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Israel, Anti-Semitism and the Palestinian Problem

By Jerome Slater

Tikkun 05/2001


Almost all Jews of my generation, we who came of age in America in the 1930s and 1940s, personally experienced anti-Semitism, thought of ourselves as passionate Zionists, and rejoiced at the establishment of the State of Israel and its 1948 and 1967 victories over its Arab enemies. Indeed, following three years as an antisubmarine warfare destroyer officer in the U.S. Navy in the late 1950s, I volunteered my services to the Israeli Navy, should the need arise.

I say all this as a partial explanation for the depth of disillusion and despair that I and many Jews feel over what we regard as Israel's fall from the humanism and liberal values of the Jewish tradition, especially in its relationship with the Palestinians. Sadly, many other American Jews feel no such disillusion, partially because they remain ignorant--or rather, in many cases, they willfully choose to remain ignorant--of the real Israeli-Palestinian story, and partially because their focus on historical anti-Semitism and Jewish impotence is so deeply rooted that they are simply impervious to new realities.

Because of the historical vulnerability of the Jewish people to periodic outbreaks of murderous anti-Semitism, perhaps it is not surprising that even many liberal Jews are interpreting the current Palestinian uprising against Israel in that context. From this understandable but dangerously wrong misperception, the conclusion inevitably follows: Israel must make no further concessions to the Palestinians, for such concessions will be taken as a sign of weakness and will therefore be an invitation to disaster.

Those who interpret the present conflict in this manner are also likely to accept at face value the standard Israeli historical mythology, that Israel has always been willing to compromise with the Palestinians, but has had no "partners for peace," in the current cliché. And this is so, the myth holds, because of an irrational Palestinian hatred of the Israelis, driven by primitive anti-Semitism--that is, rather than by actual Israeli behavior.

The current Intifada is said to have reconfirmed these lessons of Jewish history, conclusively demonstrating--even, it is said, to the formerly naïve Israeli and American Jewish Left--that nothing has changed, that the Palestinians seek to destroy Israel "in stages." One can be nearly certain that this assessment will be accompanied by a reworking of one of the oldest and most pernicious clichés about international conflict, announced as if it were a brilliant new insight: "The only thing the Palestinians understand is the language of power."

The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict, 1947-49

The demythologized history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict challenges the standard version in a number of ways. To be sure, it must be acknowledged that some classic Islamic texts contain anti-Semitic references--though it is also true there are anti-Muslim references in some of the most revered Jewish thinkers of the past 1300 years. More particularly, both because early Zionism became aligned with British colonialism in the Mideast and because some Jews who lived in Arab lands sought to ally themselves with European imperialism, Arab anticolonialism in the early twentieth century included an element of anti-Semitism.

Even so, in Palestine itself the Jewish and Arab communities lived in relatively peaceful coexistence until fears of a huge onslaught of European Jewish immigration led many Palestinians to believe that Western colonialism was going to solve Europe's "Jewish problem" at the expense of the Palestinians. It was this Palestinian fear of losing their political rights, land, and society to a European Jewish influx that led to the conflict between the Yishuv and the Arab peoples of Palestine.

These fears were justified, because Ben-Gurion and other leading Zionists had no real intention of compromising with the Palestinians. On the contrary, the historical evidence is incontrovertible that Ben-Gurion agreed to the 1947 UN partition plan for Palestine only as a necessary tactical step that would later be reversed: "when we become a strong power after the establishment of the state." Later, Ben-Gurion told the Zionist Congress, "we will abolish partition and spread throughout all of Palestine" (quoted in Benny Morris, Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, p. 24).

And that is exactly what happened. Israel under Ben-Gurion, Begin, Dayan, and others sought to expand to the limits of biblical Palestine, which in their conception included all of Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Gaza strip, substantial parts of Jordan, southern Lebanon, the Golan Heights, and Egypt's Sinai peninsula. Typically, Ben-Gurion made no bones about it: "Before the founding of the state our main interest was self-defense. But now the issue at hand is conquest, not self-defense. As for setting the borders--it's an open-ended matter" (from the 1949 Israeli archives, quoted by Tom Segev, 1949: The First Israelis, p. 6).

As for the attitude of the Palestinians toward the Israelis, it would be helpful to keep in mind some incontrovertible historical facts. To begin with, the Arabs of Palestine were the overwhelming majority during recent centuries and had been promised by the British that they would gain political sovereignty over it after World War I. To be sure, the Jews had a claim on Palestine as well, a claim that certainly became more powerful after the Holocaust irrefutably demonstrated the need for a Jewish state, for which, by the 1930s, there was no alternative to Palestine. Even so, it is not hard to understand Palestinian anger at the loss of their political rights.

Secondly, even before the Arab invasion in the spring of 1948, and continuing well after Israel won the war, some 600,000-700,000 Palestinians were deliberately driven out of their country, their homes, and their villages, in what prominent Israeli and American Jewish historians (e.g., Meron Benvenisti and Ian Lustick) are beginning to acknowledge was nothing less than "ethnic cleansing." Emotionally loaded as that term is, it accurately describes the Israeli psychological warfare, economic pressures, artillery bombardments, political assassinations, terrorist attacks, and even massacres that forced the Palestinians to flee.

To be sure, the Israelis had their reasons. Beginning with the Jewish influx into Palestine after 1917, Zionist leaders realized that it would be hard to build a secure Jewish state with a large, resentful Arab minority--which one day, because of the higher Arab birth rate, might even become a majority. Therefore, they began discussing various ways in which the Palestinians could be "transferred" (the preferred Zionist euphemism) out of the country--including, if necessary, by force.

To the general demographic and security problem was added the desire to find space, homes, and productive land for the post-Holocaust Jewish immigrants. These were indeed serious problems. Even so, it does not follow that the utterly ruthless methods by which the transfer mentality was implemented in the Palestinian expulsion in 1947-1949 were justified.

It is true that in the aftermath of the 1948 war, hundreds of thousands of Jewish citizens either fled or were driven out of such Arab countries as Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Iraq, and Iran, and some regard this as establishing a refugee symmetry that, in effect, cancels out Palestinian refugee claims against Israel. While it is easy to understand the emotional force behind this argument, especially by those Israeli Jews or their descendants who experienced Arab anti-Semitism, it is hard to accept the current implications. The symmetry is largely a false one, because the Palestinian Arabs were not responsible for the actions of the Arab states, and there is no justice in making them pay for it.

The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict, 1967-present

The Palestinian security forces under Arafat worked hand in hand with Israeli security forces, often in joint patrols.

In the aftermath of the 1967 War, Israel seized the Gaza Strip, Jerusalem, and the West Bank, establishing an occupation that is still in existence. While there is a reasonable argument that the Israeli expansion from the 1947 UN-established boundaries to its post-1948 boundaries was a response to genuine security needs, that cannot be said about the continued occupation of the post-1967 territories. On the contrary, the West Bank and East Jerusalem are security liabilities; the primary motivation for their seizure was ideological, as the terms "Judea and Samaria" made evident.

Immediately following the war, another 100,000 or so Palestinians were expelled, either from Jerusalem into the West Bank or out of the West Bank into Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, and the process of "creating facts on the ground" began: the ten-fold expansion of the boundaries of "Jerusalem"; the building of Jewish neighborhoods in Arab East Jerusalem; the use of economic and administrative pressures to force the Palestinians out of Jerusalem; the building of Jewish settlements--some of them by the most fanatical elements in Israeli society--throughout Gaza and the West Bank, in order to prevent the Palestinians from ever gaining an independent state in those areas; the seizure of the water aquifers of the West Bank and the use of that water to serve Jewish rather than Palestinian needs; the use of economic pressure and collective punishment to suppress Palestinian resistance; the ongoing demolition of Palestinian homes, destruction of orchards, and land confiscation, either to make way for Israeli roads and settlements or simply as punishment; and the violent suppression of the first and second Palestinian Intifadas, including political assassinations and undercover death squads to liquidate activists.

Might all this have something to do with Palestinian "anti-Semitism"? This is not to deny that crude anti-Semitic stereotypes and insults continue to appear in Palestinian textbooks and newspapers--although a recent major Israeli study found that anti-Semitism in Palestinian textbooks is actually declining. In any case, the crucial point is that it was not racism, but the displacement of the Palestinian people in 1948 and 1967 that led to the rise of Palestinian nationalism and the creation of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

In the early years after its formation, the PLO was clearly maximalist, insisting on the complete "liberation" of all of Palestine, which it sought to achieve by guerrilla warfare and outright terrorism. However, by the late 1960s this rejectionist position began gradually giving way to a willingness to consider a two-state diplomatic solution with Israel. Nothing came of it, because Israel ignored the many indications of an emerging Palestinian pragmatism, refusing even to talk with the PLO, let alone compromise with it.

Nonetheless, the PLO's position continued to evolve, and in 1988 it finally officially proposed a detailed two-state solution. Under the terms of the PLO commitment, a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital, would agree to be largely demilitarized, would accept the stationing of international peacekeeping forces along its borders with Israel, would end terrorism and all forms of attack on Israel from its territory, would enter into some kind of confederal arrangement with Jordan while refraining from alliances with Arab rejectionist states, and in all probability would agree to a settlement of the refugee problem on the basis of a token return to Israel, combined with large-scale international economic compensation of the refugees and their resettlement in the new Palestinian state and in other countries.

The first meaningful agreement between Israel and the PLO was the Oslo Accords of 1993, the terms of which were the mutual recognition of Israel and the PLO, and a five-year transitional period under which Israel would gradually withdraw its troops and administrative structure from the major Palestinian population centers. At the end of the transitional period, there would be a permanent settlement. In turn, Arafat promised to end anti-Israeli violence in the territories and to suppress all forms of terrorism, even agreeing to direct cooperation with Israeli security forces.

Although the Oslo accords did not quite specify that a permanent settlement must include the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, there was no doubt that this was the universal expectation of the Palestinians, the United States, the international community, and indeed of the Israeli government and public opinion. The more serious flaw of Oslo was that it postponed until the final status negotiations all the other difficult issues: the borders of the Palestinian state, the Jerusalem issue, the disposition of the Israeli settlements, and the refugee issue.

Arafat was severely criticized by many Palestinians for these gaping loopholes in the Oslo agreements, and in retrospect the critics were right. What perhaps could not have been foreseen was the extent to which the Rabin, Peres, and--of course--Netanyahu governments remained committed to a hard-line position that, in effect, would have prevented any truly viable independent Palestinian state from being created.

In the next few years, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres violated both the spirit and the letter of the Oslo agreements. When in October 1995 Rabin announced before the Knesset his detailed plans for a permanent settlement, it was clear his conception differed dramatically from the international consensus on the meaning of Oslo. Rabin stated the following: there would be no return to the pre-1967 borders; a united Jerusalem, including settlements in East Jerusalem and its suburbs, would remain under exclusive Israeli sovereignty; most of the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza would stay in place under Israeli sovereignty; a wide-ranging series of Israeli-only new roads would be built throughout the territories to ensure free access to and military control over the settlements; Israel would retain settlements and military bases in the Jordan River Valley, deep inside Palestinian territory; and the Palestinians would receive an "entity" that would be the "home to most of the Palestinian residents living in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.… We would like this to be less than a state."

Over the next five years, Israel implemented Rabin's conception of peace with the Palestinians. Even if Israel had finally agreed to a Palestinian "state" on these terms, the Palestinians would have ended up with a series of isolated enclaves on less than 50 percent of the West Bank and Gaza, cut off from each other and surrounded by Israeli settlers and military bases, and with little or no control of their water resources.

Even the letter of the Oslo accords has often been disregarded by all Israeli governments since 1993: the scheduled series of Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank was repeatedly delayed and has still not been completed; many Palestinian prisoners that Israel had committed to release remain in jail; the promised Palestinian air field in Gaza was delayed; detailed provisions requiring free Palestinian passageway between Gaza and the West Bank, as well as free access of people, vehicles, and goods within the territories, have often been interrupted by Israeli closures that cause great personal and economic hardship; Palestinians living outside Jerusalem are often prevented from attending services at the Muslim mosques on the Temple Mount; and tax collections and money from the sale of Palestinian goods that was to have been transferred by Israel to the Palestinian authority has been frequently held up.

Yet, until the Al-Aqsa Intifada in late 2000, with the exceptions of brief periods following the Goldstein massacre in Hebron and the 1996 Peres-authorized Israeli assassination of a Palestinian activist accused of terrorism, the Palestinians complied with their obligation to end violence and terrorism, and the Palestinian security forces under Arafat worked hand in hand with Israeli security forces, often in joint patrols, to identify and jail extremists and suspected terrorists, some of them from lists drawn up by the Israelis.

Barak and the Peace Process

By the time Barak took office in 1999, not only had Israel's actions subverted the Oslo process, they had also gravely undermined Arafat's position among the Palestinians, who were now in worse shape--politically, economically, and psychologically--than they had been when the agreements were signed in 1993.

The general perception of the Camp David summit negotiations is that Barak made an unprecedented offer to the Palestinians, far more generous than anything the Israelis had ever been prepared to concede, only to be met by a shocking if not perverse rejection by Arafat, who was not only unwilling to compromise but rewarded Barak by ordering a violent uprising at just the moment when the chances for peace had never been greater.

There is just enough plausibility in this narrative to have initially persuaded even the Israeli peace camp that they had naively misunderstood the real intentions of the Palestinian leadership, and that Israel really did lack "a partner for peace." But this disillusion with the Palestinians quickly gave way to a more sober reassessment among serious Israeli analysts, the great majority of whom now are far more critical of the Barak proposals and have a much greater empathic understanding of the plight of Arafat and the Palestinians.

The main lines of Barak's unwritten proposals at Camp David were that Israel would agree to a demilitarized Palestinian state in Gaza and about 90 percent of the West Bank (later increased to about 92-94 percent), with sovereignty over, and its capital in, those parts of East Jerusalem that were still Palestinian. The Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem would remain under Israeli sovereignty, as would much of the Old City. As for the Temple Mount, Barak's proposals were murky and in dispute: in some versions, while rejecting Palestinian sovereignty over what the Jews call the Temple Mount--even over the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Muslim Dome of the Rock--Barak might have been prepared to consider some form of dual control or "God's sovereignty" over the Muslim religious sites, while retaining Israeli sovereignty over the Western Wall.

As for the settlements, Israel would annex 8-10 percent of the West Bank along the old 1967 border, within which 80 percent of the settlers were located; the fate of the remaining 20 percent, most of whom were the most hardcore ideological Jewish fundamentalists, located in the West Bank and Gaza heartland, was left unclear: whether they would be withdrawn, whether they would be left in place to decide on their own whether they wished to return to Israel or become Palestinian citizens, or whether they would be only nominally under Palestinian sovereignty while continuing under Israeli military protection.

In exchange for the Israeli annexations, the Palestinians would receive some Israeli land in the Negev desert adjacent to the Gaza Strip--though this land, aside from being barren, would be only about 10-15 percent of the size of the Israeli-annexed areas. In addition, Israel would retain troops, early-warning stations, and military bases in the Jordan River Valley and mountain passes, perhaps as part of an international peacekeeping force, for a transitional period of about twelve years.

There were no detailed proposals on how the West Bank water sources would be controlled, other than an Israeli promise to work with the Palestinians in developing desalinization plants and other sources of new water. However, the very silence of Barak on this issue, together with the fact that the proposed Israeli settlement annexations included most of the West Bank water aquifers--which was precisely why some of the settlements had been put there in the first place--made it obvious that Israel would continue its control over most of the West Bank water.

Finally, while Israel might agree to the return of about 10,000 Palestinian refugees to Israel under a "family reunification" plan, there would be no general Palestinian right of return, and Israel would not even acknowledge that it bore any political or moral responsibility for the expulsions of 1948 and 1967.

Thus, while it is true that Barak went further than any previous Israeli leader, he didn't go nearly far enough. In the end, there would have been a non-viable, impoverished Palestinian state; Israel would retain control of most of Jerusalem and its suburbs, including Palestinian access to the Muslim religious sites on the Temple Mount; Gaza would be separated from the West Bank and the West Bank itself would be divided into at least three different enclaves separated from each other by Israeli-controlled settlements, military bases, and roads; the Israeli army would continue to occupy the Jordan River Valley for a number of years to come--perhaps indefinitely; and Israel would refuse even to acknowledge that it bore any responsibility for the refugee problem, let alone allowing more than a token number of refugees to return to Israel.

The standard moderate criticism of Arafat's refusal to accept such terms--for example, as repeatedly argued in a series of influential columns by Thomas Friedman of the New York Times--is that while, yes, Barak's offers did not go far enough to meet legitimate Palestinian demands, Arafat should have accepted them as the basis for continued negotiations, making counterproposals rather than ending diplomacy.

This criticism, however, blithely ignores the clear-cut historical record since 1967, and especially since Oslo: the longer "the peace process" is stretched out, the more Israel takes advantage of its unconstrained power to preempt the outcome of negotiations by creating facts on the ground. Even as Barak was negotiating at Camp David, he was expanding the pace of land confiscation, settlement construction, and military road building in the West Bank and even Gaza at the greatest rate since 1992--exceeding even that of the Netanyahu government. (Ha'aretz, February 27, 2001)

In any case, when the Palestinians finally exploded with rage last fall, Arafat had few options. Perhaps in theory he could have chosen the course of nonviolent resistance, following the examples of Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela. But even if he had been so inclined personally, he could not have imposed such a demanding strategy on his own people, whose sufferings and frustration had only increased since Oslo. Moreover, there is plenty of reason to doubt that nonviolent resistance would have moved the Israelis to make the kinds of concessions necessary to produce a genuine peace with the Palestinians: a return of Israel to the pre-June 4, 1967 lines (with some minor and equitable territorial trades that would allow the incorporation of some Israeli settlements into Israel); the complete Israeli military withdrawal from all the occupied territories; the dismantling of the remaining settlements, including the Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem; the turning over of most or all of the West Bank water aquifers to the Palestinians; Palestinian sovereignty over their mosques on the Temple Mount; a fair and equitable partition of Jerusalem; and some kind of fair solution to the refugee problem.

In short, in light of an impasse that was unlikely to be broken for years to come, if ever, an Arafat willingness to continue to prolong the agreements or settle for "interim agreements" would have allowed Barak--and now Sharon--to continue the traditional Israeli policy of "creating facts on the ground," making it increasingly unlikely that a fair settlement would ever be reached.

Still, the use of violence--even in a just cause--is bound to be highly problematic, both for the obvious moral reasons and also on practical grounds. That is the case for the present Palestinian revolution, not least because it has produced Ariel Sharon. Yet, it is an issue over which reasonable people can and do disagree, and there is no gainsaying the dilemma: after all, if it had not been for the first Palestinian uprising, the Intifada of the late 1980s, Israel would have refused even to meet with the Palestinians, let alone make any concessions to them.


There is no basis for the assertion that Palestinian outrage at, or even hatred of, the Israelis is a manifestation of traditional "anti-Semitism," rather than the consequence of the Zionist dispossession of the Palestinians and over fifty years of Israeli injustice and repression. Furthermore, it has not been Israeli "powerlessness" that has been the problem, but precisely the opposite. Blinded by their ideology and mythology, the Israelis have not been significantly constrained in their treatment of the Palestinians by considerations of justice or morality. In such situations, constraints will exist only when dictated by self-interest, meaning the presence of countervailing power: precisely what has been missing in the conflict between the Palestinian David and the Israeli Goliath.

Even under the questionable assumption that the Palestinian uprising today is the result of Arafat's strategy rather than simply an uncontrollable explosion from below, the goal clearly is to restore some kind of balance of power as well as to convince the Israelis that they cannot simply impose their will on the Palestinians without paying an unacceptable cost to their own self-interests.

In any case, whether or not one agrees with Palestinian tactics, the focus on anti-Semitism distorts our understanding of the worsening conflict. This is not to minimize the pernicious effects of anti-Semitism, whatever its causes. By the same token, we cannot ignore the intensifying anti-Arab racism in some Israeli quarters. In the end, a true Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation will require the removal of both Palestinian and Jewish racism.

Jerome Slater is a University Research Professor at SUNY Buffalo.

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