My column last week in The Huffington Post, “Why My Fellow Liberals Should Support Israel in Her Conflict with Hamas,” provoked the predictable hackles from the Blame Israel First crowd.
Within their excuses and rationalizations for the Hamas regime’s abhorrent actions – such as the targeting of Israeli civilians and the employment of Palestinian human shields – ran a familiar argument: That all means are justified, since the Jewish State is legally and morally illegitimate.
You may have heard their historical narrative: The Great Western powers, triumphantly basking in the aftermath of World War II, were paralyzed with guilt for their failure to prevent history’s most horrifying genocide. The Allies decided to resolve the “Jewish problem” by carving up the Arab-dominated Palestine to create a Jewish State because of the Chosen People’s mythical, Biblical ties to the land. Just as with the imperialist colonization of Africa and Asia; here, white-skinned, European, self-important and self-righteous conquerors patronizingly tried to “civilize” – and, if that failed, they’d violently displace – dark-skinned, indigenous peoples… all along ironically justifying their actions as a pursuit of justice and freedom and democracy.
It’s a powerful story that tugs at the heartstrings and plays to the deepest biases of many American liberals. For most progressives, our foreign policy worldview was defined by Vietnam, during which the old liberal guard launched a misguided quest to further the cause of global freedom, resulting instead in the inexcusable loss of hundreds of thousands of lives – mostly innocent, native Southeast Asians. The mindset was reinforced more recently in Iraq, where a neocon Bush/Cheney Administration played upon popular insecurities to wage an unnecessary and brutal war under the false pretenses of promoting democracy.
And hey, what liberal doesn’t love a good underdog story; whether it’s a minority group championing civil rights, or a tiny nation battling an imperial power?
It’s no wonder that this Bizarro-Bible myth of Israel as Goliath and Palestine as David plays smack dab into the liberal wheelhouse. And it confirms to some progressives that it’s the Israeli imperialists – greedily grasping onto their colonial territories – who are the key obstacle to peace in the Middle East.
The trouble with this narrative is that it’s entirely untrue.
Whether or not you believe that the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and/or the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) should be accepted as literally true – I don’t – it’s important to understand that for millennia, Jews and Christians have proclaimed Israel as their ancestral homeland. The city of Jerusalem and the land of Zion are mentioned more than 800 times in the Hebrew Bible, and in over 100 instances in the Christian Scriptures. Contrast that with the Koran; even though Jerusalem is spiritually significant for Muslims, the city is never mentioned in Islam’s holiest text.
But even those who reject any discussion of the holy books in this context must concede that the objective, independent historical and archaeological evidence is overwhelming: There has been a sustained and vibrant Jewish presence in the land of Israel for thousands of years.
Over the past few centuries, archaeologists have made a series of extraordinary discoveries that establish that a distinctive Jewish religion and culture was developed around 4,000 years ago in Israel and that Biblical figures such as David, Solomon and Jesus were the focus of considerable attention by the Jews of antiquity within Jerusalem and throughout the holy land. Further, Martin Gilbert, a widely-respected historian, has demonstrated, through a dispassionate examination of the historical record, that for more than 1600 years, Jews formed the “main settled population” of what now is considered the modern state of Israel.
While it’s well understood that many Jews were expelled from Israel during the first and second centuries C.E., what’s lesser known – but equally as established – is that tens of thousands of Jews remained in cities such as Jerusalem, Hebron, Acre, Tiberius, Jaffa and Jericho. As late as the 16th Century, according to the concurrent records of British occupying forces, nearly 15,000 Jews lived in the city of Safad alone.
And then… the deluge.
In the late nineteenth century, during a period of extensive global migration – concomitant with the Industrial Revolution and growing, violent conflicts between despots and freedom-seeking movements – a mass exodus of more than 35,000 European and North African Jews fled to British-ruled Palestine to escape government oppression. Then, in the first two decades of the 20th Century, another 45,000 Jews (mostly fleeing pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe) immigrated, reviving Hebrew as a spoken language, establishing political parties and agricultural cooperatives, and building the country’s first urban center, Tel Aviv. British documents establish that by the eve of World War II in 1937, more than 400,000 Jews inhabited the land; more than 150,000 Jews lived in Tel Aviv and over 75,000 in Jerusalem – in each case far exceeding the Arab presence.
Any suggestion that pre-war Jewish immigration in Palestine was an imperialist plot is absurd fiction. In fact, just the opposite was true. These were freedom-seeking refugees fleeing imperialist powers, particularly the czars of Russia. Moreover, during the war, the “imperialist” Western Allies actually impeded the emigration of Jews out of Europe. Most infamously, Great Britain’s White Paper of 1939 restricted Jewish immigration into Palestine to only 75,000 in the succeeding five years; a move that unwittingly, but inevitably, consigned millions of Jews to the gas chambers.
After the war, with growing revelations about the Holocaust, world opinion began to gel in favor of the formation of a Jewish state in Israel. But what the brand new United Nations had in mind was not a colonialist displacement of indigenous peoples, but rather an outcome that reflected their Wilsonian ideal of self-determination: the notion that peoples should have the right to freely choose their own sovereignty.
Accordingly, in 1947, the U.N. deliberately and carefully partitioned Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state, with the Jewish portion encompassing patches of land in which there were already Jewish popular majorities. Ultimately, the new state of Israel contained approximately 500,000 Jews and 400,000 Arabs, and boasted an uber-gerrymandered shape, with non-contiguous areas separated by Arab land, and critical Jewish centers such as Jerusalem and Safad completely isolated from the rest of the country.
Despite her territorial vulnerabilities, Israel immediately accepted the U.N. compromise; and on May 14, 1948, she declared her statehood. Within hours, the Arab states declared war – Palestinians were joined by the armed forces of Jordan,Syria,Egypt, and Iraq, with troops and military assistance from Saudi Arabia,Yemen,Lebanon,Morocco and Sudan.
Israel held no higher ground, was isolated geographically and horribly outnumbered. And yet, because of better training, organization, financing and equipment – and perhaps because they knew they could not lose and still survive as a state – the Israeli armed forces handily defeated their enemies. After more than five months of fighting – halted by international pressure because the Egyptian army was in danger of extinction – Israel captured and then annexed land beyond the original partition, finally establishing contiguous borders.
During the conflict, more than 700,000 Palestinians abandoned their homes in what emerged as the post-1948 State of Israel. Some fled for safety; others joined the Arab armies, and yes, many were forced out by Israeli troops.
War is unspeakably horrific. There were ugly, unforgivable atrocities on both sides. But about this there is no dispute: The Arab world started it.
I don’t mention this undeniable fact as a playground taunt to excuse any of the actions committed in the heat of conflict. Rather, I offer it as clear and convincing evidence that Israel never intended to build an “empire” beyond the original partition lines or to forcibly remove its Arab population in an effort of ethnic cleansing. They fought a war of self-defense, and upon winning, they retreated to lines that helped protect them against the next round of hostilities.
And they welcomed as neighbors the Arabs that braved the conflict, accepted its outcome and remained in or returned to their homes. The proof is in the people: More than 1.6 million Arabs continue to live as full and equal citizens in the Jewish State today, more than 20 percent of the country’s population.
Like most American liberals – indeed like a majority of Israeli citizens – I support a two-state solution that would transform most of the West Bank into a Palestinian state. But whatever problems progressives have with the Israeli government – or with its policies in the disputed territories – any arguments about the ultimate illegitimacy of the Jewish State itself are built on quicksand.
And their employment to excuse Hamas’s war crimes against innocent Jews and Arabs is simply abominable and is wholly inconsistent with all of our shared liberal values.
This column was adapted from a much more comprehensive treatment of these issues in my new e-book, The Liberal Case for Israel.