In my previous posting about Israel/Palestine and language, I commented that not enough blame is directed towards Britain. I think that probably needs some support.
And, for the record, I do not advocate blaming specific Brits, e.g., Stderr Special Agent Dunc, or any of you who are more or less alive today. If Britain were still a great imperial power, and the British readership of this blog were living high off the loot of imperialism, eating Russian caviar and smoking Cuban cigars while sending low-paid Indian military labor around the world to enforce their position – then, we could blame them – but British imperialism has joined French imperialism, dead in the mud and extremely expensive slaughter of World War II. [Now we have US imperialism, because the stupid Europeans invited the vampire into their house and took generous loans of military assistance to win their interminable stupid wars, so now the US owns the world and the world has the US’ interminable stupid wars.]
I think it was Dan Carlin who said something to the effect that we should not really call them “World War I” and “World War II” since the second great war was mostly “merely” clearing up loose ends left from the Treaty of Versailles. During the negotiations at the end of the war, the victors divided up the spoils, but tried to do it a not-totally-obvious way – not because they cared but because there were a lot of secret treaties in place, regarding who got what territory from which of the losers. For example, Italy (in order to get them off the fence and onto the allied side) was given a chunk of Anatolia. This was done between the Treaty of Versailles, which specifically emasculated Germany and Austria/Hungary, and the Treaty of Sevres, which divided up the Ottoman Empire. The knives, for the Ottoman Empire, had been out since well before the war ended. But the European powers, specifically the winners of World War I, led by the British and French, had to get a final spurt of imperialism done. It’s traditional to blame Clemenceau’s block-headedness for the failure of the Versailles Treaty, along with Woodrow Wilson’s misplaced cosmopolitanism, which brought us World War II. That’s all true, such as it is, but there was a lot of humanitarian crisis tied up in all the post-imperial carving-up. Some of it went on during the war, such as the Armenian genocide (1915), Greek genocide (1915-22) and other bits came later, as the British found their ability to maintain an empire had faded, and they partitioned India (1947) and lost control/walked away from their territory in Palestine (1948). I think it ought to be obvious by now that empires do not go quietly – they sit atop political divisions and kind of hold things together, but as soon as there’s a crack, the knives come out.
The main point of all this is that European imperial powers secretly divided up the Ottoman Empire before the war was over, then tried to square all the promises everyone made to everyone else, to come up with some kind of conclusion that was satisfying to the winners. [By the way, I just now found out that referring to Britain as “perfidious” goes back to the 13th century; I expected it to be an expression dating from post World War I] [wik] anyhow, as I implied in my earlier comment, the foundation of Israel happened when Britain promised Palestine to Arab Nationalists, Zionists, and the French (sort of). The French promises were in the form of the Sykes-Picot agreement, which laid out how Britain and France would parcel out the Middle East for their convenience. I need to emphasize that: it was all about what the French and the British wanted, but secondarily what the locals would accept if they were presented with no alternative. I first learned about all this stuff while reading a biography of T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) who was a romantic-ish military figure who was tasked with fomenting an Arab revolt to further distract the Ottomans during World War I. I gather he was disillusioned when, after whipping the Faisal family into stepping forward into revolutionary leadership, Britain proceeded to not give them any of the stuff Lawrence had been encouraged to promise them. “Oh, did we say you could have Syria? No, the French have Syria.” That kind of thing. Trying to sort out what Faisal and his family was promised will make your head spin, I don’t advise trying. But what happened is pure cynicism: Lawrence and the British pumped up Arab nationalism as a movement, convinced them they could liberate themselves from the Ottomans, and then left them scraps. They were significant scraps (Saudi Arabia!) but if you step back and look at the events through a geopolitical telescope, it was pretty obvious that the British were putting biddable satraps in place over oil-rich pieces of land. Remember, the British had just decided oil was super valuable because oil-fired warships were much more effective than coal-fired.
Here’s some opinion: the pressures and agendas pushing the imperial powers at the end of World War I were so secret and complex that it’s impossible to formulate a unified version of “truth.” There’s just too many people trying to sell other people into or out of slavery, avert or abet genocide, grab or let go of prime real estate – and all of it was driven by political and economic expediency. There was a thick layer of obscuring hot air over the whole thing, but it was vae victis all the way down. Every time I look at the history of that time, if I think someone was doing something for something resembling “the right reason” it turns out there was some secret corrupt agreement regarding mining rights (or whatever) that I had overlooked. I think that trying to find good reasons for anything that happened in that time is a permanently tainted quest, doomed to bear only sour fruit.
But we can’t talk about Israel without digging into at least the surface layer of that particular mess. Because the British promoted the Balfour Declaration, which was an official approval from the British Empire of the political aims of the Zionists. At the same time that they were making hay with the Zionists, they were dividing up the region into power blocs with the French – Syria and Jordan to the French, which meant that inevitably a Zionist state emerging centered on Jerusalem was going to be a problem – and then there were the Arab Nationalists that they had pumped up with promises of self-determination and power. Promising to create two different ethno-states in the same piece of land is just not a good idea. But it’s important for us, as we try to understand what happened in the creation of Israel, to remember that Arab Nationalism was fired to a fever pitch by the British, right before the Zionists began moving into Palestine.
Over at Pharyngula there is a posting about the current fight in Gaza [pha] and, inevitably, in the comment section, someone suggested that everyone needs to just back off and let the Gazans and the Israelis settle things finally. I.e.: genocide as policy, since we’re talking lopsided opponents like Bambi vs Godzilla. Basically, “let them fight it out” is not a particularly moral argument – but that is basically the policy from the winners of World War I! That’s why so many people died in the Armenian genocide, Indian partition, creation of Israel, etc. Can we leave the calls for political nihilism (aka: “realpolitik”) to Henry Kissinger, with the observation that only the strong advocate for political nihilism. [Kissinger grew up in Bavaria in the 30s and experienced realpolitik there, before his family fled to the US and he inflicted his version of political nihilism on the rest of the world. We expect people would learn better from such experiences but instead it appears to produce hardened criminals] What we are looking at, and have always been looking at, in Palestine is the end-point of a policy of “let them fight it out.” [By the way, the genocide in Rwanda traces back the German imperialist divide and conquer political nihilism, once the Germans took their hands off the controls] I don’t think the term “international community” should even be used, since humans appear to be a vicious, squabbling, murderous, bunch of bastards – but if we want to pretend that things like Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations (UN) mean anything, the non-involved nations need to rein in the situation. Who am I kidding? The US’ reaction has been to ship artillery ammunition to Israel with full knowledge that they will be used in Gaza, on noncombatants. Can we reasonably expect today’s people to do a better job of unwinding the ridiculous post-war power dynamics of World War I than, uh, ugh – World War II was an attempt (by some) to unwind those power dynamics.
Elsewhere I have recommended the book O Jerusalem [amz] by Collins and Lapierre, and I’ll throw it out there, again. I guarantee you that if you read it, you will come out more confused than you were when you went in.
For example, this is the sequence of events I learned in school and from reading National Geographic:
- The Holocaust
- Jews move to Palestine to escape persecution
- There is conflict in Palestine and it keeps building
- Israel declares itself a nation in 1948
- In 1967, surrounding Arab nations attack Israel and lose
- Israel takes Jerusalem during the aftermath of the 6 day war
- Since then, Israel keeps expanding
But really it looks more like:
- Theodore Hertzl invents Zionist nationalism in the 1890s
- World War I and the parceling-out of the Ottoman Empire
- Waves of immigrants from Poland, Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus begin moving to Palestine, and begin building an economic base including importing weapons-making machines and purchasing heavy equipment
- Jordan (Arab Legion) attacks Jerusalem and blows the Jewish quarter of the city to pieces with bombardment, there is looting and the Jewish population become refugees
- World War II and the combat in Jerusalem continues and goes back and forth
- The Holocaust makes the Jews a lot more serious about their willingness to suffer political violence and they begin to get quite good at political violence in their own right
- The British try to reduce the flood of Jewish immigrants into Palestine, now that they realize they have set in train some dangerous events
- British versus Jewish counter-insurgency/insurgency begins and quickly gets nasty, with trains being blown up, a hotel demolished with high explosive, lone British officers being murdered, etc.
- World War II ends and the British decide that Palestine sucks – and leave
- The UN issues a partition plan for Palestine with specific borders for Jewish and Arab sectors, with Jerusalem as an international open city
- Israel declares independence
- Constant fighting with Arab states
- The 6 day war. Israeli intelligence indicates Arab nations are massing for an attack, and the Arabs do it stupidly, and are hammered in a pre-emptive strike that cripples the attack before it starts. Israel fights like hell. The Arabs lose and Israeli commandos launch a surprise attack taking Jerusalem
That’s the broad outlines of the thing. I am absolutely certain that I misunderstand many points along the path, but I’m not ashamed of that, because a lot of what we are taught is carefully spun versions of events. Like most Americans, I believed that The Holocaust was what started Israel, though I was never explicitly told that – I was allowed to make that connection, though. It wasn’t until 5 years ago (or so) when I read O Jerusalem and learned that 6 Israeli prime ministers were Polish, Belorussian, or Ukrainian immigrants. It wasn’t until 3 years ago (or so) when I read Tim Snyder’s Bloodlands [amz] and learned that The Holocaust and the old Russian pogroms were not discontinous – the Jewish population of Eastern Europe has been constantly under threat of annihilation. I found myself with some sympathy for the Jews, and wondered why Britain and the US were so stupid about European anti-semitism and then it hit me with a great flash of “duh!” that the US and Britain also had huge problems with anti-semitism. That is when we learn about things like shiploads of Jewish refugees being turned away at British and US harbors, or Jewish refugees winding up in prison camps outside Britain because they are “foreign nationals from combatant countries.”
And that brings me to today, where I am disgusted by genociders, militarists, anti-semites, political nihilists, and politicians. It’s easy to look at this problem and look for a single point of blame (see: “The British”) but we’re past the point where the bad decisions were made and now we’ve got nothing but bad outcomes.
So, I actually searched pretty hard to find a treatment of the topic that is neither hyper-detailed not tilted too much with the authors’ politics:
There is one part that triggers full-on cringe because it is both true and really badly put; at one point one of the interviewees says that “Zionism is the greatest success of public relations in the 20th century” (or something like that) and then proceeds to imply that Jews are apparently notably skilled at public relations (doubtless a shot at old Edward Bernays, but, damn it, that should have been edited out.) It made me realize that even an attempt to produce a fairly balanced documentary is probably subjected to extreme editing, because the people you might interview for such a thing are all deeply steeped in their own particular marinades of public relations.
If you’re not willing to invest the time into O Jerusalem and Bloodlands I totally sympathize. Those two books damaged my psyche for months, and I will never fully recover. I suppose that’s a good thing, but i would be worth more if I were planetary overlord and had some power to effect change. I can’t even stop fucking asshole republican congressmen from wearing IDF uniforms into the capitol. Most of us are disempowered by the political systems we find ourselves under, for a reason, and that reason is because they want to inflict this kind of shit on people and they know that if they asked the people who pay attention and care, most of us would say “are you kidding?” On the other hand, it seems remarkably easy to get our fellow man into the mood for violence.
The problem with living in a world populated with political nihilists is that they can make the decisions they want, without you being able to stop them. Even if well-meaning people try to stop them, they can simply dig in their heels and make use of force the only effective opposition, in which case they scream that you’re as bad as they are. And there are actually people who feel that humans should colonize the stars. Fortunately, that’s probably not possible, but if it was and we eventually encountered some other starfaring species, one or the other of us would end up in prison camps until they were just a memory.
In my previous posting, I hope I did a good enough job indicating that I think religious/ethnic claims to land are bullshit. In case I wasn’t clear about that, I think they are bullshit. Nobody should respect them, or take them seriously. Has religion helped propel the battle over Jerusalem more than nihilistic politics? A few years ago, I’d have tried to blame the whole debacle on religion, but I think that lets the British off the hook. The only defense argument I’d make for the British would be: “imperialism – hey, we were all doing it!” which is true. And it’s political nihilism/opportunism.
The population of Israel is 9mn +/- and Gaza and the West bank are smaller. What if the US opened its borders to anyone wishing to come to the US and live in Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, or Texas? Free! I’m sure it would boost our economy greatly and then we could stop spending so much money propping up Israel, which is a failing left-over colonial project from World War I.