The current turmoil in the Middle East is, amongst other things, one long vindication of Zionism. Given that, to many folk, Zionism has no meaning other than “Israelis being nasty to Palestinians”, some explanation is in order.
Zionism was founded by Viennese journalist Theodore Herzl (1860-1904). Observing the trial of French officer Alfred Dreyfus and the rampant Jew-hatred in the French Republic–the land of liberty, equality, fraternity–Herzl concluded that Jews were not safe in Europe, and so conceived the notion of a Jewish homeland as an active political project. A place of defence and refuge.
Of all modern ideologies, none had its founding proposition more thoroughly vindicated than Zionism, as the Holocaust proved that, verily, Jews were not safe in Europe. The lead-up to the Holocaust, as countries such as the US and Australia declined to be the mass Jewish refuge required, helped to energise Zionism. The horror of the aftermath of the Holocaust, in a broken Europe, did so exponentially more.
Hence the post-war migration of European Jews to the British Mandate of Palestine and the UN-sponsored division of Palestine into a putative Jewish and Arab state. Then followed the refusal of Arab states to accept either a Jewish or a Palestinian state. Thus the Israeli War of Independence (Nov. 1947-July 1949) and the creation of the state of Israel. The war included a mass exodus of Palestinians, the most dramatic event of which was the Deir Yassim massacre of 107 Palestinian civilians by Zionist paramilitary groups, condemned at the time by official Israel, although it was clearly operationally useful in consolidating a Jewish-majority state.
This was followed by the 1956 Suez War, where Israel occupied and then returned territory. Then the 1967 Six Day War, which left Israel with the Golan Heights, the West Bank, Gaza and the Sinai. All territory it declined to return. Then the War of Attrition (1967-70). Then the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Then the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Agreement, whereby Sinai was handed back to Egypt. The one and only time that Israel relinquishing territory has resulted in a peaceful border.
Israel was also drawn into the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). This included the South Lebanon Conflict (1985-2000), which resulted in an Israeli withdrawal from Southern Lebanon. This strategic Hezbollah victory has since led to further conflicts across that border between Hezbollah and Israel, most notably the 2006 Lebanon War. In 2005, Israeli unilaterally withdrew from Gaza and dismantled all Jewish settlements therein. Hamas subsequently took over Gaza, and used as a base from which to attack Israel, leading to the 2008-9 Gaza War and the 2014 Gaza War.
So, Israeli experience over the last 15 years is that territory they withdraw from is used as base to attack them. Not exactly an encouragement for further withdrawals.
This is the framing (minus the point that withdrawal means attacks) that people are generally somewhat familiar with. Israel as “alien” European settler state “imposing itself” on the Middle East. Israel as Jewish apartheid lebensraum state. It is the framing that the mainstream media overwhelmingly uses–Israeli politics get reported, Palestinian politics very little; Israel acts, Palestinians suffer. Happenings that conflict with the framing are ignored or glossed over.
Middle Eastern Zionism
Except that framing, and even the above history, leaves more than half the story out. The story of Middle Eastern Jews. The story of Palestinian politics.
Palestinians killing Jewish civilians is an enduring picture of Palestinian terrorism; something that used to do a great deal to harm the Palestinian cause in the West and still does something to maintain support for Israel. It is often presented as “asymmetrical” warfare–the weapon of the weak (Palestinians) against the strong (Israel).
The only problem is that massacring Jewish civilians was an Arab/Palestinian tactic back when Jews were a minority in Mandatory Palestine and there was no Jewish state. Such as the 1929 Safed riots (18-20 Jewish dead), the 1929 Hebron massacre (67 Jewish dead and the end of Jewish presence in the city) and the 1939 Tiberias massacre (19 Jewish dead).
Jewish militias also got into the killing game, though they often targeted occupying British authority (police, soldiers): most famously in the King David Hotel bombing. The aforementioned Deir Yassam massacre was part of a series in both directions during the Israeli War of Independence. On the Jewish side, the killings hardened the determination to form Israel.
There was a also a wider history of riots, pogroms and massacre of Jewish civilians in Arab lands well outside Mandatory Palestine, such as the 1934 Thrace pogroms which saw 15,000 Jews flee the area, the Farhud massacre in Baghdad in 1941 (over 180 Jewish dead), the 1945 anti-Jewish riots in Tripolitania (over 140 Jewish dead), the 1947 Aden riots (82 Jewish dead), the 1947 Aleppo riots in Syria (75 Jewish dead), the 1948 Cairo bombings (70 Jewish dead), the 1948 riots in Morrocco (43 Jewish dead), the 1948 riots in Tripolitania (13-14 Jewish dead, 280 Jewish homes destroyed). All of which helped motivate Jews fleeing en masse from Arab lands to Israel and the West. About half of Israeli Jews are of Middle Eastern origin. Israel is very much a refuge for Middle Eastern Jews, not merely European ones.
Especially when the massacres are put in a wider context. For example, that Jews in Iran could not touch merchandise before purchasing it, as that made the merchandise “unclean” for believers. Or that massacre of non-Muslims had been very much a feature of recent Middle Eastern history.
The 1933 Simele massacre which killed at least 600 Assyrians in Iraq was a relatively mild instance. The Hamidian massacres of 1894-6 killed at least 80,000 Armenians, Assyrians and other Christians. The Adana massacre of 1909 killed another 20,000 or more. They were a prelude to the massacres during the Great War; the Armenian (1.5m dead), Assyrian (at least 275,000 dead) and Pontic-Greek (at least 750,000 dead) genocides.
The broader pattern was fairly clear–when some real or apparent enemy was giving Muslims a hard time, the local group allegedly connected to the same would be subject to massacre. Hence the upsurge in killing of Jews during the Israeli War of Independence. Mass homicide-as-protest hardly encouraged the targeted group to stick around if it had a place of refuge available.
The increasing intrusion into the Middle East of Western norms about equal protection of the law during the C19th made previous patterns of subordination seem increasingly burdensome and unacceptable to non-Muslim groups. One response was the development of Arab nationalism, which sought to provide a common identity for Arabs across religious persuasions; hence the importance of thinkers of non-Muslim or of heterodox Muslim origin in its development: such as Michel Aflaq, George Antonius, Butrus al-Bustani, George Habash, Ameen Rihani, Ibrahim al-Yaziji, Constantine Zureiq (all raised as Christians), Shakib Arslan (Druze) and Zaki al-Arsuzi (Alawite).
But there was a deeper pattern, which connects to the notion of the dhimmi. The non-Muslim who was permitted to reside in dar al-Islam, the land of Islam, but only if they accepted their subordinate status. Any agitation for equal rights broke the Pact of Umar and made them targets. The Armenian agitation for equal rights and equal protection of law was very much part of the lead-up to the Hamidian massacres.
But the creation of a Jewish state was seen as an offence against Arab nationalism as well, so Jews were not included in this common Arab identity. All of which gave Zionism thoroughly grounded in the realities of the Middle Eastern every bit as much emotional power and justification as European Zionism. Hence the flight from Arab lands to the West and to Israel as it soon as it was established. It is quite false to see Zionism as merely an alien intrusion into the Middle East. As American Jonah Shepp nicely puts it:
Palestinians who say that “the Zionists” must go but “the Jews” can stay need to come to grips with the fact that Zionism, at its core, is about creating a space where Jews do not need someone else’s permission to live.
Death and rejectionism
What is striking about the Palestinian tactic of targeting Jewish civilians is that it has never worked. Not as an anti-Israel strategy. It helped energise the creation of the Jewish state, to maintain support for it, to create deep scepticism about the possibility of peace with Palestinians, leading to overwhelming popular support within Israel for the recent Gaza war. As an anti-Israel strategy, it has been massively counter-productive.
Except that the tactic of targeting Jewish civilians has worked very well. As an anti-Israel strategy, it has been utterly hopeless. As a political strategy within Palestinian politics, it has worked again and again. Which is why it is persisted with. If Palestinians kill Jews, they are heroic fighters for Israel. If Israel retaliates and kills Palestinians, it demonstrates the murderous evil of Israel. In Palestinian politics, violent death is a win-win.
Leading to a Palestinian politics divided between corrupt ex-terrorists (Fatah) and explicitly genocidal current terrorists (Hamas). (An English translation of Hamas’s founding Covenant is here.) Noting that genocide is not an alien intrusion into Middle Eastern politics: on the contrary, the Muslim Middle East has been a pioneer of modern genocide.
Overlords or victims
Maronite-dominated Lebanon, Alawite-dominated Ba’athist Syria, Sunni-dominated Ba’athist Iraq and Israel were all manifestations of the same logic–if you are a minority group in the Middle East, you are either overlords or victims. So, better be overlords and control the state.
Except Israel is the great exception–Jews are very much a majority within Israel. It is also the only stable democracy. Because Jews are very much a majority within Israel. It has not collapsed into civil war. Because Jews are very much a majority within Israel. Israel is a majority Jewish state, and that makes a profound difference.
When the Jews first started migrating in serious numbers to Ottoman-controlled Palestine, they brought capital with them, raising the value of land and labour in the area. Under British rule, the trend accelerated. The rising wages and commercial opportunities encouraged movement of non-Jews to the area. A proportion of current Palestinians only have any connection to the land of Palestine at all because the Jews came. Which is why the definition of a Palestinian refugee is any who lived in Palestine for 2 years or more prior to May 1948, or is descended from someone who did. (Pausing here, the notion of multi-generation hereditary refugees is an interesting one in itself: but Israel accepted and integrated its Jewish refugees; the Arab world prefers to keep the Palestinians as permanent refugees, stateless sticks to beat the Zionist entity with–it is easier for a Palestinian to become a citizen of the US or Australia than most Arab countries.)
There were those in the Palestinian community who thought cooperation with the newcomers who were bringing opportunities with them was worth exploring. But the influx of new workers and rising wages undermined the debt bondage which was the conventional form of subordination to the landlord class in the area. Jews-as-enemies suited both religious leaders–operating as gatekeepers of righteousness–and a landlord class threatened by modernity. Hence the role of Haj Mohammed Effendi Amin el-Husseini (c.1897-1974), the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, in setting the dominant and enduring model of Palestinian politics of death and rejectionism.
One that proved to have enduring appeal in the wider Arab world–the Zionist entity became the perfect scapegoat, the way to redirect anger from the failings and oppressions of Arab regimes. Or just Arab failings generally.
Not on offer
To concerned Westerners, and the dwindling Israeli Left, it seems obvious that the only moral solution is for Israel to accept Palestinians as worthy of equal protection of the law. As Israeli journalist and writer Noam Sheizaf declares:
The two-state solution is not a progressive cause and neither is a single-state solution — they are just possible means to an end. The only possible goal for progressive politics in Israel/Palestine can be full human, civil and political rights for everyone living on this land. …
I support equal rights for all people living in this land, between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River.
Or as American Jonah Shepp writes:
The Israeli right remains convinced that the Palestinians must learn to accept Israel before the occupation can end. That is about as convincing as someone claiming in 1960s America that the end of segregation would have to wait until black people stopped resenting white people. Peace is nearly always made between leaders before it is made between peoples. Israel is no exception to this rule; claiming otherwise just avoids the issue. And Israel must take the lead on this, precisely because the balance of power is so lopsided.
In fact, the problem is much deeper than accepting Israel. It is accepting. Accepting Jews, Christians, Shia, Yezidis, Alawites, Kurds … The Middle East has been a pioneer of, and continuing arena for, genocide not because Jews exist, nor because the Jewish state exists, but because the idea of different-but-equal has so little resonance. After all, Jews are not even close to the majority victims of genocide in the region, which became a modern pioneer of genocide well before the Jewish state seemed a serious prospect. What is different about the Jews is that they are the only local minority who has found an effective solution (thanks crucially to the influx and skills of European Jews). Although the Kurds would like to copy them. With the Peshmerga having the role of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). Aspirations that has official and popular support in Israel.
Israeli PM Ehud Barak made a two-state offer to Yassir Arafat at the 2000 Camp David summit. Arafat made no counter-offer. And so the entrenched pattern of Palestinian politics continued. It is all very well for folk to say Israel must take the lead, but Israelis have no reason to believe that any peace deal is possible. As Israeli journalist Matti Friedman points out,
The fact that Israelis quite recently elected moderate governments that sought reconciliation with the Palestinians, and which were undermined by the Palestinians, is considered unimportant and rarely mentioned.
Without death and rejectionism, what is there to Palestinian politics and Palestinian identity? Not enough, apparently. The demand to be overlords, without the power to make themselves such, bedevils Palestinian politics.
Which leaves Israel with what exactly? To relinquish territory it can expect to be attacked from? It cannot unilaterally declare peace. And retaliation may feed the dynamic of death, but so does not doing so, while reverting Jews back to the role of powerless victims Israel exists to deny. The murderous civil was of Sudan, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq demonstrate that stopping being a Jewish-majority state is the road to disaster. The continuing existence of the IDF is not negotiable.
Or does Israel just decide to grab what it can when it can? Not an admirable position, but an understandable one.
“Correct” moral responses are “obvious” if you frame the issues narrowly enough. But Israel lives in the complete Middle East, not a conveniently packaged version of it.
[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]