In the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, the narrative of the past sixty or so years has changed. In the beginning, Israel was a scrappy little country of refugees and Holocaust survivors, pioneers, who returned to their ancient ancestral home, to reclaim the desert, and establish a state in which Jewish self-determination was possible. Today, we Jews are seen as invaders, no better than the Einsatzgruppen, who want only to steal land from its rightful owners, and kill everyone who stands in our way. As I keep abreast of developments in that particular section of the Middle East, I see very little, if any, middle ground. And everything is viewed in black and white. The other side is completely, unreasonably, and irredeemably evil, and one’s own side is innocent and oppressed, and invariably in the right.
Now, while I support Israel, and consider myself a Zionist, I do not approve of everything the current Israeli administration does in “my” name. And yes; there is much for which Netanyahu’s government can be blamed, and much for which they need to be held to account. But that said, I find, in the language and attitudes of anti-Israeli protests in Europe and North America, much traditional anti-Semitism. Yes, yes, yes; I understand that there are many who deflect any and all criticism of Israel by claiming “anti-Semitism.” In fact, I myself am quite leery of using the term because of the baggage it has acquired. But the fact remains that when groups of thugs in the UK attack synagogues on Friday nights, or miscreants in France attack anyone they see on the streets wearing a yarmulke and tzitzis, they are attacking Jews, not Israeli government policy. Otherwise, why are they not protesting at Israeli embassies and consular buildings exclusively? The slurs flung at us are just as likely to be warmed up re-hashings of old Czarist propaganda, as actual criticism of excessive force used when dealing with Palestinians. Attackers will hurl at us the same epithets hurled at us in Germany or France, as much as they point out that Israeli policies are apartheid with respect to our Arab and Palestinian citizens.
And so when I see this, my gut reaction, really, is to retrench and stand with my people, whether right or wrong. And this leads into something that no one seems to consider in all the coverage I read in the papers—Fear.
You see, what no one cares to remember is the scar on the Jewish psyche left by the Holocaust. Now, there are some on the Right who invoke the Shoah to justify everything and anything we do in Israel for “security.” And there are even more outside of Israel who either deny the Holocaust altogether, or don’t understand the scope of what happened—as is particularly evident when they say that Israel has become just like the Nazis in their treatment of the Palestinians. There is not a single Jewish family today who has not been touched somehow by that great tragedy, and that comes on top of countless family stories of oppression, terror, and slaughter from Russia, Poland, Bessarabia, Germany, Austria, France, and on, and on, and on.
The fact is that wherever we have managed to settle, we all live with the knowledge in the backs of our minds that it could be temporary. Even in America, as good as we have it here, most Jews keep their passports up to date, because one never knows when even here, they will chase us out. And so, to where else can we fall back but Israel? Where we can stand up as Jews and defend ourselves from those who hate us. Where we don’t have to live under the rule of those who would persecute us. Every time I see anti-Jewish attacks in Europe and the Americas, the more I am inclined to support my people, my Israel, even though I know our actions may not be righteous. It’s an existential fear. And it’s one that is continually exacerbated rather than assuaged.
In those early days of Israel’s existence, did we initiate the wars with our neighbors? Does no one remember how our nurseries and schools were attacked by terrorists? We are accused of waging a genocidal campaign against the Palestinians; but then, where are the death camps and the ovens? Israel could, after all, simply roll over Gaza and the West Bank and erase them. Yet even the High Court and organizations like B’tzelem point out to the Israeli government when it is acting illegally and unfairly (even when they’re ignored). Ah, but we are advanced, now. We must show restraint, because we are so much more powerful than those whom we’ve “subjugated.” We must not allow ourselves to be provoked. And yet, has there been no cause for provocation? I here quote a more eloquent writer than I on the subject:
…Between the passing of the partition on November 30, 1947, and April 2, 1948, the various Arab and Palestinian militias launched company sized (80-225 soldiers) and battalion sized (300-1200 soldiers) assaults against the Efal neighborhood outside Tel-Aviv (December 4), the Hatikva quarter of Tel-Aviv (December 8 &10), Jewish Jerusalem (December 10), a major convoy to Ben-Shemen (December 14), the settlements of Kfar Yavetz (December 27), Kfar-Szold (January 10), Kfar Uriah (January 11), and on January 14, a Palestinian militia attacked Etzion Bloc, taking heavy casualties, but, in the next two days, wiping out a platoon of 35 Jewish fighters sent in as reinforcements, and brutally mutilating their bodies. The Arab Liberation Army also attacked the Jewish settlements of Yechiam (January 20), Tirat Svi (February 16), Magdiel (March 2), Ramot-Naftali (March 4), and Arab militias also successfully ambushed three major Jewish convoys on March 27, 28, & 31, 1948.
To wit: there were no less than twelve company and battalion scale military assaults against Jewish settlements, the successful sabotage of several major convoys, not to mention some forty-one individual terrorist attacks and bombings on Jewish urban targets—six in December, nine in January, thirteen in February, and thirteen in March—killing some 295 civilians. In the four months between the passing of the partition and the end of March 1948, the Yishuv had suffered about 1,000 dead soldiers and civilians—mostly civilians.
The Haganah, in this period (Nov.30, 1947-April 2, 1948), adopted a posture of “aggressive defense.” The policy, such as it was, was to retaliate for individual attacks against the Yishuv, but to avoid large scale attacks that could escalate the level and scale of hostilities. Certainly the Stern and Irgun militias were busy in this period with individual bombings and acts of retaliation, but there was simply no large scale military activity on the part of the Haganah in this period. Indeed, a peek at March, 1948 shows that the situation, far from containing any increased “Zionist military activity,” shows the Arab-Palestinian war effort against the Yishuv charging along in high gear.
A March 17, 1948 NY Times article notes increased Arab military activity in the Nablus-Tulkharm-Jenin triangle, saying that “the army’s strength was reported to have reached close to 8000 men, with more arriving daily.”
It also records Abd al-Qader al-Husayni, the Mufti-appointed commander of theJerusalem front of the Jaysh al-Jihad al-Muqaddas (“Army of the Holy War”) as saying he was “not willing to consider a truce under any circumstances.”
Fawzi al-Qawuqji, commander of the Arab Liberation Army (ALA), told Al-Ahram onMarch 9, 1948 that the ALA was fighting for “the defeat of the partition and the annihilation of the Zionists.”
The Mufti told the Jaffa daily Al Sarih on March 10, 1948 that preventing partition was not enough, and that they “would continue fighting until the Zionists were annihilated and the whole of Palestine became a purely Arab state.”
The sentiments expressed above by al-Qawuqji on March 9, the Mufti on March 10, and by Abd al-Qader al-Husayni on March 17, all gave voice to the well founded confidence among the Arabs that they were winning the war against the Yishuv at this stage. This was also the consensus view in the international community at the time; the editorial pages of the London Times, the Guardian, and the New Statesman, all of whom would not be caught dead defending the Jewish state today, all pleaded with the governments of Britain and the United States to intervene more decisively in the conflict to rescue the Yishuv from their desperate plight at the time. A British report in late March similarly commented:
“The intensification of Arab attacks on communications and particularly the failure of the Kfar Etzion convoy (March 27-28), probably the Yishuv’s strongest transport unit, to force a return passage has brought home the precarious position of Jewish communities both great and small which depend on supply lines running through Arab controlled country. In particular, it is now realized that the position of Jewish Jerusalem, where a food scarcity already exists, is likely to be desperate after 16 May.”
Another British report in early April read:
“It is becoming increasingly apparent that the Yishuv and its leaders are deeply worried about the future. The 100,000 Jews of Jerusalem have been held to ransom and it is doubtful that the Arab economic blockade of the city can be broken by Jewish forces alone. If the Jewish leaders are not prepared to sacrifice the 100,000 Jews of Jerusalem, then they must concede, however unwillingly, that the Arabs have won the second round of the struggle which began with a Jewish victory in the first round on the 29th of November.”
This then was the dire situation facing the Yishuv in early April of 1948. After the successful ambush of the latest Jewish convoy to Jerusalem on March 31, it was precarious to say the least. The sabotage of the convoys was increasing, the strangulation of the roadways and all arteries of communication between the scattered communities of the Yishuv were sharpening, the attendant shortages of basic commodities and weapons inside Jerusalem were growing, and the siege around the city was tightening. When US Rep to the UN Warren Austin announced in late March that the war in Palestine proved that the partition was impossible, thus indicating a backtracking of American support, it only added to the gloom and the increasing demoralization of the Yishuv.
As Benny Morris wrote, “Given the state of the Yishuv after the terrible losses along the roads, it had no choice: Either it went on the offensive, or it would lose Jewish Jerusalem, and, perhaps, the war.”
- Robert M. Werdine in response to a news blog post by Mr. Ben Norton for Salon.
Now, after all of that history, and considering how far the Jewish People in Israel have come, how much more power we have come to have than our adversaries, I often wonder to myself—Can there be no forbearance? Am I not moved at the deaths of children? Of course. Do I not care that Palestinians in Gaza are living in a ruined refugee camp? Certainly. Does it not break my heart to see our soldiers harassing and humiliating old men in front of their families, or arresting children? Definitely. Am I not outraged that settlers can steal land that belongs to our Palestinian neighbors? Absolutely. Am I not heartbroken that an entire family, including young children, can be burned to death, and nothing is done on their behalf for justice? Without question. But must I hate my own people and fight against my own interests in order to stand for Justice and Peace?
If there were no anti-Semitic attacks going on in Europe these days, I’d be more inclined to speak out more loudly on behalf of the Palestinians. But the resurgence of old hatreds say to me that the wave of Anti-Zionism in the world is really just plain, old fashioned Jew-Hatred. And I understand that no matter what I say, I am still a Jew. And I must stand with my tribe, because most everyone else simply wants us dead.
It’s rather like a Chinese Finger Trap, isn’t it? They attack us because they think to cow us into capitulation. We counterattack (disproportionately, many would claim) because we want to force them into capitulation. But as we do, the bonds of death and despair only tighten about us. For both of us, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; that the Palestinians simply hate us and will stop at nothing to slaughter us, and so we must stomp down on them, and restrain them from harming us, which causes more despair amongst them as their freedom is eroded, and they strike out at us, because they believe they have no other recourse.
Furthermore, Martin Luther King and Ghandi understood something about such situations of oppression that we tend to forget these days. When you hold a population under ward—even if there are good and just reasons for doing so—The longer it goes on, the more brutalized the prisoners become. And not only they, but the warders themselves become brutalized, as the nature of their work dulls their natural sympathy and empathy. The current situation in Israel and Palestine is intolerable for both parties. We are like two drowning men, chained to each other.
So the land is ours because our people lived here five thousand years ago. Okay, But the Palestinians have been there for two thousand years. Is that nothing? Are they strangers in our land? So what if they are? The Torah says “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” It also says “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the LORD am your God.” Again, it is written “Cursed be the one who subverts the rights of the stranger, the orphan, and the widow.” Rashi tells us “’Don’t oppress a stranger’- You know the feelings of the stranger-how painful it is for him when you oppress him.”
And are the Palestinians really strangers to us? Were not Isaac and Ishmael brothers? Why are we not helping each other? Living peaceably with one another? Why are we not helping our cousins to excel? Perhaps it is that neither of us knows the cultural narrative of the other. They do not know of the Shoah. Do we know of their national tragedies? They do not know how the rest of the world hated us. Do we know how they have fared amongst their own tribes and peoples? Why is it not an option for everyone to lay down their swords for a while and talk? By now, we both have blood on our hands, and we each are allowing ourselves to be led by the religious fanatics of our respective camps.
I have had relatives who were against the creation of a State of Israel, because they were afraid of mingling Halacha with politics. They were afraid that the necessities of safeguarding a physical piece of land would poison the Jewish soul. Were they right? I honestly hope not. But the point is well taken. And if we don’t do something, we will be no better than any other nation. I am more concerned for the survival of the Jewish soul than a Jewish land. And yet, this is something I cannot bring myself to utter aloud in public. Our people have suffered enough. But am I willing to kill another people in order to safeguard my own? Is such a thing even necessary? There has been so much death, and so much hatred by now, does it really matter anymore who’s right, and who’s wrong?
I have no answers. And I can see no way out of this situation. All I can do is stand with my people and hope that one day, we will learn not to hate each other. Before it’s too late.