Category Archives: Israel-Palestine Conflict

Open Letter to my Son

My son has often accused me of trusting the Palestinians and therefore being naive. But he is wrong. I have no doubt but that the Palestinian leadership wishes that all of Israel were part of Palestine and all the refugees on all their generations were returned to their (no longer existing) villages. That’s not where the difference between us lies. It’s not a matter of naiveté.

Many years ago, A. B. Yehoshua wrote that the difference between the liberal and the conservative viewpoint is that liberals believe people can change. This is but one of the differences, although a good dash of skepticism should probably be mixed in our cocktail of hope when describing a people who has been fed hatred for Israelis and Jews and the promise of return for nearly 70 years. Those in the refugee camps have been kept miserable so that their misery was not only proof of the cruelty of the lsraelis/Jews, but an example of a squalor to be redeemed by returning to the land and the iconic olive tree.

There are two other main differences between us, one pragmatic and one ideological. The first, the pragmatic, is that the Palestinians are in a win-win situation. The Palestinians can sit where they are with as corrupt a government as they wish, and, in the end, if Israel will continue to absorb more of their lands, there will be so many Arabs within Israel that Israel will no longer be a Jewish state, that is, a state where the majority are Jews. It is important to emphasize here that my definition of Israel is that a majority of Jews makes it a Jewish state. There is no religious imperative in my definition. Others have different definitions. There are arguments, as well, with these statistics, but to my mind, they are not important and certainly not essential. The longer Israel occupies the West Bank, more and more Arabs without any voting rights will fall under its jurisdiction. This will inevitably lead to apartheid – although to be honest, there is apartheid rule in the West Bank already even if most of the more obviously discriminatory aspects of apartheid are absent. If one wishes to be precise and to avoid the loaded word apartheid, it is probably more accurate to describe the situation as an Israeli colonization in which the Arabs have no voting rights.

But at this point, I’ve entered the fractious realm of ideology. My son, and others, would claim that the occupation is not an occupation. The Palestinians are not and never were a people. You cannot occupy a land that did not belong to anyone. The last occupiers were the Jordanians, and the Jews have greater claim than any other people, especially the so-called Palestinians, who are a recent creation.

The Palestinians, indeed, are a recent creation, despite attempts to claim otherwise. It’s probably true that a sense of national identity among the general populace, and not merely among the intellectual and political elite, began with the Nakba, the catastrophe, the defeat that is celebrated in Israel as the War of Independence.

The novelty of a Palestinian identity, however, does not make it illegitimate without claims for land. At the end of WWI, when the West divided up the Middle East, there were at least six times as many Arabs in Palestine, which included Jordan then. The Arabs were the natives. The Jews, despite their legitimate nationalist claims, were intruders. That status (even considering the numbers of Arabs who emigrated into Palestine) could never change.

The paradigm here is the creation of nations in Africa and the break-up of western imperialism. Africans learned nationalism from the West. Leaders (intellectuals, the wealthy, and, in Arab states, often Christians) led rebellions. Usually, a general feeling of nationalism began during the rebellion (with the colonial power strengthening that feeling through oppressive responses) and increased on victory – often only to dissipate into tribal disunity afterward.

The difference between Palestine and Africa – Kenya, Uganda, Algeria – is that the national feeling rose out of defeat and, to a great extent, under manipulation by the Arab powers, who deliberately kept Palestinians stateless. My son would say it’s an artificial nationalism created deliberately against Israel. And to some extent it is. And like its Colonialist forebears, Israel’s activities in the occupied territories only further the Palestinian nationalist cause.

However, Palestinian nationalism is a fact. Dismissing it because it is unjustified reminds me of those Arabs who would claim that Jews are members of a religion not a people and therefore have no right to a homeland. Besides, as I have written, Palestinians had every right to expect some sort of national state after WWI.

There are of course three other considerations. The Palestinian “problem” is as one says in Hebrew “kotz b’tachat,” a pain in the ass – not necessarily for Israel, which has created a situation in which it can often ignore the distress of occupation but for Arab nations around Israel that are interested in openly doing business with the state. The Palestinians have become the cause célèbre in the Arab world. Everywhere in the Arab – and Muslim world – Israel is known as the cruel oppressor, the horrible monster created by the West.

The second relates to how Israel is viewed in the Western world. The longer Israel holds onto the West Bank and isolates Gaza, the more conclusively it appears as a colonialist oppressor and loses the legitimacy it had as the realization of Jewish national hopes.

The third is antisemitism. The open issue of Palestine encourages antisemitism. The Jews are part of a conspiracy controlling the United States and certainly its newspapers. It’s only because of their devious successes that they were able to rob the Palestinians of their homeland.

There is, however, one addendum I would like to add. To a great extent, the Palestinian national identity was not created by Palestinians in Palestine but both by those who were in exile and other nations. I visited Bethlehem – as the guest of someone high up in the Fatah – don’t ask how – and there I learned that the country is run (as my son knows) by clans and gangs, and connections. The Palestinian authority for example, hasn’t been able to collect taxes from the Daheisha refugee camp. The camp simply refuses and the authorities are too afraid to enter. If you park your car illegally, whether you get a ticket depends on who you know. This holds true if you park your car legally as well. There is a great deal of pretense in the claim of a Palestinian state. On the other hand, their suffering under the occupation is real, and it is the occupation that is making Palestinian nationalism more legitimate every day.

More can be written. The Israeli right will ask – what about military considerations? An independent state can build an army and attack whenever it wishes. That’s the subject for an expert in foreign affairs – not for me. The current situation is intolerable.

Identidad

Para JP

I have a good friend who recommended that I read a book entitled Identity by the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. Coincidentally, this year, while reading an essay by James Baldwin in the book Collected Essays, I had realized how much Baldwin, who I had read intensively in high school, had influenced my decision to come to Israel. His discussions of the battled identity of blacks in America had made me question my own uneasy identity as a Jew.

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I often say that every year I discover a new reason I came to Israel. This was the year of Jewish identity. I very well remember reading S. Y. Agnon’s wonderful story “The Kerchief,” and being astonished by the marvelous sense of wholeness, I had never experienced, that was conveyed even in translation by the story. My Judaism was fragmented, occasionally oppressive (would my world always be divided pointlessly into milchadiche – milk products – and fleyschediche – meat?). In Amherst, being Jewish was accompanied by shame. It was not really what one wanted to be.

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Moreover, I wanted to be a writer – but I knew I could not encompass the enormity of America, the very chaos of it, its multiple voices. I wanted to write about New York City, a cacophony of voices, and not with the elitist diction I was taught but something else, something much cruder – and yet, in imitation of Whitman, singing. But I had no stable, unmoving point from which to view the chaos, that capitalist beautiful monstrosity, both beautiful and monstrous, where everyone became a commodity and moved about from place to place, and where that safe haven of s. Y. Agnon had no possibility. The best piece I wrote at that time was probably a description of Bloody Mary’s birthday party in the subway caverns underneath New York. Bloody Mary was one of the homeless, and since the ulcers on her swollen legs bled, I called her Bloody Mary. There was also a rabbi who colored himself black and pretended he was an African American. And a white young man who in the best Russian tradition represented innocence. I could never succeed in putting the novel together.

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So that was one of the reasons I came to Israel – to get away from the melange of identities and find one I could like. I studied Jewish Studies and learned about the religion I really knew little about. I had my first cholent, I visited synagogues. In New York, I had visited Chabad; here, I tried Yemenite, Moroccan, and eventually settled on Ashkenazi. And I learned Hebrew – the language of the Jews. In the end, I became what in Israel is called a secular Jew but more than that, I became part of the workers movement. That was the ethos that placed its imprint on me and my family.

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The question of identity (in its original meaning) ceased to be relevant. There is a certain comfort that comes with knowing Hebrew. It is the language not only of liturgy but of a tribe so that speaking Hebrew gives one immediately the illusion of a closed community, in which all its speakers are somehow related. In addition, the civic holidays in Israel are the Jewish ones, so that there is a feeling of wholeness one can never achieve outside of Israel unless one is religious. On Yom Kippur, nothing runs. The silence is uplifting. On Pesach and Rosh Hashanah, the roads are jammed with traffic, as everyone celebrates with family. Knowing Hebrew puts you closer to the sources – you are implicitly part of a community over 3000 years old.

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But of course, politically, this sense of wholeness is an illusion and, moreover, a dangerous one. Israel is not only the home of Jews but of Arabs. The total identification of the nation with Judaism implicitly denies their existence. If you’re on the side of the majority, the feeling can be great; but if you are in the minority, you are constantly reminded of your status.  Arabs know Hebrew; Jews don’t know Arabic. In many respects (without considering the Occupied Territories), Israel retains the characteristics of a nineteenth century nation, which is one of its difficulties when confronting 21st century nations in the West. The only diversity Israel celebrates is diversity among its Jews.

A Reasoned Approach to the Israel-Palestinian Conflict IV

Part IV

1948-49

In 1948-49, everything comes to a head, and what in some respects was quite clear or might be described in relatively compatible terms for both Palestinian and Jews altered radically.

The Jewish Claim

For the Jewish yishuv, there were three critical events that defined their perspective on their State: a. the UN proposal to partition Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab section; b. the attack by neighboring Arab states; c. the victory.

  1. After the British threw up their hands, the UN decided on a partition plan for what was defined as Palestine. In the plan, the areas that were mostly Jewish were consolidated into one area, and the remaining area was designated as an Arab state. The Jewish area was quite small, while the Galilee, Nazareth, Jerusalem, and the Negev remained under the Arab administration. Jordan remained under King Abdullah. The Jews, under David Ben-Gurion, accepted the plan. The Arabs rejected it.
  2. When Israel declared its independence as a state (in the small area designated it), the armies of the neighboring Arab states attacked. In theory, they should have easily wiped out the Jewish army with its paucity of arms; and their goal, as they told their Arab listeners was to quickly overwhelm the territory and wipe out the Jews. Those Arabs who left of their own free will could speedily return to their homes.
  3. The Jews won and with the win acquired relatively vast areas (for a tiny country) without much Jewish population.

To a great sense, the Jewish viewpoint is as simple as that stated above. We agreed to partition, we were attacked by Egyptian, Syrian, Jordanian, and Iraqi armies, and against all odds, we won. Regarding the Palestinians, many fled as refugees do in any war; the relatively wealthy (such as in Jaffa) fled expecting to quickly return, and toward the end of the war, Palestinian Arabs were also expelled as a possible fifth column, especially in areas with a small or even negligible Jewish population.

The Palestinian Claim

The Palestinian version is quite different as anyone who is at all acquainted with the Palestinian narrative knows. The Partition Plan often does not appear (or when it does, it is dismissed as the product of Western colonialism) nor does the attack by Arab armies. In the Palestinian narrative, Israel, a creation of the West and therefore of Western imperialism/colonialism is solely responsible for the loss of Palestine and the expelling of all the rightful natives from its midst.

There are numerous reasons for this blatant hole in the historical account.

  1. The first is that the Palestinian moral position of its right for self-determination in 1918-1919 has, among many of its proponents, essentially remained unchanged. If anything, it switched from 1919 to 1948; i.e., we were in the majority at both times, and therefore by right, we should have had a state.

There are, however, several other equally important factors:

  1. The fight against Israel was not fought by the native population.
  2. With minor exceptions, the native Arab population had no national identity until after the land had been lost.

The Palestinians were pawns of their fellow Arabs, who planned on dividing the territory among themselves and had no intention of creating a Palestinian state. It is normal for a national identity to be forged when fighting against the foreign invader or those who come to colonize, for example, in Kenya, Algiers, or even the Netherlands. But in this instance, the national identity was forged out of defeat. The great Palestinian event is the nakba, the catastrophe. The name says everything. When catastrophes occur, the victims are in no way responsible. The Jews acquired the role of the colonialist oppressor—they and only they were responsible for the catastrophe. And thus, it is important that all the Palestinians who left were expelled. They were the majority—and they were expelled. If they were also responsible for the nakba, if they had left of their own free will or if they had left because of battle, then they would have had themselves to blame, as well, and not only the Jews.

There are an additional two factors that must also be considered..

The first, which in the course of nearly 70 years has had its ups and downs in influence, is the religious aspect. In strict religious terms, Israel can never be legitimate as this region is part of the historical Islamic hegemony. There can can be no relinquishing of the land. This is essentially the position of Hamas, the Hezbollah, and Iran to this day.

The second begins primarily with Haj al-Husseini, and that is the anti-Semitic aspect. I am quoting from a booklet he authored for Muslim soldiers enlisted in the Nazi SS division in Bosnia. The quotes are relatively long, but they reveal the pernicious core of much of the extreme Palestinian criticism of Israel today. Note also the mixture of religion and nationalism, which characterized the Grand Mufti.

For us Muslims, it is unworthy to utter the word Islam in the same breath with Judaism since Islam stands high over its perfidious adversary. Therefore, it would be wrong to carry out comparison of those two generally different counterpoints…

Jews are known in history only as a subjugated people. Their vulgar nature and insufferable stance toward the nations that offered them hospitality, and toward their neighboring nations, are the reason that those same nations had to resort to [certain] measures in order to suppress a Jew’s efforts to obtain his desire by force.

The history of antiquity shows us that the pharaohs were already forced to use all means against Jewish usury and Jewish immorality. Ancient Egyptians finally expelled the Jews from their land. Led by Moses, the Jews then arrived in the Sinai desert…

Following that, the Jews spread like locust [sic] all over the Arab peninsula. They came to Mecca, to Medina, to Iraq, and to Palestine, which is the land of milk and honey. The group of the Jews that came to Syria and Palestine was now under Roman rule. The Romans, however, soon discerned the peril that threatened the land from the Jews, and so they introduced harsh measures against them. Besides that, a serious, contagious illness of plague erupted, which was by common opinion brought into the land by Jews. When even medical doctors stated that the Jews were indeed the source of the infection—and their opinion was obviously correct—there arose among the people such upheaval against the Jews that many Jews were killed. In addition, that event is the reason why the Jews have been called “microbes” in Arabia to this very day.

The Arabs have a particular understanding for introducing forceful measures against Jews in Germany and for their expulsion from the country. After the [First] World War, England and America enabled the Jews to settle in Palestine and to establish a Jewish state there. Jewish excrement from all countries assembled there, rascally striving to seize the land from Arabs. And indeed, they succeeded in buying land from the poorest of the poor and from unscrupulous landlords. By doing so, they took poor widows’ bread and stole food from children to fatten themselves. When the Arabs opposed the Jewish settlement, the Jews did not shun bloody murders. So they robbed many families of their livelihood and threw the families into misery and troubles. (God will punish them for those disgraceful deeds).

The Jewish struggle against Arabs is nothing new for us, except that as time passed, the location of the battlefield changed. Jews hate Muhammad and Islam, and they hate any man who wishes to advance the prosperity of his people and to fight against Jewish lust for possessions and Jewish corruption.[1]

The article continues with descriptions of Jewish conspiracies against Muhammad, including an attempt by a Jewess to poison him!

I have one other historical note regarding the 1948-49 conflict. Recent releases from French archives have revealed that British agents in Arabic countries, working without the knowledge of 10 Downing Street, were instrumental in encouraging the Arabs to attack the Jewish settlement and proposing the division of the conquered land among the victorious nations. I mention this because even here, colonialism played a decisive role. The claim by Palestinians that only Israel is the ugly creation of Western colonialism is a false one; their wanderings are also the result of the invisible hands of colonialist agents.

[1] Havel, Boris, “Haj Amin Husseini’s Anti-Semitic Legacy,” Middle East Quarterly, Summer 2015

A Reasoned Approach to the Israel-Palestinian Conflict II

Part II

The Basic Palestinian and Israeli Positions (Up to 1948)

The Palestinian Position

The crux of the Palestinian argument is easy to state. In 1918, at the end of WWI, when the West carved out nations in the Middle East, there were 60,000 Jews in Palestine and 600,000 Arabs. By all rights, the Arabs ought to have been given a state. Instead, they were robbed. Certainly, if one’s perspective stops at 1918 or 1919 when the British Mandate was created and the Jews were promised a homeland in an area that was overwhelmingly Arab, from an Arab perspective, the injustice is blatant. I would like to point out two things: Palestine and the Arab population therein included what would become Jordan and by 1865, there were probably more Jews living in Jerusalem than either Christians or Muslims in the city (depending—of course—on who you ask). By 1922, Jews formed over half the population of Jerusalem. This is just to give another perspective.

The Jewish/Israeli position

The Jewish position is actually more complicated than the Arab one—and it has to be recognized right away that it is somewhat unique. The only migration comparable to the settlement of Eretz Yisrael/Palestine by the Jews is the return of American blacks to Liberia to set up a state[1].

There are three aspects to the claim of the Jews’ right of return. The first is that the Jews are a nation. The second is that they have been dispersed due to persecution, and the third is that they have always looked toward Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel, as their homeland. This right does not rest on religious reasons or the fact that 2,000 years ago, there was a kingdom of Judea. If the Jews had not maintained Eretz Yisrael as an ideal for 2,000 years, they might as well have gone to Uganda. In Jewish literature, Palestine was always called Eretz Yisrael.

Both the Palestinian and the Israeli arguments are legitimate, and therefore to some extent (or to a great extent), the conflict was inevitable.

[1] I’m thankful to Dr. Cuthbert Simpkins for pointing this similarity out to me.