Israel, Palestine and the Jewish Diaspora
An attempt to make sense of what has been happening by John Baxter
It strikes me that any discussion of the legitimacy of Israel, has to start with the Holocaust, the systematic extermination of European Jewry.
Yes of course Zionism, the search for a Jewish homeland, predates Hitler’s rise to power and earlier pogroms – particularly in Russia, but the Nazi extermination programme reached an entirely new level of evil efficiency. This dreadful event exposes not only how, when the economy crashes, so many in a highly civilised country can be so traumatised as to embrace a twisted misfit as their leader and hand over power to the promoters of a racist and totalitarian ideology, but his targeting of the Jews uncovered and stimulated an old and wide-spread prejudice which was active right across “Christian” Europe, except it seems, in Denmark. In the face of the planned mass extermination of millions of Jews that followed the cry of “Never Again” and “Never can Jews trust the government of any country where they are a minority” is very understandable. It may also turn out to be a terrible mistake.
While we remember the Jewish Holocaust We do well to remember the Nazi mass extermination of other groups, Roma, gays, the mentally and physically handicapped, Poles and above all millions of Russians, together with all Hitler’s political opponents, i.e democrats, liberals, socialists and communists. These together total over twice as many victims as the six million plus Jews. They should not be forgotten – and to its credit, are not by modern Germany. Having or not having a homeland made no difference to what happened to them.
The result of the Holocaust and the needs of the uprooted Jewish survivors to settle somewhere they could feel safe gave a huge impetus to the small pre-war Zionist movement to set up an “Israel” as a modern, Western style, democratic but Jewish state in Palestine. The problem was that to settle the uprooted European Jews meant taking over the land and where possible expelling a large non-Jewish population. A population who had absolutely nothing to do with the Holocaust and had lived there for centuries.
Alexander Scholch estimates the Jewish population of Palestine in 1850 as 4%. It grew rapidly only after Hitler came to power to 630,000 out of 1,970,000 by 1947 (1,181,000 Muslims and 143,00 Christians). Yes, Jews have been in Palestine since Biblical times, but since Roman days they were there only as a small minority living alongside Muslims, the majority, Christians and many other religious and ethnic minorities. All these people owned land and property – as did the Jewish minority.
Under the British mandate – set up after World War 1 to provide eventual autonomy for the area – Jews resorted to terrorism against the British to end the mandate as with World War 2 those fleeing Nazi tyranny arrived in desperate boatloads. They did this so they could settle Jews from Europe on Arab land despite Arab objections. There were also tit-for tat killings as Palestinian groups justifyably felt pressured by the Jewish refugees. This then escalated into ethnic cleansing lead by Jewish militias. As a result Palestinians fled for their lives to Gaza and out of Palestine immediately before the State of Israel was declared in 1948. No Palestinian/Arab group has EVER accepted the unrestricted right of Jews from the Diaspora to come and settle in Palestine.
When, for very dubious reasons – i.e. Stalin getting the Soviet block to vote in the UN for partition- Palestine was unfairly (The Jewish minority getting two thirds of the land) partitioned by the UN in 47 into Jewish and Arab areas, no Arab or Muslim country or Palestinian group accepted the proposed partition plan as legitimate.
The basic reason then for the establishment of the State of Israel is clearly the Holocaust, something the people of Palestine had nothing to do with. The new Jewish army then found itself fighting disorganised and divided Arab armies who tried to invade the areas they had taken over and being well-armed and organised they were able to defeat the Arab armies and drive hundreds of thousands more people from their homes and land into the refugee camps of the Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza, (current population 1.8 million).
There the Palestinians have languished for over 60 years and life for them has been getting steadily worse (As Ahron Bregman has so carefully described in his book Cursed Victory). Faced by Israeli policies of military rule, harassment, bureaucratic control, water and land grabs they have been largely driven out of East Jerusalem while the establishment of huge Jewish settlements on the West Bank have pressed ahead and life in Gaza has become increasingly intolerable. More religious Jewish immigrants have also arrived in the West Bank stridently claiming that their right to “Greater Israel” has been given them by God as they ignore the 1967 UN restrictions on settling on Arab land or in Arab homes.
As things stand, which they never seem to for long, the Jewish and Palestinian populations of Greater Israel/Palestine are about equal at 6.3 million each. (That does not include displaced refugees living in other states – Syria, Lebanon, Jordan etc. The fact remains no Arab or non-Jew group in Palestine accepts that Israel has the right to the land or the homes of those who were there before 1947 and hardly any accept that the Jews have the right to set up Israel as a Jewish state, a state which also provides the right of any Diaspora Jew to settle there, but no right of return for expelled Palestinians and no right to a share in governing Jerusalem.
Faced then with this implacable hostility to what the Jews have been doing to set up a Jewish state that covers the whole of Palestine, the original hopes of some Jews that they might live amongst the local people, Arab, Muslim, Christian, and other minorities and share in developing the country for the good of all in an open and free democratic society have become ever more remote. Instead we have a sharply divided country with its wall, checkpoints, special roads for Jews only, extremely powerful and efficient Jewish army with the very latest weapons including a nuclear capability and the backing of US Jewry and other powerful Diaspora communities.
On the Arab side we have seen divided, often corrupt organisations and militias (The PLO and Hamas) efficiently infiltrated and manipulated by the Israeli army and its intelligence service. In response Palestinians have resorted to acts of violence including suicide bombings against the Israeli population, and from Gaza the firing of crude and largely useless rockets at Israel on a more or less organised basis. They do this out of desperation seeing themselves as defending and fighting for their people. Israel then calls them “terrorists” and kills and imprisons those who try to fight them for having settled on what they see as their own land. (Amnesty reports over 6,500 are being held in “preventive detention.”)
Add to this the Israeli “search and destroy” policies against the “terrorists” in densely populated Arab areas using bombers, artillery, drones, tanks, bulldozers and “boots on the ground” and it is hard to see that this can do anything else than breed in Palestinians hatred and loathing of everything Israeli and Jewish.
In September 2014 the Gaza War exploded after three Israeli West Bank settler teenagers (17yrs old) were killed. In response other West Bank settlers kidnapped a 16 year old Arab teenager who was beaten, burnt and killed in revenge and Netanyahu responded by blaming Hammas for killing the Israelis, (which the leadership denied) arresting over five hundred Palestinians and assassinating ten Hamas activists. That triggered Gaza rocket attacks. The destruction of over a third of Gaza City and of over 2,100 Palestinians followed as the full might of the Israel Defence Force was unleashed. (Five civilians and 66 soldiers died on the Israeli side)
(UN Human Rights Council Report June 2015. 2,251 Palestinians killed. 1,462 were civilians, 299 Women,551 children. Israel lost 6 civilians and 67 soldiers. See Economist 27-6-15)
Hamas is now weakened and divided and penned in by Israel and el Sisi’s Egypt while Israeli public opinion has so hardened that Netanyahu is considered soft for stopping the bombings. This was the fifth (06,09,10,12) intifada – uprising – of the Palestinians.
Since and during the Gaza war we have also seen civil war in Syria grind on with catastrophic loss of life and displacement involving millions, the rise of Islamic State, the Kurds and Iraq under threat, US, UK and Arab intervention and complete instability all around Israel. Nothing there is predictable.
The Jewish “democracy” of Israel now resembles even more the whites only “democracy” of apartheid South Africa, only there is no sign of a breakthrough that might lead to the setting up of a non-sectarian Jewish/Palestinian state. Not only have Israel’s leaders always rejected such an idea, but it is like expecting Serbs and Albanians to work together in Kosovo after what the Serbs have done. An “equitable” two state solution has also become impossible to imagine given the “facts on the ground” that Israel’s aggressive West Bank settlement policies have delivered.
So what is the future? For whatever reason one thing stands out which should never be forgotten. The Jewish people, wherever they have settled, and particularly in Western Europe and America, have contributed to the development of Western civilisation and its economic, artistic, scientific, mathematical, musical, political, religious and intellectual life – you name it – out of all proportion to their numbers. For whatever reason a substantial number of Jews have shown they have the capacity, drive and talent to rise to the top and contribute in a positive way to society in virtually every area. Without their contributions all Western countries and societies would be much poorer places. In fact it is hard to imagine what Western societies would look like without the contributions they have received from Jews.
In particular politically the contributions Jews have made to the building of liberal democracies, both in the development of political theory (eg Karl Popper and Isaiah Berlin) and as practicing politicians and party supporters (Left, Right and Centre), has been immense and totally out of proportion to their relatively small numbers.
This is what makes what is happening in Israel today not only a terrible tragedy for Palestinians who are forced to live without rights in what Professor Ilan Pappe has described as being little more than a type of open prison, but it is a terrible tragedy for the Jewish people who seem increasingly to be supporting in Israel a state which seems to be adopting the very policies, behaviour and attitudes of those who have persecuted the Jews most. Add to that the widespread reaction of Jews inside and outside Palestine to any criticism of Israel and its policies as “anti-semitic” and a situation is created which can only result in the growth of anti-Jewish attitudes and feed a dangerous intolerance of Jews.
What to Do. Some tentative suggestions.
We all, Jew and non-Jew, need to wake up to seeing that the Zionist idea and ideology of a Jewish state in Palestine is a terrible unsustainable mistake. It is a mistake which sooner or later will end in more and worse conflict if present policies towards Palestinians continue to be implemented.
The Jews of the Diaspora increasingly need to stop being blinded by Zionist propaganda and assert strongly that one can be Jewish and not Zionist. As they become more aware of what is now being done in their name an enlightened minority may even start to assert that the Zionist ideology has become a betrayal of the fundamental values of Jewish life and faith.
The Jews in the US need to be much more vocal in rejecting the weird religious support they receive from Christian Zionists who see their return to “the land of Israel” as a preparation for the Second Coming of Jesus and their mass conversion to Christianity!
The governments of the Western democracies should be prepared to encourage and help those Israeli Jews who wish to leave Israel and become immigrants – perhaps with a grant to the descendants of families that suffered or lost relatives in the Holocaust. What other group of immigrants could be more valuable?
The Jews of the Western Democracies should encourage Israeli relatives to join them and strengthen their local Jewish communities and make those who think of leaving for Israel more aware of the misleading myths and dangers of Zionism.
Economic, academic and above all arms boycotts of Israel need to be promoted and argued for. As with apartheid South Africa, Israel needs to feel that it cannot be regarded as a progressive outpost and example of western democracy in a benighted Arab world, but that – given its present policies – it has become something of a pariah.
And the end-game? A peaceful Middle East where Jew, Christian and Muslim get on together and live their lives in open and democratic states acknowledging basic shared human values and human rights. Impossible – ever?
- John Baxter 9-10-2014 Books I have found worth reading. As always Wiki-pedia is a great place to start and a mine of information.Cursed Victory. A History of Israel and the Occupied Territories by Ahron Bregman 2014 (But of course written before the 14 Gaza war) is I think excellent. Hearing Professor Ilan Pappe of Exeter University, formerly at Haifa university, took things one step further. Also starting with the paper by Derek Hudson on this site ANVIL. Israel and the Palestinians.