Dear Jon Voight, You Were Not Wrong

Dear Mr. Voight,

Rest assured that your brief review of Israel’s history and the present conflict are not “at odds with the actual history” as Professors Gil Hochberg and Mark LeVine would have you believe.

Unfortunately, Hochberg and LeVine simply replace what they refer to as traditional “myths” about Israel with a different set of iron clad myths, all of which portray Zionists and Israel as powerful aggressors, expansionistic, and the sole reason for the lack of peace. They cite revisionist historians to substantiate their points, implying that this revisionist history is now widely accepted when in fact, mainstream historians vigorously dispute its claims. They repeat damning accusations against Israel, impervious to context and to the falsity or disputed evidence of these accusations. Nor do Hochberg and LeVine admit their own strong biases: both have endorsed divestment from Israel, thereby aligning with the boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign [BDS] which advances anti-Israel propaganda and calls for a Palestinian refugee “right of return” to Israel, a demand that has long been a euphemism for eliminating the Jewish state by turning Jews into a minority. Indeed, Hochberg and LeVine adopt unquestioningly the Arab and Palestinian anti-Israel narrative.  This is certainly not “actual history” nor serious academic analysis: it is polemic poorly disguised as scholarship.

Like many revisionist historians, Hochberg and LeVine paint a black and white caricature in which Israel is always the bad guy. They distort facts and eliminate context to rewrite the history.  Historical events are complex and your brief note obviously did not and could not include all that complexity or the nuances of history.  But in fact, your view of the history is closer to the actual facts than theirs.  Israel is a small state that has faced ongoing hostility from its neighbors, and has sought territorial compromise and peace with surrounding Arab countries and Palestinians.

Hochberg and LeVine have no sympathy for a minority—the Jewish people–who had experienced oppression and persecution for the better part of 1900 years in the Middle East and Europe and who hoped to restore their independence and freedom in their ancestral land.  Instead, they claim that Zionists arrived on the “soil of Palestine that was already in the midst of its own modernization,” as though this precluded Jews returning to the area. They also ignore the fact that at the time, Palestine as a distinct area did not yet exist, but was simply a backwater in the sprawling Ottoman Empire, and that Jews had had a continuous presence for 3,000 years, had once again become the majority in Jerusalem in the mid-1800’s and were playing a part in that modernization.  These academics describe Zionism as a “militant” movement, ignoring the fact that early Zionists came peacefully to buy and develop the land, and began to arm themselves for self-defense only after 1920 when they realized the British would not protect them from anti-Jewish mob violence like the Nebi Musa riots in 1920 and those that followed in 1921. They deploy Zionist language used at the time—“conquest of labor”—to amplify this militaristic imagery when in fact the term referred to firms and farms hiring Jews and having Jews work the land instead of exploiting cheap Arab labor.  The “conquest of land”—a term not used by Zionists—implies Jews conquered the land when in fact they bought and tilled the land.

Hochberg and LeVine are equally inaccurate about the Mandate period and the 1948 War. It is true that the British were legally entrusted with facilitating the creation of a Jewish “national home” in the Mandate, not fostering Palestinian Arab nationalism.  But it is equally true that the British cut off 77% of the Mandate, forming what became Jordan, solely for Arab settlement and forbade Jewish settlement in the area, and that the UN’s 1947 Partition Plan recommended establishing the first Palestinian Arab state in history, hardly a denial of emerging Palestinian Arab nationalism.  Hochberg and LeVine claim, without a shred of evidence, that though Zionists accepted the terms of the UN Partition Plan, “they had little intention of fulfilling them.” In fact, the Zionists did accept the recommendation, but Arab and Palestinian leaders did not.  Hochberg and LeVine imply that the violence that erupted after the UN vote for partition was instigated by Zionists when in fact Palestinian and then Arab leaders—not the Zionists—launched violent attacks to prevent its realization and boasted about their aggression.   Hochberg and LeVine further imply that through this Zionist and then Israeli violence “three-quarters of a million Palestinians were permanently forced from their homes.”  It should be underscored that had Arab and Palestinian leaders accepted the partition plan, there would have been no war and no Palestinian refugees—or Jewish refugees, hundreds of thousands of whom  were forced out of Arab lands. Furthermore, the history of the Palestinian Arab refugees is complex, with most historians, including Benny Morris, showing that Israel had no plan to expel them and that most fled for many reasons but primarily simply to escape the war, just as many Palestinian notables did.

Nor does the historical record “belie” the claim that surrounding Arab countries attacked the small, newly declared state of Israel.  They did. Unable to fully deny that reality, Hochberg and LeVine try to minimize the threat , claiming these countries simply wanted to carve up the land for themselves  (which hardly minimizes the  danger they posed) and that they were not well equipped so were not  a serious threat to Israel.  Yet in fending off these allegedly weak armies, which were stymied more by their lack of unity than their lack of armaments, Israel lost 6,000 people, one percent of its population, the equivalent of 3 million Americans today.  Nor are Hochberg and LeVine on more solid ground with their claim that the Zionists and Jordan had reached an understanding on dividing up the territory, but couldn’t find agreement on Jerusalem which is why it became the scene of the worst fighting of the war.  That is simply untrue. Historians generally agree that Israel did not reach an agreement with Jordan, and the fighting in Jerusalem was because Israel wanted to protect the 100,000 Jews who lived in Jerusalem, Judaism’s holiest site, and Jordanian forces continued attacks from the city.  Jews were unceremoniously murdered or expelled from the areas that fell to Jordanian troops.

In keeping with their portrait of Israel as the aggressor who took military action for no reason, Hochberg and LeVine eliminate all context for the 1956 and 1967 wars.  Israel joined France and the UK in 1956 because it was being choked and crippled by Arab blockades, particularly of the Straits of Tiran, by ongoing terrorism, and by threats that the Negev would be severed and given to Egypt.  After the war, the Straits of Tiran were legally opened to Israeli shipping, UN peacekeeping forces were placed in the Sinai to ward off future attacks, and great powers’ talk of cutting off the Negev ceased.  Similarly, Hochberg and LeVine admit that in 1967, Arab states, led by Egypt, were menacing Israel, but they still fault Israel for its preemptive attack, ignoring the fact that Israel was surrounded by over 250,000 troops, the Straits of Tiran were blocked again (a casus belli), and the UN had removed its peacekeeping troops. Despite these overwhelming threats to its ability to survive, Hochberg and LeVine claim this was a “war of conquest and expansion.”  They use circular logic to prove this point, taking the results of the war—Israel won the West Bank, Gaza, the Sinai and the Golan Heights—for its motives.  In fact, the historical record demonstrates that Israel asked Jordan not to attack, informing King Hussein that Israel had no designs on the West Bank.  Nonetheless, Jordan attacked, which led to Israel capturing the West Bank.  Nor do Hochberg and LeVine mention that immediately after the war, Israel offered to trade land for peace, but Arab leaders rejected the offer. Hochberg and LeVine are strangely silent about the Egypt and Syria’s surprise attack on Israel on Yom Kippur, Judaism’s holiest day, in 1973, perhaps because they could not accuse Israel of this aggression.

When it comes to Israel and the West Bank, Hochberg and LeVine simply repeat canards against Israel as fact, once again ignoring context and contrary evidence. They flatly claim that Israeli West Bank settlements are illegal.  The settlements are politically contentious even in Israel, but many legal scholars, such as former dean of Yale Law School, Eugene Rostow, have argued that  Israel has legal and historical rights to build communities in the West Bank, and the Oslo Accords did not deem them illegal, but rather considered them a final status issue to be resolved in negotiations.  Nor do Hochberg and LeVine explain why it is appropriate for Israel to include a 24% non-Jewish minority, but that it is also appropriate for Palestinians to demand that their proposed state be as “Judenrein,” as  Gaza and most Arab countries.  They recite a litany of alleged Israeli abuses during its administration of the West Bank and Gaza, ignoring the wealth of data that  paints a different picture: Israel helped turn the West Bank and Gaza into the world’s fourth fastest growing economy in the 1970’s and 1980’s, instituted multiple civil  freedoms—of the press, and assembly—and helped modernize the areas with water systems, education, health care, and other improvements that dramatically improved the health, welfare, and standard of living of Palestinians.

Nor do Hochberg and LeVine admit that Israel has repeatedly accepted or offered territorial compromises in exchange for peace—in 1937, 1947, 1967, 1979, 2000 and 2008.  They declare that “there has been no attempt by any Israeli government to make any peace to which any reasonable person could be expected to agree” though Israel offered a contiguous Palestinian state on 100% of Gaza, 95-97% of the West Bank (with land swaps), and a shared capital of Jerusalem in 2000 and 2008.  Most reasonable people, including Presidents Clinton and Obama, and Saudi Prince Bandar, considered these to be preeminently reasonable offers, yet Hochberg and LeVine deride these offers without any explanation.

Finally, Hochberg and LeVine appear to turn a blind eye on Hamas, an internationally designated terrorist group whose founding document calls for the murder of Jews,  the obliteration of Israel and its replacement with an Islamist caliphate, and cites from the anti-Semitic forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Theseclaims are regularly repeated by Hamas leaders and clerics.  Hochberg and LeVine make serious factual mistakes to somehow make Hamas seem legitimate, arguing that “no significant rocket fire occurred until two years after Hamas was elected” in 2006, when in fact there were 1726 rockets fired into southern Israel from Gaza in 2006 alone.

Hochberg and Levine seem to recite Hamas claims about Israel’s military operations in Gaza in 2008 and 2014 which Israel launched to stop the incessant rocket attacks against its citizens.  They charge that even bringing up the term “genocide” is an indictment of Israel, ignoring the fact that they are falling for propagandistic claims. In both operations (though the figures are not yet complete for 2014), Israel did not target civilians, and 60% of Palestinian casualties in 2008 and at least 50% in 2014 were documented as combatants, not civilians.  Israel’s efforts to protect innocent Gazan civilians by giving warnings so people could move to safety from terrorist targets, aborting operations if too many innocent civilians were in the targeted area, and ensuring the regular supply of humanitarian goods despite Hamas attacks on border crossings, is the opposite of war crimes and genocide.  Indeed, British Lt. Col (ret) Richard Kemp, former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, declared that in 2008, “the Israeli Defense Forces did more to safeguard the rights of civilians in a combat zone than any other army in the history of warfare.” Israel’s effort to protect innocent civilians was echoed by Faisal Al-Qassam, an anchor on Al Jazeera, and even by Palestinian Envoy to the UN Human Rights Council, Riyad Mansour on July 9, 2014.

In their feverish effort to damn Israel, its history and practices, Hochberg and LeVine distort history, and do grave damage to those seeking a peaceful solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and to all moderates in the region who are now victimized by violent extremist groups like Hamas, Islamic State (formerly ISIS), and Hezbollah, the Assad government, and Iran which is racing to build nuclear weapons and whose primary target is Israel.

Mr. Voight, your analysis was not wrong.  Israel is a small, progressive democracy that is struggling to survive in an increasingly dangerous and hostile region.  Sure, there are things it might have done or could do differently, but those failures are not out of malice. They are rather out of a real concern about survival and keeping the world’s only Jewish state viable and vibrant.

About the Author
Dr. Roberta P. Seid, an historian, is Education & Research Director of StandWithUs and has taught a course on Israel at the University of California, Irvine
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