As the firefight unfolded in the middle of Lydda, Ben Gurion and the IDF general staff were meeting at a nearby site. The commander of the campaign, Yigal Allon, asked Ben Gurion, “What should we do with the civilian population of Lydda and Ramleh?” Ben Gurion reportedly muttered, “Expel them.”
Benny Brunner – “AL NAKBA: The Palestinian Catastrophe, 1948”
With the recent announcement by the Netanyahu government that it intends to build 1,200 more settlement homes on disputed land in the West Bank – even in the face of proposed peace talks – it serves us well to look back at seminal events in the region’s history that might shed a light on the sort of exceptionalism and, frankly, hubris demonstrated by Netanyahu and previous Israeli administrations in promoting and subsidizing these settlements deemed illegal by most of the international community. The incident from Brunner’s documentary above provides a clue. It was just one moment in a systematic campaign by IDF forces to empty Palestinian towns and villages of their native inhabitants at the height of the 1948 War. What is significant is that as each town and village was overtaken and its inhabitants driven off, the business of expulsion took on an air of normalcy, rationalized at first as an unfortunate consequence of war, then embraced as a legitimate national policy. This experience has habituated segments of Israeli society to the practice of wresting property from others and moving in, a practice at the core of the current strife in the Occupied Territories.
Today this process of expropriation has incarnated into Israel’s settlement movement. According to “Americans for Peace Now,” there are 170 Israeli-only settlements and 99 outposts http://peacenow.org/map.php. The practice in its present form began just after the success of the Six Day War in 1967 when the Israeli government, flush with victory and not eager to relinquish its newly conquered territories for something as inconsequential as Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention (which states: “…The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population in the territory it occupies”), demolished 160 Arab houses near the Western Wall in Jerusalem and expropriated nearly 600 buildings in the Jewish Quarter to be renovated for use by Israelis http://www.btselem.org/settlements/statistics. Israeli officials learned thereby the effectiveness of using its citizens to create demographic facts on the ground that could be useful in obstructing future agreements with the Palestinians while securing, de facto, land for Israel.
What is the mindset of a society that views its occupation and dispossession of another people as an acceptable cultural norm? In the case of Israel, the rationale is rooted in a combination of religion and history: an older biblical component anchored in the ancient texts, and a nationalist element manifested much later as Zionism. Each one rests on a revisionist narrative of world events tweaked at every turn to comport with a course of action otherwise condemned by the global community.
Though the Uzi-toting settlers patrolling the perimeter of their government-protected enclaves fancy themselves the spiritual descendants of the rugged intellectuals of the First Aliyah who established the first kibbutzim at the beginning of the last century, their motivation and the political universe they inhabit could not be more different. The first Zionists to arrive in Palestine in the early 1900s were a reclusive minority. They were preoccupied with the exigencies of survival and making their otherwise inhospitable patch of land bear fruit. More importantly, they were Marxists whose movement was an offshoot of workers’ organizations like the Vilna Group, (1) mobilized to resist the capitalist exploitation and pogroms of czarist Russia and Eastern Europe. For them, the image and idea of Zion served more as a unifying metaphor for the secular nation-state they envisioned than the realization of some biblical religious utopia. Ironically, the hard-working idealists eager for a state who toiled on the kibbutz have given way to a minority of religious zealots dependent on that state, whose sole function appears to be to pick at the eternal scab of religious animosity by squatting on land the international community recognizes as Arab, then taking cover behind the Israeli military (in which they do not serve) when the dispossessed are provoked to violent reaction.
What has changed? Quite simply, the arrogance conferred by state power, a power that would, frankly, be non-existent were it not for the reliable (and enormous) check written by the US taxpayer, and the tireless efforts and influence of an Israel Lobby that provides unquestioned monetary and ideological support. For millennia, like a ghost looking for a body, Jews in the Diaspora were united by the bonds of Talmudic Judaism and tales of biblical heroes. What they lacked – what people like Herzl, Weizman, and Ben Gurion realized – was power. Quite simply, the Jews of the Diaspora lacked a concrete power that does not come with fealty to an ancient doctrine or humble restraint. What they lacked was the raw power that, for millennia, enabled the Egyptians, the Babylonians, Persians, Assyrians and Romans to overrun and dominate them in succession. Specifically, they lacked the political power that comes not with a religious identity, but with a nation, a flag and a powerful army to resist those who challenge it.
The Zionist rationale for their incremental acquisition of the West Bank presupposes a sort of biblically based irredentism on the one hand, and a selective invocation of pivotal moments in the West’s (in particular, the British Mandate’s) governance of the area. To appreciate the breadth and, frankly, hubris of their justification, one has only to examine each argument in closer detail.
Digging Down: Israel and the Politics of Archaeology
As scholar and historian G.W. Bowersock reminds us,(2) the boundary between politics and archaeology is sometimes narrow. This is especially true for Zionists who, desperate to unearth some final, unequivocal artifact to cement their exclusive claim to the region, are obsessively given to digging in the ground; even ground belonging to others. Even before Israel’s founding, nearly every archaeological dig proceeded on the assumption that its results would merely confirm some event in the bible. What had for so long been merely a case of religious belief clouding the methodology of biblical archaeologists like William Foxwell Albright became, after the founding of Israel and Israel’s victory in the Six Day War of 1967, a deliberate, state-sponsored use of archaeology by the Israeli government to further their political agenda and buttress their claims to the land.
Much of Zionism’s claim to the land of Palestine rests on acceptance of the biblical narrative as empirically true. This is aided by the fact that knowledge of the Middle East and its history rarely rises in the Western imagination above the level of Sunday school fables. Fortunately, not all Israelis subscribe to this faith-based archaeology. Secular archaeologists like Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman are pulling back the curtain of Jewish history, showing that those epic, Cecille B. DeMille moments like the Exodus and the Davidic and Solomonic empires are at best exaggerated tales based on mere provincial figures and incidents. Recent archaeology, for example, suggests that David and Solomon were “…little more than hill country chieftains….”(3) and not the forbidding and omnipotent monarchs of biblical lore.
Concocted by seventh and eighth century BCE Judahite scholars in exile who were invested in conjuring a glorious period of Judaic conquest, many of these tales were conceived in hindsight in order to mitigate the humiliation of a past filled with foreign domination and failed kingdoms. Those who penned these tales hoped to provide the exiled faithful with a portable system of ethics that would serve them no matter where they were or what their circumstances, based on a morality tale that subsumed the failure of the vanquished kingdoms in a larger, cosmological context. One example of this historical revisionism is their account of the Exodus and the Jews’ miraculous victory over the Pharaoh Ramses.
By the Bible’s reckoning, the Exodus occurred around 1500 BC when a Pharaoh named Ramses was forced to release the Jews from forced labor in the face of recurrent plagues and pestilence visited upon him by a wrathful God. However, as Finkelstein and Silberman have demonstrated, no pharaoh named Ramses existed before 1320 BCE. In addition, the purported route of the Jews’ flight was so totally fortified by Egyptian outposts at this time, the very thought that such an escape could have succeeded is patently absurd. One would imagine, too, that after the Chosen People’s forty-year sojourn in the Sinai, they would have been too exhausted and ill-equipped to defeat any professional army. To this day, no archaeological evidence of their long presence has yet been found there. Not a single shard of pottery or piece of jewelry has been uncovered. Little wonder, then, that the miraculous is invoked to smooth the rough edges of credulity.
Such historical inconsistencies make sense only when we begin to view the Bible not as a reliable historical record, but as a cultural mythology employed in retrospect to justify some circumstance or advantage in the present. For Zionists, the mission is to lend historical credibility to Israel’s settlement policy and to justify its hegemony over the West Bank. The tool for doing this is a benign campaign of government-sanctioned archaeology under the auspices of the IAA (Israeli Antiquities Authority), one that provides a veneer of legitimacy to a much more aggressive and private archaeological effort whose goal is to reach into antiquity and selectively resurrect articles from its past in order to make exclusive claim to an area in the present. A good example of this subterfuge is the government-funded sites in and around the Palestinian Village of Silwan and the Old City.
Emak Shaveh, an organization dedicated to the use of “…archaeology as a resource for building bridges and strengthening bonds between different peoples and cultures…” http://www.alt-arch.org. (Mizrachi, Yonathon. From Silwan to the Temple Mount. Feb. (2013)), points to these excavations as an example of archaeology masquerading as a covert tool for confiscation. Since 2005, the Israeli government has allotted 480 million shekels and the municipal authority, 144 million shekels, to the development of tourism and archaeology in the Old City, the village of Silwan, and the area around them. Across nine different sites – from Al Wad Street to the Northern Entrance to the Village of Silwan – government-sponsored excavations are utilizing what Emek Shaveh characterizes as “…work methods unacceptable in scientific research.” In particular, the group calls into question Israeli archaeologists’ use of “horizontal,” rather than stratographic or “vertical” digging methods whereby efforts are concentrated on one level with the express purpose of unearthing artifacts that would reinforce the historical narrative of the Jews only. By ignoring layers above and below that might uncover tangible evidence of other cultures in the area’s history, the Israelis are, Emak Shaveh claims, “…using the archaeological excavations and conservation work to reinforce the physical connection between the Village of Silwan and the Old City in order to fortify the Israeli hold on the Old City itself….”
All pretense of historical legitimacy or international appeal is thrown to the wind, however, when it comes to the site near the Village of Silwan called the “City of David” – an effort funded exclusively by the non-profit settler group, Elad, in partnership with the IAA. Located at the northern end of the village, the site has been continually excavated since 1977 and is to be the future site of the Kedem Center, a visitor’s center and the intended juncture where routes from five other excavations are to meet. When completed, the Kedem Center will become an alternate entrance to the traditional entrance to the Old City, and will shepherd visitors along sites blatantly portraying the Old City and the area around it as historically an exclusively Jewish enclave.
Brandishing Balfour: Zionists and the Balfour Declaration
The Holy Grail of legitimacy for Zionists is the 1917 Balfour Declaration. Conventional wisdom – rather, gospel – among Zionists is that Balfour promised the Jews of the Diaspora a state. It did not. What it promised was a “homeland,” a term signifying something less exclusive than the sovereign status conferred on an actual state, and one that did not preclude the coexistence of such an entity side by side with the indigenous Palestinians. In fact, conveniently omitted is the second part of the declaration which states specifically that even as the British were to aid the Jews in establishing some sort of safe haven, it was “…clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious’ rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine….” Arabs, however, never accepted its legitimacy. They had, after all, agreed to the Sykes/Picot agreement, a pact penned a year earlier (1916) that promised some sort of nationhood to Arabs on the condition that they join the British and take up arms against the Germans and their Ottoman allies. The promises made in that agreement fell prey a year later to the British need to recruit Zionists and Jewish intellectuals in the war effort and to curry favor with the nascent Zionist lobby in the US and Britain.
It is odd that the Israelis – who are contemptuous and dismissive of the 77 UN resolutions registered against them since 1948 – assume a selective reverence for the UN’s predecessor, The League of Nations, when it comes to their claims on the West Bank. In particular, they invoke the British Government’s authority over Palestine defined by the League’s recognition of British authority under the “British Mandate” in the years after World War One. The Mandate was a tumultuous, often violent, period lasting from roughly 1920 until the Brit’s hasty exit in 1947. Looking back, it appears that for Zionists, the Mandate proved to be a useful Trojan horse. They regarded it as an administrative annoyance merely. In their eyes, it existed to rubber stamp and legitimize their own agenda. As author Sami Hadawi reminds us, this frustrated British officials like General Louis Bols, the Chief Administrator, who complained in 1920 to his superiors in London, “…my own authority and that of every department of my Administration is claimed or impinged upon by the Zionist Commission, and I am of the opinion that this state of affairs cannot continue without grave danger to the public peace and the prejudice of my administration.” (4) Sadly, history affirms his prescience.
Balfour and the Mandate are, however, just two legs of a three-legged stool upon which Zionist claims to Palestine rest. The Six Day War and the mythology that has grown up around it is the third. The standard Israeli version – and that accepted by most of the world – is that Israel – besieged by an Arab behemoth massing on their borders ready to “drive them into the sea” – mounted a pre-emptive strike and, in true biblical form, smote the enemies of Israel. Enter the selective Israeli memory.
The Six Day War: Defense or Deception?
To appreciate the facts of the Six Dar War, it must be contextualized within a broader framework of events in the region. There was a reason Nasser called up troops to guard the border. What few remember – and what Israel doesn’t want to be recalled – is Israeli aggression in its own invasion of the Sinai a little over a decade earlier. In a joint effort with the British and French, Israeli forces spilled over the southern border into the Sinai Peninsula in a blatant attempt to seize more territory. Not only did the UN formally condemn the action, no less a personage than President Dwight Eisenhower intervened to reverse it. After the US threatened Israel with sanctions, Israeli forces withdrew.
Fast forward to 1967. Israel’s economy had been languishing with 10% unemployment; more and more of its people were leaving the country, and hostility was growing between Oriental and Western Jews. Something needed to be done to stir the imagination and sympathies of the world in the Zionist experiment and perhaps fill the government coffers. “Funds and immigration were urgently needed,” writes Sami Hadawi, “and both these could best be obtained through war with the Arabs.” (5) Once again, the specious David and Goliath scenario was brushed off and put into play with warnings about an impending Arab storm threatening to engulf them. Nasser had closed the Strait of Tiran over a maritime dispute issues. Though one could certainly question the wisdom of this move, it proved an invaluable propaganda asset in the Israeli push for war and was added to the list of perceived indignities and mortal threats to the nation. Sabers were rattling on both sides. Enter Lyndon Johnson.
President Johnson, like Eisenhower before him, called for calm and urged both parties to stand down while he sought to intercede in the dispute. Upon Johnson’s counsel, Nasser grounded the Egyptian air force as an act of good faith that the US president would broker a peaceful solution to the dispute. In his memoirs, Johnson made the startling revelation that despite then-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol’s promise of restraint, Israel instead launched a Pearl-Harbor type attack, destroying the Egyptian Air Force, then attacking Syria and Jordan. Unlike Eisenhower, however, once the attack took place, Johnson – perhaps realizing the positive, geo-political ramifications of an Israeli victory – threw his support behind the Israeli action. He did this in spite of the fact that during the course of the conflict, Israel attacked a US vessel called the USS Liberty, killing 34 Americans.
For Zionists, the task after Israel’s victory in the Six Day War was to somehow justify retaining control of their newly conquered territories on the West Bank, the Golan Heights and Gaza. To this day, justifications range from the notion that Israel is entitled to this “non-sovereign” territory as booty seized in a defensive war, to the idea that the West Bank and the Golan Heights must be held as buffer zones for their own security. If the international community recognized this logic, then parts of today’s Czech Republic and Poland would be called Sudetenland, its inhabitants would be speaking German, and World War II might never have happened. Furthermore, given Israel’s expulsion of the Palestinian population during and after the 1948 War, an even more egregious affront to international law is Israel’s transfer of its citizens to conquered territory.
Whether it springs from an insecurity wrought by generations in the Diaspora, or simply an instinctive fortress mentality, large elements of Israeli society seem to be obsessed with the notion of “home.” This runs the gamut of connotations. In a positive sense, “home” is an object of security. In a darker sense, “home” is something you deny your enemies in order to punish them. Zionism, with its militarism and settlement policy, has precipitated a crisis in Judaism between its traditional ethical precepts that counsel patience and respect for the Other, and what Rabbi Michael Lerner calls “Settler Judaism,” a worldview that embraces, as he says, “The sexism and xenophobia built into Torah-based religious practices, the stories of conquering and annihilating the residents of Canaan…”(6) And as author Roberta Strauss Feurlicht affirms: “It is a peculiar tragedy of the Jewish people that, having given the world the ethical imperative as well as the concept of an ideal state, they created a state that is neither ethical nor idealistic.”(7)
Since 1967, 27,000 Palestinian homes have succumbed to Israeli bulldozers. Far from intervening to stop the destruction, American companies like Caterpillar have profited, and successive US administrations have offered only tepid condemnation of any Israeli action. This will continue to be the case, so long as the American public’s knowledge of the region is distorted through the prism of US and Israeli interests. In addition, it makes the US, it would seem, a dishonest broker in the peace process and relegates Secretary Kerry’s efforts to the level of futile, Kabuki theater.
Doug Jamiel is a freelance writer and copywriter with a degree in Political Science and Philosophy. His work has appeared in the Colorado Labor Advocate, the Rocky Mountain News, Ezine, and a review of Rabbi Michael Lerner’s book, “Embracing Israel/Palestine” was recently published in Truthout.
(1) Feurlicht, Roberta Strauss. The Fate of the Jews/A People Torn Between Israeli Power
and Jewish Ethics. 1st. London: Quartet Books, 1983. 50-52. Print.
(2) Whitelam, Kenneth W. The Invention of Ancient Israel/the Silencing of Palestinian
Authority. 2nd. London/New York: Routledge, 2001. 223. Print.
(3) Finkelstein, Israel, and Silberman, Neil Asher. The Bible Unearthed/Archaeology’s New
Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts. 1st. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. 190. Print.
(4) Hadawi, Sami. Bitter Harvest. 4th. New York: Olive Branch, 1991. 45-46. Print.
(5) Ibid, Hadawi, Sami.. 220.
(6) Lerner , Rabbi Michael. Embracing Israel/Palestine A Strategy to Heal and Transform
the Middle East. 1st. Berkely: Tikunn, 2012. 33. Print.
(7) Ibid, Feurlicht. 190.