| UTOPIAN FICTION |

LOOKING BACKWARDS FROM THE YEAR 2123


By Martin Shuster

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The Montréal Review, April 2024

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Hope (2010) by Christopher Saliba


The so-called Belfast One Accords of the last fifteen years (2101-2116) appear to be a stable fact, one that has rendered religion—which once seemed obsolete or part of the problem—a major force for the continuing development of Jewish and Palestinian identity and for the flourishing of the entire region. In fact, scholars and others increasingly see the historic peace not as the cause of this apparent stability, but rather itself as the expression of a religiously induced consciousness that emerged in the previous century. We can see now deep connections between the Palestinian altajdid (التجديد ) and what’s now being called the Israeli tikun (תיקון ); this is so much the case that scholars locate a range of seemingly unrelated religious movements under these broader umbrellas.

Of course, anyone looking back cannot but note that even in 2075, Belfast did not seem likely nor perhaps even possible. Indeed, from 2023-2055, violence raged in the region with death tolls in the tens of thousands. Some of the last century’s most iconic images of brutality stem from these years, including the decades long Gaza Dikui, the Bloomfield bombing, and the Neve Daniel massacre. As in many other parts of the world, though, women played a crucial role in the emergence of new policies and political possibilities. The Palestinian movement Ummahat, despite the brutal assassination of Saja Raoof in 2050 by Hamas, ushered in an unprecedented transformation of Palestinian society, which led ultimately to the complete marginalization (and oftentimes forceful elimination) of many older Palestinian resistance movements. On the Israeli side, the revelation of the Tzetzaim memo and the program targeting Palestinian reproductive capacities in Gaza, led, in 2045, to the remarkable mass ouster and unprecedented lifelong jail sentence for former prime minister Yair Netanyahu. Where almost daily escalating violence in the 50s seemed ready to plunge the entire region—and perhaps even the world—into war, including a possible direct clash between Israel and Iran, the election of Malka Kogan in 2053 and the formation of her historic all female Memshelet, led to unforeseen changes in the entire Middle East.

Malka’s historic speech “Ani Ima Philistinit” (I am a Palestinian Mother) to the United Nations, despite interruptions from many delegates, led to the historic initial meeting in Belfast with Saba Al-Sarraj, the newly elected president of the then fledgling New Palestinian Authority. Many claim that the meeting occurred only because the two women had a prior relationship due to their shared time in New York during their graduate work at Columbia (it has frequently been alleged that their kids, Ori and Malik, were play partners). Dina Schraub, Professor of Political Science at Princeton University, however, sees such claims as baseless, aimed at marginalizing a truly historic achievement. “What these women accomplished was something that men were simply incapable of doing for the last hundred years. It was their understanding of the situation as mothers—seeing the unique spark in every new child and the sort of care that such a spark demands—that ultimately led to Belfast.” While some scholars decry such thinking as neglecting and marginalizing the grassroots work of organizations on the ground (Schraub’s sentiment has also been called “heteronormative claptrap” by some), it is undeniable that it expresses something like the basic sentiment animating a new religious majority in much of the Middle East, which has increasingly eschewed national boundaries in favor of regionalism, focusing in greater part instead on theological commonalities between Islam and Judaism, especially in the ways in which each has in the last half century radically integrated women of all kinds into their leadership structures.

Such changes, of course, must be understood in a broader context. On one hand, the continuing radicalization and unrelenting misogyny of the evangelical power structure in the United States remains a world outlier. On the other hand, the growing marginalization of the Arab world in Muslim affairs owing to the rise of solar and nuclear energy, the violent dissolution of Saudi Arabia, and emergence of the unlikely Pan Global Islamic Association (Al-Raabitat) as the official steward of Islam’s holy sites, has created an interesting status quo. The increasing relevance and ascent of Bangladesh and Indonesia in Muslim theological innovations has also no doubt played a role. While continuing instability in the United States—including soaring economic disparities, water crises, and a prolonged tepid war between China and the USA—has no doubt contributed to misery across the globe, the Middle East is one region that has benefitted from, perhaps has even been energized by, this state of affairs. Indeed, the McHenry doctrine that ended all American aid to the Middle East in light of the Saudi Arabian collapse, is by many now seen as a pivotal moment, which led to profound changes in former aid recipients like Israel, Egypt, and the now non-existent Saudi Arabia.

In many ways, given their long histories of secularism in the face of right-leaning religious extremism, Palestinian and Israeli societies were ripe for the emergence of a new kind of progressive religiosity. Such religiosity, in turn, it now appears, is what allowed for each side finally to confront soberly the relationship between them. Above all, it allowed for certain frames of reference to become deprioritized, so that the centuries long conflict could be seen in its unique position. No longer were only partially applicable European frames of reference prioritized, whether on the Israeli side (the Nazi genocide) nor on the Palestinian side (European colonialism). What emerged instead was what many are now calling a “local understanding” (Heb. הבנה מקומית , Arab. التفاهم المحلي ) where previously separated historical phases were contextualized as shared temporal and spatial frames, so that the Shoah and the Nakba appeared on one continuum as interconnected byproducts of European brutality. Such a shared understanding of these events allowed for Israeli occupation and Palestinian terrorism to be further situated as two sides of the same coin, each deplorable and to be rejected, so that they too could be seen as deeper failings of a model of nationalism ultimately inherited from Europe’s past. Each society was seemingly able to excise the worst excesses of this inheritance from their ranks, as if finally removing a gruesome tumor.

Of course, whether these ideological developments best capture the facts, or whether they are better understood simply as consequences of Israel’s economic shift away from American-style capitalism towards its socialist past, remain open questions. What’s undeniable, though, is that such understandings appear, at least in popular consciousness, to have underwritten the successes of Belfast One and the new confederation of Israel and Palestine. They are evoked everywhere in the signed documents, being equally central for the unprecedented return of almost two hundred thousand Palestinians to Israel and the payout of many millions to hundreds of thousands of others who opted to stay in the new Palestinian state. Such sentiments, of course, were also used as justification in popular Israeli media for the forced eviction of hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers from what is now the Palestinian state. And they also of course made possible the establishment of Jerusalem as an autonomous, independent holy city territory (alleged by Muslims and Jews to be the first such in the world, although the Vatican has notably derided these claims).

Much more could be said about Belfast One, and it goes without saying, of course, that things are not perfect: tensions remain in certain neighborhoods, right-wing movements are on the rise in both states, and especially non-Middle Eastern Christians are oftentimes excluded from Jerusalem’s holy sites (yet another reason why American evangelicals continue to decry all these developments as “Satan’s work”). There remains no better summary of the potential promise of Belfast One, though, than the recent success of joint Israeli and Palestinian ventures like the flyaway recent diabetes drug Nah(a)r, the pop sensation Wahid-1-Ehad, and the global typhoon that has been the Tinok Sahra hugcharms that have made Egor Karets and Wahid Dawoud household names.

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Martin Shuster is Professor of Philosophy and the Isaac Swift Distinguished Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where he also founded the Philosophy and Critical Theory (PaCT) Lab. His most recent book is Critical Theory: The Basics.

 

 

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