By Dan Lieberman
Yasser Arafat formed the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in an attempt to liberate the Palestinians from what he perceived as gross injustices and persecution. Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands and oppressive tactics facilitated the Palestinians to embrace their common language, culture and history and to regain their rights. Israel’s oppressive policies forged a Palestinian national identity.
A series of conferences predicted the emergence of a viable Palestine state. A series of failed negotiations thwarted that effort and a two-state solution has not been obtainable. For this reason, a subdued and struggling path towards Palestinian national liberation, led mostly by Hamas, has been re-established. This struggle, despite the confusing propaganda, intends to unite Moslem and Christian Palestinians from Gaza, West Bank and Israel and transform present Israel into a new democratic state, where Palestinians govern equally with Israeli Jews, and in which all will have a single national identification and the same rights.
Meanwhile, the original concept of creating a homeland for the Jewish people has been stalled and diverted into creating a nationalist and militarist nation that has more recently become a land for those seeking economic improvement and for those imposing extreme religious views. Similar to the Puritan experience in coming to America for religious expression and self-determination, and then suppressing the Native American population and creating a business-like Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Zionist experience in coming to Palestine for religious expression and self-determination has created a Mediterranean Sea Colony that suppresses the indigenous people and seems mainly interested in business for a ruling elite. Israel offers an appearance of transition from intended liberation for a people to an unintended colonial enterprise for several cliques, which leads to fundamental questions.
Has the Middle East conflict returned to its original character – a war of liberation?
If so, can it succeed and what will be the result?
Can present day Israel be characterized as a colonial settlement?
History provides clues to answer these questions. Unraveling the clues indicates what might happen.
Wars of Liberation
Wars of liberation have no time limitation. If a portion of the oppressed population has sufficient incentive to continually fight, history shows its war of liberation can eventually succeed.
The tribes that inhabited 14th century Estonia competed for land. Crusader attacks forcibly converted the pagan Estonians to Catholicism and unified the tribes in a common struggle against the invader and its brutality. Estonians fought against successive invaders and rulers for another 600 years until August 1991, when Estonians freed themselves from Soviet authority and once again proclaimed themselves a nation. About 350,000 Russians, constituting 25% of the Estonia population, remain in Estonia.
French entry into North Africa in 1830 slowly shaped the Algerians into recognizing their sovereign rights. Despite, France’s offer of citizenship to Algerians, the Algerians proceeded to wage a successful war of independence. On July 3, 1962, French President Charles de Gaulle declared Algeria to be an independent nation. Almost all of the 1,025,000 French settlers (pied-noirs) left Algeria.
Displacement or colonization of an indigenous population, followed by a severe oppression, almost always forges a strong national identity in people that have common language, customs, culture, social outlook and history. Add a subjugation leading to total destruction and the thought of liberation explodes into an active war for liberation. The present Palestinian struggle contains elements which drive that struggle to a war for independence.
Arafat realized that the promise of independence could not be easily fulfilled and a catastrophe awaited his people. This revelation shaped Hamas, who has shown in actions and statements, that it is renewing what it considers a Palestinian war for liberation. To most Palestinians, national liberation promises a single democratic state with equality for all in the previous British Mandate. Israel responds with a claim it is fighting terrorist groups. Israel’s actions that destroy humanitarian infrastructure of schools, orphanages and welfare, close clinics, and attack Gaza and the West Bank demonstrate that Israel is fighting a national liberation movement.
There is no question that the present Israeli government is severely oppressing the Palestinian people. The charge of severe oppression is well documented, well accepted and beyond debate. Another question is whether the original Zionist experience, although it might have been sensible and well-intentioned, has deteriorated into a colonial enterprise that fuels a war of liberation? A book can be written on that topic. A short and methodical analysis can provide a satisfactory response to the question.
From Zionism to Colonialism
Zionism is portrayed as a mass movement by the Jewish people. History contradicts that depiction. The original Zionists of the late 1800s and early 1900s were a small group of European intellectuals who sponsored a variety of competing Zionist movements. They derived their convictions from personal and intellectual experiences, which each sincerely believed either represented or should represent world Jewry. Not many of the 11.2 million Jews of that time supported them – and for good reasons – Jews were being emancipated and integrated into the democratic atmosphere of the new century, rapidly moving to recognition in science, education, literature, arts, law and government. The Zionist messages impeded their advances. Zionism made nations question the loyalty of their Jewish citizens. Zionism reinforced a race-baiting theory that the Jews engaged in international conspiracies.
“The first Zionist Congress (1887) was to have taken place in Munich, Germany. However, due to considerable opposition by the local community leadership, both Orthodox and Reform, it was decided to transfer the proceedings to Basle, Switzerland. Theodore Herzl acted as chairperson of the Congress which was attended by some 200 participants (ED: Only 69 of whom were delegates).” (Jewish Virtual Library)
“The 19th century emancipation movements liberated west and middle European Jews and permitted them to integrate into European society. The Russian Jews, who had major problems, didn’t consider Zionism as a relief for their difficulties. Between 1881 and 1914, 2.5 million Jews migrated from Russia–2 million to America and only 30,000 to Palestine (ED: 15,000 returned to Russia). Another 500,000 went to the large capitals of Western Europe.” (Bernard Avishai, The Tragedy of Zionism)
By 1914, the Zionist experiment, due to the low number of immigrants to Palestine, seemed finished. The destruction of the Ottoman Empire, the Balfour Declaration, and the creation of a British Mandate for Palestine revived the Zionist mission. However the entry of Jews into the Mandate was not entirely due to faith in a Zionist cause. The British Mandate created political and socio-economic power vacuums in Palestine. English speaking Jews and settlers, not all of whom were driven by a Zionist conviction, filled the power vacuums. In 1920, after the Jewish population had grown to 60,000 in a Palestine composed of 585,000 Arabs, a reporter noted that earlier settlers felt uncomfortable with the later immigrants. They were less willing to work at agriculture and had no capability to live off the available land.
“It may not be generally known, but a goodly number of the Jewish dwellers in the land are not anxious to see a large immigration into the country. This is partly due to the fear that the result of such immigration would be an overcrowding of the industrial and agricultural market; but a number of the more respectable older settlers have been disgusted by the recent arrivals in Palestine of their coreligionists, unhappy individuals from Russia and Romania brought in under the auspices of the Zionist Commission from the cities of Southeastern Europe, and neither able nor willing to work at agriculture or fruit-farming.
“…the whole population will resist the Zionist Commission’s plan of wholesale immigration of Jews into Palestine at the rate of one hundred thousand a year, until a total of three millions has been reached, which number they claim the country can support if cultivated to its utmost.
“The existing Jewish colonists would protest at such an experiment; but the Mohammedan and Christian Arabs would do more than protest. They would, if able, prevent by force the wholesale flooding of their country by Jewish settlers whom they consider strangers and Europeans.” (Zionist Aspirations in Palestine by Anstruther Mackay, as originally published in The Atlantic Monthly, July 1920.)
The next waves of immigration came from the pre-World War II persecuted European Jews and the post-war displaced persons. In both cases, the Zionists in the British Mandate served admirably by providing a haven for fleeing Jews. If the British did not obstruct this immigration many more persons would have fled to the Mandate. However, there is no indication that these immigrants arrived in order to create a Jewish homeland. Equal numbers fled to other countries, and of those who came to the Mandate, many came by default; the depression, World War II hostilities, restrictive immigration laws and post-war chaos limited their possibilities to immigrate to other established nations. Overlooked is the callous attitude of bringing displaced Jews who had suffered through the brutalities of World War II to another field of violence and an uncertain future. The displaced Jews had temporary safe havens in refugee camps. In 1947, these camps started to empty into North American nations that had revised immigration laws in order to admit the displaced persons.
The creation of Israel and displacement of the Palestinians prompted the Arab nations to examine their commitment to their Jewish citizens. The uncertainties facing them, due to Israel’s actions, impelled these citizens (Mizrahim) to leave their Middle East and North African homes and immigrate to Israel. Self-determination was not the major factor. A by-product of the emigration from Arab lands has been the destruction of a strong Jewish history and presence in Baghdad, Cairo, Kairouan-Tunisia and other places. Areas that sustained segments of the Jewish people and enabled their survival for several centuries became a footnote to history.
Succeeding immigrations to Israel from Ethiopia (Falasha) and from the former Soviet Union were mostly due to economic reasons and less with sharing in the establishment of a Jewish homeland. The Falasha, who don’t genetically identify with other Jews, were caught in a famine. Most of the Soviet immigrants preferred going to the United States, but were only permitted to go to Israel. Another large scale immigration of ultra-orthodox Jews arrived in Israel after the 1967 war. This group has been troublesome. Its unique customs separate it from secular Israelis and much of world Jewry.
Rather than integrating Jews into a compatible relationship of disparate co-religionists, Israel suppressed immigrant cultures and created a new Jew, the Israeli Jew. The government imposed artificial conditions, including resurrecting and revising the Hebrew language, to establish a specific identity and weave its Jewish citizens into a nation that negated previous identities. “Keeping trauma alive and constructing a whole identity around it is at the heart of mainstream Judaism.”
“Ever since I can remember, we in Israel were told that Jews have nowhere else to go because the world didn’t like Jews. Seventeen years ago, when my former husband and I were about to migrate to Australia, most of the people we knew were dismayed by our decision. I was told by many that I was making a big mistake. My father’s heart surgeon for example, was in complete shock when he heard our news. He took me aside and said that he did not understand how I could leave; that he would never be prepared to live anywhere where there might be even one anti-Semite alive. Like many others he believed that Jews can only safely live in Israel” (Avigal Arbanel: The Charter of the Israeli State.)
Israel’s establishment united the scattered Mizrahim and other parts of world Jewry. Nevertheless, the Mizrahim, which includes the Sephardim Jews who trace their heritage to the Golden years in Spain before the Catholic Reconquest, have had their path in history halted; their heritage is becoming a fading memory. The Jews are now divided between the western, or Ashkenazai Jews, and the eastern, or Israeli Jews. The two Jewish worlds have little relation to one another from the immediate past, no common objectives in the present and no foreseeable common identification for the future.
History shows that a relative minority of Jews left their homes and immigrated to Israel as ardent Zionists. The Economist (Jan.11, 2007) mentions that only 17% of American Jews regard themselves as pro-Zionist and only 57% say that "caring about Israel is a very important part of being Jewish." The term ‘Jewish nation’ has never been adequately defined and there is nothing exceptional in Israel that identifies a specific Jewish morality, culture or Judaic atmosphere.
It is becoming difficult to clarify ‘Who is an Israeli?’ According to the Israel Statistical Abstract 2007, 1.875 million Israeli Jews are 2nd generation Israelis (those who have an Israel born father), which is not much more than the 1.4 million Israeli Arabs, most of whom trace their Israel ancestry back several generations. Israel’s Arab nationality is almost equal to the Jewish nationality, if nationality considers at least two generations of native born Israelis and also considers that some of the 1.875 million 2nd generation Israelis live outside the nation. Jewish immigration to Israel has almost ceased, maybe 20,000 each year, and Jewish emigration from Israel has greatly increased. Many immigrants from the former Soviet Union have returned to Russia and Germany now has more than 100,000 Jews. Israel claims 5.4 million Jews, and officially admits 600,000 live outside the country. That statistic might be deflated – a figure of 1.5 million might be more accurate. Nevertheless, Israel behaves as if it speaks for world Jewry, but does not represent a major portion of the world’s 15 million Jews.
By its Law of Return, Israel freely welcomes all Jews. Nevertheless does that make Israel a Jewish homeland any more than France is a Catholic homeland? The Israeli state has achieved the objective of being able to freely call all Jews, but has not established a homeland to which many Jews are answering the call and will not be able to accomplish the task in the immediate future. So, if Israel has not become what it was intended, a homeland of the Jewish people, what is it?
Many arguments can define the status of Israel. Perceived from an Israeli viewpoint, it is a home for the Jewish people. Perceived from a Palestinian perspective, it is a land denied to the Palestinian people. To the Palestinians, the French who moved to Algeria, the Boers who moved to Africa, and the English who came to America were all considered settlers. The Israelis in the West Bank are considered settlers. The Jews in Israel are living on usurped Palestinian lands and Israel cannot entertain more Jewish immigration without seizing more Palestinian land, which it is doing daily. If most Jews arrived for mainly economic and political reasons and not specifically to be part of a Jewish homeland or to express self-determination, aren’t they also settlers? Don’t the facts allow a Palestinian perspective that considers Israel as a colonial enterprise?
The suffering due to occupation and a perspective of Israel as a colonizer drives the Palestinians to a war of liberation. Hope for success is enhanced by Israel’s inability to accumulate a sufficient mass of world Jewry to labor for a Jewish homeland. Hopelessness that foresees failure is dictated by Israel’s daily violent and cruel acts that grind the Palestinians into dust. Despite its attempt to portray the conflict as a war on terrorism, the ferocity of Israel’s campaign certifies it is fighting a liberation movement with tactics designed to completely destroy Palestinian life. Israel uses the most aggressive means to prevent a war of liberation from derailing its chosen destiny.
So, what could happen?
If Israel succeeds in destroying Palestinian life, everyone loses. The anticipated homeland for the Jews continues to be an economic way station for some Jews, Israel is still confronted by antagonists throughout the Middle East and the Palestinians who nourished and tilled a land for centuries are vanquished. The continued repression of the Palestinians to a final denouement will increase resentment and attacks against all Jews for eternity. If the Palestinians succeed in their liberation, not everyone wins. Nevertheless, relatively few persons suffer an unsustainable loss. Israel will no longer be able to pursue a homeland of the Jews, but that project has already caused several conflagrations and seems to be doomed to failure. Any chance for success will involve additional horrendous consequences to the Palestinians and probably the entire world.
Contrary to predictions, it is likely that a new democratic state that permits re-entry of Palestinians to their usurped lands and provides representation and equality for all of its citizens, Jew and non-Jew, will emerge. The Palestinians are not religious or political extremists and their attachment to Hamas is mainly due to Hamas’ lack of corruption and to its welfare institutions. Jews who fear a minority status and danger to their welfare might emigrate. Is that trade-off as punishing as the present arrangement of constant strife and probable extinction of the Palestinians? It is possible that many Palestinians will also exit the Holy Land; finally possessing a national identity and a national passport that enables them to emigrate.
If the Palestinians have a justifiable cause and are liberated, will the condition of the Jews in other nations, who are still the overwhelming main body of the Jewish politic, change appreciably? Hardly likely, except there will probably be less anti-Jewish feeling and less attacks on Jewish institutions. The condition of the Jews in Israel will change but not with drastic consequences. The most drastic change will be going from a dominant position to a shared equal position. The world condition will change immeasurably for one simple reason; a major step to bring peace to the Middle East and reduce international terrorism will have been taken.
– Dan Lieberman is the editor of Alternative Insight, a monthly web based newsletter.
In the last eight years, Dan has written many articles on the Middle East conflict, which have circulated on websites and media throughout the world. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.