ROOTS OF THE ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN CONFLICT
A Sermon by Sarah Oelberg on September 22, 2002
When I was on the faculty of Yeshiva University, it was difficult not to get drawn into Jewish life and rituals and holidays. And even politics and conflicts. Not long after I started there, in 1967, war erupted, with Israel fighting Syria, Egypt, and Jordan. The university was in a dither, and the powers-that-be discussed closing the university and requiring all faculty, staff, and students to go to Israel to help in the fight to save the promised land. I was one of only three gentiles on the faculty, and the only non-Jewish woman. We had just moved our family so I could take this job. So you can imagine how I reacted to this possibility! Luckily, that particular war only lasted six days, so it was over before we could get mobilized! I joined my colleagues in prayer that Israel had won, although I think I had a different reason for praying than they did!
Like most conflicts in the middle east, this war was perceived very differently by both sides. Israel saw it as a defensive war against three neighbors sworn to destroying the Jewish state. After occupying the Golan Heights, the Sinai, the Gaza strip and the West Bank, including east Jerusalem, Israel expected the Arabs to be willing to trade peace for land. In the case of Egypt and the Sinai, land was traded for peace. But the Palestinians have been unwilling to do that, and Israel has been stuck for decades with an unwanted role as occupier. The Palestinian view is that Israel struck the first blow in 1967, captured territory on three fronts, then told the world it was only defending itself. Israel has maintained the occupation for 35 years, built permanent settlements and roads all over the territory, and asks the world to believe that it wants to end the occupation. And that is the situation which has been the cause of so much conflict since the six-day war. It is a conflict between Israelis and Palestinians--many of whom are Christian--not a conflict between Jews and Muslims. This is not a fight over religious beliefs but over territory, water rights, justice, the right of return, security, and other such matters.
When a problem becomes so intractable, so complex and so difficult that it is hard to see how it can ever be resolved, we might ask if there was ever a time when it might have been prevented, or solved. If only we knew how to anticipate such problems, we tell ourselves, maybe we could avoid them in the future. This is true of terrorism as it is of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So let us ask how this seemingly unsolvable mess between the Palestinian people and the state of Israel ever got started?
Some go all the way back to the Hebrew Bible and blame it on Sarah, wife of Abraham. According to the story in Genesis 16, it was Sarah's idea, when she was still childless in her late 70s, for her husband Abraham to have a child by her Egyptian handmaid, Hagar. So he did, and named the son Ishmael. But, thirteen years later (she is now 90 years old) Sarah herself gave birth to a son who was named Isaac. This led to rivalry between the descendant's of Abraham's two sons. According to tradition, Isaac became the progenitor of the Jews and Ishmael of the northern Arabs. Both sons were circumcised at God's command, but Hagar and her son were exiled to the southern desert. Exile is a major theme in both Hebrew and Arabic stories, and the name Hagar is from the same root as the Arabic word Hegira, which was used to describe Muhammad's emigration from Mecca to Medina in 622, which is considered the starting point of Islam.
Others place the blame on Pope Urban II, who in 1095 instigated the first Crusade, which resulted in a band of German Crusaders massacring the Jewish communities of Speyer, Worms, and Mainz along the Rhine. This had not been the Pope's intention, but the Crusaders could see no point in marching thousands of miles to fight Muslims, about whom they knew nothing, when the people they believed had actually killed Christ were so handy. These were the first full-scale pogroms in Europe, and certainly the teachings of the Catholic church have been responsible for much of the pain the Jews have suffered over centuries.
The word "pogrom" means "devastation" in Russian, and there were many pogroms in 19th century Russia. Ariel Sharon reminded soldiers last April that their struggle had begun "120 years ago." This referred to the pogrom that followed the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881. The first aliyah ("going up to Israel") began the very next year with the arrival of fourteen European immigrants at Jaffa in Palestine. This was an insignificant number compared to the mainly Sephardic Jews already in Palestine and Syria (about 25,000), some of whose family roots had been there a long time. However, the first aliyah continued until 1903 and was followed by many more. What was happening in Europe greatly affected was and is now happening in Israel.
We might even place some blame on Charles Darwin, whose theory of natural selection was immediately picked up and twisted by "social Darwinists" to support the notion that Aryans were inherently superior to the Semitic peoples and to justify anti-Semitic campaigns throughout Europe. As a result of all this, those Jews who chose to emigrate to Palestine clearly saw it at the time as a better and safer place to be.
As far back as the 1860s a German Jew, Moses Hess, had advocated the formation of a Jewish "national home" in Palestine. At that time most Jews in western Europe did not take such an idea seriously, having become successfully integrated into European society. By the 1880s, however, both western and eastern European Jews were beginning to consider this idea.
The term Zionism was proposed for this concept in 1886 by Nathan Birnbaum. The real impetus for Zionism came from a Viennese journalist, Theodor Herzl, who was shocked by the anti-Semitism demonstrated in the rigged trial and conviction for treason of Alfred Dreyfus, in France in 1894. He brought the notion of Zionism to the attention of the world, and in 1897 the first Zionist Congress met to "create for the Jewish people a home in Palestine secured by public law" and to promote the settlement of Palestine by skilled and professional Jews.
From the beginning, there has been resistance to Zionism from the most orthodox elements in Judaism. They argued that Zionism is a secular movement and would harm the religious nature of Judaism; that the indigenous Jews and Arabs of Palestine have enjoyed a harmonious relationship that would be disrupted by the introduction of European Jews in large numbers; and, most importantly, that according to Jewish teaching, a Jewish state must not be established until the Messiah comes to head it. Most liberal and Conservative Jews embraced Zionism, however, and fundamentalist Christians support it strongly, because they believe that Jews must be living in Palestine for the second coming of Christ to occur.
The Yishuv, as the Jewish community in Palestine was called, began small and grew slowly in the years leading up to WW I. Immigration was funded mostly by a small number of wealthy European Jews, led by the French Baron Edmond de Rothschild. Initially, the land was owned by a few rich, mainly absentee landlords who lived in the cities, while poor peasant farmers, called fellahin in Arabic, lived on and worked the land. These fellahin were driven off the land so that Jewish immigrants could occupy it, but many of the later Jewish immigrants were from cities, and chose to live in urban areas and hire back the fellahin to work the land. Jewish landowners would permit the fellahin to live on and work the land and keep their income, and the number of Jewish settlers was too small to have any serious impact upon Arab agriculture. Also, many found the conditions inhospitable and left. For these reasons, the Arab peasants were relatively appeased.
By 1914 there were only about 40 Jewish settlements in Palestine, owning about 100,000 acres. The total population was about 722,000, of which only about 60,000, or 8 percent, were Jews. This was a net increase of only 35,000 in 114 years--not a big deal. By contrast, during the same period, the number of Jews in Europe increased from 2 million to 13 million. And, although almost 3 million Jews left Russia between 1880 and 1914, only about 30,000 went to Palestine. After WW I, however, a radical change took place.
One factor was that Britain had become the "protector" of Egypt after Egypt went bankrupt building the Suez canal, giving Britain considerable power in the area. The British depended on control of the Suez canal and the Persian gulf to maintain their presence in India and the far east. To do this, they offered independence to the Arabs if they would support the British war effort. In 1916 the Arab revolt began - a romanticized version of which is familiar from the film Lawrence of Arabia. British forces captured Jerusalem by December 1917, and Arabs under Faisal Hussain and Thomas Edward Lawrence moved to take Damascus. Thus the British had a commanding position over this region during the peace negotiations that followed.
In 1917, Lord Balfour, British foreign secretary, wrote to Lord Rothschild, head of the British Zionist
organization, a "declaration" of two essential parts:
1. "His majesty's Government views with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object."
2. "It shall be clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country."
Some felt these two contradicted each other, and indeed, misunderstandings became apparent as soon as the peace conference began. Moreover, the Arab population, fearful of Zionist expansion, were opposed. The final agreement established "mandates" to be governed by Britain and France--the French getting Lebanon and Syria, and the British what is now Palestine, Jordan, and Iraq.
Neither Jews nor Arabs were happy with this outcome. Zionists were incensed by a ruling that Jewish immigration would not be permitted in Jordan. This reaction led to the formation of a Jewish military group, which later became the terrorist organization Irgun and even later gave rise to Menachem Begin and the Likud party. Arabs likewise felt betrayed by the possibility of an eventual Jewish state within Palestine. With signs of violent resistance beginning to appear among both Jews and Arabs, the British government began to try to limit Jewish population growth by prohibiting Jewish immigration to Palestine with three "White Papers" in 1922, 1930 and 1939. Each was enforced for awhile, but abandoned when opposition became too strong. At the same time, Arabs from surrounding areas were also immigrating to Israel. Since they had no land or roots there, they added considerably to the refugee problem.
In spite of attempts to limit it, actual immigration of Jews to Palestine reflected conditions in Europe with the approach and reality of WW II. Between 1922 and 1936, the Jewish population of Palestine grew from 12% to 28%. This alarmed the Arabs, who were becoming increasingly impoverished and marginalized, and alienated from their own political elite, who profited from their plight and were unwilling to antagonize the British or to prevent the expulsion of Arab peasants from the land. The peasants expressed their discontent in outbreaks of violence. 1
Things really came to a head, however, after WW II, when, in order to appease and
relocate European Jews who had suffered from the Holocaust, the United Nations voted to partition Palestine
in 1947. The Jews accepted this; Arabs didn't. Civil war erupted. In 1948 the British forces left Israel,
and the Jews declared independence. This started war with the surrounding Arab armies. An armistice
was signed in 1949, which gave Israel about 50% more territory than did the U.N. plan. The war created
about 800,000 Palestinian refugees who fled or were evicted from Jewish-held areas. The Palestinians
felt the U.N. committed a grave injustice by giving the majority of the land to the Jewish minority,
and not consulting the residents, who favored a single, binational state. The Israelis, on the other
hand, felt that by accepting the partition, they demonstrated their willingness to share the land while
the Arabs, by rejecting it, showed their unwillingness to accept Israel's existence. The conflict ever
since has been about this dichotomy.
There have been other major wars in the region, and almost constant struggles and conflicts, including the six-day war I avoided, the Yom Kippur war a few years later, and most recently what is known as the second Intefadeh, which continues to this day with its violence, terrorism, suicide bombings, and retaliations. One wonders, will it, can it, ever end?
I think it is important to recognize that we do not get a full and fair report of all the issues that continue to drive this conflict. As I said before, in spite of how the media presents it, this is not a conflict between Jews and Muslims, but between Israelis and Palestinians. It is not about religion; it is about land, human rights, justice, access to scarce resources like water, and who has the right to land which was owned and lived on and cultivated for centuries by one people, only to be in the hands of others now. The passage from Deuteronomy says it well: "The Lord brought thee into a land which he promised to your fathers, to give thee cities which you did not build, wells you did not dig, vineyards and olive trees you did not plant." Who has the right to such land? Also, we should realize that the United States is the only country in the world whose politics is so strongly influenced by the Israeli (not Jewish) lobby, and we do not get a balanced view as a result. The UN has repeatedly condemned the now 35-year-old brutal, dehumanizing occupation of Palestine and the treatment of Palestinians, but the U.S. has routinely vetoed most of the otherwise unanimous Security Council votes on the issues.
Each side now sees the other as trying to exterminate their nationhood. We need to affirm the right of Israel to be safe, secure and respected, with normal relations with all nations, and the right of the Palestinians to a state, the removal of the settlements, and just settlement of their grievances. This is the minimum that must happen to even begin to resolve the conflict, but it probably will not, for Israel has elected a prime minister who cannot form a government without the support of the settlers invading Palestine. He speaks of only 2% of the West Bank being occupied by settlements, but neglects to mention the access roads and check points that have cut "Judea and Samaria" into controlled sectors under unrelenting Israeli military presence, and who refuses even to halt further settlement building.
The Palestinians, on the other hand, have saddled themselves with a leader who dare not pull in the suicide bombers because they are the only weapon that Palestine has that gives the Israelis pause. He would be blown up by his own people if he took that away and had nothing to replace it with, and as long as Ariel Sharon rules in Jerusalem, Yassar Arafat has nothing else to offer. The result is two paranoid people, two leaders strong enough to make war but too weak to make peace. Now Israel has again isolated Arafat in the one building left standing in his compound, evidently in the hope that he will be so miserable he will decide to leave. Evidently, Israel is determined to get rid of Arafat, and may well accomplish this goal soon. The question then, just as it is if Saddam Hussein is removed as leader in Iraq, is: "Who will take his place, and what are the consequences of this action?"
We must acknowledge the improbability of the two parties being able to settle this on their own. Strong U.S. leadership is required, not the timid suggestions we have seen. The early Bush policy of disengagement permitted the Sharon government to move toward war and the Palestinians to deepen their resistance with terrorism. Now the cycle of violence on both sides cannot be ended without outside force. This is not the time for the United States to be getting involved in another middle eastern conflict, which has the potential to make this one far worse. Right now, the conflict in Israel is far more important than making war on Iraq again. If the U.S. fails in its responsibility, we may breed a new generation of terrorists who will attack the U.S. because of their deeply felt sense of injustice.
Could it all have been prevented at some point? Possibly, but that point is long
gone. Now it will take strong steps by the U.S., the UN, and Israel's neighbors to bring any chance
of peace. All must affirm the integrity of Judaism and Islam as noble faiths, and uplift the desire
for peace within the hearts of most Jews, Muslims, and Christians. We need to discuss and spread the
1) peace without justice in unlikely,
2) there is no way to peace; peace is the way, and
3) hatred does not cease by hatred, but by love.
These are difficult ideas to put into practice, but nobody said that peace in Palestine would be easy.
1. Much of the information on the factors prior to WW I came from an article in The Humanist, July-August 2002, titled "Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict," by David Schafer.