Wednesday, March 23, 2016

My Journey to Zionism

I was born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1946. My mother was the Cincinnati, Ohio-born daughter of Jewish immigrants from Germany. She never learned Yiddish. German Jews spoke German. In the U.S. they spoke English. She used to proudly regale me with stories of her grandfather reading to her from an English-language encyclopedia. My father was the Rhode Island-born son of immigrants from Russia. He spoke only Yiddish until he was four. He lay teffillin until college. My mother graduated from Pembroke College and my father graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Brown University and then from Harvard Law School. His older brother had been a Brown and Tufts Medical School graduate — in the 1920s! 

My father was active in the community--President of our conservative synagogue (long since turned into an AME church), President of Jewish Family and Children's Services, President of the Bureau of Jewish Education. The BJE accredited temples' after-regular-school "Hebrew Schools." My father was dead set against the local Jewish Day School. Assimilation was it.

I went to Hebrew School and Sunday School. I was Bar Mitzvahed. I was confirmed. I learned to read (but never quite understand) Hebrew. I was thrilled about the State of Israel and the little blue metal Tzedaka box in which we put our nickels and dimes. My aunt bought lots of Jaffa oranges. We sang Hatikvah. We said "next year in Jerusalem" at Pesach seders. All was well. (Well, almost all was well. I was always pissed that on the afternoon of October 8, 1956, I had to go to Hebrew School and therefore missed Don Larsen's perfect game against the Dodgers.)

And then, just after my junior year in college came the June 1967 Six Day War, and I learned about the Palestinians. Needless to say, I would be overwhelmingly sad if disaster befell the State of Israel, but, at the same time, I was nagged by the fact that there were other people who claimed the same land that Israel claimed. I have always been actuated by a strong sense of right and wrong; maybe that's why I so easily and naturally became a lawyer, and a securities litigator at that. So I could never get over the fact that two different peoples were claiming the same land. How could both be right? If both were right, how could Israel be right? For a long time I just let that question sit there. I didn't need to answer it. 

Fast forward to the fall of 2015, when my wife and I were approached by J Street and asked to become active and help establish a beachhead in Miami. Long story short--we agreed, we agreed to contribute enough to become members of the National Finance Committee, and I hosted a luncheon to raise money for Congressman Patrick Murphy's U.S. Senate campaign. Then I was asked to help strategize about building up J Street in Miami. 

I recognized at once that the jig was up. I could not take an active role in J Street until I finally decided whether I truly believed in not just the two-state solution, but also in a much more fundamental tenet of J Street's philosophy-- Israel's legal right to exist. I needed to go beyond simply the fact that I would feel mortally wounded if Israel ceased to exist as a democratic Jewish state. I needed to conclude, once and for all, whether I believed that Israel was a legitimate state. 

I didn't exactly start with a blank slate. I knew about the 1917 Balfour Declaration and the U.N. General Assembly Resolution in 1947. I had read many books and articles about Zionism and Israel. I read Herzl's The Jewish State (and noted that he paid little attention to the native Arabs.) I had visited Israel twice. I knew that the Arabs and the immigrant Jews in Palestine had been fighting each other since the 1850s. I also knew that some Arabs, at least, were forcibly removed from their homes in the late 1940s. And I knew the recent history. These facts were the source of my doubts and indecision.  But, as I learned as a lawyer, the job of a fact-finder is, ultimately, to come down on one side or the other on the key issues in the case. What did I actually believe? In deciding whether I could, ethically, become substantively involved in J Street, I needed to come down on one side of this vital issue. If I came to the other conclusion, so be it. J Street would have to go on without me.

I needed to go back to basics. I hit the Internet in search of reliable source material, not polemics. I found two such sources:

First, Israel’s Rights as a Nation-State in International Diplomacy, available at , which is a series of essays published jointly by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the World Jewish Congress in 2011.

Second, the 1937 Peel Commission Report, written by the Royal Commission on Palestine. It was formed after the 1936 “disturbances” in Palestine. 

The first is clear-headed and rational. It was persuasive, but it did not light any fires in my belly.

The second, although, in its own way, dry as dust, did. It is untruly an amazing book. It traces the history of the Jewish people and of the land called Palestine since antiquity. It meticulously analyzes the facts, concentrating heavily on the period of the British Mandate starting in 1922. I have found at least one scholar of Israel who has spoken positively, or at least realistically, about the Report:
Issued in July 1937, the 400-page Peel (Royal Commission) Report was an incisive and balanced review of the British Mandate. It gave sympathetic accountings of both Jewish and Arab aspirations. It ascertained that the underlying causes of the recent disturbances were the same as those in 1920, 1921, 1929, and 1933: the Arab desire for independence, the Arab hatred and fear of the Jewish national home and the determination of the Jewish national movement to realize its goals. It concluded that the two communities’ aspirations were irreconcilable, that the Mandate in its existing form was unworkable, and that Palestine should be partitioned into distinct Jewish and Arab entities. The Report attached a map of the proposed Arab and Jewish states and a neutral enclave for British control of the Holy Places in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
Center for Israel Education (Atlanta, Ga.), Peel Commission Report.

Two significant “findings” in the Peel Commission Report are repeated over and again. 

First, it recognized the right of the Jewish people to a "National Home,” and, if the situation later permitted, a national state, in Palestine.  This right first received international recognition in the Balfour Declaration, but, as I have now finally learned, the Balfour Declaration was not an isolated, single act, as it is often portrayed. It represented the considered position of the British Government. It was immediately endorsed by the French and the Italians, and then became accepted in international law by the actions of the victors of WW I in what can be loosely described as “Versailles.” This led to the creation of a British “mandatory” over Palestine by the League of Nations, based on the “moral assumption” that, eventually, Jews and Arabs could learn to live together in a new state. 

Second, it made clear the recognition of a right to a Jewish National Home was in total conflict with the uniform consensus within Palestine and the Arab world that an Arab national state be established in Palestine, just as in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. 

Underlying the felt existence of these dual rights was the fact that, during World War I, two different voices of the British Government had “promised” Palestine both to the Jews and to the Arabs! The facts about the November 2, 1917 Balfour Declaration are well-known, including that “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” was subject to an important proviso—"it being 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.” Less well known was the exchange of letters in 1915 between Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner in Egypt, and Sherif Hussein of Mecca, in one of which the former told the latter that "Great Britain is prepared to recognize and support the independence of the Arabs in all the regions within the limits demanded by the Sherif of Mecca.” By the terms of the letters, these “limits” included Palestine, even though it is not specifically mentioned. Whether or not the Arabs would ever have been receptive to Jewish immigration and a Jewish State, they certainly were less inclined to do so when they realized that McMahon had promised them something he could not deliver.

The main significance of the Peel Commission Report is that it proposed a two-state solution as the only practical solution to this intractable mess. It expressly abandoned the idealistic goal, set forth in the 1922 Mandate, that Jews and Arabs could live peaceably in one state. It saw that as plainly unachievable. The events of 1947-1949—the U.N. General Assembly resolution in favor of two separate states in Palestine, the declaration of Israeli independence, the War of Independence, and the armistice lines—merely put into effect what was presaged in the Peel Commission Report. While the details may have differed, the essential truths outlined in the Peel Commission Report remain salient and, in my understanding, unassailable.

Therefore, it is my conclusion that the State of Israel, as such, has a plain right under law to exist. The first book I referred to above strongly led to this conclusion, but, perhaps because I was a history major in college, the Peel Commission Report was also extremely persuasive. 

But there is an important corollary to my conclusion:  the survival, as opposed to the mere existenceof the State of Israel is dependent on Jews' acceptance and endorsement of an Arab state in former Palestine. The fact that few, if any, of the historical documents refer to “the Palestinians” is not dispositive of whether there has been a strong nationalistic feeling among Palestinian Arabs since, at the very latest, 1915. Any suggestion that this is not an essential element of the initial and continued existence of the State of Israel is wrong-headed, anti-historical, and, in the strictest sense, immoral. 

Sadly, reading the Peel Commission report's detailed, painstaking analysis of the state of the Arabs in Palestine is not just reminiscent of the "facts on the ground" in Israel and the Occupied Territories today; it describes practically identical present-day conditions. The world has wasted 80 years and will continue to do so until reason and realism prevail. It is not the J Streeters who support a two-state solution who are starry-eyed and unrealistic. The truly fantastical--or worse--are those who ignore the need to prevent further damage to the two-state solution by encouraging more and more "settlements" in the Occupied Territories. They are the ones who are truly playing with matches.

No comments:

Post a Comment