The turning point in those relations, according to Benziman, was the formulation of the Arab position papers such as The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel. “In practice,” he continued, “these documents lay the ideological foundation for the uprising of the Arab Israelis against their state.”
If the state is theirs, why indeed should they rise against it? But if it is not, why shouldn’t they? And if it is Jewish, how can it be theirs?
Benziman is no right-winger. As an author and Haaretz columnist, he favors an end to the Occupation in return for peace. He has spoken truth to power. But his leftward reach stops at the Jewish state. This is one of his “red lines.” He shares it with many, perhaps most, of the Israeli Left. Our theme will concern the justice or injustice of this red line.
Jewish and democratic?
What are “the rules of the game of a democratic state”? By way of analogy, consider the rules of chess. Let’s pretend they are limited to the kinds of moves the pieces are permitted to make. Apply that kind of thinking to Israeli democracy: “Each citizen 18 or over is allowed to vote.” “The party that can muster a parliamentary majority gets to form a government.” These are rules like those that govern the moves in chess. Call them procedural rules. If such suffice to constitute a democracy, then Israel is a democracy.
We sit down to play chess. I am White, you are Black. We place our pieces on the board, but suddenly I stop you: “No, no,” I say, “you are not allowed a Queen.” “What?” “No, I’m sorry. Black is not allowed a Queen. This is a White game.” So you place your pieces on the board, omitting your Queen. “Now,” I continue, “let’s play our little game of chess.”
The question of Israeli democracy is a question of how far the rules of equality extend. Their extension is limited by the insistence on a Jewish state. The Black Queen that is not allowed on the board is Arab immigration. (We could name, to the same effect, the expulsions of 1948.) In order (1) to have a Jewish state and(2) to play “the game of a democratic state,” I must ensure a Jewish majority. This necessitates that I open the gates of my state wide to the kin of one constituency while shutting them almost hermetically to the kin of the other. In that case, do the two constituencies have equal rights? Inside the borders, yes, as within the frame of the chessboard. But at the borders, no. If we disregard the unequal framework within which the game is played, it appears to proceed by the rules.
The ensuring of a Jewish majority is not merely one item among others in a list of inequalities. It goes a long way, though not the whole way, toward explaining other inequalities. For within the tilted frame, Israel does play the democratic game. This includes political parties competing for votes. Parties that compete for the votes of the Jewish majority, once in power, will naturally put Jewish interests first, if for no other motive than that they want to be re-elected. This is one reason (again, not the only one) why there are virtually no industrial areas in Arab localities, why the tax bases are small, why the localities are overcrowded without prospect of future space, why there are no playgrounds, why the Arab unemployment rate is higher than the Jewish, why Arab per capita income is less than half the Jewish, why more Arab kids drop out of school, why Arabs die younger.
An observer of the chess game, arriving late, would probably assume that Black had lost his Queen. Most Israelis are latecomers. They were born into a game already in progress. They assume it is fair. And it is, within its framework. The framework itself is unfair, but it is so much a part of the given situation that few notice it. We are immersed in the game.
“Jewish and democratic”: the phrase flows trippingly off the tongue. Google it in quotes: you will discover 57,500 web pages, including Yossi Beilin’s: “We are aware of the pressing need to find practical solutions in many areas of life, while strengthening the Zionist, Jewish and democratic character of the state…” (Source)
One who does see the cleft in the stick is jurist Ruth Gavison, former president of ACRI (the Association for Civil Rights in Israel): “One of the fraudulent things about the Israeli-Jewish left is the statement that yes, there will be equality. There will not be equality. There will be dispute.” (Quoted by Tom Segev in Haaretz Nov. 22, 2006, reviewing Uzi Benziman, ed., Whose Land Is It? (Shel mi haaretz hazot, Israel Democracy Institute, 2006).
Benziman appears to assume that his readers will know what he means by a “just Israeli version.” I suspect that he means this first of all: Having suffered terribly in exile, the Jewish people needs and deserves a place where it can live in safety with self-determination. In the late 19th and the 20th centuries, self-determination required some form of statehood. The problem, of course, was “Where?”
The problem arose because of a strange historical fact: the Jewish people had maintained its identity through millennia of dispersion. Dispersed peoples don’t generally behave like that. They politely assimilate, and others fill the vacuum they have left.1
Here was a historical exception, a people without a place. And when finally its national movement began, all places were taken.
The Jewish people’s claim to statehood might be justified by its endurance and the persecutions, but statehood requires a place. Was there a place where a state could be justly established?
The Jewish national movement chose Palestine, which it called “Zion,” claiming that in this particular place, the biblical homeland, it could justly establish a state. This claim was based on a historical falsehood that I shall now attempt to expose.
Suppose someone throws you and your people out of the land you are living in, land which you yourself took over many years before. You become refugees. Years go by, and at last you get the chance to return. You discover that other people are living there. Do you have a just claim to the land? Certainly. You were forcibly exiled. The new tenants have a claim too, so you will have to work out an arrangement.
Now let us take a different case. Suppose you leave the same land without compulsion and migrate to another in search of better opportunities. Years later you decide to return, but other people are living there. Do you have a just claim to the land? Certainly not: you weren’t forced to leave it; you chose to. Do you have a right to evict the people who are living there? Most certainly not.
Which of these is the Israeli case? I’ll bet that the vast majority of Israeli Jews would say the first. The notion is enshrined in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence:
“After being forcibly exiled from their land (l’achar sheh-huglah ha’am m’artzo b’koach ha-zroah), the people kept faith with it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom.”
When were the Jews ever “forcibly exiled from their land”? By the Babylonians, of course, in 586 BCE, but 48 years later Cyrus of Persia let them return. Some did, but many chose not to. “A considerable number of exiles decided to remain in Babylonia…Apparently, these exiles had struck roots in Babylon and their economic situation was sound.”2
That forced exile, then, reached a happy ending long ago. It cannot be the exile to which the Declaration is referring.
There was no other forced exile from this land. It is strange to find such a blatant falsehood in the founding document of a state, but it was necessary because otherwise there would have been no justification for establishing the state in this place.
Go to the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv. The first exhibit is a reproduction of the Arch of Titus; on it we see a Roman procession bearing the candelabrum, menorah, from the Jerusalem temple, which Titus destroyed in 70 CE while quelling the first great Jewish revolt. Israel copied the menorah as it appears on the arch and used it in its official emblem. The government tourist website provides an explanation: “The Menora of the Temple in Jerusalem engraved on the Titus Gate symbolizes not only the illustrious past of the people of Israel, but also its defeat and the beginning of its Exile. So, the choice of this specific Menora [for the emblem—SL] not only linked the new State to its illustrious past – it also, so to speak, brought the Menora back from its long Exile, thus indirectly symbolizing the end of the Diaspora.” (My italics.—SL).
Did Titus carry the Jewish people away from its land together with the menorah? Was this “the beginning of its Exile”? No. The Romans never exiled the Jews.3
They remained, taking instruction from a newly established rabbinical academy at Yavneh (Jabneh) on the coast south of Jaffa. “The Jewish people in the Land of Israel was not reduced to total devastation. …The population had to a remarkable degree recovered its numeric and economic strength by the end of the first century,” that is, within 30 years. 4
Long before the destruction of the temple, Jews had been living elsewhere as well. Some of these Diaspora Jews rebelled against the Roman emperor Trajan in 115. The uprising had scarcely been crushed when it flared up again in Judea under Bar Kokhba. All the revolts against Rome, I should mention, were principally motivated by the conviction that the end-time was at hand and God would step in to provide victory.
The Emperor Hadrian put down the Bar Kokhba revolt, and he banished the Jews from Jerusalem. (They were not permitted to live in the city for 300 years, until the Muslims defeated the Byzantines and let them return.) The war had cost the Romans dearly, and Hadrian punished in kind. Bar Kokhba’s top rabbinical supporters were executed. Many rebels were sold as slaves. The land’s name was changed to Palaestina. Hadrian’s successor, however, allowed Jews to resume their community life, and their center shifted to Galilee. Here the Mishnah was committed to writing around 200 CE, followed by a version of the Talmud. The Jews built more than a hundred synagogues, many of which date to the sixth century, some to the seventh or eighth. Their ruins are still visible.
Where in all that is a forced exile?
But if there was no forced exile, what led the number of Jews in the land to dwindle? First, most were farmers. After the Muslims took over in 638, the taxes they levied made farming unprofitable—especially for Jews and Christians, who had to pay a special land tax. (In addition, Jewish farmers in the rabbinically-defined land of Israel suffered from a special burden imposed by the biblical commandments, which were still thought to be in force. In each seven-year cycle, they had to give away part of their produce for six years and let the land lie fallow in the seventh.)
Throughout the new Islamic realm, there was a general migration from farm to city. When the Abbasids took over in 750, they shifted the center of Islamic rule from Damascus to Baghdad. “Jund Filastin” became an economic backwater. This was the turning point for Jewish emigration. Many urban-bound Jews moved eastward to the prosperous Baghdad area or south to the cities of North Africa. That is, they chose to stay under Islamic rule. Many others departed for the cities of Europe.
This picture corresponds more closely to that of people who leave their land without being compelled to do so, in search of better opportunities, than it does to the picture of people who are forcibly exiled.
Forced exile is the kind of thing that happened to the Jews of Spain in 1492 and to 718,000 Palestinians in 1948.
Is there then no other footing by which we may justify a Jewish state in this land? We come back to the persecutions, the Holocaust. The heart cries out for a place where Jews can live in safety and self-determination. But there can be no safety in a state established by conquest and confiscation. There is certainly no safety for Jews in the present Jewish state.
And so we arrive once more at the strange contradiction at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Although their history of persecution and endurance has given the Jews a just claim to a state, they have no just claim to a place.
At least not this place. Europeans, not Palestinians, perpetrated the persecutions. Why should the Palestinians have to pay the price for what Europeans did to the Jews?
The heart cries out, but there are other hearts too. If you wish to justify a Jewish state in this land, supply counter-arguments to those presented here. Show me a forced exile. Or tell me why the Palestinians ought to pay for the Nazi genocide.
It is wrong to seek compensation for one evil by committing another. This principle holds for what the Israelis did and continue to do the Palestinians. The same principle holds for the future. The Jews who live in Israel today, most of whom have nowhere else to go, have every right to remain in peace. By the arguments made above, however, this right does not include the right to a Jewish state here.
The only path that remains open, except catastrophe, requires the recognition of evils done and a quest for reconciliation. It has already been shown in South Africa, where such a thing was once unimaginable, that reconciliation can take place. There can be no beginning of hope, however, until the persons to whom we look for hope give up their smudged red lines.
Was there another people here?
The Population of Palestine, 1860-1948
According to Justin McCarthy’s studies of Ottoman records, Palestine west of the Jordan held 411,000 Arabs in 1860 and 533,000 in 1890. In 1914-15, after the first waves of Jewish immigration, there were 738,000 Palestinian Arabs and 60,000 Jews (McCarthy disputes Arthur Ruppin’s figure of 85,000). The British census of 1922 showed a total of 823,684, including 638,407 Muslims; 81,361 Christians; 7,830 Druze; and 93,360 Jews. Dispelling the notion that the economic stimulation provided by Jews attracted Arab immigration, McCarthy found that few Arabs migrated permanently to Palestine between 1860 and 1948. Their increase was due almost entirely to natural growth. (Until recently the average Palestinian woman had seven children, the highest fertility rate in the world.) Furthermore, the Arab population grew most in areas of low Jewish population and least in areas of high Jewish population. See Justin McCarthy, The Population of Palestine: Population Statistics of the Late Ottoman Period and the Mandate, New York: Columbia University Press, 1990. Also this summary.
The influx of Jewish refugees from Europe during the 1930’s and 40’s brought the number of Jews in Palestine (according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics) to 650,000 in 1948—when the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed. By that year the country’s Arab population was 1,358,000, of whom 873,600 lived within what were to be the borders of Israel. Then came war. Of the 873,600, some 718,000 became refugees.