The reason for the latest fighting in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
is, so we’re told, easy enough to understand: Palestinians in the Gaza
strip have been firing rockets across the border into Israel, and
Israel has gone in to stop them.
But what really is this about? Israel evacuated Gaza three years ago,
so that Gaza could eventually become part of a new Palestinian state.
Israel didn’t want anything to do with Gaza; couldn’t wait to leave
the place. Why would Palestinian Arabs engage in a national suicide
project and start raining crude rockets on Israel, bringing grief to
themselves and delaying the emergence of their independent state?
Richard Landes could have the answer. A professor at Boston
University, Mr. Landes last year published a provocative take on the
Israeli-Arab conflict. He argues that Palestinian behaviour toward
Israel makes little sense until we understand the role of “honour and
shame in Arabic culture.”
Mr. Landes notes that to westerners, Arab rejectionism – the refusal
to acknowledge or accept Israel’s existence – seems both irrational
and self-destructive. But that’s because we in the West believe that
conflict between Israelis and Palestinians derives “from a calculus of
rights and wrongs” that can be negotiated – for example, swapping land
What if the conflict is something else entirely from the Palestinian
point of view? What if it derives “from a calculus of honour and
shame” and thus is not amenable to negotiation but instead can be
resolved only “in victory over the humiliating enemy”?
A historian, Mr. Landes argues that outsiders do not appreciate just
what a profound symbol of humiliation Israel is to its Arab-Muslim
neighbours. For 13 centuries, “Islam had only known the Jews as a
subject people … living in exile, forced to live by the laws and at
the whim of foreign rulers and kings.” To be confronted in the 20th
century with an independent Jewish state in the Muslim Middle East was
It was bad enough that over the generations Islam had already lost
ground at the frontiers of its dominion, in Spain, the Balkans and
India. But the Middle East, too? As Mr. Landes puts it, what could be
more humiliating than “to lose territory at the heart of Islam, not to
a great and worthy foe (the Christian West, hundreds of millions of
Hindus), but to a tiny people without honour” – the dispossessed Jews.
It doesn’t matter that the modern state of Israel occupies barely a
sliver of the Middle East or that its Jewish inhabitants claim
ancestral, indeed indigenous rights. In 1948 the Arab armies attacked
anyway, but were repulsed. Same thing in 1967. The repeated Arab
defeats compounded the humiliation.
This humiliation expresses itself in the dysfunctional behaviours of
Arab leaders, such as denial (refusing to recognize or even speak the
name “Israel”) and the emergence of ingrained conspiracy theories to
explain Israel’s military victories.
“Not recognizing Israel is a fundamental, one might even say dogmatic
form of denial, denial that the Arabs were defeated by a tiny subject
people, denial of a catastrophic loss of face,” writes Mr. Landes.
“As long as the Arab world does not recognize Israel … honour can
still be salvaged. The war continues, the defeat goes unregistered,
and the hope of restoring face by wiping out the humiliation can still
dominate public discussion.”
If Mr. Landes is right about the Arabic culture of honour and shame,
it’s hard to see how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will resolve. As
a western society, Israel has always expected that peace will be
achieved through negotiation and compromise. But shame cultures
operate on a zero-sum principle. “Any victory for Israel is a defeat
for the Arab and Muslim nation,” writes Mr. Landes.
A compromise that accepts Israel will make permanent the humiliation
of its Arab neighbours.
The Palestinian decision to fire rockets into Israel, while insane
from our western perspective, takes on a certain logic. Every homemade
Qassam rocket is a symbol of Arab honour. As long as one single rocket
launcher remains operational, the Palestinians get to pretend that
Israel is but a temporary blight on the Muslim Middle East.
Mr. Landes essay was written before the current troubles in Gaza but
it couldn’t be more timely. Interested readers can find it in the
valuable new book Postcolonial Theory and the Arab-Israel Conflict,
one of whose editors is McGill University anthropologist Philip Carl
A final point: Analyzing the Middle East through an anthropological
lens is a sensitive business. Mr. Landes warns that in some academic
quarters it is taboo to discuss the role of Arab honour and shame, and
doing so invites accusations of “cultural racism.”
That’s unfortunate. For six decades Israel has been under siege. If
this conflict were an ordinary geo-political one it would have been
fixed a long time ago – but it isn’t and it hasn’t, and it’s important
to ask why.
LEONARD STERN is the Citizen’s editorial pages editor. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org