It is time for Arabs to come out of their trenches and explore the no-man's-land of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
In The Art of War, Sun Tzu observes that “if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will win a hundred times in a hundred battles.” In the as-yet unwritten Art of Peace, knowing your enemy can have other advantages: it can give you the necessary insights and empathy to reach out the hand of peace and hold it there.
Personally, my recent trip to Israel and Palestine has done more than all my historical and political research to humanise the conflict in my mind.
We Arabs should not just examine the harsh manifestations of Zionism, but dig into its roots and motivations. Along the way, we should debunk some myths and oversimplifications, such as the notion that Zionism is exclusively a form of imperialism; that Israeli, Jewish and Zionist are synonymous; that the creation of Israel was somehow, in hindsight, inevitable; or that there was some sort of collective Jewish conspiracy to fulfil the Zionist dream.
The vague desire for a land to call their own has been part of the Jewish consciousness for centuries, as epitomised by the wish Jews express during the annual Pesach (Passover) holiday to come together “next year in Jerusalem”. But few actually took this seriously until fairly recently.
At times of persecution, some well-connected Jews attempted to transform this sentimental desire into concrete plans.
Political Zionism as we know it is usually traced back to Theodor Herzl (1860-1904), a well-to-do Austro-Hungarian journalist and moderately successful playwright who converted to Zionism in 1895.
Despite his professions of Jewish nationalism, Herzl himself was an incredibly assimilated member of the German-speaking world. As a young man, his greatest hero was Otto von Bismarck, the heavy-handed unifier of Germany; he dreamt of being a German nobleman and was an avid fan of Wagner's music – later rejected by many Zionists because of the musician's well-known anti-Semitism.
With the Dreyfus affair in France and the Jewish pogroms in Russia on his mind, Herzl reached the radical conclusion that the only solution to the “Jewish question” was an independent nation for Jews. But the ideas he outlined in his pamphlet, Der Judenstaat, far from sparking a broad “Jewish plot” to dispossess the Palestinians, as many now believe, actually met with widespread derision from both religious and secular Jews as a dangerous and hare-brained endeavour.
Amos Elon, described by Haaretz as “the chief chronicler of the Israeli story”, provides a compelling account of this period in his chronicle of the unparalleled highs and lows of German Jewry, entitled The Pity of it All.
Walter Rathenau, the prominent German-Jewish industrialist and politician who became foreign minister during the highly creative yet volatile Weimar Republic, told Herzl: “The Jews are no longer a nation and will never become one.”
Abraham Geiger, one of the founders of Reform Judaism, declared that: “Jerusalem is a noble memory from the past and the cradle of our religion … Let us not disturb its rest.”
When informed that Zionism would produce a “happy new breed of Jews”, the neo-Kantist Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen quipped: “Aha! So they want to be happy, do they?”
Others were even less charitable towards Herzl's project. “If Herzl needs to be taken to a lunatic asylum, I should happily put my carriage at his disposal,” a prominent Jewish publisher remarked.
One of the earliest warnings against the folly of the Zionist enterprise's blindness to the indigenous population of Palestine came from a prominent Jewish newspaper. The liberal Allgemeine Zeitung des Judentums warned against the danger of assuming that Palestinians had no national conscience and would welcome a large influx of Jews.
So unpopular was Zionism that local chapters of the movement were known as “ten-men clubs”. In 1899, there were only 400 registered Zionists in Germany out of 500,000 German Jews. In 1904, the number had crept up to 6,000. Most German Jews continued to oppose Zionism, even after Adolf Hitler took power in 1933.
Even the much-maligned Balfour Declaration was not quite as straightforward a betrayal as it appears to Arab eyes. Although the breathtaking imperial arrogance of the three short paragraphs of the declaration still resonate today, it only offered “a national home for the Jewish people”, on the proviso that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country”.
This proviso was inserted on the insistence of Edwin Samuel Montagu – the state secretary for India and champion of Indian independence who was only the second Jew ever to enter the Cabinet. He was strongly opposed to the Zionist enterprise and condemned the Balfour Declaration as anti-Semitic.
In a memo, Montagu wrote of his surprise that …
“… Mr Balfour should be authorised to say that Palestine was to be reconstituted as the “national home of the Jewish people”. I do not know what this involves, but I assume that it means that Mahommedans [sic] and Christians are to make way for the Jews and that the Jews should be put in all positions of preference and should be peculiarly associated with Palestine in the same way that England is with the English or France with the French, that Turks and other Mahommedans in Palestine will be regarded as foreigners, just in the same way as Jews will hereafter be treated as foreigners in every country but Palestine. Perhaps also citizenship must be granted only as a result of a religious test.“
In addition to noting that he did not believe that Jews from different parts of the world constituted a “Jewish nation”, he feared that “when the Jews are told that Palestine is their national home, every country will immediately desire to get rid of its Jewish citizens, and you will find a population in Palestine driving out its present inhabitants”.
Anti-Semitic sentiment is, indeed, one of the motives historians attribute to the Balfour Declaration – an early and more benign manifestation of the “final solution” to the “Jewish question” that would take such a deadly turn in Hitler's hands. Another motive was sympathy for the plight of Russian and eastern European Jews and the romantic appeal of the “restoration of a Jewish state planted in the old ground as a centre of a national feeling, a source of dignifying protection”, as George Eliot expressed it in her 1876 novel, Daniel Deronda. Like contemporary America, some British Protestants held the belief that the second coming of Christ would only occur after the Jews were re-established in their land.
Like the hollow promises of independence Britain made to its Arab allies to encourage them to rise up against the Turks, a more pragmatic motive was the need to draw America into the first world war and Britain hoped that by supporting the Zionist project it would win over the opposition of American Jews, many of whom were of German extraction or were great admirers of Germany's enlightened kultur and bildung.
Interestingly, like Arabs, many Israelis feel they were betrayed by the British and, despite the colonial behaviour of Israel, view Zionism as some kind of anti-imperial movement which fought a war of “liberation” rather than one of “conquest”.
Even some prominent backers of the Zionist project were troubled by its implications. Prompted by anti-Semitism and the persecution of Jews in Europe, Albert Einstein became a reluctant Zionist after the World War I, despite his profound belief in internationalism. He once described nationalism as “an infantile sickness. It is the measles of the human race.”
He infuriated Chaim Weizmann, the strident and uncompromising Zionist leader and eventual first president of Israel, during a fundraising trip to America for the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, by complaining that the Zionists were overly militant and should make peace with their Arab neighbours.
Einstein was in favour of a “national home” for the Jews in Palestine, something akin to Switzerland where he developed his Special Theory of Relativity, and not a Jewish state per se. Speaking in New York City in 1938, he declared: “I should much rather see reasonable agreement with the Arabs on the basis of living together in peace than the creation of a Jewish state.” Although I'm no Einstein, I have argued that such a bi-national arrangement is the optimal solution today.
In fact, the critical mass in support of the creation of Israel among Jews began in 1945 when the horrific extent of the Holocaust became known. The near-extinction of the Jewish people more than six decades ago still casts a long shadow on the Israeli and Jewish mindset. This existential complex and deeply seated fear of annihilation – even if it seems impossible in the current context – is something that Arabs need to understand and empathise with if we are ever to overcome Israel's legendary security paranoia and forge a lasting peace.
For their part, the great powers were driven by a mixture of sympathy for the tragic plight of the Jews and the post-war Jewish refugee crisis, as well as the partition mania in the air that has had perhaps more tragic consequences to this day on the Indian subcontinent. With the west unwilling to absorb all the Jewish survivors, Palestine looked to them like the best answer. Sadly, in their calculations, one crucial factor was overlooked – the Palestinians.
The second part of this series will explore the parts of the Palestinian narrative that too many Israelis and their sympathisers overlook.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 31 August 2007.