Postcards from Abu Dis (10): Americans, Settlements, and Civil Rights

I’ve been away from the blog for awhile, partly because I’ve been traveling a lot, and partly because I’m at work on a presentation I’m giving this week at AQU’s Centre for Jerusalem Studies on American attitudes toward the Palestinian narrative. It’s called “Turning Up the Volume: Why Americans Have Trouble Hearing the Palestinian Narrative.”

The basic idea is this: Americans have trouble hearing the Palestinian narrative because given the way Palestinians make their case, every argument in defense of Palestinian rights can, by disputing certain factual premises, be re-cast as an argument that either proves Palestinian aggression against Jews, or proves a false Palestinian accusation of aggression by Jews.

For instance, if Jewish settlement activity is based on theft of Palestinian land, then of course, settlements are a matter of Jewish aggression against Palestinians. But if settlement activity is simply a matter of voluntary Jewish purchase of voluntarily-sold Palestinian property, then Palestinian opposition to Jewish settlement seems like a form of xenophobia, hysteria, or racism. The factual issues–theft or purchase?–often seem undecidable from several thousand miles’ distance. For that reason, some Americans simply lapse into agnosticism about the rights and wrongs of the conflict. But others insist on having a view despite the apparent inaccessibility of the relevant facts, going by what they regard as the most plausible moral hypothesis. For contingent historical reasons, Americans tend to find Zionist-Israeli claims more plausible than Palestinian ones.

The “contingent historical reasons” have to do with the rhetoric and strategies of the moderate wing of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement (i.e., the wing led by Martin Luther King, Jr.) For better or worse, American moral sensibilities about racial matters are structured by the history and moral assumptions of the King-led camp of the Civil Rights Movement. Given those sensibilities, any political argument bearing a fundamental similarity to the (moderate) camp of the Civil Rights Movement has an edge over any argument that doesn’t.

Now, the King-led camp of the Civil Rights Movement was integrationist rather than segregationist or separatist in its strategies and basic assumptions: it argued that blacks should actively strive to integrate into white society; it rejected both the white segregationist argument in favor of “separate but equal” barriers to integration, and the black separationist argument in favor of a separate nation for blacks. As it happens, Zionist-Israeli arguments tend to sound integrationist to American ears; meanwhile, the Palestinian narrative sounds either segregationist or separatist. Since Americans shy away from segregation or separatism, they opt for the Zionist-Israeli narrative.

For an example of my thesis, consider this 2009 story from The New York Times about the establishment (with conspicuous American support) of the Jewish settlement of Nof Zion within the Palestinian neighborhood of Jabl Muqabber in East Jerusalem. As it happens, I visited Jabl Muqabber/Nof Zion a few days ago; the Palestinian guide I was with took great offense at the presence of the settlers of Nof Zion, and called the settlement’s existence a “provocation.”  Here’s how the Times describes it:

Nof Zion, a private Jewish project, is in Jebel Mukaber, a Palestinian Arab neighborhood of East Jerusalem, in territory Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 war. Israel claims sovereignty over all Jerusalem; the Palestinians demand the eastern part as the capital of a future state.

Even within Israel, the idea of Jews moving into predominantly Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem stirs heated debate. Two well-known Israeli families refused City Hall’s offer to name the street leading to Nof Zion for their deceased relatives, according to the local Jerusalem press.

But illustrating the complexity of the Jerusalem conundrum, others argue that Jews, Christians and Muslims should be able to live wherever they like. Not allowing Jews to live in certain neighborhoods of the city “is segregation,” said Mr. Hikind, a Democrat who represents several heavily Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods in Brooklyn.

With new tensions surfacing between the Obama administration and Israel over building in contested parts of Jerusalem, the city’s character and future remain central motifs in the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

The cornerstone-laying ceremony at Nof Zion took place a day after the Israeli authorities moved ahead with plans for the expansion of Gilo, a Jewish residential district in south Jerusalem also on land captured in the 1967 war. The plans for 900 more housing units drew a sharp rebuke from the White House.

The first paragraph describes Nof Zion as a private project, then goes on to say that Israel claims sovereignty over all of Jerusalem, while Palestinians claim sovereignty over East Jerusalem. The implication seems to be that Nof Zion’s ownership status varies with the sovereignty of the political entity in control of the relevant part of Jerusalem; since the political status of the city is disputed, it follows that the ownership status of property claims within the city must likewise be disputed.


East Jerusalem viewed from the southwest (Haas Promenade)

But if Nof Zion is a genuinely private project on legitimately-bought land, what difference does it make who has sovereignty over Jerusalem? If Nof Zion is legitimately bought, then Nof Zion would seem to belong to its rightful owners–Nof Zion–regardless of who rules, runs, or governs the city. Of course, if it’s not on legitimately-bought land, it likewise makes no difference who has sovereignty over Jerusalem; in that case, morally speaking, Nof Zion doesn’t belong to Nof Zion at all, and ought to be given back to its rightful owners, whoever they happen to be, and whoever is in charge of the city.

In other words, sovereignty is a distraction from the relevant issue. The relevant issue is ownership, and specifically, what Robert Nozick calls “justice in transfer of holdings” (Anarchy, State, and Utopia, pp. 150-51). If the transfer of ownership to Nof Zion is morally illegitimate, then regardless of its specifically legal status, it ought to revert to its rightful owners. This would be a clear case of applying what Nozick calls “rectification of injustice in holdings” (p. 152). It seems to me that the literature on Nozick ignores cases like this, intermediate between ordinary cases of reparation for ordinary theft, and massive expropriations in the distant past.

The second paragraph tells us that the idea of Jews moving into predominantly Arab neighborhoods stirs heated debate. Why? Is it because Arabs simply don’t like Jews, or is it because Arabs fear that the apparently innocuous act of moving into the neighborhood betokens something more sinister, like a coercive take-over? While we’re at it, does the converse hold? In other words, does the idea of Arabs moving into Jewish neighborhoods stir debate? If so, what’s the upshot?

In my experience, settlers insist that Arab opposition to Jewish in-migration is simply a matter of xenophobia or racism. Meanwhile, Palestinians don’t explicitly or effectively argue that Jewish in-migration is a Trojan Horse for house demolitions or coercive territorial capture; they focus instead on the supposed “provocation” of a Jewish presence in an Arab neighborhood as such. But this appeal to “provocation” is a very weak argument, and one almost designed to offend American ears: it simply assumes without further explanation that a Jewish presence in an Arab neighborhood is a provocation, qua Jewish, without explaining what’s provocative about such a presence. It’s as though someone were to describe white peoples’ (or immigrants’) moving into a predominantly black neighborhood as a “provocation” simply because they were the “wrong” race.

In fairness to Palestinians, arguments of the “Trojan Horse” form tend to be dismissed by American audiences a priori as paranoid or anti-Semitic conspiracy theorizing, even when there is good evidence for them, and even when Americans themselves use such arguments in other contexts. So it becomes easy to see why Palestinians tend to be vague at the crucial argumentative moment. But the fact remains: the vagueness drastically weakens their argument.


Demolished Palestinian home, Ras al Amud, East Jerusalem

As for the third paragraph, is Hikind right to think that not allowing Jews to live in Jabl Muqabber is “segregation”? If so, would it then follow that not allowing Palestinians–whether of Israeli citizenship, Jerusalem residence, or West Bank/Gaza residence–to live in Jewish settlements is also segregation? He doesn’t get around to that issue here, and I doubt he ever has. If I had the money, I wouldn’t mind buying an apartment in Ma’ale Adumim. But could I? And invite my Palestinian friends over to hang out and swim in the community pool? Rest assured that there’s no community pool here in Abu Dis or in any nearby Palestinian town.

While I’m on the topic of water, I guess it’s worth adding that the aquifer under Abu Dis is under Israeli, not Palestinian control: “An estimated four-fifths of the water [in the West Bank aquifers] is used by Israel, much of it is piped back to West Bank settlements. Many West Bank Palestinians, however, must rely on wells” (Charles D. Smith, Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict: A History with Documents, 8th ed., p. 511, Map 11.4.) Does that pattern of water use involve segregation or discrimination? I think so.

Anyway, back to land: In my experience, those who defend the settlement enterprise are very reluctant to consider the possibility of Arab residence in Jewish settlements–even when they complain that Arab reluctance to allow Jewish settlements in Arab neighborhoods is “segregation.” Meanwhile, Palestinians regard the idea of applying for residence in a Jewish settlement as either a quixotic waste of time or as something akin to treason, the ethno-nationalist equivalent of a scab’s working for management during a strike. The pro-settlement claim strikes me as hypocritical; the Palestinian nationalist claim strikes me as self-defeating.*

In any case, the general point should be clear: American interpretations of the Israeli settlement enterprise are, for better or worse, steeped in assumptions drawn from the theory and practice of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. But neither side’s views map easily onto the integrationist template formulated by that movement. My point is that, rhetorically, Zionist-Israeli arguments sound–and are made to sound–as though they do. That fact accounts for why Americans find Zionist-Israeli arguments more plausible than their Palestinian counter-parts, especially when the facts that would decide a controversy are complex or difficult to access.*

A query for PoT readers, especially American ones: Just off the top of your head, do you regard the Jewish settlement enterprise as fundamentally just or as fundamentally unjust? If unjust, what’s wrong with it? If just, why is it mistakenly thought to be wrong?

Postscript: As it happens, Nof Zion is clearly visible from my side of the separation wall in Abu Dis. I’d take a photo and upload it here, but my camera lacks a telephoto lens, so I’m not sure the relevant details will come out.

*For clarity’s sake, I added a few sentences to each of these paragraphs after the initial posting.

8 thoughts on “Postcards from Abu Dis (10): Americans, Settlements, and Civil Rights

    • Yes, but it’s rare that they’re that explicit, especially in the US. I think there’s a fear that if you make a “Trojan Horse” argument, you’ll be accused of anti-Semitism (since the argument sounds “conspiratorial”), so to avoid the charge of anti-Semitism, the larger political context of settlements is merely left implicit. Most Americans miss the implication, however, so I find it in an ineffective argument strategy.


  1. Good article. I certainly agree with your assessment. I find Palestinian arguments disgustingly racist, akin to the hardcore racists during my childhood who argued that blacks moving into a white neighborhood (Hispanics into black neighborhoods, gay families…) were being provocative.

    A query for PoT readers, especially American ones: Just off the top of your head, do you regard the Jewish settlement enterprise as fundamentally just or as fundamentally unjust?

    . Fundamentally an occupation requires the dominant military power not be making territorial claims and Israel obviously is making territorial claims. So at the very least I don’t think there is an occupation in Area-C and Jerusalem but rather it is disputed territory and I see no reason if Israel is going to govern it and develop it for it not to do so. So fundamentally just.

    Long term there shouldn’t be a strong Palestinian identity but only an Israeli identity that both the descendants of Jews and descendants of Palestinians share. That’s the just resolution to the conflict. Far better than entrenching the ghosts of 1920s Arabic Christian racism permanently .


    • I certainly agree with your assessment. I find Palestinian arguments disgustingly racist, akin to the hardcore racists during my childhood who argued that blacks moving into a white neighborhood (Hispanics into black neighborhoods, gay families…) were being provocative.

      That wasn’t my assessment. It’s just another blatant misreading of the sort you’ve been offering since your first comment here.


      • @Ifran

        It’s as though someone were to describe white peoples’ (or immigrants’) moving into a predominantly black neighborhood as a “provocation” simply because they were the “wrong” race. ” I say you were right in how it gets interpreted and you throw a fit claiming you never said what you clearly did. Maybe you have a problem with judging intent.


        • You didn’t say that I was right “in how it gets interpreted.” You said the argument itself was “disgustingly racist.” My point was that the argument was problematically vague and therefore easily misinterpreted as racist, not that it was racist. You’ve not only managed to misread me, but to misread yourself so as to make it seem as though you’ve more accurately read me. But two misinterpretations doesn’t add up to an accurate one. You’ve quoted the one sentence as though its meaning was transparent without any surrounding context, but the context is made clear by the paragraphs before and after the one in which the sentence appears.

          Your MO seems to be to pick a sentence that happens to confirm what you want to believe, detach it from the context that gives it the author’s meaning, assign your own meaning, and then, when under attack for doing so, to re-interpret your own misinterpretation so that it splits the difference between the author’s meaning and your misinterpretation. Wouldn’t it just be easier to read the passage for what it said in the first place?

          I didn’t “throw a fit.” I just pointed out that you’ve misread me for the nth time. I’m not throwing a fit now. I’m just pointing out that you’re doing it again.

          I didn’t “clearly” say what you’ve put in my mouth. I didn’t say it at all.

          For the second time, can I point out that you’re misspelling my name? I’m not throwing a fit here; I’m just suggesting that maybe you have a problem with reading comprehension.


    • Two clear examples from debates about health care: many libertarians and conservatives regard the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA) and Affordable Care Act as Trojan Horses for full-fledged socialized medicine.

      On the other side, many liberals regard Indiana’s recent “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” as a Trojan Horse attempt to sidestep the First Amendment and take measures toward establishing a theocracy.

      Finally, many pro-choicers regard attempts to restrict abortion as Trojan Horse strategies for eliminating the right to abortion altogether.

      Personally, I think the Trojan Horse accounts of all three cases have merit. I would add that a huge number of anti-government arguments one hears in libertarian circles (including mainstream libertarian circles) are part of a Trojan Horse strategy for normalizing anarchism.


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