Israel: In the Beginning

The way new nations are made is usually not very pretty. Most of us live on ground that our actual or national ancestors won for them by dispossession or murder of the previous owners.

Michael Learner is a self styled Progressive activist, rabbi, philosopher and historian. I have been reading his book, Embracing Israel/Palestine: A Strategy to Heal and Transform the Middle East. He is a committed Zionist, but he is also a believer in the prospects of a peaceful resolution of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.

His point of view does not prevent him from taking a hard-eyed look at the history. Modern Zionism had several origins including pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe and a maturing Jewish nationalism, but got a big boost from Britain's attempts to grab Arab oil and preserve it's colony in India. Those efforts led the UK to encourage Jews to emigrate to Palestine and they built up the Jewish communities as a counterweight to the local Arabs by granting them special privileges and ruthlessly suppressing Palestinian efforts at self-determination.

Early Jewish land buying followed the logic of enclosure. Landlords, who for centuries had leased the land in sharecropping arrangements to local peasants, sold to Jews financed by foreign Jewish money, and the peasants were then pushed off the land to make way for the Kibbutz. Perfectly legal, but disastrous for peasants. The amount of land obtained in this way was tiny, only a few percent, but that fact plus the waves of emigrants now fleeing Europe and the Nazis were plenty to inspire Palestinian fear of being overwhelmed.

They responded with violence against Jewish settlers, and Jews in turn organized both a defense force and terror groups to respond. Jews were the first in the Middle East to use mass bombings of civilian marketplaces and other targets, but Palestinians learned to respond. Outraged Palestinians rose up but were crushed and slaughtered by the British, with thousands killed and leaders executed, imprisoned, or exiled.

After WWII, more refugee Jews flooded in from Europe, and the Jewish terrorists turned their bombs on the British. With strong support for the Jews coming from both the US - because of its big Jewish community - and the USSR, because the Zionists were socialists, Britain decided to cut its losses.

At that point, Jews were only a third of the population of Palestine, but unlike the Palestinians, they were well organized. Many had combat experience in Europe, and they were better armed. Most of the Arabs were completely untrained in combat, and their disorganized bands were slaughtered. Israeli tactics, especially those of the Irgun, led by two future Israeli Prime Ministers, were harsh. Deir Yasinn, a peaceful village which had had good relations with its Jewish neighbors, was an egregious example. Some hundreds of men, women and children were murdered. Members of the Hagganah, the Jewish Defense forces, reported that the Irgun had systematically raped and then murdered the women.

This incident led to a pattern of Palestinians fleeing when a village was taken. Lerner doesn't believe that there was a systematic policy of ethnic cleansing of Palestinians but there is no doubt that Jewish leaders generally approved of the idea. When a village was captured, reports Lerner, the Arab men would be rounded up, and some of them - ten or forty - would be lined up against a wall and shot. Not ethnic cleansing perhaps, but certainly a strong incentive to flee. Those who fled were never allowed to return.

Jews suffered huge casualties too, about 1% of the population - compare to three million dead if the US suffered comparably, and these losses doubtless played a part in the ferocity of the struggle.

That's how modern Israel was established, and it's not too different from the stories of other nations, including the US, except in scale. Nor is it too different from the instructions God gave to Aaron and his successors in the original foundation of Israel.


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