In his fantastic history of post-World War II Europe – Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 – Tony Judt showed that many of the Jews who survived the genocidal Nazi regime returned to their former homes and found themselves unwelcome. Others had taken over their houses in their absence, and even many of their neighbours would not acknowledge the horrors visited upon them. Emigration to the newly founded Jewish homeland of Israel made increasing sense. Why would a community that had faced centuries of discrimination and violence simply for being who they were, after enduring the terrible industrialised mass slaughter of the Holocaust, not seek security somewhere where they were welcome, and hopefully safe? Stating a blunt fact, Judt said that continuing discrimination ended up making much of continental Europe with the calls for “Judenrein” (cleansed of Jews), the explicit goal of the Nazi Final Solution. The only exception to this is France, which retains a substantial Jewish population.
Implicit in this observation was that many of those in Europe who supported a homeland for the Jews in what had been the UN Mandate of Palestine under British rule were no friends of the Jews. They just wanted them gone.
Few people exemplified this better than Arthur Balfour, who as the British foreign secretary in 1917, wrote the Balfour Declaration – a letter to Lord Rotschild to be transmitted to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland, promising a homeland for Jews in Palestine. As the Israeli historian Tom Segev shows in his excellent history of the Mandate period, One Palestine, Complete, Balfour did not do this with any great sympathy for Jews. Instead, for complicated reasons – akin to anti-semitic myths of world controlling Jewish manipulators – he believed that Jews exerted enormous control over both the Bolshevik movement and the leadership of the United States. In the context of World War I, he wanted them “onside” for the British Empire.
The Balfour Declaration was both an impossible promise and a poisoned chalice for the Zionist movement, at that a very small part of the larger Jewish community. While the declaration promised the foundation of a homeland, it went on to say that it could not be at the cost of the civil and religious rights of non-Jewish communities. At that point in time, the Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine was a tiny minority in what are now the internationally recognised pre-1967 borders of Israel. Migration into Palestine was slow before the rise of the genocidal Nazi regime, and even that resulted in pushback from the Arab communities – the Palestinians – living in the region, as well as creating hostility among the bordering Arab states, who saw no reason why a Jewish homeland needed to be created in Palestine.
How was one to create a Jewish homeland if the Jews were a minority could be answered in another way, of course, the same way that the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand became European majority states. Ethnic cleansing by settler colonial movements against “natives” had been the norm for centuries, and anti-colonial movements were far from achieving prominence. Nonetheless, this poison in the cup was acknowledged by its glaring omission. The Zionist slogan of “a land with no people for a people with no land” tried to – at least verbally – cleanse Mandatory Palestine of the (non-Jewish) people who were very much there.
In the war that followed the establishment of Israel, the ethnic cleansing of a large section of Palestinians became a subsidiary goal, making Jews the majority in the UN-recognised borders of the new state. For a Jewish community that had seen its near extinction in the Holocaust, a place of security for its people had, understandably, become the ultimate objective.
Anti-semite bigots shifted the burden
But it was not just people that were displaced in the migration from Europe[i] into what would become Israel, guilt was shifted too. The murderous bigotry of anti-semitism was now considered the burden of Arabs who refused to accept a Jewish state, even by Palestinians whose family members had been murdered, brutalised, and ethnically cleansed from their lands. Those that had practiced centuries of Jew-hatred now portrayed themselves as “enlightened” and lectured the world about anti-semitism. To be fair, there is enough anti-semitism to go around. Many of those speaking about the injustice meted out to the Palestinians did not distinguish between Israeli policies and Jewish people, and have bred a Jew-hatred of their own, as murderous as the one that once led to pogroms in Europe.
For the bigots, though, this was wonderful. They could enjoy the sight of one people they despised – the Jews – fighting with another set of people they despised – the “natives”. Large parts of the European world have never confronted, or given up, either their anti-semitism, or their colonial attitudes, and this came with an added bonus – if Jews were committing crimes against humanity, then this could be used to (illegitimately) normalise past crimes against the Jewish people.
Tricky questions ahead
The reason this history is important is that – at a time of war between Israelis and Palestinians that exceeds every round of violence except for the foundation of the state – all these contradictions are increasingly clear. The Israelis were given a poisoned gift, one that gave them a state at the cost of another people’s dignity. Some of them, those on the extremist right, have always embraced this, and even now speak of annihilating or ethnically cleansing the Palestinians that remain. A large set, though, has always struggled to reconcile these issues, knowing that their tragedy was one of two demands – the Jewish need for safety and the Palestinian need for human dignity – that were set against each other.
At such a time, the non-extremist Israelis need their friends, those who would try to help them find a just solution that can somehow answer this impossible question. Unfortunately, they are confronted with a world in which their most vociferous supporters are those that are themselves difficult to trust, who may even support war crimes because this delegitimises the horrors that Jews have faced. Ideally, they would have found partners among post-colonial countries who also have had to deal with the tragedies that European colonial left behind. India, of course, would have qualified. Sadly, though, it is now governed by exactly the same type of anti-semites and bigots that cheer on Israeli extremists in this unwinnable war.
[i] The story of the migration of Arab Jews is a separate story with its own betrayals, heartbreak, and racism. The Jews of Arab countries and North Africa are referred to as the Mizrahi, or “Oriental Jews”, and number about half of the population of Israel, although very few of them have achieved political power with the exception of the former Defence Minister, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who often referred himself by the Arabic name Fuad. They were treated shockingly by the newly established Israeli state dominated by European-origin Jews. The term Israeli Arab does not recognise Arab Jews and is an obvious way to avoid the racism inherent in referring to non-Jewish Arabs.
Omair Ahmad is an author and journalist.