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A QUESTION OF ZION
Foreword to Professor J. Rose, A Question of Zion,
(Melbourne University Press, 2005).

There is no more important, yet no more intractable, international question than how to secure a relatively peaceful coexistence between Jew and Arab in a “holy land” divided between the focused power of the state of Israel and the ramshackle “authority” of Palestine. Peace proposals seemingly agreed at Oslo (1993) Camp David (2000) and Geneva (2002) have faded; the “roadmap” has thus far led to a brick wall. The way forward may well mean retracing steps, to identify wrong turnings and the reasons for taking them. At a time when, in Barbara Tuchman’s phrase, “history is still smoking” it is appropriate to analyse the ideas of the idealists who set it alight.

I have had no involvement in Arab/ Israeli issues and can claim no Jewish descent so it came as a surprise to be asked by Melbourne University Press to provide a foreword to a book about Zionism. Perhaps it was thought my neutrality would provide balance, because Professor Rose frankly expresses her critique of the state of Israel and its policies. It is difficult for anyone absorbed in these issues to remain dispassionate, but if any permanent solution is to be found it will be through international humanitarian and human rights law accepted by all parties at the same time and applied even-handedly to the historical facts.

The question of Zion is in many ways a question of justice. It was the appalling injustice done to Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish officer wrongfully convicted by French court-martial, that convinced Theodor Herzl that Jews would never be permitted to “assimilate” in Europe. His inspirational pamphlet The Jewish State launched political Zionism, a claim that the British equivocally accepted in 1917. “His Majesty’s Government views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for Jewish people” said the Balfour Declaration. But how could “a national home” mean “a national state”, in a land of 400,000 Arabs and 30,000 Jewish settlers? “Nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine” the Declaration added ambiguously: in 1917, these “rights” did not include self-determination. For the next 30 years Britain ruled Palestine in a kind of colonial fugue, permitting some Jewish settlement but incapable of appreciating the impossible demographic tensions its policy would produce. In the end, for these unwise administrators, partition seemed the solomonic solution.

Then came the Holocaust, to compensate for which UN Resolution 181 of 29th November 1947 ceded over half the land to the state of Israel, against the wishes of neighbouring Arab states who declared war, and by losing it, doomed Palestinians to the refugee camps. In 1967, after the Israeli annexation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip following renewed Arab aggression and the Six Day War, the UN Security Council produced the first “road map”: its Resolution 242 emphasised “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war” and called both for withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from occupied territories and for cessation of violence by or against Israel (a recognition, essentially, of its sovereign existence).

Today, the international law position is tolerably clear. In Justice Roslyn Higgins’ pithy summary: “Israel is entitled to exist, to be recognised and to security, and the Palestinian people are entitled to their territory, to exercise self-determination, and to their own state”. Both sides are under a duty to negotiate but neither has been prepared, at least simultaneously, to give peace a chance. Diplomatic efforts have failed, often through the truculence of Palestinian leaders and their Arab state backers, although international law has been marginalised by Israel’s all-purpose justification of “self-defence”, even for expansion of the settlements. That defence has in recent years been made more credible by a crime against humanity – the campaign of suicide bombing – perpetrated by Hamas and other militant groups. And even as the government of Israel strives to comply, up to a point, with international law by withdrawing from Gaza, it is opposed by extremist settlers chanting a form of Zionism of which Herzl would have been ashamed. Is there to be no end to the vicious cycle of violence, now transmitted by Al Jazeera throughout the Arab world to inflame passions and raise funds (especially from the Gulf) for further acts of jihad (a.k.a. terrorism)?

Patience with Israel is beginning to wear thin as well, at least for those without blood ties or blood guilt. The Zionist project was approved in 1948 by a world ashamed that the Holocaust could happen, but as the last old Nazis die unlamented, their depravity can no longer be permitted to block criticism of Israeli policy. It still seems reasonable enough, amongst the “rights of peoples” guaranteed by the Universal Declaration, to acknowledge a “peoples” right to a homeland from which they can draw cultural identity and, in the case of a wickedly persecuted race, to recognise their right to a safe haven carved out of the lands of their persecutors. In retrospect, this would have meant a retributive right to a Jewish homeland asserted against Hitler’s willing executioners – a large slice of Saxony, perhaps. But that was not the Zionist dream (although in 1903 many of its early supporters, reluctant to risk their destiny in the desert, had been prepared to accept Britain’s offer of a slab of Uganda).

The creation of Israel involved a different kind of claim, which had a different consequence – the domination of indigenous Arab people who also called Palestine “home”, and were already in residence. This difficulty was fudged by the slogan “A land without people for a people without land”. But Palestine was not terra nullius: by 1948 it contained 1.3 million Arabs and a minority of Jewish settlers. It was to the rights of the Palestinians, and the long-term danger of overriding them, that some notable Jewish intellectuals had turned their minds and their pens in the course of questioning the “blood and soil” strain in Zionism.

The first virtue of Professor Rose’s lectures is that they allow those who planned and fretted over the Zionist project to speak for themselves. By dint of her extensive research and stimulating presentation, these extraordinary figures address us across the years, articulating the hopes and fears which drove them in the search for a way of life that would not be threatened by the pogrom or the concentration camp. It is impossible not to be stirred by the dreams of Herzl and the rhetoric of Weizmann and Ben Gurion. And it is impossible not to credit the prescience of some of their critics – Hannah Arendt, Martin Buber, Ahad Ha’am and Hans Kohn and other neglected voices – who predicted that Israel in arms would be in danger from its own sword. Here is the babble of agonising debate amongst mittel-European Jewry in the first half of the last century, a sound archive which reverberates with portentous passion. Against it, Rose hangs the hypothetical teaser: what if? In this case, she asks, what if the project had committed itself from its inception to justice and human rights?

Some readers might answer that there would have been no Israel, and a few might think there should be no book even provoking that question. But every “ism” must be looked at with a critical eye and Zionism, one of the most successful, has had little analysis, for all the massive and continuous news coverage and comment about Israeli policy. It may fairly be said that Palestinian national identity has had even less, and although more recent (it discernably dates from the revolt against the British, 1936-9) its myths are just as deserving of demolition. So be it: peace will only be possible when both sides can unlock their mind-forged manacles.

In Rose’s account, ironies abound. She explains how the Zionist project was first sold to the crown heads of Europe, almost as a “final solution” of the problem of the Jew in their midst. This was one reason why many thoughtful assimilationist Jews in Europe came to oppose it, as a recipe for their separation and stigmatism. It was a solution to which even Hitler was not at first averse and nor was the Menzies government. (The Holocaust museum in Washington has a display which prominently features Australia’s uncaring refusal in 1938 to contemplate the admission of a shipload of Jewish refugees from Germany). Little wonder, in those times of barely conceivable anti-Semitism, that Jewish leaders should seek a place of safety in which to validate their existence. Once ensconced they have been harsh to their enemies, an attitude that Rose attributes to a desire to block out the “shameful” memory of the generation that meekly boarded the trains to Auschwitz. Suicide bombers, presumably, are indoctrinated to think that they can avenge the humiliation of their race by taking in their last conscious moment the only power on offer.

Australians have made their own unfinished attempts to identify – and then to respect – indigenous rights. Terra nullius after all, was the law by which England staked its claim to the continent: it has recently been abolished and we have found through “native title” some ways of harnessing the inherent decency of the common law and the apolitical promise of “equity” to provide land rights. Something of the same development may be seen in the recent work of the Israeli Supreme Court, which in 1999 outlawed the use of force by Shin Bet during interrogations and has recently taken a more proactive stance in holding the army to account for its helicopter forays into the occupied territories and Palestine.

The parallels are by no means exact but the message from countries where an indigenous population has been dispossessed or humiliated or deprived of political power is that the law – national or, failing that, international – must protect them from discrimination and do so in a way which respects their dignity and gives them fair share in the fruits of the land they have lost. Some distinguished Israelis – like former Attorney General Michael Ben Yair – recognise (at least, when out of office) that their country is breaching international law in this respect. For all Israel’s achievement in “making the desert bloom” its curfews and check-points have had what the UK government describes as a “catastrophic” effect on the Palestinian economy: over half its people live in poverty on less than $2 a day. The World Bank predicts that the poverty rate will rise dramatically if present conditions continue, and the Red Cross has pulled out in despair, because humanitarian aid cannot help until Israel allows Palestinians “to live as normal a life as possible”. The UK has condemned the Knesset’s discrimination against Arab Israelis (20% of the population): the “targeted killings” (executions without trial) of suspected terrorist leaders, and the loss of innocent lives – over 500 children killed by army incursions into the occupied territories since the last intifada.

In fairness there is another side to this story, and it is a consequence of the continuing unrealistic refusal in some Arab quarters to accept Israel’s right to exist and indeed to flourish in a security enforced not only by its own army but by the policing powers of the Palestinian authority and neighbouring states. Sadly, the Palestinian authority has mired itself in corruption: while its school textbooks manage to ignore the existence of 5 million Jews. The Authority has taken no credible action to punish those responsible for inciting acts of terrorism - including suicide bombing, a tactic so barbaric that no group resorting to it should ever be permitted to prosper. That these people can be posthumously praised as “martyrs” is a reason to despair, and defiance by both sides of the Geneva Conventions seems to make Auden’s weary point:

I and the public know
What all school children learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

The founding fathers of Zionism never envisaged this future and the promise, from Balfour onwards, of a safe haven for Jews has been turned on its head: notwithstanding the recrudescence of anti-Semitism in some parts of Europe, the promised land remains the country where Jews are most at risk, in a conflict which has a ripple effect on peace and security elsewhere in the world. That was what the Zionist doubters predicted, unless the cause could fully commit to justice and human rights. Professor Rose owns to “an overwhelming sense of a moment missed”, but by reminding us that indigenous rights and Palestinian welfare were a real concern at the outset of the movement, she helps to make it a possibility that the moment will come again.

Geoffrey Robertson QC
Doughty Street Chambers
July 2005

 

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