Recently I was present at an event at which a pro-Israel speaker was presented with a hostile ‘question’. The questioner insisted that Israel had engaged in planned, deliberate ethnic cleansing in order to dispossess the “native Palestinian people,” and continues to maintain an apartheid state. Israel was racist in essence and should not be a state. Like a magician calling up demons, he finished with a recitation of the names of the shades from which he drew his power: Shlaim, Pappé, Morris, Flapan, etc.
The recent BDS gathering at the University of Pennsylvania and the one-state conference at Harvard establish the theme: the very idea of a Jewish state is racist, and this particular state, born in an essentially racist act of colonialism, should be dismantled.
It isn’t relevant for the refutation of these ideas, but it is nevertheless interesting to note that there is no conference at an Ivy League university calling for the dismantling of any number of essentially racist states with questionable origins. Saudi Arabia, for example, was founded in 1932 after Ibn Saud, Sultan of Nejd, violently conquered the neighboring state of Hejaz (the center of the Islamic world, where Mecca and Medina are located).
The conquest included the massacre of the male population of the city of at-Ta’if. Since then, Saudi Arabia has been one of the most religiously intolerant of the world’s nations, a place where Christians are forbidden to build churches or bring Bibles, and Jews are forbidden to enter. As recently as 2004, the official Saudi website listed “Jewish persons” as one of the groups not welcome to travel there.
But let’s get back to the efforts to delegitimize Israel. Unlike Saudi Arabia, the Jewish state has a charter in international law: the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine, which included the Balfour Declaration as an integral part. And here we note an inconsistency in the position of the delegitimizers:
Despite the fact that they often appeal — improperly, but that’s a different issue — to “international law” in regard to ‘occupation’ and settlements, they do not believe that the Mandate grants any justification to the Jewish state, because it is a “colonialist document” and therefore invalid.
The people we are dealing with, while prepared to use the traditional concept of international law when it serves their purpose, actually subordinate it to postcolonial dogma. They believe that the world is divided into the colonizers and the colonized, and the latter are always right. This makes it possible for them to ‘understand’ Palestinian terrorism while finding Jewish self-defense unacceptable.
There is a post-colonial theory of history, too. It implies that ‘truth’ is relative to ideology, specifically to post-colonial ideology. Ilan Pappé, one of the demons conjured by the heckler I mentioned, has said explicitly that his idea of historical truth is determined by his politics.
This sort of ‘flexibility’ makes it difficult to argue with the delegitimizers. Pappé and Morris have both been in trouble for taking quotations out of context, reversing their meaning, or even just making them up in their ideological zeal to ‘prove’ that Israel committed deliberate ethnic cleansing of Palestinian Arabs.
I think that we have to take a different approach, and that is to attack the postcolonial model itself, or at least to show that it does not apply to the Israel-Arab conflict.
While the early Zionists were Europeans, they came to make a life for themselves, not to exploit the resources of the land for the benefit of a foreign power. They did not land with superior technology and use it to enslave or exploit the Arabs, but in general lived on the same or lower economic level as the Arab residents.
There was not a thriving indigenous population when the Zionists arrived. Much land was owned by absentee landlords, and disease and Ottoman taxation made life difficult. Little by little, conditions improved as a result of Zionist enterprise and to some extent outside capital.
Probably the main reason for the increase in the Arab population in the area of the Mandate from about 400,000 in 1893 to 1.3 million in 1947 was economic development due to the activities of the Zionists.
By the time the Mandate came into being, anti-Jewish agitation for ethnic and religious reasons had begun among the Arabs. The British authorities (the real colonialists) tended to favor the Arabs, and responded to Arab violence by taking successive steps to limit Jewish immigration — in contradiction to the letter and the spirit of the Mandate.
The British appointed the Jew-hating Haj Amin al-Husseini as Mufti of Jerusalem, the so-called Nazi Mufti, who would later make common cause with Hitler. Husseini incited riots and pogroms against the Jews, including the 1929 Hebron massacre. By the time WWII started, the British had more or less sealed the doors of Palestine against Jews, certainly dooming tens of thousands to Hitler’s ovens.
So far, I fail to see colonial oppression of Arabs by Jews. What I see is oppression, indeed murder, of Jews by Arabs and British colonialists. But let’s continue.
After the war, as the Zionists pushed for Jewish sovereignty in some part of the Mandate, the Arabs — both the Palestinian Arabs and the Arab nations — were absolutely livid at the prospect. When Roosevelt met King Saud in 1945, the King was adamant that Jewish refugees should not be allowed to settle in Palestine (“give them Germany,” he said). Roosevelt was shocked at his vehemence.
In 1947, the fighting between the Jews and the Palestinian Arabs began even before the UN partition resolution was passed in November. Of course the Arabs rejected it, absolutely opposing any proposed solution that involved Jewish sovereignty over any part of the land.
In 1948 Israel declared independence, was attacked by several Arab nations (who were not intending to establish Palestinian sovereignty but wanted to control the area themselves) and ultimately defeated them. In the process between 600,000 and 750,000 Arabs fled, for various reasons. At the same time — and continuing for the next few years — about 800,000 Jews in Arab countries were also forced from their homes, because they were Jews.
Jews living in the portion of Palestine that was occupied by the Jordanian army (with the help of British colonialist officers) were massacred or driven out at gunpoint.
At this point the postcolonialist historians step in and support the false narrative by arguing that the majority of Arabs who left were driven out by force in a deliberate act of ethnic cleansing. Since there is no real evidence for this, they invent it. And they mostly ignore the fate of the Jews of East Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and the Arab world.
The most that can be said is that some Arabs in hostile towns (especially along the road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem where they were harassing attempts to relieve blockaded Jerusalem) were forced out. But the ‘master plan’ to create an Arab-free Israel did not exist, and quotations from Ben Gurion that the Arabs must be expelled have been shown to be faked.
The fact that the Arab leadership initiated riots, pogroms, and ultimately war cannot be ignored, nor can that of the cooperation between Husseini and Hitler, the plan to establish extermination camps for Jews in Palestine, or the vile way in which the British tried to thwart the promise of the Mandate.
Throughout it all, what was pervasive was the racist Arab persecution of Jews: the pogroms of the 1920’s, the riots of the ’30’s, the refusal to countenance Jewish sovereignty anywhere in Palestine, the expulsions from Arab-occupied lands, the cooperation with Hitler. And of course this took place against a background of British colonialism, as that nation tried to secure Middle Eastern oil and its route to India.