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Tolerance Is a Wasteland

Palestine and the Culture of Denial

By Saree Makdisi

University of California Press, Oakland, CA, 2022, 244 pages, $29.95

Reviewed by Michael James, PhD

“The most sublime act is to set another before you.”*1

This quote from poet William Blake invites us to see, hear, understand, honor, and affirm another person. Israel, however, has done the opposite, going to lengths that Ilan Pappe has identified as ethnic cleansing to deny the very existence of the Palestinian other. On a personal level, denial is a convenient psychological mechanism that permits individuals to ignore a painful truth. Makdisi shows how denial operates on a state level and reveals Israel’s sinister and frantic efforts to deny truth, rewrite history, and hide its monstrous and ongoing crimes against the Palestinian people.

Denial at the level of the Israeli state is a process whereby the affirmation of something seemingly positive serves to conceal or deny an ugly or painful truth. The Jewish National Fund (JNF), for example, has devoted itself to afforestation, the planting of trees. Israel supporters around the world are invited to “plant a tree in Israel.” What could be more innocent and ethical than tree planting in an era of climate change and deforestation?

But most JNF forests are “planted over the ruins of Palestinian villages.”*2 Israel’s affirmation of its new forests is designed to deny its uprooting of millions of olive trees that were planted by Palestinian farmers and its demolition of Palestinian homes and villages. Any naïve person who plants a tree in Israel is actually helping Israel with its criminal settler project of racist ethnic cleansing. Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish observed, “My absence is entirely trees.”*3

Makdisi looks at Israel’s Museum of Tolerance and Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. He describes Yad Vashem as having been “essentially built right on top of” ruins of the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin,*4 the site of a horrible massacre of Palestinian civilians by Zionists in 1948. Israel’s strident attention to the Holocaust and affirmation of Yad Vashem serves to deny its shame about the painful truth of Deir Yassin.

The book’s title refers to the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem where, at one point in its development, workers unearthed bones and human remains from “the ruins of a Muslim cemetery.”*5 Trumpeting tolerance over the bones of one’s victims can only occur in a wasteland. And from this wasteland emerged the JNF forests, Yad Vashem, and the Museum of Tolerance. They are “scripted spaces,” contrived and cleverly designed to manipulate visitors; they are not meant to enlighten but rather to mystify and indoctrinate. Other examples of “scripted spaces” include shopping malls and casinos.

Denial regarding Israel’s history of murder, theft, and racism has a global reach, much like a contagious disease. A desire to atone for the Holocaust has given rise to persons in America and Europe who are progressive except for Palestine (PEP). They passionately oppose racism yet support apartheid Israel. They believe in the separation of church and state yet defend the merger of religion and government in Israel. PEP persons are committed to equality yet enable ethnocracy in Israel. Denial permits them to avoid the dark truth regarding Israel, perhaps summed up best by the title of Steven Salaita’s 2011 book Israel’s Dead Soul.*6

Makdisi sees global support for Israel shifting from the political left to the political right. And he asserts that Israel has cynically abandoned any pretext of progressive sympathies and has “come out as the violent racial enterprise that it was all along,”*7 courting support among those in this world who endorse fascism and racism. Makdisi says this might serve as a temporary strategy for Israel, but “the world we live in is not nearly so bleak as they seem to imagine.”*8

Global perception of Palestine is becoming more positive. Makdisi credits Palestinian sumud (steadfastness), less of a media focus on Fateh and Hamas and more attention on BDS, increased acceptance of a one-state solution, and a gradual shift from an Algerian paradigm of armed national resistance to occupation to more of a South African type struggle for a one man-one vote society. He also sees the conflict increasingly understood as simply one people asking for equality and another people imposing “grotesque inequality.”*9

What is the author’s view of Palestine’s future? Truth must penetrate and shatter the darkness of denial regarding Israel. Furthermore, Makdisi calls for the world to see that there can only be “one state in all of historical Palestine…and the only remaining question is what form that one state should take: apartheid or democracy.”*10

*1 Saree Maqdisi, Tolerance is a Wasteland, p. 135.

*2 Ibid., p. 36.

*3 Ibid., p. 27.

*4 Ibid., p. xii.

*5 Ibid., p. 6.

*6 Steven Salaita, Israel’s Dead Soul, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, PA, 2011.

*7 Ibid., p. 149

*8 Ibid., p. 149.

*9 Ibid., p. 145.

*10 Ibid., p. 156.

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