected” from Muslim violence by their acceptance of daily public degradation and legal inferiority. Noted Chateaubriand in the 19th century:
“Special target of all [Muslim and Christian] contempt, the Jews lower their heads without complaint; they suffer all insults without demanding justice; they let themselves be crushed by blows. … Penetrate the dwellings of these people, you will find them in frightful poverty.”
For more than a millennium, Arab and Muslim honor resided, among other places, in their domination and humiliation of their dhimmi—and when the occasional reformer equalized their legal status, he struck a heavy blow to Muslim honor. Noted a British envoy on the impact of Muhammad Ali’s reforms: “The Mussulmans … deeply deplore the loss of that sort of superiority which they all & individually exercised over & against the other sects. … A Mussulman … believes and maintains that a Christian—& still more a Jew—is an inferior being to himself.”
To say that to the honor-driven Arab and Muslim political player, in the 20th century as in the 10th century, the very prospect of an autonomous Jewish political entity is a blasphemy against Islam, and an insult to Arab virility, is not to say that every period of Muslim rule involved deliberate humiliation of dhimmi. Nor is it to say that all Arabs think like this. On the contrary, this kind of testosterone-fueled, authoritarian discourse imposes its interpretation of “honor” on the entire community, often violently. Thus, while some Arabs in 1948 Palestine may have viewed the prospect of Jewish sovereignty as a valuable opportunity, the Arab leadership and “street” agreed that for the sake of Arab honor Israel must be destroyed and that those who disagreed were traitors to the Arab cause.
Worse: The threat to Arab honor did not come from a worthy foe, like the Western Christians, but by from Jews, traditionally the most passive, abject, cowardly of the populations over which Muslims ruled. As the Athenians explained to the Melians in the 5th century B.C.E.:
One is not so much frightened of being conquered by a power which rules over others, as Sparta does, as of what would happen if a ruling power is attacked and defeated by its own subjects.So, the prospect of an independent state of should-be dhimmis struck Arab leaders as more than humiliating. It endangered all Islam. Thus Rahman Azzam Pasha, the head of the newly formed Arab League, spoke for his “honor group” when he threatened that “if the Zionists dare establish a state, the massacres we would unleash would dwarf anything which Genghis Khan and Hitler perpetrated.” As the Armenians had discovered a generation earlier, the mere suspicion of rebellion could engender massacres.
The loss in 1948, therefore, constituted the most catastrophic possible outcome for this honor-group: Seven Arab armies, representing the honor of hundreds of thousands of Arabs (and Muslims), were defeated by less than a million Jews, the surviving remnant of the most devastating and efficient genocide in history. To fall to people so low on the scale that it is dishonorable even to fight them—nothing could be more devastating. And this humiliating event occurred on center stage of the new postwar global community, before whom the Arab league representatives had openly bragged about their upcoming slaughters. In the history of a global public, never has any single and so huge a group suffered so much dishonor and shame in the eyes of so great an audience.
So, alongside the nakba (catastrophe) that struck hundreds of thousands of the Arab inhabitants of the former British Mandate Palestine, we find yet another, much greater psychological catastrophe that struck the entire Arab world and especially its leaders: a humiliation so immense that Arab political culture and discourse could not absorb it. Initially, the refugees used the term nakba to reproach the Arab leaders who started and lost the war that so hurt them. In a culture less obsessed by honor and more open to self-criticism, this might have led to the replacement of political elites with leaders more inclined to move ahead with positive-sum games of the global politics of the United Nations and the Marshall Plan. But when appearances matter above all, any public criticism shames the nation, the people, and the leaders.
Instead, in a state of intense humiliation and impotence on the world stage, the Arab leadership chose denial—the Jews did not, could not, have not won. The war was not—could never—be over until victory. If the refugees from this Zionist aggression disappeared, absorbed by their brethren in the lands to which they fled, this would acknowledge the intolerable: that Israel had won. And so, driven by rage and denial, the Arab honor group redoubled the catastrophe of its own refugees: They made them suffer in camps, frozen in time at the moment of the humiliation, waiting and fighting to reverse that Zionist victory that could be acknowledged. The continued suffering of these sacrificial victims on the altar of Arab pride called out to the Arab world for vengeance against the Jews. In the meantime, wherever Muslims held power, they drove their Jews out as a preliminary act of revenge. (My emphasis)
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