Young progressives have an Israel problem. They believe that Israel is occupying the land on which the Palestinians want to build their state, thereby rendering them stateless. And they’re convinced that this makes the Palestinians the last stateless people on planet earth. As Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas phrased it in 2014, “we are the only people on earth still living under occupation. Not acceptable.”
The underlying claim is certainly true. The Palestinians are stateless. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that Israel is to blame for it. National suffering, much like personal pain, can be self-inflicted.
The fact is that the Israelis have offered the Palestinians a state in substantially all of the West Bank and Gaza – or in even larger territories — on five separate occasions. The first offer was made in 1937. The most recent offer was made in 2008. Palestinian leaders turned down each of these opportunities. This history of independence offered and rejected should at least temper the zeal of those seeking to blame Palestinian statelessness on Israel.
It’s also important to note that statelessness is not nearly as rare as Israel’s critics claim. President Abbas’ protestations notwithstanding, the Palestinians are not the only occupied people on the planet. Far from it. The Encyclopedia of Stateless Nations (yes, there actually is such a thing) contains detailed entries for 350 stateless peoples who are actively seeking their independence.
The encyclopedia’s author is quick to stress that these 350 examples represent only “a fraction” of the world’s stateless nations. There are multiples more stateless nations that have never sustained independence movements. In fact, according to the United Nations, “only 3% of the world’s 6,000 national groups have achieved statehood.”
Some of these stateless nations are relatively new ones – like the Palestinians – who developed their national identities after World War II. Other stateless nations are ancient ones – such as the Kurds – who have had their own separate identities for centuries. Some of these stateless nations receive little attention in the West, such as the 23 million Ibos of Nigeria and the 70 million Tamils of south India and northern Sri Lanka. Other stateless nations have higher profiles, such as the 6.5 million Tibetans in China.
Far from being the only stateless nation, the Palestinians aren’t even the only stateless Arab nation. There are, for example, over 6.8 million stateless Hejazis spread out between Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The Arab Alawites lack a state of their own, as do the Arab Druze.
The Arabistanis (also known as Ahwazis) are an Arab people numbering some five to eight million. All of the land the Arabistanis claim is occupied by Iran, rendering them stateless. And although Arabistan’s population is overwhelmingly Arab, their efforts to win their independence have been brutally suppressed.
The Arabistanis have had a separate national identity for centuries and have enjoyed long periods of self-rule. In 1821, the Persians allowed the Arabistanis to establish an autonomous emirate. This emirate survived until 1925, when the Shah of Iran centralized the Iranian government, terminated Arabistan’s autonomy and outlawed the public use of the Arabic language.
After the Ayatollah Khomeini deposed the Shah in 1979, the Arabs of Arabistan dared to dream that their long night of oppression had finally ended. They took to the streets to demand the return of the autonomy that the Shah had denied them for so long. Khomeini violently crushed the protests. When the Arabistanis launched a new round of demonstrations in 2005, the Iranians suppressed them with even greater brutality.
Two wrongs don’t make a right. Nor do 350. But this long list of stateless nations raises an obvious question: Why is only one of these alleged wrongs the subject of so much of the world’s focus, passion and outrage? Why are so many people so deeply troubled by Palestinian statelessness but have no such concern for – or even knowledge of — the statelessness of so many older and larger national groups?
It isn’t anti-Semitic to criticize Israel. But it is anti-Semitic to criticize only Israel. If the only stateless people you’ve ever worried about are the Palestinians, you need to step back. If the only “occupier” you’ve ever protested is Israel, you need to ask yourself why. No, this doesn’t mean you’re an anti-Semite. But it may well mean that you’re spending too much time listening to people who are.
Those who see no good in Israel and no evil outside of Israel do nothing to further peace. They only perpetuate the hate that’s driven the Arab-Israel conflict from its earliest days.
This article is an excerpt from David Brog’s new book Reclaiming Israel’s History: Roots, Rights, and the Struggle for Peace.