A Reasoned Approach to the Israel-Palestinian Conflict III

Part III

Up to 1948: the arguments of critics

The Palestinian claim

The number one argument against is that the Palestinians were never a people or a nation or anything cohesive, neither in 1918 nor in 1948. Even today, there’s a different dialect for Jaffa, Gaza, Jerusalem, and the Galilee. This is true but irrelevant. If it were relevant, then there would be no Kenya, no Angola, no Lebanon, probably half of the African countries of today. It’s further said that the Arabs in Palestine, despite claiming to have lived here for centuries or even thousands of years are relative newcomers. If we take, for example, the number of Muslims in Jerusalem in 1896, which was 8,560, it is quite clear that the population mushroomed in the twentieth century. Whether the population flourished beforehand depended on the investment of the Ottoman Empire in the region. For instance, in the 16th century, when the Cotton Market prospered in Jerusalem due to trade with Egypt, Safed flourished as well as a textile center. In addition, the Arabs in Palestine and in the Middle East in general moved around quite a lot. Jaffa was destroyed in the 19th century and was largely settled by Egyptians (the neighborhoods have Egyptian names); Acre was attacked as well; Haifa was a fishing village. In the 18th century, the Galilee was ruled by a Bedouin. No doubt, the oldest residents in Israel/Palestine are the Samaritans. Palestinian claims that they have been here thousands of years are mostly nonsense; just as are Jewish claims pointing to David’s kingdom as giving Jews legitimization. But the falsehoods (however loudly proclaimed) do not deny the Palestinians right in 1918 at the end of WWI to a state.

The Jewish claim

There are numerous arguments against the Jewish claim, and like the arguments against the main Palestinian claim, none of them hold water and many of them show a profound misunderstanding of the history of the Jews.

The first is that the Jews are only a religion and not a people. This is false. It is true that in every Western country, Jews are regarded as members of a religion, and the Judeo-Christian tradition, especially in the U.S., is proudly proclaimed from both civic and religious pulpits. But this does not mean the portrayal is fully accurate. The first mention of the word “Jew” is in the Book of Esther, where Mordecai is called, “hayehudi, the Jew.” The initial meaning was both geographical and political: he or his ancestors came from the State of Judea. Over the centuries, there were Jewish communities throughout the Mediterranean basin, and they maintained their ethnic and religious identity through marriage, custom, and ceremony. I’ve been told that Jews are “tribal.” Because of its negative connotations, I don’t like that appellation. The Jews are a people, much like, let’s say, the Thai, who wherever they go maintain their local customs and religion. Anyone can join Thai Buddhism if he or she wishes.

In addition, although the Jewish settlers in Palestine in the 19th century were religious, those who came in the early 20th century and were the ones who established the foundations for a state, were not. The opposite: they were often anti-religious. Religious Jews remained in Europe. Jews who rejected the religion and defined themselves as a people became Zionists.

The other complaint often leveled at Israel is that it is a colonization and a creation of the West and Western imperialism.

As I have stated before, the settlement by Jews is unique; no settlement other than that of American blacks in Liberia is comparable. Like the settlement by the American blacks, it was a return to a homeland. On arriving in Liberia, however, the American blacks discovered that despite Africa being their homeland, they were culturally apart; in this regard, they were colonialists. Similarly, the Jews were also culturally colonialist. They didn’t speak Palestinian Arabic (although several would learn), and they regarded themselves as culturally distinct. The best example of this is the creation of Tel-Aviv, which began as a Jewish suburb of Jaffa. The Jews wanted better sanitary conditions, better roads and schooling for their children—in short, they wanted to be modern, and they regarded the modern as a Western attribution. So—the Jews were not colonialist and yet colonialist, and certainly, the Palestinians regarded them as such, although it should be mentioned that in the 1930’s, there was already a conscious attempt in Jaffa to imitate the better aspects of Tel-Aviv.

It should also be noted (as this is often ignored) that from the end of WWI to the establishment of the State of Israel, the Jews were diligently building the infrastructure of a state: that is, there was an indigenous, local development not dependent on the decisions of Western powers. The opposite: the British Mandate tried to severely limit the number of Jews allowed into the country. It’s true that the development of the Jewish yishuv (settlement) was also encouraged by monies collected from Jews throughout the West (including Eastern Europe) to purchase land. Until 1948, all the Jewish land was legally purchased. The Arabs, under Haj Amin Husseini, asked for help from the wrong imperialist, as he courted Hitler to encourage him to enter Palestine and kill all the Jews.

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.

A Reasoned Approach to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict


Amidst all the clamor and mutual accusations, I thought I would set out clearly, in an unbiased a fashion as possible, the claims by both Palestinians and Jews regarding Eretz Yisrael/Palestine. My father taught me that there are always two sides to every story. And, of course, this liberal position, weighing one side’s claims against the others, is in itself a bias that many on both sides will find fault with—and even, perhaps, insult. This blog will have six parts (one part appearing per week):

  1. Introduction
  2. The basic Palestinian and Israeli positions (historically up to 1948)
    1. The Palestinian Position
    2. The Jewish/Israeli Position
  3. The Arguments of Critics
    1. The Palestinian Claim
    2. The Jewish Claim
  4. 1948-49
    1. The Israeli Position
    2. The Palestinian Position/Understanding of the Events
  5. 1967 and afterward
    1. Israel
    2. Palestine
  6. The Current Situation

Several disclaimers are in order. The first is that I am in Israeli, and therefore, however hard I try, there will obviously be some bias in my presentation of both sides; in fact, the very attempt to present both sides as equal will most likely be held against me. In addition, I’m not going to talk about the atrocities committed on both sides or about the supposed ethnic cleansing because quite frankly, they don’t interest me and I’ll let historians squabble over this for centuries to come. I am making one exception, since I mention PLO terrorist acts. My excuse is that historically this was a role the PLO deliberately played out, and when it failed to reach its goals, the PLO changed course. I realize, as well, that from the Palestinian viewpoint, Israeli air attacks, which also killed innocent victims, were labeled terrorism.

I’m not going to discuss Gaza, as well.

This little essay began with a goal of being quite brief, and to my dismay, the more I wrote, the more explanations I found necessary to include. Nevertheless, obviously, there are many events I do not cover nor wish to cover here.

Please if you comment, reasoned arguments would be appreciated. I realize this is a volatile subject for many in this world.

St. Paul and Homosexuality

At a  gathering around the dinner table, a friend came out to his mother and siblings. His mother, an Evangelical Christian, informed him that according to Paul in Romans, he had been abandoned by God. That led me to read Romans and to the passage Christians often refer to when assuring gays they are promised damnation—and discovering, as I would often do after coming to Israel, how a Jewish perspective can offer a different reading, perhaps closer to that of Paul’s, on his text.. The following is taken from the New International Version of the Bible.

18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

The question, really, is what is the essence of wickedness? It is, as Paul explains further on, idolatry.

21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.[1]

24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.[2]

The King James Version is, in many ways, clearer, perhaps, closer to the original, not glossing over it with modern interpretation.

22 Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools,

23 And changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things.[3]

24 Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves:

25 Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.[4]

The differences between the ITV and the King James versions are telling, and in many respects, they are the differences between a Christian reading (“sinful desires” and “sexual impurity”) and a more Jewish source that still uses the language[5] of kashrut and the halacha (“uncleanness,[6]” “lusts of their own hearts,” “to dishonor their own bodies”). In the Jewish tradition, the body is designed for two things: to recognize and praise God and to procreate, for the first commandment given to Adam was “be fruitful and multiply.” To lust after flesh is to make the body sacred and to treat it as one treats idols; those who lust after flesh forget they are meant to procreate. It is clear from the passage that for Paul all sexual pleasure can be understood as idolatry, not just lesbian and homosexual variants, which are extreme in that no procreation is possible.

26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.[7]

Idolatry leads to the perversion of all righteousness. Curiously, the grab-bag of sins that follows parallels the list of sins for which Jews request forgiveness on the High Holy Days: a betrayal of God leads to a betrayal of one’s fellow human beings, from gossip to slander, from insolence to thievery and murder.

28 Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy.[8] 32 Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.[9]

Man is created in tselem elohim, in the image of God. The word that is translated as image in English has far more resonance in Hebrew than in English. After all, we can upload images on our computers, but we can never upload a tselem. The word appears only once in the Bible. The word tsel in Hebrew means shadow, and a more accurate feeling for the word would be to translate tselem as reflection. Man is an image of God as a reflection of him. In the Jewish tradition, that we are created in God’s image is a fundamental assumption that branches out to mean that we have been given the conscience to recognize God’s existence, we have been given moral and ethical duties, and we are to treat all human beings similarly as images of God: he who saves one life, saves the world. Therefore, if we are idolatrous, we betray our fundamental nature. If we are unclean, we betray the commandments of Him in whose image we are created.

It is possible to read this passage as a specific condemnation of same sex lusts, but that would be to incorrectly understand the context in which Paul was writing. All sexual acts based on the fulfillment of lust are wicked in Paul’s eyes; they are no less the embodiment of idolatry in man than genuflecting in front of idols.



[1] Romans 1, 18-23, New International Version (NIV) of the Bible.

[2] Romans 1, 24-25, ibid.

[3] The word in Hebrew is sharatzim, which appears in the Book of Genesis and, although they may be reptiles as translated above in the ITV, they are also crabs and snails and many other decidedly not kosher animals.

[4] Romans 1, 22-25, King James Version (KJV) of the Bible.

[5] A human body, as a creation of God, is meant to be unblemished. Tattoos are a form of desecration and of treating the body as a thing, an idol.

[6] Cleanliness is one of the primary virtues in the halacha and in kashrut. See Purity and Danger, Mary Douglass.

[7] Romans 1, 26-27, the NIV.

[8] This may be the earliest list paralleling the sins enumerated in the Avinu Malkenu prayer on the High Holy Days.

[9] Romans 1, 28-32, ibid. 

Looking at Jesus

Ever since I was a child and my next-door neighbor taught me, “Jesus loves me, this I know,” I have been fascinated by the historical Jesus, a Jew like me, whom many regard as divine. Recently a friend posted in Facebook a description of Jesus that claimed he was a revolutionary. I beg to differ. From my readings he was a religious radical but not a revolutionary. There is a big difference.

How was he a religious radical? First, as my teacher David Flusser always pointed out, he famously taught to turn the other cheek and conquer enmity through love. This is also found in the rabbinic tradition, but as Judaism is a normative religion, the behavior it recommends between man and man is rooted in a pragmatism, which would have recognized that there comes a time when man must either take up arms or die for a cause. Jesus sought heaven on earth.

Second, he loathed money. You cannot mix mammon and religion. The attack on the stalls of the moneylenders on the Temple Mount during Pesach dramatized his position. The moneylenders, who provided the common coin that enabled Jews from all over the world to donate their tithes or purchase sacrifices, were essential for running the Temple. Jesus, however, understood that money was ultimately corrupting. This may well have had to do with the fact that the high priests during his life were, indeed, corrupt, but it also was part of his third radical contention— his contempt for the rich and his profound respect for the poor and the working class of the Galilee.[1]

They are “the salt of the earth,” a phrase he may very well have coined. They are the fishermen, the farmers, and even the women of easy virtue. In the Gospels, where the rabbis are identified as Pharisees, he often contrasts the virtue of the simple people of the Galilee with that of the rabbis in Jerusalem. The designation of the rabbis as Pharisees is probably an anachronism as, in many respects, Jesus was exemplary of the Pharisaic tradition. It’s likely that his argument was with a different rabbinic party, the Sadducees, who were stricter regarding the law and represented the priestly and wealthy class. After the destruction of the Second Temple when the Christian redactors wrote down his story, no Sadducees remained in power, and, as a result, the Pharisees incorrectly took the place of their arch-enemies.

Every Jew belongs to one of three groups: Cohens, that is, the priestly caste; Levites, the caste that served in the temple; and Israelites— everyone else. The wealthiest group in Judea at the time and the ones who resided in Jerusalem were the priests. After them came the Levites, who also lived off the religion. The mass of people, not concentrated in Jerusalem, were Israelites. In my opinion, Jesus wanted to do away with these distinctions. I think this is how his parable of the Good Samaritan ought to be understood. We tend to focus on the Samaritan as if Jesus is pointing out that decency and charity can be found not only among Jews. Jesus, however, was only preaching to the Jews. Joseph Halevy has pointed out that in the original version, the third person to come upon the suffering man at the side of the road was probably an Israelite. That may be. But Jesus may have chosen the Samaritan because he, too, was not a pagan. He, too, followed the laws of Moses but with a different interpretation. In short, he was the closest to being a Jew yet outside the social framework of Jewry. It is not that kindness and charity can be found in every man but that kindness and charity obey no social hierarchy—and the given social hierarchy with its privileges among the Jews, the division into Cohen, Levite, and Israelite, was false.

And fifth, he repeatedly emphasizes haolam habah, the afterlife, the Kingdom of God. Man reaps what he sows not in this world but in his encounter with God. This view is implicit in so many of his parables and so much of his preaching that it can easily slip notice, and yet it is essential. It infuses all his teachings.

In conventional terms, Jesus was hardly a revolutionary; in religious terms, he proposed a life few would be capable of following, especially if we consider the fact that he kept to all the commandments obligatory to the Jews of his time. Today, the ones who most follow his preachings in Judaism, the ones who embrace both poverty and a life lived in awe of the kingdom of God to come are the haredim, the ultra-Orthodox, who would be appalled by this comparison.


[1] Mark 25: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

A Swarthy Jesus

A confession:

When I came to Israel many years ago, having been raised on literary misconceptions of Jews, I searched among my fellow compatriots for swarthy types. They were mostly to be found among Yemenite Jews and Jews from northern Africa. To my dismay, I was to learn that Yemenites were most likely converted in the fifth century, and swarthiness among Jews from North Africa usually meant intermarriage with the local Arab population. So where were the swarthy Jews of literary complexion?

Swarthy, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. I suppose when placed against the pallid yet rosy-cheeked Englishman whose skin challenges tomatoes when exposed too long to the Mediterranean sun, even I might seem swarthy. But I doubt most others would think as I passed by, “there goes a swarthy Jew.” They might think, “Nerd.” They might think, “Old,” but swarthy, hardly.

So I looked around some more and decided to concentrate on Ladinos, that is, the Jews who trace their ancestry to the expulsion from Spain, as the oldest, “purest” example I might find. Being of a phenomenological bent of mind, after taking a representative sample of about five, I concluded that the Ladino type had black, curly hair, black eyebrows, and ivory-colored skin with pink tinted cheeks. Not to my eyes swarthy, but perhaps northern Europeans, scandalized by the ebony of the hair, apostrophized these strangers as swarthy, for if the hair was so resolutely black what darker pigments might taint those bodies? Or perhaps this was merely another way of designating these people as strange and of vague Mediterranean origin?

I write this because an African-American friend commented in Facebook about the probability of a swarthy Jesus. Another friend replied that this was an old argument, and from his response it seemed that the die had been cast, at least among African-Americans, that Jesus had, indeed, been swarthy. Obviously, Jesus the Christ figure can be and often is any color one wishes, and I can understand the need for a copper-skinned Jesus among blacks when Jesus in the states is so often represented as the last of the Vikings, but as someone who trusts in history and who has suspected ever since discovering how white my swarthy Jews really were that part of the determination of Jews to persist was racial, I have to express my doubts.

So what shade of white or pink or copper was Jesus? The original Hebrews claimed their origin in Mesopotamia, in the area of present-day Iraq. To this day, although often hairy in relation to northern Europeans, the skin color of Iraqis is hardly any browner, despite the roughness of their beards. The Hebrews wandered west to the land of Canaan, and, afterward, some of them (but not, modern scholars agree, all) ventured farther west to Egypt where they were eventually enslaved. Egypt was the meeting place of black Africans and white natives of North Africa, and, as often happens among the lower strata in society, it is quite likely that a number of the Hebrew slaves married black Africans. It is clear that Moses’ wife was not a Hebrew, and it is quite possible as well that Moses was an Egyptian, as his name is derived from Egyptian and not from Hebrew. The Hebrew slaves escaped and joined their compatriots in Canaan, and the miracle of their escape became the myth establishing a national and not a tribal identity rooted in a specific geographic area.

But our understanding of any physical type ends here. The Assyrian kingdom of Babylon conquered the 10 tribes of Israel. The kingdom of Judea was conquered by Babylon and the residents went into exile. In the Babylonian tablets, the Hebrews appear with distinctively curly hair and beards, but this may well have been an artistic convention

Modern rabbinical Judaism begins with the return from exile under Cyrus the Persian. What did these people look like? We have no idea. What would they have looked like three centuries later? No one knows. The best clue, however, can be found in portraits on the Egyptian graves of early Christians. It is safe to assume that many of the followers of Jesus were originally Jews. Swarthy? Not in the least. But all have black hair, black eyebrows, and brown nearly black eyes. They are definitely not European, at least not northern European. So perhaps to northern European eyes, that was swarthy enough, for “swarthy” certainly defined what the Europeans were not.

But for a modern African American searching for the trace of a common tint, the search is most likely in vain.