Views of the Israel-Palestine conflict are polarized worldwide between those who have experienced the past few centuries as an East-West conflict and those who have experienced it as a North-South conflict.
For the first group, the storyline of the past few centuries begins with the American and French revolutions: The former established the first constitutional democracy. The latter overthrew an absolute monarchy in the name of the people, emancipated the Jews, and spread its doctrine of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité throughout Europe.
The progress of freedom culminated in the victorious struggles of democracies against first Nazism and fascism and then communism in the twentieth century. President Biden’s foreign-policy theme of a global struggle of democracy against autocracy is the product of that narrative. Atrocities of fascism and communism included both the Holocaust, in which six million Jews and an almost equal number of non-Jews were murdered, and Soviet repression, in which up to 20 million perished in the gulag, the purges, and man-made famines.
From this East-West perspective the establishment of the state of Israel from the ashes of the Holocaust and the struggle of the Arab and Muslim worlds against it are extensions of the victory of the Allies and Hitler’s genocidal program. For many of this narrative’s believers, the October 7 massacre perpetrated by Hamas reinforced this view of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
For the second group, the main story of the last five centuries has been the subjugation of Asia, Africa, and Latin America by European colonialism, and the consequent anti-colonial struggles. The trans-Atlantic slave trade took two to four million lives. The genocide of the native American peoples led to the deaths of 90 percent of the population. Between 1885 and 1908, the atrocities in the Belgian-ruled Congo Free State produced death tolls estimated at from three to ten million. British policies in India set off the 1943 Bengal famine that killed three million people in eight months.
For those who see history through this North-South lens, the 1922 League of Nations mandate to establish “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine without the consent of that land’s inhabitants; the 1948 violent expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians in what Israelis call the War of Independence and Palestinians call the Nakba or catastrophe; the annexation and occupation by Israel of lands conquered in 1967; and Israel’s evolution into an undeclared nuclear power armed and supported by the U.S. amount to the extension of colonialism into the 20th and 21st centuries.
Israel’s current war against Gaza and the uncritical support it receives from the U.S. confirm this view.
In 1905 Negib Azoury, a Lebanese Christian former deputy governor of Ottoman Jerusalem, alerted the world to "two important phenomena, of a common nature, but opposed to each other, the awakening of the Arab nation and the effort of the Jews to reconstitute the ancient Kingdom of Israel on a large scale. The fate of the whole world,” he wrote, “will depend on the result of the struggle between these two peoples representing two opposing principles."
Azoury argued that regardless — or because — of their similarities, the only possible outcome would be for one side to defeat the other. Azoury was right about the common origin of the two movements — the resistance to different forms of oppression that have driven some to become Zionists and others to become Arab nationalists or Islamists differ less in their nature than in the positions into which their proponents are born.
The degradation of the outlook of some on both sides into dehumanizing hatred is an inevitable result of the consequent century or more of violence.
But must one ultimately defeat the other? Both narratives derive from genuine experience and pain. Is it beyond our power to acknowledge that no single narrative recounts the whole of history’s polymorphous cruelty? The “fate of the whole world” may now depend on our ability to recognize that tragedy and prove Azoury wrong.