What Many Liberals Can’t See
By Arthur Hertzberg
The following essay is a arrangement of excerpts from Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg’s new book The Fate of Zionism (HarperCollins, 2003).
Chaim Weizmann, the Zionist leader who was president of the World Zionist Organization for many decades, once said that the insoluble difficulty of the Palestine-Israel problem is that this is not a conflict between right and wrong—it is a conflict between two rights. The Palestinians have been insisting for more than a hundred years that they are the legitimate owners of Palestine because they have been the overwhelming majority of its population for at least thirteen centuries. Possession confers legitimacy. The Jews have maintained that they never lost connection with the land and have always regarded themselves exiles. The whole of Jewish culture is suffused with memory and longing for the land. Thus, the Jews’ desire to return to the land has always existed as a central motif of Jewish experience. These competing claims for legitimacy have become ever more embittered, especially since the Jews began the Zionist venture by defining themselves as a persecuted minority, doubly endangered because assimilation was destroying the morale of the Jewish intelligentsia. On the other hand, the Palestinians have kept insisting that they are the permanent victims in this struggle, if only because they have no victories in which to rejoice as they contemplate the history of their struggle with the Jews.
Not far beneath the surface of both positions is a substratum of religion. Many Jews may say that they do not believe in God, but emotionally they act as if He had appeared in Palestine and given the Jews back their ancient sovereignty. On the Palestinian side, most continue to believe the old Muslim doctrine that any land that was once possessed by the followers of Muhammad is inalienable; some of it may have been taken away by Crusaders in the Middle Ages or by Jewish settlers in modern times, but the land remains Muslim. As long as these contrasting assertions form the deep undertow of the Jewish-Arab encounter in Palestine, there can only be war. If there is ever to be a road to peace, the conflict must be secularized.
It is of the utmost importance to understand that the present quarrels are not new. The Jewish–Arab war—or, if you will, the Israeli–Palestinian war—is now more than a century old. Not only have the essential issues remained the same, but the rhetoric in which they are expressed has not really changed from the beginning. What has changed is the West’s view of the conflict, particularly the views of Western elites and liberal intellegentsia. In Zionism’s formative years, the Western leaders in general and British leaders in particular viewed security for the Jewish people as a moral obligation and supported the Zionist project to establish a Jewish state in Palestine. Today, however, Western leaders are much more ambivalent towards Israel and Zionism. Since the terms of the conflict between Jews and Arabs have not changed significantly, the West’s new outlook is not based on the legitimacy of the arguments, but rather must have been precipitated by what has changed. Namely, Israel has created a new reality for Judaism: Jews are now empowered rather than victimized and many in the West have forgotten the original need for the Jewish state.
It is easy to multiply citations from formal documents on both sides, especially the often repeated and always vehement declarations by Arab spokesmen denouncing Zionism in all its forms. What is more interesting and revealing is what moderates in both groups were saying in the 1930s, when the armed struggle between Jews and Arabs had become continuous, overt, and murderous.
On the Arab side, the most liberal and conciliatory position was defined by George Antonius in the instantly famous book The Arab Awakening published in 1938. In the last pages of his book Antonius denounced the suggestion of the Peel Commission to partition Palestine. Partition meant that the Arabs would be asked to relinquish some land to create a Jewish state. Against this, so Antonius insisted, the Arabs had only one choice, to use violence. Antonius did deplore “the terror raging in Palestine,” but he added:
The fact must be faced that the violence of the Arabs is the inevitable corollary of the moral violence done to them, and that it is not likely to cease, whatever the brutality of the repression, unless the moral violence itself were to cease.
Antonius offered a solution he considered “beyond the smokescreen of legend and propaganda”:
There seems to be no valid reason why Palestine should not be constituted into an independent Arab state in which as many Jews as the country can hold without prejudice to its political and economic freedom would live in peace, security and dignity, and would enjoy full rights of citizenship. Such an Arab state would...contain provisions... for ensuring the safety and inviolability of the Holy Places of all faiths, for the protection of all minorities and minority rights, and for affording the Jewish community the widest freedom in the pursuit of their spiritual and cultural ideals.
For all of Antonius’s eloquent language, his “red lines” were frankly stated. The solution he proposes “would protect the national rights of the Arabs in Palestine,” by which he means the right to be in control of the entire country. Jews would “have a national home in the spiritual and cultural sense,” but the nature of this home would be limited by the Arabs. At the end of his sketch for the future of Palestine, Antonius adds some sympathetic words for the Jews who were then suffering in Europe. Contemporary anti-Semitism was “a disgrace to its authors and to modern civilization,” but the “brunt of the burden” could not be placed on Arab Palestine:
The relief of Jewish distress caused by European persecution must be sought elsewhere than in Palestine, for the country is too small to hold a larger increase of population, and it has already borne more than its fair share...To place the brunt of the burden upon Arab Palestine is a miserable evasion of the duty that lies upon the whole of the civilized world.
At his most sympathetic, Antonius was reaffirming that the land of Palestine was Arab and inalienable, that little, if any, of Palestine was available for free purchase by Jews, and that immigration had to end. The trickle of Jews who might be permitted to arrive in the future would be subject to decisions by the Arab majority. To be sure, Antonius was not proposing the expulsion of the Zionist newcomers; he was proposing instead that they be permitted only a very limited and essentially shrunken version of the national home and cultural center.1
Antonius’s views should be compared to those of the leading political figure among the most liberal Zionists, Judah Leon Magnes. He was a Reform rabbi from the United States who had become the first president of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. For the three decades after his arrival in Palestine in the early 1920s, Magnes was the most prominent political figure among those who wanted peace and compromise with the Arabs. He was willing to yield the dream of most Zionists for a Jewish state and even for a Jewish majority. What he could not abandon was the idea that “the Jewish people are to be in Palestine not on sufferance (as during the days of the Turks), but as a right—a right solemnly recognized by most governments and by the League of Nations, and also by thinking Arabs.” Magnes insisted that three rights belonging to the Jews were “elemental and hardly to be contested”:
What is our Zionism? What does Palestine mean for us? As to what we should want here I can answer for myself in almost the same terms that I have been in the habit of using many years: Immigration. Settlement on the land. Hebrew life and culture.2
These quotations are from an essay that Magnes wrote and published in English, Hebrew, and Arabic in 1930, after the Arab riots of 1929, and the immediate reaction of the British government under Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald was to suspend Jewish immigration and land purchase in Palestine. Magnes, the pacifist and the opponent of nationalist fervor, both Jewish and Arab, weighed in with firm support for the essence of the Zionist position: that Jews had the guaranteed right in the provisions that governed the British mandate to come freely to Palestine and to buy land there. Magnes would repeat these views in the 1940s to the members of the several commissions that considered the future of Palestine, first on behalf of the British and Americans (the Anglo-American Commission of 1946) and then, the next year, on behalf of the United Nations. Magnes, the liberal, the most “pro-Arab” of all the major Jewish figures in Palestine from the 1920s through the 1940s, never stopped insisting that free immigration and the right of Jews to purchase and settle on the land were nonnegotiable.
Clearly and unmistakably, in the point counterpoint between the views of George Antonius and Judah Leon Magnes, the issues that had been fundamentally in play for many years were restated: the Arabs, at their most amenable, would not countenance the partition of Palestine and would not accept the notion that even a minuscule Jewish state could legitimately exist in the region. Antonius deplored violence but found it understandable. What else were the Arabs to do? Without violence they had no hope of stopping the creation of a Jewish state. On the other side, Magnes was willing, and even eager, to surrender the trappings of statehood, but he would not give up the preambles that almost inevitably led—in the real world and not the world of his theological and cultural dreams—to a Jewish majority and to power in Jewish hands.
The battle between Jews and Arabs in Palestine had, thus, been defined in the 1930s not by firebrands and ultranationalists on both sides whose agendas were more overt and pugnacious. There was really no middle ground between the moderates, not then, and not in the next fifty years, especially after the state of Israel was proclaimed in 1948 and succeeded in defending its existence in war.
The Moral Case for Zionism
The terms of the quarrel between Jews and Arabs were clear when it began, and thus I must ask a question. Why did so many decent people hail Zionism when it first appeared? The answer that comes trippingly to the tongues and pens of Zionism’s detractors is to summon up the dread word “colonialism.” Those who were for Zionism, especially the world powers, led by Great Britain, which helped to foster the role of the Zionists in Palestine, are now portrayed as being simply oblivious to the Arabs in the land. Worse still, the Jews in flight from pogroms and persecutions are described as coming to Palestine not for refuge, but as colonialist conquerors. But is this true?
Political motives are, of course, varied and complex. When the British and the French divided power in the Middle East at the end of World War I, they had their own interests in mind. Both powers, but especially Great Britain, which received the mandate to govern Palestine, knew that they would have to do something substantial for the Jews, but not because this was an advantage for their colonial needs. Colonial interests would have favored the Arabs. They had the numbers and they populated the region. The British knew that the Arabs would not forgive them for whatever they were doing for the Zionists. They were not surprised that the Arabs sat on their hands during World War II, as many thought they could get a better deal for their national aspirations from the Nazis. Nonetheless, the British allowed, and often even helped, the Zionist movement to grow during much of the first half of the twentieth century.
The growth of Zionism in those decades was not an act of cold-blooded colonialism. At root, from the very beginning of its entry onto the international scene, modern Zionism was a matter of conscience. In the starkest terms, the rulers of the world were being asked: Can you look on with equanimity while the Jewish people are attacked en masse by anti-Semites and assimilated out of their own ethos by the various dominant cultures? Of course, even as many Western states accepted these arguments, they inevitably had in mind that their own populations were generally unfriendly or even hostile to the increasing influx of Jews from Eastern Europe. Would it not be better to accept the Zionist vision of a secure home of their own for Jews? In the somewhat more decent decades before the Nazi era in the 1930s, the world answered yes—yes, in full awareness that the Arabs of Palestine and those who helped them were in armed rebellion. This was the moral calculus that led to the creation of the state of Israel. Let us examine why decisions were made to help the Jews. It would be then useful to ask an additional question: So what is different today?
British Responses to Zionism
A most revealing event happened in the very first years of the existence of modem Zionism. In 1903 the British government formally proposed to Theodor Herzl that his movement undertake to colonize a tract of land in Uganda, in an area that is now part of Kenya. Herzl wanted to accept the offer because of the dire condition of Jewish need. This was no substitute for Jewish settlement in the land of the ancestors, but it could act as a sorely needed “asylum for the night.” Jews on the run from the relentless pogroms in Russia would at least find some refuge. Herzl was bitterly opposed within the Zionist movement by those who would accept not even a temporary substitute for the ancestral home in Palestine. At the Zionist Congress in August 1903, Herzl managed to convince the majority to agree to explore the question, but the Uganda proposal was essentially stopped by the divisive debate. It was soon abandoned after the death of Herzl in July 1904. Nonetheless, the fact that this proposal was made by the great empire of the day, Great Britain, to the nascent Zionist movement gave the Zionists diplomatic recognition. The offer of Uganda was the true beginning of Zionism’s career in international diplomacy.
Why did the British make the offer? They had had some previous dealings with Theodor Herzl over a change in their policy toward Jews in flight from Russia. In 1902 a committee of the British Parliament had called him to London to consult on where the Jewish refugees who were then leaving Russia en masse were supposed to go. Herzl, of course, did suggest that these fleeing masses should be directed to Palestine, but that could be done only with the assent of the Turkish rulers of the land, and they were not eager to receive many Jews.
Herzl did, however, succeed in convincing the parliamentary committee, and especially Lord Balfour, who was then the prime minister, that the Jews’ need for personal security had become a world problem. In the first years of the twentieth century at least two million Jews were on the move, mostly to the United States, but some of them were coming to Western Europe and to England, and a small number were somehow getting into Palestine. Herzl, the Zionist, had seized on a great contemporary problem: what was the world to do with this people in dire need? A year later, Herzl had elicited a response, the abortive offer of space in Uganda. The British did not need a new population in Uganda, but they seemed to think that a stretch of that land could be made habitable for Jews who needed to start their lives over again.
Zionism was given far greater status when it was recognized, during World War I, as a valid and serious national movement in international diplomacy by a declaration of the British government on November 2, 1917:
His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.
The language of this declaration, the Balfour Declaration, had been fought over for months, phrase by phrase, so that nothing accidental or merely rhetorical appears in its text. In this declaration the British War Cabinet was affirming two principles, neither of which could be allowed to proceed to its own extreme. The Jews, who were then a small minority in Palestine, some fifty thousand at most, were given the right to establish a national home in Palestine and, in effect, to be the leading force in the future of the country. This right was conferred not primarily on the handful of Jews in residence in Palestine; it was given to the Jewish people as a whole, for which a “Jewish agency” would act. The World Zionist Organization was immediately recognized as this body. But what the Jews had gained did not include dominance over the Arab residents in the land. The questions of how the Arab community would be governed and what role it would play in making decisions for all of Palestine were left undefined, but such rights were not abolished. The Balfour Declaration told both Jews and Arabs alike that they would have to live with a new situation that neither wanted.
Soon after the end of World War I, the peace conference that was held at Versailles in 1919 accepted the vision for the future of Palestine that Great Britain had announced in the Balfour Declaration. This agreement was finally enshrined in the peace treaty signed at San Remo in 1920, in which the very text of the Balfour Declaration was included as the foundation of the political order of the future in Palestine. The only state that exists now in a form rooted in the peace treaty after World War I is contemporary Israel. Jews like to think that this has happened because of the heroism of those who came to settle in the land and to create a new Jewish community and, ultimately, a Jewish state.
Open Warfare on an Ever Larger Scale
Tension caused by age-old hatreds and nourished by religion ignited a major explosion between Jews and Arabs in 1929. The nub of the quarrel was over the right of Jews to freedom of worship at the Western Wall, the one part of the Temple in Jerusalem that still stood after all the rest had been destroyed in the year 70. The dispute resulted in riots in Jerusalem and Hebron resulting in the murders of dozens of Jews and severely damaging the possibility of cooperation between Arabs and Jews. The lesson driven home for Jews was that Arabs could not be persuaded by reasonable arguments; they could only be stopped by force. The Palestinian Arabs were equally convinced that violence was their only recourse. No matter how favorably disposed the British government in London or its representatives who administered the mandate might seem to the Arab cause, they were not likely to nullify the basic commitment made in the Balfour declaration that there be a Jewish national home in Palestine. The Arab hope of preventing the formation of Jewish state in Palestine was further exasperated by the rise of anti-Semitism and Adolf Hitler in Europe in the 1930s, leaving many Jews no choice but to flee to Palestine.
This situation was, inevitably, a recipe for escalation of already existing enmity. By the mid-1930s the British knew that the situation was becoming untenable and that a solution to calm the hostilities had to be found. They created the highest level commission that was ever appointed under their auspices to survey the situation in Palestine and to propose some remedies. This was a royal commission chaired by Lord Peel. The members of this body were individuals who were widely regarded as impartial judges; they were not seen to be under the control of any British political faction. The Peel Commission took testimony from both Jewish and Arab leaders in both Palestine and London. In the spring of 1937 it announced its findings.
With sadness and regret, the commission could find no basis for peace between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. No set of arrangements could be imagined that would make it possible for them to live together in a single state:
The application to Palestine of the Mandate System in general and of the specific Mandate in particular implied the belief that the obligations thus undertaken towards the Arabs and the Jews respectively would prove in course of time to be mutually compatible owing to the conciliatory effect on the Palestinian Arabs of the material prosperity which Jewish immigration would bring to Palestine as a whole. That belief has not been justified, and we see no hope of its being justified in future.
This intensification of the conflict will continue. The estranging force of conditions inside of Palestine is growing year by year. The educational systems, Arab and Jewish, are schools of nationalism, and they have only existed for a short time. The full effect on the rising generation has yet to be felt. And patriot “youth-movements,” so familiar a feature of present-day politics in other countries of Europe or Asia, are afoot in Palestine. As each community grows, moreover, the rivalry between them deepens; the more numerous and prosperous the Arabs become, the more insistent will be their demand for their national independence and the more bitter their hatred of the obstacle that bars the way to it. As the Jewish National Home grows older and more firmly rooted, so will its self-confidence and political ambition.
Thus for internal and external reasons, it seems probable that the situation, bad as it now is, will grow worse. The conflict will go on, the gulf between Arabs and Jews will widen.
The Peel Commission therefore suggested that peace could best be served by partitioning the land into a small Jewish state and uniting the rest of the territory with its overwhelmingly Arab population with Jordan. The city of Jerusalem, with some additions, should be administered separately by the British. In actual territory the Jews were being offered less than a third of the land of Palestine and that third was not a continuous land mass. Within the borders of the proposed Jewish state, the Arab population would very nearly equal that of the Jews.
These are the recommendations which we submit for dealing with the main grievances under the Mandate put before us by the Arabs and the Jews; but they are not, in our opinion, the recommendations which our terms of reference require. They will not, that is to say, “remove” the grievances nor “prevent their recurrence.” They are the best palliatives we can devise for the disease from which Palestine is suffering, but they are only palliatives. They might reduce the inflammation and bring down the temperature, but they cannot cure the trouble. The disease is so deep-rooted that, in our firm conviction, the only hope of cure lies in a surgical operation.
Jews were dismayed by the borders that the Peel Commission proposed, but they were pleased that the suggestion of a Jewish state had now been put on the agenda of international politics. After a heated debate, the Zionist Congress held in the summer of 1937 accepted the suggestions made by the Peel Commission.
The Arabs rejected the findings of the Peel Commission in toto. For them it was not enough to have been awarded most of the land as part of Jordan. Their fundamental objective was to make sure that a Jewish state not be allowed to arise. So, instead of being the signal for reduction of tension and a move toward peace for the two peoples, the Peel Commission report was the preamble for the most bitter fighting that had ever taken place in Palestine. By 1938 the Arabs in Palestine rebelled against Britain and also took to making war on Jews. Jews were fleeing before the increasingly murderous Nazis. The Arabs wanted to stop this immigration through violence. Essentially they succeeded.
The British government soon abandoned the proposals of the Peel Commission for compromise between Jews and Arabs. It decided it had to appease the Arabs. In their assessment of the situation as it existed in the late 1930s, the British could not keep putting more troops into Palestine to counter the revolt by the Arabs. The conflict in Palestine was eating up a sizable proportion of their military strength, and they had an empire to patrol and protect, one that then still covered nearly one-quarter of the globe. More immediately, Hitler’s preparations for war were ever more unmistakable. In the late 1930s the British government had decided on a policy of appeasement. It was hoping to keep Nazi Germany from attacking in Europe.
The British government also decided that it was at least as prudent to appease the Arabs at the expense of the Jews. The result was that the British government handed the Arabs a clear-cut victory. It decided in 1939 to give the Jews a final grant of seventy-five thousand immigration spots for the next five years; thereafter there could be no more Jewish immigration into Palestine without Arab consent. The Jews were being told that whatever promise the British might have once made to them in the Balfour Declaration, the “national home” for the Jews would be peopled by a permanent Jewish minority, which would be subject, on the vital matter of immigration, to the will of the Arab majority.
As everyone expected, the Jews immediately and unequivocally rejected this “White Paper.” They could do no other. Jewish immigration into Palestine had grown substantially. Those who had hesitated to leave Germany had been hoping and even believing that Hitler was a passing phenomenon, but they knew by 1938 that he had become a threat to their lives. They were in flight from Germany and all of central Europe to find some country that would allow them to land. Most governments were not helpful. The Jewish people as a whole felt that only Palestine could not refuse homes to Jews in flight. They came legally, with valid certificates of immigration, and illegally, usually landing at night from small ships that had eluded the British navy in the Mediterranean. The battle was joined between dire Jewish need and Arab resistance, but it was not merely a fight between Jews and Arabs. Since the British had now tilted toward the Arabs, they were no longer a neutral third party. Choking off immigration was now their own policy. Their major quarrel in Palestine had become their war with the Jews, who would not obey the orders of the British government.
This situation was not alleviated by the outbreak of World War II in the beginning of September 1939. Even though Jews were in clear danger as the Nazis swept westward through all of Europe and conquered all of the continent north of the Pyrenees and the Alps, the “White Paper” was not abrogated. Jews could not come to Palestine in any substantial number and no major effort of any kind was made to bring them to their “national home.”
The Arabs of Palestine were essentially indifferent to the travails of the British in World War II. No attempt was made to provide Arab volunteers for the British army, even in 1942, when the German North Africa corps under General Rommel was approaching Egypt and threatening to march on to Palestine. On the contrary, the most notable spokesman and leader of the Arabs in Palestine, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, had left Palestine and joined Hitler. He expected as his reward for this alliance that the Nazis would uproot or destroy the Jews in Palestine and thus solve the Palestinian Arabs’ “Jewish problem.”
The Jews of Palestine chose a radically different path. Immediately after the outbreak of war, they volunteered in large numbers (some twenty thousand) as individuals and began to agitate for the creation of a distinctive Jewish force within the British army. This body was to be made up of volunteers from Jewish Palestine. There was considerable opposition to this proposal within elements of the British government, for fear that a Jewish military force would upset the Arabs and that it would not be completely obedient to its British commanders. These Jews were suspected of objectives of their own, such as saving endangered Jews in Europe or remaining organized to fight at the end of the war for Zionist aims in Palestine. Despite the wrangling, the Jewish Brigade was finally formed in 1944. It was to do important work in Europe in helping the survivors of the Holocaust and “illegal” immigrants into Palestine in the years between the end of the war in 1945 and the Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948.
What Many Liberals Can’t See
At this moment in the history of the Jewish-Arab quarrel, large elements of the Western liberal intelligentsia have joined the battle on the side of the Palestinians. But if the terms of the quarrel between the Jews and Arabs have not changed significantly since the 1930s when the popular moral calculus favored Zionism, why has the West’s view of Zionism changed?
Today, Western liberal intellegentsia are acting out a psychodrama of their own: for the first time in many centuries Jews have power, and many of the leaders of Western opinion do not know how to deal with Jews when they are not victims, especially since such Jews remind them of the Holocaust, when six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis and their helpers while the bulk of the European intelligentsia remained silent. To be sure, Israel’s policies since 1967 have contributed to the present stalemate. The Israeli government has attempted to suppress armed rebellion by the Palestinians by escalations of force. Nonetheless, the scathing critiques of Israel are essentially irrelevant. It is not within the power of those who write and read these attacks on Israel to help make peace.
The situation is becoming worse because Arab and Jewish protagonists in the armed battle, and even some American Christians who support the policies of the right wing in Israel, are stoking the furnace in the name of their religious certainties. So long as the issue keeps being redefined as a question of finding ways to do the “will of God” in blood and fire, the possibility remains that the Middle East may well explode into chemical, biological, or nuclear war. The liberal ideologues, among whom are many who would like to destroy Israel, and the Jewish hard-liners, who would like to make the Palestinian Arabs miserable enough to leave the land, are both incapable of making peace between them. But is peace possible?
In the present controversy between the Zionists, who created the state of Israel, and the Palestinians, who are affronted by Israel’s existence, much of the rhetoric has become inflammatory. On the Zionist Israeli side, it has become all too convenient to label every critic of Israel as an anti-Semite. It is equally convenient for the critics of Israel to charge the Zionists with the unforgivable sin of colonialism. This conflict has always involved deep passions: thus, many on each side have persuaded themselves that their opponents are on the side of Satan. The fight has become as vitriolic as the assaults in the seventeenth century on witches or heretics. How can one compromise with “anti-Semites” or “colonialists,” especially when so many seemingly respectable pundits and journalists are now urging their readers not to forgive such sinners?
I am able to understand the Palestinians and their partisans in the Arab world much more easily than I can fathom the motives of those Westerners who are hostile to Israel. The Israelis and the Palestinians are engaged in a struggle that will determine their future and the future of their descendants. It is all too human for them to get carried away and engage in unbridled rhetoric, even though some or even many on both sides know that when the shooting war ends, they will have to learn to talk about each other in more peaceful language. What I cannot fathom is the amount of passion-and venom-that Western intellectuals of various political factions and many of the political left are displaying in this conflict. These are people who pride themselves on their universalist concerns. Is the battle between Palestinians and Israelis really the worst outrage that exists today in the world? To rebut such an idea, I need not mention some other armed conflicts. It is enough to be reminded of the vast disaster of AIDS in Africa, of the death by neglect that awaits at least forty million people, to make the point that a truly universalist outlook would not put the battle between the Israelis and Palestinians at the top of the moral agenda.
More immediately, is it really true, as the enemies and critics of Israel would have it, that the hostility between the Israelis and the Palestinians is the most painful and bloodiest conflict afflicting the Arab world? These self-proclaimed purists of human rights seem not to have noticed that Saddam Husein, while he was in power in Iraq, killed tens of thousands of Arabs (the most conservative estimate now is a hundred and fifty thousand). His neighbor, President Hafez Assad of Syria, slaughtered at least some tens of thousands. These outrages are simply not mentioned; they were semi-ignored when they happened and soon forgotten by those who say they speak for human rights. So what explains the near hysteria now in parts of the West over the existence of the Zionist state in a corner of the Arab world?
The source of Arabs’ anger is that they are at war with the Jews. The source of the anger in the West is that the Western liberals and leftists are at war with themselves. They have been struggling to define a new attitude toward Jews and Judaism since the beginning of the modern era, and they have failed. Some of the evidence of this struggle is bizarre. To cite just one example: many Western intellectuals pretend not to know that almost every Arab state is, by its own definition, a Muslim state, a theocracy, but Israeli is regularly lambasted as a state governed by rabbis. This is a strange accusation when everyone knows, or should know that since Israel’s founding, all but one of its prime ministers have lived secular lives and all have led essentially secular governments.
Most important, however, is the obdurate refusal of much of the Western intelligentsia to accept the claim of the Jews that they have the right to their own nationalism. These circles raise no doubt about any of the other nationalisms in the world. From North Korea at the edge of Asia to Catalonia in Spain they are all legitimate, but the Zionist effort of the Jews is maligned. It cannot be true that the Zionists are creating more harm to the Palestinians than any other nationalism. Let it be said very bluntly. No community has ever been born and worked out its place in the world by immaculate conception, in total purity, certainly not the United State of America which made a place for itself in a campaign of centuries against the Native Americans.
The liberal left intelligentsia knows all this, so why are the Zionists so guilty that their nationalism deserves to be done to death? This outcry, very thinly disguised, really reflects a deeper issue: the guilt of Western intelligentsia for the passivity or worse of its majority during the Holocaust. It seems better to those who have never come to terms with their looking away while six million Jews were being murdered in Europe now to find a way of accusing the Jews of being no better. Through the creation of Israel, the Jews have transformed themselves from victims to the possessors of a small but powerful state. It is a neat trick now to accuse the Jews in Israel of behaving towards the Palestinians as the “new Nazis.” This is, of course, a lie. Israel’s conduct has been bad on occasion but it has not engaged in mass murder. On the contrary, the bulk of Jewish opinion in Israel has denounced its own government when it has behaved with unacceptable toughness. Much of the Western intelligentsia has been “buying out” of its own bad memories of the Holocaust by attacking Israel. This attack will not stand. It is a shameful canard.
Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg is the Bronfman Visiting Professor of Humanities at New York University and Professor Emeritus of Religion at Dartmouth. A world-renowned Jewish scholar, he has served as president of the American Jewish Policy Foundation and the American Jewish Congress and as vice-president of the World Jewish Congress.
1. Antonius, George. The Arab Awakening: The Story of the Arab National Movement. Beirut, Lebanon: Khayat’s College Book Cooperative, 1938: 409-12.
2. The text of this historic pamphlet by Judah Leon Magnes is in: Hertzberg, Arthur. The Zionist Idea. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1997: 443-49.