Monday, June 08, 2009

Michel Warschawski. 2005. On the Border. London: Pluto Press

Supurna Banerjee

The conflict between Israel and the Arab world forms one of the most consistent chronicles that characterize our post 2nd World War world. The hostility owes its existence to numerous factors. As a result much has been written about it from a wide range of perspectives. It is in this respect that the book On the Border is unique. Michel Warschawski, popularly known as ‘Mikado’ is an Israeli anti-Zionist activist and this book chronicles his experiences at what is probably one of the most volatile borders of our times, the Israel-Palestine border. The border is a construction, which he feels is central to the Jewish existence. It is the permanent questioning of the ‘us’ and the ‘them’, at the other side of the border through which he feels a Jew arrives at the quintessence of his identity. “The border is a pivotal concept in the life of every Israeli: it is a formative element in our collective life, it defines our horizons, serves as the boundary line between threat and feeling of safety and between enemies and brothers. In a country that is simultaneously a ghetto and besieged bunker, the border is omnipresent, we run into it with every step. Yes, the border is not only in the heart of each soldier, as the song says, but in the heart of each citizen of Israel, an essential part of his make up.” (p.3) However the book is not meant to be a treatise on the centrality of the border but rather the rejection of this prevailing definition of border in the Israeli psyche. For him the border is not only a place of conflict and confrontation but it offers an opportunity of fruitful exchange. It is in the dynamic and interesting dichotomy between the ‘border runner’ or one whose mission is of erasing the fractured lines and replacing them with spaces of cooperation and mutuality and the ‘border guard’ or the one looking to defend the sovereignty and security of his border from the other, that the essence of the book unfolds.

The book is divided into three parts, which in turn are divided into several chapters. Each part deals with a chapter in his life as well as that of the history of Israel. The first part traces his first encounters with border. As the book unfolds this theme is elaborated in further details. Born in Strasbourg he was familiar with borders—physical, cultural and psychological. His rejection of the role of the occupier as a consequence of the 1967 war led him to move towards the socialism and internationalism of the Israeli Socialist Organization better known as Matzpen and anti-Zionism. This formulated his perspective towards the prevailing conflict, a stance that was distinct from the traditional Israeli or even the Arab line. The internationalism, which set this group apart, placing them against the current of Israeli nationalism naturally led to ostracism. They were thus placed outside the borders of recognition and even national identity.

The rise and ebb of hope which the different stages of the Israel-Palestine relation evoked on both sides of the border, the account of his imprisonment on the charge of aiding illegal Palestinian organizations and finally the space he and his group carved out as sections of the Israel society started recognizing the futility of Zionist jingoism—all these go towards describing the different stages of the conflict. In this it also traces the fractures within the Israeli society, which he terms the ‘internal borders’. This socio-political struggle within the Israeli society cannot be reduced to a mere replica of the Arab-Israel conflict though the latter did have an impact on it.

The book is largely autobiographical, something that he himself warns the readers in the very first line. It is not so much a dispassionate recording of the facts concerning the border as it is the story of his life within the Arab-Israel conflict. It thus traces the shift in his own ideological position in his quest to find the perfect solution. His internationalism led to a vehement rejection of the ‘tribalist’ Israeli Hebrew patriotism. However the socialism he had adopted at the beginning was soon replaced by the spiritual identity with which he had begun his life. He fails to explain or rather recount what led to the loss of his religious faith in the intervening stage. This gap remains a significant lacuna in the book. In espousing his sympathy and commitment towards Palestine he had never rejected his Jewish identity. In the final analysis he remained somewhat a diasporic Jew with anti racialism and solidarity with the oppressed remaining the consistent elements in his mental make up. His solution never was an either or answer. He fought for a meaningful peace solution, which would enable the two warring countries to live side by side with friendliness and compassion. It demands the conversion of Israel into a normal state where all residents live peacefully and repatriation of the Palestinians to their country. The border in this scenario would not signify a dividing line between enemies but rather a place for fruitful exchange. The struggle was not against the Palestinians, Arabs or even Jews but against the forces of Zionism, imperialism and Arab reaction.

In the present global scenario the relevance of On the Border should be acknowledged. It provides a meaningful insight into the role of the border as a space for facilitating exchange where two disparate cultures exist side by side. The book offers a hope not only for his actual and his adopted homeland but also to all the warring communities separated by a border, which are locked in a conflict-ridden relation.

1 comment:

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