Is it good for the Jews?” my parents used to ask wryly whenever the world around us lurched into some new political stance. We don’t bother asking the question anymore. These days most news is bad news for the Jews as every newspaper features photos of tough-looking Israeli soldiers confronting cowering Palestinian women and children.
The problem is more complex than the pictures suggest, of course. There is not much point in negotiation when one side wants the destruction of the other at all costs—and the end of the Jewish state is still the aim of the rioters. You can order frightened Israeli soldiers in their early 20 s not to use live ammunition, but the TV cameras don’t see the Molotov cocktails behind the strategically placed Arab frontlines of children or, indeed, the rows of Arab women rubbing cut onions onto the faces of the rioters to render the tear gas ineffective.
But all this is fairly obvious stuff, as is the comment that it is still a mark of the superiority of Israel that one can witness their tactics—questionable or not—in the full glare of camera lights. There were no NBC reporters in Hama in 1982 when in less than two weeks the Syrians slaughtered at least 25,000 Sunni fundamentalist Moslems. All the same, the most compelling arguments in Israel’s favor today are not those of comparative ethics but rather those of history.
Critics of Israel today talk about the Arab world as if it had a historical legitimacy quite different from the “artificially” created state of Israel. In fact, Arab sovereignty is every bit as synthetic as that of Israel and probably more so. The state of Israel was democratically created by a vote of all the nations of the world in 1947. The Arab world, on the other hand, was largely created by a series of deals engineered by the victorious Allies at the end of the First World War. Prior to 1918 the whole of Arabia was ruled by the Turks in the Ottoman Empire and the Arabs were a disenfranchised people living side by side with many minorities including Armenians, Kurds, Jews, Circassians and Druzes.
Jews had been living in the Middle East long before the Romans destroyed their Second Temple in 70 AD, and they continued emigrating to the promised land. When 19th-century romantic nationalism swept Europe, it did not stop conveniently at the ghetto walls but swept through them, inspiring Russian
and Polish Jews to fuse their religious fervor and cultural traditionalism into something new: the idea of a state with its own language, flag—and army.
It is an ill wind that blows some good, and so it was the Great War against the German Kaiser that gave both the Arabs and the Jews their chance at sovereignty. The Allies needed the help of the Ottoman Arabs to overthrow the Turks, and they wanted the favor of the wealthy New York Jews in order to get the Americans into the war on the right side. The deals were made.
Influential Arab leaders were promised thrones if they rose up against their Turkish overlords, and the British came up with the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which promised the Jews a “national home” in Palestine. This Palestine was not a vague idea but a clearly defined geographical entity that contained today’s Israel, the West Bank and all of Jordan.
The most compelling arguments in Israel's favor todag are not those of comparative ethics but rather those of historg
The Allies made good on their promises—to the Arabs. The Ottoman Empire was eventually carved up into separate sovereign Arab states. But matters didn’t work out quite so well for the Jews. The First World War peace treaties had given Britain the area known as Palestine on condition that they hold it in trust—as a Mandate—for the Jewish homeland. But the British gave the eastern half of Palestine to the grandfather of the present King Hussein of Jordan in return for his help.
Most Jews took the loss stoically enough—half a land was better than none. But British policy now began to move away from the spirit of the Mandate as well as the letter, and the Jews soon found that they had to fight inch by inch, quota certificate by certificate, for the right to come and populate their homeland. Even as the Jews tried frantically to escape Hitler, the British kept the gates of Palestine closed.
Finally, the UN resolution created the state of Israel but split what remained of Palestine even further, promising the West Bank to the Palestinian Arabs. Once again most Jews accepted the ver-
dict—about a quarter of the land promised by the Balfour Declaration was better than none—but their fatalism was not shared. The Arabs declared war and turned their backs on the West Bank, which Israel would occupy in 1967.
The rest is familiar. For nearly 40 years Palestinian refugees have lived in refugee camps while the 21 Arab nations of the world have callously refused to take them in. But there is one further complicating factor that those of us who are Jews must face. World Jewry has let Israel down, and we must, I believe, take the consequences of that failure.
In order for Israel to have successfully settled the West Bank or to have coped with the burgeoning birth rate of the Arabs there—which now threatens the Jewish identity of Israel itself—the country needed more Jewish immigrants. Jews did not go. In the past 30 years emigrating Jews from South Africa, Argentina, the Soviet Union, Algeria—and even Iran—have largely chosen to go on to North America, not Israel. And North American Jews have chosen to give money rather than sons and daughters. The reasons may be understandable, but the results are inevitable.
Israel cannot justify holding on to the West Bank—the population of which is overwhelmingly Arab—without the necessary numbers of Jews to populate it. As it is, there are not enough Israeli Jews to populate such needed areas of Israel proper as the Negev. Israel cannot hold on to the occupied territories without its total Jewish population becoming outnumbered by Arabs. Their only recourse would be truly draconian measures against an increasingly rebellious Arab population. The result would be increased world hostility to Israel, further estrangement from Washington and divisions among the Jewish Diaspora.
The dilemma is acute, and it is small comfort to those of us watching the conflict to know that it is the result of years of Arab intransigence and a long history of betrayal of the Jews. Meanwhile, speaking as a Jew myself, one has scant hope. The superpowers alone can restrain the terrorism of the PLO and Syria and create the security needed for Israel to co-exist with a Palestinian state, but they appear unwilling.
Still, Israel is a small miracle. It was born of the lion and the lamb lying down together when the Soviet Union and the United States came together in 1948 to lead the drive to create the state. Perhaps, God willing, a small miracle could happen again.
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