A Letter in the Somerville Journal -- and a Postscript

James Adler

Inspired by John Turner's overview of the Israeli-Arab conflict in last week's issue, I'm going to try my hand at it.  But I'm not going to do the same thing, or he would win ! One thing that struck me in John's piece: an epiphany: I knew it was a *conflict*-- and that's a serious thing, in the full meaning of the term --, in Hegel's sense, in which "the worst conflicts are those between right and right" and to say, when asked why so-or-so did this-or-that: "Well, it's a conflict, stupid !"   John gave a new and epiphanic slant to this, however-- not to moralize.  When the conflict is so much between right and right (and wrong and wrong), what's the point of moralization?

I begin with a letter from last month printed in the The Somerville Journal.  I've removed the name of the interlocutor and omitted the link, for the sake of his anonymity, and have revised the letter for purposes of clarity.  And after the letter-- a basic Postscript.

The Somerville Journal
Letter: Response to opinion was a personal attack
Wednesday, January 10, 2007 - Updated: 05:49 PM EST

To the Editor of the Somerville Journal:

The response to my letter about supporting Israel, opposing divestment [from Israel], but with honest pain over Israel’s history, was a personal attack. V. “smells a rat.” I am “just another fabricator.” What I say are “crafty fabrications,” and “shameless propaganda,” falsifications,” and “lies.” I am part of “Adler, Ron Francis & Co.,” [apparently Francis led the Somerville divestment campaign--JA] though I have never heard of Francis until now.

I even was against divestment also (which he omits to mention), and I attack nobody.

The Journal’s choice for a title for V.'s letter that captures its essence: "Feeling uneasy about letter-writer.” The personalization is telling. I am surprised the Journal published it in current form.

I recognize that truth and facts can be ambiguous. This is the human condition. But since things are so ambiguous, and especially here, there is especially no need for personal attacks.

Space precludes saying much, but suffice that V. does not challenge the central fact: In 1900, Palestine had already been more than 90 percent Palestinian for many centuries, and yet within five short decades, 75 percent of the Palestinians were displaced from 80 percent of their land.

This is unique in the modern world.

V. implies the Romans invented the name “Palestine,” which is to admit it is a very ancient name, and he also admits that even the Jews there in the 1920s called themselves Palestinians-- so they called themselves by the ancient Roman name. They did so presumably because it was customary back then, and hence was reasonable, (the legal name of he Jerusalem Post is still “The Palestine Post” ), and in the same way the early Arabs took up and adapted the customary name of Al Quds.

Though it is unclear how the Romans could have originated calling the area Palestine, since the first great Greek historian and “father of history,” Herodotus, mentions it in ancient Greek times, many centuries before Roman times, for example that “part of Syria, and all the region extending from hence to Egypt, is known by the name of Palestine.” (Herodotus, 7.89, Tr. George Rawlinson, Modern Library, 1942)

Notwithstanding all this, V.'s recourse to “names” seems anyway irrelevant.

Roses are roses, uprooted roses are uprooted roses, and uprooted people are uprooted people, under any name or category under which they may fall-- or assigned by others who (may) wish to harm them.  

V. also says: “In 1922, most of British Mandate Palestine was given to Hashemite family from Arabia, with Abdullah imported and enthroned as King of Transjordan by the British. The very same League of Nations (U.N.’s precursor) that endorsed re-establishing Jewish homeland in Palestine, created Transjordan.”

First, there is a key difference between two things:

On the one hand, multiple shifts of the rulers or borders which overlie indigenous people, in a way such that the indigenous peoples stay where they are, uninterrupted and unmoved, always in their own stable homes and communities, throughout all the "moving and shaking" transacted over their heads.

And, on the other hand, fundamentally differently, going where one doesn’t live, but the indigenous people do, and displacing them out of their homes and communities, turning them into refugees in exile.

Second, V. is wrong that the British took most of British Mandatory Palestine out of the British Mandate. Daniel Pipes [a conservative scholar] notes that Jordan “was part of the Palestine Mandate for a mere eight months, from July 1920 to March 1921 [but that] the League of Nations formally bestowed the mandatory responsibility on Great Britain only [much later] in July 1922.” [“Is Jordan Palestine?”, by Daniel Pipes and Adam Garfinkle, “Commentary”, Oct. 1988)]. [Incidentally, Pipes' answer to his question is: "No"--JA]

Third, the Palestine Mandate was a betrayal of League of Nations Mandate purposes. League Mandates were established in Article 22, which begins:

“To those colonies and territories which ... have ceased to be under the sovereignty of the States which formerly governed them and which are inhabited by peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world, ... [t]here should be applied the principle that the well-being and development of such peoples form a sacred trust of civilization .... The best method of giving practical effect to this principle is that the tutelage of such peoples should be entrusted to advanced nations ... as Mandatories.”

Even apart from the “white man’s burden” paternalism, why wasn’t it the people of Palestine of 1922, who were 85-90 percent Palestinians, whose “well-being and development” would have been precisely that which was “entrusted” to the British until the Palestinians could “stand by themselves”?

Also why couldn't the Palestinians "stand by themselves" in their own independent state, right then and there, in 1922?

But a Mandate was created where they lived instead, and the "Balfour Resolution" was inserted into it. Indeed the Mandate virtually begins with the word-for-word Balfour Resolution:

"[T]he Principal Allied Powers have also agreed that the Mandatory should be responsible for putting into effect the declaration originally made on November 2nd, 1917, by the Government of His Britannic Majesty, and adopted by the said Powers, in favor of the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, it being clearly understood that nothing should be done which might prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non­Jewish communities in Palestine."

So the Palestine Mandate, purportedly a sacred trust for the well being and development of the people inhabiting Palestine, i.e., the 85-90% Palestinians, since they allegedly could not yet stand by themselves" because of the presumed "strenuous conditions" of the modern world, does not once mention Arabs or Palestinians, but only "non-Jews," and the purpose of the Mandate isn't for them at all, but only for the approximately 10% population of Palestine, most of them newcomers from Europe.

Again, why couldn't the Palestinians have "stood by themselves" immediately? 

The answer is that if it had been recognized that they could have, the outsiders couldn't have come in and taken it over.  

The League of Nations Mandate System's Charter says that they couldn't immediately stand by themselves due to the "strenuous conditions of the modern world." 

But it was the opposite: There were no strenuous conditions at all, until, in an Orwellian reversal, it was the strenuous conditions that were imposed upon them by the Palestine Mandate itself.

In a summation of this ironical, cruel, Orwellianism:

The inhabitants were told they could not stand by themselves, and that their inability was due to "strenuous conditions," but they were told this only in order to create conditions that were so strenuous that they would not be able to stand by themselves. 

The  Mandates of all the other ex-Ottoman colonies, however much they were infected with the "white man's burden"  mentality, and however unnecessary the League's "help," actually with old-fashioned patronizing and paternalistic sincerity did try help them to stand by themselves. And so were consistent with the benevolent paternalism of the League of Nations Mandate purpose and system.

Only the Mandate for Palestine was different.   And a basic betrayal of the inhabitants:  The Palestine Mandate, and this one alone, was deliberately designed in order precisely to prevent the inhabitants ever from being able to stand by themselves. 

How was the League’s insertion of the Balfour Resolution into the Palestine Mandate *not* a basic betrayal of the League of Nations’s purposes, norms and values?; a betrayal of the League's benevolently paternalistic raison d’etre of the Mandates in the first place?; and a fundamental betrayal of the Palestinians?

V. says great Jewish opponents of partition and ethnic cleansing, such as Albert Einstein, Martin Buber, and Erich Fromm “never claimed to be historians,” showing V.'s anachronistic error in thinking they needed to be: this wasn’t “history” but contemporary for them, just as we may oppose the Iraq War as critics of our times-- and certainly not as historians of the past. So when Einstein, Buber, or Fromm speak, they are also relevant not as historians of their pasts, but as great voices of moral examination of their own times.

V. calls renowned Israel historians Benny Morris and Tom Segev “historians" in disparaging and insulting quotation marks, putting the egg on his face as they are among Israel’s most preeminent historians, who have raised Israeli history from cheerleading stanzas to scholarly history, with conclusions confirmed by most objective professional historians.

V. says Benny Morris changed his historical views. This is false. Instead Morris became conservative, and now believes early Zionists didn’t execute enough ethnic cleansing but should have taken it all the way to the Jordan River.

Recent popular expressions of his views are found in the Los Angeles Times (Jan. 24, 2004, B11), significantly called “In ‘48, Israel did what it had to do,” where he describes and supports the cleansing, and Ari Shavit’s interview of him in Israel’s influential daily paper, “Ha’aretz” (Fri., January 9, 2004).

In Ha’aretz, when Morris tells Shavit the Israelis “perpetrated ethnic cleansing,” Shavit responds, “The term ‘to cleanse’ is terrible.”  Morris’s reply is: “I know it doesn’t sound nice but that’s the term they used at the time. I adopted it from all the 1948 documents in which I am immersed.”

This brings us to David Ben-Gurion. Here V. gets his “gotcha.” I accidentally misquoted Ben-Gurion-- either from where it was phrased wrong, or a confusion in my notes. Does it matter? Of course not.

Shavit asks Morris: “(Shavit:) ‘Are you saying that Ben-Gurion was personally responsible for a deliberate and systematic policy of mass expulsion?’

Morris: ‘From April 1948, Ben-Gurion is projecting a message of transfer. There is no explicit order of his in writing, there is no orderly comprehensive policy, but there is an atmosphere of [population] transfer. The transfer idea is in the air. The entire leadership understands that this is the idea. The officer corps understands what is required of them. Under Ben-Gurion, a consensus of transfer is created.”

Shavit: ‘Ben-Gurion was a ‘transferist’?

Morris: ‘Of course. Ben-Gurion was a transferist. He understood that there could be no Jewish state with a large and hostile Arab minority in its midst. There would be no such state. It would not be able to exist.’” (The Ha’aretz Interview, Jan. 9, 2004)

A recently scholarly expression of his views is in the 2nd ed. of his landmark history, “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited (2004, Cambridge Univ. Press), and is replete with documentation that “transfer” was inbuilt into Zionism, and basic to Ben-Gurion, though his views vary depending on time and circumstance, and he is often ambivalent.

Morris asks: “How was the Zionist movement to turn Palestine into a ‘Jewish’ state if the overwhelming majority of its inhabitants were Arabs? ..... The obvious, logical solution lay in Arab emigration or ‘transfer’. Such a transfer could be carried out by force,i.e., expulsion, or it could be engineered voluntarily.... The logic of a transfer solution to the ‘Arab problem’ remained ineluctable; without some sort of massive displacement of Arabs from the area of the Jewish state-to-be, there would be no viable ‘Jewish’ state.” (p. 40-41)

And Ben-Gurion? “‘The compulsory transfer of the Arabs from the valleys of the proposed Jewish state could give us something which we never had, even when we stood on our own during the days of the First and Second Temples...” (p. 47)

“Ben-Gurion confided to his diary. ‘We are being given the opportunity that we never dared to dream of in our wildest imaginings. This is more than a state, government, and sovereignty-- this is a national consolidation in an independent homeland .... We must grab hold of this conclusion as we grabbed hold of the Balfour Declaration, even more than that-- as we grabbed hold of Zionism itself .... (p. 47; also Righteous Victims, p. 142) In his book “Righteous Victims”: Complete transfer without compulsion -- and ruthless compulsion at that – is hardly imaginable.” (RV, p. 169).

“With compulsory transfer we [would] have a vast area [for settlement]... I support compulsory transfer. I don’t see anything immoral in it. (RV, p. 144).

Morris sums up: “My feeling is that the transfer thinking and near-consensus that merged in the 1930s and early 1940s was not tantamount to pre-planning and did not issue in the production of a policy or master-plan of expulsion.... But transfer was inevitable and inbuilt into Zionism,-- because it sought to transform a land which was ‘Arab’ into a ‘Jewish” state and a Jewish state could not have arisen without a major displacement of Arab population...” (p. 60, “Refugee Problem Revisited)

Certainly there’s the danger of “quotation-mining,” and certainly what Ben-Gurion and other Zionists’ thought changed over time, was in response to specific historical circumstances, and, at least for Ben-Gurion, had ambivalences. He would have preferred the transfers to be voluntary. But he and the rest were pro-transfer, because, as Morris says, it was “inbuilt into Zionism,” because of the “ineluctable” ultimate problem of how else to build a Jewish state in a land where most of the people were Arabs.

I say this, supporting Israel -- and am confused and suffer with it.

But apparently because of this V. says that he “smells a rat,” and that I am “just another fabricator,” and that what I say are “crafty fabrications,” and “shameless propaganda, “falsifications,” and “lies.”

He says “Adler, Francis and co.,” but I had never heard of Francis until now.

And “follow the call of his blood rather than that of the truth.” What does that even mean?

I support Israel (and Palestinians) and wrote to oppose divestment. (Which again V. omits to mention.) I oppose it because of the horror of the Holocaust and millennia of persecution and pogroms against the Jews in Europe, that they were chased out of Europe-- and even the rest of the Middle East-- into Palestine, and Israel justifiably feels tiny, beleaguered, threatened, and severally attacked. Israel was not “rewarded” for withdrawing from Gaza except with missiles. Scandalous. Israel is now there, and so has every right to exist, not to be attacked, and not to be singled out for boycott.

I admit to confusion and agony in how to support and love Israel, because of the historical record, but I still support and love Israel.

I criticize its bashers, oppose boycotts against Israel, support Israel’s security fence to protect innocents from bombs on buses and at bus stops, coffee shops, nightspots, and weddings, support Israel’s right to have   responded in Lebanon, and support time-consuming checkpoints to prevent   terrorism, including Gazan checkpoints, which seem no different from our -- time-consuming -- airport checkpoints. And again Israel has been poorly rewarded for withdrawing from Gaza.

I wish V. was right on history. I wish conservative historian Efraim Karsh was right. And I wish Benny Morris was right that Zionist Jewish leaders had no choice. And admittedly I am torn about this. I realize it is humanly understandable to avoid pain by denying or ignoring unpleasant history, and I want to almost as much as V. seems to want to.

One thing I do do, is oppose divestment against Israel, and to support Israelis' security and reasonable measures to sustain it.

But also criticize Israeli settlers-- all 500,000 of them, on the 20% left of Palestinian land. For example the Palestinians are blamed for caring so much whether they moved only 30 miles east, such a short distance, but in 2005 Israeli settlers were up in arms with Ariel Sharon and the Israeli government about moving 30 miles to the west and north, which is the same allegedly short distance.  If the modern settlers didn't want to go the short distance, why would the indigenous Palestinians have wanted to?

And though I’m happy V. has apparently found an easy answer for himself, I just haven’t been able to about the morality issues surrounding Palestinian displacement.

And I can’t believe many or most knowledgeable liberals are not beset with the same problem, even if some have humanly understandable difficulties in admitting it.

Both Israeli and Palestinian extremists need to understand there can be no maximal absolute justice. As Madeleine L’Engle, in “Glimpses of Grace,” says:

Madeleine L’Engle says in “Glimpses of Grace,” that “Cursing is a boomerang. If I will evil towards someone else, that evil becomes visible in me. It is an extreme way of being forensic, toward myself, as well as toward whoever outrages me. To avoid contaminating myself and everybody around me, I must work through the anger and the hurt feelings and the demands for absolute justice to a desire for healing.”

I love Israel and the Jewish people of Israel, and I wish both Israelis and Palestinians, and many of us, could learn from L’Engle’s simple truth.

God bless Israelis, Palestinians, and cool heads and compassionate hearts among us all.

James Adler
Former Somerville resident

A Postscript 

It may be wondered why I so much sympathize with Israel, since their beginnings are so bound up with the League of Nation's betrayal of the Palestinians by the insertion of the Balfour Resolution into the Palestine Mandate?

Perhaps for three reasons.

First, this wasn't the Jews' fault, it was the world's ruling powers, in this case Europe, and mainly its victorious powers in World War One, Britain, France, and the United States.

Second, that was a different era, and many bad things happened back then-- such as, just half a century earlier, what we were still doing to the Indians.  And if we calmly and even self-righteously condemn our own history, condemn our treatment of the Indians, condemn our Columbus Day, as the Israelis cannot condemn their "Balfour Day", the reason is probably that we do not feel in danger for our lives, and they do.  Self-justification (and also "security and defense") mistakes that we may make will always be at bottom harmless-- unless a foolhardy war with Iran disproves this.   But Israeli Jews, at least in their minds, and with much justification, live along an exceedingly thin existential margin of error. For them, mistakes in self-justification, resulting morale, and hence security, could lead to a bloodbath and even genocide. 

Third, the mistakes or moral oversights of the Zionists refugee movement were mistakes of their times, which almost everyone else also made.  On the other hand, especially in comparison with its time, it was peaceful and liberal.   Gibbon might have said of it, as he did of a historical figure (I can't locate which one), that its vices were those of its age, but its virtues were its own.

And so these Jewish refugees, who fled to escape persecution, were peaceful and liberal. Without decades of Arab anti-refugee violence, including a war against partition, which was not waged on behalf of Arab exiles, since then there were no Arab exiles to fight about, the area would be so demographically heavily and peacefully Arab, and the Jewish refugees would be so peaceful and liberal, that everything would be unrecognizable today.  There would have long been two (not one, but two) peaceful Palestinian-majority states - one of them would be Israel, majority Arab, but with a large minority of Jewish refugees, all safe and sound and back home, and the other Palestine, largely Arab and also with a large number of safe and secure Jews.

They might even have federated or reunited by now.

As seen in Theodor Herzl's classic, "Old/New Land," Zionism was originally -- and again, especially for its time -- a peaceful and liberal movement of fleeing refugees and a dream of a multiculturalism in one land.  It was Arab anti-refugee violence, not peaceful and liberal Jewish refugees, who ruined the liberal dream.   The refugees' right to have children who did not have all their throats slit open forced them to circle their wagons.

But the Arabs, to be blunt, had the right not to welcome strangers-- they had the right to be xenophobes. On the other hand, the Jews, facing extermination in Europe, had the right to live, the right to life, and the right to escape where they could, come hell or high water.

And it became both hell and high water-- this basis of this terrible conflict. 

Still, since the Arabs had the right to sovereign resistance to immigration, and to a state, it would be unfair not to ask  ourselves how many Third World countries have enough trouble with their  states and societies without their people also having been squeezed into  a 20 per cent corner of their land, covered with camps of their own refugees, and with their administrative infrastructure repeatedly smashed to pieces by an external settling and occupying power, as the Palestinians have suffered over the past few years and decades.

Both sides have been scared and suspicious of each other, and sometimes treated each other mercilessly-- the Arabs often merciless to the escaping Jewish refugees from the European pogroms and then the holocaust; the Israelis often merciless as occupiers. 

But the Israelis have probably treated the Palestinians better than the Arabs have treated the Jews, and better especially than the Arabs would have if they had instead been winners, since the Jews would probably have faced mass slaughter.

But if the Jews have probably behaved better, it was the Palestinians' land first, and they rightly feel cheated of their country. But the Jews went because they were fleeing for their lives.

What a terrible conflict. 

If only people's sympathies extended to both sides, expecially since much of what anyone says, if qualified by the other side's case, is true, especially about the Palestinian need to stop the violence. 

And partisans for the Palestinians do need to understand that much of the undoubted -- and ongoing -- Israeli harshness during the occupation has, underneath, been a terrified response of Holocaust survivors to the threat of violence, and their deep-seated panic that at any time it could escalate out of control into a genocidal nightmare.  

Ironically, but understandably, many Palestinians don't see why they shouldn't revolt, but which only makes things worse for all. And also ironically, but  understandably, many Israelis don't see why they should withdraw and remove the annexations and settlements when it (as the withdrawal from Gaza) doesn't lead to an immediate cessation of the revolt, but which in the long-term would also make things better for all.

And finally, many on each side think that even if these things should happen, (while extremists on both sides don't, which prevents them from happening anyway), that it is the other side which should do what it needs to do first.

And therefore, on the one hand with both sides' extremists, and on the other hand with both sides' self-righteous and defiant and mistrustful attitude of "the other side should have to do it first," this nightmarish mother of conflicts continues with no end in sight.

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Harvard Square Commentary, February 19, 2007