Talking Israel to Americans: Who Knew? Part One

American anti-Semitism is up. Popular support for Israel has been dropping slowly for decades. A catastrophic drop in Beltway support is no longer inconceivable. Israeli hasbara ain’t worth whatever they pay somebody’s brother-in-law to do it. The American Zionist establishment ought to be mummified and put on display somewhere – or else de-mummified and turned to some other activity. As for those “mailing list” advocacy groups: all they ever do is whine, complain, issue manifestos, conduct “programs,” and ask – endlessly – for money.

As for those free-lancing private individuals who thunder from their respective mountain tops that “There is no Palestinian people” and “What God has given us, we may not surrender. Not one inch” – I sometimes think the best thing they could do for American understanding of Israel would be to announce their conversion to Islam.

All in all, we do a great job of convincing ourselves . . . except when we’re killing each other over our differences.

Now, preaching to the choir is a legitimate function; that’s one reason there are churches (and Jewish temples). But it ain’t gonna reach a smallish, hard-to-measure but potentially vital audience segment: serious Americans of all ages and stations with serious questions and doubts.

Forget the well-publicized, well-funded Islamic campus screamers (and when violence becomes a factor, a whole different set of rules kicks in, first among them, Protect yourself). Forget those Americans in quest of unearned moral stature – you know, the ones who used to fret Tibet, and before that cry over Nicaragua, and now excoriate Israel because it makes them feel so good about themselves. Forget also those few genuinely humanitarian Americans who always know what they want but never how to get it.

And skip the “Hitler Didn’t Finish the Job; We Will” types. They call for a different agenda.

Fortunately, this minority (saving remnant?) of serious Americans can be reached, one on one or in small groups, provided you remember two caveats and offer them things they’ve never heard before. You may not make many new Zionists. But “You know, I never saw it that way before” can be a powerful start, especially amongst those Americans for whom Israel is personally a low-involvement item, but who have their opinions.

First caveat: Just because something is important, compelling, even sacred to you, doesn’t mean it must be that way to everybody else. If all you want to do is express yourself and flaunt your piety, have at it. But don’t forget that rather crude invocation: What brings tears to the eyes of some, brings nausea to the stomachs of others.

Second caveat: Skip the “What about what they did/do?” and kindred arguments. “We deserve sympathy, not them” and “We can do whatever we want because they’re worse” won’t get you a lot of support. Disgust, maybe. Admiration, not. Leon Uris may be rotating in his grave, but that’s the way it is, and perhaps the way it ought to be.

So what to say that might provide a new perspective on how it got to be the way it is, and what next? There are many “How to Talk about Israel” guides out there, some of them pretty astute. But I’ve had surprisingly good luck over the years with the following six points.

First, a bit of rough historical demography.

In 1900, according to Ottoman figures, about 600,000 people lived in Palestine (to them, Lower Syria), nearly all Muslim. When the British took over after World War I, they counted 700,000 souls, including about 76,000 Jews, nearly all veterans of the first two Aliyot.

Between 1922 and 1942, according to the British, the population of Palestine roughly doubled. In 1948, Mandatory Palestine held 1.9 million people, about 600,000 Jews (maybe more, depending on how you estimate the illegals), some Christians and Druze, but the vast majority, Arab.

The Jews we know about. But where did all these Arabs comes from?

Mass population movements have many reasons, but one seems to stand out here. The Muslim immigrants to Mandatory Palestine were looking for something better. And they found it . . . with the Jews.

Muslims came from many places. Egyptians fled famine; residents of the now-defunct Ottoman Empire chose not to live under Christian oppression, real and possible; others came from other Arab areas for similar reasons.

It’s not often remembered that, to the British, Mandatory Palestine was a nuisance, a volatile place to be given someday to Jews. Further, British Arabists felt scant White Man’s Burden for Palestinian Muslims. That consummately self-deluding English diplomatic and military faction was far more interested in creating an Arab Renaissance elsewhere: Iraq, Transjordan, Saudi Arabia, etc., where their fantasies seemed more workable, and on which they spent far more money.

Simple fact: by far the greatest amount of Palestinian “up-building” during this period was done by Jews. Urban renewal and creation, reclamation of the land, infrastructure, medical care – you name it, the Jews were doing it. The Brits put in a railway for Iraqi oil, a lot of police forts, some nice hotels, but not much else.

British administration was, at least until the final years, surprisingly benevolent by Arab standards. Some Arab immigrants, especially the well-to-do, may have come for that reason. But for those Arabs simply seeking a better material life, health care, job opportunities, it was not the British who were supplying them.

So what went wrong? Why were all these Arabs, newcomers and generations-long residents, not satisfied with decent government, adequate food, health care and a reasonably efficient bus system?

Or, to ask it another way, why did so many Palestinian Jews think they would be? That, or else regard them as either eternal enemies or, in some ways worse, an inconvenient part of the landscape, to be, by and large, ignored?

Next Thursday: A Funny Thing Happened in 1948.

About the Author
Philip Gold made Aliyah from USA in 2010 after several decades as a Beltway "public intellectual" of sorts.
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