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December 29, 1987
I’m starting this letter, with no knowledge of its actual content, length or whatever. Historians, politicians and scholars are prepared for years to write books on what’s happening in this little country.
Those who do speak or write on the subject have varied points of view, depending on education, religion, custom or knowledge. So many people have opinions based solely on second- or third-hand information or prejudice. Is mine completely objective? That’s perhaps the first subject to consider.
No matter what is said, I have no spiritual Jewish background. I have Jewishness in the blood, I have it in the heart, but my knowledge of Judaism, Jewishness and Israel have been developed through experiences during my adult life. So I can claim to be fairly objective. I read and listen to the international media, some of which appears to be pro-Arab. Even if totally non-biased, they appear to be in favour pf the Arab side as a result of having 20-odd Arab countries from which to report against the one Jewish state.
First of all, there has to be an idea of the background of the problem. And I think the history of the Jews is more pertinent than that of the Arab/Muslims. The latter have always had a home, a state, a power base, somewhere to feel safe. For 2,000 years, the Jews were without this. Some may question the importance of this; the American Jews have America and so on.
Unfortunately, and undeniably, the Jews have been persecuted against throughout history. There are two choices: rebel or assimilate (which would be the passive annihilation of the Jew, both in faith and fact). Some may wonder just how important religion, tradition etc. should be to an individual. But there you are messing around with identity and belief. And you cannot, in a free society, deny a person’s right to these.
What has resulted from this situation is what appears to be a vicious circle. The Jew is persecuted for being different, which often happened to be richer (they have always endeavoured to be good merchants and businessmen), healthier (their religious laws have often protected them from disease – to the extent that they have been blamed for their spread, as was the case with the Black Plague in the Middle Ages) and more intelligent (a direct result of a more serious attitude towards study).
How has the Jew survived? By sticking closer to those very traditions that have caused the persecution. Which came first? Who knows, and what difference can that make? This is called anti-Semitism, a form of racism in a colloquial sense. I say this because there is no such thing as a Jewish race. They are a people, a culture, a religion, but the Semitic race actually includes practically all Jews and Arabs – in fact, all descendants from Shem, one of the sons of Noah.
My personal feeling is that the phrase ‘anti-Semitism’ is often misused, even by Jews themselves. On an international forum, criticism of their country’s policies is often described thus. On a local level, what has become or appeared to have become anti-Semitism was in many cases a typical example of the human weakness of being against any minority group. (The oppression of the blacks in South Africa by apartheid is called racism. How does one refer to the oppression of the lower classes in practically every African country? The effect is sometimes the same; often worse).
But two (or a thousand) wrongs do not make a right. Much of today’s Arab/Israeli problems are a result of anti-Semitism. There is no question that the Jews deserve a homeland. Although other countries were considered, among them Uganda, Madagascar and Argentina, Israel had to be the one. Although Muslims do live as a majority in many countries (a luxury the Jews have never had), what is important is that they are a majority in that country which houses the centre of their faith – Saudi Arabia, with Mecca and Medina. Jerusalem, where Mohammed is said to have ascended to Heaven on his white horse, is the third most important shrine in Islam, not directly mentioned in the Quran. So if the Jews should have just one country in which they can live in relative safety, then why not Israel?
Jews have lived in and around the land of Israel almost interrupted for over 2,000 years. Aviva’s family have been here for nearly 500 years. But who’s counting? That would only start another senseless argument.
Since the Maccabees in Roman times, Jews have rarely held guns in their hands. They have been pacifists, merchants, scholars. In the absence of anti-Semitism, they have usually become an important part of the society (in the arts, science, business etc.). There was no reason why, when Jews came to Israel in modern times, they would not follow the same trend.
The early Zionists, those who believed in the re-establishment of the Jewish State, were a mixture of such believers, plus refugees from the pogroms of Central Europe and Russia. (A pogrom is the persecution of the Jew by the authorities. They were oppressed in many ways, culminating in the transfer of whole communities, mass killings etc.).
The region at the time had a relatively small population, a mixture of Jews and Arabs, with some Druse (a people with a ‘secret religion’, based loosely on Islam) and Bedouins (mostly nomads). It was almost uninhabitable, with deserts and swamps. Even today, the desert area covers over half of the country. Trees were then a rarity. At the time, no one but Jews had reason to come here.
[I’m trying to follow some obscure pattern in all this, but one is so easily side-tracked. Not easy to understand the attitude of the Arabs towards the Jews, especially in those early days of ‘modern Palestine’.]
If you read the book ‘The Haj’ by Leon Uris (fiction based on fact) you will get an idea of the Arab mentality, if one may generalise. I have often said that it does not need an Israel (a Jew) in the Middle East for there to be constant upheaval in the area. In fact, the presence of Israel introduces an added (dangerous) dimension. It theoretically gives the Arabs an incentive to unite, to have a common enemy, to end their internal struggles. But that really is theory. And anyway, there are not only Arabs involved. Most Iranians and Northern Africans are not Arab.
In addition to this, there are 2 mainstream divisions in Islam: Sunni & Shiite. The Iran-Iraq conflict is primarily based on this divide; much of the unrest in Lebanon is concerned with the same problem, although the Christians there are another important factor.
In Judaism, there are two dividing groups: Sephardim and Ashkenazim, based on ethnicity. Within them, there are divisions, some more or less religious than others. There are even Jews living in Israel who are anti-Zionist. That is, they only believe in a State of Israel after the coming of the Messiah; they cannot believe in a secular state.
Look at the numerous divisions within Christianity. How can there be peace…? And why should we be different?
‘Thanks’ to Hitler (and no thanks to the British and their blockade in the post-Holocaust years), the exodus to Palestine greatly increased in the later 40’s. And the pressure on the international community greatly increased to establish a state for the Jews.
Whether or not out of guilt, this was done by the UN in 1947. Luckily for Israel, there were only 56 member states at the time. Today’s UN has 159 members, a majority of which would have voted against an Israeli state.
Today’s UN is prepared to welcome a gun-toting Yasser Arafat to speak before it. (I have often wondered how we are to take the politics of such an organisation seriously, when, apart from the power of the Security Council members and their vetoes, a country like Vanuatu has the same power as the United States – and the US pays about 25% of the total budget).
The Jews, certainly partly out of desperation, were thankful to accept whatever was given to them in the partition plan. Had the Arabs accepted the original UN resolution 181 (as they expect Israel to accept every one of today’s resolutions), then today we could have peace. But on the day of the establishment of the State of Israel, 5 Arab nations (not the ‘locals’ but their ‘brothers’) attacked the fledgling Jewish State, with the sole purpose of driving them into the sea. And, as has been established by history, the Jews the defended themselves, almost with bare hands.
Then again, in 1956, 1967 and 1973, plus the wars of attrition in between (and I have not yet mentioned terrorism), further attempts were made to ‘finish the job’.
And that brings me to the building up of Israel’s military strength, primarily with US support.
Using the word ‘democracy’ carefully (most agree that it is the best political system, but undoubtedly it has its shortcomings), it must constantly be remembered that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. It is the only country that gives the U.S. some guarantee of political continuity. What happened in Iran could happen in some form or another in any of the other countries in the region.
Saudi Arabia and Egypt are two of the most important ones that are considered moderate and ‘friendly’ to the West, yet which could experience fundamentalist revolutions. (Why do such moderates support Iraq in the Gulf conflict? Because a victory for fundamentalism would inevitably result in fundamentalist rumblings within their own borders).
[Israel has a predictable attitude towards the Iran-Iraq war. Obviously, its continuance neutralises anti-Israel forces and switches the international spotlight away from Israel. If one country should win, Iran’s success would be a lesser evil for Israel, in that fundamentalism is just as keen on overthrowing governments in such countries as the rich Saudi and Gulf States, and in Egypt, as it is on throwing out the Jews.
Iraq, however, would suddenly have perhaps a million men with military experience on their hands. They would surely disband many. But that would leave an enormous army ready to be transferred to the Israeli border.
So where are we today? It is very easy to say ‘make peace’. But with whom, and how can they be trusted? Read Anwar Sadat’s autobiography, and you will know with what pride he initiated the Yom Kippur War. He implied, by the way, that it was a victory. Compared to the 6-day War, perhaps it was. And certainly there were strong repercussions in Israel as a result of the 2-day delay in mobilising the military, which resulted in the death of over 2,000 Israeli soldiers. It was not a victory for Egypt.
But, as usual, the superpowers ended the war when the Israeli forces had reached a point of supremacy, led in the Sinai campaign by today’s problem child, Arik Sharon. 6 years later, it was that very same man, Anwar Sadat, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for initiating the visit to Jerusalem and the Camp David Accord.
Sadat was assassinated. Moderates, like King Hussein of Jordan, are continuously sitting on the fence, with the certain knowledge that the same could happen to them if they make peace with Israel.
No one will deny that Arafat has used terrorism, although some will still call him a freedom fighter. Today, he is referred to as a moderate, because, within the Palestinian community, there are many factions far more radical than mainstream PLO. What a survivor Arafat is. He has survived countless assassination attempts, plus all-out civil war amongst the Palestinians. His ignominious departure from Tripoli in Lebanon was well-documented, and also the attempt by Israel (admitted by all but the right wing to have been a mistake) to drive the Palestinians out of Lebanon.
Now another subject rears its ugly head: refugees. Currently, there are said to be 12 million political refugees in the World, 5 million of whom are Afghans in Pakistan. But what is a refugee? It does not only depend on the circumstances of the ‘throwing out’, but how they are accepted in the ‘new home’. There have always been wars resulting in refugees. I am a child of refugees who not only settled peacefully, but were welcomed and cared for in their new country, their new home.
As a result of the Arab-Israeli wars, there have been two sets of refugees: Palestinians (Arabs) and Jews. It so happens that there were more Jewish refugees created by the 1948 conflict, but that is not the point. Today, you see no unsettled Jewish refugees. They have been absorbed in their new countries, most in Israel at great cost to the State. Check the fantastic example of ‘Operation Moses’ which brought many thousands of Ethiopian Jews to an Israel already in a dire financial position.
It is important to note that many Palestinians have settled happily, mostly in the States and throughout Europe. But most are found in the Middle East. Some have achieved leading positions in Jordan, Saudi and the Gulf states. That is one of the reasons the Palestinian organisations have been so strongly supported by the oil-rich countries. But in many neighbouring countries, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria etc., they are held in what continue to be called refugee camps. They are refused nationality, with the permanent promise of regaining their original homes, now in Israel.
And where is all that money going? Certainly one place it hardly reaches is the refugee camp in the ‘occupied territories’. One day’s profits from the Arab oilfields would eliminate the squalor of the camps. When our daughters’ schools require new books, computers etc., we parents have to contribute. They are state schools, yet we are paying for every little extra. When this happens in the ‘occupied areas’, the parents demand that everything should be paid for by the state. And I can assure you that there are thriving communities within those areas, with rich and poor, lazy and industrious etc. etc.
What I am trying to say is that the ‘occupied territories’ and their literally pathetic inhabitants are being used as political playthings. Make them happy with their status quo and you have taken away the Palestinian problem. How can the PLO or other terrorist groups survive without the support of the dissatisfied Palestinians?
What perhaps you do not hear about is the fact that disturbances have been going on the territories since 1967, when Israel took them over. According to independent sources, the average occurrence of some disturbances was about 500 annually during the first ten years, increasing to almost double that in the second ten. That includes stone-throwing, personal attacks on Jews and/or tourists, strikes, industrial sabotage etc. and petty crimes that could perhaps be placed in other categories.
Some people, including myself, will argue that much of the conquered areas after the Six-Day War should have been given back practically within a day. Gaza is a perfect example. Almost a million Arabs live in that area on the coast 40km south of Tel Aviv and down to the Egyptian border. When under Egyptian rule, from 1948-67, the life there was as bad, if not worse than today. Sadat avoided to include Gaza in the Camp David accord. Who needs the hassle?
Sinai was a matter of national pride for Sadat – and also a source of income (from the oilfields developed by Israel). How come they are still arguing about a 400m strip of land called Taba? It’s because of the lovely Sonesta hotel located there, worth money and prestige. How come no fight over Gaza? I repeat: who needs the hassle.
The very few Jewish communities in Gaza (2,500 population) were established mostly by right-wing zealots, usually American Jews from the religious communities of New York and Chicago. They present no defence for Israel, and the moderate and left-wing parties would not hesitate in abandoning them.
The West Bank is a different story. First of all, just look at a map of Israel and just see where the ‘Green Line’ is – the border with Israel.
Jerusalem is not negotiable. I agree with that. It is everything to/for the Jews; internationalisation of the city would only divide it, as Berlin and Vienna were. Each community would argue over its territory. That includes the Christian communities: Greek, Russian and Armenian Orthodox, and the Catholics, in addition to the Muslims and Jews.
It is interesting to note that the three main religions are practising their faiths simultaneously in Jerusalem for the first time in 2,000 years. There is no restriction on Muslims or Christians coming to Jerusalem, except on individual security grounds. This was not the case during the Jordanian occupation of the city from 1948-67. All synagogues and Jewish teaching centres were ruined during that time.
Jordan, on the East bank of the river, is the natural home for the Palestinians, and I have said before, the majority of the Jordanian population today is Palestinian. It was the silly British and French who decided to create this new country as a gift to the Arabs for helping them defeat the Turks in the Great War. To have some kind of autonomous Palestinian state on the West Bank is acceptable to the moderate Israeli, but one glance at the map will convince the viewer that Jewish settlement in the region is vital for Israel’s security.
The West Bank practically surrounds Jerusalem and almost dissects Israel in the centre near Tel Aviv. The border is only 10 miles or so from Tel Aviv – as the crow flies. Creating a separate Palestinian state on the West Bank would open the doors to a hostile build-up of terrorism on Israel’s doorstep – another Lebanon. How can Israel take such a risk?
Then there is the awkward subject of the character of an Arab or, in this case the Palestinian, especially those who have never known anything but life in a refugee camp. As you have seen with the Shiite suicide bombers in Lebanon. Some of these kids want to die, want to be martyrs. Their mothers pray that their sons may be the next to be ‘chosen’.
How can one fight against this? The Israeli army has become a fantastic fighting machine. But how long can you go on, both physically and mentally? For 40 years, the Israeli youth has been conscripted, currently 3 years for males and 2 years for females, plus annual reserve for males until the age of 55. It’s incredible that Israel’s society has remained relatively stable in such an environment.
Israel is a democracy, and as such has left and right wings. Predictably, the right, which includes many of the religious, is for the establishment of the Biblical State of Israel, which includes the current ‘occupied territories’. Other right-wingers are the Jews who were incarcerated and persecuted in Arab countries.
(That was when Menachem Begin, himself a survivor of the Holocaust and an Ashkenazi from Poland, gathered much of the support which put him in power after the Labour Party had enjoyed continuous rule since the birth of Israel).
You can divide Israel’s Parliament (the Knesset) into three almost equal parts: the moderate Labour left, te moderate Likud right (both of which ae coalitions of several parties) and the minority groups. These include the extreme left, the communists, the five Arab parties, the more extreme religious parties, the more extreme religious parties and the ultra-right (the infamous Rabbi Kahane, Israel’s own fascist).
The political current system of proportional representation is killing the system. It almost guarantees the need for coalition, as is the case in most European countries. However, in a country with such problems as Israel, a strong government is a must, whichever wing it may represent. They should start by raising the minimum percentage of votes required by a party to gain a seat. Currently, it’s 1%, which means that Kahane need only about 20,000 votes to get in. If this were raised to 5%, as in Germany, at least the extreme elements would be eliminated. As Thatcher has proved, political power is what is required to lead a country out of the doldrumsemocracy is always there to throw out the government that fails.
Like her or not, Thatcher has done much good for the country, and for this she is rewarded by re-election. The first-past-the-post system in the UK is not interested in the ‘also-rans’ or faceless wonders. In Israel, a party’s list may include persons never presented to the electorate, and yet they can win a seat.
In Israel, because of the P.R. electoral system, the last election was, at least politically, a disaster. The two main parties were about equal, and as a result, the religious parties, despite a loss of support, actually gained power. It is frustrating, for me at least, that the current government of National Unity does not have the guts to face a referendum about the electoral system. No one wants to risk losing what little power they have.
I am coming up for air. And now, where am I? What future is there? Will such ‘disturbances’ become more and more serious, with more casualties each time. Some would rather have the status quo, a kind of ‘hot peace’. Others, like me, advise attempting to sign peace treaties, pieces of paper, with as many Arab nations as possible. The fragile situation with Egypt is far better than none at all. And every peace treaty reduces the support for the Palestinians, thereby pushing them closer to having no alternative but to consider a compromise. They must realise that the elimination of Israel is no longer a viable consideration.
The Palestinians support armed revolt, which equals terrorism. Israel has made it very plain that this will only achieve a more intransigent stance. Arafat has started talking more ‘moderately’. The Palestinians must try to organise themselves into one voice, even Arafat, which must prove itself to be a reasonable partner in negotiations for peace. I am confident that Israel wants this. But until then, no weakening.
Israel is a young country, struggling for survival. I may not agree with all that is going on – which balanced person does? But I greatly admire its efforts, achievements and its basic principles, and am willing to stick by it, as long as it stands by those principles.
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