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Honor, Shame, and the ‘Emotional Nakba’

Paul Scham responds to a recent article by Richard Landes in Tablet

The Editors
August 05, 2014

Last month, we published an article by Richard Landes in which the historian and author argued that together with the nakba, or catastrophe, that befell Palestinians in 1948 was an additional, perhaps more acute, psychological blow: an emotional nakba that cut to the core of millennia of a Muslim honor-shame discourse.

Paul Scham, professor of Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the University of Maryland, where he is executive director of its Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies, submitted a response, which we’ve published a condensed version of below. Landes replied to Scham; the text of his reply is published below Scham’s.


Richard Landes’ article on the honor-shame issue is erudite, articulate, and stimulating. It is also largely irrelevant to understanding most of the Arab world today. I am not, to be clear, denying that cultural factors are essential to understanding a society. Indeed, most of my own academic work is centered on the importance of historical narratives in understanding—and perhaps even solving—the Israeli-Palestinian (and Israeli-Arab) conflict. I and many others on the Left have strongly criticized the tendency of Westerners, especially American policymakers, to think a-historically and to assume that democratic institutions can be built or rebuilt, given sufficient determination and resources. The prime example of that fallacy is, of course, the preconception behind the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.

I absolutely agree that shame and humiliation are salient characteristics of Arab and Muslim societies. I have frequently argued that without recognizing and dealing with the humiliation that the nakba caused Arabs, especially Palestinians of course, one cannot understand Palestinian dynamics since 1948. But at this point Landes and I part company. I think history and experience show that humiliation can be overcome in various ways and that societies are not condemned to wander for centuries seething from the anger of past humiliations.

Israelis have never comprehended the huge humiliation component of 1948. For 45 years Israel officially believed that Palestinians would simply disappear in the mass of undifferentiated Arabs, perhaps analogizing how expelled Jews throughout history were usually absorbed in existing Jewish communities. This did not happen; instead, in exile “they became a nation,” ironically, as the Israelites did in Egypt, according to the Haggadah. Not until 1993 did Israel recognize the Palestinians as having a collective identity.

We have also seen a steady progression of Arab willingness to compromise, since at least the 1970s. What has not changed is the memory of expulsion and the demand that it be recognized by Israel and the world. As a people that cherishes its memories for millennia, Jews should be particularly sensitive to other peoples who take memory seriously. As an example, for decades, Israelis claimed, and many still do, that Arabs left “voluntarily.” In the last few decades, virtually all Israeli historians of whatever political persuasion have recognized that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced to leave, i.e., expelled, and the rest left out of fear. Most recently, Ha’aretz columnist Avi Shavit in his best-selling book My Promised Land, devoted a chilling chapter to a painful description of the Israeli expulsion of Palestinians from Lydda (now Lud), something originally revealed publicly in 1979 by none other than Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli commander at the Lud expulsion.

It stands to reason that when one people has been defeated and largely dispossessed by another, they want their land back. But there is no recognition of this normal human reaction in Landes’ article. It makes sense to him that the Jewish people wanted its land back for 2,000 years, but he does not even examine that as a reason for Palestinian anger against Israel even though their dispossession occurred within still-living memory.

But even if the reaction would be normal, Landes says that the culturally determined honor-shame imperative means that Palestinians and all Arabs want only to redress their humiliation. There has been a lengthy peace process—several of them—but that is seemingly all smoke and mirrors—and wishful thinking on the part of ignorant and naïve leftists like me. Landes brings up the old “dhimmitude” thesis, peddled in the last few decades by a scholar who calls herself Bat Ye’or (“Daughter of the River,” presumably the Nile). Jews (and Christians) as “People of the Book” indeed had the status of “dhimmi” in traditional Muslim societies (though it was largely abolished in the 19th century). Dhimmis can be understood either as “protected persons” or as “second-class citizens”; both are true.

Perhaps it isn’t apparent, but Richard Landes and I are old friends, and we once had similar attitudes toward Israel. Then, I realized that my liberal values weren’t informing my attitudes toward Israel and I moved toward the “peace camp,” and I identify with the Meretz party in Israel. Richard meanwhile moved toward the right. That’s how I see it, at least. He sees it as him having recognized reality while I have embraced fantasy.

I mention this because since our paths diverged several decades ago I have spoken with literally hundreds of Palestinians and other Arabs in various capacities to try to understand and strategize with them on peace-related issues. As one would expect, there is a wide variety of views, but there is a common desire to end the conflict and an almost desperate wish to “normalize” the position of the Palestinian people, just as Zionists wished to normalize the Jewish people through establishment of a state. There are very, very few Palestinians who like Israel and believe it is good that it exists (though I have met a few), but almost all are willing to accept some version of a two-state solution.

Now, when I suggested to Richard that he talk to some of them, he told me I was spending too much time listening to them. On the contrary; I think I got a reality check. Are they all lying to me? Do they have a secret line that they keep to themselves and one that they peddle to outsiders? Such thinking reminds me very much of those who believe in the Protocols of the Elders of Zionism, that famous forgery that posits that we Jews are secretly planning to take over the world. I by no means believe everything I’m told by Arabs (or by Jews or anyone else), but when you start hearing patterns that are confirmed over and over, you tend to think you’re on the right track.

Paul Scham teaches the history of Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the University of Maryland and is Executive Director of its Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies. He is co-editor of Shared Histories and Shared Narratives, about Israeli and Palestinian historical narratives. He blogs at Partners for a Progressive Israel.


Dear Paul,

Your response illustrates the problem. You speak of humiliation and how to deal with it, but your notion of what’s involved is basically a projection of attitudes that prevail in the modern West. You and most policy-makers in the West acknowledge that Arabs and Muslims are very concerned with matters of honor and shame, but you all think that you can appease those sensitivities by not shaming them.

From your point of view, “It stands to reason that when a people has been defeated and largely dispossessed by another, they want their land back,” a perfectly normal reaction that you think I ignore. But I don’t think this conflict is about Israel taking the Palestinians’ land. The point of my article was to distinguish between the Arab refugee Nakba of 1948 and the Arab global humiliation of 1948. They’re not the same thing, and they’re definitely not an a fortiori. On the contrary, the response of Arab leaders to their catastrophic global humiliation was to redouble the actual nakba of their refugees.

Those Arab refugees from Palestine, the ones rounded up and put in camps by their brethren to whom they fled, were at the bottom of the heap of the Arab world’s honor-shame system—fellahin, manual laborers, transients, people without protection (which is also why the Arab leaders dealt with them so cruelly). Israeli-inflicted humiliation was the least of their concerns in 1948; they suffered uprooting and, in their new surroundings, deliberate degradation and impoverishment from their brethren. Their original use of Nakba reproached the Arab leadership that brought catastrophe down upon their heads.

The core of the conflict in this “honor-shame” analysis concerns the Arab Nakba, the global humiliation of 1948. Arab leaders loudly promised a world community, that they would deal summarily with this Holocaust-wounded inferior people. When they failed, spectacularly, they became—in their own minds, at least—the laughing stock of the global community. By merely coming into existence, Israel constituted at blow to Arab and Muslim honor; in that universe, Israel was literally unthinkable. Dar al Harb in Dar al Islam—heaven forbid!

By winning in 1948, Israel added insult to injury. That humiliation lies at the heart of key causes and resolutions to the conflict; the Palestinians are not a reflection of that problem, but a product of the Arab world’s denial and attempt to avenge a mortal insult. “The Palestinian people victimized by Israeli conquest and expulsion” represents a scapegoating narrative by which the Arab elites seek to at once deny and revenge their Nakba by using the Palestinians as sacrificial pawns: They may not make peace with Israel precisely because they literally exist to destroy them, something some on the left are beginning to recognize.

That’s why all land-based compromises have failed so far. It’s got nothing to do with Palestinian identity, nationality, rights, or peoplehood. But I suspect somewhere you know all this. You just don’t want to admit it, because you are in thrall to the notion to which you’ve dedicated most of your scholarly work: “the importance of historical narratives in understanding—and perhaps even solving—the Israeli-Palestinian (and Israeli-Arab) conflict.” If only we would listen to, even affirm, the perfectly reasonable complaints of the Palestinians, their demand that Israel and the world “recognize” their “memory of expulsion,” their claim to nationhood, then we could all move forward (which is what virtually every Jew in the world would like to see happen). And who more than Jews should understand wanting one’s nation recognized, wanting to return to one’s land? Win-win!

And you may be right: Narrative does have therapeutic value, especially when it’s tied to empirical reality. Your therapeutic history, however, relies on a projection of how to deal with humiliation and a misreading of the enormity of the humiliation. So, not only will such apologies not work, they will (and have) backfire(d) precisely because the people you seek to move—the “Palestinians”—cannot move without the approval of the Arab honor group, and that group plays by entirely different rules. When you write that “history and experience shows that humiliation can be overcome in various ways, and … societies are not condemned to wander for centuries seething from the anger of past humiliations,” that’s the history of the West to which you refer, not Arab history, where to this day, Shi’a and Sunn’i still seethe over events over 14 centuries ago.

But your strategy has another problem. The “narrative of Palestinian suffering inflicted by Israel that you’ve accepted as “authentic” actually serves as a lethal narrative, fashioned by the very Arab leadership that seeks revenge at all costs, that uses the Palestinians as sacrificial pawns. It’s a classic zero-sum, scapegoating narrative, steeped in denial, compensatory anger, and hatred, a narrative that not only targets the intended victim, Israel, with the accusation of committing the crimes that the Arabs tried and failed to accomplish, and refuses any responsibility for the vicious blunders they themselves committed, but also victimizes the Palestinians on whose behalf it claims to speak.

And rather than help them pursue the kind of self-criticism necessary for any growth, you (and your colleagues on the “left”) condescend to the Palestinians by adopting their dishonest narratives as a way to spare their feelings. Israel has to acknowledge their narrative, editorializes Haaretz, and although they also should acknowledge Israel’s, dialogue advocates tend to give them a pass when they fail. They being in the weak position, we cannot expect them to publicly self-criticize; “wait,” they tell us, “till we have statehood.” Talk to anyone who goes on a “dialogue trip” to the Palestinian territories in search of understanding: “Listen,” they’re instructed, “don’t contradict, don’t argue. They need to tell their story.”

On the contrary, they need to start hearing the stories of those “others,” those infidels, they’ve wronged in countless ways, with their mass-murdering “resistance,” with their heinous accusations of Nazi-like behavior, with their cowardice in the face of their own predatory elites whom they dare not criticize openly. The Palestinians will really become a people, a nation, perhaps the first in the Arab world that is not, in Sadat’s words, “a tribe with a flag,” when they begin to acknowledge their tragic story: how they were betrayed and victimized by their elites, how that came about because their political culture is driven by a pathological honor-imperative that demands dominion, dominion over the “other,” whether socially inferior, or Christian or Jew.

Which brings me to my last comment on your text. You ask: “Could they all be lying to me?” and respond, “no.” This response embodies your cognitive egocentrism, from the allusion to the Protocols (we didn’t like being accused of conspiracy, we shouldn’t accuse them) right down to its formulation, in which lying is a serious accusation. But very few cultures in history value honesty over public honor. Even fewer have public figures “proud” to admit to error. What Palestinian spokesmen admit to massacring Jews as a shameful deed? On the contrary, even “moderates” like Abbas glorify those who mass-murder Israeli civilians.

Your pious defense of Arab honesty—they wouldn’t all lie to me—merely proves how little you understand. In some (many) cultures, lying is a game of wits: I lie to you to test your critical acumen. When you accept their strategic protestations as true—e.g., the settlements are the problem; we Palestinians will be satisfied with a return to the “1967” borders, we desperately want to live normal lives—you think you’re being generous and sympathetic, but you just demonstrate your folly to them.

My analysis suggests that the folks who claim to represent the “progressive left” from the “solidarity” movement to the J-Streeters, encourage the Palestinians to double down.

The best proof that Arabs have a noble and tolerant past and that Islam is a religion of peace is not repeating politically correct formulas to soothe their wounded egos, but for the present generation of Muslims to bring that proud identity into reality.

The problem is not “how much territory is Israel willing to concede to satisfy the Palestinians?” but “how do Arab Muslims overcome the humiliation that is Israel, and find their dignity in the global community?”

You can read and extended version of this exchange on Landes’ blog as well as Scham’s.

From the editors of Tablet Magazine.

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