Leo Baeck 2


Dec 2010 Journal

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In defence of doves

The following article does not reflect the views of the AJR. It attempts to give expression to a historical position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to relate it to present conditions - Anthony Grenville.

The Association of Jewish Refugees has, it goes without saying, always been a strong supporter of the Jewish state. In 1948, the AJR Information welcomed the founding of Israel as an event of unique and incomparable significance for Jews the world over. In 1956, it shared in the elation brought about by the Israeli army’s victories in Sinai. In 1967, the journal greeted Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War with jubilant relief: ‘There has never been a time when we followed the news from hour to hour with such intensity and feelings of personal involvement as we did during the past weeks. The speed and thoroughness with which the Israelis achieved a military victory on three fronts against an overwhelming majority exceeded all expectations. Words cannot adequately express the tribute due to the courage, morale and strategic ability displayed by the people of Israel in those memorable days.’ And in 1973, during the anxious days of the Yom Kippur War, the AJR helped to channel donations to Israel.

But the AJR Information inclined towards the view that the best way of safeguarding the future of the Jewish state lay in concluding a peace settlement with the Arabs. If there were no enemies – a big ‘if’, admittedly - there would be no threat. Inspired by leading Israeli figures of German-Jewish descent like Georg Landauer and Werner Senator, it tended to advocate engaging with the Palestinians, insofar as was consistent with Israel’s security, in the hope of reaching a negotiated settlement.

In March 1946, the journal reported the submission that Rabbi Dr Leo Baeck, the spiritual leader of the Jews from Germany, flanked by the Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the AJR, made in London to the Anglo-American Commission of Inquiry on Palestine. Baeck believed in the possibility of peaceful coexistence between Jews and Palestinian Arabs: ‘There may not be friendship between Arab committees and Zionist committees but there is friendship between Arab villages and Jewish villages, and in the end villages are more important than committees.’ Leo Baeck had been President of the Reichsvertretung der deutschen Juden, the organisation of the German Jews under Nazi rule. He had refused to emigrate and abandon the Jews in his charge, and survived two years in Theresienstadt.

History, as we know, did not conform to Leo Baeck’s expectations. The State of Israel came into being and passed its first years under constant threat from its Arab neighbours. But the victories of 1967 and 1973 brought about a fundamental shift in that balance of power. One of the AJR Information’s most distinguished correspondents, Robert Weltsch, who also wrote for the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, believed that the key problem arising out of victory was that of finding a new form of coexistence with the Arabs. In August 1967, in the immediate wake of the Six-Day War, he wrote: ‘This relationship – and the foundation of the future – cannot rely on military victories nor on the subjugation of a hostile population … To conquer the hatred and to remove the feeling of humiliation of the enemy is more important, and possibly even more difficult, than military action.’

Weltsch had been the editor of the Jüdische Rundschau in Germany, and he, too, stayed on after 1933. In April 1933, he penned the famous headline of proud defiance to the first Nazi measures against the Jews: ‘Tragt ihn mit Stolz, den gelben Fleck’ (‘Wear it with pride, the yellow badge’). (The compulsory wearing of the star was introduced only in 1941.) Yet Weltsch claimed the authority of the founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, for the strategy of treating the Palestinians with humanity: ‘It was also fundamental to Herzl’s thought that the implementation of Zionism would have to be carried out in accordance with the principles of humanity. Nothing was more remote from his mind than the expulsion of native peasants from their ancestral soil.’

Some will dismiss as naïve the idea that Israel should treat the Palestinians humanely, as people with rights and dignity, when it is under attack from them; yet Jews are proud, and rightly so, that Israeli Arabs enjoy civil rights and freedoms while the Arab states long ago expelled their Jewish minorities. More difficult to dismiss is the contention that the Palestinians should be treated as a people. Yet it is plain that, like Jewish national consciousness, Palestinian national feeling has also developed during the long period of conflict between the two, if more slowly. Beyond question, the spread of nationalism across the Middle East in general after the First World War and the immigration of Jews into Palestine in particular accelerated the development of national feeling among the Palestinians. The Arab Revolt of 1936-39 bore testimony to its beginnings, and the first intifada of the late 1980s to its maturing.

The crucial point, though, is that the Palestinians came to see themselves as a national entity; what matters is their perception of themselves as a nationality, which, once established, cannot be erased from their consciousness. This matters, because Israel’s choice of strategy depends on its correct understanding of the Palestinians with whom it is in conflict. Only if you know your enemy can you deal with him successfully. If the Palestinians perceive themselves as a nation, no amount of decades of military occupation will cause them to desist from their demands for a state of their own – and a state implies a coherent block of territory. The strategy of relying primarily on Israel’s overwhelming military superiority over the Palestinians, on the other hand, looks misguided: military measures like those taken against the Gaza Strip appear to have done little to improve the prospects for Israel’s long-term security.

On this analysis, the conclusion proposed by United Nations Resolution 242 after the Six-Day War, which essentially rests on the principle of ‘land for peace’, is the correct strategy for Israel to embrace. The alternative is to condemn Israel’s young men and women indefinitely to military service in face of a potentially insurrectionary Arab populace, to condemn Israelis to live indefinitely in fear of bombs and rockets, and to condemn the State of Israel itself to a vicious cycle of violence, reprisals and war. Far from representing a betrayal of Israel, as its enemies like to portray it, the principle of land for peace would be Israel’s best hope of achieving a settlement that combines both peace and security in acceptable measure. That means, in return for the recognition of Israel by the Palestinians and reliable security guarantees, the creation of a Palestinian state.

The argument mounted against this is that the Palestinians are part of a greater Arab front dedicated to the destruction of Israel. This flies in the face of the evident willingness of Egypt, Jordan and almost all other Arab states bar Syria to strike a deal with Israel once their own interests, principally territorial, have been accommodated; it is no coincidence that Syria is both the most hardline rejectionist state and the only one that still has an unresolved territorial dispute with Israel, over the Golan Heights.

It is also no secret that ever since the Israeli War of Independence in 1948 the Arab states have accorded scant regard to the interests of the Palestinians and that since 1973 the notion of a monolithic Arab front against Israel has been confined to the realms of rhetoric. When the Palestinians attempted to set up a government of their own in 1948, it was systematically undermined by its Arab allies. Egypt’s decisions to launch and then withdraw its forces against Israel in 1948 were dictated entirely by Egyptian interests, principally that of preserving its leading role in the Arab world against King Abdullah of Jordan, who in turn was quite willing to do a deal with the Jewish Agency in return for Jordanian control of the West Bank. Abdullah’s acquisition of Arab Palestine in 1948 occurred in flat contradiction of Palestinian national aspirations. Since 1973, Arab governments have arguably supported the Palestinians only to the extent necessary to placate Arab popular opinion.

Why, it is often asked, did the Arab states not absorb the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians languishing in refugee camps, as post-war Germany absorbed the millions of Germans expelled from Eastern Europe after 1944/45? The usual answer is that keeping the refugees in the camps was politically convenient for the Arab states in their confrontation with Israel, and that is doubtless true. But there is a deeper reason: whereas the German refugees could integrate into a German state, East or West, within the borders of 1945, the Palestinians, retaining a sense of their own nationhood, did not wish to become Jordanians, Egyptians or Lebanese. And whereas no German refugee with any sense of reality dreamed of a new German state in East Prussia or the Sudetenland, Palestinians continued to believe in their right to a state on part of the land they formerly inhabited.

Anthony Grenville

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