“Parallel Narratives Never Meet: History of the Arab-Jewish Conflict in Palestine/Israel” by Ira P. Weiss, PhD

May 21, 20172017 Easter altar with articulated mannikins holding signs

Sixth Sunday of Easter

Histories are not complete accounts of the billions of random past events. History is always a narrative, a set of selected events that, when put together, tell a particular story — for example the story of the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire or the story of the “Discovery” of America.”

The Palestinian and Israeli narratives are accounts of the same conflict. But, they are very different for two reasons. First, each is part of a much larger national history. And, for most of recorded history, the Jewish and Palestinian-Arab nations lived through very different experiences in very different places in the world. Second, the two narratives tell two different, but equally true, stories. One is the story of the colonization of Palestine by European Jews and the destruction of Arab Palestinian society that followed. The other is the story of the Jewish people’s return to their historic national homeland after many centuries of oppression in the Diaspora. Now hang on to your seats because in the next 15 minutes we are going to fly through two thousand years of history … twice!

We will begin with the Palestinian narrative of that history:

The people known today as Palestinian Arabs are the indigenous population of Palestine. Many are probably descendants of the ancient peoples who lived in Canaan in Biblican time. Toward the end of the 7th century, Palestine became an overwhelmingly Arab Islamic country, and remained so for 1200 continuous years. But, at the close of the 19th century, a colonialist movement called Zionism was born in Europe, and European Zionists began invading Palestine in greater and greater numbers with the expressed intention of taking over that Muslim Arab country and turning it into a Jewish state.

There had always been a small Jewish minority in Palestine. And, they coexisted peacefully with the Arab majority until Zionism introduced conflict and violence. The Zionist movement, from the beginning, looked forward to a practically complete dispossession of the indigenous Arab population so that Israel could be a wholly Jewish state, or at least as Jewish as the Zionists could manage to make it one way or another. The Jewish National Fund, an arm of the Zionist movement, bought land from absentee land owners, expelled the Palestinian fellahin (serfs / tenant farmers), and kept ownership of the land in the name of the Jewish people. The Jewish National Fund charter specified that the land could then never be sold or even leased back to Arabs.

As the Arab community became increasingly aware of the Zionists’ intentions, they resisted Jewish immigration and land buying because it posed a real and imminent danger to the very existence of Arab society in Palestine. Because of this opposition, the entire Zionist project never could have been realized without the military backing of the British.

In short, Zionism was based on a faulty, colonialist world view that the rights of the indigenous inhabitants didn’t matter. The Arabs’ opposition to Zionism wasn’t based on anti-Semitism but rather on a totally reasonable fear of the dispossession of their people.

“The Balfour Declaration, issued in1917 by the British Government…was made by a European power, but it concerned a non-European territory, and it disregarded the presence and the wishes of the native majority residents of that territory. Arab violence starting around 1920 was a fully justified attempt to stop a Zionist-British colonialist conspiracy to deprive Palestinians of their legitimate national rights.

The Zionists convinced European Jews to move to Palestine by telling them it was a “land without people for a people without land. ” But, that was a lie. Palestine was home to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians Arabs at that time. And the only way it could be turned into a Jewish homeland was to expel the Arabs.

In 1919, the American King-Crane Commission spent six weeks in Palestine, interviewing delegations and reading petitions. Their report stated,

“The commissioners began their study of Zionism with minds predisposed in its favor…The fact came out repeatedly in the Commission’s conferences with Jewish representatives that the Zionists looked forward to a practically complete dispossession of the present non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine, by various forms of purchase…

The report continues later with these words:
“If [the] principle [of self-determination] is to rule, and so the wishes of Palestine’s population are to be decisive as to what is to be done with Palestine, then it is to be remembered that the non-Jewish population of Palestine — nearly nine-tenths of the whole — are emphatically against the entire Zionist program.. To subject a people so minded to unlimited Jewish immigration, and to steady financial and social pressure to surrender the land, would be a gross violation of the principle just quoted …

And later the report continues:
“The initial claim, often submitted by Zionist representatives, that they have a ‘right’ to Palestine based on occupation of two thousand years ago, can barely be seriously considered.”

The danger that Jewish immigration presented became obvious to John Chancellor, then the British high commissioner for Palestine. He recommended total suspension of Jewish immigration and land purchase in order to protect Arab agriculture. He said ‘all cultivable land was occupied; that no cultivable land now in possession of the indigenous population could be sold to Jews without creating a class of landless Arab farmers. The Colonial Office rejected the recommendation.

In November 1947 the Arabs rejected the UN partition because it was unjust and illegal. The action of the United Nations conflicted with the basic principles for which the world organization was established, namely, to uphold the right of all peoples to self-determination. By denying the Palestine Arabs, who formed the two-thirds majority of the country, the right to decide for themselves, the United Nations had violated its own charter. And the UN vote did not really reflect world opinion. By 1947, the United States had become a strong proponent of partition. The United States got the General Assembly to delay a vote to give it and Zionist leaders more time to get some delegates from South America and Africa to change their votes. Without that pressure from the United States on governments that could not afford to risk American displeasure, the resolution would never have passed.

By that time, the Zionists were better equipped and better organized than the Palestinians, and when civil war broke out between them in Palestine, the Zionists not only captured the half of Palestine that the UN had suggested be a Jewish state, but also half of what was supposed to be the Arab state. In order to turn 3/4 of Palestine into a state with a large Jewish majority, the Jews expelled 750,000 Arabs from Palestine. Many of those Palestinian Arabs and their descendants remain stateless refugees to this day. In 1967 the Israeli army occupied the remaining 1/4 of Palestine, and since then Israel has been engaged in a process of colonizing that last piece of Arab Palestine by building Jews-only settlements there and using different ways to force out the native Palestinian population.

Now, Let’s begin the history again, this time the way it is told in the Jewish narrative:

About 3000 years ago Hebrew speaking tribes in Canaan evolved into the Israelite nation and formed a kingdom. Under King David they made Jerusalem their national and spiritual capital. However, a civil war erupted between north and south and the Kingdom was split into two. The northern Kingdom disappeared from history, but the southern kingdom called Judea remained in one form or another until the Romans forced the Judeans into exile in 70 AD. The displaced Jews ended up scattered throughout much of the world, part in the rest of the Middle East and part in Europe.

The treatment of Jews who ended up in what became the Muslim world was often harsh. Much of the maltreatment of Jews by their Muslim neighbors was rooted in a Qur’anic passage that refers to Jews as the descendants of apes and pigs, and a Hadith, that declares that the day of judgment cannot come until Muslims kill all the Jews. Officially, Sharia classified Jews as dhimmi, second class citizens. They were usually not permitted to wear swords or daggers or other symbols of status. They were required to walk in the street not on the sidewalk. They were compelled to pay higher taxes than Muslims, and the height and locations of synagogues was severely restricted.

The Jews who ended up in Europe fared even worse as Christianity spread throughout that continent. For centuries, Christian clergy demonized the Jews as killers of Christ and Jewish suffering and oppression were portrayed as divine punishment for the crime of deicide. Jews were repeatedly attacked and driven out of places in western Europe, so by the end of the Middle Ages the majority ended up in the pale of the Russian empire.

So, it should come as no surprise that for centuries Jews prayed several times a day for God to return them to the Land of Israel. There was always a small core of Jews living in Palestine, but for most Jews in the Diaspora, the idea of returning seemed an impossible messianic dream.

However, in the mid 19th century, as national self determination became the new world order in Europe, it also influenced the Jews who lived there. The Jews of Europe began to migrate back to Israel with the hope of re-establishing the Jewish Nation in its original national homeland. In 1882 a group of Jews who called themselves Hovevei Zion, Lovers of Zion, migrated to the Holy Land. There they bought some uninhabitable swamp land from an Arab village. They worked three years to drain it and make it habitable. They then built a village for themselves which they called Rishon LeZion, First in Zion.

The Zionist movement was officially founded in 1884 and the first World Zionist Congress was held in 1897. Theodor Herzl, a totally secular journalist from Vienna, had little interest in Biblical commandments or Jewish historical ties to the promised land. In 1894 he was sent to Paris where he witnessed the unjust conviction of Alfred Dreyfus and the widespread outbreak of French anti-Semitism that followed the trial. He became disillusioned with the French promise of equality for Jews, and devoted the rest of his life to leading the struggle to establish a state for the Jewish nation.

During the First World War, Great Britain captured Palestine from the Ottoman Empire. The League of Nations was created to establish a new world order of independent democratic nation states. Among the nations that were promised self determination in this new world order was the Jewish nation. When the League of Nations created the Palestine Mandate, it incorporated the right of Jews to re-establish their national home in Palestine as a matter of international law. Immigration to Palestine became easier, and Jews began to migrate to Eretz Yisra’el in larger numbers and began to build the infrastructure of a modern state. They purchased land from Arab land owners and from Arab villages, often at exorbitant prices. On the purchased land they created kibbutzim, a unique form of totally democratic communal agricultural settlements. On some sand dunes near Jaffa, they built Tel Aviv, the first Hebrew city to exist in 2000 years. They established a democratic system of self government for the Yishuv, as the Jewish community in Palestine was known. They built a road system to connect the agricultural settlements and villages to the cities, established a system of labor unions, pensions and medical care, and a complete Hebrew educational system, including modern world class universities, technical schools and scientific research institutions.

The Arabs in Palestine reacted to the increased Jewish immigration with violence. Arab gangs perpetrated murders and massacres on the Jewish population. After the 1920-1921 anti-Jewish riots, the Jewish leadership in Palestine realized that they could not rely on the British administration for protection from Arab attacks, and they created the Hagannah to protect their villages and Kibbutzim. Hagannah means protection. Even more extensive Arab massacres of Jews occurred during the 1929 Palestine riots and again during the 1936–1939 Arab revolt in Palestine.

In the 1940s, 6 million Jews, 2/3 of the Jews of Europe were exterminated in the Holocaust. The remnant of the Jewish population ended up in displaced persons camps demanding the right to go to Palestine. In November 1947, at the recommendation of a special committee sent to investigate the situation in Palestine, the fledgling United Nations organization, voted on a two state solution to the conflict in Palestine, to create both a Jewish and Arab state there. The Jews accepted the resolution, the Arab states rejected it and vowed to go to war to prevent its implementation.

Civil war between the Jewish and Arab communities in Palestine broke out the day after the UN vote. On May 14, 1948, the day Israel declared its independence, the states of the Arab League invaded Palestine and joined the war against the infant state. Arab states refused to sign a peace treaty or to recognize the Jewish state. With the exception of Jordan and Egypt, the official state of war between Israel and the members of the Arab League remains to this day.

After services we will be screening a film that documents how the history of the conflict is taught in Palestinian and Israeli schools followed by Q&A and discussion.

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