Size Matters, and Other Lessons From Counter-Factual History

In a 2006 interview, the distinguished scholar and commentator Walter Laqueur indulged in a bit of counter-factual historical fantasy:

“Israel (and the Jews) have been singled out for attack because they were few and weak. Let us engage in a simple exercise in counterfactual history. If the Ottoman Empire had collapsed not in 1918 but at the time of the Crimean war, or after the Russian-Turkish war 1828/9. What if the great majority of European Jewry would have decided to migrate to Palestine , and what, if with a birthrate like the Gaza Strip, it would now have fifty million inhabitants or even more? Such a Greater Palestine extending from the Nile to the Euphrates with substantial oilfields would be a major force in world politics. It would live in peace with its neighbors, the refugee issue would be settled, just as it has been settled everywhere else, no one wants to trifle with a country this size. It would be a honored member of the United Nations, Muslim religious leaders would invoke quotations from the Koran and the Hadith stressing the closeness and friendship between Muslims and Jews, children of the same ancestor— Abraham-Ibrahim. The Norman Finkelsteins of this world would sing songs of praise concerning the miraculous renaissance of an old people its progressive, tolerant character–or legoyim–a shining beacon to the rest of the world.” (http://www.covenant.idc.ac.il/en/vol1/issue1/laqueur.html)

We can doubt the plausibility of Laqueur’s counter-factual. ┬áBut Laqueur poses an important point- to what extent is global outrage against Israel a product not of the country’s military power but rather the limits of that power? Is sympathy with the plight of the Palestinians augmented by the sense that Israel, unlike major world powers like the United States, Russia, and China, could be vulnerable to economic pressure in the form of the BDS campaign?

An affirmative answer to these questions does not in and of itself delegitimize BDS, but it does demand an honest accounting of BDS’ rationale, one that has been notably absent from the campaign’s public statements.

The Left has historically presented the causes of particular groups such as the Palestinians in universalist terms such as the global struggle against colonialism and racism. But the Palestinians are among the world’s smallest peoples, amounting to about 1/7 of one percent of the world’s population. Asking why the plight of the Palestinians receives such minute attention begs the question why the plight of the Jews – another minuscule people, only slightly more numerous than the Palestinians – was, in an earlier era, similarly at the centre of public awareness. The Holocaust is not the only answer to this question, just as the Nakba and post-1967 Occupations do not, in and of themselves, account for the primary of the Israel-Palestine conflict in the international community.

Laqueur’s counterfactual reminds us that perception and representation are constitutive, not reflective, of political action. Size matters, but it does so counter-intuitively. Israel’s minuscule population and territory make it appear vulnerable despite its appearances of military and economic strength. Similarly, the Palestinian tragedy, which originated in the loss by some 750,000 people of their homes and homeland, is of a comprehensible scope – something that cannot be said of the 25 million people who have been killed in global conflicts since 1945.