Israel is one of the world’s great hotspots; perhaps the greatest, now that the Troubles in Northern Ireland have abated somewhat and the Civil War in Sri Lanka has come to an end. It’s true that violence in Israel has tapered off too, but it seems that everyone has an opinion on Israel and its relationship to the Palestinian Arabs whom they conquered at their founding, and then in the Six-Day War in 1967. These opinions roughly follow a left-right axis, with those on the left favoring Palestinians, and those on the right Israel. I think that this pattern was set during the Cold War: once Israel allied with the United States, and the Arab world the Soviet Union, well, that’s all that most people needed to know about who the good guys and who the bad guys were. That the United States picked Israel, even after such things as the Lavon Affair, the Suez Crisis, the attack on the USS Liberty, or the shenanigans of Jonathan Pollard, is usually seen as a testament to the outsized influence of American Jews, who tend to be visceral partisans of Israel for obvious reasons, combined with the influence of American Evangelicals, who support Israel on account of their dispensationalist theology.
But I think that politics on a left-right scale doesn’t completely explain things. Allow me to share with you my own theory: you can divide the world into two types of people. The first group believes that no one has suffered like the Jews have suffered, so they’re pretty much allowed to do whatever they want from now on – they’re certainly entitled to their own ethnostate. The second group believes that no one has suffered like the Jews have suffered, so you’d think they’d be careful not to cause other people to suffer too (cf. “You shall not oppress the stranger that is within your gates, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”). In other words, we have a conflict between tribalists and universalists. Universalists simply don’t like hypocrisy, and they think that Israelis are hypocrites, having suffered oppression, and then proceeding to dish it out to other people. They believe that even if the Holocaust was “unique,” it still doesn’t justify the Apartheid state the Israelis have constructed.
Alas, Zionism, of necessity, is tribal. The direct connection between the Shoah and Eretz Yisrael is taught in Israeli schools, and is on full display at Yad Veshem, the Israeli national Holocaust memorial. The museum there takes the form of a maze that gets tighter and tighter as you proceed through it, emphasizing how there was no escape from Nazi persecution. But as you come to the end you step out onto a terrace that affords a beautiful vista of the valley of Giv’at Beroshim – the idea being that the land of Israel is the answer to the problem of Jewish suffering.* I actually overheard an Israeli tour guide discounting this idea. He said that nowhere else in the world is the Holocaust taught this way, and furthermore the idea does not go over well with the Arabs. He said that President Obama, when he gave a speech in Cairo in 2009, specifically referenced it, and the guide imagined a telephone conversation a half hour afterwards between Obama and Netanyahu, who may have exclaimed: “Are you nuts?! Never say that to Arabs! To them, the Holocaust was a project carried out by European Christians – and it’s now Middle Eastern Muslims who are paying the price for it!” No, said the guide, that the State of Israel was founded after the Holocaust is simply a chronological coincidence. The Jewish settlers in Palestine could have declared their independence in the 1930s, but then the war intervened and prevented it from happening. The Holocaust is why Israel deserves to be strong, and to take its security seriously, but its existence is another matter entirely. The Jews have a right to their own state in the Levant because… that’s where their ancestors lived in the first millennium BC! (And how well does that idea go over with the Arabs? I stood there wondering. Are they just meekly supposed to accept the notion that they’ve been squatting for 1500 years?)
But I found that other people believe this too. If Israel is not compensation for the Holocaust, then it is simply the latest instantiation of the ancient Hebrew monarchy. In Jerusalem I spoke with a guy, a real settler type, who was carrying around a large Israeli flag, “just for fun.” He actually referred to the West Bank as “Judaea/Samaria” and said that archaeologists recently uncovered some more artifacts there from the First Temple period. “How can you ‘occupy’ your own country?!” he asked.
But I’m afraid that the Palestinians weren’t much better in their uses of history. Two of them matter-of-factly told me that the Jews lost the rights to their land after the Romans destroyed their temple in AD 70, and expelled them in the 130s. Clearly God was judging them.
How can you argue with people who think like this?
My personal feeling is that Israel is no less legitimate than any other country created in the twentieth century – but this legitimacy has little to do with the Holocaust, and even less with any history recorded in the Bible. Instead, Israel is a settler nation, like Canada, the United States, or Australia. Enough people moved there, bought up enough land,** constructed the apparatus of a state, wheedled the Balfour Declaration*** out of the British, and then recognition of their independence from the UN. What more do you need? Its treatment of the Palestinians is distasteful, of course, but it would really have helped if the Arabs had not declared war on the state in 1948, and in 1967, and in 1973, and in 1987, and in 2000, and continue to carry out attacks even now. I confess that I find it hard to sympathize with people who so readily resort to violence, and that there is great deal of merit in Golda Meir’s claim that “Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us.” In any event, I was surprised at how much pro-Palestinian sentiment the Israelis tolerate. The settler pictured above claims that the police will confiscate his flag as “too provocative” when he shows up at certain rallies. And I was amazed at some of the t-shirts on sale in the Old City expressing things that would never be allowed, say, about Armenians or Kurds in Turkey.
Self-government may be preferable to good government, but having been to both places now I think I would rather live on the West Bank than in Egypt. As tribal as Zionism may be, functionally it does produce some positive externalities for everyone.
* Fr. Richard LeSueur of St. George’s College, Jerusalem first pointed this out to me.
** Alan Dershowitz, in The Case for Israel, makes a big deal about land ownership. According to him, it is self-justifying. (By this notion, I guess the Chinese who have turned Vancouver into “Hongcouver” have the right to declare their independence – in fact, they already constitute a nation! It suggests that every sovereign state ought to take immigration, and real estate, very seriously.)
*** Courtesy Tom MacMaster, an interesting dissenting view on the Balfour Declaration by the Jewish Edwin Montagu, Secretary of State for India:
Zionism has always seemed to me to be a mischievous political creed, untenable by any patriotic citizen of the United Kingdom. If a Jewish Englishman sets his eyes on the Mount of Olives and longs for the day when he will shake British soil from his shoes and go back to agricultural pursuits in Palestine, he has always seemed to me to have acknowledged aims inconsistent with British citizenship and to have admitted that he is unfit for a share in public life in Great Britain, or to be treated as an Englishman. I have always understood that those who indulged in this creed were largely animated by the restrictions upon and refusal of liberty to Jews in Russia. But at the very time when these Jews have been acknowledged as Jewish Russians and given all liberties, it seems to be inconceivable that Zionism should be officially recognised by the British Government, and that Mr. Balfour should be authorized to say that Palestine was to be reconstituted as the “national home of the Jewish people”. I do not know what this involves, but I assume that it means that Mahommedans and Christians are to make way for the Jews and that the Jews should be put in all positions of preference and should be peculiarly associated with Palestine in the same way that England is with the English or France with the French, that Turks and other Mahommedans in Palestine will be regarded as foreigners, just in the same way as Jews will hereafter be treated as foreigners in every country but Palestine. Perhaps also citizenship must be granted only as a result of a religious test.
I assert that there is not a Jewish nation. The members of my family, for instance, who have been in this country for generations, have no sort or kind of community of view or of desire with any Jewish family in any other country beyond the fact that they profess to a greater or less degree the same religion. It is no more true to say that a Jewish Englishman and a Jewish Moor are of the same nation than it is to say that a Christian Englishman and a Christian Frenchman are of the same nation: of the same race, perhaps, traced back through the centuries – through centuries of the history of a peculiarly adaptable race. The Prime Minister and M. Briand are, I suppose, related through the ages, one as a Welshman and the other as a Breton, but they certainly do not belong to the same nation.
When the Jews are told that Palestine is their national home, every country will immediately desire to get rid of its Jewish citizens, and you will find a population in Palestine driving out its present inhabitants, taking all the best in the country, drawn from all quarters of the globe, speaking every language on the face of the earth, and incapable of communicating with one another except by means of an interpreter. I have always understood that this was the consequence of the building of the Tower of Babel, if ever it was built, and I certainly do not dissent from the view, commonly held, as I have always understood, by the Jews before Zionism was invented, that to bring the Jews back to form a nation in the country from which they were dispersed would require Divine leadership. I have never heard it suggested, even by their most fervent admirers, that either Mr. Balfour or Lord Rothschild would prove to be the Messiah.
I claim that the lives that British Jews have led, that the aims that they have had before them, that the part that they have played in our public life and our public institutions, have entitled them to be regarded, not as British Jews, but as Jewish Britons. I would willingly disfranchise every Zionist. I would be almost tempted to proscribe the Zionist organisation as illegal and against the national interest. But I would ask of a British Government sufficient tolerance to refuse a conclusion which makes aliens and foreigners by implication, if not at once by law, of all their Jewish fellow-citizens.
I deny that Palestine is to-day associated with the Jews or properly to be regarded as a fit place for them to live in. The Ten Commandments were delivered to the Jews on Sinai. It is quite true that Palestine plays a large part in Jewish history, but so it does in modern Mahommendan history, and, after the time of the Jews, surely it plays a larger part than any other country in Christian history. The Temple may have been in Palestine, but so was the Sermon on the Mount and the Crucifixion. I would not deny to Jews in Palestine equal rights to colonisation with those who profess other religions, but a religious test of citizenship seems to me to be the only admitted by those who take a bigoted and narrow view of one particular epoch of the history of Palestine, and claim for the Jews a position to which they are not entitled.