Myths about Israel and Zionism


Debates about Israel and Palestine often assume a historical narrative that is at odds with historical realities.

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Once again, Israel is at the top of the news. Jeffrey Goldberg reports in the Atlantic that the Obama administration is “red-hot” over Israel’s recent announcements of new building in east Jerusalem and the West Bank. This kerfuffle comes on top of Israeli denunciations of Irish and British statements recognizing a Palestinian state. Then, on Thursday October 30, the Swedish government officially recognized the state of Palestine.

The debates in Europe over recognition of Palestine reveal a common narrative that is at odds with historical realities. For example, the British House of Commons debate, which resulted in a vote to urge the government to “recognize the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel,” was filled with references to “illegal” occupation and settlements, “apartheid” conditions in Israel today, and the failure of the international community to provide a two-state solution in 1948, when the state of modern Israel was created.

Perhaps it is time to review the historical record.

Was the Creation of Israel in 1948 Unfair to Arabs?

Let’s start with 1948. Was there no attempt to create two states then?

There was. The United Nations partitioned Palestine in 1947, offering part to Jews and part to Arabs, with the intention that each part would become either a state or part of a state. The Arab state of Jordan already existed. Already home to many Palestinians, it was in a position to annex the West Bank portion of the land partitioned for Arabs.

Critics allege that the UN partition was unfair to Arabs, because non-Jews made up 93 percent of Palestine and 78 percent of the land was left in Jewish hands.

But here is what is commonly forgotten: the part of Palestine allotted to Jews was home to a substantial Jewish majority—538,000 Jews to 397,000 Arabs, according to official UN estimates. Besides, the “Jewish national home,” mandated by the League of Nations in 1920, originally included what is now the state of Jordan. Eighty percent of this was given to Arabs, in what was then called Trans-Jordan. The remaining 20 percent was divided in the 1947 partition, which means Jews received only 17.5 percent of what was originally designated to be theirs.

Jews were unhappy, because the land they were given did not include West Jerusalem, which had a Jewish majority, and because 60 percent of their portion was the Negev, an arid desert then thought to be useless. But they accepted the partition. The Arabs did not.

Did the Jews Steal Land?

Although they were unhappy with the partition, Jews did not rob poor Arab peasants of their land, as many of today’s critics suggest. By 1949, Britain had allocated 187,500 acres of cultivable land to Arabs and only 4,250 acres to Jews. So Jews were forced to pay exorbitant prices for arid land to wealthy, often absentee landlords—$1,000 per acre, when rich black soil in Iowa was getting $110 per acre.

By 1947, 73 percent of land purchased by Jews came from large landowners, including Arab mayors of Gaza, Jerusalem, and Jaffa, and leaders of the Arab nationalist movement. In his memoir, King Abdullah of Jordan said the story of Jewish displacement of Arabs from their land was a fiction: “Arabs are as prodigal in selling their land as they are in . . . weeping [about it].”

It is true that hundreds of thousands of Arabs felt compelled to abandon their homes during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Yet the vast majority of these Arabs left their homes because Arab leaders told them to, or because they simply wanted to get out of the line of fire. The Syrian Prime Minister Haled al Azm wrote in his memoirs, “Since 1948 we have been demanding the return of the refugees to their homes. But we ourselves are the ones who encouraged them to leave.” The Economist, a frequent critic of Zionists, reported in the October 2, 1948 issue that “the Higher Arab Executive . . . clearly intimated that those Arabs who remained in Haifa and accepted Jewish protection would be regarded as renegades.”

Is the Occupation of the West Bank Illegal?

What about the charge that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is a violation of international law?

Critics typically accuse Israel of flouting UN Resolution 242 because it did not withdraw from its “occupied territories” after the 1967 Six-Day War. But according to this resolution, Israeli withdrawal was to take place in the context of mutual recognition of the right to exist and territorial adjustments to achieve secure boundaries. Withdrawal was ordered from certain “territories,” not “the territories.” Both Arthur Goldberg and Lord Caradon, the primary authors of this resolution, have said that the word “the” was purposely omitted, because it was not intended for Israel to give back all of her territories. The UN recognized that some territories were needed for secure boundaries.

Although most Arab states have refused to recognize Israel’s right to exist (a condition of Resolution 242), Israel has implemented the principles of the Resolution three times. When Egypt terminated its claims of belligerency in 1979, Israel returned the Sinai. When Jordan signed a peace agreement in 1994, Israel returned land claimed by Jordan. Then, in September 2005, Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza, only to be met with new attacks on her civilians launched from that territory.

The charge of illegal occupation must therefore be rejected. Israel has made repeated efforts to comply with UN stipulations for the territories, while its Arab neighbors have not.

When the Palestinians appeared to accept Israel’s right to exist during the Oslo negotiations, Israel turned over control of major West Bank cities to the Palestinian Authority (PA). But when the PA showed support for terrorist attacks on Israeli citizens in 2000, Israel resumed control of those cities. In that same year, Israel offered to return 92 percent of the West Bank. Yet some dismissed this offer as ungenerous because, they claim, Israel never owned the land in the first place. Yet Jews have lived in ancient Samaria (the West Bank) for over three thousand years. Jordan unilaterally renounced all claims to this area in 1988 and released legal ownership to the Palestinian Authority, through Israel, at that time.

Many Europeans and Americans suggest Jews should remove all settlements from the West Bank, leaving it entirely for Palestinians. That would be as unreasonable as insisting that no Arabs can live in Judaea. Besides, what other country has been required to give up land that it won in a defensive war? Do Germans displaced from Koenigsberg clamor and agitate for that German city to be returned to them by the victorious Russians?

Critics of “the occupation” also claim the settlements in the West Bank violate Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. This is ironic, because this Convention was adopted to prevent crimes like the Nazi deportation of Jews to death camps. The article prohibits “individual or mass transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory to the territory of the Occupying Power or that of any other country, occupied or not.” But no Israelis are being deported against their will—they are moving voluntarily; nor is any Palestinian Arab being deported or transferred. And legal settlements, which are on only 3 percent of the West Bank, were bought from Arabs by agreement with Arabs.

Besides, the article refers to a “High Contracting Party” with a sovereign claim to territory. The West Bank is not the territory of a signatory power, but, as Eugene Rostow stated in an article in 1990, “an unallocated part of the British Mandate.”

The Hypocrisy of Israel’s Critics

But if the Irish, British, and Swedish critics of Israel fault Israel for its past wrongs, the majority of their criticisms are directed against its present treatment of Palestinians. MPs in the House of Commons, for example, excoriated Israel for its “wall,” the fence that separates parts of the West Bank from Israel proper. None of the critics acknowledged that it has nearly eliminated the suicide bombings that were once a weekly occurrence. Nor did they reflect on how Britain would respond if it experienced a succession of 9/11-like attacks, regularly over several years, in a country the size of New Jersey or one-seventeenth the size of Germany, where nearly everyone knows someone who has been killed or maimed.

It is time to point out the hypocrisy of those who routinely excoriate Israel for alleged human rights abuses but typically ignore Iran, Syria, China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and other countries deemed “not free” in annual Freedom House assessments. We should ask why the UN is routinely upset about the so-called occupation of the West Bank, but is silent about the illegal annexation of northern Cyprus by Turkey for the last four decades, the occupation of Kashmir by India and Tibet by China, the 200,000 dead in the Syrian civil war, and the looming war across the Middle East between Shiites and Sunnis—not to mention ISIS atrocities against both Christians and Muslims. Critics of Israel regularly ignore human rights abuses against Palestinian Christians perpetrated by Palestinian Muslims and disregarded by the Palestinian Authority.

Nor did these European critics of Israel observe that the Jewish state is the only true liberal democracy in the Middle East. This is significant, because it is good for Palestinians. It is the only country in the Middle East that provides freedoms of speech and press, free trade unions, and religious freedom—for women, ethnic and religious minorities, and homosexuals. While Palestinian Arabs in Israel are free to take advantage of all these privileges, some choose not to. Still, overall, the 1.3 million Arabs who live in Israel are the best-educated, healthiest, and best-fed Palestinians in the Middle East. The vast majority of this prosperity has come from citizenship or other participation in the Israeli state.

Palestinians who live under the PA have not been so fortunate. Despite having received, according to a World Bank official writing in 2004, the highest per capita aid transfer in the history of foreign aid anywhere in the world—enough to have paid every Palestinian on the West Bank $2000 per year, which is more than the average Egyptian earns annually—Arab Palestine has not prospered. More than half of all that foreign aid is unaccounted for.

Israeli Apartheid?

Despite all this, Jimmy Carter and British MPs speak of “Israeli apartheid.” This accusation is not only inflammatory but egregiously unfair. South African apartheid was based on race. “Blacks” and “coloureds” could not vote and had no representation in the South African parliament. But Israeli citizens of all races—Arabs and Jews alike—can vote, be represented in the Knesset, and have recourse to the courts.

Apartheid was also a legal system that restricted participation to a minority that had control over a majority. In Israel, the majority give equal legal rights and protection to Arab citizens, who make up 20 percent of the population of Israel. Irshad Manji, a Muslim author, has written:

At only 20% of the population, would Arabs even be eligible for election if they squirmed under the thumb of apartheid? Would an apartheid state extend voting rights to women and the poor in local elections, which Israel did for the first time in the history of Palestinian Arabs?

Clearly, the emotionally charged comparison of Israel to South Africa under apartheid is inaccurate.

Who Perpetrated “Brutality” in Gaza?

Finally, the British debate over recognition of Palestine was filled with denunciations of Israeli “brutality” in the recent Gaza war. None of the critics acknowledge that the war started because of thousands of rockets fired at Jewish towns and cities in recent years, and that there was a sudden outburst of new rockets in early July. They do not mention that the IDF knew of tunnels that were about to launch terror attacks on Israeli citizens. Nor do they acknowledge that Israel went out of its way to warn Palestinian civilians to flee an area or building about to be attacked because it housed soldiers or missiles aimed at Israeli civilians. The IDF used drones to cancel strikes if their operators saw that children or civilians were too close. When Palestinian civilians were killed, it was usually because Hamas had placed weapons and missiles in their homes and schools and hospitals, using them as human shields.

As Benjamin Netanyahu put it, Hamas used civilians (often children) to shield their weapons, while Israel used weapons to shield its citizens.

The debate over the Israel-Palestinian conflict shows no sign of letting up. One reason for its stubborn persistence is the existence of two dramatically different narratives explaining past and present realities. Those who support liberal democracy and religious freedom should remind themselves and others that claims for statehood ought to rest on historical fact—not fiction.

Gerald McDermott is the Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion at Roanoke College.

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