The Economic Dimensions of Democratic Politics

In an op-ed last week, The New York Times editor, David Leonhardt, advised voting for a Democratic Party candidate for president based on the enthusiasm he or she excites in you, but also on how well the candidate’s program appeals to economic populism.  “A substantial majority of Americans favor a populist agenda — higher taxes on the rich, better federal health insurance, more government action to create good-paying jobs and so on. The Democrats did so well in the midterms partly because of the populist campaign many of them ran…I think their best chance of winning in 2020 involves a campaign centered on fighting for working families.”

Over the next few blogs and reviews of several recent books on contemporary economics, I want to put forth an argument that, whatever the value of the first criterion for casting a vote to select a Democratic Party candidate, I suggest that, while fighting for working families is certainly legitimate, and both sides make a claim to do so, that should not be done on the back of populist economics. For what you sow, so shall you reap.

Republicans say their program of reduced taxes not only helps the rich but benefits the working individual by creating more jobs, creating a need for workers and a need to compete for workers which in turn will lead to higher wages for them. Democrats who follow Leonhardt’s lead think in terms of minimum wages, rules to strengthen collective bargaining, taxation policy that redistributes wealth rather than offering incentives for accumulating it and sometimes protectionism. Republicans supposedly support a balanced budget and then run up deficits their Democratic opponents are afraid of lest they be accused of ruining the economy. Republicans, therefore, set aside PAYGO, the congressional rule that increases in spending be matched by cuts elsewhere, when it suits them. The G.O.P. 2017 budget did precisely this.

Projecting an image of a Democratic Party in fear of budget deficits places restrictions on righting the wrongs of the past through increased benefits and laws to redistribute income. This was the position of Nancy Pelosi’s critics when she ran to be speaker of the House of Representatives. Pelosi, however, resisted their criticism and resolved to abide by PAYGO. However, economists like Paul Krugman argue that austerity and budget restrictions impede economic growth and lead to economic stagnation by ignoring or setting back the need to invest in infrastructure and in human resource development for example. I want to question whether either approach is better or worse, or even whether a choice has to be made in the face of the globalizing technological economic forces driving modern economies.

This Central debate within America has to be set within what is taking place on the global level. Richard Haas, and many others, look upon what is happening with an apocalyptic lens. The liberal world order, which began in the seventeenth century and was greatly expanded and refined after WWII with a set of institutions, is at the beginning stages of disintegration. That order was based on an idea of promoting the economic well-being of everyone on this planet by constructing an international system based on the rule of law and respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of each country within a world order.

One factor that has contributed to the disintegration has been the very instruments seen to be the culmination of integrating the whole planet, namely the internet and, more specifically, social media. For what set out to enhance worldwide communications has created a crisis for open societies and the freedom of the mind that was the pillar of the liberal world order. George Soros as Cassandra has written that, “The current moment in world history is a painful one. Open societies are in crisis, and various forms of dictatorships and mafia states, exemplified by Vladimir Putin’s Russia, are on the rise. In the United States, President Donald Trump would like to establish his own mafia-style state but cannot, because the Constitution, other institutions, and a vibrant civil society won’t allow it. Not only is the survival of open society in question; the survival of our entire civilization is at stake. The rise of leaders such as Kim Jong-un in North Korea and Trump in the US have much to do with this. Both seem willing to risk a nuclear war in order to keep themselves in power. But the root cause goes even deeper. Mankind’s ability to harness the forces of nature, both for constructive and destructive purposes, continues to grow, while our ability to govern ourselves properly fluctuates, and is now at a low ebb.”

Soros is far from alone. Who would know better than John MacWilliams, who heads the Department of Energy where the internet was invented? He insisted that whenever we interact on a telecommunications device, someone not invited is listening. In fact, many are listening. Michael Lewis in The Fifth Risk, which I will review, dubs this the first risk. When married to the fifth risk, the failure to manage this (and other risks) by denigrating management in favour of ideology, by denigrating knowledge in favour of ignorance, offers the anti-intellectual tools to destroy the modern liberal order.

Why the increase in quasi-fascist and fascist states? Because the policeman (America) of the world has given way and surrendered the responsibility of regulation. Democratic values were viewed initially as being protected by military interventions and crusades. That resulted in a propensity to concentrate power in hegemonic states, unfortunately.  International institutions were created to foster a world of interdependence that could counteract that propensity. The result, as Joseph Nye and others argue, was an unprecedented level “of prosperity and the longest period in modern history without war between major powers. USsis leadership helped to create this system, and US leadership has long been critical for its success.”

However, in our digital age, giant, mostly American, platform companies have turned the greatest political power ever seen on this earth into an impotent giant as companies, that initially played an enormous role in innovation and liberalization, have fallen into the hands of interests which are primarily transactional, focused on promoting consumption rather than liberty in what Yanis Varoufakis dubs “the relentless commodification of privacy.” That, they argue, has made privacy and individual autonomy no longer possible. Innovators, like Mark Zuckerberg, have lost control of the Frankenstein they created.

Pseudo-knowledge – actual false claims – become the headlines people absorb and think of as knowledge. The weighing and evaluating of conclusions are set aside in favour of mass appeal. Sound bites are the clowns of this pseudo-cognitive world, sweeping minds and feelings into mass hysteria. Stop the merry-go-round. I want to, I need to, get off.

However, when it comes to the real world, our material world, our world as understood through economic science, the conclusion that the world is going to hell in a handbasket is offset by the cheery remarks of a leader that the country has the lowest unemployment levels and extraordinary rates of growth of that economy, blissfully ignoring the forces building up. Many if not most analysts see a collapse on the horizon. The volatile Wall Street stock market is just the foreplay for a 2020 depression that will make 2008 look like a blip on a screen and even the mode of management in 1929 seem like a cakewalk.

The fiscal policies of the U.S. are viewed as unsustainable. The period of sustained and synchronized growth has lost steam and is nearing a collapse, Unlike 2008 and 1939, governments no longer have the tools to reverse course according to Nouriel Roubini and Brunello Rosa.

2019 is supposed to be the tipping point with the U.S. running up unprecedented deficits, China has responded to the American-initiated trade war with even looser fiscal and credit policies as Europe limps badly as it still tries to recover from the centrifugal fragmenting forces threatening to throw a united but fragile unity into dozens of pieces. The protective devices of banking unification are proceeding too slowly and are too weak. Fiscal policy coordination is inadequate as political rifts and schisms grow exponentially. Political uncertainty across Europe, especially in the mainstays, France and Germany, grows as the domestic drivers of economic growth weaken and exports suffer because of the American-led trade war with China on a macro scale and the cancellation of the American decision to lift sanctions on Iran decrease trade on a more modest level.

Why? For many, the new communications system and the digital age are not the primary villains. Neoliberal ideology and “public choice” theory emphasizing the reversal of the regulations introduced following the 2008 crisis, are. The dominant economic model is becoming totally incongruent with the actual historical patterns on the ground which demand and need much greater intervention and management of the economy rather than greater anarchy. In spite of many efforts in place, the policy direction is working in reverse even though, in Europe, there is at least a plan in place to counter these trends and to maximize economy strengths in ingenuity and high-end manufacturing.

We have a communications crisis. We have a fiscal crisis. We have a governance crisis. In a globalized economic world with a pressing need for global management of a natural climate crisis of unprecedented proportions coming at us, we need more integration, not less, more governance not less, more regulation not less. But the signs of an emerging system of global governance are all pointing in the wrong direction. The tide of increased global trade that has contributed so much to rising worldwide prosperity is in retreat as the global trade game has shifted from free trade to increasing reliance on mercantilism, that is, regulation and intervention precisely in a way it is not only not needed, but is destructive to the international order. And central banks can no longer cope with the variety and size of the challenges that states face.

The startling part of it all is that we are just on the edge of vast improvements in productivity resulting from the digital age as machines not only replace the need for our muscle. Artificial intelligence is on the brink of displacing many levels of decision-making that can be better managed by electronic rather than by human intelligence. Look at how out of synch economic policies are. Tax policies in the U.S. and elsewhere increase inflation and impede investment just when more intelligent management of the economy is needed, not less. Most of all, there is public discord that grows as economic inequality grows and as the graduates of even our universities no longer see a route to owning their own homes unassisted by inherited family wealth.

In other words, the problem is not just economic disruption, but an earthquake taking place in our institutions of governance both domestically and internationally. On the macro scale, even as Democrats re-energize themselves in America, the institutions of liberalism and democracy appear to have weakened so much that salvation appears almost impossible. On the micro level, our youth face a housing crisis and young families face an eviction crisis as they face mortgage renewals at rising rates that they cannot support. At the same time, all my moves, all my plans – for travel, for work, for leisure – to eat, sleep and be merry – are being tracked as advertisers both monitor and target our desires. The surreptitious mapping of our habits and desires work to erode autonomy and individuality. Freedom then becomes reinvented as celebrity. Glitz and glamour displace gravitas and critical reflection. And opinion displaces fact as a foundation for decisions.

On a more mundane, but the most painful level, debt is punted down the line to future generations. Further, the problem is not only the exploding federal debt, but, as Carmen Reinhart has written, the high issuance of corporate collateralized loan obligations (CLOs), the new temptress on the financial runway that has pushed corporate bonds aside. High-yield corporate debt instruments are the emerging market within the U.S. economy, but the rapid rise is even greater in Europe where yields are even higher. Of course, these are of very different order of magnitude than in 2008, but they hit the productivity rather than consumer side of the market. Thus, these could be the equivalents of the high-interest poorly secured bundling of mortgage obligations in the first decade of this century that led to the 2008 financial crisis as the money is borrowed by weaker corporations and with more questionable valuation of the collaterals. And the debt is arranged through third tier lightly regulated banks. Do all capital surges end badly?

Unprecedented unemployment levels, owing almost entirely to the rapid increase in the service sector, in the atomized environment of outsourcing, does not produce increased income resulting from increased competition for workers. Expected increases in income have not been forthcoming. Thus the rise of Trump in America, of the Brexit fiasco in Britain, of Macron as a fleeting shooting star, not to count the quasi-dictatorships in Russia, China, Poland, Hungary, Turkey, the Philippines and Brazil, to list some of the major ones which still exclude totalitarian oppressive regimes such as North Korea or Myanmar, and imploding governments such as that of Venezuela, are all part of this trajectory towards disaster.

The rise of populist political parties and leaders with increasing influence almost everywhere threatens economies that depend on facts, on analysis, on knowledge-based decisions instead of whims and ignorance. Trump and other leaders on the right avoid comprehensive and coherent policy platforms for they are impossible to come by in an era dominated by ignorance and impulse, lies and braggadocio. Agility declines. Rigidity sets in.

Other Cassandras, such as George Brown, appear as optimists, for they still believe that steps can be taken to save the world from the collapse of a liberal globalization and a planet destroyed by climate change. How appealing then are the corrective measures promoted by The New York Times editor, David Leonhardt? There are two: based on enthusiasm in a candidate for public office who excites you; and choosing on the basis of how well thought out a program the candidate offers that simply appeals to economic populism. I will argue that they feed the beast rather than stopping it in its tracks.

Reviews of economic books follow.


With the help of Alex Zisman


The Competition for Recognition Part V The Moral Compass: Division on the Political Right

Is Donald Trump a by-product of the failure of liberalism which sold out to identity politics and the politics of resentment in accordance with the views of Jordan Peterson? Is Donald Trump, as Dummitt declares, the most triumphant exponent of “Be true to oneself” and representative of those who feel unrecognized and who are willing to defy social convention from the right? Dummitt declared that the moral compass in the modern world on the left as well as on the right, was rooted in the authentic self – “to thine own self be true” – rather than, say, custom or religious edicts. Is this accurate?

Whether or not the above is true, will the winner in this competition be the side which invokes the morally superior identity? If conservatives favour market and individual freedoms versus excessive bureaucracy and taxes, while the left liberals attack social and religious conventions that impose restrictions on sexuality, gender and race, is the present polarization simply a fundamentalist evangelical conflict between two definitions of moral purity and the claim that each is the real outsider, the real excluded, while each should provide the moral compass for the modern world?

If this depiction of the core of current polarization is accurate, can that polarization be overcome by avoiding the dichotomy of left and right and giving priority to traditional liberal and/or conservative references, say citizenship or to an overarching social order, that is, making a strong shared identity more basic than the identity quests that divide us? Such a solution would once again prioritize our customs and shared values that emphasize the rule of law, free speech, the right of self-expression and public civility. Or do we have to reach back further in our history, into the biblical narrative, a narrative of constant tension between ethical imperatives and historical propensities?

As I see the American political battleground, a four-way fight is underway. On the right, for now, the populists have won. On the left, the Left Liberals remain in charge, but the democratic socialists are in the process of mounting stronger and stronger challenges.

The overall battle can be represented by the following chart:


  Democratic socialist Left Liberal Conservative Populist
Substance Benefits Protections Markets Identity Wars
  Group rights Civil rights Human rights Foetal rights
Process Challenge incumbents Defend Incumbents Surrender


Challenge incumbents
  Voter registration Voter registration Voter Suppression Voter Suppression
Overview Class war Common membership Common membership Cultural War
  Resentment – Identity Politics Appreciation Appreciation Resentment – Identity Politics

Tomorrow, I will focus on the battle on the left. Today, attention is focused on the victory of right-wing populism over traditional conservatism in the internecine war on the right.

I begin with modernity and the moral purity of the economic right as best expressed by Friedrich A. Hayek. (See Individualism and Economic Order.) One type of individualism [economic] leads to freedom and spontaneous order. The other type of individualism [cultural] leads to a controlled economy and imposed order rooted in collectivism according to Hayek. For many, this implies that the only collectivist challenge comes from the left. However, there is a collectivist, a nationalist, challenge that comes from the right.

The Trump presidency is a case of deliberate inauthenticity, a case of wearing the mantle of market freedom, but organizing a takeover by collectivists who are nationalists, that is, by a group identified by their common loyalties. Order is imposed by a singular leader claimed to embody the nationalist spirit even if the actual spirit consists of lies, degradation of customs, racism, degenerate language and de facto narcissism. The playbook and the philosophy of fascism has not fundamentally changed since Giovanni Gentile, the Italian philosopher, set down the tenets of fascism in the book, The Doctrine of Fascism that he ghostwrote for Benito Mussolini.

Gentile misinterpreted Hegel and put forth what he called a neo-Hegelian view that extolled collectivism and denigrated individualism. There was no objective reality or reference points external to the self. Hence, this variation of the proposition, “To thine own self be true.” The true subject was not an abstract “I,” an individual postulated as an abstraction in an ideal world where that “I” enjoyed a full panoply of protections. The true subject was embodied, was an actual individual, a concrete rather than abstract individual. There was no true manifold objective world and no true abstract individuality. Truth was to be located in the subject, the heroic subject that asserted agency on behalf and in the name of the national collectivity. The objective world was only a projection of that individuality. Experience is only a product of what is projected; objectivity does not provide boundaries for this narcissism in the name of the collective.

There are no lies since the only truth that exists is that projected by the mind of the “wise” leader as the divine is conceived of as immanent in such projections. The leader is the “truest” believer in himself. The objective world must conform to this form of subjective Being.

Let me make these abstractions concrete. Ryan Costello lost his seat (the 6th Congressional District in Pennsylvania) in the House of Representatives in the midterm elections (see The New Yorker, 12 November 2018). He is an example of a traditional or moderate Republican, a conservative centrist. He was willing, even eager, to have government catch up with technical advances in renewable energy. He was willing to work with the Democratic opposition across the aisle to improve health-care delivery and introduce reasonable immigration controls.

“And then Trump gets elected. And the norms of politics all just blow up and you’re trying to figure out how to orient yourself when the rules don’t apply anymore, and you’re allowed to say and do things which used to be disqualifying.” Trump lied. Repeatedly! Often! Daily! Without due process, Trump banned entry to persons from seven Muslim countries. Without due process, Trump took away the White House press pass of CNN’s Jim Acosta. Costello wanted the Mueller investigation into election collusion with the Russians to go forward without any political interference. But the leader of his party, the president, denounced the FBI as corrupt, denounced the press for spreading fake news, insulted black female reporters while insisting on decorum at White House press briefings.

Costello faced a choice. Complicity with Trump or disloyalty to the Republican Party that had been taken over by Trump and his followers. He chose to walk a tightrope, generally ignoring the depths of degradation of his party’s leader, occasionally publishing on Facebook his own dissent towards Trump’s latest malfeasance when it became too extreme, but expressing no interest in condemning or censoring the president in the House. He chose not to accompany Jeff Flake of Arizona into the political wilderness. He allowed fear to determine his choices.

However, he faced chaos from the left as well as the right and barely escaped being shot by a Bernie Sanders supporter who critically wounded the Majority Whip, Steve Scalise of Louisiana, at a Republican charity baseball game. However, the bulk of artillery aimed his way came from the right even as he tried to sidestep Trump’s racism and Trump’s ignoring and ignorance of the Constitution and the rule of law. Costello faced either the ire of the voters in Pennsylvania or the ire of the President who would back an alternative Republican candidate in the primaries in Pennsylvania’s sixth district. He avoided the latter only to see his political career destroyed (at least for now) by the former. His principles of balanced budgets, free trade, upholding the Constitution, the rule of law and the separation of powers had all crashed and burned much earlier as prudential silence morphed into the “habitual muteness of the acquiescent.”

The politics of total war against party dissidents and politicians with backbone and character meant that reasonable compromise was no longer the language of politics. Extremism, zealotry and populism were. Conspiracy theories were floated in the air like hundreds of sky lanterns, even though everyone knew they were fire hazards. Republicans moved from being the upholders of institutions and their values to participating in the destruction of norms and institutions and engaging in voter suppression and gerrymandering. Shock value and publicity seekers usurped the role of thoughtful and reflective independent minded politicians.

But the roots lay in those same institutions. For the core issue of getting a foothold on the race to power depended most on the commitment of a core group of party members in a district and/or actually recruiting those members for the nomination. In a far less democratic Canada, constituency nominations depended, in most suburban ridings, on getting one ethnic group, or an alliance of two ethnic groups, who could deliver the signatures to party membership and their votes on nomination day. 1-2% of eligible voters could choose the candidate for their party, and, depending on the national race, could coast to victory.

In the USA, the nomination depended less on getting the support of a core of party members in a constituency party meeting (as in Canada) than on winning a popularity contest in a political primary, that is, in electioneering that never stopped and depended on the energizer batteries of politics – money and human time. The kind of publicity adopted depended on the intellectual, policy and publicity silos of your side. Decency, rationality, objectivity and a primary concern with truth had largely been shovelled into the ashbin of history, though to different degrees and with respect to different key issues. Core support came from two sometimes overlapping sources: evangelical Christians who had already subscribed to surrendering the individual self to a higher “divine” self, who appeared immanently in history; and resentful white Americans who felt they had lost their place in history.

Totally contrary to Christopher Dummitt, the core reference point has been neither authenticity nor moral purity, but expediency, opportunism and ambition. People’s rule had replaced party rule and the people were no longer an aggregate of individual voters, but an ideological tribe in which the members demonstrating the greatest zealotry won over the mob. Rallies, not debates, became the central focus of an election campaign by both the socialist left and the populist right.

However, on the right the collectivists, the nationalists, emerged victorious. Each day that passed witnessed the defeat of another compromiser, of another compromise, of another part of objective reality. Climate change impelled by human activity, according to Trump, was not a major contributing cause to the tremendously destructive fires that so recently laid waste to enormous tracts of land and even a whole city in California. The fact that these were not forest fires but largely shrub lands, the fact that, in any case, forests were not managed primarily by the State of California but by the federal government that owned the majority of forest tracts, the fact that “sweeping forests” was not an idea passed on by the Finnish Prime Minister as a forest management tool or that it was even a useful one, did not matter. Trump, as usual, mouthed off in ignorance and pronounced that there would be no more such fires. More than that, he pronounced his own personal view of nature as simply an extension of his own wishes rather than an independent reality.

“I have a strong opinion. I want great climate, and we’re going to have a forest that is very safe.”





Descent into Hell: Parshat VaYeitzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3)

The problem with old age is that we spend far too much time seeing doctors and trying to keep an old and decrepit chassis working. Ignoring times spent in labs for various blood and urine tests, for x-rays and Dopplers, echograms and neurological tests, this week alone I saw my general practitioner, my heart doctor and my sleep doctor. And today I head to the Toronto Western Hospital to have my eye measured to prepare for surgery and the removal of cataracts.

Not only do these visits take time, but when I meet old friends, we spend too much time reciting and comparing our ills. But it is not only with friends. Yesterday, I was on the phone talking with my youngest son for about two hours – he lives in Vancouver – and he was upset that I had not kept him up to date on my health and my treatments. And then there are the visits – to friends who have really serious health issues. I miss them. I want to see them. I want them to keep going even as I tire of the effort to keep going myself. Illness consumes time.

Why then bore you with such issues? Because I could use some help. I visited my sleep doctor yesterday – or perhaps it was the day before. I, to my surprise, had not seen her for quite awhile. I went to check whether my CPAP breathing mechanism that I use at night was set at the correct pressure. I made the appointment before I found out that taking a diuretic pill once a day got rid of the excess water in my legs and lungs that evidently accounted for why I had been feeling so tired. Hence, the breathlessness I had been experiencing. Perhaps that is why I was even more cheerful when seeing her than I perhaps usually am.

She told me that she likes to see me and missed me. How often does a doctor tell you that? Patients with sleeping problems are normally grumpy and melancholic. They feel sleep deprived and wish they could sleep more. In contrast, she said, I seem to be the rare – very rare evidently – a patient who comes to see her who is upbeat, tries to tell funny stories and cheers her up. I do not complain about lack of sleep for the fact that I need much less sleep pleases me enormously as it allows me normally to get my blog written before breakfast.

However, this time I had a real problem. I had a horrible nightmare early in the week. I had watched the news and the frightening fires in California where flames skipped over three football fields in minutes. I watched on television as families in cars escaped through walls of flames when they could barely make out whether they were fleeing the fire or getting into it. The children in the car were panicky as a father tried to reassure them that they should calm down. They would escape, he insisted. They evidently did so; that is why we could watch their car video that they had made.  Unfortunately, perhaps 200-300 did not escape.

I had gone to sleep about 10:30 p.m. and instead of waking up around 3:30 a.m., I woke at 11:45 p.m. I woke shaking. I could not get back to sleep. I also could not write. This is very unusual for me when I can be sitting at my desk writing within 60 seconds of waking up. I also do not usually remember my dreams. My sleep rhythm is unusual since I enter a deep sleep almost as soon as I put my head on my pillow – perhaps it can take as much as 30 seconds. And when I wake up, I am not drowsy but fully awake. But this past week, I could not write for two mornings in the aftermath of that nightmare. I missed writing two blogs.

However, this dream – or, rather, nightmare – was vivid in my memory. I was shaking when I awoke. In that dream, I had been in Africa working when I received a phone call that there was an enormous fire in the region where we lived back home – and home seemed to be California rather than Toronto. The caller told me that they had not been able to locate my wife and my two youngest children. In the dream, they were 6 and 9 years old at the time – so the dream was set almost 25 years ago.

I immediately flew home and began looking for them. The dream consisted almost entirely of that search – a futile search for I never found them. I passed houses with flames 30-40’ in the air. I passed cars engulfed in flames and tried to peer into them to see if my missing wife and two youngest children were in those cars. The dream went on and on, searching and searching but finding nothing. But the most peculiar part of the dream is that when I walked endlessly among these flames, I was freezing cold. I felt like an iceberg – assuming an iceberg can feel. I was frozen and never warmed up.

I told my sleep doctor that the dream had stayed with me all week, not only because it had been so horrific and because it had shaken me up so much, but because I could not figure out what it might mean. I usually find I can find an interpretation that seems to make sense. However, in this dream, the only thing that seems to have been clear was that the videos of the flames and the children in the escaping cars had probably set off the dream. Nothing else.

Of course, my sleep doctor was not a dream doctor. Her expertise was in the mechanics of sleep and not its imaginary content. I did not expect her to help me interpret the dream. I merely wanted to explain my physical tiredness succeeded by relief via a diuretic and then my mental tiredness brought on by a dream. I welcome any efforts at interpretation. In this there remains hope. For my readership offers me the opportunity and the audience to try to understand that dream.

But it is not my dream that I want to write about, but Jacob’s.


10 And Jacob left Beer sheba, and he went to Haran.   י

וַיֵּצֵ֥א יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב מִבְּאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ חָרָֽנָה:

11 And he arrived at the place and lodged there because the sun had set, and he took some of the stones of the place and placed [them] at his head, and he lay down in that place.   יא

וַיִּפְגַּ֨ע בַּמָּק֜וֹם וַיָּ֤לֶן שָׁם֙ כִּי־בָ֣א הַשֶּׁ֔מֶשׁ וַיִּקַּח֙ מֵֽאַבְנֵ֣י הַמָּק֔וֹם וַיָּ֖שֶׂם מְרַֽאֲשֹׁתָ֑יו וַיִּשְׁכַּ֖ב בַּמָּק֥וֹם הַהֽוּא:

12 And he dreamed, and behold! a ladder set up on the ground and its top reached to heaven; and behold, angels of God were ascending and descending upon it.   יב

וַיַּֽחֲלֹ֗ם וְהִנֵּ֤ה סֻלָּם֙ מֻצָּ֣ב אַ֔רְצָה וְרֹאשׁ֖וֹ מַגִּ֣יעַ הַשָּׁמָ֑יְמָה וְהִנֵּה֙ מַלְאֲכֵ֣י אֱלֹהִ֔ים עֹלִ֥ים וְיֹֽרְדִ֖ים בּֽוֹ:

13 And behold, the Lord was standing over him, and He said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac; the land upon which you are lying to you I will give it and to your seed.   יג

וְהִנֵּ֨ה יְהֹוָ֜ה נִצָּ֣ב עָלָיו֘ וַיֹּאמַר֒ אֲנִ֣י יְהֹוָ֗ה אֱלֹהֵי֙ אַבְרָהָ֣ם אָבִ֔יךָ וֵֽאלֹהֵ֖י יִצְחָ֑ק הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֤ר אַתָּה֙ שֹׁכֵ֣ב עָלֶ֔יהָ לְךָ֥ אֶתְּנֶ֖נָּה וּלְזַרְעֶֽךָ:

14 And your seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and you shall gain strength westward and eastward and northward and southward; and through you shall be blessed all the families of the earth and through your seed.   יד

וְהָיָ֤ה זַרְעֲךָ֙ כַּֽעֲפַ֣ר הָאָ֔רֶץ וּפָֽרַצְתָּ֛ יָ֥מָּה וָקֵ֖דְמָה וְצָפֹ֣נָה וָנֶ֑גְבָּה וְנִבְרְכ֥וּ בְךָ֛ כָּל־מִשְׁפְּחֹ֥ת הָֽאֲדָמָ֖ה וּבְזַרְעֶֽךָ:

15 And behold, I am with you, and I will guard you wherever you go, and I will restore you to this land, for I will not forsake you until I have done what I have spoken concerning you.”   טו

וְהִנֵּ֨ה אָֽנֹכִ֜י עִמָּ֗ךְ וּשְׁמַרְתִּ֨יךָ֙ בְּכֹ֣ל אֲשֶׁר־תֵּלֵ֔ךְ וַֽהֲשִׁ֣בֹתִ֔יךָ אֶל־הָֽאֲדָמָ֖ה הַזֹּ֑את כִּ֚י לֹ֣א אֶֽעֱזָבְךָ֔ עַ֚ד אֲשֶׁ֣ר אִם־עָשִׂ֔יתִי אֵ֥ת אֲשֶׁר־דִּבַּ֖רְתִּי לָֽךְ:

16 And Jacob awakened from his sleep, and he said, “Indeed, the Lord is in this place, and I did not know [it].”   טז

וַיִּיקַ֣ץ יַֽעֲקֹב֘ מִשְּׁנָתוֹ֒ וַיֹּ֗אמֶר אָכֵן֙ יֵ֣שׁ יְהֹוָ֔ה בַּמָּק֖וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָֽנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתִּי:

17 And he was frightened, and he said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”   יז

וַיִּירָא֙ וַיֹּאמַ֔ר מַה־נּוֹרָ֖א הַמָּק֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה אֵ֣ין זֶ֗ה כִּ֚י אִם־בֵּ֣ית אֱלֹהִ֔ים וְזֶ֖ה שַׁ֥עַר הַשָּׁמָֽיִם:

18 And Jacob arose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had placed at his head, and he set it up as a monument, and he poured oil on top of it.   יח

וַיַּשְׁכֵּ֨ם יַֽעֲקֹ֜ב בַּבֹּ֗קֶר וַיִּקַּ֤ח אֶת־הָאֶ֨בֶן֙ אֲשֶׁר־שָׂ֣ם מְרַֽאֲשֹׁתָ֔יו וַיָּ֥שֶׂם אֹתָ֖הּ מַצֵּבָ֑ה וַיִּצֹ֥ק שֶׁ֖מֶן עַל־רֹאשָֽׁהּ:

19 And he named the place Beth El, but Luz was originally the name of the city.   יט

וַיִּקְרָ֛א אֶת־שֵֽׁם־הַמָּק֥וֹם הַה֖וּא בֵּֽית־אֵ֑ל וְאוּלָ֛ם ל֥וּז שֵֽׁם־הָעִ֖יר לָרִֽאשֹׁנָֽה:

20 And Jacob uttered a vow, saying, “If God will be with me, and He will guard me on this way, upon which I am going, and He will give me bread to eat and a garment to wear;   כ

וַיִּדַּ֥ר יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב נֶ֣דֶר לֵאמֹ֑ר אִם־יִֽהְיֶ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֜ים עִמָּדִ֗י וּשְׁמָרַ֨נִי֙ בַּדֶּ֤רֶךְ הַזֶּה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אָֽנֹכִ֣י הוֹלֵ֔ךְ וְנָֽתַן־לִ֥י לֶ֛חֶם לֶֽאֱכֹ֖ל וּבֶ֥גֶד לִלְבֹּֽשׁ:

21 And if I return in peace to my father’s house, and the Lord will be my God;   כא

וְשַׁבְתִּ֥י בְשָׁל֖וֹם אֶל־בֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑י וְהָיָ֧ה יְהֹוָ֛ה לִ֖י לֵֽאלֹהִֽים:

22 Then this stone, which I have placed as a monument, shall be a house of God, and everything that You give me, I will surely tithe to You.   כב

וְהָאֶ֣בֶן הַזֹּ֗את אֲשֶׁר־שַׂ֨מְתִּי֙ מַצֵּבָ֔ה יִֽהְיֶ֖ה בֵּ֣ית אֱלֹהִ֑ים וְכֹל֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר תִּתֶּן־לִ֔י עַשֵּׂ֖ר אֲעַשְּׂרֶ֥נּוּ לָֽךְ:

Jacob had his dream while lying on the ground with his head on a rock. I was in bed with my head on a pillow. In Jacob’s dream, there is a ladder connecting heaven and earth. In my dream, earth has become a fiery hell. In Jacob’s dream, angels skip up and down the ladder; it is a sulam with the same numerical value as Sinai that adumbrates Moses’ encounter with God at Sinai. Jacob wakes from his dream in amazement. I woke from mine in anguish, despondent, dejected and wretched.

In my dream, I plod along horizontally. There is no skipping, just despair. If God stood over Jacob in his dream revealing himself to Jacob and promising that the land on which he rested his head will be given to him and his progeny, there was no God in my dream. No angels and not even Satan. I was alone in my dream, very much alone. And I walked in a landscape that no one would want to inherit.

Jacob flees his life of cheating his brother and wrestling away Esau’s birthright and blessing. Finally, between his home and that of his uncle, he is able to lie down and have a dream. But in my dream, I can only wander endlessly and aimlessly. I cannot even look forward to wrestling with God at the ford of the Jabbok River.

When Jacob awoke from his dream, he entered into a covenant with God, namely that, as long as God was with him and protected him and guided him, as long as he gave Jacob food to eat and a garment to wear, Jacob would remain His loyal servant. There was no one in my dream protecting my wife and children. There was no one guiding me as I trudged along amongst the flames and through the smoke without direction. And I felt only cold. Where Jacob had seen the house of God and the gate of heaven, I wandered the streets of hell.

The next morning after the dream, I went to synagogue and recited the kaddish. It was my mother’s Yahrzeit, the anniversary of her death eighteen years ago. It was morning and I recited the Shaharit prayer, the morning prayer that Abraham had supposedly established. Though I went through the motions and had amiable conversations with my friends, my heart was not in it. And it was a prayer for my mother. I felt more like Isaac, but in a paved over field with burning houses and cars on all sides. But in my dream, there was neither any prayer that poured out of me, nor conversation either. I saw no one. I asked no one. I searched, but the streets were deserted. It was certainly not Jacob’s evening prayer for there were no encounters at all.

In fact, the smoke was so thick, I could not tell whether it was morning, noon or night. It was true hell for the different times of the day had been obliterated. And I did not ask God to take me out of the darkness of that day into the light. Was this a world that God would inhabit, for it was truly a scorched earth unsuited to bring forth food, for sustaining animals and allowing beautiful yellow and purple flowers to grow. It was a world of gray on gray except for the brilliant red of the flames. It was a world that no one owned and no one would even want to own. The world was indeed illuminated, but not by the sun’s light, not by God’s light, but by the darkness and the flames that make up hell.

The celestial spheres, the sun and the moon, were blocked out by billowing black and grey smoke. And there was no one in charge of a world headed towards hell. God had abdicated. God had also fled the flames and abandoned His responsibilities. And I could not find my wife or my youngest children. Instead of the darkness providing an ambience for intimacy, there was nothing. There was nothingness. There was no God to embrace me in my fear, in my terror. There was no God with whom I could even make a deal, draw up a covenant, one in which we could exchange mutual promises and obligations. I did not feel, as I usually felt, when I awake in the very early hours of the morning and would write until I saw the light of day beginning to form outside of my picture windows in my study. I was not merely insecure, tired and wary as Isaac always seemed to be. I was petrified and identified with Jacob who loved bright colours and innocent jokes to cover up his profound terror. Deep down, he felt hopeless and was in despair, for a night of intimacy with his God had been lost. It was a night in which, except for the flames, all cows were both black and dead.

There was no progress in that dream, from hope to worry and trepidation. Instead of God turning on the lights, the flames were subsiding and left only burned out collapsed homes and frames of vehicles in a bleak landscape. Would the lights come on again? Would I see my wife and two youngest children again? I was so obsessed that I could not even thank an unknown God that my older children were safe and living elsewhere.

I pray every day that God renews His creation if there is a God and if God is still working at His job. I pray that each day will be a brand new day, a day full of creativity, a day of renewal when the world is always experienced anew. But the world had died. It had been torched.

I have never been concerned with whether God existed or not. The issue was never for me whether I believed or did not believe God existed. The issue had always been whether I believed that if God existed, that I was worthy of His faith in me. But in that bleak landscape, I feared that I had lost the faith in myself, the real faith that sustained me, that the world was and would be born anew every morning with a different pattern even though the elements were identical, that at night the angels ascended and descended the ladder in continuous motion, like elves, to renew the world for another day even though fascists and Nazis driven by the politics of resentment were in pursuit.

Will my family, will all families, be so blessed as I have been blessed? Will they even have a ladder to climb?

From Is to Ought

Ben Rhodes The World As It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House, New York: Random House, 2018.

In the Prologue of Ben Rhodes memoir, he describes how, in his last meeting with any head of state, Barack Obama passed the torch onto Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada. “You’re going to have to speak out when values are threatened.” Trudeau promised that he would “with a smile on my face. That is the only way to win.” Obama was an American, a liberal American, who believed that morality framed coercion and military might. “American leadership depended on our military, but was rooted not just in our strength but also in our goodness.” (25) And that goodness was built into institutions and laws but backed up, if need be, by force. (48)

A smile would not do the job. Yet Obama, flummoxed in the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump and emergence of autocrats around the world, conscious that his best ally, Angela Merkel, had been severely wounded, could only reach out to a Canadian leader who led with a smile and not even a soft voice. Further, and more importantly, Canada did not carry a big stick.

The real mantle of leadership had been stolen by Donald Trump, a would-be autocrat. He was willing to meet with other autocrats around the world – without any preconditions – North Korean, Russian, Turkish, even Iranian. Trump was blasted in the liberal press for doing so. Yet, when Ben Rhodes joined the Obama presidential campaign, his Democratic contender also had promised to meet US adversaries without conditions. As Rhodes wrote, “[T]he reason is this, that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is somehow punishment to them, which has been a guiding diplomatic principle of this [the Bush] administration, is ridiculous.” (12) Hillary Clinton, Obama’s opponent for the Democratic nomination, disagreed. She called Barack Obama naïve. Republicans, the same ones who as sycophants and toadies, defended Donald Trump when he did it, called Obama much worse.

Diplomacy without preconditions was not the only tactic Trump stole from Obama. “Turn defense into offense.” (18) “Restore America’s standing around the world.” (22) When Trump ran on a version of the latter, Obama made fun of the slogan, “Make America great again.” “America had always been great,” insisted Obama.

There is, of course, a difference between Obama and Trump. For the latter, such diplomatic meetings are simply transactional and the Donald believed that he was and is master of the deal. Obama believed, and his legacy – the Iran nuclear deal, the opening to Cuba, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Paris climate agreement for which leadership had been passed to China and Xi Jinping, the negotiations with the military junta in Myanmar – proved it, that diplomacy rather than inter-personal deals work. But a diplomacy capable of setting aside mindblinding and politically binding assumptions. In every single case, Donald Trump in his first two years in office proved that he was the master of and replacing professional diplomacy with personal transactional gestures.

The destruction of many of Obama’s overseas achievements had as much to do with personal animosity as Trump’s propensity for demolition, and both certainly more than the absence of any substance in his foreign policy. Donald Trump had been a leader in the blatantly racist “birther” movement, the false claim that Barack Obama had not been born in the US. Obama had folded before the media onslaught and finally acceded to releasing his longform birth certificate. That quieted but did not close down the flow of fake news. More importantly, a few days later after the birth certificate release, Barack Obama had his revenge at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner. In a series of spot-on jokes, he humiliated Donald Trump in the media and before the American public. “No one is happier, no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than the Donald. And that’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter – like, did we fake the moon landing.” (132-133) Trump’s unwinding of Obama’s many successes was Trump’s revenge.

The Obama administration did have its own share of failures – dealing with Russia over Georgia (inherited from Bush), Crimea, the Ukraine and Syria, as well as Syria itself and, of course, the disastrous Libyan initiative, the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, the incoherence of the US policy towards Egypt, and the fiasco of Afghanistan that I wrote about in the Farrow book review. What is worse, Obama and Rhodes knew that, “the Taliban could not be defeated so long as it had political support in Afghanistan and a safe haven in Pakistan.” (73)

Obama had kept Robert M. Gates on as Secretary of Defence and initially backed the failed strategy of counter-insurgency in an arena in which it could not and did not work. Vice-President Joe Biden was the only individual in the administration who consistently and persistently opposed a troop surge and argued that the US military was jamming Obama. (65-6) So what was Obama’s rationale if America was not going to defeat the Taliban? “We need to knock them back to give us space to go after al Qaeda.” (75) The troop surge was approved.

But perhaps Egypt was even more telling than Afghanistan. Obama and Rhodes knew that in a repressive society like Egypt’s, a democratic election would probably lead to the victory of an Islamist Party, the Muslim Brotherhood. (54) Yet the Obama administration backed the removal of Mubarak and fell back on the position that America would “judge any political movement by whether they choose to act and govern in a way that is consistent with democratic principles.” (55) But what if that political movement, though noisy in its demonstrations, was marginal in its political depth and the real choice was between two other movements – one rooted in the military and the other in the religious establishment? How should America act when faced with a Hobson’s choice when, in the end, military coercion was the real and only power? That same effort to achieve a balance between two incompatible political perspectives would prove to be the root of the Obama administration’s enormous but fruitless efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

It would also be at the root of Rhodes’s failure to comprehend the limitations of the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Rhodes expends few words on the doctrine and I cannot elaborate n it here, but it is clear that he aligned with Samantha Power (82) and, to some extent, Susan Rice, who believed that the R2P had to be a bedrock of American foreign policy – that is, liberal state had the right to intervene with force when a state persecuted its own citizens or could not protect them from other s bent on destruction. Obama never bought into it. Rhodes in his book never explains why except to suggest that Obama was more a realist than the small idealist cohort he had working for and with him.

However, R2P was fundamentally flawed. This doctrine had originated as a Canadian initiative. It advocated the right of any foreign power to intervene when the government of a state targeted its own people. Within a very short time after its formulation, it was adopted by a unanimous vote of the United Nations. Except the vote was only unanimous because the heart of the doctrine had been cut out. Humanitarian intervention would only be permitted with the approval of the state being targeted. Once again, sovereignty trumped moral principles.

Further, it could and never would be applied in the Chinese mistreatment of the Uyguars or even the military junta mistreatment of the Rohingya in Myanmar. Sanctions certainly. But not coercive intervention. In the easiest situation possible, with a UN peacekeeping force on location and the government perpetrators on the ropes in its fight with a Tutsi-led military force, the world had failed to intercede and stop the genocide in Rwanda. Diplomatic exhortation and lofty principles were no substitute for action on the ground.

Perhaps Obama’s greatest success in the domestic arena – not the Affordable Care Act, but the salvaging of the world economy – was also his greatest failure and paved the way for the rise of Trump. This was in the domestic arena and not foreign affairs to which Ben Rhodes had dedicated his talents. The 2008 economic crash was a direct product of President Bush and, to some degree, his predecessors. Obama inherited an economic mess.

Ben Rhodes wrote the following words for Barack Obama. “Jobs have disappeared, and people’s life savings have been put at risk. Millions of families face foreclosure, and millions more have seen their home values plummet…So let’s be clear: What we’ve seen the last few days is nothing less than the final verdict on an economic philosophy that has completely failed.” (33) Ben made Obama sound like a Marxist. Talk about hyperbole! The 2008 economic crash, the greatest since the depression, was the final epitaph for capitalism, not just for a failure in banking regulation. Capitalism had completely failed. This is how the statement sounded.

However, the philosophy referred to was not capitalism but one version of it – trickle-down economics and deregulation. Further, even on that there was no final verdict. In fact, Barack Obama in part made possible the restoration of that capitalistic ideology to pre-eminence after two years of his presidency and totally cleared the road from any blockage to it by contributing to the election of Donald Trump. How? Precisely by overstating the failure and understating the consequences of the 2008 economic crash. Not just jobs, but hundreds of thoUSnds of them were wiped out. Millions of families not only faced foreclosure but were, in fact foreclosed upon when Obama bailed out the banks without helping those who bought homes that were now financially under water.

Ben Rhodes was a foreign policy speechwriter and adviser and was not up on domestic policy let alone economic policy. There is an enormous problem with trickle-down economics, but that was NOT the issue in the 2008 economic crash. Rhodes not only failed to hit the target, but grossly understated the effects on the average American just as he overstated the implications of the crash for capitalism. In his memoir, he never seemed to notice this oversight.

Unfortunately, the same disposition applied to foreign policy. When North Korea tested a ballistic missile in the very beginning of Obama’s presidency when he was in The Czech Republic, Ben Rhodes added a few sentences to Obama’s address to the Czech people. “I sat at my computer inserting a strongly worded warning to the North Koreans about the isolation they’d face for continued nuclear and missile tests.” (42)

When Trump was in the same position, he threatened fire and brimstone and then met with Kim and called him a wonderful guy who likes me. Greater isolation! North Korea had survived for years, though barely, against the greatest international deep freeze applied to any foreign state in the post-WWII period. And the country still persisted in its nuclear and missile development program. Rhodes’s and Obama’s threat rang totally hollow at the time. More significantly, eight years later, Ben Rhodes failed to notice let alone be self-critical of such a shortcoming. And this in spite of the deep faith of liberals, like Barack Obama, who held a progressive view of American history and “the capacity for self-correction” (43) to which Obama (and Rhodes) attributed America’s purported exceptionalism. But what if this purported exceptionalism rested as much on the failure of America to be deeply self-critical and to truly engage in self-correction at a fundamental level?

Louis Menard wrote a review of Rhodes’s book and claimed it traced the evolution of a political junky from an idealist to a realist. Unlike Farrow’s book, Rhode’s memoir is indeed a book in which observation and self-reflection are woven together by a fine writing style, but one which only records faces and clothes and settings when they are directly pertinent to the narrative. But Menard is wrong. The shock is that Rhodes never became disillusioned about his ideals. Tired, certainly. Sometimes depressed. At other times simply resigned. But he is indefatigable in holding onto his ideals. That is perhaps why Obama loved him. That is certainly why Rhodes worshipped Barack Obama.

As with his previous co-authored book with a former congressman, Lee Hamilton, (Without Precedent: Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission), Rhodes’s book is a very inside story, but of the day-to-day crises and pro-active stances of the Obama regime from the campaign through eight years in the White House. During that time, Ben Rhodes began working as a speechwriter and foreign policy advisor for Obama in his campaign for the Democratic nomination for President and ended up serving for eight years as deputy national security advisor with oversight over speechwriting, public communications and relations as well as undertaking specific diplomatic missions himself.

During that time, according to Rhodes’s reflections on his service and the Obama administration, the arc of history did not move from idealism to realism but, rather, a realization that “the world (w)as (and is) a place that could – in some incremental way – change.” (421) As he ends his memoir, at “I was a man, no longer young, who – in the zigzag of history – still believed the end of his service to Obama, to the American nation and to his own ideals, in the truth within the stories of people around the world, a truth that compels me to see the world as it is, and to believe in the world as it ought to be.” The book is not about the decline of his ideals, but increasingly focuses on the actual challenges to those ideals and the efforts made to overcome those challenges.

Holbrooke, with his idiosyncratic personal characteristics for a diplomat and his pursuit of realism in the conduct of foreign relations, was Farrow’s flawed hero. Barack Obama is Rhodes’s idol, an idol he did not worship from afar, nor even merely up close to reveal the crevices that began to appear on Obama’s boyish good looks, but one whose mind and heart and guts Rhodes entered into wholly and without reservation, even in the odd moments when he disagreed with his leadership on a particular issue.  Rhodes learned to focus on a small portion of the grains of sand on the earth than on the even greater number of stars in the sky.


With the help of Alex Zisman

Blog 30: Misplaced Effort: Australian and Dutch Opposition to Partition

The Zionists needed two more votes to support partition by the members of UNSCOP. They had the support of Garcia Granados of Guatemala, Enrique Fabregat of Uruguay and Karel Lisicky of Czechoslovakia before the proceedings of UNSCOP had even begun. Zionists gradually became convinced that Emil Sandstrom would support partition. Three of the eleven seemed unreachable. Of the remaining four, Ivan Rand of Canada was a committed federalist and Arturo Salazar of Peru seemed to be singularly focused on protecting and enhancing the role of the Catholic Church in Palestine. That left John D.L. Hood from the Foreign Ministry of Australia and Dr. N.S. Blom from the Foreign Ministry of the Netherlands.

The problem was that these two did not seem to be actively interested or involved in the committee’s proceedings. Hood was well known for spending his evenings and late nights carousing with his alternate. Blom excused himself from attending many of the proceedings and events of UNSCOP claiming he had a sprained ankle. What is less well known is that both these men, instead of being impartial individuals responsible for hearing the evidence and observing what was going on in Palestine as the basis for making their recommendations, were civil servants appointed by their foreign ministers to interpret and defend their governments’ policies.

What government policy? In the case of Australia, Herbert Evatt, the Foreign Minister, had the ambition of being elected as President of the General Assembly of the United Nations. Hood was given explicit instructions to do nothing that might alienate the Arab and Muslim vote from supporting his candidacy.

Blom was also under the thumb of the Dutch Foreign Ministry. Blom had been a high-level civil servant in Indonesia. Indonesia was then a colony of the Netherlands. Blom was given unequivocal instructions not to take any actions or utter any words that might alienate more Arab countries in the Arab League to support Indonesian independence. In 1945, the Dutch had already recognized that Indonesia would attain independence in the future. This was known as de facto recognition. But the Netherlands was still opposed to Indonesian de jure independence.

Serendipity intervened on behalf of the Zionists. The change in the positions of both of these members of UNSCOP switched in August and September 1947, not because they were persuaded by the words or information fed to UNSCOP by the Jewish Agency and certainly not for any feeling of guilt over the Holocaust.

The first to dramatically switch positions was Blom of the Netherlands. And it was not necessarily because Indonesia and 60% of the population in Palestine was Muslim. And it may seem counter-intuitive for the Netherlands to have even considered support for self-determination for the Arabs in all of Palestine. After all, led by Sheik Muhammad Amin al-Husaini, the Grand Mufti of Palestine and Supreme Lead­er of the Council of Palestine who had received support from Nazi Germany, Palestinians were the first to recognize Indonesian independence in 1944, even before Indonesia had even declared in 1945. On 6 September of 1944, while in Berlin, Husaini announced in Arabic on Radio Berlin Palestinian recognition and support for Indonesian independence. In October, he urged and implored the Japanese government to grant Indonesian inde­pendence. He continued to use his various positions to lobby other Middle Eastern states to recognize Indonesian inde­pendence.

His main target was Egypt. Indonesia had declared independence in 1945. Egypt became the first state in the world to recognize de facto Indo­nesian independence on the 22 March 1946. Since Egypt itself was not yet independent, it was not in a position to recognize de jure Indonesia as an independent state.[i]  The Netherlands, the US, UK and Australia followed and recognized Indonesian de facto independence in November 1946.

On 14 June 1947, the Dutch Am­bassador to Egypt protested against a treaty that had been signed between Egypt and Indonesia. More importantly, for our purposes, the Dutch Ambassador to Egypt, on instructions from his government, prom­ised Egypt that the Dutch would fully support Palestinian self-determination if Egypt withdrew its recognition of Indone­sian independence.

However, a stream had been opened up. On 29 June 1947, Lebanon, and on 2 July 1947, Syria recognized Indonesian independence. Up until the end of July, the Netherlands continued its efforts to prevent any further slippage of Arab support for Indonesia. However, when in July 1947, Australia granted de facto recognition of Independence for Indonesia, the Dutch realized the game was up. By August, the flow of diplomatic water by the Arab states was already unstoppable. In November, Saudi Arabia would follow the lead of Palestine, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria.[ii] After all, the Arab League foreign ministers on 18 November 1946 had already agreed to recognize Indonesian independence.

By August 1947, the Netherlands had seen the writing on the wall and gave up on its futile efforts to win Arab support for its position on Indonesia in exchange for Holland supporting Palestinian self-determination in all of Palestine. Blom was freed up to determine his own position on UNSCOP. Eventually, on 27 December 1949, Indonesian independence was officially recognized by the international community.[iii] Blom switched positions and supported partition.

Australia had followed a different path with a different end. Dr. Herbert Vere Evatt, who eventually became the President of the third regular session of the General Assembly, had previously been a candidate in 1947. Evatt had a distinguished career in Australia.  At the age of 36, he became the youngest High Court Judge in the history of the British Empire. He resigned in 1940 when he was elected to the Australian legislature and became Deputy Prime Minister, Attorney-General and Minister for External Affairs during WWII. He had played a prominent and distinguished role in the San Francisco Conference in 1945.

Evatt is revered in Australia by the Jewish community there.[iv] When in November 1947 the United Nations General Assembly voted by 33 votes in favour, 13 against and with 10 abstentions, to partition the land between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River into two states, Jewish and Arab, Evatt cast the first vote in favour of partition. Evatt was viewed as the leading figure in guiding the partition plan through the Ad Hoc Committee of the UN and getting the UN to recognize the fledgling Jewish state. In 1947, as chair of the Ad Hoc Committee on Palestine,[v] a position which is generally believed that he received as a consolation prize for losing the election for the presidency, Evatt pushed partition based on UNSCOP recommendation and against the minority report favouring a federation or the Arab states’ push for self-determination in the whole of Palestine.[vi] In 1949, when he eventually became General Assembly president, he pushed Israel’s admission as a UN member state and called his successful effort the “most significant moment” of his presidency. He was eventually awarded a medallion by the State of Israel. But Hood had already made too many statements on record opposing partition.

However, up until his loss to his Brazilian opponent in 1947 for the Presidency of the UN, Evatt had maintained his instructions to Hood on UNSCOP to avoid any speech or action in favour of partition lest he lose the Arab vote for him in the presidential election. It was only when he lost that he released Hood from those instructions.  Hood, however, had already made too many statements on record opposing partition. Lest he be accused of hypocrisy, on a very questionable technicality, he decided to abstain. Thus, via serendipity and timing, the Zionists had gained one vote in favour of partition and prevented another vote from supporting an Arab dominated single state or a federated state.

One more vote was needed in favour of partition. It came from what was initially an unlikely source – Ivan Rand of Canada. He had been a leading proponent of the federation recommendation and had been influential in convincing Rahman, Simic and Entezam to support a federal solution. However, when he could only muster four votes for a federation, and believing in compromise and the importance of a clear recommendation from UNSCOP, he switched positions and supported partition.

Finally, there were six votes in hand for partition, three for a federal structure and one abstention. There was one other vote at play. With Rand using his persuasive powers, he forged a compromise to get the Peruvian representative, Gracia Salazar, to support partition in return for a separate polity for a greater Jerusalem under a UN trusteeship with guaranteed protection for religious sites, in particular, for Christian religious sites that were of such great importance to Salazar.  The Catholic Church could then play a significant role in ensuring that protection through the UN.

Luck, timing, personal convictions, persuasion in support of compromise as well as other factors – particularly what to do about the Jewish refugees still in camps in Europe – resulted in a majority recommendation on UNSCOP for partition.

[i] The two Egyptian key figures on the Arab League were Egyptian Prime Minister Mahmoud Fahmy el-Naqrasyi and For­eign Minister Abdulrachman Azzam Pasya who was also the secretary general of the Arab League. The Egyptian leadership, Palestinian leadership and leaders of the Indonesian independence were already “in league”.  A conference in Cairo agreed on setting up a Lajnah al-Difa’ ‘an Istiqlal Indunisi­ya or a Committee for the Defense of Indonesian Independence which asked all Arab and Islamic peoples to support Indonesian independence and to pressure the British whose troops were already in Indonesia ahead of the Dutch, not to support the Netherlands.

[ii] Cf. Rizal Sukma (2003) Islam in Indonesian Foreign Policy: Domestic Weakness and the Dilemma of Dual Identity, Routledge.

[iii] Canada played a role. General Andrew McNaughton as the then President of the United Nations Security Council, led the effort to break the deadlock between Indonesia and the Netherlands and the adoption of Resolution 67/1949 endorsing the establishment of the Tripartite Commission that lead to the international recognition of Indonesia’s sovereignty in December 1949.

[iv][iv] Cf. Cf. Gareth Narunsky (2022) “’Doc’ Evatt: An Enduring Legacy,” The Australian Jewish News, 22 November.

[v] At its first meeting on September 25, 1947, the ad hoc Committee on the Palestinian Question charged with dealing with the UNSCOP Report, elected Evatt by acclamation as Chair.

[vi] A telegram to Evatt from the Jewish Agency for Palestine on December 2 stated, “We beg to convey to you our grateful appreciation of your wise and untiring guidance in the deliberations of the Ad Hoc Committee which prepared the ground for the United Nations’ historic decision for the re-establishment of the Jewish Commonwealth in Palestine.”

Blog 29: Going from Three to Four Supporters of Partition

UNSCOP – 1947

How did the Zionists pull off the victory in 1947 of getting 7 of the 11 votes on UNSCOP recommending partition? Or should the Zionists even be credited with the result? Alternatively, did guilt over the Holocaust play a significant role? Of the many factors alleged to have contributed to that result – the new-born optimism of the UN in attacking an international crisis, the inflection point in history when de-colonization was emerging as a dominant priority, and others – two factors stand out as claims explaining the UNSCOP recommendation – the power of the Jewish lobby and world guilt over the Holocaust. This blog will deal only with one of the potential five members of UNSCOP seemingly open to persuasion. The Zionists needed 3 of the remaining 5 seemingly uncommitted members to support partition.

The dominant purveyors of the first thesis of the influence of the Jewish lobby were Israelis, especially Abba Eban.[i] “Zionist envoys would divide the map of the world and go out and seek the support of countries whose votes could become critical.” This they did tackling the Latin American countries from the Jewish Agency (JA) in the USA, the Czechs and Yugoslavs from the JA base in Paris, and Sweden and the Netherlands from the JA base in London, as well as preparing detailed documentation fed directly to UNSCOP and, as well, allegedly planting listening devices to monitor UNSCOP proceedings. Many academics supported the thesis, stressing the importance and effectiveness of the Zionist lobby.[ii]

Prominence was also given to world guilt over the Holocaust generally and by individual members in particular. “The Holocaust had created a sense of guilt throughout the Western world,“ the conscience of which was deeply marred by the Holocaust. “This almost deeply inconceivable tragedy loomed like a great shadow over the world affecting the situation in Palestine in a variety of ways.” “It was the input of the Holocaust and the plight of Jewish refugees that convinced them (the members of UNSCOP) that the establishment of a Jewish state was a sine qua non for any settlement.”[iii]

In the last blog, I believe I demonstrated that the views of the delegates from Guatemala and from Uruguay were not products of the lobby in Washington, but rather the prior convictions of those members.  To confirm this uncontroversial statement, Garcia Granados not only voted for partition and the creation of a Jewish state, but appeared afterwards in October 1947 before the UN Ad Hoc Committee considering the UNSCOP Report to launch a frontal attack on two fallacies and a third argument in favour of the Jews being allocated 62% of the land of Palestine even though, at the time, they only made up one-third of the population.

The claim that partition was an answer to “the Jewish problem” was fallacious because there was no Jewish problem per se, only a problem of antisemitism and persecution of Jews in some countries and, in other countries with Jewish citizens who enjoy the protection of the state, Jews are not a problem at all. The claim of a limited “absorptive capacity” in Palestine that required limiting Jewish immigration was equally fallacious and the phrase as used “does not pretend to be a forecast of future conditions and is irrelevant to the general intention of recommendation XII.” Finally, “According to any reasonable estimate, the proposed Jewish State will be able to absorb at least 1,500,000 immigrants, within a reasonable lapse of time” though “If all the Jews now living in assembly centres in Germany, Austria and Italy and those living in Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, North Africa and the Arab countries wanted to go to Palestine, the number of prospective grants would not exceed the figure of 1,500,000…”[iv] 1,400,000 prospective Jewish immigrants and refugees entering over two years would yield a Jewish population in Palestine of 2,000,000 compared to 1,200,000 Arabs or 67.5 not 62.5% percent.

E.R. Fabregat of Uruguay, while agreeing with Granados in opposing confederation as unworkable, cumbersome and contrary to the principle of self-determination and the expressed will of the people of Palestine, supported partition and the creation of both a Jewish and Palestinian state. While overwhelmed with his visit alongside Granados to the refugee camps in Europe[v], unlike Granados, he defended the recommendations by referring to “the Jewish problem” and the need for “reparations.” Further, he qualified his support with respect to the division lines. Omitting ending the British role, which was unanimously accepted on the committee, Fabregat defended the main points of the recommendations, namely: a territorial solution of Palestine, agreeing with Granados on a division favouring the Jews “on the basis of the potential population which can readily be foreseen [on this score, Granados and Fabregat were both prophetic]; the creation of both an independent Jewish and Arab State within Palestine; a system of economic co-operation between the two states; a separate and special administration for the City of Jerusalem and other Holy Places in Palestine without creating “a third, semi-theocratic, semi-political state.”

But the Uruguayan delegate disagreed with the division of the Galilee and the inclusion of the western part with a number of important Jewish settlements, particularly Nahariva and Hanita, ending up within a future Palestine state, a land area that was needed for the resettlement of Jews still abroad and for pioneering in technological development. Fabregat also disagreed with the incorporation of the Arab city of Jaffa into the Jewish territory and the incorporation of the Arab city of Beersheba and the surrounding area into the Jewish territory.

Though Fabregat was unique on the committee when he alluded to the “conscience of the world” with respect to the Holocaust, it was not in terms of guilt over the six million murdered, but over the failure in prevention. However, his primary concern was the need to resettle the Jewish refugees. “The children who survived this great and terrible tragedy now, in innocent distress, people in the places destined to hold the refugees and persons driven from their homes by persecution and war. The situation of these children is absolutely desperate,” and it would be “very difficult for many of them to survive the hardships of the coming winter.”

Like Granados and Fabregat, Karel Lisicky was also a true member of a group of pro-Zionist believers, in his case, from Czechoslovakia.  Those dispositions were present long before UNSCOP was even created. What about the other eight members. Three of them were already convinced anti-Zionists and what they saw, heard and read did not affect their prior position opposing an independent Jewish state. What about the remaining five? The rest of this blog will only deal with one of them.

Emil Sandstrom’s views were critical. After all, he was chair. Unlike the delegates for Guatemala, Uruguay and Czecholsovakia, he did not appear preconditioned to vote for partition without any pressure from the Jewish Agency. The Zionists needed his support. Did either the Jewish lobby targeting Sweden from Paris or guilt over the Holocaust influence his decision? There is no evidence in the UNSCOP or Swedish archives that I could find supporting such a thesis. Rather, it appears that Sandstrom arrived at his conclusion supporting partition by a process of elimination.  

First, he eliminated any prospect of continuing British involvement in the continuation of the trusteeship, for the British empire had always been a “brutal” affair, a position reinforced when the British refused the committee’s request to commute the execution of three young Jewish insurgents[vi] who allegedly facilitated the escape from Acre prison on 4 May 1947 of both Jews and Arabs held there. The three had not had a legal defence since they did not recognize the authority of the Military Court and of the Defence Regulations under which they were tried, had not inflicted any casualties, and, in any case, the proof that they participated was weak.

Though this played a part in opposing any continuing role for the British, there were other more important reasons for supporting partition and the creation of a Jewish state. Sandstrom eliminated both the options of a federated state of two nations or of a single nation made up of individual equal citizens. With regard to the first, a federal state, he saw no possibility since his contacts in Palestine convinced him that the Arabs there were antisemitic; he saw no prospect of Jewish-Arab cooperation. Even the Norwegians and Swedes had been unable to co-habit within a single state. Hence, he was even more dismissive of the proposal for a unitary state, especially after his meeting with Judah Magnes, President of Hebrew University, whose views he found to be impractical without any substantive content regarding implementation.

Sandstrom’s visit with King Abdullah of Jordan convinced him that the Palestinians Arabs would be best off within a Jordanian polity. Further, that was the only route to ensure that bloodshed and a war between Jews and Arabs could be avoided. He was not able to convince a majority of the committee on this proposition, though the recommendation on a union of the Arab part of Palestine with Jordan crept into the recommendations as a possible future outcome.

Second, his visit with other members to a Palestinian Arab cigarette and cigar-making operation that employed child labour appalled him and reinforced a view that he was developing that the Arabs were backward and even more exploitive of their own people than the British. The third and most powerful experience was watching, with Vladimir Simic, what happened when the Exodus[vii], a ship carrying over 4,500 Jewish refugees, that tried to land in Palestine, but was turned back when the British military boarded the ship, took control and forced the ship to return to Europe.[viii] Both Sandstrom and Simic witnessed British soldiers transferring Jewish refugees from the Exodus in 1947 to the deportation ships.

Though the incident is given prominence in the Holocaust Museum in Washington, in fact it was the plight of the refugees that began to obsess Sandstrom, not the Holocaust. Given restricted entry to Western countries other than the Dominican Republic, Palestine as a refuge for Jews could only take place if restricted immigration into Palestine for Jewish refugees – there would soon be 300,000 of them and potentially many more from Arab countries – was lifted.

There is virtually no indication that the Jewish lobby influenced Sandstrom. In his secret meeting with Menachem Begin, then wanted as a terrorist by the British, the conviction settled within him that an Arab war with the Jews was inevitable unless the British Legion stationed in Jordan intervened on behalf of Jordan to annex Arab Palestine as a province. Further, ironically given the number of jurists on the committee, international law was not a decisive factor in the recommendation for any of the members.[ix]

Support for partition had acquired one more supporter who made his decision based on what he heard and experienced in Palestine and not as a result of any influence from the Zionist lobby or any overwhelming guilt over the Holocaust. Where would partition get at least two other supporters from the remaining four presumably uncommitted members of the committee?

[i] Cf. Abba Eban (1972) An Autobiography. Random House as well as his documents held in the Israeli archives. While crediting D.W. Eytan with the general plan, primary credit for implementation was given to both himself and David Horowitz

[ii] See also Jørgen Jensehaugen; Marte Heian-Engdal & Hilde Henriksen Waage (2012) “Securing the State: From Zionist Ideology to Israeli Statehood,” Oslo Peace Institute, Diplomacy & Statecraft 23, 280–303. “What processes allowed a non-state actor, the Zionist movement, to secure international acceptance for the creation of a Jewish state in highly ambiguous circumstances? … By stablishing state-like institutions in Palestine whilst building international support, the Jewish Agency was able to secure for itself a unique place from which to declare statehood.” The Zionist movement worked not only to create facts on the ground within Palestine but lobbying effectively to secure support for its state-building project at the international level. In contrast, see also Elad Ben-Dror (2022) UNSCOP and the Arab-Israeli Conflict: The Road to Partition, Routledge who asks how the methods and motivations of the various members of UNSCOP, with special attention given to the personal viewpoint of each member of the committee, resulted in recommending partition. The inquiry, debate, and compromise depended primarily on the characters and circumstances of the individual members of the committee. I agree and add my own slant on that perspective.

[iii] Cf. Hassan Husseini (2008) “A ‘Middle Power’ in Action: Canada and the Partition of Palestine,” Arab Studies Quarterly, 30:3, Summer 41-55. Hassan Husseini quotes the historian David Bercuson (1984) in support. But Bercuson wrote (correctly) that the “fate of the Holocaust survivors,” was the issue, not guilt over the Holocaust. Cf. (1985) Canada and the Birth of Israel: A Study in Canadian Foreign Policy, University of Toronto Press.

[iv] Other than the addition of J. D. L. Hood of Australia, the other members of the European refugee camp delegation from 8-14 August were alternates: Leon Mayrand of Canada; Richard Pech of Czechoslovakia; V. Viswanathan of India; Ali Ardalan of Iran; A. I. Spits of the Netherlands; Paul Molin of Sweden, Joze Brilej of Yugoslavia, though the delegates from India, Iran, Yugoslavia and Peru all had strongly objected to the visit.

[v] Document A/297 from the archives of the UN Ad Hoc Committee

[vi] They were Abshalom Habib (20), a student, Meir Nakar (21), a labourer who had served three years in the British Army, and Jacob Weiss (23), a recently arrived Holocaust survivor whose entire family, with the exception of his sister, perished in the Shoah.

[vii] The Exodus, made famous in Leon Uris’ novel and the film by that name based on the novel, was an “ancient, leaky, 1,814-ton Chesapeake Bay excursion boat, once known as the President Warfield, but now grimly called Exodus 1947,” Time Magazine, July 28, 1947.

[viii] Michael J. Cohen (2009 “A New Look at Truman and ‘Exodus 1947’,” Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs 3:1, 93-100.

[ix] Cf. Ardi Imseis (2021) “The United Nations Plan of Partition for Palestine Revisited: On the Origins of Palestine’s International Legal Subalternity,” Stanford Journal of International Law, Winter. While focusing of the UN partition resolution in November 1947, the argument applies even more critically to the proceedings of UNSCOP.  The arguments made therein were NOT governed by the objective application of international law weighing partition versus the self-determination of the Arab majority.

Most of my blogs are based on the research of others; this one is based primarily on my own archival research.

Blog 28: The United Nations Special Committee on Palestine

The Formation of UNSCOP in 1947

Eight years after the British suppression of the Palestinian Arab 1936-1939 uprising and the Woodhead Commission recommending increased restrictions on Jewish immigration and land purchases, two years after the end of WWII in which six million Jews were exterminated and following the 1945 American Harrison Report to President Harry Truman requesting that Britain admit 100,000 Holocaust survivors and refugees into Palestine, following the joint 1946 Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry tasked with dealing with the recurring Palestine issues of political sovereignty, Jewish immigration and land purchases resulting in the 20 April 1946 “Report of the Anglo-American Committee of Enquiry Regarding the Problems of European Jewry and Palestine” that also dealt with economic development and security and which recommended the admission of 100,000 displaced Jews in Europe into Palestine along with the annulment of the Land Transfer Regulations restricting Jewish purchase of Arab land but denying both Jewish and Arab claims to sovereignty in line with the Morrison-Grady Plan that called for a federal polity in Palestine under British Trusteeship, and after two years of violent rebellion by both Arabs and Jews against British rule, the British threw up their hands in frustration over the seeming intractability of the problem and despair over the large costs of maintaining 100,000 British troops in Palestine when the UK was on the verge of bankruptcy following the inordinate expenditures in fighting WWII.

The UK referred the problem to the newly created United Nations for recommendations, but made clear that it would not be bound in advance by any recommendations, namely, the UK would not necessarily take sole responsibility for implementation unless the United Nations found a just solution acceptable to both the Arabs and Jews of Palestine that could also be reconciled with the British conscience. Britain expected to have its mandate extended, but with shared responsibility. It did not expect the one unanimous recommendation: that Britain surrender its mandated authority over Palestine. With some relief, the UK bitterly acceded, many regarding the withdrawal on 15 May 1948 as carried out with undue great haste.

The UN created the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) in 1947. The committee would have eleven members appointed by countries in different regions of the world, but deliberately excluding any members coming from a Great Power. The members were not supposed to be representatives of the states from which they came, but independent individuals[i] with various kinds of experience and personal preferences, though most came with a diplomatic or legal background.

Eleven countries were ultimately asked to appoint members: Australia, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Guatemala, India, Iran, the Netherlands, Peru, Sweden, Uruguay, and Yugoslavia. Omitting the names of alternates, with the exception of Peru where the alternate became far more important than the representative, the individual members appointed to UNSCOP were:

Australia                       John D.L. Hood from the Foreign Ministry

Canada                          Justice Ivan C. Rand, Supreme Court of Canada

Czechoslovakia             Karel Lisicky, Czech diplomat

Guatemala                    Dr. Jorge Garcia-Grandees, politician and diplomat

India                              Sir Mohammad Abdur Rahman, Muslim High     Court of India judge

Iran                                Nasrollah Entezam from the Foreign Ministry

The Netherlands          Dr. N.S. Blom, Foreign Ministry

Peru                               Dr. Alberto Ulloa; alternate – Dr. Arturo Garcia Salazar lawyer and diplomat

Sweden                         Justice Emil Sandstrom, Supreme Court

Uruguay                        Prof. Enrique Rodriguez Fabregat, educator and                                    liberal activist, Colorado Party

Yugoslavia                     Vladimir Simić, a relative (brother?) of Stanoje Simić, and ambassador to the USSR and Foreign Minister

Dr. Ralph Bunche, an African American who occupied important positions in the US State Department, was named as the personal representative of the UN Secretary-General to UNSCOP and ran the secretariat for the committee. Subsequently, he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work as United Nations Mediator in the Palestine Conflict. In his role on UNSCOP, it became reasonably well known that he favoured the continuation of a trusteeship of some kind since the only alternative, as he perceived it, was open warfare between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. What was most remarkable, in spite of his own personal preferences, he served as the indefatigable and totally impartial secretary of the committee which never seriously considered a continuation of some kind of trusteeship.

If one surveyed the biases or preferences of the members of the committee in April of 1947, one would be hard pressed to expect a positive recommendation for Jews having an independent state in Palestine. The Zionists had only 3 of 11 supporters on the committee – Lisicky of Czechoslovakia, Granados of Guatemala and Fabregat of Uruguay, and Lisicky was not a sure vote. Granados[ii] and Fabregat[iii] were died-in-the-wool nineteenth century Latin American liberals who could be expected to be on the side of the much more liberal and progressive Jewish role in Palestine. They performed true to expectations.

Given the federal structure of Czechoslovakia at the time, which combined Czechs and Slovaks in a single polity, one might have expected Lisicky to support a federalist rather than a partition plan. However, recall that Tomáš G. Masaryk, an early president of the state and a Zionist even before Theodore Herzl, and Jan Masaryk, his grandson who was Minister of Foreign Affairs, were committed Zionists. In 1935, Jewish organizations throughout the world hailed the election of Edvard Beneš as President of Czechoslovakia because he would continue the strong support of Zionism by the leaders of that state. Before the communist takeover, Edvard Beneš resumed his role as president. Leaders from Czechoslovakia could not possibly appoint a representative to UNSCOP that did not support Zionism. Finally, in his appearance before the UN Ad Hoc Committee on Palestine on 16 October, Karel Lisicky, following the appearance of Arthur Creech-Jones and other anti-Zionists before the committee, made it abundantly clear that he was an unqualified supporter of Zionism.[iv]

But where were the Zionists to get at least three others to vote in favour of their case for Jewish self-determination in Palestine? The Palestinians had three unapologetic supporters of the Palestinians on UNSCOP. Sir Mohammad Abdur Rahman, a Supreme Court judge born in Delhi, and initially strongly opposed to Muslim self-determination in India or even a federalist Hindu-Muslim state, became the first Muslim Vice Chancellor of Delhi University. At the time, he was an ardent opponent of the idea of political division and of religious/ethnic self-determination. In 1948, he would strongly oppose the practice of partition and of Indian partition in particular, and adumbrated the vision of India becoming a leader of the third world.[v]

Nasrollah Entezam was the representative of Iran at the founding of the UN in San Francisco in 1945, represented his country as the first Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations from 1947 to 1950 and would soon after be elected President of the UN General Assembly during its fifth session in 1950 with overwhelming support from what would become known as the Third World. What were his views on Palestine in 1947? It would be incorrect to project backwards from post-1979 Iran when the Iranian revolutionary government would become ardent advocates of the Palestinian cause (Muslim Palestinians were overwhelmingly Sunni) in the interests of projecting that its Shia perspective appealed to all Muslims.[vi] It would also be incorrect to read back into 1947 the congenial relations that the Shah of Iran enjoyed with Israel after the British and American supported overthrow of Iran‘s democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq in the 1953 coup and the reinstatement of the Shah‘s absolute monarchy that repressed, suppressed and coerced Iranian dissidents, including the Islamicists. In 1947, while the pre-revolutionary Iranian opposition to the Shah embraced not only anti-imperialism and anti-monarchism but anti-Zionism, and when traditional Iran recognized Jews as the “people of the Book” under the protection of Islam, but not an ethnic or nationalist group, Entezam compromised any Iranian opposition to Zionism and eventually supported the view that Palestine should become an Arab state with two semi-autonomous minority Jewish enclaves in a federal state. The Zionists could write off Entazam as a potential supporter of self-determination for Jews.

Another assured opponent of the Zionist cause was Vladimir Simić of Yugoslavia, a state then dedicated to oppose self-determination of its various nationalist components. Simić blamed the British for “divide-and-rule” and responsible for the antipathy between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. The Brits failed to prepare the Jews and Arabs for self-government in a united state, but reinforced a local government system that favoured the separation of the two groups. He would be the primary author of the minority report that recommended a federalist solution over partition and the 12,000-word annex to the UNSCOP report.

The Zionists needed the support of at least three of the remaining five members of UNSCOP.  Where could they come from? Ivan Rand was a strong Canadian federalist and ill-disposed to favour the secession of a nationalist group. Dr. Arturo Garcia Salazar of Peru was deeply Catholic and manly concerned with the protection of the rights of the Catholic Church in Palestine. Many Arab Palestinians were Christian, mainly Greek Orthodox, so he was naturally more sympathetic to the Palestinians than the Jews who were ill-disposed to Rome given its failure to protect Jews from the Nazis and the Church’s historical persecution of Jews. Further, the Muslim Waqf had by and large protected Christian sites for centuries. Finally, he was unsympathetic to the remnant of Jewish refugees, attested by the fact that he was the fourth vote along with Entezam, Rahman and Simić opposing UNSCOP visiting the refugee camps in Europe.

The Zionists needed all three of the remaining votes. The views of Justice Emil Sandstrom of the Supreme Court of Sweden were unknown, an important factor behind his election as chair of UNSCOP. Nor were those of John D.L. Hood of Australia or Dr. N.S. Blom from the Netherlands. If the Zionists knew then what we know now, especially of the positions of the latter two explored in detail in the next blog, they would have despaired of a positive outcome. Yet they ended up with seven rather than six votes in favour of partition.

How did it happen? (to be continued)

[i] In the face of the failure of Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin to convince the Americans to support provincial status for Palestine under UK jurisdiction, Arthur Creech-Jones, the UK Colonial Secretary, had called for an impartial review by an international independent authority. Cf. Ritchie Ovendale (1980) “The Palestine Policy of the British Labour Government 1947: The Decision to Withdraw,” International Affairs 56:1, 73-93. Later, on 16 October 1947 in his appearance before the UN Ad Hoc Committee on Palestine, he both defended Britain’s role and continued to advocate that Jews be absorbed “in countries other than Palestine.” (UN Department of Information)

[ii] Jorge Gracia-Granados would go on to publish his views and experiences on UNSCOP in the 1948 book, The Birth of Israel: The Drama as I Saw It published by Alfred A. Knopf, but currently available in a digital edition by the University if Michigan Press.

[iii] Enrique Rodriguez Fabregat, for his whole life an academic activist on behalf of underdogs everywhere, was known on the committee for pushing for three necessary general principles: the British mandate must end by establishing Arab and Zionist states; the Jewish people must have a state as a haven against persecution; and a federal state should be the prerogative of the two nations decided by plebiscites in each state within 10 years.

[iv] “For anyone who has seen the Jewish people at work in Palestine, there can be no doubt about their unshakable will to live as a nation with all the attributes of nationhood.” Extract from his remarks before the UN Ad Hoc Committee on Palestine, 16 October 1947.

[v][v] Cf. Rami Ginat (2004) “India and the Palestine Question: The Emergence of the Asia-Arab Bloc and India’s Quest for Hegemony in the Post-Colonial Third World,” Middle Eastern Studies 40:6, 189-218.

[vi] Cf. Seyed Ali Alavi (2017) “Iran’s relations with Palestine: roots and development,” PhD thesis, University of London.

Blog 27: The 1936-1939 Arab Uprising in Palestine

The Wikipedia entrée on the revolt in its opening paragraph offers a very succinct and accurate portrayal of the revolt. “The 1936–1939 Arab revolt in Palestine, later known as The Great Revolt (al-Thawra al- Kubra) or The Great Palestinian Revolt (Thawrat Filastin al-Kubra), was a popular nationalist uprising by Palestinian Arabs in Mandatory Palestine against the British administration of the Palestine Mandate, demanding Arab independence and the end of the policy of open-ended Jewish immigration and land purchases with the stated goal of establishing a ‘Jewish National Home’. The uprising coincided with a peak in the influx of immigrant Jews, some 60,000 that year – the Jewish population having grown under British auspices from 57,000 to 320,000 in 1935 [almost one-third of the total population] – and with the growing plight of the rural fellahin rendered landless, who as they moved to metropolitan centers to escape their violence and abject poverty found themselves socially marginalized.”

Though the revolt was against British rule, it ostensibly began with Arab-Jewish inter-ethnic violence that had evolved into tit-for-tat exchanges. Two Jews were murdered by a Qassimite band[i]; Jews killed two Arab labourers in reprisal. In fact, it began earlier when the Qassemites killed a British police officer and the British hunted down al-Qassam and killed him.

While 15 May 1948 is now commemorated as Nakba Day in remembrance of the 720,000 Palestinians who fled or were forced to flee Palestine in 1948, a day later was the initial commemoration day when Amin al-Husseini, the rabidly anti-Zionist Mufti of Jerusalem, declared that date, Palestine Day, to honour those killed by the British and Zionists during the previous month and back to the riots of 1929. After an initial strike in Nablus, Husseini, on behalf of the Arab High Committee (AHC) called for a general strike that lasted six months. It was called off on 11 October 1936.

Unlike 1933, this time the Palestinian leadership seized control and direction to channel the rage of the bottom-up extreme discontent. Though ended by a combination of repressive tactics and international diplomacy by Britain (enlisting the Saudis and others to pressure the Palestinians to end the strike), the General Strike was simply succeeded by the 1937 rural spontaneous uprising that was also repressed. Between 1936 and 1939, the British hung 108 “revolutionaries” and killed at least 2,000 in direct combat, though Rashid Khalidi estimated more than twice that number were killed and another 1200 died in intercommunal violence which resulted in over 200 Jewish dead. Khalidi also claimed there were 20,000 Arab casualties.[ii] Many of them were killed by Arabs in response to waverers, dissenters and collaborators, usually under orders of the euphemistically labelled “Boycott Committee,” more appropriately titled the Assassination Committee.

The dead and wounded were not the only casualties suffered by Arab Palestinians. They lost much of their leadership through death or exile. Their store of arms was largely confiscated, used or destroyed. The economic cost to the Arab community was enormous, especially in the agricultural sector. Since the Arab community became split between the peace committees and the rebels, the cost to social cohesion in the Arab sector also suffered. However, what ultimately emerged was a more cohesive and consolidated Palestinian national identity with a determination to acquire self-rule.[iii]

The revolt was a very violent one with attacks both on infrastructure (oil pipelines and railway lines) and British police and armed forces. By September, the number of British troops deployed to support the police numbered 20,000. It would eventually grow to 50,000 and include both the Air Force and Navy. Jews were killed in the 1936 strike in attacks on Jewish neighbourhoods in mixed cities (Jews fled Acre and Beisan) as well as Jewish settlements, destroying orchards and farms in adumbration of what Jewish settlers do in the West Bank to Arab farmers over the last three decades.

Brutality was not the exclusive prerogative of Arab Palestinians. The British used extrajudicial killings, collective punishment and blew houses up of the families of militants. Civilians were used as shields by the army. Whole villages, like al-Bassa near Haifa-Acre with almost 600 inhabitants, had their populations forcefully expelled and the villages were burned to the ground. Al-Bassa was rebuilt afterwards, but once again, in 1948, the inhabitants were forcefully expelled, this time by the Hagana, and the village again was almost entirely destroyed.

The Peel Commission was launched by Britain between the General strike of 1936 and the wider uprising of 1937. Governance under the Mandate Authority since the 1920s had been divided between the Jewish Agency and the Supreme Muslim Council. The Peel Commission Report of 7 July 1937 recommended that this de facto partition become a political one with a division of the land between the Jews and Arabs, but with significant parts of the land continuing to be controlled by the British thus setting the basis for the tripartite division recommended in the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) Report in 1947, but with the United Nations replacing the British and the Jewish Zionists allocated an even larger area than the larger option in the Peel Commission Report. Peel had offered two options – a very small Jewish Zionist state and a large Arab one linked to Transjordan (Option 1) and a somewhat larger Jewish one, but requiring the transfer or relocation of 275,000 Arab Palestinians (Option2).

The Arabs adamantly rejected partition altogether as did the Revisionist Zionists.[iv] The Labour Zionists led by Ben Gurion revised its initial rejection to accept the larger plan subject to negotiations on the size and the recommendations to restrict immigration.

The revolt resumed in the autumn of 1937 with the assassination by the Qassemites on 26 September of Lewis Andrews, the pro-Zionist Acting District Commissioner of the Galilee. By 1938, the Irgun Revisionist Zionists initiated militant operations against the Arab Palestinians at the same time as the British introduced de facto military control or military rule over the Mandate and systematically set out to repress the revolt. About half the Arabs who were killed had been attacked by Revisionist Zionists beginning in late 1937. But the violence had become much more widespread with abductions, sniping, murders, bombings, armed robberies and destruction of commercial properties as well as infrastructure.

In 1938, the Woodhead Commission was initiated by the British. Initially, the idea of partition had been accepted in principle, but the Woodhead Commission eventually rejected not only partition but the prospect of a Jewish sovereign state in any part of Palestine. Further, anticipating a possible war with Germany with the necessity of eliminating Arab rage against the British, much more severe restrictions on immigration and land sales were proposed.

One result was Irgun guns turning against the British in 1938 using mines or, more accurately, what became known as Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), offensive weapons favoured in a guerilla war or insurgency.  The beginnings of the Jewish revolt against the British had started even before WWII. For with the British recruitment of about 20,00 Jewish policemen, the building of a nascent arms industry by the Hagana, the consolidation of the Jewish leadership and its increased experience not only in military and political matters but in intelligence gathering as well, the Jews had been given a head-start in preparation for the Jewish-Arab war less than a decade later.

[i] Izz ad-Din al-Qassam, a Syrian who participated in many revolts across the Arab world and migrated to Palestine after the defeat of the Libyan uprising, became a religious leader and anti-Zionist and anti-British agitator. Tom Segev the Israeli historian dubbed him the Arab Joseph Trumpledor.

[ii] Rashid Khalidi (2007) The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood Beacon Press. For an earlier account, see George Antonius (1938; 1945) The Arab Awakening. The Story of the Arab National Movement.

[iii] Oren Kessler (2023) Palestine 1936: The Great Revolt and the Roots of the Middle East Conflict.

[iv] Eric Kaplan (2005) The Jewish Radical Right: Revisionist Zionism and Its Ideological Legacy. University of Wisconsin Press.

Blog 26 – The Forces Behind the 1936-1939 Uprising:

The Palestinian Great Revolt

Was the uprising a product of antisemitic anti-Zionist leaders who alternatively engaged in quiet “diplomacy” and political pressure while manipulating the Arab population in Palestine to revolt against their British overlords? Or did a generally restive and rebellious population engage in more-or-less mass mobilization from the bottom up to attack both the Zionists and British colonial rule? If the latter, did widespread nationalist emotions combine with horizontal rather than hierarchically organized social forces to radicalize Palestinian politics to a degree unseen heretofore?[i] A positive answer to this query would necessarily bring into pre-eminence the role of students, of landless peasants and of unemployed or underemployed Palestinian Arab urban workers. This is an important question if we are to understand the subsequent development of radical and violent militancy among Palestinians over the next eight decades.

Charles Anderson points in particular to “the proliferation of youth associations in the early 1930s” and “the rise of youth as an assertive, ambitious, and politically frustrated element” that had an inordinate effect on tactics, strategy and the trajectory of the Palestinian national movement built on a base of disaffected dispossessed uprooted and impoverished peasants. (See previous blog.) In the nineteen sixties, we learned definitively how youth leadership could change the temper of the times. In 1933, a previously inchoate Arab Palestinian student movement that had begun with the founding of the Young Men’s Muslim Association in the late twenties propelled by disenchantment with Arab elite leadership metamorphosed into a process of youth self-organization leading to the Youth Congress in 1932 and the creation of the Istiqlal Party.

On 27 October 1933, in Jaffa, the Youth Congress led up to ten thousand young Palestinians, as well as former peasants, urban workers and a smattering of Arab Palestinian politicians and leaders, in a protest against the immigration policies of the British government and the swelling numbers of Jewish settlers who became the singular focus rather than the absentee Arab landlords who had sold their land to the Zionists.[ii] Following past practices in previous riots, many male protesters came armed with wooden and metal clubs and staves.

In contrast, the current judicial Israeli protests against the proposed “reforms” to the judicial system have combined elite participation with one ideology and perspective with bottom-up organizing but without any significant evidence of violent instruments. Even historically in Israel when protests were led by elites, such as the 7 January 1952 protests led by Menachem Begin against Ben Gurion’s plans to accept German reparations for the Holocaust, and when protesters vowed to sacrifice their lives in battle with the government rather than accede to a compromise with the German devil, those protests did not end up in revolt as much as revolt had been threatened.[iii]

One element that would be repeated over the years became integral to both elite-led and popular Palestinian protests – placing blame on others. More particularly, Palestinians blamed Jews and Zionists along with their British satrap for their condition. Placing primary blame on the Jews had become reified in 1933. While Canada, America, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand were closing their gates to Jewish immigration, the ascent of Hitler as Chancellor of Germany led directly to the increased number of arrivals of 37,300 Jews in Palestine in 1933. In 1934 and 1935, the annual intake increased each year.

Arab Palestinian youth leadership not only focused on Jewish immigration and land purchases, but on how these efforts on the ground emboldened and strengthened the Jewish quest for sovereignty that had become more open and perceived as a threat to the prospect of Arab Palestinian sovereignty. Jewish sovereignty was adamantly rejected by the vast majority of Christian and Muslim Arabs. Nor was there any significant movement to share sovereignty. Two movements, both in quest of their own sovereignty and each reinforced by the character of the other movement, were doomed to clash. That realization reinforced the definition of the Other increasingly as an “enemy other.”

However, it was not the Arabs and Jews who clashed this time. It was the Arabs and British police who attempted to stop the “illegal” protest. 19 Arab protesters were killed by police bullets and 70 injured; 1 Arab police officer died and 25 others were injured. The protests spread and so did the toll of dead and injured – 7 more Arab protesters were killed and over 100 were injured.

1933 became an inflection point, not only in Jewish immigration but in the Arab protests. Instead of pogroms against Jews and Jewish property, observers witnessed retargeting against British rule. The precedent for the 1936 revolt had been set. Street protests rather than mob violence, confrontation against the British police (and army) replaced the murder of Jews and destruction of Jewish property, and mass mobilization rather than emotional rhetorical excesses became the modus vivendi. Radicalization and militancy had become per-eminent. Violence and direct-action displaced diplomacy propelled by grass roots rioting.

In the Spring of 1936, a militant six-month general strike broke out that one year later became a widespread armed insurrection and insurgency.[iv] The Arab Higher Committee attempted to reassert control, but the momentum came from the bottom up.

There are at least two lessons from this period that have not been fully recognized. First, efforts at economic improvement intended to pacify and raise the economic standing of the population have unintended negative economic consequences as well as producing a new educated radical student leadership class. In the process, negotiations with the older elite (and often corrupt) leadership[v] turn into an aside as that older leadership disintegrates in the face of another failure and a new form of leadership with a different character takes its place.[vi] The result is a misplaced focus on diplomatic shadow boxing rather than dealing directly with new and emerging social and political forces. Further, the structures, ideologies and situations as they evolve push both oppositions into new caricatures of the “Other” and, more often than not, more extremist positions by both parties to the conflict in spite of the increased accuracy and richer analysis of the Other produced by scholars on both sides.

The actual 1936-1939 precedent making revolt will be portrayed in the next blog.

[i] Cf. the very lengthy thesis of Charles W. Anderson (2013) From Petition to Confrontation: the Palestinian National Movement and the Rise of Mass Politics, 1929-1939.

[ii] Yehoshua Porath (1977) Palestinian Arab National Movement: From Riots to Rebellion: 1929-1939 and Ann Lesch (1979) Arab Politics in Palestine: 1917-1939. Cornell University Press.

[iii] This morning, Daniel Gordis began the first installment of a new series on his blog on a brief history of Israeli protests ( with the protests in Israel against the Germen reparations plan with about the same number of protesters as the Palestinians marshalled about thirty years earlier. Gordis portrayed the protest as a political conflict over policy lead by political elites. “Ben-Gurion understood how contentious taking money for exterminated Jews from the exterminators would be, but argued that international admiration would come with an economically flourishing Jewish state; Menachem Begin, however, insisted that the Jewish state would lose all respect it had painstakingly acquired if Israel—the international face of the Jewish people—now took money from its former oppressors.” Puritanism and principle were at odds with pragmatism.

[iv] Rashid Khalidi (2006) The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood. Beacon Press.

[v] Though not named as such by Haim Gelber, this position expounded by Gelber has been identified as the “effendi” thesis, that is, the belief that Palestinian Arab society is rigidly hierarchical and that agency depends entirely or primarily on an (usually characterized as corrupt) elite class. Cf. Haim Gelber (2003) “Zionism, Orientalism, and the Palestinians,” Journal of Palestine Studies 33:1, Fall 23-41.

[vi] Hillel Cohen (2008) Army of Shadows: Palestinian Collaboration with Zionism: 1923-1948. University of California Press. There is a parallel projection by Palestinians of elitism onto Jewish and Israeli society, but that is another story for a different time and place.

Israel as a Failing State

Blog 25: Prelude to the 1936 Arab Revolt:

Changes in Land Ownership and Population

The official political name of the British Mandate was not Eretz Israel but the name inherited from the Ottoman Empire – Palestine in English and Philistinia in Arabic – filasţīn (فلسطين) and pālēśtīnā, and, in Hebrew, פּלשׂתינה. When the third official language Hebrew was used, the initials aleph-yod were added to stand for Eretz Israel, using initials not to upset the Arabs.

literacy had played a key role in the competition for power between the Jews and Arabs in Palestine under the British Mandate. Almost all Jews were literate; even though they were a minority in the population, more of them could read and write than the total of Muslims and Christians combined. Several thousand Jews read Arabic; hardly any Arabs, even Christian ones, read Hebrew. This meant that Jewish Palestinians had full access to Arab Palestinian writings unreciprocated by Arabic access to Hebrew tracts, pamphlets and books. Even more importantly, Jews could play a disproportionate role in the drafting of official government documents into the three official languages, including the 1926 Correction of Land Registers Ordinance, legislation to protect cultivators, and the definition of a landless Arab.[i] However, those advantages has been greatly overestimated.

Though important for intellectual development, the impact of literacy was greatest in the economic and political spheres. Hence, it was a Jew, Pinhas Rutenberg, who won the concession for supplying Palestine with electrical power. He founded the Palestine Electric Company in 1923 by receiving from the government concessions, for both the Jordan and Yarkon Rivers. The concessions allowed his company to use the water resources of the two rivers both for irrigation and the production of electricity.

However, the greatest effect in the competition for influence was in the distribution of land ownership. Given the divisions between the landed classes and the fellahin within Arab society, the Jews could use their negotiating skills and knowledge of the law to negotiate land purchases from Arabs who owned large tracts of land.[ii]

In the West, we take for granted the registry system for privately owned land. It allows the ownership history and claims against property to be searched in government system of guarantees of title. Transfers are made by the registration of a deed of title and individuals have an absolute guarantee to that title. Although governments can exercise their rights of exclusive and eminent domain to expropriate land, they have to pay at least market value.

At the time of the 1936 Uprising – and this time it was a revolt against British rule and not just a matter of mob violence targeting Jews – one million of the five million dunams of the privately held lands in Mandatory Palestine were owned by or assigned by long-term leases to Jews. (A dunam is almost 10,000 square feet; an acre consists of 4.047 dunams.) But the vast majority of land at the time was state-owned – an additional 21.4 million dunams. Whichever party controlled the state, or had the greatest influence on the British government through either literacy or, alternatively, the threat of violence, controlled most of the land.

By 1945, the ratios shifted. Instead of Arabs owning or privately controlling land in a 4:1 ratio, they did so in over an 8:1 ratio. By then, over half the state land had been transferred to private legal or de facto ownership. 12.8 million was either owned or held in indefinite lease by Arabs, 75% of it arable. 1.5 million was controlled by Jews, 80% of it arable. Further, of the remaining 12.3 million dunams remaining under state control, 10.6 million were in the Negev desert. Only 1.7 million dunams of arable land remained directly under state ownership, and most of that was of marginal agricultural quality. After the British obtained the mandate, the privatization of land begun by the Ottomans in 1858 became a torrent.

Given the results of the re-distribution, it is very questionable to suggest that the Arabs lost the 1936-39 revolt. Though Jews made up a disproportionate part of the British bureaucracy, in the aftermath of the rebellion, Arabs made the greater gains in land ownership.

What about the population? What about demography? At one time there was a very fiery debate over the ratios of Palestinians to Jews that had migrated to Palestine by 1936. Certainly, Arabs had been immigrating to and emigrating from Palestine over the previous century and longer. As a result of a famine in Egypt at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Egyptians had migrated to Palestine, mainly Gaza. Further, Palestinians inherited a strong distaste for military conscription. Part of that was because they resented enforced military service for the Ottomans. But a good part may also have been because numbers of Palestinians were descendants of Egyptian soldiers who had deserted when Egypt lost the second Egypt-Ottoman War (1839-41) almost a century before the 1936 uprising. The numbers have been estimated as at least 15,000 and, perhaps, up to double that figure; 500 families alone (2,000 Egyptians) settled in Jaffa and many others on the coastal plain.

In the nineteenth century, Algerians migrated to Palestine. So did Kurds and Bosnian Muslims after 1878. Many Palestinian have the surname of Bushnak. The nineteenth century also witnessed an ingathering of Bedouin into Palestine so that at the time of the 1922 census, there were 73,000 Bedouin largely in the Negev, but many in the urban area of Nablus. In 1922, the total population of Palestine consisted of just three-quarters of a million people, almost 600,000 Arabs, about 70,000 Christians and, by then, slightly more Jews than Christians.

Ten years later, the Jewish population had doubled while both the Christian, mostly Eastern Orthodox, and Arab populations had increased by about 20%. More than twice as many Jews (9,000) than Arabs (4,000) had arrived as a result of illegal migration. By then, there were just over a million human souls in Palestine, slightly over the population of the Galilee alone at the time of Jesus. Relatively, Palestine remained a land without people and, for Jews, an opening for them to escape the troubles and pogroms of Europe as well as the rising menace of the Nazis.

As a result of the 1921 and 1929 Arab riots, the British increasingly restricted Jewish immigration to Palestine – so much for the promise of a homeland for the Jewish people.  Quotas were fixed and the number of immigration certificates distributed were increasingly lowered. Jewish organizations competed for the limited number of certificates. Yet Jews continued to arrive – enrolling in the Hebrew University as students – there was no limit on student visas – and arriving through “family reunification” as resident Jewish Palestinians “married” Jewish offshore brides under that loophole in the restrictive immigration regime. Others arrived on tourist visas and never left. In 1934, as the first of many, the ship Vallos was chartered to bring the first cohort of 350 illegal Jewish immigrants to Palestine.

Ten years after the 1922 census, the population of Palestine had significantly increased and by 1947 had almost doubled even though, at the end of the 1936-39 Arab uprising, the British government under Parliamentary Document 6019 limited the Jewish population in Palestine to no more than one third the total.  Jews were on the way to becoming one-third of the population. An absolute total of only 75,000 Jews would be permitted to enter Palestine, and then only if such immigration was “economically viable.” As the document stated, “no further Jewish immigration will be permitted unless the Arabs are prepared to acquiesce to it.” Again, those who claim that violence does not pay have to wrestle with these results. But we are getting too far ahead of our narrative.

While much of the gain in the Jewish population resulted from migration, increases in the Muslim population were largely the result of the decline in infant mortality as changes in delivering health care were introduced. Contrary to the claims of a few early Zionist writers, unlike Jewish immigration to Palestine which was increasingly “illegal,” there was, by comparison, relatively little Arab illegal migration. By 1947, the vast majority of Arab Palestinians were the descendants of Arabs who had arrived in Palestine before modern Jewish migration began in 1880.

Arabs did not arrive in Palestine because they were primarily attracted by economic development with the arrival of the Jews, though many became part of the urban working class, not only as a result of the shifts in land ownership and economic incentives, but because of improved transportation, increased trade, and industrialization. However, the result was an enormous disruption of Arab society. The noble-effendi classes may have gained title to much more land; however, their control enjoyed over many fellaheen over the Palestinian villagers eroded. Social bonds frayed. Traditional norms were replaced by bureaucratic strictures. With the inflow of Jewish capital into Palestine, the erosions increased enormously as the musha’ system of rights and responsibilities disintegrated; land became alienable and transactional.  Property became a disposable commodity. Further, entire Palestinian Arab villages disappeared. Peasants were disoriented in the shift from a barter to a market economy. Lacking the education or skills to manage in the new urban environment, many became impoverished.

Thus, landlessness among Palestinians played a major role in the Arab revolt that began in 1936.[iii] Inflation and unemployment whiplashed the former rural population. Disillusion and frustration contributed to their participation in the so-called “social unrest.”  Immigrant Jews were held responsible. Jewish land purchases were exaggerated for different reasons by both sides. The increasing knowledge that Zionists wanted a state of their own significantly contributed to the antipathy towards both the Jews and the British who were held to be under the thumb of the Jews. Arab attempts to imitate some of the Jewish initiatives failed. The 1931 Arab National Fund and the 1932 organization for the Preservation of Arab Lands both went nowhere.

Arab leaders blamed the Jews as interlopers and disrupters. Issues of land ownership, however unwarranted, as well as immigration became incendiary issues of a different order of magnitude. Guilt over the Arab elite own “quiet” involvement in land sales to Jews was displaced onto the perfidy of those same Jews to whom the land had been sold. It did not help that the Jewish voices and claims about land ownership became more strident and louder as the paternalistic British systematically decreased the opportunities of the displaced peasants through legal measures rather than economic incentives and opportunities.

The effect was alienation of each group from the others – Jews against the British and the Arabs, Arabs against the British and the Jews and the British frustrated at the lack of appreciation for their efforts at being the umpire between the Jews and Arabs. The British recognized the Jewish coastal versus the Arab heartland and reinforced the separation of the two groups to keep the peace by facilitating Arab resettlement in the hill country. The de facto partition of Palestine was underway that would lead to the 1937 Peel Commission recommendation for partition.

But first the revolt and violence had to take place.  

[i] Cf. Kenneth W. Stein (1984) Land Acquisition in Palestine: 1917-1939. University of North Carolina Press.

[ii] Cf. M. Button (1999) Ottoman Land-Law during the Palestine Mandate, 1917-1936.

[iii] Cf. C. Anderson (2018) “The British Mandate and the Crisis of Palestinian Landlessness, 1929–1936′, Middle Eastern Studies 54:2.

Israel as a Failing State

Blog 24: 1929 Palestinian Riots

Were the 1929 Arab riots in Palestine different than its 1921 predecessor? 1921 was a product of false rumour and a defensive reaction. 1929, however much incitement was set off because of fallacious rumours, was rooted in a real religious dispute over access to the Western Wall in Jerusalem. However, even if the scope of the violence and property damage in 1929 was much greater, though the duration of the violence was very similar, the underlying causes were the same: the Arab antipathy to Jewish immigration and the positive aspiration for Palestinian self-determination. The British Shaw Commission located the cause in “the Arab feeling of animosity and hostility towards the Jews consequent upon the disappointment of their political and national aspirations” and in the fear for their economic future since they regarded Jewish immigrants “as a menace to their livelihood,” but also “a possible overlord of the future.”

Between 23 and 29 August, 133 Jews were killed and 339 injured, mostly by Arab rioters. 116 Arabs were killed and 232 injured, mostly by British police.[i] A dispute over Jewish worship at the Western Wall triggered the dispute. Why? Jews had come to the Western Wall to worship for centuries, long before the emergence of modern Zionism. Jewish rhetoric, just as it continues to do now, played a role. The orators were not necessarily extremists.

Menachem Ussishkin was a Zionist leader and was head of the Jewish National Fund from 1923 for almost three decades. In 1925, he gave a speech demanding “a Jewish state without compromises and without concessions, from Dan to Be’er Sheva, from the great sea to the desert, including Transjordan.” (My italics.) He asked Jews to swear before God “that the Jewish people will not rest and will not remain silent until its national home is built on our Mt Moriah.” He had married traditional Jewish religious longing and modern Jewish nationalist aspirations, right wing Revisionist goals with labour Zionism.

Though he had been Secretary of the First Zionist Congress in 1897 in Basel, Switzerland, he was not elected to the Executive of the Zionist Council though he had been a member of Moscow branch of Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion), established in 1881-82 to promote agricultural settlement in Eretz Israel, and, perhaps more importantly, a founder of the BILU . The Bilu’im wanted not just to ensure Jewish survival through agricultural settlements but to create the new Jew through physical labour. The Zionist Congress, though it had absorbed Hovevei Zion as an integral part of the Zionist movement, had passed the more moderate Basel program for the Jewish people articulated in Max Nordau’s phrase, “a publicly and legally assured home in Palestine.” (My italics) A Jewish home within Palestine, not a Jewish state from the Mediterranean Sea to what became the borders of Jordan.

That is what the words said. But the sentiment behind it was much different. As Theodor Herzl had said after his triumphant success at Basel, “Were I to sum up the Basel Congress in a word – which I shall guard against pronouncing publicly – it would be this: at Basel I founded the Jewish State.” Not a Jewish homeland within Palestine but a Jewish state in Palestine. Whether it would include all of or only a part of Palestine was a matter of dispute. But for most Zionists it was clear – the goal was a Jewish state. As Herzl continued, “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.” It took the Palestinians only a quarter century to recognize that this was the real underlying goal. Though the Reform movement and religious Jews at the time dissented, (one reason why the first Zionist congress was moved from Germany to Switzerland), the major difference was really not over the goal, only its extent and only over whether to pronounce that goal loudly and clearly or only in whispers.

It took until 1942, following the 1936 Arab uprising in Palestine and the response of the Peel Commission, for the Zionists to explicitly adopt the goal of establishing Palestine “as a Jewish commonwealth.” Ussishkin had always been unequivocal. In his pamphlet, Our Program, he advocated collective settlements based on Jewish labour and a central role for higher education. He was active in creating the Jewish polytechnic which matured into the Technion. As President of the Jewish National Fund after 1923, he became the driving force behind the major land acquisitions: Hefer, the Jezreel Valley and the Beit She’an Valley.

It is in this context that one can understand the impact of Ussishkin’s 1925 speech. After all, it was Ussishkin who had rejected the 1922 proposal of Colonel Ronald Storrs, then British military governor of Jerusalem, to create a “Palestinian university” with both Hebrew and Arab departments. Instead, Zionist leaders, including cultural/political Zionists like Albert Einstein, Chaim Weizmann and Yehudah Magnes, created the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In the dialectic between Jews and Arabs in Palestine, their mutual fears and contending aspirations pushed them into opposing camps.

Higher education in Israel has always been linked to Jewish political aspirations. When Hebrew University was inaugurated on 1 April 1925, the opening was as much a Jewish religious as a secular higher education beginning. A choir sang chapter 19 of the Book of Psalms and a Haydn melody, “The Torah shall go forth from Zion.” Rabbi Kook read a special prayer composed for the occasion. The university was to develop in two directions: as a centre of Jewish tradition and the preservation of its historic language, Hebrew, and a centre of scientific research that became so critical to the extraordinary development of Israeli agriculture. H. N. Bialik, then and since known as the first national poet of Israel, read his poem written for the occasion that promoted both the reconciliation of modern science and the preservation of tradition, mainly the Jewish religion and the Hebrew language. The second part of the poem linked both objectives to the 1917 Balfour Declaration. In the poem, Balfour is portrayed as an Old Testament prophet as described in Ezra and Nehemiah. The return to Zion, שיבת ציון, was a marriage of modern intellectual enterprise and the preservation of traditional moral principles that made serving as a “light unto the nations” a moral and political imperative.  

Intellectual enterprise and religion had been wrapped together by political Zionism. Jews by and large who continued to identify organizationally as Jews would eventually and overwhelmingly adopt that position. And it was recognized by Jewish leaders and Arab leaders at the time. 1925 is the key to understanding 1929.

In 1937, Ussishkin and Weizmann would eventually clash following the 1936 riots (the next blog) over the issue of partition, but in 1925 they were united in their views, even as they differed over what could be articulated. But as Ussishkin declared at the 1937 Zionist Congress, accepting the principle of partition would be disastrous and introduce “great misfortune.” That split, however, belonged to the future.

How do we link 1925 with the events of 1929? Because in 1921, the riots had been spontaneous and based on false rumours. But by 1929, the inevitable clash of Zionist aspirations and the Arab quest for self-determination had become clear. They were set in motion the year before. In September 1928, “The Western or “Wailing Wall” (Buraq for Muslims) controversy, which became a public issue in 1928, triggered the intercommunal violence that in 1929 claimed 800 casualties and marked the shift of the political process into the irreconcilability violent phase which continues today.”[ii]

What was the controversy about? At the time, the Muslim Waqf, a religious trust, claimed ownership and control of not only the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, but the Wailing Wall as well.  In 1925, three years earlier, following the Ussishkin speech and the inauguration of Hebrew University, to appease Muslim complaints, the British forbade Jews bringing seats and benches to the Wall even for worshippers who were aged and infirm. In September 1928, Rabbi Aaron Menachem Mendel Guterman (1860-1934), the third rebbe of the Radzymin Hasidic dynasty, while visiting Jerusalem, put up a mechitza, a screen to separate male and female worshippers. Another visitor at the time, governor, Edward Keith Roach, noted the structure and ordered the commissioner to remove it by morning, according to some accounts, ignoring both the traditional tolerance for temporary facilities as well as the pleas of worshippers to leave it in place until after prayers. Others insisted that Roach agreed, but in the interim,  Attorney General Norman Bentwich  ordered the removal not knowing that Roach had agreed to an extended time to allow it to stay in place. The mechitza was removed forcefully by ten policemen in the morning; the police were attacked by Jewish worshippers.

The ardent anti-Zionist Haj Amin al Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, distributed leaflets throughout the Arab world claiming Jews were planning to take over the al-Aqsa Mosque. He held the British authorities and Jews to be jointly responsible for any actions the Arabs in Palestine might take to defend against illegal intrusions by Jews.

Zionists, in turn, demanded sole control over the wall; Ben Gurion called for its “redemption”. In the spring of 1929, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the leader of the Revisionist Zionists, launched a campaign in the Jewish right-wing newspaper to claim Jewish ownership and reverse the British decision to award control over the wall to the Waqf. Op-eds also advocated the use of violence to advance the claim.

On Thursday, 15 August, during the Jewish fast of Tisha B’Av, several hundred right-wing youth, including members of Jabotinsky’s Betar youth organization, marched to the Western Wall shouting “the Wall is ours” and sang Hatikva, the Zionist national anthem. According to the Shaw Commission, the marchers were unarmed. The following day, on a Friday after a rabble-rousing sermon in a mosque, the Supreme Muslim Council led an unprecedented march to the wall where the crowd burnt prayer books, liturgical fixtures and notes of supplication left in the Wall’s cracks. The Beadle was injured, and the destruction spread to the Jewish commercial area.

The next day, on Shabbat, a 17-year-old Mizrachi Jew, Abraham Mizrachi, was stabbed just outside of Mea Shearim; he died on August 20th. Nine days after the original Zionist march demanding ownership of the Wailing Wall, on the 23rd of August, prompted again by rumours as in the 1921 Jaffa riots, this time that the Zionists were going to march to the Temple Mount to claim ownership of it, thousands of Arab villagers from the surrounding countryside carrying sticks and knives arrived to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque.  

In the meanwhile, in Me’a Shirim during the noon hour, three Arabs were killed by Jews, either in response to what the Arabs had said or done or as revenge for what had taken place at the Wailing Wall, depending on whose account you believe.[iii] At 1:15, responding to the news, Arabs went on a rampage and started murdering Jews, beginning in Jerusalem and quickly spreading throughout Palestine. British police, overwhelmed by the huge numbers, stood by as Arabs murdered Jews at the Jaffa gate. The number of Jewish victims would have been many times greater if Arab neighbours had not hidden and protected their Jewish ffriends.

The worst atrocities took place at Hebron and Safed, though six Jewish villages were entirely destroyed. The British on 24 August had deputized and armed about 60 Jews to defend Jewish communities, but several days later, under threats by the Mufti, rescinded the appointments and disarmed the constables on 27 August.

Though the Jewish para-military Haganah had offered the Maklef family in the village of Motza protection, the patriarch refused since he had always enjoyed good relations with his Arab neighbours. But on 24 August, Arabs from neighbouring Qalunya invaded Motza, murdered the patriarch and his son as well as two rabbinical guests, tortured Chaya, the wife and mother, and hung her on a fence. They also raped and murdered two daughters.

In Hebron, where the Jews again rejected Hagana offers of protection, insisting that they had lived at peace with their Arab neighbours for years, almost 70 Jews were killed, many tortured in advance, including women and children. The atrocities were followed by looting and wanton destruction. However, many of the Jews who survived had been hidden in Arab homes. Mutilations and murders of Yeshiva students followed. In Safed, just under twenty Jews were killed and many homes and businesses were set on fire. The eye-witness descriptions of the murders are horrific: Aphriat, a school teacher along with his wife and mother, were murdered; Toledano, a lawyer, was cut to pieces with knives; children in orphanages had their hands and heads cut off; Yitshak Mammon, a tenant of an Arab family, was repeatedly stabbed and then trampled to death. 

A few atrocious reprisal attacks took place, including a raid on Sheikh ‘Abd al-Chani ‘Awn’ home, killing all the adults but not the children. The Nebi Akasha Jerusalem mosque built beside the Tomb of the Prophets where Muhammed’s companion, Ukasha ibn al-Mihsan was buried, was desecrated.

What was the result? A few Jews and many Arabs were sentenced to death. Almost all the sentences were commuted. On 21 October 1930, the Hope Simpson Royal Commission recommended limiting Jewish immigration on the fallacious grounds that there was not enough arable land to support a large population. None of the actions prevented the march towards a much greater catastrophe.

[i] Great Britain (1930) Parliamentary Papers: Report of the Commission on the Palestine Disturbances of August 2029.

[ii] ME Lundsten (1978) “Zionist and Palestinian Strategies in Jerusalem, 1928,” Journal of Palestinian Studies 8: 3-27, p. 3.

[iii] As the Shaw Commission concluded, there was no objective definitive account of what had happened.

Blog 22

C. I is for the Inter-Jewish/Palestinan Hundred-Year-War

The Roots of the War

External Western Nations may have constructed the foundations for this war over a century ago in Palestine, but the roots were planted by the rival parties themselves, but in cooperation with the British and the French. The target then was not Western nations, but the Ottoman Empire of which Palestine formed a part. While David Ben Gurion was soliciting support from the Sultan for the restoration of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, on 5 June 1916, the sons of King of Hejaz, Sharif Hussein ibn Ali, the emirs Ali and Feisal, attacked the Ottoman garrison at Medina. They had tried to capture its railway station as the first stage in capturing the second holiest city in the Muslim world.  

The goal was a pan-Arabic nation with Hussein as the caliph. Just over two years later, the so-called Egyptian Expeditionary Force, created by the British and Lawrence of Arabia, had captured Palestine as well as Lebanon, Syria and parts of the Arabian Peninsula. But the promise of a pan-Arab independent political entity led by Hussein was discarded. Instead, the Sykes-Picot Agreement split control of the area between the two allied powers, Britain and France. The UK inherited the Mandate of Palestine covering present day Jordan and all of Palestine. And it was Ibn Saud, not Hussein, who inherited Mecca, Medina and Jeddah.

But this was not the betrayal that Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, cited when the United Nations celebrated its first Nakba Day on 15 May 2023.[i] He blamed the US as well as Britain for abandoning Arab independence in favour of planting the Jewish nation in the heart of Palestine. They, he claimed, bore “political and ethical responsibility directly for the Nakba of the Palestinian people because they took part in rendering our people a victim when they decided to establish and plant another entity in our historic homeland for their own colonial goals. These countries wanted to get rid of their Jews and benefit from their presence in Palestine.”

Thus began the politics of resentment rather than any effort at an objective historical account. First, the US had played no part in the betrayal. Second, the core of the Jewish nation in 1917 was not established in Palestine but restored and enhanced. Third, the Palestinians were not victimized by that act; they could have welcomed the Jews back to their homeland and prospered alongside them. Fourth, colonial goals played a much more prominent part in initiating the Arab Revolt than in the Balfour Declaration which was an initiative of the ideals of British Christian Zionists who could trace their heritage back before Jewish Zionism to the mid-nineteenth century and George Eliot’s novel, Daniel Deronda.[ii] Finally, the desire to rid Britain of Jews played no part; the British promoters were philo-Jews, not antisemites.

The Arab resentment was evidenced in the Jaffa Riots with Arabs targeting Jews on May Day – the first of May 2021. What began as rival parades between the Jewish Communist Party and the Jewish socialists, Ahdut HaAvoda, clashes between the two groups and some fisticuffs led to rumours that Jews were attacking Arabs. Arab men poured out of Jaffa armed with clubs, knives, swords and even pistols, and attacked Jewish businesses and homes killing Jews wantonly and looting their properties.  Arab police sent to quell the rioters joined the attack against the Jews. The most casualties took place in a Jewish immigrant centre holding over one hundred. Eventually, British forces intervened and turned on the Arab rioters to stop the melee that spread over the next week and throughout Palestine.[iii] The one-hundred-year war between the Jews and Arabs in Palestine began with a populist pogrom against Jews stirred up by false rumours in which police followed the path of the Arab rioters.  

The consequences were profound. Among the dead were Yosef Haim Brenner, a pioneer in modern Hebrew literature, along with his landlord, his landlord’s teenaged son and son-in-law as well as two other tenants. But more significant than the deaths were two policy initiatives taken by Sir Herbert Samuel, the British High Commissioner. He was a Jew, sympathetic to Zionism, but not himself a Zionist. Under Arab pressure in the aftermath of the riots, he acceded to their demands and put a stop order on Jewish immigration. 300 Jewish immigrants still on boats were returned to Istanbul. Samuel also appointed al-Husseini’s nephew, Amin al-Husseini, as the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. Widely regarded in the Jewish community in Palestine as an antisemite, he was ardently opposed to Jewish immigration and, though he subsequently collaborated with the Nazis, he was not known to have played any part in the Shoah.

In the investigative commission that followed – the Haycraft Commission of Inquiry – though primary blame was placed on the Arabs, Jews were held responsible for not being considerate enough of Arab concerns and apprehensions. “The fundamental cause of the violence and the subsequent acts of violence was a feeling among the Arabs of discontent with, and hostility to, the Jews, due to political and economic causes, and connected with Jewish immigration, and with their conception of Zionist policy as derived from Jewish exponents.” In other words, though Arab rioters were the primary proximate cause and aggressors, abetted by ill-trained Arab police, the underlying cause was Zionist ideology that was held responsible for planting in Arab hearts acute anti-Jewish feelings. In other words, the prime victims were to blame more than the murderers. It was another case of blaming the victims for their own victimization.

In June of 1921, Sir Hebert Samuel gave a speech lifting the embargo on Jewish immigration while, on the other hand, placing immigration under severe restrictions with respect to numbers allowing Jewish immigration “only to the extent that it did not burden the economy.” The principle would be echoed over the following two-and-a-half decades. Unfortunately, this did not stop anti-Jewish riots from breaking out in the Old City of Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter on 2 November 2021 when five Jews were killed and three Arab attackers were shot dead by police.  

Was 1921 just an expression of violence? Or was it the nascent start of the long war? I contend that it was the latter, first because the violence was not inter-personal but collective. More importantly, the central issue at stake in the long war was the right of Jews to immigrate to their ancient homeland and create a national presence in the land. The leadership of the large Arab majority were unalterably opposed. This constituted the essence of the long war.

[i] Israel vehemently opposed the decision to memorialize Nakba Day on  May 15 and the UK and US joined 45 other UN member states in boycotting the event.

[ii] Cf. Bernadette Waterman Ward (2004) “Zion’s Mimetic Angel: George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda,” Shofar, an interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies 22(2), 105-115.

[iii] Cf. Tom Segev (2005) One Palestine, Complete, 173-190.

Blog 22

I is for Intra- and Inter-State Wars

B. Foundations Built by Others for the Hundred-Year Jewish/Palestinian War

To state the obvious, violence and war are not the same, even though war is a form of extreme violence. Both employ physical force. Both are intended to harm another. Both employ language that is itself a form of violence. Both result in psychological damage. But violence at its base is personal; it is aimed at harming individuals. Whether sexual or emotional, psychological or cultural, verbal or economic, coercive violence is used to control the behaviour of another. War, on the other hand, is a collective enterprise, an intense and always armed conflict between states that employ armies or mercenaries (the Wagner Group by the Russians in 2023 in Ukraine) or between groups that seek to have exclusive control of a government responsible for a specific territory and population (a civil war). Either inter-state or civil wars may use militias or insurgents. Unlike mere violence, the extreme violence of war results in destruction and mortality on a scale well beyond that of mere violence. But, like inter-personal violence, war is an act of coercion designed to compel another to be subject to one’s will by ultimately rendering the other relatively powerless.

The war between the Jews and Arabs in what was once Mandatory Palestine has continued for over one hundred years. The war began with the assignment of Mandatory Palestine to British control in the Versailles Treaty and confirmed Britain’s 1917 commitment to the Jews of the world to establish a national home for the Jews in Palestine. That promise was known as the Balfour Declaration and was a direct product of the growth in strength and conviction of British Christian Zionists who preceded their Jewish cousins. In effect, the Jewish Zionist enterprise was a by-product of a British imperial victory in a world war. However, in the McMahon-Hussein correspondence, the UK also promised to support Arab independence in all regions demanded by the Sherif of Mecca in return for the Arabs revolting against the Ottoman Empire.[i]

The peacemakers in Paris in 1919 offered a template on how NOT to create a stable world order in the wake of the end of a world war by confirming contradictory promises made to two different groups re government of the same territory.[ii] The peace agreement was no sooner signed than it began to unravel. Partly that was the result of the clashing interests and ideologies of the four dominant male personalities at the Paris meeting: Dr. Georges Clémenceau (78), the elder statesman of the group and former mayor of the Parisian commune of Montmartre after France’s 1870 defeat by the Prussians; he was determined Never Again to allow Germany to threaten France [See the eight-episode 2022 Netflix series Women at War – France lost 1.4 million men with another 3 million wounded]; the charismatic and opportunistic British Liberal leader, David Lloyd George (56); the Italian former Professor of Law and Prime Minister, Vittorio Emmanuelle Orlando (59) in search of protecting and advancing Italy’s emerging imperial interests even though he was personally a liberal; and last, but not least, the fiery verbal self-righteous (and racist) Presbyterian American President Woodrow Wilson (63) who came to the talks determined to forge a political “peace without victory” and left behind a moralistic punitive agreement. The one minimal lesson was that morality, though important in dictating boundaries, cannot provide a foundation for a new political order. Blaming one party, whether it be Germans, Jews or Arabs, only distorts history and does not allow recovery from historical mistakes.

However, the main problem was that the parties continued to believe that peace could be constructed by protecting and securing the sovereignty of a nation and failed to recognize that the only way to keep rival national sovereigns at peace was through collective security. Anyone who expects the Palestinians and Jews of Israel to forge a lasting peace by themselves is in desperate need of an encounter with the lessons of history. Defending the right to self-determination of any nation will inevitably bring about a clash with another nation determined to protect and develop its right to self-determination. Yet those who push for a two-state solution between the parties or a utopian one-state solution for both nations that have been at war for one hundred years are suffering from mind blindness. The only peace that can be forged between the Jews of Israel and the Palestinians will be a collective security arrangement guaranteed by outside parties. But I am getting ahead of myself.

A bad example of conceding on an issue of self-determination to one group at the expense of another can be found in the concessions given to the Japanese in the Treaty of Versailles. The Japanese, insisting on their imperial equality with the nations of the West, were awarded the German concession in the Shandong Province in China, a step from which a direct line can be drawn to the Japanese atrocities committed in Nanjing and around which Dr. Joseph Wong has organized the creation of a new museum in Toronto opening in November 2023 and directed to teaching children in Ontario schools and remembering the sacrifices the Chinese were forced to bear in WWII. At the end of 1937, the Japanese military looted and burned at least one-third of Nanjing’s buildings, raped and tortured at least 20,000 and up to 80,000 Chinese women, both young and old.

The bitterness of betrayal, whether in China or Palestine, led directly to the creation of organized insurrectionist groups. On May 4, 1919, Chinese students in reprisal burned the European parts of Beijing and created the May Fourth Movement, the embryo for the Chinese Communist Party. On the other hand, the war debts would eventually lead to the total unravelling of the imperial order with which the twentieth century began. By 1947, Britain would be forced by its weakening economy to abandon its bridge to the Far East through Palestine. But in 1947, the Brits, the Americans, the French and the Italians were all blind to the threat that would break open twenty years later.

Who in 1919 would have predicted that two nations that barely existed in the minds of their respective peoples at the time would consolidate into powerful rival nationalisms which would go to war for a century? More significantly, who would have predicted that the downtrodden Jews of the European and Arab world would emerge as the foremost power in the Middle East? For that matter, who would have predicted that in 2019, China would become a rival for world hegemony with the United States?

Several lessons have been learned from the failures of 1919. One, as evidenced in Ukraine; proxy wars, however horrid, are preferable to conflicts involving a multitude of nations. The Western nations are determined not to repeat the mistakes of the post WWI period when they sent armed forces in to reverse the Bolshevik ambitions. Secondly, if limited militarism is better than expansionist militarism, liberal internationalism always seems to retreat in the face of collective violence and the convictions behind self-determination. Thus, Canada’s ambitious attempt under Lloyd Axworthy to introduce and institutionalize a collective security arrangement based on A Responsibility to Protect led to its universal adoption by the United Nations only a few years later – wrongly applauded as a great success – but with the added Chinese condition that intervention would only be allowed following the agreement of the affected country. The sovereignty principle once again prevailed over collective security.

The third lesson is the most relevant to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Do not send contradictory messages. One cannot promise national self-determination for Jews in the same land on which self-determination is expected by the rival majoritarian population. The only way to resolve the dispute, as has long been repeatedly recognized, is not by hoping for a love-in within a single united state but by a division of the land between the two peoples. Unfortunately, as we shall see, as each war has been fought at approximately twenty-year intervals over the last century, the lines of division have shifted in one direction as one of those rival peoples became more populous on the ground and also grew in economic and military strength. It is very difficult to accept new dividing lines. But it is even more fruitless to fight to restore dividing lines consecrated in the past.

However, in 1917 and 1919, the Jews had only been promised a national home within Palestine, not a state of their own. But even that limited goal was rejected by the large majoritarian population of Palestine at the time, or, at least, by the leaders even though the challenge had not permeated widely in the minds of the inhabitants, though, in total, there were not that many then – under a million. If even in that nascent situation one could not establish a legal regime acceptable to both groups that would ensure a stable peace rooted in compromise, conciliation and even arbitration, how could one expect even more after the scars inflicted by a hundred-year war?

One final lesson. Beware of collective agreements that cannot be implemented and that will have unintended consequences that will reverse and subvert every one of both the lofty and self-interested motives behind that collective agreement. We have learned to manage rather than end wars. We have learned to mitigate their terrible effects through multilateralism and to contain their horrific results through concerted international efforts. Most of all, we have learned how the support of civil society within each national group is even more important than the stances of the respective rival governments. As we shall see, the Jews of Israel and the Palestinian Arabs have carried the burden, both of the failures and the successes, of earlier history ever since.

NEXT: The Opening Stage of the one-hundred year Jewish-Palestinian War

[i] Cf. 1915-1916.

[ii] Jay Winter (2019) “The Peacemakers of 1919 a Century On,” in Alex de Walle (ed.) Think Peace: Essays for an Age of Disorder, Carnegie. Jay Winter is Charles J. Stille Professor of History emeritus at Yale University.

Davy the Punk


Howard Adelman

My next blog will resume my writing on Israel. I took a week off to recover from minor surgery. During the week, among my visitors was Bob Bossin and his partner, Sima Shefrin. She is a visual artist and together they live on Gabriola Island less than an hour north of where I now live in the village of Cobble Hill on Vancouver Island. Bob moved to the island in 1980, just over forty years ago. Bob had phoned me and followed up with a visit to interview me about Rochdale College, for he was writing an article on this subject. He had lived in Rochdale in the late sixties.

Decades ago, I knew Bob as a founder of the Canadian folk singing group, Stringband. Before we parted after our lunch, Bob gave me a copy of his book that he had published by Porcupine’s Quill in 2014, Davy the Punk. It is ostensibly a memoir primarily about his father. I had never heard of the book before. I read it over the next three days. I do not know how well it sold at the time of its release, but if you are interested in buying a copy, email Bob at

It is a terrific read. And far more than a memoir. It is a tour of the “criminal” underground in Canada, primarily Toronto, of the thirties and forties. Bob’s father was a layoff man, the insurance broker of bets for a vast array of Toronto bookies, mostly Jewish it seems. He was also the managing publisher of the Canadian Racing and Financial News, (CRFN), a racing sheet sold at newsstands around Toronto for a quarter, but also the bible for bookies. But he also provided an “internet” service at the time, at one level, a phone service for readers of CRFN to answer their questions about races, and, at a second level, a subscription service for bookies to get the most up-to-date odds on races, as well a precise starting time and reportage furlong by furlong. Davy the Punk was the bookies’ booky.

If you want to read about the Bossin family tree, there is a brief account by Allen Bossin written in 2004 on the internet ( that overlaps and reinforces that minor aspect of Bob’s book as well as imitating Dave’s and adumbrating Bob’s narrative skills in a few sketches that he provides. Both Allen and Bob tell the same story of Babe Ruth. Bob’s grandfather deplored his boys’ love of baseball; it was a wastrel’s activity. The boys protested. Babe Ruth earns $50,000 a year. Grandfather Zussman shook his head and replied, “Fur makhn yenem?” (For doing that?) Zadie Zussman died ten years before Bob was born, but it is clear that the stories about him were embedded deep in Bob’s psyche.

After providing a sketch of Bob’s brilliant but very tough “zadie”, and the fame and success of Dave’s two younger brothers, Hye and Art, this is how Allen summarized Dave’s career:

Zussman never had enough money to send his children to university and that was certainly a shame for son number one. Dave had been born in January 1905 aboard the ship St. Cecilia that carried his mother, Chava, to Canada. He had to go to work at an early age to support the Bossin household. He had a way with numbers, that uncanny ability to arrive at complex arithmetic solutions in his head. He also always seemed to have fabulous sums of money and he was tied in with a group of businessmen, lead by Abe Orpin, a racetrack owner. Abe played the horses and made a lot of money. Dave never bet himself; instead, he was a handicapper who went under the name Reilly. They had a clientele of 25 or 30 professional men that constantly placed bets and Dave was quite a success. [That is, Allen does not explain, Davy was a tout, an expert on horses in a race who offers tips for a percentage of winnings or of the bets.] By the 1930s, Dave was providing instantaneous racing results and, when challenged by the court system, he was successful in proving that plying his trade was perfectly legal. Dave headed a syndicate with a room of about 20 girls on the telephones announcing racing results across the country. The authorities were constantly hassling him, but he was always, quite legally, one step ahead. At one time he partnered with Jack Slavin, his brother-in-law in Chicago. Finally, in 1944 he had had enough of the harassment, and he went into business earning commissions placing bets for the next few years. Eventually he became a booking agent. But Dave died at an early age leaving his wife Marcia to raise their young son, Bob. Dave would have been proud to see Bob go on to give the Bossin name recognition across Canada as an accomplished singer and writer.

Dave died in 1963 when Bob was only 17. His mother, Marci Bossin, “the most beautiful woman in Toronto” (if you do not believe it, look at the picture on p. 97) outlived her husband by a quarter of a century. The book includes insightful vignettes of his mother, at once disarmingly candid with the disguise of a ditzy Gracie Allen. Bob had to navigate the sixties without the guidance and financial aid of his dad. Though perhaps not as brilliant mathematically as his father proved to be, Bob was an accomplished undergraduate and could have easily gone onto grad school. Instead, he became a performer, songwriter and writer. And for the last, I am grateful.

Partly it is personal; I could identify with many elements in the story. Bob tells of the role I served for a time as an eleven-year-old runner (Bob called the role a front-ender, but I had never heard that term) for the bookie at the north-west corner of Lippincott and College St. in front of Koffler’s drugstore. (Murray Koffler would subsequently found Shopper’s Drug Mart). At one point, Bob described the location of a bookie in The Kensington market who operated out of a thin laneway that was a continuation of St. Andrew’s Street. He used the stall of a Shoichet (a ritual kosher slaughterer) as a front. I never knew it was a bookie joint in 1943-44 when I went up the same lane to the identical Shoichet carrying my grandfather’s chickens from his chicken store a few doors north on Kensington Avenue to watch the Shoichet tie the chicken up by its legs, slit its throat as the headless bird continued to flap its wings wildly as the Shoichet began the process of plucking its feather. I earned five cents per chicken run. Seven years later, I was earning twice that sum for my message and bet runs for the bookie on College St.

We had moved to the house in the lane beside my grandfather’s chicken store after we had lived with my mother’s parents on Havelock opposite the Dufferin racetrack that is such an important landmark in the tale Bob spins. But the many locations in Toronto, such as the United Dairy Restaurant on Spadina Avenue, with which I could identify, were not the only memories evoked in reading Bob’s book. There was my life as a corner newspaper vendor followed by my even very lucrative life as a Toronto Star delivery boy.  

Bob tells the story of Toronto the Good chaining up the swings in the children’s playgrounds around the city on Saturday evening and unchaining them on Monday morning to prevent children being engaged in frivolity on the Christian sabbath. After Kensington, we moved north of College St. to live on Ulster St.  The area was overwhelmingly dominated by Jewish homes and small shtetl synagogues in converted houses. But Lippincott, one block west of Borden, was a gentile street. And when we played hockey or baseball in the lane between the two streets on a Sunday, as often as not the police would arrive to break up the game having been summoned by one of the non-Jewish neighbours. After all, we were desecrating their sabbath.

There are also the literary allusions in the book. At one point, Bob identified one of the many characters that populate the book with the sad sack lachrymose donkey, Eeyore, from Winnie the Pooh. “Nobody cares about me,” was often used – by myself and others – as a jocular plea for more consideration of our personal interests and desires. But perhaps one of the most identifiable moments was when Bob described the tough Irish cops of Toronto. We moved from Ulster St. even further north of Bloor St. to Palmerston Avenue (not the boulevard with its much more stately homes), exactly one block west of the Number Twelve Police station. How often did we hear the screams and cries of arrested prisoners! Everyone knew they had been subjected to a beating. But I never saw or heard of anyone regarding these events as anything unusual.

The tale bob tells has many more even deeper themes than Toronto the Good, Toronto the Tough or Toronto the Corrupt. There was the antisemitism. Bob tells the story of Eaton’s Department store refusing to hire Jews, including Bob’s mother, while its rival, Simpson’s did hire Jews. My mother worked for Simpson’s for years as a comptroller operator in its accounting department and was always treated respectfully there. However, when she was single, she had worked for one of the elite clubs in Toronto, but only by pretending she was not Jewish. Genteel, and sometimes not so genteel, antisemitism characterized Toronto at the time. It also went deep into the Canadian polity and Bob refers to and quotes from Irv Abella and Hesh Troper’s book, None is Too Many that provides the evidence and quotes to explain why Canada had the worst record for admitting Jewish refugees before, during and even after WWII.

Canada’s version of McCarthyism also becomes part of the story and George Drew when he was premier of Ontario launched an anti-Communist crusade in Ontario. Allen Bossin describes one of Bob’s aunts as a communist, but Bob in his book was caught up in the larger political narrative as well as the underground one of the crusade of Ontario’s puritanical premier against gambling and his illegal prosecution and even more illegal persecution of Dave Bossin.

But all of the above are the extras. For the book is much more than a memoir if it is even that. Though not a formal history in the academic sense, it is a marvellous history of Jews and their role in the gambling underground in Toronto. It is a tale told with the gift of the story for which Bob’s dad was so famous. I used to love hanging out in the “shvitz” (the steam baths) on Sunday and listening to the men tell their stories to one another as they ate schmaltz herring and drank whiskey on the leather couches in the rest rooms after taking their steaming hot baths. Bob’s book not only took me back there, but did so through story after story that evoked his father’s character at the same time as he provided a history not found in our textbooks.

The book is populated by stories of Harry Belafonte and Frank Sinatra, Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky, Frank Costello and his nemesis, Senator Estes Kefauver, Tommy Dorsey and Louis Armstrong, Sammy Luftspring and Moses Annenberg, Gordon Sinclair and Jocko Thomas, Bernie Shapiro, who became president of McGill University, and his twin brother Harold who became President of Princeton University, as well as their father Max who owned Montreal’s famous Ruby Foo Chinese restaurant and was also a gambling kingpin in Montreal.

It’s a wonderful read.