When my father and his parents returned to Orosháza in Hungary, having been held as slave labourers in Vienna during the latter stages of World War Two together with thousands of Hungarian Jews, my father, then aged seventeen, embraced Zionism. Joining the secular, left-wing Hashomer Hatzair movement, which advocated Jewish emigration to Palestine, communal life in kibbutzim and the creation of a binational socialist state in partnership with the local Arabs, he clashed repeatedly with Orosháza’s rabbi. An admirer of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the rabbi favoured the establishment of a Jewish State in Palestine as the only means of ensuring that Jews could live in security and dignity after the Holocaust.
Unlike my youthfully idealistic father, many of Europe’s surviving Jews would have preferred to settle in North America, Australia or the United Kingdom rather than in Palestine, with its chronic poverty, underdevelopment and insecurity. However, post-War immigration policies in Western Europe and North America systematically disfavoured large-scale immigration by Jews. As explained by David Cesarani, in Justice Delayed, this was the case even in countries, such as the United Kingdom, that faced a desperate shortage of labour.
As late as 1947, up to a quarter of a million Jews still languished in displaced persons camps in Europe, unable or unwilling to return to their former homes; Jewish returnees frequently met with indifference, hostility or, in some instances, deadly violence. Had it not been for the need to ‘dispose’ of the problem posed by the Jews in these camps – as well as the dark shadow cast by the Holocaust – it’s hard to imagine that UN Member States would have voted in the General Assembly, in November 1947, for the establishment of a Jewish state in part of Palestine, then administered by the UK under a League of Nations Mandate. The resolute opposition of Palestinian Arabs and of Arab opinion across the Middle East to the establishment of a Jewish State in any part of Palestine was well known. Ignoring Arab sentiment could only lead to widespread violence. However, uneasy consciences in Europe and North America – countries that had refused to admit significant numbers of Jews either before or after the War – together with domestic political considerations in the US and, not least, blatant opportunism by the Soviet Union, conspired to favour the establishment of Israel at this juncture. For the USSR, one of the first countries to formally recognise Israel, the nascent Jewish State represented a potential strategic ally in a region dominated by conservative, pro-Western regimes.
For at least the first twenty years of its existence there was considerable sympathy for Israel in Western Europe and admiration for its numerous achievements, whether in agriculture and technology, in creating a genuine, if flawed, multiparty democracy and or for its boldly egalitarian kibbutz movement. However, as emphasised by Robert Fine and Philip Spencer in Antisemitism and the Left, sympathy and admiration have gradually given way to the belief, especially amongst many European intellectuals and political activists on the Left, that Israel is fundamentally, perhaps uniquely, illegitimate. “I wouldn’t go to Israel,” a senior British academic told me recently after returning from Asia, an extended vacation that had included visits to such well-known liberal democracies as Laos.
There are several overlapping reasons for this sea change in European attitudes towards Israel and Palestine. Until the Six Day War of June 1967, in which Israel defeated the armed forces of Egypt, Syria and Jordan in less than a week – occupying the Golan Heights, Sinai, the West Bank and Gaza – Israel had been widely seen as the perennial underdog, a latter day ‘David’ facing a pan-Arab ‘Goliath’. However, Israel’s startling military success, in June 1967, and the increasingly grim realities of Israel’s occupation of Arab territories, particularly the West Bank and Gaza with their large and increasingly resentful Palestinian populations, have gradually transformed European and international perceptions of Israel, generating enormous sympathy for the Palestinians. As Amos Elon wrote in December 2002 in the New York Review of Books, Israel’s dazzling military success in the Six Day War had been “a Pyrrhic victory”. Alon, a prominent Israeli writer and journalist, concluded that, “[t]he vast settlement project after 1967” – in which hundreds of thousands of Israeli Jews have been allowed and even encouraged to settle in the West Bank – has been “grossly unjust…self-defeating and politically ruinous”.
In myriad ways, many of them meticulously chronicled by Israeli journalists, including Amira Hass and Haggai Matar, by Israeli NGOs such as B’Tselem and by Israeli scholars and peace activists, including David Shulman of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the occupation of the West Bank and Israel’s continuing blockade of Gaza (Israeli forces withdrew in 2005), flout the requirements of both international law and elementary humanity. Israeli policies may not be the sole cause of Gaza’s worsening economic plight. Grave miscalculations by Hamas, which governs Gaza, the on-going struggle for ascendancy between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority and Egypt’s frequent closure of the border crossing at Rafah have all played a part. However, Israeli policies, which are aimed at weakening Hamas, have been decisive.
The recent fatal shooting of dozens of Palestinians in Gaza, apparently intent on breaching the border fence with Israel, has further tarnished Israel’s image. Aside from moral considerations, the shootings are impossible to reconcile with criteria such as necessity and proportionality, key elements of any valid exercise of the right of self-defence under international law.
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If Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and its continuing blockade of the Palestinian population of Gaza have drastically eroded popular sympathy for Israel, particularly amongst those on the Left, the pioneering work of the “New Historians”, mostly Israelis, has further undermined Israel’s claims to moral superiority, challenging its long-standing narrative concerning the origins of the Palestinian refugee problem, one of the legacies of Israel’s ‘War of Independence’ of 1948-49. Israeli governments have long maintained that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians left their homes voluntarily to avoid being caught up in fighting, after the armies of several Arab states entered Palestine, in May 1948, ostensibly to crush the nascent Israeli state. A supplementary argument, favoured by official Israeli sources and an earlier generation of Israeli historians, has been that Palestinians frequently left their homes at the prompting of Arab leaders who, it’s alleged, urged Palestinian civilians to withdraw temporarily while the Arab armies crushed Jewish armed resistance.
However, in The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited the most formidable of the “New Historians”, Benny Morris, a professor of history at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, has used Israeli archival sources to demonstrate conclusively that, although there was no overall plan to expel Israel’s Arab population, there were clear instances of ethnic cleansing by Israeli troops, particularly during the latter stages of the 1948/49 War. And, as Morris convincingly shows, whenever Palestinians sought to return to homes that they’d left voluntarily, only weeks or months earlier, such attempts were routinely thwarted by Israeli forces from at least the summer of 1948.
But it would seem that the most important factors that have contributed to the growing perception, particularly on the Left, that Israel and Zionism, its founding ideology, are uniquely pernicious and illegitimate have little to do with empirical reality. As indicated above, Israel can be justly accused of numerous, significant and prolonged breaches of human rights and of the laws of armed conflict. However, there is little that renders Israel unique, or even especially egregious, in this respect. There have been copious instances, in various continents, of massive and systematic violations of human and minority rights, of the discriminatory treatment of ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities, of the denial of legitimate claims of self-determination by peoples living under alien occupation, of the unlawful use of force against foreign states and of the annexation of foreign territory.
Even Israel’s blockade of Gaza, which B’Tselem has described as creating “a humanitarian disaster”, has resulted in far less loss of civilian life than Russia’s brutal and indiscriminate military campaign against Chechen secessionists in 1999-2000. After visiting the Chechen capital, Grozny, in June 2000, a BBC correspondent was moved to comment: “[t]he scale of destruction defies description”. Similarly, although indefensible on ethical as well as legal grounds, the Israeli blockade does not bear comparison with the ruthless measures adopted by Sri Lankan forces against Tamil guerrillas, in March 2009, which impacted on civilians trapped in rebel-held-territory. As The Guardian reported: [m]ore than 150,000 people are being shelled daily and are running short of water and medicine in a Sri Lankan-government declared “No Fire Zone”, according to witness reports and United Nations briefing documents”.
Conflating Zion and Jew
For Fine and Spencer, the singling out of Israel for persistent and disproportionate international censure, particularly by those on the Left, suggests that contemporary anti-Zionism has assumed at least part of the function of traditional antisemitism, treating Israel and Zionism, rather than Jews per se, as “symbolic representations of all that is illegitimate in the present-day international community”.
Fine and Spencer, as well as other critics of Left antisemitism, such as David Hirsh, may be right. As the distinguished sociologist, Moishe Postone, suggested in an interview published in Workers’ Liberty, in February 2010, the abstract universalism favoured by many on the Left, which rejects the particularism of Jewish claims to self-determination, “serves to veil the history of Jews in Europe”:
In this case, the abstract universalism expressed by many anti-Zionists today becomes an ideology of legitimation that helps constitute a form of amnesia regarding the long history of European actions, policies and ideologies toward the Jews, while essentially continuing that history. The Jews have once again become the singular object of European indignation.
However, despite the force of these arguments, it’s clear that, for reasons of self-interest as well as morality and legality, Israel must reassess its treatment of Palestinians both within and beyond the ‘green line’. What is needed is not just a transformation of Israeli policies and attitudes towards Palestinians but also a fundamental shift in Israel’s understanding of itself. Israel is a multi-ethnic, multi-confessional society with a large and increasingly assertive Arab minority, eager to exercise all of the rights and privileges that are available to other citizens. Ensuring full equality for Israeli Arabs and taking decisive steps towards realising Palestinian self-determination, in the West Bank and Gaza, may strike some observers as hopelessly naïve and idealistic. However, there is really no alternative if Israel is to remain a democracy, if further and worsening violence is to be avoided and if the just demands of the Palestinians are to be met.
As for Europe, the continent mostly continues to display an extraordinarily deluded and complacent view of its own history. It’s time that Europe acknowledged its responsibility both for the centuries-long persecution of Jews – which was the direct cause of Jewish interest in national self-determination as a strategy of self-protection and renewal – and the continent’s crucial role, during several decades of the 20th century, in impeding the legitimate exercise of sovereignty by the peoples of the Middle East, including the Arab population of Palestine. Placing all of the blame on Israel for the plight of the Palestinians is both an exercise in moral elision and of selective historical amnesia.