Part II: Movie Review: Everybody Knows Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut

Though the principle of the obligation of charity includes everyone, that is not where it starts. Everybody Knows is a film about the inability of each and every member of the family and group of friends to reprove another because each has never learned to critique oneself. Instead, rebuke is expressed as resentment absent of love, as defensiveness rather than openness to an Other. It turns out that everybody knows the deep secret that only the father and mother of a kidnapped girl supposedly know, but no one knows how to engage in inter-personal criticism or conversation.

There can be no grudges underlying that criticism. There can be no resentment underpinning a reproof, such as the resentment that when Paco, the son of a servant, bought his land from Laura at a bargain-basement price, there is a deeply held belief amongst family members that the deal was rotten. In the end, however leaky the boat, however deep the wounds of the past, Asghar Farhadi’s films are ultimately about compassion and humanity.

Everybody knows this. We are commanded to do what we already know. However, Everybody Knows is about denial, is about ignoring what everyone knows, not just as a general commandment, but as a very specific piece of information that, as it is revealed, thrusts a dagger at the unity, at the harmony, at the solidarity of a Spanish family. (No spoiler alert is needed. I do not intend to reveal the hidden secret that everyone knows.)

Penélope Cruz (Laura) is a Spanish woman who has married an Argentinian and lives in Buenos Aries. The movie begins with her return after many years with her two children in tow, her frisky free-spirited impulsive sixteen-year-old daughter, Irene (Carla Campra) and her younger, almost dopy son, Diego (Iván Chavero). They return to a small village outside Madrid where her family lives. She is there to attend the wedding of one of her sisters, Ana (Inma Cuesta), to a very nice guy (Roger Casamajor) at the same time that she learns that the marriage of her other sister, Mariana (Elvira Mínguez) has fallen apart and the couple have evidently decided to split. (That turns out to be a convenient lie and a cover-up. The couple do eventually split in a much deeper way because together they threw an axe into the core of the family.)

In one opening, the wedding is a raucous, joy-filled affair attended by members of this large family and their friends in a picturesque village and filmed with photographic genius by Pedro Almódovar, cinematographer, Jose Luis Alcaine. The film has a second opening. Javier Bardem (Paco) is joyously picking grapes with his workers, grapes to be made into wine, not sacral wine, but wine to be enjoyed as an intrinsic part of celebrating life, wine that is truly holy. The spiritual in this movie may be identified with rebukes in a family, but it is not identified with asceticism and abstinence, though Ricardo Darín as Alejandro will testify that his life was saved when his daughter was born and he swore off alcohol. The narrative of the movie will testify to the falseness of the claim.

The wine is holy in the Jewish sense of making the physical world spiritual by making what seems mundane holy. Wine is specifically suited to this because, as Paco lectures to a group of students, wine improves rather than, like other foods, decaying with age. Wine gains in character and in personality courtesy of time. It gets better over time. Thou shalt become a holy people by saying a blessing over wine. Wine testifies that it is by raising the physical to the spiritual, not rejecting the physical, that we become holy. And the holiest moments of the film take place in the first forty minutes in drinking wine and celebrating at a very joyous wedding in the Spanish sun and when Alejandro, the abstainer lest he resume his alcoholism, has not yet appeared, not yet come from Buenos Aries.

Time is at the centre of the film, not as a Kantian aesthetic framework for framing our sensible experiences as successive moments, but as the phenomenology of time, as a clock in a church tower with a hole in the clock that no longer keeps accurate time. Instead, Laura and Paco unite in a race to play for time and prevent a tragedy at the same time as we learn that it was the last moment of ecstatic time that set the stage for the unfolding possible tragedy. For the wedding, which was a time of unbridled joy, turns into a fast-moving suspense thriller and a nightmare in which the past will erupt to haunt the present.

We know this before we actually learn of it when Laura’s high-spirited daughter, Irene, climbs the circular stair with Paco’s nephew, Felipe (Sergio Castellanos) who is clearly smitten. Irene in the first one-third of the movie instills in the audience the gravest sense of unease, of anticipation of disaster. Like all towers where princesses dwell, this one is haunted by secrets, first and foremost, the fact of Laura and Paco’s initials carved into the stone wall of the tower as a phantasm provide eternal proof that the two were once lovers. But this is a heartbreaking film, about two lovers who inadvertently broke each other’s hearts, about a ravaged and grieving mother cast in an existential angst over her missing daughter, and her own mother who also knows who the villains are. Paco as a take-charge man who, in the end, drinks suppressed and long forgotten memories rather than wine, as his heart is torn apart a second time and he falls apart into vulnerability even as he saves the day.

Instead of wine improving with age, the unresolved love and secret between Laura and Paco, the failure to open up fully to one another in the past, has eaten away at each of their spirits, so, in spite of the beauty of Penélope, the rugged handsomeness of Javier and the real electricity between them, everything dissolves into thin air. The mystery begins by trying to figure out the family tree and is sustained as we try to understand the role of Paco’s wife, Bea (Bárbara Lennie) whose part I never came to understand, except it is she who hired her nephew (?) to take drone shots of the wedding mélange as the drone retreats upwards and the family shrinks and its members become indistinct. Is she the eye of God, of a heavenly surveillance of the tragic scene? Her role is suspiciously sinister. I finished the film perplexed about her part.  

The film begins in celebration. In contrast, in the Jewish nation, we begin by mourning our losses. We begin with Yom HaZikaron, the Memorial Day for the soldiers who fell in battle for the nation and the civilians who lost their lives to terrorists. Only then does Yom HaAtzmaut follow. We begin, rather than end, with a broken heart. Self-criticism and critique of others provide the opportunity to repair the world. Only when we have paid the cost of such repairs, only when we understand why the repair was necessary, why the sacrifice was made, are we entitled to celebrate.

When Everybody Knows begins with such enormous celebration, such overwhelming joy, the sense of creeping disaster, of what is festering behind that joy, begins to haunt us so that when the disaster begins to unfold, we are tossed to the ground. Only when the order is reversed in real life, can we move on to repair the world.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Part I: Parashat K’doshim Leviticus 19:1-20:27 Movie Review: Everybody Knows Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut

I have published the lyrics to Leonard Cohen’s song from his album, I’m Your Man, as introductions to other blogs. It requires reprinting even though it is never sung or hummed in the film, Everyone Knows, but its prophetic pessimism haunts the film.

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows

Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling

Like their father or their dog just died

Everybody talking to their pockets
Everybody wants a box of chocolates
And a long stem rose
Everybody knows

Everybody knows that you love me baby
Everybody knows that you really do
Everybody knows that you’ve been faithful
Ah give or take a night or two
Everybody knows you’ve been discreet
But there were so many people you just had to meet
Without your clothes
And everybody knows

Everybody knows, everybody knows
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows

Everybody knows, everybody knows
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows

And everybody knows that it’s now or never
Everybody knows that it’s me or you
And everybody knows that you live forever
Ah when you’ve done a line or two
Everybody knows the deal is rotten
Old Black Joe’s still pickin’ cotton
For your ribbons and bows
And everybody knows

And everybody knows that the plague is coming
Everybody knows that it’s moving fast

Everybody knows that the naked man and woman
Are just a shining artifact of the past
Everybody knows the scene is dead
But there’s gonna be a meter on your bed
That will disclose
What everybody knows

And everybody knows that you’re in trouble
Everybody knows what you’ve been through
From the bloody cross on top of Calvary
To the beach of Malibu
Everybody knows it’s coming apart
Take one last look at this sacred heart
Before it blows
And everybody knows

Everybody knows, everybody knows
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows

Oh everybody knows, everybody knows
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows

Everybody knows 

K’doshim is the heart and soul of the Holiness Code in the Torah. The section offers instructions on how to be a holy people. Parashat K’doshim also includes the commandment, “You shall surely rebuke your kinsfolk…” (Leviticus 19:17) What does becoming a holy people have to do with a commandment concerning rebuking the members of your family? And what do commandments about becoming a holy people and rebuking the members of your family have to do with a Spanish film, Everybody Knows, directed and written by the brilliant Iranian filmmaker, Asghar Farhadi? (Dancing in the Dust, 2003; Beautiful City, 2004; Fireworks Wednesday, 2006; About Elly, 2009; A Separation, 2011, that won awards around the world, including the Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film of the Year, the first Iranian director to win such an award; and The Salesman, 2016, his tribute to Arthur Miller) What can the parashat have to do with his first non-Iranian Spanish movie that stars such powerhouses as Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem and Ricardo Darín?

Serendipitously, though I missed the film when it showed at the Toronto International Film Festival (8 September 2018), and did not see it in its general release in February when I was in Mexico, I saw it last evening on Netflix. However, isn’t the movie simply an artistic combined thriller and whodunnit, a somewhat turgid melodrama? It is all of those, but very much more. However, for a real stretch, what does the weekly Torah reading and this film have to do with Israel’s Memorial Day to its fallen soldiers and Israel’s Independence Day?

The questions alone are a challenge to comprehend. I will start with depicting the central theological problem of the Holiness Code and then connect the theme with a movie that appears simply to be a melodrama but reveals itself to be, at its core, a film with a powerful religious theme. I will end by then connecting the theological conundrum in the Torah and the theme of the movie with Memorial Day and Independence Day in Israel.

The Eternal One spoke to Moses saying: “Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy.” (Leviticus 19:1-2) God also commanded, “You shall not hate your kinsman in your heart. Reprove your neighbor, but incur no guilt because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your kinsfolk. Love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:17-18) As Hillel taught was the core of Judaism, “what is hateful to you do not do to your fellow man” (דעלך סני לחברך לא תעביד), or, as in this passage in Parashat K’doshim – “love your fellow as yourself.” (וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ) The latter dictum offers a hint of a connection with a movie that reveals itself to be about hidden grudges within a family, resentments, rebukes and exercises in revenge. But what connection could there be about becoming a holy people?

Given his own uniqueness, God wanted his people to be set apart from the other nations of the world. That is one way to interpret the commandment. But note that the latter is surely the most difficult commandment of all if only because it is impossible for an individual to fulfill. In contrast, in all romanticism in all cultures, uniqueness is revered. Further, rules of sexual conduct, rules about eating and praying, all of these can be obeyed by an individual. But a commandment to become a holy people, kol adat B’nai Yisrael?

There is the clear implication that an individual on his or her own cannot become holy. Nor is holiness restricted to priests, those with holy ordinances, the elite who enjoy the advantages of prosperity, or to those who are reborn in God or Christ, or even to those who give of themselves for the sake of others. There are examples of all these types and more in the movie. The priest who officiates at the wedding is rebuked from the pews for always begging for more money to repair the church, implying that he neglects to tell them what they need to know to repair their communal souls. To become holy requires an extended family, a community, a nation. “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:6)

You shall be holy. It is a work in progress. Israel’s status as God’s holy people is fluid. It is an effort that most challenges us when we encounter a maelstrom in our lives. When we need it most, we are commanded to become holy. And the effort emerges in the hour-to-hour, day-to-day struggles that we all engage in as we go through life, but made all the clearer in the bright sun-dappled Spain that turns into a rainy and dark film after we are at our most celebratory and when we enter an intimately painful phase and are most emotionally torn apart in frantic desperation.

The clue about how to be holy is that we must imitate God, imitate the divine. Imitatio Dei. But what does that mean? At the very least it means caring for the other. And not just an other individual. But caring for the collective we. Not just the workers engaged in a class struggle. Not just the Democratic cosmopolitans at war with the local nationalist patriots and ethnic nationalists so that we become holy be being different than others. Make America great! No, holiness, entails becoming a holy nation that is a light unto the nations. And that effort starts with the family, starts by understanding how to rebuke the members of your family and your friends and deal with the barely hidden ghosts of the past that cast shadows and serve as specters on a film initially filled with brilliant sun-kissed light.

The Hebrews emerged as a distinct people in the early Iron Age (1200 – 1000 B.C.E.). In no other religion, in no other culture, does the requirement to be holy fall on a whole people. Does this mean simply exclusivity? Does this mean simply following a unique set of dietary and other laws? If so, how could a people then be a light unto the nations?

Becoming a community, a light unto the nations, is the most important way we sanctify our lives. That is the critical way in which we become partners with the divine. But then why is holiness defined as that which sets us apart, that which defines us as not part of a community, not part of a nation and not part of the community of nations? How can separateness be intrinsic to spirituality while the injunction insists that the only way we can become holy is through a community becoming holy?

Entitlements, literally, having title to something – a piece of land or a house or an estate or a particular vineyard or a set of unique laws – are not equated either with separating oneself from others or in obeying the command to joining with others to become a holy people. Becoming separate and holy at one and the same time has nothing to do with privileges either earned or awarded. It has almost everything to do with sharing criticisms with members of one’s family, of one’s community, with how one rebukes and how one accepts rebukes. Everybody Knows at its heart is about this failure while everyone shares in a broken feeling and everybody knows that the captain lied and that the plague is coming.

This blog is an exercise in criticism. It is really about myself before it is about the Torah portion, a movie or the sequence of Jewish holidays. I share it with others so that we can together engage in self-examination. When I write about Everybody Knows, it is to work towards bringing out in the open what everyone already knows. That was the mission of Socrates. It is not intended as an assault on my own identity, on the identity of another and certainly not on the great artistry of someone who can create a great film. Criticism is simply a craft, like knitting, an effort at sharing and giving my meagre gifts to the world, at understanding the tensions underneath the surface, and not at tearing apart the world. Most of all, it should never be about challenging one’s identity. There is no need to be defensive and every reason not to be.

I am not speaking simply of the cliché instructing us to only engage in constructive criticism. For criticism if it is real, if it is profound, has to deconstruct. But how do we deconstruct at the same time as we enhance our love for one another? The Torah provides an answer, at least in general. Hochei-ach tochi-ach et amitecha. To rebuke properly, you must do it twice. You must criticize yourself and your own shortcomings before you remonstrate others, specifically your kin. Criticism is about initiating dialogue and a more general conversation so that we do not hide from one another, so there are no longer unburied secrets and unhealed wounds.

When one mother at the Denver STEM School Highlands Ranch, where a student died this week in another shooting incident, contacted authorities in the school before the shooting to suggest that, given the evidence of her son, the school might be a pressure cooker about to explode because of reports of violence, bullying and stress, she warned of the possibility of another Columbine. The school officials subsequently filed a defamation lawsuit against her.  

Everybody Knows at its heart is about this failure to rebuke oneself before turning on others. The command to love your neighbor as you love yourself is not as simple as it appears. Certainly it means taking responsibility for the stranger, for the men and women who pick the grapes on your estate in order to make wine. Certainly it means taking care of the disabled, the pater familias of the clan which is celebrating the marriage of one of his daughters even though he is an irate and resentful former gambler and alcoholic who must use a chair lift to get to the second floor of his house. Certainly, it entails that we understand that we are all God’s children, all “children of the Lord, your God’ (Deuteronomy 14:1)

To be continued

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Holocaust and the Creation of the State of Israel Part III: The Role of the Zionist Lobby

Evyatar Friesel in a very important article for the Shoah Resource Center at Yad Vashem, “The Holocaust: Factor in the Birth of Israel,” wrote the following opening paragraph:

“It is widely believed that the catastrophe of European Jewry during World War II had a decisive influence on the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948. According to this thesis, for the Jews the Holocaust triggered a supreme effort toward statehood, based on the understanding that only a Jewish state might again avoid the horrors of the 1940s. For the nations of the world, shocked by the horror of the extermination and burdened by feelings of guilt, the Holocaust convinced them that the Jews were entitled to a state of their own. All these assumptions seem extremely doubtful. They deserve careful re-examination in light of the historical evidence.”

On the other hand, in 2002, Tomer Kleinman had argued that, “The establishment of the State of Israel would have been possible without the Holocaust due to the Zionist movement, however the reparations from the Holocaust given by West Germany gave Israel the resources necessary to survive. In this paper I will argue that the Holocaust played an important role in the founding and long term visibility of the State of Israel in three respects: The Holocaust motivated large numbers of immigrants to move to the new country, providing the necessary population; secondly, the Holocaust enabled Israel to pressure Germany into supplying the economic base necessary to build infrastructure and support those immigrants; and finally, the Holocaust swayed world opinion so that the United Nations approved the State of Israel in 1948.”

I will argue below that it was not primarily the Holocaust but the efforts and manipulations of the Zionists combined with the rejection of the Jewish refugee remnant by the West after the war that motivated large numbers of Jewish refugees left in Europe before 1948 to move to Palestine. There were 100,000 Jewish refugees left from the concentration camps in Europe. Another 150,000 Jews fled other parts of Eastern Europe and ended up in the refugee camps. What was to be done with them?

German reparations may have helped sustain the new state, but given that those reparations did not kick in until 1952, they had nothing to do with the creation of Israel. They may also have had little connection with guilt, but that is a story for another time. What is most important, as I shall argue in the next blog, guilt over the Holocaust had virtually nothing to do with swaying world opinion so that the United Nations supported and approved the creation of the State of Israel in 1947.

Nahum Goldmann, president of the World Jewish Congress, claimed that without Auschwitz, there would be no Israel. This is the same Nahum Goldmann who, even before the Holocaust, despaired of the possibility of Israel coming into being because so much of European Jewry was about to be wiped out. In contrast, Michael Wolffsohn (“Eternal Guilt? Forty Years of German-Jewish-Israeli Relations”) argued that the creation of the State of Israel was primarily due to the political, economic, social and military achievements of its founders. I agree with Wolffsohn.

This does not mean that the Holocaust played no role. But it was WWII, not the Holocaust, that weakened the British. Further, guilt over the Holocaust played no role. But that is for the next blog. In this blog it is important to clarify whether the Zionist leadership at the time played on that supposed guilt and believed that guilt played a role. Certainly, much later, particularly after the Six Day War, and perhaps even earlier, after the Eichmann trial, the Holocaust was internalized to become part of the Israeli and Jewish identity. However, previously, the Holocaust had been identified with diaspora helplessness, with the indifference of the international community, with placing severe limits on what the Zionists could accomplish, and reinforced the sense that the Jews had to determine their own destiny.

I want to examine my major concern – whether the Shoah had a decisive influence on the establishment of Israel in 1948. In this blog, I focus on the complementary thesis that it was the Holocaust that ignited the supreme effort to create a Jewish state and prevent the re-occurrence of genocide ever again, at least to the Jews. Further, did the leaders of the Zionist movement use the Holocaust in substantial ways to gain the support of the international community?

The ultimate goal of the Zionist lobby was to create a Jewish state in Palestine. It pursued that goal through gradualism during the fifteen years after the Arab pogrom in 1929 by building up the institutions of state within the Jewish community in Palestine as it sought the transfer of power and authority from Britain, the mandatory power. In reality, the idea of war both with the Arabs and with the British authorities, over time, replaced the idea of gradually obtaining independence from the colonial authorities.

Palestine was not Canada. The relatively moderate voices of Chaim Weizmann and even Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky gradually gave up on trust in Britain to advance the cause of Jewish independence. That shift took place with the Peel Commission Report under the British and its increasingly restrictive measures on immigration. Before then, a Jewish majority in the land could be expected by 1947 or, at worst, 1952. Why not then be patient?

Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 vindicated the Zionist belief that there was no future for Jews in the diaspora. Initially, Nazi policies enhanced the efforts of Zionists to negotiate with the Nazi government to allow immigration in exchange for Jewish assets (ha’avara or transfer) and the use of part of those assets to settle the Jews in Palestine. Criticism of this policy led to the assassination of Dr. Chaim Arlosoroff who had negotiated the transfer agreement.

During WWII with the powerful barriers to immigration, after WWII with the destruction of European Jewry and with the virtual closure by Britain of access to Palestine even by the remnant of Jewish refugee survivors from that war, the Zionist leaders grew more restive. Time was no longer on their side, especially given the record of radical rejectionism by the Palestinian Arab leadership even to the 1939 British White Paper that before the war had imposed such severe restrictions on Jewish migration to Palestine.

Chaim Weizmann had written a letter to the British High Commissioner to Palestine suffused with despair. Not gradualism for the over half million Jews in Palestine, but revolution as Chaim Arlosoroff had adumbrated a decade earlier. The new mantra – by our hands alone – grew. No help could be expected from Britain or the wider western world. Or, at least, no help unlinked to self-interest. In 1941, David Ben-Gurion formulated plans for the rapid immigration of millions of Jews from Europe to Palestine at the end of the war.

Chaim Weizmann in London in a 1942 article, “Palestine’s Role in the Solution to the Jewish Problem,” argued that Jewish migration to Palestine would once and for all solve both Europe’s problem with antisemitism and the need of Palestine for a far larger and more robust Jewish population. The Biltmore Program of May 1942 reflected this shift in perspective, this shift from patience to urgency. Only a few months later, however, the dimensions of that urgency would become much clearer. Nevertheless, even in the Biltmore Program, a central emphasis was placed on control of immigration and an outright rejection of the 1939 British White Paper. The creation of a Jewish commonwealth was urgent. The days of Zionist pussyfooting had ended even before the Holocaust was massively underway. There was no mention of an imminent program of Jewish extermination, only of Nazi persecution.

Chaim Weizmann stood out in expecting about 25% of European Jewry to “die” during the war, but preparations had to be made to ensure the remaining four or so million could get to Palestine as rapidly as possible when the war ended. Among the top Zionist leadership, however, to the best of my knowledge, only Nahum Goldmann contemplated the almost total destruction of European Jewry. While Weizmann’s focus was on shifting allies towards support for large Jewish immigration to Palestine, David Ben-Gurion worked at preparing the ground for their reception in Palestine.

Then the plan for extermination dawned upon and spread throughout the world spawning rage, desperation and largely surrender of any reliance on the goyim to help save Jews – with marked exceptions noted. But they were seen as exceptions. The bystanders did that, just stood by as they would in 1994 in the Rwandan genocide. The Jewish diaspora and the Jewish community in Palestine both came to realize how limited their options and range of actions were.

A feeling of relative helplessness hung over the Jewish community. The desperation projected itself as anger at, rather than trust in, the international community. Determination to do what could be done both to bring the European Jews home to Palestine, however many remained, and to prepare for war and independence after the end of WWII, now propelled the Zionist effort. The leaders no longer wore rose-coloured glasses of any tint. Debates went on over realistic steps, not over goals and means.

Those debates went deep. There was a purported deal with Adolf Eichmann to allow one million Hungarian Jews to leave for Palestine in exchange for trucks and other commodities needed in the German war effort. Lord Moyne, the British Minister Resident in the Middle East, evidently responded to that proposed deal: “What can I do with a million Jews?” At the same time, while there was a debate over whether the offer was genuine and despair over the British response, the Zionist leadership tore itself apart over the issue while the Stern Gang simply went on to assassinate Lord Moyne. In that sense, even debates over practicality tore into the Zionist leadership and weakened and even prevented a united front.

Given the huge loss of life in the Holocaust, the Zionist lobby after the war was more or less largely united on one issue – the best they could now realize was partition. They lacked the numbers to occupy all of Palestine and the strength to combat both Britain and the Arabs. The Holocaust had made it impossible to create a Jewish majority in Palestine. Accepting partition became a necessity even if the Zionist Right refused to surrender it as a goal. Nevertheless, the past brave rhetorical posture remained the prevailing stand.

At the first postwar Zionist Congress in Basel almost two years after the war had ended, partition was still officially rejected as the Zionist program and the delegates bravely, but knowingly unrealistically, still insisted on a Jewish state throughout Palestine even though in their hearts they had largely come to believe that such an objective was impossible. Some supported the goal as a transactional exercise, others as nostalgia and still others as a stubborn resistance to reality.

And the Holocaust not yet widely known by that name? It did not offer a moral platform for any of the Zionist factions. The issue was practical – getting the survivors in the camps that Western countries would not take to Palestine. A survey in 1946 indicated that only a minority, perhaps a significant minority, (25-30%) wanted to move to Palestine. By 1947, with the propaganda efforts of the Zionist leadership, with not a little manipulation of the voting and, even more, efforts to ensure that it was Zionist leaders from the camps who met visiting delegations, the Zionist leadership had transformed support for migration to Palestine in the refugee camps from a minority to an overwhelmingly majority position.

In 1946, Palestine had not been the reservoir of hope for most Jews in the camps in Europe. Earl G. Harrison had written a famous report on Jewish refugees in Europe. Then he told Harry Truman that the belief that “Palestine was the sincere choice of the mass of Jewish survivors” was unsubstantiated. The anti-Zionist Socialist bloc called for return to Poland. Joseph J. Schwartz, a committed Zionist, had accompanied Harrison, but even he was unable to convince him that most Jews in the camps wanted to go to Palestine. However, between 1946 and 1947, the increasing oppression in Europe, the renewal of pogroms in Poland, the resistance of Western states to resettle the Jews, meant that Palestine had become the only viable hope for the vast majority of Jews in the camps.

The strategy was simple. There was no emphasis on the Holocaust. There was no emphasis on guilt. There was only the stress on the fact that Western countries did not want the detritus of WWII and that the only option was migration to Palestine. This was the line Shertok and others took before the Anglo-American Commission of Inquiry in 1946 and was voiced even more strongly in representations to UNSCOP in 1947.

Abraham J. Edelheit in a journal article, “The Holocaust and the Rise of Israel: A Reassessment Reassessed” (Jewish Political Studies Review 12:1-2, Spring 2000) argued that the Holocaust and the creation of Israel were not just historical coincidences, the first exemplifying Jewish powerlessness and the second the appropriation by Jews of the tools of power, but that the first acted as “a catalyst that speeded up the national building project” and significantly altered the scale and timetable of Zionist activities so that independence was attainable in a matter of years rather than in decades.” European Jewry turned to mass aliya, an emphasis on Zionist priorities and the transformation of Zionism from one among many options for Jews to the central organizing principle in all surviving communities.

My argument as been that the Holocaust limited the scope of the Zionist project, that the problem of the remnant of Jewish refugees was the catalyst that sped up the quest for independence, not the Holocaust, and that the focus on aliya for the remaining remnant of European Jewry was a product of rejection by the West, not guilt, and of the skills of political and practical organizing of the Zionist leadership who desperately needed more fellow Jews from what they viewed now as a very limited reservoir if they were going to confront both the Arabs and Britain in war.

Nahum Goldmann began his 6.5-hour oration in Montreux, Switzerland in June 1948 on precisely the issue of the Nazi attempt to exterminate European Jewry and the emergence of the State of Israel. Was there a causal relationship between destruction (harban) and birth (tekuma)? Was the Holocaust a necessary cause and the key catalyst without which there would not have been an Israel?

In answering this question, it is clear that I have restricted the reference of the Holocaust to the actual extermination of European Jewry from 1942-45 and not the whole period of Nazi persecution beginning in 1933. The period between 1933 to 1939 did increase the rate of aliya, particularly up until 1935, did shift Zionist goals from gradualism based on British cooperation to self- determination based mostly on Jewish self-help and a more urgent outcome, and was critical in ensuring that Zionism became a central agenda item for Jewish communities around the world. However, these efforts and outcomes were not based on an appeal to the Holocaust or use of the Holocaust as a guilt trip on the rest of the world. They were based on the existence of the DPs in the refugee camps.

But were the DPs not the result of the Holocaust? Yes, but the critical factor was not the program of extermination that turned them into DPs but the impossibility of their return to their homelands from which they fled or the possibilities of their resettlement in the West. The blockage on solutions was far more important than the causes which led to their becoming refugees.  Further, if not for the Holocaust, one might have expected 15% of European Jewry to relocate to Palestine in the period from 1935-45, or almost a million Jews, not the 250,000 Jews left in camps by 1947.

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Holocaust and the Creation of the State of Israel Part II: Adamant Opposition

The Arab Higher Committee (AHC) was the leading political body opposed to the creation of Israel. Did the AHC, like Abbas, oppose the creation of Israel because Israel was viewed as an outpost of Western imperialism? Did the AHC regard the Holocaust as a product of Jewish perfidy? Finally, did the AHC believe that the West in general, and European countries in particular, were driven by guilt over the Holocaust and, therefore, supported the creation of Israel? The answer to all three questions is, “No!”

The AHC was formed on 25 April 1936 in Palestine to lead a general strike against Britain to oppose any Jewish immigration to Palestine and any sale of land to Jews. The AHC was chaired by Supreme Muslim Council President HajQassemj Amin al-Husayni who had allegedly been a leader of the 1920 Nebi Musa riots against both British rule and Zionism. It was not clear what precise role Husayni played in the 1920 riots. The result of the four days of rioting – 5 Jews and 4 Arabs dead, 211 Jews wounded versus 33 Arabs wounded. Later that year, Husayni was pardoned by Britain for his conviction of leading the revolt and allowed to return to Jerusalem in 1920 where he succeeded his brother as head of the Supreme Muslim Council in 1922.

The evidence for his role in the 1929 riots when 133 Jews and 116 Arabs were left dead and 339 Jews and 232 Arabs had been wounded was also mixed, for he continued to lead the British to believe that he was “devoted to maintaining tranquility in Jerusalem,” a pledge that had facilitated his appointment as Mufti in 1922. However, by 1929 he had become the de facto political leader of the Arab Muslims in Palestine. At the time he was evidently still open to Jewish proportional representation (17%) in an independent Palestine. But he remained adamantly opposed to immigration and land purchases by Jews.

The AHC was not an unrepresentative body since it included the heads of all six Arab Muslim political parties (Palestine Arab, National Defense, Istiqlal – the much more radical Independence Party, Reform, the National Bloc and the Youth Congress) as well as two token Christian Arabs. Further, between 1921 and 1935, Husayni remained allied with British politicians, diplomats and defence officials who opposed the implementation of the Balfour Declaration as inimical to British interests or who simply felt that Husayni would be useful to the British military in return for maintaining peace among the Arabs of Palestine. Some, erroneously, and in spite of his rhetoric, convinced themselves that eventually Husayni would reconcile himself to the use of Palestine as a Jewish homeland.

Izz ad-Din al-Qassam (after whom the radical Al-Qassam brigades are named) had been a more militant leader than Husayni in the 1920s. In 1935, however, in a shoot-out with the British, he was killed and was subsequently revered as a martyr of the Palestinian cause ever since. The wave of grief and rage set off by his death throughout Palestine had a profound effect on Husayni, who soon thereafter became convinced that he had to lead the revolt and not serve as an emissary between the Palestinians and the British.

The AHC only gave up the general strike in 1936 just over six months later because of pressure from the Arab population in Palestine who turned out to be the major victims of that strike. 187 Muslim civilians, as well as 80 Jews and 10 Christians, had been killed. Husayni had opposed religious partition in Jerusalem and would not even accede to Jewish access to the Western Wall. But the main driver of his opposition was not religion, but immigration of Jews to Palestine. By 1935 the percentage of the Jewish population in Palestine had risen to 30%. Jewish immigration increased as follows:

Year Number
1931 4,075
1932 9,553
1933 30,327
1934 42,359
1935 61,854

The AHC was seen as presenting the main Palestinian position when it appeared before the Peel Commission in 1937 and when it rejected the Commission’s support of limited Jewish immigration and partition. The AHC wanted zero Jewish immigration. Further, the AHC believed that the Jews in Palestine should have no future role in governance in a post-colonial Palestinian world, though it then insisted that Jewish civil rights would be protected. Given that the AHC was not only opposed to British policy, but was a subversive organization that was responsible for killing a British official, the District Commissioner for the Galilee, the leadership was banned and sent into exile or, like Husayni, who had assumed active leadership of the militant rebellion, fled abroad.

According to Philip Matar (“The Mufti of Jerusalem and the Politics of Palestine,” Middle East Journal, 42:2, 1988), “Husayni’s career went through two distinct phases: the Palestine phase, between 1917 and 1936, when he was a cautious, pragmatic, traditional leader who cooperated with British officials while opposing Zionism; and the exile phase, after 1936, characterized by bitterness, inflexibility, and political alliances of dubious value or wisdom.”

The AHC had not argued that the Jews were an outpost of British imperialism for the Jews were also opposed to continuing British rule. The AHC was adamantly opposed to Jewish immigration, any Jewish immigration, and to any land sales to Jews. Further, the British indulged the AHC even though the latter had led the revolt between 1936-1939 that could be considered the first al-Nahba (catastrophe) for the Palestinians. 3,074 Palestinians had been killed. 112 were hung. 6,000 were put in prison. Nevertheless, the British allowed AHC representatives in exile to participate in the London Conference in 1939, a conference held largely to try to prevent Arab opposition to Britain in the anticipated war with Germany. Only 75,000 Jews would be allowed to migrate to Palestine over the next five years. Land sales to Jews would be limited. There would be a move to self-rule over 10 years. Palestinians would then dominate since they constituted two-thirds of the population. Nevertheless, the AHC rejected the White Paper that was produced. It was one of many no’s over the period of conflict in Palestine.

In the report of the Permanent Mandate Commission to the Council of the League, the Commission unanimously stated that, “the policy set out in the White Paper was not in accordance with the interpretation which, in agreement with the Mandatory Power and the Council, the Commission had placed upon the Palestine Mandate.” However, with the outbreak of the war, the League of Nations effectively became defunct and Britain and its Arab quasi-allies were totally free to severely restrict Jewish entry into Palestine.

The AHC’s view of the Jews as perfidious arose only when Husayni made common cause with the Nazis during WWII because, unlike Britain, Germany had not colonized Palestine. Husayni sought and won German support for Arab independence and convinced the Germans not to export Jews from Europe to Palestine. Bibi Netanyahu, in October 2015, suggested that the whole idea of the Nazi extermination of the Jews was originally a Husayni idea pressed upon the Nazis and that it was al-Husayni who inspired Hitler to embark on a program of genocide to prevent them from coming to Palestine. A colleague of Eichmann, Dieter Wisliceny, had claimed that the Grand Mufti “played a role in the decision of the German Government to exterminate the European Jews.” But there is no evidence to back up even Wisliceny’s much more modest claim. Netanyahu, however, was correct that Husayni was not just an Arab nationalist but had become by then an out-and-out antisemite. Nevertheless, Husayni was not even Hitler’s henchman as the American Jewish Congress declared when it worked to drum up support for a Jewish state in mandatory Palestine.

Historical evidence does support the thesis that Husayni was fully aware of the Nazi Jewish extermination project by the summer of 1943. After the war, he never denied the Holocaust. His main objective was to ensure that Germany did not use Palestine as a dumping ground for its unwanted Jews. He soon adopted the Nazi example and openly declared that Muslims follow the German policy of providing a “definitive solution to the Jewish problem.” That definitive solution was ethnic cleansing, not genocide. In November 1943, the Mufti declared that, “It is the duty of Muhammadans [Muslims] in general and Arabs in particular to … drive all Jews from Arab and Muhammadan countries.”

For Husayni, the Jews represented a scourge and danger for the whole world. Nevertheless, in spite of all the evidence of Husayni’s antisemitism and his support for a “final solution,” there is no evidence that he was actively involved in any way in Jewish extermination. His main efforts concentrated on preventing countries from sending their unwanted Jews to Palestine, including opposing the Kinder Transport of 4,000 Jewish children or the Hungarian Jews to Palestine.

In sum, though not directly responsible for any Jewish extermination, he was indirectly complicit in opposing Jewish immigration for any reason. He did participate not only in Palestinian propaganda efforts against the British and even subversive actions behind British lines. However, it has to be said that Britain had been far more successful in recruiting Arabs from Palestine for its cause than the miniscule force that the Mufti raised. Further, in addition to Husayni’s antisemitism and absolutist opposition to Jewish immigration, he was convinced that the Jewish settlements in Palestine represented, not an outpost of British imperialism, but an advance guard of Bolshevism which he contended to be as inimical to Islam as the Jews. Jews were not outposts of imperialism, but the manipulators behind the Bolshevik revolution.

However, the main story of our concern takes place after the end of WWII. Husayni was never put on trial as a Nazi collaborator or propagandist; the French refused to comply with British requests for his extradition. Though he was arrested and placed under house arrest at Konstanz by the French occupying troops in May 1945 and subsequently transferred to Paris, the French gave him special status with the intention of using him for their traditional rivalry with the British in the Middle East and advancing their own policies in Syria and North Africa. Husayni had a car and enjoyed limited freedom of movement and unfettered freedom of association. The French also refused to extradite him to Yugoslavia for his part in the massacre of Serbs or to Greece for his alleged involvement in massacres there.

Even the Jewish leadership, which had decided to assassinate him, drew back under instructions from Moshe Sharett and David ben Gurion because they had decided that he was now relatively impotent and they did not want to raise his profile to martyr status. In the interim, Husayni was hustled abroad by France for sanctuary in Cairo. At the height of the UNSCOP hearings and investigation in August 1947, which the AHC boycotted, Husayni wrote French foreign minister George Bidault to thank France for its help and to offer cooperation, or, at the very least neutrality, in North African Arab opposition to the French in return for opposing the efforts of the Zionists in Palestine.

In short, Husayni was himself in the palms of French imperial interests, as he much earlier had been partners with the British. He supported the Holocaust and never let up on his absolute opposition to Jewish immigration to Palestine, let alone supporting any degree of self-government for Jews there. Although he organized the boycott of UNSCOP, he was no longer the sole or leading voice. The Arab League tried to sideline him after first failing in an effort to collaborate with him. But Husayni turned the tables on them and ended up taking full control of the Arab Palestine opposition to UNSCOP.

However, the Arabs were united in fighting to make the objectives of the International Refugee Organization (IRO) repatriation and not resettlement of the Jewish refugees. To some degree they were successful. The Jewish refugees were classified as D.P.’s whom the IRO was mandated “to encourage and assist in every possible way…the early return to their countries of origin.” The Arab League, led by Egypt, tried to make repatriation the goal for both refugees and D.P.s.  Though supported by the U.K., they failed. But they also failed with the D.P.s who refused to cooperate and would not return. Further, Dr. Malik of Lebanon attempted to place restrictions on where refugees could be resettled and to put in place a restriction that they could not be placed where the refugees “will create political difficulties in the countries of resettlement or in neighbouring countries.” Consent would be required of those countries. These efforts were defeated. However, a compromise condition was put in place. The IRO, in considering resettlement, had to take into account “evidence of genuine apprehension and concern…by the indigenous (my italics) population of the non-self-governing country in question.” However, in law, Palestine as a Class “A” Mandate was not defined as a non-self-governing territory.

On the other hand, during UNSCOP, Frida Kerchwey prepared a 9-page pamphlet for UNSCOP, entitled The Arab Higher Committee, Its Origins, Personnel and Purposes that was acknowledged as influencing the thinking of at least some members of UNSCOP. However, it was not guilt over the Holocaust that motivated a negative response to Husayni from members of the committee, but the latter’s treachery during and after the Holocaust. This was in spite of Husayni’s continued popularity among the Arab masses, both in Palestine and across the Arab world. But those masses did not rally around him, let alone serve under him in any significant numbers in his militant opposition to partition of Palestine. 

Husayni certainly felt no guilt over the Holocaust. But neither did he believe that Europeans supported the Jews, to the extent that they did, because of the Holocaust. Further, as tensions heightened after the UNGA resolution supporting partition in November 1947, Hussayni was systematically sidelined by the Arab states each of which had their own imperial ambitions with respect to Palestine.

Four days after the Arab League’s 9 February 1948 meeting, when it began its plans for the invasion of Palestine, it rejected Husayni’s requests for enlarging the sphere for Palestinian self-determination in areas occupied by Arab countries let alone creation of a Palestinian Provisional Government. The Arab League rejected his desire to have a representative on the General Staff coordinating the planned war and his requests for interim funding. In reprisal, the Mufti issued arms only to his own solid supporters, a major cause of the military weakness of the Palestinian Arab population.

Other Arab leaders, specifically King Abdullah I of Transjordan, engaged in secret coordination with the Jewish Agency to partition Palestine between the Zionists and Transjordan. Abdullah met with half of the UNSCOP members in Amman and he indicated that Arab countries would be reluctant to support partition, but if partition was recommended, UNSCOP should award control over the West Bank to Transjordan. Egypt countered Abdullah’s moves by trying to set up an All-Palestine government under Cairo’s auspices, with Hussayni as its nominal but powerless head, an effort that quickly proved unsuccessful in spite of support from a number of Arab governments.

Husayni’s now totally radical and extremist antisemitism did not help the Arab cause in spite of his wide mass appeal. None of these different factions suggested that the Europeans or the US supported partition because of guilt over the Holocaust. 

On the other hand, some Zionist claims of Husayni’s active involvement in the Holocaust seem to have been clearly false and were “invented” to support Jews and Israel asking for reparations, an effort which in part led to the development of the alleged belief that guilt over the extermination of Jews was responsible for European support.

The Holocaust and the Creation of the State of Israel (Adapted from an address I gave on Yom ha-Shoah)

Part I: Introduction

At sundown on 1 May 2019, Jews joined together to begin the observance of Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom ha-Shoah) when we pay our respects to both the victims and the heroes of the Holocaust. The day offers a time to reflect, to recognize the actions we do and must take to prevent a repetition. I suggest, it also offers an opportunity to correct myths about the Holocaust and the way in which that tragic event influenced history. One of the most important myths is that the international community supported the creation of Israel because of the guilt and shame felt about the Holocaust.

Let us pause a minute – a few minutes. On May 2, I opened my Israeli paper to a picture of cars pulled over to the side of a very busy highway in, I believe, Tel Aviv, with many drivers having stepped out of their cars to stand at attention for a moment as the siren went off to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is to Israel just before it came into being that I want to travel with this series of four blogs.

If Israel at its creation was a darling of the non-Islamic international community because it was viewed as a product of a phoenix arising out of the ashes of the Holocaust, how did the country go from being such a matter of care and concern in 1947 to being described in such outcast terms as an apartheid state guilty of ethnic cleansing and even genocide in just over seventy years? The charge of genocide is particularly heinous since the term was first coined to depict the effort at mass extermination of the Jews by the Nazis and their sympathizers.  

I am not going to answer that question. I am going to let it linger as a ghost in the background. Instead, I want to deconstruct the premise that Israel was ever a darling of the international community, an international community that supported the creation of Israel because of its guilt. That guilt purportedly made Israel a beneficiary of the blessings of the international community.

There is another negative narrative of Israel created by the Islamic and the Third World. Israel has always been the last gasp of an outdated and delegitimated colonial order. In January 2018, Abbas insisted that, “Israel is a colonial project with no relationship to Judaism.” The issue was not the two-millennial long desire, expressed in prayers and rituals, of Jews as Jews to return to Israel and re-establish their own polity there. Was Israel planted in the Middle East as an extension of colonialism rather than a by-product of guilt over the Holocaust? Or could both accounts be complementary and equally invalid?

A few months after Abbas made that statement depicting Israel as a colonial project, he attributed the Holocaust to Jewish behaviour, not to antisemitism. Jews were responsible for their own self-destruction and did not deserve the sympathy of the world and its support for Israel. The Jewish issue and hatred towards the Jews spread across Europe, “not because of their religion, [but] …because of usury and banks.”

Abbas had a third thesis. In addition to Israel being a colonial project, in addition to Jews bringing down the Holocaust on their own heads because of their financial dealings, Europe in hating the Jews for the latter situation, while behaving as bleeding hearts towards Israel for the Holocaust (which was actually a direct product of Jewish behaviour), married unwarranted guilt with dislike of the Jews to get rid of them by settling Jews as a colony in Palestine. The Jews were the criminals and Europeans were their abettors.

There is a third narrative – one of the most predominant Jewish ones. The Jewish people trace their roots to the land that was then called Canaan via their Jewish patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The central focus, Jerusalem, has been in the hearts and minds of Jews throughout the history of the Jewish nation. Psalm 137 reads, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.” Jews physically face Jerusalem in prayer. Jews have always maintained their ties to the Promised Land. They are the only people that declared the land to be their homeland. Even after the expulsion in 70AD, Jews have continually lived in the land named Palestine by the Romans. During that whole period, no other nation exercised self-determination in that land.

When modern Zionism at the end of the nineteenth century instigated a systematic program of return to what Jews and most others considered a very unpopulated land, much of it a wasteland, the return was not to displace anyone. However, when that return was resisted, culminating in the pogrom of 1929, Jews began the process of distancing themselves from co-existence and insisting on a Jewish self-governing homeland. Unfortunately, the perfidy of the British married to the resistance of the local Arabs were compounded by the Holocaust which cut drastically into the number of Jews alive who could move to Israel. Nevertheless, Israel was created, not because of the Holocaust, but in spite of the Holocaust.

In this series of blogs, I want to explore the conditions under which Israel was actually created, from the side of the non-Islamic and Third World, from the side of the Zionist world and in terms of the support received from what was called the First World. What were the influences behind those who supported the creation of Israel in 1947 and 1948 and those who opposed the creation of Israel as an independent state in 1947-8? Most particularly, what role did the Holocaust play in either of the narratives, including the narrative that Jews told themselves and expressed to the rest of the world at that time?

This is an enormous topic covering archives and writings from around the world over about three decades at least. I will concentrate on only one small but very critical forum, the United Nations Special Committee of Palestine, UNSCOP, that was set up on 15 May 1947, precisely one year before Israel came into being with its Declaration of Independence. The United Kingdom asked the General Assembly of the UN to “make recommendations under article 10 of the Charter, concerning the future government of Palestine based on a report to be prepared by a special committee.” The UNGA adopted the recommendation to set up UNSCOP to investigate the cause of the conflict in Palestine, and, if possible, devise a solution.

It is often written that UNSCOP was made up of representatives of 11 nations, but, in fact, the delegates and their alternatives on the committee were specifically charged with not representing the nation from which each came. The nations selected were based on a “fair” representation of the less than sixty members of the UN at the time. The individuals named to the committee were purportedly chosen because of their backgrounds, integrity, the independence of their thinking, their achievements and, most important of all, their dispassionate approach to the problem. Delegates from the major powers were specifically excluded from membership on the committee, more specifically the five permanent members of the Security Council. Membership was supposedly restricted to “neutral” countries.

The eleven countries from which the members of the committee were chosen were, in alphabetic order: Australia, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Guatemala, India, Iran, Netherlands, Peru, Sweden, Uruguay and Yugoslavia.  The List of Members and alternates follow. Some countries also sent back up alternates as well, but I have not included them in my list.

Country Member Alternate
Australia John Hood S.L. Atyeo
Canada Justice Ivan Rand Leon Mayrand
Karel Lisicky Richard Pech
Guatemala Dr. Jorge García Granados Lic. Emilio Zea González
India Sir Abdur Rahman Venkata Viswanathan
Iran Nasrollah Entezam Dr. Ali Ardalan
Netherlands Dr. N. S. Blom I. Spits
Peru Dr. Alberto Ulloa Dr. Arturo García Salazar
Sweden Justice Emile Sandström Dr. Paul Mohn
Uruguay Professor Enrique
Rodríguez Fabregat
Professor Óscar Secco Ellauri
Yugoslavia Vladimir Simic Dr. Jože Brilej

In the next three blogs, I will review each of the three narratives. In the third of these, I will try to get a glimpse into the various perspectives of the “neutral” international community by exploring the original dispositions of each of the members when they joined the committee, how each shifted views over the course of the proceedings and why each of the members voted the way they did in the end so that the committee ended recommending partition of Palestine by a vote of 7-3 with one abstention.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Part IV: Reconsidering the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process: Yossi Klein Halevi Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor – A Critical Analysis

Has Yossi Klein Halevi contributed in any way to advancing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process? Certainly, his appeal is heartfelt. It seems clear that he genuinely wants to hear the narrative or narratives as understood and perceived by the Palestinians. It is also true that the peace process is widely considered to be at a dead end by both sides and there is very little optimism that Jared Kushner’s efforts or proposal will make any difference. Thus, although innovation may not have entirely evaporated, there is a widespread conviction that such efforts are futile.

However, is Halevi correct in assuming that the main failure is a failure to listen? I have no difficulty in hearing and even listening to the narrative of Abbas that Jews lack any legitimacy to claim a polity in the Middle East. But I have enormous difficulty in accepting the narrative as legitimate. For even if one assumes that Arabs are and have been the primary and majority residents of Palestine for centuries, this is not factually true of cities like Jerusalem and Safed. Further, at the time in which the independence of Israel was declared in part of Palestine, cities like Tel Aviv were almost all Jewish.  Until the 11th century, the majority of the residents of Palestine were Christians. In 1947, there were just over 600,000 Jews living in Palestine and twice that number of Arabs, almost 90% of them Muslim. Jews made up approximately one-third of the population of Palestine. Does one-third of the population lack any legitimacy?

This is not a problem of numbers. This is not a problem of listening. This is a problem concerning what gives legitimacy to a group to determine their own political affairs. Facts do not seem to be central, however relevant. But neither does theory. For even if a distinction is made between indigenous residents and newcomers, disputes immediately arise over both the meaning of indigenous and its application to the matter-at-hand. There are other relevant side issues. Even if it is granted that the major responsibility for the increase in the Palestinian population was due to natural increase, an estimated 25% has been attributed to “illegal” immigration. This is not a matter of different narratives but of different objective sources of counting.

The pattern of population growth is a matter of dispute only on the edges. The core issue was that if the British Mandate had not been granted in 1917 and if the population determined to create their own polity, in 1920 Palestine would have become an Arab state. This, again, is not a matter of perspective but of objective fact. Clearly, a conflict over demography was at work in 1917 and in 1947 and the proportion of Jews increased primarily as a result of immigration. It does not take two narratives to tell that story. What is different is the legitimacy of self-determination to be granted to each group. Everyone knows the differences in views. So why is it a problem of listening?

Yossi claims that the main governing emotion driving the Jews has been fear. The main governing emotion driving the Palestinians has been humiliation. These are both tales of subjective states for which it is much harder to correlate substantive support than for numbers. Yet there is some objective evidence. For example, there is a general consensus that the current Trump administration in the U.S. has had a program of successive steps that each in turn took away power from the Palestinians while granting them nothing in return. These included recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel (December 2017), freezing all assistance to UNRWA (January 2018), moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem in May 2018, closing the PLO office in Washington and re-designating the land in the West Bank from “occupied” to “Israeli-controlled.”

When you take steps to reveal the impotence of the other, the other is humiliated. This happens, as above, on a grand scale. It happens daily on an individual scale to Palestinians at various different Israeli checkpoints. This does not require a contrary narrative to point out. Some assertions, however, do. When David Friedman, the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, calls out the Palestinian leadership for harbouring, for protecting and for honouring terrorists, there is both a difference whether what takes place is being mis-described and there is a difference over whether such claims humiliate Palestinians.

However, there is no dispute that the social-psychological traumatic effects of conflict are critical in understanding the resort to violence. There is, however, a debate on how much this bears on the possibility of making peace which, in modern international relations theory, is usually reduced to competing interests and excludes social psychology. How does humiliation, how does resentment, affect the possibilities of peace? Is this dimension central, complementary or really marginal? Yossi Klein Halevi asserts that the social-psychological dimension is not only important, but more important than ethnic, economic and political variables.

I happen to agree with Halevi that peace efforts underplay the role of the passions versus the interests, underplay the role of prestige, honour and morale. How much weight to give to each dimension may be disputable, but I believe current peace-makers generally want to make room for both though there is a dispute over the degree each effects the conflict. But what has this to do with different narratives? I argue that understanding both with greater precision is what counts in an effort to provide a common narrative rather than making claims that merely listening to another viewpoint is key.

I will provide a detailed example on the role of humiliation, in this case of the Jews, namely the Holocaust, and its affects on the conflict with the Palestinians, more specifically, the role of the Holocaust in creating Israel. That series of blogs will suggest that the Jews created Israel by setting aside, by bracketing that humiliation, though it certainly played a role in the calculations of each side. As long as the Germans nursed a sense of false victimhood after WWI, they wanted to fight the war over. When they acknowledged that an even more drastic humiliation after WWII was their fault – at least in good part (not the uprooting of twelve million Germans), a radical shift became possible. The same can be said of the Japanese.

This suggests that the problem is not narrating a tale of humiliation that is critical, but acknowledging one’s own responsibility for one’s part in that humiliation. This does not mean that the current overt actions by both the Netanyahu and the Trump governments to humiliate the Palestinians offer a new path to peace. Perhaps an argument can be made that these do. but as far as I am concerned any argument would have to be very convincing. On the other hand, relaying and listening to a past tale of a series of humiliations offers no evidence, and Halevi offers none, that such an approach may lead to a breakthrough.

All of this is quite aside from whether Halevi’s letters themselves make a minor addition to that humiliation by his offering an initial version of a Palestinian narrative. I suspect not, but I am unsure. On the other hand, I am convinced that an ability to empathetically re-enact the experiences and rationale of another side that agrees to engage in dialogue is very helpful. However, I consider the objectivity of a narrative and testing that objectivity to be crucial.

In an earlier blog I mentioned that Halevi’s account of the institutional basis for dealing with the refugees in Palestine was simply historically incorrect. Unconsciously, his version added to the misrepresentation of UNRWA that evolved from a humanitarian agency with a back agenda of resettlement into the ministry of education, health and welfare for the Palestinian refugees. It is a mantra of many Israelis and its supporters that the role of UNRWA has contributed to the continuation of the conflict. I argue that there is little objective evidence for such a claim, though it is a widely shared part of the Jewish-Israeli narrative. What counted was not how the refugees were educated and housed, but the dedication of the Palestinians NOT to resettle them while the Jews resettled the 37,000 Jewish Palestine refugees on their side. This is not a difference in narratives, merely objectivity.

Understanding the Palestinian perspective on their refugees would indicate, I believe, the impossibility of their openly surrendering a right to return in exchange for the return of some Jewish settlements. On the other hand, I am equally convinced whether Jewish Israelis from a great part of the political spectrum would be willing to engage in such an exchange. I believe they would not be. For most it would mean exchanging facts on the ground for a puff of irrelevant smoke.

Thus, a key problem of Halevi is that the narrative he does offer and the suggestions for pursuing peace both lack both substantive objectivity as well as subjective pull – on either side. In sum, I disagree with reviewers of Halevi’s book who found it to be a most insightful depiction of the conflict, that his perspective, however deeply heartfelt and sincere, would not add an iota to reviving the peace process, though it may encourage a degree of dialogue which in itself would offer a dollop of help. But, in my mind, it is not the best foundation for encouraging a future path of discourse.

Empathy does not heal traumas. It is a tool for understanding trauma. Healing, particularly self-healing, is a very different process. Put more pointedly, hope may help bring people to the peace table, but hope may blind one to the onerous compromises required to make peace. Finally, infusing the process with religion may add a positive dimension to the conflict, but if past history is any indication, religion has made the possibility of a deal or even dialogue more remote. This does not mean that there have not been exceptions. However, past history provides little ground for any confidence.

Halevi may also have inverted dependants. He suggests that compassion fosters peace. I suggest the reverse, that the increased bracketing of insecurity results in a greater openness to compassion. To that degree, compassion for the other can be an important ingredient for strengthening any peace initiative. But it is part of the process not its foundation.

In the next few blogs I will offer a different version of the Zionist narrative, but one focused on four months in 1947 and one institution, the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) rather than offering an overview of the conflict and the differences on each side. The account will provide no support that peace has little to do with drawing lines on a map, that peace has little to with reducing anxieties on each side and that peace, however, has almost everything to do with the initial recognition of one side to accept the principle of self-determination and the refusal by the other side to concede the same right, and, then the much later general reversal in positions.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Part IIIB: Reconsidering the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process – Yossi Klein Halevi Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor: Letters 6-10

Letter 6 took another turn – away from consideration of different dimensions of unity (letters 1-3), away from a potted narrative of the past one hundred years (letters 4 & 5), towards possibilities of peace at the present time. We are 50% through the letters but 57% through the book.

The formulation of moving towards reviving the peace process is simple. Not lines on the map. Instead, address each nation’s deepest anxieties, Recognize each nation’s right to survival, to exist. Note, survival, not complete self-determination.

Second, recognize that each nation has its own narrative and critical historical memories. Third, revive partition and accept that each nation regards partition as self-mutilation, as amputation. The corollary – reject a one state solution shared by two nations. Fourth, and perhaps most controversial, accept the legitimacy (not realism) of the other side’s maximalist ends and that partition entails partition of justice not just of land, and that both nations are partners in the mutual pain of partition.

Jews need a Jewish state defined by Jewish culture values and needs. But they do not need all of historic Palestine. However, unlike the Left, most Israeli Jews need to recognize the attachment and rights to the entire land, an attachment that the Left unilaterally abandoned almost from the start. But it was the Right that uprooted settlements – Begin in Sinai and Sharon in Gaza. Though the Right refused to surrender its attachments, it implemented land for peace nevertheless.

However, with respect to Judea and Samaria, the attachment is so strong, the numbers are so great, that settlement withdrawal should not be enforced even as settlements are left on the other side allowing Jews to become citizens of a Palestinian state. Nor need it depend on a final peace agreement which, of necessity, would include dealing with the “right of return.” The trade-off is that the Israelis contract settlements and the Palestinians contract the right of return, not to original homes, but to a Palestinian state. Most of the gains of 1967 will be surrendered for the surrender by Palestinians of the losses of 1948. But Abbas has been two-faced, accepting no right of return to original homes on the one hand while insisting that, “No one can give up the right of return.”

One problem is that Halevi is historically incorrect in terms of negotiations. As one example, in historical terms, Halevi believes that UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, was created by a convergence of interests among Islamic, the Communist and the Non-aligned blocks. This is historical nonsense. UNRWA was the standard model for taking care of refugees through humanitarian means rather than seeking a permanent solution of return, settlement or resettlement which emerged shortly thereafter. Korean refugees were treated with an equivalent Korean agency. And the prime initiator for Arabs from Palestine was the United States which envisioned using humanitarian and development tools to resettle the Palestinian refugees in Arab lands, primarily in Iraq using the equivalent device of a Tennessee Valley Authority to reclaim agricultural land while providing a source of electricity and water.

UNRWA is the only agency devoted to a single refugee issue because the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) with its universal and solutions approach was created after UNRWA and because humanitarian means were used to deal with other refugee crises before that time.     

On letter 7, Halevi tackles the third ostensible intractable problem, not just borders – which he has thus far side-stepped, not just refugees, but the disposition of the governance of the religious sites. In this focus, Halevi reverts to letter 1 and the underlying unity of Judaism and Islam, the shared ideal of hospitality, the shared proclamation of the oneness of God, a shared founding father, a shared antipathy to idolatry.

But on the ground, there are also shared religious sites, the Temple Mount and the Haram al Sharif, the Ibrahimi Mosque and the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron. It was a Jewish terrorist and extremist – Baruch Goldstein – who, in murdering 29 Muslims at prayer and wounding many more, destroyed the ease of sharing; a rigid separation followed. Similarly, Jews, while never relinquishing their rights, have been relegated to the Western Wall. Practical implementation need not be congruent with claimed rights.

In this, for Halevi, the Jews have set the model, have practiced restraint, which thus far the Palestinians have refused to do with respect to the Hebron religious site. But how can this be the case if sharing was the general practice before Goldstein? Does the Palestinian narrative not differ from the Jewish one in acceding to Jewish practices while denying Jewish rights? With respect to refugees, Jews deny a “right of return” but concede actual return in practice, nominally by a small proportion to Israel under family reunification, but practically to the truncated Palestinian homeland? Perhaps pragmatism and restraint have not been the exclusive prerogatives of the Jews?

Finally, Halevi shifts to another Jewish precept to support withdrawal and shared responsibility for religious sites – the norm that Jews are only sojourners on the land that, in the end, always remains God’s. Jews are only its custodians. With the addition of another Jewish moral precept – the prioritization of the holiness of life over all else – Jews have a solid ethical foundation for making concessions. The emphasis in Islam on surrender to God’s will, on humility before God, can be used as a parallel lattice work upon which to hang the battered peace.

There it is – three letters discoursing on unity, two letters discoursing on the Israeli narrative and two letters on the implication of shared and different religious precepts. But there are three letters remaining. Letter 8 is entitled, “The Israeli Paradox.” While calling for a different approach to peace, the chapter acknowledges a growth of rage and hatred on each side.

On the Palestinian side, recent news on 24 April reported on the effort of two Palestinian software development companies on Annual Hiring Day to recruit talent on Bir Zeit campus only to be driven off because working in software would necessarily entail working with Israeli companies and, hence, enhancing normalization with Israel. “We reject normalization and adopt the approach of resistance until the liberation of the entire Palestinian territory.” “Normalization is Treason.” And this in spite of the very high rate of unemployment among Palestinian youth. Once again, passions trumped interests for the extreme position of “resistance,” the rejection of the existence of Israel altogether and an insistence on continuing the armed struggle. Once again, extremism pushed aside moderation using intimidation and coercion.

In Israel, Halevi begins with tales of Jewish coexistence in entertainment and the IDF prosecution of an IDF soldier for killing an unarmed and disarmed Palestinian assailant in Hebron. Behind this outreach, Halevi claims, lies Israel’s age-old longing for normalization, for Israel to exist as a normal nation amongst the other nations of the world even while seeking to advance a prophetic vision. However, on the international stage, Israel is anything but normal. And on the domestic stage, Israel is a far cry from being exemplary.

Hence the paradox – externally abnormal and internally unexceptional. Even towards Jews with practices and laws that force non-Orthodox Jews to marry abroad. And then there is the gradual easing of transportation and the opening of restaurants on Shabat while commerce still remains highly restricted. On the one hand, there is a failure to reconcile Israelis secular and diverse religious character with a relief from restrictions and a failure to fully embrace Arab citizens as an integral part of the public space. Yet, in spite of the latter, the vast majority of Arab Israelis are surprisingly proud to be Israeli, though many refer to themselves as 1948 Palestinians.

However, the trends are ominous – the passage of the Jewish nation-state law and the inadequate programs for correcting the injustices towards Palestinian Israelis. Is it one step forward and two steps back or two steps forward and one step back?

Letter 9 begins with Holocaust Memorial Day that again took place last week. Halevi is correct when he earlier challenged the belief that Holocaust guilt in the West led to the establishment of Israel. Halevi said the claim was grossly inaccurate. Halevi was appalled that Barack Obama in his Cairo speech in 2009 to the Muslim world only justified the creation of Israel because of the Holocaust. In this letter, Halevi insists that Western guilt over the Holocaust as the major reason Israel exists is misleading – I go much further: Western guilt over the Holocaust had nothing to do with the creation of the State of Israel. I will argue in a subsequent paper from an address that I gave on Yom ha-Shoah that the claim is not simply exaggerated; it is invalid.

However, Halevi does demonstrate how the Holocaust lingers in the Israeli determination never to be victims again. Here he is a bit clearer, though still not clear enough, than in his earlier excursus into fate and destiny. “In turning from victims into survivors, they (Jews at a Holocaust Memorial ceremony in Israel) had extracted destiny from mere fate.” Jews not only survived, but emerged as victors. Further, “Israel’s legitimacy is based not on Jewish suffering but on Jewish faith and the attachment to the land.”

Nevertheless, there is a need both to free Israelis from the trauma of the Holocaust and avoid misusing Holocaust memory to ground diplomacy – as Begin did in his speech alongside Sadat in Jerusalem in 1978, or using it to justify the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, as Begin did in 1982. He claimed that the invasion was as an effort to preempt another Holocaust.

Further, there is a need to turn away from what others did to the Jews towards taking responsibility for what happened. Jews were responsible for their relative passivity, almost slave mentality, that they incorporated into their psyches in the diaspora in Europe. That slave mentality once again needs to be expelled. Jews must abhor victimhood as much as they celebrate agency and responsibility. That is the main reason for Israel’s enormous success. Judaism is a refusal to be beaten by history.

The reality, however, is that the continuing war against Israel’s existence reinforces those fears of a renewal of victimhood where the only crime of the Jews is their existence. That is why anti-Zionism constitutes the newest expression of antisemitism and is not just an intellectual posture. When the conflict becomes about existence, Israel and Jews can only resist with all their hearts and all their minds. The radical Palestinian triadic trope that the Holocaust never happened, that we are glad it did and that we plan to repeat the exercise, must be fought against by Jews with tooth and claw.

Halevi’s final letter, number 10, offers a paradox about Jewish Israeli religion and culture as exemplified by living in a sukkah for a week a year to remind Jews of the fragility and transience of where we live while, the same ritual in Israel, is a reaffirmation of the determination that Israel will never again be a place of transience and an historical sideshow. Further, the repetition of these ancient rituals is not only a reaffirmation of Jewish persistence over millennia, but a reaffirmation of the Jewish commitment to be a blessing to humanity, a light unto the nations.

Thus, the paradox of letter 8 of external abnormality and internal unexceptionalism. While Israel is retrograde in reconciling Israel’s diverse religious range and its strong secular character, it fails to deliver equality to its Arab citizens. That these Israeli Palestinians largely remain proud of being Israeli offers no excuse. Thus, the paradox depicted in letter 9 of the Holocaust as insignificant in the creation of Israel but extremely significant in the psyche of Jewish Israelis. Thus, the paradox of letter 10 about transience but persistence over millennia.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Next: A Critical Overview of Yossi Klein Halevi