Tolerance Is a Wasteland: Palestine and the Culture of Denial

Tolerance Is a Wasteland: Palestine and the Culture of Denial
Publisher: University of California Press
Published Date : 05 April 2022
ISBN-13: 978-0520346253

Book Author(s):

Saree Makdisi

Review by:

Nasim Ahmed

One of the most startling aspects of Israel’s ongoing takeover of historic Palestine is how, despite the catalogue of human rights abuse, violations of international law and the practice of the crime of apartheid, the Zionist project has been able to maintain support for its cause amongst large sections of the Western liberal community. It is quite common, for example, to find celebrities and politicians who are instinctively opposed to racism, making generous donations and offering support to pro-Israel causes whose main function is to preserve a system of apartheid and ethnic cleansing. 

This strange phenomenon, which has come to define the hypocrisy of liberals that continue to support Israel, has been given a special label: Progressive Except for Palestine (PEP).  The term was coined last year by Mark Lamont Hill and Mitchell Plitnick in their book, Except for Palestine: The limits of progressive politics. It was awarded the best Academic Award during Palestine Book Awards 2021. As well as exposing the criminal double-standards in the Western discourse on Palestine, the book sparked a serious conversation about the moral and political cost of maintaining support for Israel, when near-global consensus has crystallised about the apartheid practice of the Occupation State.

Saree Makdisi advances this discussion further, by answering the how question. How has Israel been able to get away with its brand of apartheid or, in the words of the author himself: “How can a violent project of colonial dispossession and racial discrimination be repacked - via a system of emotional investments, curated perceptions, and carefully staged pedagogical exercises - into something that can be imagined, felt and profoundly believed in, as though it were the exact opposite?”

In other words, what is the mechanism by which Israel, despite the well-documented evidence of racism and human rights abuses, has long been embraced by the most liberal sectors of European and American society as a manifestation of the progressive values of tolerance, plurality, inclusivity and democracy and, hence, a project that can be passionately defended for its lofty ideals.

According to Makdisi, this phenomenon which is unique to Israel has been preserved through a very distinct form of denial: “The denial of denial.” In other words, a mode of understanding has been produced in the West about Israel, which not only denies its inherent racism and anti-liberal practices, but a second firewall has been erected to deny the very act of denial, a “double denial” as  Makdisi calls it.

The usual form of denial would not be sufficient to get the likes of Hollywood star, George Clooney, or Arnold Schwarzenegger to plant trees in Israel that cover the crime of ethnic cleansing or donate towards a museum of “tolerance” erected on top of an ancient Muslim cemetery in Occupied Jerusalem, as has happened with the controversial complex funded by the American Simon Wiesenthal Centre. “Only a profound form of denial could enable the placement of a monument to Zionism as tolerance on an ethnically cleansed graveyard,” Makdisi writes. “After all, not many people would knowingly endorse the desecration of a cemetery; but who would not want to support tolerance?”

Tolerance Is a Wasteland argues that a sleight of hand is at play. The double denial is carried out through the affirmation of some positive values: How could Israel be practicing apartheid if it is the “only democracy in the Middle East?” How could Israel be discriminating against minorities if it is a “tolerant” country that supports gay rights? How could Israel be intolerant if it is celebrating tolerance by erecting a “Museum of Tolerance?”

This form of denial is carried out through the affirmation of a positive value. It is fundamental to what Makdisi calls the “miraculous act of political alchemy.” A form of alchemy that transforms ethnic cleansing to a project of “making the desert bloom” or a celebration of “tolerance.” Four striking examples are highlighted in the book to expose the double denial: mass afforestation project to “make the desert bloom”; the curation of Israel’s image as the “only democracy in the Middle East”; Israel’s celebration of gay culture which often gets labelled “pink washing” and the “Museum of Tolerance”.

The four examples are what Makdisi describes as “performances” that “occlude acts of denial.” Occlusion is a key notion in the book. Most simply, it is to obstruct or close, to cover or hide. But Makdisi goes beyond the verb and encourages readers to think of ways in which something is being carefully placed in the way of something else to exclude and render obscure that which it hides. “Under the right circumstances, that which occludes can attract so much attention to itself that its performance of occlusion - let alone that which is occluded - is rendered invisible: the act of occlusion is itself occluded.”

This is perhaps best illustrated by Israel’s pledge to plant millions of trees. Who can disapprove, let alone oppose, such an environmentally friendly project? More often than not, however, this herculean effort was and still is being made to cover up the ruins of Palestinian homes and entire villages razed to the ground during what Palestinians call the Nakba (Catastrophe). The primary means of covering up this historical crime is afforestation - planting trees and even entire forests over the ruins of demolished villages “to make them disappear into a new European landscape.”

In the same way as planting a tree is designed to obscure the crimes of ethnic cleansing and dispossession, Israel’s democratic status is asserted ad nauseum to occlude entrenched racism and discrimination. “You have to keep repeating the mantra in order to believe it!” says Makdisi about the constant mention of Israel as a Jewish and democratic State. “For this proposition of a Jewish and democratic State becomes believable only when it is affirmed over and over again: the very act of affirmation generates and sustains the dreamlike state of belief like a kind of trance.”   

Makdisi offers a very convincing explanation for why such a potent form of denial is required to advance the Zionist cause. Early Zionists were fully aware that the project to create a Jewish majority, ethno-nationalist State in historic Palestine would require ethnic cleansing as much as the installation of a regime of perpetual violence and subjugation. This is the “Zionism for Palestinians” Makdisi argues, referring to Israel’s colonisation. A second form of Zionism is the “Zionism for Jews over here” which he refers to as the form of Zionism that appealed to its constituencies in the West, not least Jewish communities in the US and Europe. Double denial is essential to the project, argues Makdisi, because the Jewish and non-Jewish pro-Israel constituency outside the Apartheid State are overwhelmingly liberal.  This necessitated occlusion of Israel’s human rights abuse and illegal practices from an important group whose support and solidarity is vital to the Zionist cause.

The question as to why Israel is able to get away with being a serial violator of international law while also committing the crime of apartheid has confounded many. Tolerance Is a Wasteland offers an explanation that is as convincing as it is powerful.

Winners of the Palestine Book Awards

  • They Called Me a Lioness: A Palestinian Girl's Fight for Freedom
  • I Sing From the Window of Exile
  • Imagining Palestine: Cultures of Exile and National Identity
  • Transnational Palestine: Migration and the Right of Return before 1948
  • Among the Almond Trees: A Palestinian Memoir
  • Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear: Poems from Gaza
  • Tolerance Is a Wasteland: Palestine and the Culture of Denial
  • Reclaiming Humanity in Palestinian Hunger Strikes : Revolutionary Subjectivity and Decolonizing the Body
  • Psychoanalysis under occupation: practicing resistance in Palestine
  • Power born of dreams: my story is palestine
  • Al-Haq: A Global History of the First Palestinian Human Rights Organization
  • Sambac Beneath Unlikely Skies
  • Places of Mind: A life of Edward Said
  • Except for Palestine: The limits of progressive politics
  • A history of Palestinian Islamic Jihad: Faith, awareness, and revolution in the middle east
  • Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands
  • Against the Loveless World
  • The Hundred Years' War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917–2017
  • Life in a Country Album
  •  There Where You Are Not