Following is my summary of an excellent lecture by Haviv Rettig Gur, a well known journalist for the TimesofIsrael.com daily web newspaper. Gur’s lecture brings something new to the Arab-Israeli conundrum. It’s a wake up call for Palestinian Arabs, explaining that their belief that Zionism is the ultimate reason for the Jewish State is incorrect and the stigmatization of Zionism will not force Jews from the Middle East.
Gur’s thesis is that the Palestinian Arabs (my term; he calls them just Palestinians) misunderstand the true basis of Zionism. Thus they continue to run into a brick wall by believing that they can force Israelis to leave “Palestine” and go back where they came from, leaving behind their dream of the promised land. They cannot and will not.
Of all the millions of Jews who fled their homes in Eastern Europe, starting in the 1880s through Israel’s independence in 1948, only about 2%, roughly 50,000, came to Palestine. Yes, Zionism was a factor in emigrating from Europe, but not the most important one. The vast majority were not fleeing TO somewhere else, they were fleeing FROM the wretched existence they suffered under the Jew-hating European governments.
Palestine was ruled by the Ottoman Empire for 400 years, ending only with the downfall of the Empire at the end of World War 1 (1917). In 1882, responding to the displeasure of the Palestine Arabs’ resentment of Jewish immigration, Palestine was closed to Jews by the Ottomans. Jews were allowed to “scatter” throughout the Empire, but were explicitly barred from Palestine. The lure of Zionism, which became a small wave under the leadership of Theodor Herzl in the last decade of the 19th century, enticed only the most ardent Zionists to the Land of Israel. Many more were intent on becoming prosperous in a Western country, especially the United States, than in becoming pioneers on the land in Palestine, an undeveloped, malaria-ridden backwater.
In Russia, where the majority of European Jews lived, the authorities began a conscious effort to expel Jews by making Russia uninhabitable for them. In 1882, many laws were passed restricting Jewish education, religion, legal activities, business opportunities, voting, and even the taking of non-Jewish names. In fact, Gur declared that other than exterminating Jews in camps, all of the anti-Jewish laws which governed Nazi Germany were foreshadowed by Russia. Even democratic France treated its Jews abominably, as was publicized worldwide by the infamous Dreyfus Affair (1884-1906), which indelibly influenced Herzl, the Paris correspondent for the leading Viennese newspaper, the Neue Freie Presse.
In the 1880s and after, when pogroms were rampant, Jews poured out of Eastern Europe, spreading to North America, South America, South Africa, Britain, Australia or to wherever they could gain admittance. But Jewish emigration was hardly unnoticed by the host countries. The world began to shut its doors to the Jews by 1921, when the US passed its Emergency Quota Act. Things grew even worse when the more stringent 1924 Immigration Act was enacted. The number of Jewish immigrants to the US plummeted from 110,000 in 1921, to 10,000 in 1924, and to 2,700 in 1934, just when German Jews began to understand the perils of the Nazi regime.
Over the course of the Great Depression, America’s doors were closed to the Jews and other immigrants. In 1939, when the Nazi war machine and its war against the Jews was in high gear, the British coldly promulgated their “White Paper” closing Palestine’s borders, leaving the Jews in mortal danger (Arab immigrants were unaffected.) In the US, the scant immigration quota for Jews was purposely unfulfilled by the Jew-hating bureaucrats of the State Department, who, like the British, favored the Arabs.
Let’s put this into perspective. During the (British) Palestine Mandate period, roughly from 1917 to1948, the Palestinian Arabs railed and rioted against the Jews who returned to their ancient homeland (mostly as the only refuge), supposedly displacing “indigenous” Arabs and the many Arab newcomers seeking work in Jewish-owned enterprises. But as we have seen, it was only a tiny minority of Jewish emigrants from Europe who opted to be Zionists, while the vast majority, 98%, sought more developed, prosperous Western countries as a new home. Zionists were few and far between.
After the conclusion of WW2, millions of Jews languished in the concentration camps, then renamed Displaced Persons camps. Many still wore their concentration camp suits for lack of any other clothing, although some were provided with cast-off German Army uniforms! The survivors were threadbare, undernourished, disease-ridden prisoners kept behind barbed wire and guarded by US troops. Their only hope was so-called illegal immigration to Palestine, enabled by intrepid Israelis and volunteers from around the world.
So it was no surprise that surveys taken asking where the “displaced persons” wanted to emigrate to overwhelmingly showed Palestine as the preferred destination. Actually, it was the only place that welcomed them. The imprisoned Jews wanted out of Europe and Israel was the destination that needed them.
The Algerian War of Independence against the French (1954-1962) animated the Arabs (some of whom were from Palestine) to form the PLO, the Palestine Liberation Army in 1964. In this Algerian uprising against the French colonials, about 1 million or more European-Algerians fled to France while about 1 million Algerian Arabs were killed. The PLO and others insisted that the Jews were part of a colonial enterprise in Palestine under the guise of Zionism, which is false. (The British were the colonizers in Palestine.) Like what happened to the French in Algeria, the terror war against the British would eventually cause them to end the Mandate. British forces left Palestine the next day after Israel declared its independence on May 14. Simultaneously, five Arab armies and local Arab forces attacked the nascent state.
The organized terror war against the “Zionist entity” enlarged and eventually resulted in the First (1987) and Second/Al-Aqsa (2000 ) Intifadas. The purpose of the uprisings was to force the Jews to flee back to where they came from. But, of course, there is no “back” to return to. The Jews have returned to their roots and prospered mightily, while the Palestinian Arabs have mistakenly put their energies into fighting Jews instead of building their own viable state. They turned down a chance for statehood in 1947 and numerous times thereafter, consistently choosing to “throw the Zionists into the sea.”.
Gur explained at length the “sunk costs” that the Palestinian Arabs have saddled themselves with, which strongly preclude a peaceful solution. Gur asks, How can they come to peaceful terms with the Jews when the Palestinian Authority names towns, streets, and soccer fields for Arab suicide bombers?
What was their sacrifice for, if not for liberation from the Zionist entity?
What would happen to the certainty of their own national story, if their enemies were literally fighting for survival – not only Zionism – with no other place to turn to?
How much of their own suffering and loss was their own doing?
I’m not sure if thoughtful answers to the above questions would change anything. Nevertheless, Gur speculates that peace might come with the realization that the Jews’ presence here is out of necessity because there is nowhere else to go. He believes that the Palestinian Arabs have to frame their demands of us by the terms of our story as well as their own story. It’s not the Zionist ideology they must fight, but the stone cold reality of the Jewish homeland, arguably the most powerful force in the Middle East.
But that isn’t all. Gur emphasized that Jerusalem is the crux of the situation for both sides. As he sees it, without some kind of compromise over “Al Aqsa,” which the Palestinian Arabs have conflated with the entire Jewish Temple Mount, there will never be peace. How that nut can be cracked is anyone’s guess, because however ardent the Arabs are over the Al Aqsa mosque, it is placed on top of the Jews’ most sacred place, the Temple Mount where our two holy Temples stood.
Haviv Rettig Haviv is the son of American olim (immigrants to Israel). Gur was raised in Israel but spent his adolescence in the US. He returned to Israel for his army service as a combat medic. Gur later studied history and Jewish thought at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.