A bloody birthright: Why I support Israel’s right to exist

July 29, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
July 29, 2014

The reasons why I support Israel’s continued existence as a Jewish homeland are rooted in the mortal perils that Jews have faced over the millennia. However, the heart of the matter is and will always be the bloody history of the 20th century.

No serious discussion of the subject can overlook the impetus for Israel’s establishment in 1948. That was only a few years after the end of World War II, which went hand in hand with the widespread realization that Adolf Hitler had conducted a massive, horrifying campaign to exterminate Jews and other so-called undesirables.

The Nazi Germany genocide — Raphael Lemkin coined that word in 1944 to describe what we today call the Holocaust — racked up a staggering death toll. The numbers vary from account to account, but according to one tally published by The Telegraph, between five million and six million Jews were killed.

Jews were hardly the Nazis’ only victims; four million Soviet, Polish and Yugoslav civilians died in the German camps, along with three million Soviet prisoners of war, 70,000 individuals with mental and physical disabilities, more than 200,000 Roma and an “unknown number of political prisoners, resistance fighters, homosexuals and deportees.”

Entire Jewish neighborhoods were wiped off the map; Nazis and locals appropriated their property. (There are a few brief but poignant nods to this in The Monuments Men, and this morbid history forms the dark heart of the brilliant Polish movie Ida — although Germans were only indirectly responsible for the killings and theft in the latter film.)

Poland’s Jewish community was hardest-hit, dropping from more than three million in 1933 to about 45,000 in 1950, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. (Here, as elsewhere in Europe, most of the reduction was caused by the Nazi slaughter, although some was due to postwar migration.)

The devastation elsewhere in Europe was comparable: Germany’s Jewish population fell from 565,000 to 37,000 over the same time period; Czechoslovakia’s, from 357,000 to 17,000; Austria’s, from 250,000 to 18,000; Greece’s, from 100,000 to 7,000. And this is only part of the grim census of genocide.

The Holocaust lent urgency to those who wished to found a Jewish state — a project that had been contemplated for decades. The hope, of course, was that if the Jewish people were given their own nation, they would have a haven from which they could not be evicted and in which they could not be arbitrarily persecuted. As a 1988 U.S. government publication about Israel stated:

For much of world Jewry that had suffered centuries of persecution, Zionism and its call for a Jewish national home and for the radical transformation of the Jew from passive victim to self-sufficient citizen residing in his own homeland became the only possible positive response to the Holocaust.

In fact, Nazi oppression had begun driving Jews to their ancient homeland — known at the time as Palestine — even before the outbreak of World War II. As historian Juan Cole, who is sympathetic to Palestinians, wrote earlier this month:

The rise of the Nazis in the 1930s impelled massive Jewish emigration to Palestine, so by 1940 there were over 400,000 Jews there amid over a million Palestinians.

Of course, the Jewish nation needn’t have been established where it was; at various times, proposals were floated to give Jews sanctuary in such locations as Madagascar, swampland in the far east of the Soviet Union, Japanese territories, and Uganda. But the land of what is now Israel is the site Jews had called home for many centuries; indeed, it was the birthplace of their people and their religion.

Of course, Jews are hardly the only people ever to rule the territory that comprises Israel. Cole reviewed some of the region’s turbulent history in this 2010 essay:

The Muslims conquered Jerusalem in 638 and ruled it until 1099 when the Crusaders conquered it. The Crusaders killed or expelled Jews and Muslims from the city. The Muslims under Saladin took it back in 1187 CE and allowed Jews to return, and Muslims ruled it until the end of World War I, or altogether for about 1192 years.

The day after Israel’s formation, the Arab League issued a statement that included the following passage:

Palestine was part of the former Ottoman Empire subject to its law and represented in its parliament. The overwhelming majority of the population of Palestine were Arabs. There was in it a small minority of Jews that enjoyed the same rights and bore the same responsibilities as the [other] inhabitants, and did not suffer any ill-treatment on account of its religious beliefs.

In other words, the land in question has belonged to, and been shared by, different groups throughout the centuries. No single side can claim to be the sole rightful owners.

The question of sovereignty was further muddied by the British in the 20th century. During World War I, an official promised Arabs their own independent state in Ottoman Empire territory, which included Palestine, if they revolted against the Ottoman Turks. The Arabs did, thereby helping the Allies to defeat the Germans.

Unfortunately, the British, who assumed colonial rulership of much Ottoman land, pledged to help establish a Jewish national homeland in Palestine in the 1917 Balfour declaration.

Decades later, in the aftermath of World War II, as Jews and other actors maneuvered to form Israel through legal channels, Arabs promised to respond with violence. According to pro-Israel writer Bob Siegel, in an essay on a website called Communities Digital News, the king of Saudi Arabia said the following in 1947:

There are fifty million Arabs. What does it matter if we lose ten million people to kill all of the Jews? The price is worth it.

The head of the Arab League spoke in similar tones that same year:

This will be a war of extermination and momentous massacre, which will be spoken of like the Mongolian Massacres.

Haj Amin el-Husseini, a prominent Muslim leader in Jerusalem, was equally belligerent:

I declare a holy war, my Muslim brothers. Murder the Jews! Murder them all!

Some Arabs, including el-Husseini, openly sided with the Nazis — who also promised Arabs an independent state — and the Holocaust was still fresh in the minds of many in the aftermath of the world war. Combined with naked and evidently widespread Arab hatred of Jews, both then and now, these facts greatly undermine the legitimacy of Palestinians’ bid to control the disputed land. After all, what could better underscore the need for a Jewish homeland to guard against genocide than the open boasting of a not insignificant number of Arabs of their willingness to massacre Jews wholesale?

And Arabs’ hostile rhetoric about going to war to prevent a Jewish sanctuary was more than just talk. Within hours of the establishment of Israel, military forces from Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon moved against the new nation. They were motivated at least in part by the desire to protect Palestinians.

There was some reason for this. In the summer of 1948, Israel expelled somewhere from 50,000 to 70,000 Palestinians from Lydda and Ramla, two cities near Jerusalem. This forced exodus accounted for perhaps a tenth of the total displacement of Palestinians, according to an article at the website Lost Islamic History. Israelis seized Palestinian property and forced the rightful owners to leave in other communities as well.

The overall tally is staggering. About one million Palestinians inhabited the territory that became Israel prior to its founding. By the war’s end in 1949, only 150,000 remained.

Israelis employed unforgivably brutal tactics in some cases. In April 1948, Jewish paramilitary forces seized the village of Deir Yassin, killing about 120 men, women and children and relocating another 600 or so. (Four Jewish commandos died in the assault.) The village’s graveyard was bulldozed and its name expunged from maps — a fate shared by numerous other Palestinian communities.

But such Jewish brutality may have been the exception, not the rule. Writing in Commentary in 1970, Efraim Karsh estimated that perhaps 300,000 Palestinians had voluntarily left what would become Israel in the tumultuous runup to the establishment of the new nation. In fact, Karsh posited that the Arab Higher Committee, which he calls the de facto government of Palestinian Arabs, essentially ordered many of the territory’s residents to become refugees.

[H]uge numbers of Palestinian Arabs were being actively driven from their homes by their own leaders and/or by Arab military forces, whether out of military considerations or in order to prevent them from becoming citizens of the prospective Jewish state. In the largest and best-known example, tens of thousands of Arabs were ordered or bullied into leaving the city of Haifa on the AHC’s instructions, despite strenuous Jewish efforts to persuade them to stay. Only days earlier, Tiberias’ 6,000-strong Arab community had been similarly forced out by its own leaders, against local Jewish wishes. In Jaffa, Palestine’s largest Arab city, the municipality organized the transfer of thousands of residents by land and sea; in Jerusalem, the AHC ordered the transfer of women and children, and local gang leaders pushed out residents of several neighborhoods.

Tens of thousands of rural villagers were likewise forced out by order of the AHC, local Arab militias, or the [paramilitary Arab Liberation Army]. Within weeks of the latter’s arrival in Palestine in January 1948, rumors were circulating of secret instructions to Arabs in predominantly Jewish areas to vacate their villages so as to allow their use for military purposes and to reduce the risk of becoming hostage to the Jews.

By February, this phenomenon had expanded to most parts of the country.

It’s absolutely true that the decades-long Palestinian refugee situation is a catastrophe, one that it is inextricably bound up with the founding of Israel. Yet it’s wrong to say that the refugee crisis was caused solely by the Jews. Palestinians played a significant role in creating their own nigh-permanent sorrows.

And make no mistake: When Arab leaders sent their armies into battle after Israel’s creation, they were not just interested in protecting Palestinian lives and property. As they stated clearly, they wanted Palestinians to have Israel’s land as their own; little if any deference was accorded Jews and their historic ties to the region.

Israel paid for its newly declared borders in blood, repelling Arab forces in that natal war. Similarly, in 1974, in what is variously called the fourth Arab-Israeli War or the Yom Kippur War, Syrian and Egyptian forces launched surprise incursions from the north and east, respectively. Although Iraq, Jordan, Libya and other states also collaborated with the aggressors, Israeli soldiers fought and died in a successful defense.

Indisputably, the Jewish state was founded to preserve Jewish lives, and many Jews have given their lives to preserve the Jewish state. It’s possible to have great sympathy for the Palestinians while staunchly believing that it is both wholly unrealistic and greatly unfair to advocate ceding all of what is now Israel to Arab control.

This isn’t to paper over Israeli provocations, belligerence and outright war crimes, of which there have been not a few. Israel itself was the aggressor in the 1956 war against Egypt, in which it invaded the Sinai peninsula. Israel also took the offensive in the 1967 war (the Six Day War, or the third Arab-Israeli War) and in the 1982 invasion and occupation of Southern Lebanon. Indeed, in 1967, Americans were the object of Israeli misdeeds; an attack that year on a U.S. Navy vessel, conducted for reasons that remain unclear, resulted in 34 deaths and 171 injuries.

I’m all for holding Israel accountable for its misdeeds. But any such exercise will be, by necessity, imperfect. If there is to be peace beside the Mediterranean, Palestinians will have to learn to coexist with Israelis and Israelis must to the same with Palestinians. The two sides must share land and resources with one other; they must accommodate one another — make concessions and compromises.

Neither side has been an ideal peace partner, and lately, the Israelis seem to me to have been more intransigent than the Palestinians.

But no sane or compassionate person can call for one side to triumph completely at the expense of the other. I support Palestinians’ residency and control of some of the disputed land, and I support Israel’s continued existence. To argue against either of these tenets, it seems to me, is to take a step toward the embrace of a grisly genocide.

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