In a his excellent The World Is Not Enough blog, Charles Richardson comments on an essay by Israeli journalist Yossi Gurvitz. Gurvitz’s essay applies the analogy of Germans expelled from the Sudetenland, Silesia, Prussia etc after 1945 to the Palestinians expelled from Israel in 1947-48. As Charles notes, it is a revealing analogy. But revealing not only in what it covers but what it does not.
First, as Gurvitz notes, the expulsion of Arabs from the 1948 borders of Israel was not nearly as complete as the expulsion of the Germans from the reborn Poland and Czechoslovakia and expansion of Russia to Prussia. There remains a sizeable Arab minority in Israel; there are no sizeable German minorities in Poland, the Czech Republic or the bits of Prussia that are now parts of Russia.
Second, much more seriously, there is no mention whatsoever of Jewish refugees from Arab and Muslim countries. Which makes Gurvitz’s essay fairly typical liberal-progressivist effort–wanting to take Palestinian experience and perspectives more seriously while completely ignoring those of Israelis who fled the Arab and Muslim countries, and now have the dreadful bad taste to vote Likud.
Said Jewish refugees are not only of substantial numbers of people (roughly equivalent to the number of Palestinian refugees, which perhaps makes the 1923 exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey a better analogy), but came to outnumber European migrants to Israel (at least until the arrival of the Russian Jews in large numbers). As Wikipedia puts it:
From the onset of the 1948 Arab–Israeli War until the early 1970s, 800,000–1,000,000 Jews left, fled, or were expelled from their homes in Arab countries; 260,000 of them reached Israel between 1948 and 1951 and amounted for 56% of the total immigration to the newly founded State of Israel. 600,000 Jews from Arab and Muslim countries had reached Israel by 1972. By the Yom Kippur War of 1973, most of the Jewish communities throughout the Arab World, as well as Pakistan and Afghanistan, were practically non-existent.
Such as Yossi Gurvitz’s effort.
If one is trying to be persuasive, taking Palestinian refugee status seriously while completely ignoring the refugee origins of Middle Eastern Jews in Israel is not a clever move. If, however, one is trying to establish one’s moral superiority, pushing buttons in such a way will more or less guarantee a hostile response, which can be great for playing status games. We also see this ignoring of inconvenient interests and experience to play status games in much progressivist commentary on immigration.
There is a very unfortunate irony here. Precisely because the Jewish state was so accepting of Jewish refugees from the Middle East (lingering internal cultural prejudices aside), it has been easier for the Jewish Middle Eastern refugee experience to be written out of the story. Conversely, precisely because the Arabs were generally such shits to the Palestinians–preferring to, as Charles Richardson alludes to, leaving them as stateless sticks to beat Israel with (and despising them for being beaten by Jews)–they remain a “refugee problem” to be blamed on Israel. So, Israel loses both ways from being much more decent in its behaviour than the Arab states.
Furthermore, thanks to the special definition of refugee applied to Palestinians (anyone resident for 2 or more years within the 1948 borders or who is descended from same), the Palestinians are refugees in perpetuity. We have second, third, fourth, etc generation “refugees”.
That two year residency rule is significant also. Why so short a period? Because it is embarrassing how much the Jewish influx to Palestine led to Arab (Christian and Muslim) immigration to Palestine. A significant proportion of Palestinians only have any connection to Palestine because of the Jews. The Jews brought in capital–human, financial, physical–stimulating economic activity and generating job opportunities which attracted migrants from the rest of the Middle East.
The threat of modernity
This led to a dispute within the local Arab community between those who wanted to make some sort of mutually beneficial deal with the newcomers and those who wanted to block the disruptive effect they were having on local mechanisms of social control–particularly debt bondage–through rising wages and employment opportunities. The 1936-39 Arab Revolt in Palestine was, in part, a Palestinian civil war, whereby Haj Amin al Husseini, the Grand Mufti, used religion and the politics of righteousness to bind Muslim peasants to the ruling landlord class on the basis of “hate the Jews”. Anti-Zionism-as-scapegoat-relief-valve has been a staple of Arab politics ever since–the principle was that Arabs didn’t get democracy or (in countries without much oil) development, they got to blame and hate the Jews. (The Arab Spring was possibly a sign that such politics has been losing some of its power.)
Precisely because scapegoat and righteousness politics have been so much a part of the mix, seeing the Arab-Israeli conflict as grounded in legitimate, and so manageable, grievances, is to misunderstand it. For example, characterising Palestinian use of terrorism as “asymmetric warfare” is to miss much of the point. Massacring Jews (whether they were settlers or not) was part of the game decades before Israel existed; when Jews were still very much a minority. Such killing of Jewish civilians was very useful in undermining those Arabs and Muslims who wanted to come to some sort of arrangement. Indeed, massacre as a response to the insult of equality has been part of the Muslim Middle East ever since European powers started putting pressure on for equality before the law. Culminating in the Armenian Genocide. (“Who remembers the Armenians?” is perhaps the most chillingly resonant of Hitler’s observations.)
Not only was, and is, the Arab-Israli conflict driven by the insult of equality (the “insult” of treating unrighteous Jews, or Christians in the c ase of the Armenians earlier, the same as righteous Muslims) and the authorised malice that are so much parts of the politics of righteousness; it was also a reaction against the modernising, democratising threat to traditional (and not so traditional) authoritarianism the Jewish influx, and the later State of Israel, represented.
Even European resentment of Israel is affected by a form of the politics of righteousness. By subsidising Palestinian fertility, the EU is conducting a sort of demographic war against the Jewish state. A fundamental prop of the “European project” is Europe-as-moral-beacon-and-arbiter. Now, for a continent that, in the last century or so, brought us imperialism, Leninism, fascism, Nazism, two World Wars and the Holocaust it is, as they say, a bold claim. (But a convenient one; how many of the problem conflicts the Europeans sneer at the Americans over has been the US trying to manage the poisonous legacies of European imperialism?)
The most niggling contradict of such a self-given higher moral status for Europe is, of course, Israel. A country born out of the Holocaust and based on Zionism, whose fundamental principle–Jews were not safe in Europe–turned out to be so appallingly correct. So, blaming Israel is a very congenial game for the Europeans: and the more so the more they are committed to the moral splendour of the “European project”. Even better if you can use the toxic reminder of Auschwitz against Israel, or otherwise equate Zionism and Nazism.
Seeing the Arab-Israeli conflict as “the” Middle Eastern conflict, “the” source of instability is part of this. The conflicts of the (Muslim) Middle East (the Algerian Civil War, the Syrian Civil War, the Iran-Iraq War, the Sudanese Civil Wars, … ) regularly generate more deaths than the Arab-Israeli conflict. The notion that the Arab-Israeli conflict is the “prime” source of conflict in the Middle East is nonsense-on-stilts. Blaming the Arab-Israeli conflict is just putting the Jewish state into the same role that Jews used to play–convenient and congenial scapegoat.
The politics of righteousness
That the Middle East is so riven with the politics of righteousness, which itself is so endemic to Islam, is a much more de-stabilising factor. Just as said politics are now driving out the Christians from the Middle East (including the Palestinian territories). Israeli Jews (and Israeli Christians) are the only safe non-Muslim minorities in the Middle East because they have the IDF to defend them. The fundamental principle of modern Zionism–Jews in the Middle East are only safe with the IDF to defend them–which motivated that flight to Israel from Muslim and Arab countries is also clearly true.
These other conflicts also continue to generate refugees, while Israel continues to be a receiver of refugees. Why anyone would want Israel to be more like the rest of the Middle East–such as, through the One State “solution”, creating a new Lebanon–escapes me. Except as moral posturing.
But it is not about murder, death, misery and human experiences. It is about Israel (and Palestine) as symbols. About hating a Jewish state, hating an ethnic identity state, a European settler state.
Except the last is precisely what Israel is not. Yes, European Jews founded Zionism. Yes, European Jews led the creation of the Jewish state and their political vehicle, the Israeli Labour movement, dominated it for decades. But to see Israel as a settler state is to profoundly mischaracterise it. It was not created as the colonial outreach of some metropolitan coloniser. It is and was a refugee state. And, from the beginning of Israel to recently, most of those refugees came not from Europe but from the Middle East. To see Israel as a European settler state, as a wholly alien intrusion in the Middle East, is to hugely mischaracterise it.
So, by buying into the Jews-are-settlers Palestinians-are-refugees dialectic which is so congenial to the progressivist conscience but is so profoundly wrong-headed, Gurvitz is not part of the solution, he is part of the problem. After all, if he wished to be broadly persuasive to his fellow Israelis, talking about the experience of Middle Eastern Jews would have been a great “hook” to connect with Palestinian refugee angst. Conversely, asking Israeli Jews to “factor in” the Palestinian refugee perspective while so completely “factoring out” Israeli Middle Eastern refugee experience is seriously offensive. Not helped by the suspicion that pissing on one’s moral, social, cultural and political “inferiors” might have been much of the point.
There is a lot more to the Arab-Israeli conflict than loss-of-land-and-property grievances. But if we are going to talk about such grievances, lets talk about all of them. The Middle Eastern refugee-and-descendant Jews look at the Arabs in precisely the same way as the Palestinians look at the Israeli Jews–as the bastards who drove us from our homes and took our property. Except the Middle Eastern Jews were taken in by a liberal-democratic polity and made full citizens; the Palestinians were stuck with their fellow Arabs. But it is precisely because the Middle Eastern Jews see their story written out of history and “global opinion” that they are so ready to vote for folk who give said opinion the finger.
Yes, Gurvitz has a point in that Israel cannot prosper as a Shin Bet state. Nevertheless, no perspective that writes the Jewish refugees from Arab and Muslim lands out of the framing has any chance of getting sufficiently broad Israeli acceptance to be the basis of any solution.
NOTE ON COMMENTS: Anything on the Arab-Israeli conflict–precisely because the symbolic content is so high and the factual grounding so erratic–has a strong tendency to generate threads of doom. Comments will be policed for civility.