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Parallel Universes: Vietnam and Palestine

Palestine

Not surprisingly, my sixth visit to Vietnam stirred many memories, among them, a recognition of the parallels between the Vietnamese and Palestinian experiences, two peoples who have meant so much to me over the course of my adult lifetime.

I visited Hanoi in 1968 in the midst of the American war that was devastating the country and its population, causing more than three million deaths and deliberately injuring the environment and its human surrounding by using vast quantities of Agent Orange, containing the highly toxic chemical Dioxin. Agent Orange was being used to defoliate large areas of the countryside in the South as a tactic against revolutionary Vietnamese forces who were taking advantage of the wooded countryside to mount their attacks.

The legacy of Agent Orange continues grimly to remind people of the war, giving rise to anguished societal suspicions of current contamination that seems confirmed by the continuing occurrence of birth deformities in certain provinces that far exceed normal statistical expectations. The Vietnamese mention this ongoing tragedy in muted tones as the government worries that it might hurt Vietnamese plans to increase their exports of agricultural products. It is part of the present atmosphere in which the war/peace preoccupations that I encountered when I visited Vietnam during the war have now been replaced by according the highest policy priority to economic growth and poverty reduction.

The Vietnam/Palestine parallel should not be understood as a claim of similarity. The two experiences are each highly distinctive, reflecting many particular features of the cultural, historical economic, and political experience of each country, as well as the specificities of relations to their regional neighborhood and global setting. At the same time these two peoples do share defining experiences of prolonged victimization intertwined with bitter resistance struggles because their desired national narrative collided with the geopolitical ambitions and commitments of the United States.

In Vietnam the United States assumed responsibility for a colonial war already lost once by France in 1954, and pursued it with almost unrestrained fury for more than a decade before renouncing the quest in 1975, and slinking home in thinly disguised defeat. The supposed stakes of the conflict for the United States in Vietnam were mainly measured and justified in the ideological currency of the Cold War, holding the line in Asia against Communism after ‘the loss of China.’ According to the principal justification for the war, Vietnam was an Asian domino, which if it fell to national liberation forces, would lead to a rapid spread of Communism to Vietnam’s neighbors, which was then interpreted in Washington to mean the expansion of the Chinese sphere of influence.

Of course, the ideological and geopolitical motivations were packaged, as usual, with sleazy propaganda about the defense of freedom and the protection of South Vietnam against aggression from the North. This imposed division of Vietnam was itself a figment of the last stage of the Western colonial imaginary that tried to make the world believe that borders of geopolitical convenience took precedence over the fundamental right of self-determination, which reflected the organic unities of history, tradition, and national identity.

For the Israelis, although many Jews as individuals do hold a second passport, there is no Plan B, no homeland other than that established by the Zionist settler colonial undertaking from its inception toward the end of the 19th century. These Zionist high stakes help explain the sense of justification with regard to the dispossession and suffering of the Palestinian people.
Eventually, as in most other anti-colonial struggles the national movement eventually prevailed during the period after 1945, enjoying in Vietnam the benefits of inspired political, military, and ideological leadership in the persons of Ho Chi Minh, General Vo Nguyen Giap, and Le Duan, and a historical tradition of many centuries of success in defending national territory against foreign invaders, especially the Chinese. What is more, not only were the Vietnamese strengthened by this historical tale of victory. They were equally proud and sustained by an extraordinary record of post-conflict reconciliation with prior enemies that many other governments and societies could do well to heed. Political leaders in Hanoi enjoyed telling foreign visitors during the war how the Vietnamese prepared a farewell banquet for their Chinese intruders once they opted for peace, and decided to return home with the obvious implication that if the Americans stopped the war, friendship could follow, not recrimination and bitterness.

Never did I understand better the Communist slogan that our enemy is the government not the people than when I came to Vietnam in 1968 as an American peace activist. What I felt with a depth that could not be staged was the genuineness of these sentiments, then strongly associated with the teachings and beliefs of Ho Chi Minh. This attitude, so different than what I had experience as a child growing up during World War II, was epitomized by Ho’s appreciation of the American Declaration of Independence that Vietnamese school children were made to read and think about throughout a war in which American planes were daily dumping tons of explosives on the villages and towns of an almost defenseless people.

I remember driving in the beautiful Vietnamese countryside during the visit and being told by a government official that the driver’s entire family had been recently killed by a bombing strike, but that if an American plane were to attack us now he would risk his life, if necessary, to save yours. I felt moved at the time because it seemed so sincere, and consistent with all that I felt during my two weeks in the country at a time of its great national hardship, including shortages of food and medicine. The Vietnamese even in these dire circumstances were ready to give so much more than I was capable of giving!

My experience with the people of Palestine, whether living under occupation, as a minority in Israel, or in refugee camps, or in a global diaspora has many equivalent moving moments, maybe even more that were accompanied by tears either of grief or laughter. Both peoples exhibit resilience of will, virtue, love, and a lively comedic sense of reality that exceeds what seems imaginable. Beyond this, in the case of the Palestinian people their struggle continues to be maintained against seemingly overwhelming odds if the calculus of ‘political realism’ is to be trusted, which never seems to lose credibility no matter how often it errs. There are crucial differences between the principal adversary facing the Vietnamese and the Palestinians. It is this subjectivity of the oppressive forces that is not widely enough appreciated. Both the French and Americans, although investing heavily in their respective wars, always had a Plan B, a metropole to which they could retreat from Vietnam if the cost of the overseas campaign became too high.

For the Israelis, although many Jews as individuals do hold a second passport, there is no Plan B, no homeland other than that established by the Zionist settler colonial undertaking from its inception toward the end of the 19th century. These Zionist high stakes help explain the sense of justification with regard to the dispossession and suffering of the Palestinian people. What the Israelis may, however, be forced to consider in the future, if adverse pressures from the combination of Palestinian national resistance and global solidarity initiatives becomes threatening enough to make attractive to Israelis the choice of Plan C, that is, ‘a just peace’ based on the equality of the two peoples.

Such a drastic shift of Israeli objectives would necessitate both rolling back the idea and mechanisms of an exclusionary Jewish state, that is, abandoning the biblical vision of Israeli Jews occupying the whole of ‘the promised land’ of Palestine and then dismantling the apartheid structures to sustain control over the Palestinian people as a whole. At this point a just peace seems such an unlikely scenario as to invite responses of ‘utopian’ or ‘impossible’ to any suggested course along these lines. Yet history has its ways of undermining oppressors, making the impossible happen.

 Israelis would do well to ponder their future before supposing that they can subjugate the Palestinian people indefinitely. These reflections should include the awareness that the Palestinians, like Israeli Jews as a collectivity also have no Plan B (and few second passports!). The Israeli self-serving contention that since Palestinians are ‘Arabs’ they could and should give up their quest for a sovereign Palestine, and be content with lives in the Arab world. Palestinians, as might be expected, connect their aspirations with their connections to Palestine, and would be no more content or secure if moving to Arab countries than Israeli Jews would be to live in a Western country, in fact, less so.

Most Palestinian leaders have long seemed ready to negotiate their versions of a Plan C, which contains the proviso that it must give concrete meaning to the affirmation of an ‘equality of rights.’ True, Hamas might seem reluctant to endorse a full fledged Plan C, at least at the outset, but their leaders too during the past decade have been seeking an escape from the treadmill of perpetual violence, and if Israeli leaders showed comparable good faith, a long term accommodation would seem attainable, beneficial to both peoples, and allowing both sides to feel comfortable with distinct interpretations of what was agreed upon, a zone of ambiguity that lawyers are very good about delineating so that differences are neutralized rather than resolved. More specifically, Hamas would not be made to legitimize Israel in the process of normalizing relations, and accepting the fact of its existence as a country.

During the Vietnam War, Lyndon Johnson once referred to Vietnam as a tenth-rate Asian power, making it seem as if a miracle would be required for the Vietnamese to achieve victory. Many military historians are still at a loss in their attempt to offer an understanding of the outcome of the conflict, given the economic and military disparities between the adversaries. The Vietnam War, especially after the illusions of an American victory were destroyed by the Tet Offensive in 1968, became too politically costly in blood and treasure to sustain, although think tank hawks never let go of their insistence that ‘defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory’ or alternatively, the insidious suggestion that ‘the war was lost in American living rooms’ (that is, by TV coverage, especially of dead Americans returning home in body bags and coffins). Such explanations amount to Orientalist denials of Vietnamese agency, implying the impossibility that such backward military technology could prevail when matched against the unlimited quantities of hyper-modern equipment available to United States armed forces.

For several years, extreme supporters of Israel have been urging the world to move on by accepting the reality that Israel has won, the Palestinians have lost, and regardless of feeling about the merits of the Palestinian struggle it has become one more lost cause. Daniel Pipes, long a Zionist zealot, has formalized this ‘game over’ diplomacy by using an NGO under his influence, the Middle East Forum to promote ‘a victory caucus’ in both the United States and Israel with the participation of members of the U.S. Congress and Israeli Knesset.

There is something discordant about such triumphalist posturing. It doesn’t fit comfortably with the furious efforts of Israeli lobbies around the world to discredit the BDS campaign as ‘the new anti-Semitism’ or with the increasing momentum of the Palestinian global solidarity movement that has increasingly troubled Israeli think tanks, and given rise to heavily financed campaigns to punish anti-Israeli activists throughout the world. Given these realities, it seems to me that the relevant comparison seems South Africa’s about face, and not Vietnam’s victory. Apartheid South Africa also appeared to the world securely entrenched until its shocking moment of self-engineered collapse in the early 1990s at a time when even dreamers did not envision a peaceful transition to a post-apartheid reality.

Without counting on dreams and dreaming, we who care about a just future for both peoples need to realize it will depend on work, sacrifice, and above all, struggle. Dreams don’t become the new reality without the dedication of a people brave and creative, and helped by the inspirational effects on friends and supporters. This blessing of empowering and charismatic resilience is the core identity of the Vietnamese and the Palestinian people, their point of most profound convergence.


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