This is a page or so from Collins and LaPierre’s excellent book O Jerusalem, which is billed as a “blow by blow account of the founding of Israel” and they’re not kidding. In some bits it gets down to hour by hour breakdowns of what happened. “What happened” is generally horrible for everyone involved, whether they were the winner or the loser. [wc] Most Americans have no real understanding of the history of Israel, and consequently they fall for false narratives. I suspect that most Israelis, now, also fall for the propaganda. It makes it much easier for the state to do what it wants to do, and easier for it to promote a false moral history.
Yet, by a strange paradox, the event which produced the decisive Jewish reaction to that bloodstained history was not a pogrom, not a slaughter, not a Cossack troop’s brutality. It was a military ceremony, a ritual whose killing was spiritual, the public humiliation of Captain Alfred Dreyfus in Paris in January 1895.
In the midst of the crowd massed on the esplanade of the Champ de Mars to watch the ceremony was a Viennese newspaperman named Theodore Herzl. Like Dreyfus, Herzl was a Jew. Like Dreyfus, he had led his life in comfortable, seemingly unassailable assimilation into European society, little concerned with his race or religion. Suddenly, on that windy esplanade, Herzl heard the mob around him begin to cry, “Kill the traitor! Kill the Jew!” A shock wave rolled through his being. He had understood. It was not just for the blood of Alfred Dreyfus that the crowd was clamoring; it was for his blood, for Jewish blood. Herzl walked away from that spectacle a shattered man; but from his anguish came a vision that modified the destiny of his people and the history of the twentieth century.
It was Zionism. With the energy of his despair, Herzl produced its blueprint, a one-hundred-page pamphlet titled DerJudenstaat – “The Jewish State.”
“The Jews who will it,” it began, “shall have a state of their own.”
Two years later, Herzl formally launched his movement with the First World Zionist Congress in the gambling casino of Basle, Switzerland. The delegates to Herzl’s congress elected an international Jewish executive to guide the movement, created a Jewish National Fund, and a Land Bank to begin buying land in the area in which he hoped to create his state, Palestine. Then they picked two indespensable symbols of the state whose foremost claim to existence was the fervor of their speeches, a flag and a national anthem.
The flag was white and blue for the colors of the tallish, the shawl worn by Jews at prayer. The title of the Hebrew song chosen as a national anthem was even more appropriate. It represented the one asset Herzl and his followers disposed of in abundance. It was “Hatikvah” – “The Hope.”
At no time had Jewish life wholly disappeared in the Palestine to which Herzl’s followers proposed to return. Even in the darkest hours of the dispersion, small colonies of Jews had survived in Safed, Tiberias, and Galilee. As elsewhere, their cruelest sufferings had come under Christian rule. The early Christians had them banned from Jerusalem, and the Crusaders burned the Holy City’s Jews alive in their synagogues.
Palestine’s Moslem rulers had been more tolerant. The Caliph Omar had left them relatively unmolested. Saladin had brought them back to Jerusalem along with his Moslem faithful; under the Ottoman Turks they had been able to take the first steps toward a return to the Promised Land. Sir Moses Montefiore, an English philanthropist, built the first Jewish suburb of outside Jerusalem’s old walls in 1860, offering his kinsmen a pound sterling to spend the night beyond the ramparts. By the winter day in 1895 when Theodore Herzl witnessed the degradation of Alfred Dreyfus, thirty thousand of Jerusalem’s fifty thousand inhabitants were already Jewish.
A series of pogroms in Russia just after the turn of the century sent a new wave of immigrants to Palestine. They represented the fruit of the first decade of Herzl’s movement. Practical idealists, those immigrants were Zionism’s first pioneers, and from their ranks would come half a century of leadership for the movement. They were men like Reuven Shari, a lawyer from the Crimea; his wife was a concert pianist. “I took my law degree and went out to dig ditches,” he would recall, “and my wife took the hands that had been trained to play the concerts of Brahms and Mozart and used them to milk cows, because that was the way we could develop this land.”
Among them was a nineteen-year-old lawyer’s son named David Green from Plonsk, a small Polish factory town thirty-eight miles northwest of Warsaw. He had absorbed his Zionism eavesdropping at the door of his father’s study, the favorite meeting place of Plonsk’s Lovers of Zion. Unlike the men who debated in his father’s study, however, David Green wanted to live Zionism, not talk it.
He lived it hard. Like so many others of his generation in Palestine, he learned at first hand the pains of hunger, malaria and exhausting physical labor struggling to reclaim the soil of the land they had sworn to develop.
A year after he had arrived in Palestine, he made a two-and-a-half-day hike from Jaffa through the gorge of Bab El Wad to discover for himself the symbol of the cause to which he had committed his life, the walls of Jerusalem. What he discovered was a Tower of Babel. At the spiritual center of Judaism the shocked young man found Jews “speaking to each other in forty different languages, half of them unable to communicate with the other half.”
Without the bond of a common language, the diverse communities of Jewry, he was persuaded, could never hope to found a modern nation. Shortly afterward, he returned to Jerusalem as the editor of a Zionist trade union newspaper committed to the revival of the Hebrew language. As he finished his first editorial he stared at his own signature at the bottom of the page. There was little that was Hebrew about “Green.” He thought for a moment, then he scratched out his last name and replaced it with a new one in Hebrew, which he would carry for the rest of his life. It meant “son of a lion cub.” It was Ben-Gurion.
Partly out of sincere sympathy for Zionism, partly in an effort to rally Jewish support for the Allies in World War I, Great Britain offered David Ben-Gurion and his fellow Zionists the first concrete opportunity to realize their dream. In a 117-word note to Lord Walter Rothschild, head of the British branch of the great Jewish banking family, Arthur Balfour, Lloyd George’s Foreign Secretary promised, “His Majesty’s Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” The promise, soon known as the Balfour Declaration, contained one condition: that the development of a Jewish national home did not prejudice “the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” The promise was of grave importance: Great Britain was, at the moment it was issued, in the process of seizing Palestine from Germany’s wartime allies, the Turks. Balfour’s solemn pledge was incorporated into the terms of the League of Nations mandate assigned to Britain in Palestine after World War I ended.
Slowly at first, the national home in Palestine promised to the Jews grew. Immigration, disappointing to the Zionists in the first decade after the Balfour Declaration, leapt up with the rate of persecution in Poland and Nazi Germany, reaching a peak of sixty thousand in 1935-1936. Jewish investment went along with it. In the first fifteen years of Britain’s mandate, it totalled eighty million pounds sterling, almost double the British budget for the period.
Beyond the ties of history, the promise of Britain, and the beginnings of a Palestinian national home, however, a ghastly tragedy had driven the Jews to demand of the United Nations a state of their own in the autumn of 1947. The end of the war that had brought the Jewish people face to face with a reality so overwhelming in its horror that not even a history which seemed a catalogue of the cruelties man was capable of imposing on man had prepared them for it. It was the systematic slaughter of six million of their kind in the gas chambers of Nazi Germany. One central preoccupation obsessed the Jews at the United Nations: to gather the survivors of the catastrophe into Palestine as swiftly as possible, and to construct there a society so strong and self-reliant that a similar disaster would never again menace the Jewish people. The United Nations’ recognition of their right to such a state seemed to the Jews no more than just reparation for the suffering the world had inflicted upon them.
For the Arabs, and above all for the 1.2 million Arabs of Palestine, the partitioning of the land in which they had been a majority for seven centuries seemed a monstrous injustice thrust upon them by white Western imperialism in expiation of a crime they had not committed. With few exceptions, the Jewish people had dwelt in relative security among the Arabs for centuries. The golden age of the Diaspora had come in the Spain of the caliphs, and the Ottoman Turks had welcomed the Jews when the doors of much of Europe were closed to them. The ghastly chain of crimes perpetrated on the Jewish people culminating in the crematoriums of Germany had been inflicted on them by the Christian nations of Europe, not those of the Islamic East, and it was on those nations, not theirs, the Arabs maintained, that the burden of those sins should fall. Beyond that, several hundred years of continuous occupation seemed to the Arabs a far more valid claim to the land than the Jews’ historic ties, however deep.
That seems to me to be a fair summary, consistent with the history of Europe that I know, and the time-line of events between WWI and WWII and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Note how Britain (and later the US) shuffle European blame for European antisemitism off; just send ’em home and then maybe Europeans will stop being such fucking assholes. Anti-semitism, as the book points out, was primarily a European problem, until it was exported and re-framed as ethno-nationalism by European colonialists. France, and Russia (in the later form of the USSR) managed to skate away from their antisemitism issues because the US and British wanted to represent them as being good allies in WWII, in spite of their often cheerful participation in the Holocaust. There have been some attempts to blame Palestinians for being on the side of the nazis in WWII, but that was a dying gasp of the Ottoman Empire that sucked the Palestinians in without their choosing, and though there were some troops recruited into an SS unit, Hitler and Himmler were swapping notes that read, in effect, “when we’re done with the Jews, let’s get rid of the Arabs” I suppose we can say that Europe, with it’s 24 million Soviet dead and 2 million German dead – maybe there was punishment enough. But I tend to agree with the Palestinians: “hey, what did we do!?”
To me, the salient point in all of this is the breakdown of any pretense of morality by the European powers. The British and the UN divided the Ottoman Empire up like yesterday’s cake, and recognizing the consequences for doing so, made no attempt to prevent ethnic cleansing above and beyond asking nicely. Given that WWI and WWII had just ended, it was the epitome of naivete to expect Europeans to behave themselves as anything but the world-wrecking assholes that they are.
This is what I have in mind when there is hand-wringing in the US media about “Israel’s right to exist.” “Well,” nobody seems to ask, “what about the Palestinians’ right to exist?” Oh, we’re told that they’re not really a nation, in spite of 700+ years of residence on the land. But those decisions were not the Palestinians’ – those decisions were made in Whitehall, and the UN. Perhaps the British could argue in without being too shame-facedly lying that they had tried to keep the Palestinians from suffering the fate of colonized people everywhere, except the British, obviously, knew what was coming. The British and other European powers were funneling money to the colonists, and the colonists were buying guns and recruiting young couples from Poland to go occupy and seed the land with their bodies. Settler colonialism is nothing new, and you can smell it coming a thousand miles away.
I’d recommend Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, as well. [wc] It’s a nightmare but it’s an important rejoinder to Stalin’s quip “a million deaths are a statistic.” Because it’s the statistics. One of the things I did not realize until I read Snyder was the way Stalin and Ribbentrop divided up Poland and both parties immediately began getting rid of Poles by whatever means, and replacing them with colonists. Colonists who were ethnically cleansed when the Germans drove the Soviets out, and again when the Soviets drove the Germans out. The descriptions of people walking into beautiful Polish towns and being told, “pick a house, any house, and it’s yours.” Because the former residents were buried over in the woods-line. That method ensured buy-in by the new colonists, who could hardly look a gift house in the mouth, but knew perfectly well that the house had just been occupied – it showed all the signs of a hasty departure by a family that had vanished into Europe’s nightmares.
I can’t blame the Jews for wanting to get out of Europe.