This Chapter is based on an opinion piece I submitted to my newspaper, constrained by an 800-word limit (which I've now exceeded). They didn't print it. Why am I not surprised?
I claim no special expertise on this subject; far from it. My primary sources for facts were the Encyclopedia Britannica Online and, for refugee figures, the United Nations website. Statistics on that site vary somewhat from one page to another; I used conservative figures.
I want to stress that while I've come to oppose the existence of Israel, I'm not hostile to Jews or to individual Israelis. Israel's defenders sincerely believe they're in the right.
Born in 1939, I was too young to understand the creation of Israel in the 1940s, too old to learn much about it as history. For years I was too caught up in a busy life to fill in the gaps in my knowledge.
I had only friendly feelings toward Israel. I knew many of its people were transplanted Americans, and I felt a sense of kinship. I admired their having returned to their ancestral homeland, saw it as an inspiring, epic adventure.
Now I wonder how many other Americans are as poorly informed as I was.
I was aware of the Diaspora and the Zionist movement. But I took for granted Palestine had always been a Jewish region, albeit sparsely populated, impoverished, and under oppressive foreign rule. Frankly, I couldn't conceive of the possibility that the United Nations would have created a Jewish state, with support from the U.S. and its democratic allies, if that were not the case.
I wasn't clear as to who had governed the region prior to 1948. But I assumed neighboring states had opposed its becoming independent because they hoped to divide it, making the Jews a vulnerable minority in several countries rather than the majority in a land of their own.
I thought disaffected "Palestinians" were Muslims who had always been a minority, though certainly a larger percentage before the recent return of Jews from other parts of the world.
In 2002 I looked up the facts.
I was stunned to learn that in 1914, when Palestine was a lightly populated (690,000) but thriving part of the Ottoman Empire, Jews made up less than 12 percent of its population. The region had been mostly Muslim for over a thousand years. In fact, most of the Jewish minority was descended from Jews who'd been expelled from Spain in the years after 1492! Not even they could claim thousands of years' unbroken residence in Palestine; their ancestors had been part of the Diaspora and "returned."
And it wasn't Muslims who had driven away the earlier Jewish population. Most of the blame for that rests with rulers who preceded them, pagan and Christian. In the 7th century, when Muslims became the latest in a succession of conquerors in a generally warlike era, they found a population that was predominantly Christian.
During World War I, Britain was in search of allies. So it made contradictory promises, of self-determination for Arabs under Ottoman rule, and of support for the Zionist movement. The latter pledge was a bid for the backing of influential Jewish communities in the U.S. and Russia.
In the decades that followed, Britain administered Palestine under a League of Nations mandate. The British allowed heavy Zionist immigration and encouraged hopes for a "Jewish national home," despite protests and an unsuccessful revolt by the native Arabs. Throughout much of their rule they deluded themselves that the "Jewish national home" could be an autonomous region within a sovereign Palestine. But it became clear no region acceptable to the Arabs would be large enough to satisfy the Zionists.
A personal note: I'm a natural Anglophile, and when I began reading what Britain had done, I wanted desperately to believe its actions were defensible. I told myself the explanation must be that Jews were a minority in Palestine because of persecution and pogroms in the 19th century, and Britain only allowed the return of Jews who could prove they, a parent or a grandparent had been born there. As I read on, of course, I had to face the bitter truth: there is no defense.
Arab leaders, unlike the Zionist leadership, had to be home-grown and drawn from a largely peasant population. As a consequence of that failed revolt, many leaders and potential leaders wound up dead or in exile.
In the late 1930s, the British considered a suggestion that Palestine be partitioned and many Arabs forcibly relocated to what is now Jordan. When they realized the extent of Arab opposition, they dropped it.
Jews were still only 33 percent of the population in 1947. But with Britain eager to hand off the problem it had created to someone else, the United Nations voted to partition Palestine and give them a state with 55 percent of the land. The large Arab majority would have gotten only 45 percent, and 450,000 Arabs would have been under Jewish rule unless they relocated. The U.N. General Assembly approved that proposal in part because it was supported by both the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
Outraged Arab states demanded the U.N. ask the International Court of Justice whether it had the right to partition a country against the will of the majority of its people. Their proposal was narrowly rejected. I can understand member states not wanting to risk a blanket denial of that power to the U.N. It may, in extreme cases, be the best means of protecting an oppressed minority concentrated in one region of a country. But in addition to requiring the criteria of oppression and concentration in a distinct region, neither of which applied to Palestine's Jews, it should only be considered in cases involving a long-established minority with as much right as the majority to be there. Most of Palestine's Jews in 1947 were immigrants admitted by an occupying power; they had no more right to live there than would an invading army.
The Palestinian Arabs condemned the partition plan, as did Arab and Asian Muslim countries. The U.S. backtracked, saying it shouldn't be implemented without the consent of Jews and Arabs--a position Britain was also taking. Zionists would have none of that, and civil war broke out.
The well-connected, well-led Zionists had been arming for years. Groups called Irgun and Lehi had carried out terrorist attacks to put pressure on Britain. (Leaders of both groups would later become prime ministers of Israel.) Now Zionists quickly defeated the Palestinians and declared Israel independent. Neighboring Arab states came to the Palestinians' aid. But Israel defeated them too, and wound up with far more territory than the U.N. had envisioned.
An estimated 800,000 Arabs were forced to flee their homes. A half-century later, those displaced persons and their descendants number 5 million; roughly one-third still live in refugee camps throughout the Middle East.
The West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem--the largest amount of land anyone has proposed giving the Palestinians in recent years--make up only 22 percent of Palestine.
If Palestine had all along been a sovereign state, and its own government had allowed immigration on a scale that changed its ethnic and religious makeup, dispossessed Arabs would have a weaker moral case. But this change was forced by outsiders--and the Jews were not even a majority when other outsiders conspired to give the Arabs' land away.
I realize most Jews can claim ancestors who lived in Palestine long ago. I know some believe God has promised them that land. And I haven't forgotten the Holocaust.
But nothing can excuse the theft of another people's homeland.
I hope you'll continue to Chapter 2...