Commentary Magazine


Arab Propaganda

To the Editor:

As Rose G. Lewis [“Israel’s Rights and Arab Propaganda,” August] observes, Israel’s apologists rarely rest their case on the slogan of “Jewish national self-determination.” But this is no oversight. If there is a right of national self-determination, then it would be hypocritical to affirm Jewish self-determination and deny Palestinian self-determination. Yet that is Israel’s official position. Mrs. Lewis nowhere hints that she favors a bi-national or even a separate Palestinian state. She is not applying an ideal she believes in but proposing more effective propaganda. This is as cynical as it is dishonest.

In any case, Zionism never was and never will be a national-liberation movement. This follows inescapably from the contradiction between the goal of an exclusivist Jewish state and the fact of a Palestine previously occupied by a numerous, settled, culturally self-conscious Arab population which developed its own national aspirations. And that contradiction determined, and still determines, a strategy of dependence on a powerful imperial patron, which is enough by itself to reduce Jewish national independence to an empty formality.

Mrs. Lewis seems to appreciate the logic of the matter, which she hopes to escape by disproving that “absolute national independence” was always an essential Zionist demand. Thus she attributes publicly conciliatory sentiments to Weizmann, Katznelson, and (straining credibility) even to Herzl and Ben-Gurion. Of course there were eminent Jewish figures, like Martin Buber and Judah Magnes, who sincerely favored bi-national amity; Mrs. Lewis neglects to mention that there were Arabs who agreed with them. But official Zionism and the great majority of Zionists—including the four leaders mentioned—always favored a Jewish state, the subordination of the Arabs, and dependence on the West. This is easily shown.

When Theodor Herzl founded Zionism with a pamphlet called The Jewish State, that is exactly what he wanted: “Let sovereignty be granted us over a portion of the globe adequate to meet our national requirements; we will attend to the rest.” He also initiated the strategy of dealing not with the inhabitants but with the imperial overlord of Palestine. “If His Majesty the Sultan were to give us Palestine,” the Jews would reform his finances. “We should there form a part of a wall of defense for Europe in Asia, an outpost of civilization against barbarism,” for which Europe “would have to guarantee our existence.” Herzl later moderated his claims out of expediency, but while he was portraying a bi-national Utopia in Altneuland, he proposed in his diary to “spirit” the Palestinians out of Palestine by denying them work.

It is true that the Balfour Declaration promised, not a Jewish state, but an ambiguous “National Home.” But since what was called “the non-Jewish population” comprised 90 per cent of the Palestinians, this was acceptable to Zionists as a means, not an end. When the 1922 Churchill White Paper made clear that the National Home was not to become a Jewish state, Chaim Weizmann pretended to go along, since it “would still afford us a framework for building up a Jewish majority in Palestine and for the eventual emergence of a Jewish state.” Weizmann, whom Mrs. Lewis presents as a bi-national humanist, had demanded the year before “that the Jews be granted as such those rights and privileges which will enable them to make Palestine as Jewish as England is English.” Since all citizens of England are English, the inference is obvious and ominous.

As for David Ben-Gurion: . . . His 1931 statement, which Mrs. Lewis quotes, about the need for “a superior international rule” to prevent Arab-Jewish conflict merely acknowledged that the Yishuv still needed the shelter of the British Mandate, as the 1936-39 Palestinian revolution made very clear. Ben-Gurion drafted the 1942 Biltmore Program which abandoned all subterfuge and demanded a Jewish state in an undivided Palestine which was more than two-thirds Arab. . . .

The state of Israel cannot afford to publicize the bi-national sentiments expressed, sincerely or otherwise, by Jewish nationalists in earlier periods. The contrast with Zionist history and Israeli society is all too obvious. A self-styled Jewish state which persecutes anti-Zionists and Arab nationalists through Emergency Regulations; a state which prohibits marriage between Jews and Gentiles; a state which has expropriated 50-70 per cent of the land of its Arab citizens; and a state with racist immigration laws is not even a liberal democracy, much less a secular or bi-national state.

The right to national self-determination is self-limiting—people are free to exercise it only as far as is possible without infringing the equal right of others. Therefore Jewish nationalists had no right to settle in Palestine for the purpose of founding a Jewish state without the consent of the people of Palestine. Such consent was never sought and, once the Arabs discovered Zionist aims, the Jewish presence met with active opposition. Even the Palestine Liberation Organization (contrary to Mrs. Lewis’s unsupported assertion) now accepts the presence of those who are now Israelis. But, as always, they are obliged to reconcile their national aspirations with those of the people they have hurt so much. Whether this means a unified bi-national or “secular democratic” state, or an equitable repartition is not for me to say. But the very principle of national self-determination (which I happen to believe in) requires that Jewish nationalists belatedly reform their institutions in ways acceptable to their Palestinian counterparts.

Robert C. Black
Oak Park, Michigan

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To the Editor:

The arguments presented by Rose G. Lewis should have been made loud and clear long before this late date. There is today no more effective argument to be made for Israel than that some portion, at least, of world Jewry has as much right to national liberation and self-determination as any other people. Certainly the Jewish claim to some portion of Palestine should be recognized on this basis. How better to answer Arab rhetoric than to ask whether the Arabs are willing to provide a secure haven for Yemenite Jews—who lived in Yemen before Islam appeared—were they to return. Would Iraq take back its Jews? Would any other Arab country? Would these countries treat the Jews as equals to Arabs?

I suppose Mrs. Lewis’s position seems clear to me because, as a non-Jew, I have not looked at the problem as a Zionist or as a protagonist of any other . . . Jewish tradition, but as a humanist and as a political geographer. The fact of the matter is that under extreme duress diverse Jews have created a people and a state in the only area of the world to which they have an indisputable, though ancient, historic claim.

As an aside, has anyone publicly confronted the Arabs with the question of Kurdish self-determination? (Or, where would Iraq be without the oil of Kurdistan?) How about self-determination for the Arabs of southwestern Iran? (There goes the Shahinshah’s oil!) And then there are those non-Muslim, non-Arab blacks in the southern Sudan. The cry of self-determination, like that of imperialism, does not cut only one way these days. Nevertheless, both peace and justice require mediation and compromise, lest all of us find ourselves mere powder on the last page of human history.

Laurence Grambow Wolf
Department of Geography
University of Cincinnati
Cincinnati, Ohio

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To the Editor:

. . . Rose G. Lewis’s article should open the door to a full discussion of defects in the way Israel’s case has been presented to the American public by all the Zionist organizations in this country. As a national vice president of the American Zionist Federation and one who has held high office in the Zionist Organization of America, I feel qualified to speak on this matter. For one thing, no spokesman for Israel, either Israeli or American, should ever have used the word Arab without joining it to Muslim. The 650,000 Jews who lived in Palestine on May 14, 1948 were “Palestinians,” and the hundreds of thousands of Jews who lived in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and other Arab states at that time had as much right to be called Arab as any other resident of those countries. . . . If this fact had been publicized over the years, the non-Jewish public in America might well have been less receptive to the propaganda of the Arab-Muslim states and the PLO. . . .

With rare exceptions, non-Jewish Americans have become bored with the oft-repeated story of how the Israelis turned the desert into a garden and Israel’s technological advances. But if Christians were told that the Jews of Israel are the first line of defense for Christianity in the Middle East . . . their interest might be aroused. All that would have to be done to substantiate this assertion is to quote the appropriate suras of the Koran. . . .

Seymour B. Liebman
Miami, Florida

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To the Editor:

I found Rose G. Lewis’s article greatly enlightening. I think very few Jews know how their fellow Jews were treated by the Arabs over the past thirteen centuries. Most, like myself, have been deluded by Arab propaganda into believing that Jews thrived under Arab dominion. Mrs. Lewis’s article shocked me into thinking about the subject.

Lou Hodes
Oakdale, New York

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To the Editor:

Rose G. Lewis’s excellent analysis of “Israel’s virtual abdication of . . . moral suasion” goes to the root of the matter: not the methods but the ideological substance of Israel’s information policy is at fault, and the deficiencies can be traced back to pre-state Zionist policies.

Not to see the forest for the trees is among most peoples a proverbial paradigm for debilitating shortsightedness; only in Zionism was it actually promoted to the rank of policy prescription. The slogan of “one tree and another tree, one cow and another cow” was presented as the acme of statesmanship, while the vision of Jewish self-determination—which alone could have generated the giant diplomatic and economic efforts that were needed between the wars—was denigrated and suppressed. As part of the peace settlement after World War I, the international community also recognized the Jewish people’s right to self-determination, but the “practical” Zionists who were in charge soon ceased to argue the moral, political, and strategic case for Jewish statehood as the basis of immigration and land development in Palestine. This made possible today’s mythology of the Western colonizing infiltrators, without warrant in justice, who abused the hospitality of a native people to impose in the end the rule of the newcomers.

It is only fair to mention that one of the explanations for the twisted Zionist policy between the wars was the need to establish and maintain cooperation with the “non-Zionists” who for various reasons shied away from the idea of a Jewish state. Whatever doubts there were in the past, it is probably true to say that the legitimacy of Zionism as a national-liberation movement and the Jewish right to self-determination which it represents are now a part of Jewish political thought generally. These days Jewish unity does not require that the concept of “Zionism” be handled with a degree of detachment that leaves its definition to the enemies of Israel.

It would be petty to question an inaccuracy in Mrs. Lewis’s citation of the Churchill-Samuel White Paper of June 1922, were it not of special contemporary relevance. Its correction actually strengthens her argument. The contention that the White Paper “defined Jewish national liberation in the most minimal terms” is not borne out by a reading of its terms, although this was the impression which Zionist policy permitted to grow in order to excuse political setbacks.

The White Paper—to be read as part of a Parliamentary Command Paper containing eight other documents—was certainly full of what officials these days like to call “creative ambiguity,” but nowhere did it say or imply that the “Jewish National Home . . . was not to be a ‘wholly Jewish Palestine.’” What it did state was “that the terms of the [Balfour] Declaration . . . do not contemplate that Palestine as a whole should be converted into a Jewish National Home, but that such a Home should be founded in Palestine.” This meant what it said; it suggested the possibility of a geographical limitation of the National Home rather than a reduction of its national contents. Both the Jews and Arabs of the country were told that “the whole of Palestine west of the Jordan was . . . excluded from Sir H. McMahon’s pledge” to the Sherif of Mecca. This implied, although it received no mention at all, that Palestine east of the Jordan—the territories referred to in the Mandate draft as “lying between the Jordan and the eastern boundary of Palestine”—might have been included in the pledge and thus outside the Jewish National Home area.

The White Paper was firm on upholding the Jewish National Home policy in western Palestine, which it declared “not susceptible of change.” The Royal Commission Report stated in 1937 that its “definition of the National Home has sometimes been taken to preclude the establishment of a Jewish state. But though the phraseology was clearly intended to conciliate, as far as might be, Arab antagonism to the National Home, there is nothing in it to prohibit the ultimate establishment of a Jewish state, and Mr. Churchill himself told us in evidence that no prohibition was intended.”

Mrs. Lewis here lets the Zionist leadership off too lightly. There was no need to refute the Churchill-Samuel White Paper which was purposely vague and merely assured the Arabs that no Jewish nationality status was intended for them. But a Jewish state, i.e., the attainment of a Jewish majority and with it Jewish self-determination was not excluded. As the opposition—with Jabotinsky in the vanguard—insisted, there was no reason why Zionist leadership itself should define Jewish rights in minimal terms.

Equally, when the Jewish National Home provisions were suspended for “the territories lying between the Jordan and the eastern boundary of Palestine,” three months after the publication of the White Paper, this need not have been interpreted in the restrictive terms which eventually prevailed, since Article 25 of the Mandate did not allow for finality and since moreover it guaranteed the right of Jews to settle there as individuals. Even though the British government may have decided that Trans-Jordan was not to become part of the Jewish National Home, constant opposition to the verdict would have impressed upon public opinion that it still was a part of the Palestine Mandate, that it was not closed to any Arabs of Palestine, and that in eventually renouncing it, the Jewish Agency had conceded four-fifths of Palestine to the Palestinian Arabs. It would have made it rather difficult for Jordan to assume the stance of a “host-country” and for Arab propaganda to convert the refugee problem into one of “national homelessness.”

Statehood has taught the leadership of Israel a great many lessons, but not yet the need to distinguish between the vagaries of day-to-day diplomacy and the presentation of the broad ideological principles and strategic facts of the state’s existence.

Paul S. Riebenfeld
New York City

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Rose G. Lewis writes:

On one point, at least, Robert C. Black is correct. Certainly I was talking about more effective propaganda. I said so. But I did not suggest that lies be told or facts be twisted. I merely recommended that attention be paid to the critical issues.

Mr. Black helps me to make my case by raising his own banner very high. Zionism, he says, is not a national-liberation movement. Really? Where, then, is the national-liberation movement of the Jewish people? Or does he wish to say that the Jewish people may not have a national-liberation movement at all?

The question cannot be evaded. The choice lies, finally, between more power and control for Arabs in a twenty-first Arab state, on the one hand, and freedom and independence for Jews in a single Jewish state, on the other. If one wishes to make a judgment on the basis of justice and equity, if one truly believes in the right of all peoples to national self-determination, then the issue lies precisely here.

But Mr. Black’s notion of self-determination is an interesting one. It demands, he says, that the Jewish people reform their institutions in ways acceptable to the Arabs. This, as it happens, is not a new idea. It describes rather well the nature of Muslim Arab rule over Palestinian Jews for the 1300 years of Arab occupation of the Jewish homeland.

The ways acceptable to the Arabs were carefully spelled out in a large body of law of which the cornerstone was the recognition of Muslim precedence and superiority. That being clearly understood, the Jews might then practice their religion so long as, for example, they did not build new synagogues, nor make their buildings taller than Muslim buildings, nor erect standing gravestones, nor have religious processions on festival days, nor permit their religious chanting or their lamentations for the dead to be heard by any Muslim. They were required to pay heavy and discriminatory taxes, they were forbidden to carry arms, they had to wear special identifying hats or badges or clothes and to avoid any appearance of equality with Muslims. Death was the punishment for such offenses as speaking of Islam with irreverence or touching a Muslim woman. And so on. That Jews were forced to live under the restrictions and the threats of such laws through thirteen centuries of Muslim imperialism shows that they cannot today be altogether insensitive to the ways acceptable to Arabs.

These laws provide a significant background and tradition, and they are by no means dead history. They continued in effect in Arab lands down to modern times. They are presumably still on the books in Saudi Arabia and in Yemen, where there was no 19th-century European occupation. It would be interesting to know their exact status at present, not only on the Arabian peninsula but also among some of the growing movements of Muslim orthodoxy.

Such social and legal discriminations, and more, applied to Christians as well as to Jews. Seymour B. Liebman is correct in pointing out that there is also an underlying conflict in the Middle East between Muslims and Christians—as, indeed, we see today in Lebanon. And he is right to suggest that we look to the Koran for the source of Muslim attitudes.

That’s where Anwar Sadat was looking, for example, when he spoke to a Cairo audience on Mohammed’s birthday in 1972. “We shall crush this Israeli overweeningness and this disorderly outbreak,” Sadat said, “so that they go back to be once again as our Book told us: humiliation is destined for them, and poverty.” Non-Muslims, the Koran states, must “pay tribute with their own hands till they are humiliated.” There is much emphasis placed upon humiliation.

In Palestine itself, Arab over-lordship meant that Jewish lands were taken from them and laid waste, Jewish holy places were usurped or desecrated, Jewish communities were again and again pillaged and destroyed, Jewish living was kept marginal and precarious with constant exploitation and discrimination. Unable to defend themselves because they were forbidden the weapons, Jews could live only crowded behind the walls of the cities—and, in the end, in only four of these. Yet the Jewish people never relinquished their claim or their loyalty. In every generation they have been as numerous in the land which they continued to call Israel as human’ courage and persistence made it possible for them to be. It is surely a justified Jewish claim against the Arabs that for so long the discriminatory and oppressive policies of the Arab and other Muslim empires and the harassments and persecutions of local Arab officials prevented the Jewish people from living in dignity and in strength in their own homeland.

It was therefore with good reason that—as Mr. Black’s quotations point out—the Jewish people desired freedom and independence from Arab rule and argued for it in what ways they could. I must insist, nonetheless, that the record shows beyond question that responsible Zionists have been conciliatory and open to any compromise which would not have made the Palestinian Jews once again powerless over their own lives and destiny. Mr. Black would have presented a more plausible case if he had named and quoted some of those Arab leaders who, he implies airily, have in the past supported peaceful coexistence in a bi-national state or any other cooperative arrangement. As it is, he seems to be arguing that the Zionists did not mean what they plainly said and that the Arabs meant what they plainly did not say.

Laurence Grambow Wolf raises a valid point in regard to the Jewish refugees from Arab countries. Well may we recall Yemen. Before they fled to freedom in Israel, more than 50,000 Yemenite Jews lived in rigidly segregated ghettos and were subjected to the most severe discrimination. One example will perhaps suffice: outside their own homes, Yemenite Jews had to be careful always to clothe themselves like beggars so that they might present the required picture of poverty and humiliation to the eye of any passing Arab. Does Yemen now believe in equality for the Jewish people? Would Yemen consider establishing a bi-national state with its native, ancient Jewish community?

The letter from Lou Hodes is typical of many similar comments which I have received. I believe it speaks for itself. It also explains why I have piled up the historical details in this response.

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