Howard Epstein



As the hunger strike of (the now-reduced number of) some 900 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli gaols grinds through its fifth week, attracting little publicity save for that accorded convicted multiple-murderer and Palestinian poster boy (aged 57) Marwan Barghouti, whose latest brave act of defiance (or deviance) was to munch brunch whilst affecting unbearable suffering, one is prompted to ask: who is responsible for the Nakba (the Palestinian catastrophe of the formation of the State of Israel)? Someone deprived the Palestinians of statehood and the most readily-identifiable culprit has always been the Jews. After all, until one moment – midnight on 14/15 May 1948, to be precise – there was Palestine, ruled from afar, as it had been for centuries, and in the next, in most of it, there was Israel, the management very much hands-on and on-site.

The Jews: the answer to everything. The Jews: the simple solution that covers every problem – and covers everything up, especially the truth. Theirs was the responsibility (so it was alleged) for German suffering (Die Jüden sind unser UnglückThe Jews Are Our Misfortune), that earned them, that justified, the Holocaust. Why would they not be responsible for the suffering of others? The Palestinians, for example.

The world community ignored, with equanimity, what many saw coming in the 1930s: the annihilation of the large numbers of Jews who would be crushed under the Nazi/German jackboot (and the clogs of their willing Ukrainian and Polish accomplices) such that it could insouciantly tolerate the 1936 Evian Conference offering salvation to around 0.01% of those who would perish in the Galud of Poland and the Pale (see Thomas Snyder’s Bloodlands, 2010). Equally the world community tolerated the British callously ignoring, or exacerbating, the plight of the survivors of the camps, become DPs (mere “displaced persons”), forcibly encamped on Cyprus or ghoulishly returned to Europe between 1945 and 1948. Why would the world be more likely to seek to empathise with them once it became clear that that they must have caused the Palestinians’ suffering too, by usurping them in Palestine?

Yet this easy thesis – borne out of Arab victimhood as much as endemic Catholic and Protestant anti-Semitism (see David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism, 2013) deserves more attentive examination than has so far been accorded it.

The modern State of Israel was not some glib gift to the Jews by the British, the United Nations or anyone else. There was no question of British gratitude to Chaim Weizmann for single-handedly saving Great Britain and the British Empire from defeat by Germany in WWI in 1915 being expressed by their turning round and saying: “Job well done, Weizmann! As a mark of our appreciation, have a state for your people.”

Equally, there was no outpouring of penitent empathy for what the world had facilitated by its failures at Evian and (see my earlier bog about the failure to bomb the camps) what the Nazis/Germans (and their all-too-willing accomplices in almost every part of Europe and the Hitler-dominated East) inflicted on the Jews, wiping out six millions of them and their infants, and their culture. No such sentiment led to the UN saying: “You have suffered enough, O Jews: take this land and make something of it.”

The opposite is in each case the truth. The Zionists in the West and the Yishuv had to fight every inch of the way for what they knew they had to achieve – as Weizmann wrote to Truman in April 1947: “The choice for our people, Mr President, is between statehood and extermination” – for no-one was serving up Israel as a dish, meal ready-plated, complete with condiments, prêt à manger. Even were that a reasonable allegory, there was an impatient waiter, in the form of five Arab armies, ready to confiscate the dish – and bloodily – at the point of service.

So how come Israel yet no Palestine? While some Palestinians are now starving themselves for statehood, all have been starved of it. Whose fault is that? Really?

To reach the answer to that question, one has to wonder when the Palestinians first saw themselves, and were seen by other Arabs, as a nation; and the answer to that is 1964. It was in that year that another Palestinian poster-boy, Yasser Arafat, formed the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation) and, for that matter, the PLA (Palestine Liberation Army). Two things followed, the first as a non-sequitur and the second as consequence: the Six Day War of June 1967 and Palestinian terrorism.

When Gamel Abdul Nasser, dictator of Egypt, threatened war against Israel in the spring of 1967, with the war-aim of the annihilation of the Jews, there was no mention of the happy by-product of the successful strangulation of the State of Israel being the creation of a Palestinian state. The crushing victory inflicted by Israel on Egypt, Syria and Jordan within six days after the start of the war on June 5, was not what deprived the Palestinians of their state. They had not been accorded one on the West Bank of the River Jordan in the previous 19 years by the Kingdom of Jordan, and enlarging none by any factor still leaves the grand total of nothing.

If the non-sequitur to the emergence of Palestinian nationalism, à la Arafat, was the Six Day War, the consequence has been – until the time of writing – a half century of Palestinian terrorism. Nor was it only Israel that had to stand up to bloody Palestinian disruption. King Hussein slaughtered some 20,000 (Arafat’s figure) insurgent Palestinians in (Black) September 1970, driving both PLO and PLA from Jordan to Lebanon, where they caused a civil war from 1975 that was effectively ended only by Arik Sharon’s much-criticised invasion of 1982.

Thereafter, both PLO and PLA were on their way again, this time to Tunisia – and Oslo, not so much a place, or a peace process, as a fig-leaf, provided by Rabin, Peres and others to cover Palestinian failure and embarrassment. Shalom Achshav (Peace Now) fuelled the Oslo euphoria at first. The Second Intifada of 2000 to 2005 bombed to smithereens the belief, or hope, of the Israeli people that the Palestinians could ever be the much-vaunted Partner for Peace that Oslo had appeared to offer. Since then, neither Arafat nor his successor, Abbas, have shown much willingness to make sacrifices for peace. (Yes, I know that that is what has been demanded of Israel but the first sacrifice should be ditching the anti-Semitism that energises the Palestinian spirit.)

Of course, this story is much more complicated than space allows for a full examination, so – tashlich. The reality is that the Palestinians, apart from Israel offering the Palestinians a state at Oslo, have been deprived of their statehood by a succession of actors – and one supervening factor – over many centuries.

First the overarching factor: the Palestinians did not see themselves in national, or nationalistic, terms until 1964 and the PLO/PLA materialised. When the Zionist Commission, led by Chaim Weizmann, arrived in Palestine in 1918, a few months after the Balfour Declaration of the previous November, all that the bulk of local Arabs wanted was to be left to tend their goats on the land of who-knew-whom in far-away Constantinople or Damascus. As the great Arab scholar, Bernard Lewis, wrote: when an Arab looks towards the horizon, it is not to discern where a distant frontier may lie. Arab lands to him are as an ocean. Try drawing a line in the Pacific or the Mediterranean…. No. He and his countless ancestors had been content to reside quietly in an Ottoman backwater, content also that Filastin, or Palestine, was merely a southern Syrian province. Not for the Palestinians a Herzl who would meet the German Kaiser at Wilhelm II at the Mikveh Yisrael agricultural college, east of Jaffa, in 1898, to seek to sell him the idea of a Jewish state (as in his 1896 epoch-making pamphlet, Der Jüdenstaat), or with Sultan Abdul Hamid II, ruler of the Ottoman Empire in Constantinople, in 1901 to issue the same plea.

In fact, the Palestinian Arabs had some 450 years in which to seek to persuade their Ottoman rulers that they should be granted a Palestinian homeland in Southern Syria. It just did not occur to them. It was not until the Jews began to make the land produce enough to sustain them and those who came, from surrounding Arab lands equally as from the Pale of Settlement, that there were the first stirrings of a national urge.

This was accelerated with the arrival of the British in December 1918. It seems that it was one thing to be neglected and ignored by Constantinople for almost half a millennium but quite another when the same disregard began to emanate from London.

The arrival of the British – Allenby and the British Army in Jerusalem in December 1918 and Weizmann’s Zionist Commission the following spring – awoke a dormant Arab consciousness about their own position in Palestine. It became plain that:

“numerous local groups had already been formed with the intent of stopping Jewish immigration to Palestine. One set of these groups were the Muslim-Christian Associations. Formed in late 1918 in the major cities of Palestine, these associations were generally comprised of wealthy and established notables who presented a united front in opposition to Zionism, though internally they often did not agree on other aspects of the region’s political future. Other regional groups … were generally composed of “the young Arab intelligentsia” and were similarly anti-Zionist, though they too were often not in total agreement about what to request beyond the cessation of Zionism. Despite their internal differences, opposition to Zionism provided these groups with a central organising principle.” (The Zionist Commission and the Jewish Communities of Greater Syria in 1919, Jerusalem Quarterly 56 & 57 – Andrew J. Patrick, Assistant Professor of History at Tennessee State University.)

In other words, the local Arab elite found its political identity but, other than awakening a violent objection to increasing numbers of Jews which expressed itself in the form of pogroms, they created nothing more, and certainly no significant institutions that would be able to carve out a Palestinian movement for independence in Palestine.

Weizmann, immediately alive to the predicament of the Palestinians, undertook, in June 1918, an arduous journey to the desert north of Aqaba, where he met with Emir Feisal, the would-be King of the independent Syria he expected to emerge from WWI. Later that year, Weizmann signed an agreement with Feisal in London whereby Arab and Jew would work and live in peace and harmony in Palestine. Feisal added a manuscript rider to the agreement to the effect that if he did not get his Syrian state, all bets were off. Early in January 1919, WWI over, a series of peace conferences were held in and around Paris. The Syrian representative (Feisal’s man) at the Paris peace conference, Chekri Ganem, spoke generously:

Palestine is incontestably the Southern portion of our country. The Zionists claim it. We have suffered too much from sufferings resembling theirs, not to throw open wide to them the doors of Palestine. All those among them who are oppressed in certain retrograde countries are welcome. Let them settle in Palestine, but in an autonomous Palestine, connected with Syria by the sole bond of federation. Will not a Palestine enjoying wide internal autonomy be for them a sufficient guarantee?

If they form the majority there, they will be the rulers. If they are in the minority, they will be represented in the government in proportion to their numbers.

Pursuant to the secretly-forged Sykes-Picot agreement, the Middle East was carved up between Great Britain and France. The latter got Damascus and held onto it, dashing any hopes that Feisal had about being the ruler of Syria. With his hopes went the Weizmann-Feisal pact and any prospect of cooperation between the Yishuv and their adjacent Arabs.

So far, then, we have seen the Palestinians deprived of a state by the Turks for 450 years, and then by the French in 1922. Even more significantly, there was no suggestion of autonomy in southern Syria for the Palestinians being granted by Feisal (had he not been sent packing by the French). Apparently, nobody recognised them as a body of people, discrete from the Syrians. They would have been Syrians, not Palestinians, living in Southern Syria. They were to be offered an opportunity in the following decade.

The British Peel Commission was formed in 1936 to see how the increasingly mutually‑hostile Arab and Jewish entities could be, instead, mutually accommodated in Palestine. Peel offered a Two State Solution – called Partition. At last there was something upon which the Jews and Arabs could agree: they agreed that it was unacceptable and rejected the idea out-of-hand. One man saw the flicker of the light of redemption in the Partition proposal, and that man was Chaim Weizmann.

Weizmann carried the concept of Partition in his mind (and doubtless in his heart) for a further decade – through WWII and the Holocaust, through his ejection as President of the World Zionist Commission in 1946 (for being too closely identified with the British), into the crucial year of 1947. It was then that he pounced. His opportunity was provided by the UN.

Extracting themselves from the eviscerated and putrid entrails of WWII and the Holocaust, the British Empire exhausted, fiscally and otherwise, bereft of the desire to continue with the Mandate a day longer than necessary, tossed the hot coals of the warring Arabs and Jews of Palestine into the hands of the newly-formed United Nations (successor to the ill-fated League of Nations that had conferred the Mandate on the British, expressly embracing the Balfour Declaration). The UN proposed Partition – the Two State Solution. The representatives of the Yishuv at the UN, spurred on by Weizmann, agreed to it. The Arabs again rejected it again. Then, thanks to the magic worked by Weizmann on two separate occasions with president Truman, a tiny state was declared by Ben Gurion just before Shabbat on May 14, 1948. It comprised the Galilee, Hadera to Gadera, including the wasp’s waist of eight miles in the Sharon region, and – due entirely to Weizmann and his influence on Truman – the Negev. Utterly-indefensible borders were transformed by the war thrust on Israel, by the five invading Arab armies, into just‑about‑defensible borders. The West Bank was held by Jordan. No-one thought to call it Palestine. No Palestinian protested. Arafat did not form the PLO/PLA to wrest control of Judaea and Samaria from Jordan. He did so with the intention of destroying Israel. Again it was a case of:

يهودنا هي سوء حظنا (The Jews Are Our Misfortune).

So, responsibility for starving the Palestinians of their own state is not down only to the British, with their Balfour Declaration. It lies also with the French, who deprived Emir Feisal of his Syrian state; Emir Feisal, who in signing a deal that would have given the Jews their state, omitted to identify another for the Palestinians; the Arabs at the UN who rejected Partition (the Two State Solution) in 1947; the Jordanians who took Judaea and Samaria in 1948 but made no move to create there the state of Palestine; Yassir Arafat who neglected to demand it of the Jordanians; and Arafat who drove away all but the most left-wing Israelis from the promise of Oslo with his Second Intifada.

It is a long list (and possibly not an exhaustive one), but what runs through the whole story of Palestinian state-starvation is their own culture: at first pastoral and bucolically simple, then inert, when they should have been mimicking the Yishuv (which spent the Mandate years creating a state in waiting, with many institutions fully operational ready for 15 May 1948) and finally implacable hostility to compromise, nihilism and anti-Semitism. Most of all, the Palestinians should blame their leadership which is responsible for these shortcomings.

Given all that, British PM May was right to reject Abu Mazen’s demand last month for an apology for the Balfour Declaration. Possibly, Britain should agree to do so at the same time as all the other apologies come flooding in (although expect hell to freeze over first).

The year 2017 sees two seminal anniversaries: 100 years since the Balfour Declaration and 50 years since the Six Day War. It represents another milestone too. After the first Zionist Conference, convened by Theodor Herzl, he confided to his diary:

At Basel I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today l would be greeted by universal laughter. In five years perhaps, and certainly in fifty years, everyone will perceive it.

That was in 1897. He was to be proved wrong, but only by a matter of six months.

In the Holocaust, Jews were starved – and beaten, shot, gassed and in any number of ways snuffed out. After it, they applied Jewish flexibility and (to quote Weizmann again) acted out something the zero-sum gaming Palestinians may never learn: it is better to have 50% of something than 100% of nothing. What Israel has done with that moiety is a wonder for the world to behold in this year of anniversaries.

© Howard Epstein – May 2017

Howard Epstein’s book: Weizmann – The Indispensable Zionist will be published in August. The piece above will form the basis of the epilogue.

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