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Yesterday, replying to a column by Roger Cohen, Modern Folly, Ancient Wisdom, in the New York Times, I wrote this:

Israel is Europe’s pathologies exported to another setting. Until people are honest as to why Israel even exists, no solutions will be forthcoming. People in Europe, in the US, Israel and the Arabic and Muslim nations: failure to acknowledge the real origins of Israel – not mythological ones, not romantic ones – but hard ugly real ones, will keep Israel as a poisonous cancer on global politics probably until the wished for Armageddon that some advocate.

This begot these responses to my other blog, and Cinemaelectronica.

Eli, no other identification and what appears to be a one-off email address wrote:

Hi Jon. I hope your films are better than your understanding of history. In your response to Roger Cohen’s NYT Op-Ed on 6/11/10, you state that “until people are honest as to why Israel even exists, no solutions will be forthcoming.”  Mr Jost, Israel exists because the UN voted to grant the Jews a home. In fact, the Jewish people have always resided in Israel, with various levels of population. Prior to the establishment of Israel, the land was a British Mandate. Study your history before you write such drivel.

Stephen H Schwartz wrote:

Your comment in The Times supposedly on ‘why’ Israel exists reflects both your hate and your ignorance, the two often going hand in hand.

Israel exists because with the end of the Ottoman Empire after World War II, states were promised and carved out of the huge swath of land formerly ruled by Turkey. One such state was to be a Jewish homeland. Other such states were Lebannon, Iraq Kuwait, Syria, Jordan – all of which have the same provenance as Israel.

That the promise of a Jewish state was not fulfilled when others were does not diminish its legitimacy but rather speaks to the duplicity those who did not live up to the promise exercised.

That’s the history. The idea that the Jewish state was created solely as a recompense to the Jews of Europe for the Holocaust is equally inaccurate.

Jews living in Arab lands for 1000s of years, before most of them were even states lived under a constant threat of repression and retribution.     Sometimes the local Jews were allowed to live in peace, other times not.

Israel was created to provide them a safe haven as much as it was for the Jews of Europe. Thus it was contrary to your assertion an extension of the pathologies of Christian Europe also for the pathologies of Muslim Arabs.

It should also be noted the Mufti of Jerusalem, a Palestinian, spent WWII in Berlin, demanding of Hitler that he not only murder the Jews of Europe but also those in the Middle East. It is classic post-war policy that those who support the wrong side pay a real price for doing so. The Palestinians long before there was an Israel went with Hitler and paying a price is not some injustice to them, but exactly what Germany, Austria, Poland and a lot of other countries have suffered all throughout history. In 1948 the Arabs launched a war and lost. They have done so time and time again but somehow they believe they should not pay a price for doing so.

In the 1949 Armistice to end the war the Arabs started, the dividing line, what is now the ’67 borders were not some fixed border, but simply where the troops on both sides happened to be that day. AT THE INSISTENCE OF THE ARABS, that line was NOT to be a final border between the Israelis and the Arabs which was to be negotiated so as to be secure, defensible ones.   From that day on the Arabs refused to negotiate such borders and from 1949 until the ’67 war was occupied not by Israel but by Jordan (and Gaza, by Egypt) and no one complained about its occupation nor, more importantly, did the Arabs make any create a state for the Palestinians. What they did do was promise to destroy Israel and take all the land.

At the end of the ’67 war Israel said to the Arabs let’s negotiate and the Arabs issued the famous three ‘No’s’ from their meeting in Khartum, Sudan.

During the control by the Arabs, the holy sites of Jews were destroyed and the synagogues used as urinals and no Jews were allowed to visit. Under Israeli control all religious sites are protected and respected, open to all.

Contrast this history to your views of the reality. Hate and ignorance is the difference. The Israelis I note have made mistakes and bad decisions but the reality is Jews have been a part of the Middle East for millenia and have as much a right as anyone to have a secure peaceful homeland that since its inception to this day Arabs deny them and people like yourself do their bidding.

You have the right to do that but its not right to do it. Fairness as well as accuracy is a duty imposed on all of us, self-imposed by the best of us and you do not demand that standard of yourself. Shame.

And then another anonymous person wrote:

Your comments on Israel at the New York Times were disgusting. How dare you call any group of people a poison! You are no different than the Nazis.

Map of the 12 Tribes, circa 1808

I can’t say these responses surprise me as I am only too aware that the matter of Israel, Jews, Arabs, Muslims, etc. is certainly in our times (and many others) a very hot-button matter.   To merely bring it up is to set up a litmus test, a kind of socio-political Rorschach in which the reader usually superimposes their views and sees what those views allow, and not much else.

Eli, chastising me for not knowing my “history” goes back about 60 years, and then a bit further, to the British Mandate.

Mr Schwartz, starting with some pleasant ad hominem comments, mines history a bit more extensively [and incorrectly, for instance the once Ottoman empire was carved up before WWII, not after, specifically after WW1, though it had been quite weak long before; the Balfour Declaration by the British in 1917 announced a Jewish state in Palestine,  which stated:

“His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, 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.”

This was adopted by the Sèvres peace treaty between Britain and Turkey.  As usual in such Imperial carve-ups the locals were not consulted.]

Along the way Mr Schwartz lays the groundwork for the claim – true enough – that Jews had been living in the area for some millennia.  In passing he suggests what I think, or puts in my mouth things I did not write such as “The idea that the Jewish state was created solely as a recompense to the Jews of Europe for the Holocaust is equally inaccurate.”  With mangled syntax Mr Schwartz, perhaps more governed by anger – usually an irrational force – wraps up with a bit more of that ad hominem stuff.

The final anonymous fellow follows suit, suggesting I wrote something to the effect that “Jews are poison,” when that isn’t what is on the page.

What I wrote was, consciously and deliberately, a bit opaque and indirect, as in poetry.  It was also short – for the setting in the NYT.    In the listing of “readers recommend” it came in 5th, whatever that may be worth.  I suppose what I intended was to provoke the reader to perhaps think and reflect before jumping to conclusions.  Between the lines what I was thinking was that the “problem” of Israel can’t be resolved until there is an honest discussion and understanding of why it came into being.  To do so requires sense of history of Biblical depth.  In my view this can be understood only in acknowledging that Europe since it was Christianized, commencing some 2000+ years ago, has in varying degrees, treated its wide-spread Jewish population, with hostility and enmity.  The origins of this are probably in a sense tribal, as humans nearly always treat “others” with suspicion at minimum, and often a lot worse.  Jews, wherever they went, tended to retain their culture and religion, and hence were seen as “other.”  The entrance of Christianity into this mix only poured oil on the already existent tinder.  And, as historically happened recurrently, whenever European cultures were under pressure, be it internal contradictions and stresses, or external threat, as usual, some “other” was a handy scapegoat.  Quite often in the long history of Christianized Europe, it was Jews.   Only quite recently was the Pope of the Catholic Church able, reluctantly, to utter something to the effect that Jews were not the murderers of Christ/God. It was out of this history that the Zionist movement gained impetus in the 1870’s, though there had been, since 1700, some minor movements of German, Lithuanian and Polish Jews to Jerusalem.

Cumulatively Europe’s record with the Jewish community, over 2000 years, has been rather bad, culminating in the Holocaust, which was not only Germany’s doing, but far broader, though in the post-WW2 era great effort was made to sanitize the history of collusion of much of Europe (not all) in that great tragedy.   The connection of Europe’s and America’s willing collaboration in assisting in establishing a Jewish state in the wake of World War Two and the revelation of the full scale of the Holocaust, is all too clear.   It doesn’t take a Freudian analysis to see this political act as an expression of guilt and contrition.  Or that it sort of “solved” the problem as seen from European eyes.

However, the reality is that the roots go deeply into the foundations of European culture, and in turn my comment looks to address this, for unless this is considered each step of whichever explication and argument is made, it is rooted in a falsehood.   Thus in my respondent’s words, the groundwork is placed for asserting that Israel was always, for millennia actually a Jewish nation because there were always some Jews living in the area.   This elides the inconvenient truths that while that may have been so, they were a small minority and there was no Jewish nation, and when one did arrive it was by force primarily of European Jews who had moved to Palestine, and displaced the Palestinians in part by ethnic cleansing, i.e. wiping them out by killing them.  And it elides the more current reality that by far most of the Jews in Israel derive recently from Europe: 70% are sabras, 2nd or 3rd generation, derived from Europe primarily, and 35%, are recently arrived primarily from Eastern Europe, though some from America.   Statistically the claim for millennial-deep national and cultural roots in Palestine is rather thin.  Far more appropriately should the United States be returned to its native inhabitants, who numbered far more than at present in 1492, and were relieved of their home in the next 4oo years.  Ironically were this to occur, the majority of the world’s Jews – some 7 million – would have to de-camp along with all the European descendants.

So what I wrote – as compared to what the writers above “read into” it – is that Israel essentially is a European pathology off-shored to Palestine, by force.  I very sincerely doubt that had Jewry never had such a bad time in Europe that the Zionist movement and its predecessors would have ever begun.   If it were not for the long sequence of pogroms, banishments, expulsions, forced conversions and all the rest of the sordid history of Europe’s dealings with its Jews, then likely they would have prospered, been happy and stayed, partly assimilated, as occurred in relatively brief times in Germany, France, Italy and elsewhere.   But such was not the history which Europe wrote for itself, and for its Jews.

Put crudely, what occurred instead was after centuries of abuses heaped upon Jews in one manner or another, throughout nearly all of Europe, and following a final convulsion originated in Germany and Austria, but aided and abetted throughout nearly all of Europe (and the US), the surviving remnant of European Jewry was allowed/encouraged/helped to set up camp in Palestine – whether the Palestinians agreed to it or not.  Quite naturally, they did not.  And the matter has since been a growing thorn in the side of global politics, in general exacerbating and inflaming already existent problems, from the West’s mucking around in Arabic lands, primarily for oil, since the late 1800’s, and the myriad real-politik compromises made there-by – from America subsidizing Israel, turning a blind-eye to Israel’s acquisition of nuclear bombs and funding its military, to bedding down with whichever short-term Arabic dictator seems to fit the tenor of the moment.

How not to get along with your neighbor

In my own pessimistic view the problem is intractable and will probably come to a very bad end, which perhaps is avoidable.  But it is not possible to even begin to find a resolution if it doesn’t start with some honesty as to the origins as a first step.   To me it is quite understandable that a population which has undergone the history which Jews in Europe suffered, both long ago, and recently, is psychologically traumatized and thinks and behaves as Israel does and the writers who responded to me do.  Hence the quick ad hominem comments of the writer’s above, who are too sensitive to actually take the moment to think, but lash out instinctively, in this case utterly misreading what was before them. And there, in plain sight, is much of the problem – for Palestinians feel pretty much exactly the same way: threatened, fearful, backs to the wall.  And like Israel in its political behavior, they act similarly.  And on both sides there are those goading the matter on for their own reasons, be it American fundamentalists gunning for Armageddon, or Arabic or Persian politicians using the Palestinian circumstance to either distract from their own short-comings or as a lever to heighten their own power.  All in all a very intractable mix.  But one with sadly very deep historical cultural roots – which is the source of my pessimism.  That we seem unable to talk of it without recourse to rhetorical slogans, facile claims, or insult, only serves to deepen my sense that we will be unable to solve this except through worst-case scenarios.  Which will solve nothing.

Israel meets PalestineMexico meets the United States

Fences don’t fix problems, they only mark them, like a band-aid.


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