In September, the Touro Institute and the Hudson Institute co-sponsored a conference in New York that was a counterpoint to the U.N.’s Durban III. One of the speakers was Shelby Steele. His speech, titled The Narrative of Perpetual Palestinian Victimhood, has now been posted online. It is, I think, excellent. Here are some excerpts:
The Durban conferences, the request for UN recognition of a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood, and the general animus in the Middle East and elsewhere toward Israel and toward the Jews, what are they really about? Is the Durban conference and the claim that Israel is a racist nation really about reforming the people of Israel and curing them of their racism?
I think their real interest is to situate the Palestinian people within a narrative of victimization. This is their ulterior goal: to see themselves and to have others see them as victims of colonialism, as victims of white supremacy. …
Poetic truths like that are marvelous because no facts and no reason can ever penetrate. Supporters of Israel are up against a poetic truth. We keep hitting it with all the facts. We keep hitting it with obvious logic and reason. And we are so obvious and conspicuously right that we assume it is going to have an impact and it never does.
Why not? These narratives, these poetic truths, are the source of their power. Focusing on the case of the Palestinians, who would they be if they were not victims of white supremacy? They would just be poor people in the Middle East. They would be backwards. They would be behind Israel in every way. So this narrative is the source of their power. It is the source of their money. Money comes from around the world. It is the source of their self-esteem. Without it, would they be able to compete with Israeli society? They would have to confront in themselves a certain inferiority with regard to Israel – as most other Arab nations would have to confront an inferiority in themselves and be responsible for it.
The idea that the problem is Israel, that the problem is the Jews, protects Palestinians from having to confront that inferiority or do anything about it or overcome it. The idea among Palestinians that they are victims means more to them than anything else. It is everything. It is the centerpiece of their very identity and it is the way they define themselves as human beings in the world. It is not an idle thing. Our facts and our reason are not going to penetrate easily that definition or make any progress.
The question is, how do they get away with a poetic truth, based on such an obvious series of falsehoods? One reason why they get away with it in the Middle East is that the Western world lacks the moral authority to call them on it. The Western world has not said “your real problem is inferiority. Your real problem is underdevelopment.” That has not been said, nor will ever be said – because the Western world was once colonial, was once racist, did practice white supremacy, and is so ashamed of itself and so vulnerable to those charges, that they are not going to say a word. They are not going to say what they really think and feel about what is so obvious about the circumstances among the Palestinians. So the poetic truth that Palestinians live by carries on.
International media also do not feel that they have the moral authority to report what they see. On the contrary, they feed this poetic truth and give it a kind of gravitas that it would never otherwise have.
Consequently, we need to develop a narrative that is not poetic, but literal and that is based on the truth. What would such a narrative look like?
It would begin with the presumption that the problem in the Middle East is not white supremacy but the end of white supremacy. After World War II, the empires began to contract, Britain went home, France went home, and the Arab world was left almost abandoned, and in a state of much greater freedom than they had ever known before.
Freedom is, however, a dicey thing to experience. When you come into freedom, you see yourself more accurately in the world. This is not unique to the Middle East. It was also the black American experience, when the Civil Rights bill was passed in 1964 and we came into much greater freedom.
It is all very much worth reading.