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Chutzpah in World History

Published in Outlook (Vancouver). Fall 2005.

Chutzpah in World History

Tom Segev, One Palestine, Complete. Jews and Arabs under the British Mandate, New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2001, 612 pp.

This review is being completed as the news from Israel/Palestine tell of the pain and conflict brought about by the impending evacuation of Zionist settlers from Gaza. Businesses and family life are to be disrupted as about 9000 Israelis with their belongings are moved north. The evacuation is to be total, and will include both the living and the dead: remains of the settlers’ family members are to be disinterred and transferred to cemeteries in Israel proper. To the best of my knowledge, such removal of the dead creates a precedent. No other evacuation and population transfer in history included the dead. There is a good reason to fear that the tombs might be desecrated and destroyed since during the Jordanian tenure in Jerusalem between 1948 and 1967, tombstones from Jewish cemeteries were used to build latrines for Jordanian soldiers.

Indeed, the hatred fomented by the Zionist enterprise has eclipsed millennia of peaceful relations between Jews and Muslims. On a recent trip to Morocco, I overheard a question an Israeli tourist posed to the tourist guide. When the guide pointed out a large Jewish cemetery in El-Jadida, which no longer has a Jewish community, the tourist exclaimed in disbelief: “And the Arabs did not destroy it?!” She must be also aware of many Muslim graves bulldozed over in the early, some still claim “innocent”, years of the State of Israel. These acts were not fuelled by hatred but, rather, constituted a consistent attempt to erase all traces of Arab presence and replace them with moshavim, kibbutzim and other manifestations of the victorious Zionism. Even such a citadel of Israeli liberalism as the Tel Aviv University has skeletons in its collective closet: it was built on the place of an Arab village, including its graves.

It is hard for many Israelis to fathom a tolerant and respectful society in which Jews and Muslims coexist without significant tension, let alone violence. Tom Segev’s book shows how just such a society was destroyed under the British Mandate in Palestine under the unrelenting pressure from the Zionists to create a separate state.

Segev divides his account in three chronological parts: Illusion (1917-1927), Terror (1928-1938) and Resolution (1939-1948). The book is well documented and brings to light the many ingredients that went into converting a mixed neighbourhood of different religions and ethnic groups ruled by relatively benevolent imperial powers into a mosaic of antagonistic new nations. It shows how the tenacity of East European Zionists succeeded in defeating Jewish and Arab opposition to the establishment of a Zionist state and in harnessing the full power of Great Britain to achieve their goals. Contrary to much of the early Zionist historiography, Britain is shown to be a staunch ally of the Zionist enterprise.

The book shows how Christian Zionism and the concomitant anti-Semitism were used by the future president of Israel Chaim Weizmann to manipulate the British authorities into believing in the might of “the Jewish power.” He overtly referred to Palestinian Arabs as “a demoralised race.” (p. 110) Segev quotes Lord Balfour who admits that “Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is of far profounder import than the desires of the 700 000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.” According to Segev,

Weizmann’s principal achievement was to create among British leaders an identity between the Zionist movement and “the world Jewry” … as if these were synonyms. He also succeeded in persuading them that British and Zionist interests were the same. Yet none of this was true. Moreover, the movement that was supposed to be a centre of world influence in fact occupied four small dark, rooms in Picadilly Circus in London; its entire archives were kept in a single box in a small hotel room, under the bed of Nchum Sokolow, a leader of the World Zionist Organization. Most Jews did not support Zionism…

“But, continues Segev, Britain’s belief in the mystical power of “the Jews” overrode reality, and it was on the basis of such spurious considerations that Britain took two momentous decisions: the establishment of a Jewish Legion and the Balfour Declaration.” (pp. 42-45)

Segev artfully shows how the profoundly secular Zionists cynically used religious symbols to gain power. The Christian Brits could not grasp the transformation of the traditional Jewish religious community into a militantly nationalist corpus of activists who negated and despised traditional Judaism. This is how the Zionists transmuted the Western Wall “from a place of prayer into a national symbol.” (p. 71) Rabbi Avraham Itzhak Hacohen Kook was one of the very few rabbis who supported the Zionists in their war cry “Western Wall to the Jews!” He would even desecrate the holiday of Passover to sign a petition protesting the arrest of the militant Russian Zionist Vladimir Jabotinsky. His many disciples form today the most dedicated force of Religious Zionists who do not hesitate to oppose the State of Israel if, in their view, the government is not aggressive and Zionist enough (as in the recent case of evacuation from Gaza).

Cynicism of the Zionist leaders appears prominently in Segev’s book. One such instance is the motto “Purity of Arms” that continues to be used to convince the world in the exceptional morality of the IDF. While Labour Zionist units directed violence at civilians, including children, they leaders concluded that “there was a division of labour – [Berl] Katznelson wrote on morality for the newspaper [Davar], and they did what was necessary in the field.” (p. 387) While Ben Gurion viewed the rise of the Nazis in Germany as “a means to advance Zionism”, he also opposed acceptance of Jewish refugees by other countries. “He saw other endeavours to help European Jews as harmful competition.” For Ben Gurion, the Jews of Europe were nothing more than “human material necessary to establish the state”, and he never considered the state as a means to save the Jews. (pp. 393-4)

Segev wrote a masterful narrative, weaving together elements of personal history, world developments and dispassionate reflection. This kind of prose is admirable against the trend among many a Jewish intellectual in Europe and North America who have given all pretence of integrity, and joined, as foot soldiers, the coordinated Zionist campaign under the motto “My country right or wrong.” It so happens that Tom Segev, Ilan Pappe or David Grossman, for whom Israel is indeed their country, show more honesty and decency and therefore command more credibility that Alan Dershowitz, Gil Troy or Alain Finkelkraut, who defend the Israel of their dreams from Boston, Montreal and Paris.

This book must be read by all those who do not believe in Arab-Jewish coexistence. It shows how civilized life could prosper until the romantic dream of the Zionists and the ensuing Arab reaction tore that life apart and engendered unprecedented hatred that would not spare even the dead. This is a truly tragic story of European nationalism gone wild in the Middle East. The book may also help appreciate the attempts to solve the chronic conflict not through partition and evacuation but, rather, by restoring the Arab-Jewish coexistence in the framework of a single liberal state. Those who think this is political science fiction should read Segev’s book with special attention.

Yakov M Rabkin is Professor of History at the University of Montreal; the English translation of his recent book is scheduled to appear later this year under the title A Threat from within: a Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism.


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