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Palestine 3 – the early 20th century, Zionism, the Balfour Declaration and the beginnings of Arab nationalism

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the very brief ‘Balfour Declaration’, contained within a letter to Lord Rothschild – note the reference to the rights of existing non-Jewish communities

Canto: Before we go on, I should point out that we’re using the term “Palestine” fairly loosely, much as we might use the term Canaan of old. The misadventures we’re talking about have taken place not just in the Palestinian West Bank and the Gaza Strip, but in the whole of what is now Israel, and surrounding regions covered nowadays by Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. 

Jacinta: So now we’re going to jump from the diaspora under the Romans, and the wandering, persecuted Jews of Europe in the Middle Ages, to the late 19th century and the rise of the Zionist movement. Modern Zionism is most commonly associated with the writings of Theodor Herzl, particularly his 1896 pamphlet The Jewish State, though the term ‘zionism’ was first coined by Nathan Birnbaum a few years earlier. Birnbaum was prominent in the first Zionist Congress of 1897, but became an anti-zionist activist in later life. 

Canto: Just an indication that there were, and are, plenty of Jews who had no interest in the movement, and some who actively opposed it.

Jacinta: Of course Jews are a heterogenous group, and we should at least differentiate between secular and religious Jews, who would have had different reasons for supporting or opposing Zionism. But the events of the Second World War clearly boosted the Zionist cause. 

Canto: The Palestinian region was under the faltering control of the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 20th century, when Herzl’s political version of Zionism was becoming popular (Herzl’s preference for Argentina over Palestine for the new Jewish state is indicative of his lack of religion). The Jews of Europe at this time were no doubt seeking a permanent solution to the latest anti-semitic flare-ups, such as the Dreyfuss affair in France and the Russian Pale of Settlement and the pogroms there in the 1880s. 

Jacinta: And notwithstanding Herzl’s preference for Argentina, he recognised that Palestine was the favoured option of most Zionists, and came to favour it himself before he died. And his diary writings reveal – what is clearly the fatal flaw of the whole Zionist Palestinian project – that, to quote Paul Heywood-Smith, ‘it was to be at the expense of the whole native population who were to be spirited out of the country and their land expropriated’.

Canto: Yes, and Herzl died in 1904, so it’s clear that this ethnic cleansing idea – which surely wasn’t confined to the thinking of Herzl – was a feature of Zionism from early on.

Jacinta: Though surely there was some opposition to this? I mean among the Zionists themselves – what were they thinking?

Canto: Well, we’ll get to that, but interestingly, the modern Israeli historian Benny Morris, a Zionist, supports the expelling of some 700,000 Palestinian Arabs from their homeland in 1948, the beginning of an act of ethnic cleansing that is yet unfinished. We’ll come to all that later. Morris’ only complaint is that David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s ‘founding father’, failed to finish the job, because, according to Morris the stark choice was between ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian Arabs and the genocide of the Jewish population. But that modern view, I suspect, is due to the many decades of animosity created between the two sides before and after 1948. But let’s go back to the turn of the century.

Jacinta: Yes let’s, because Simon Montefiore in his book Jerusalem paints a picture of that city in the late nineteenth century which contrasts sharply with the Zionist monocultural dream:

During the Jewish festival of Purim, Muslim and Christian Arabs dressed up in the traditional Jewish costumes, and all three religions attended the Jewish Picnic held at the tomb of Simon the Just north of the Damascus Gate. Jews presented their Arab neighbours with matzah and invited them to the Passover Seder dinner, while the Arabs returned the favour by giving the Jews newly baked bread when the festival ended. Jewish mohels often circumcised Muslim children. Jews held parties to welcome their Muslim neighbours back from the haj. The closest relations were between Arabs and Sephardic Jews … Ironically the Arab Orthodox Christians were the most hostile to Jews, whom they insulted in traditional Easter songs and lynched as they approached the Church.

Quoted in The Case for Palestine, by Paul Heywood-Smith.

Canto: Yes, I don’t know if that paints too rosy a picture of Arab-Jewish relations at that time, but subsequent events in the early twentieth century hardly helped to strengthen those relations.

Jacinta: Yes, and we should note that not all Jews who moved into the region in the early twentieth century were Zionist monoculturalists. However…

Theodor Herzl, Zionism’s most influential early promoter

Canto: The Zionist movement began to buy up land in Palestine. Herzl visited Jerusalem for the first time in 1898 and in 1903 sought the support of Pope Pius X for their Jewish homeland, but this was rejected as the Jews denied the divinity of Christ (the acceptance of which would’ve turned them all into Christians presumably). Tsarist persecution brought a wave of Russian Jews into Palestine in the early 1900s. And more land was claimed. An organisation called the National Jewish Fund was established in 1901, and it claimed, presumably without any legal authority at the time, that all acquired land would thenceforth, in perpetuity, be inalienable Jewish property – and if farmland, worked only by Jews as well. This land claim has been treated as law ever since.

Jacinta: And meanwhile, Britain was becoming another place of refuge for persecuted Jews, which led, in turn, to them being persecuted in that country, with riots and abuse and the like. The country’s leaders, seeking a solution, were naturally inclined to listen to Zionist overtures. Chaim Weizmann, a brilliant biochemist and later to become the president of the World Zionist Organisation, and later still Israel’s first president, is credited with persuading the foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour to lend support in an official capacity to the recognition of Palestine as the homeland of a future Jewish nation.

Canto: So the Balfour Declaration of 1917 needs to be understood in terms of the complex Euro politics of the time. Not only was there a humanistic desire to find a solution for a persecuted people, but there were also the sorts of colonialist ambitions and jockeying that caused the Great Stupid War of 14-18 in the first place. The Palestine region was under the putative control of the fading Ottoman Empire, which was unlikely to survive the war, and the region was of strategic interest to Britain, particularly as a staging post to its prize possessions of India-Pakistan, but for many other reasons.

Jacinta: Yes, and Britain was also double dealing, because it had occupied Egypt from the beginning of the war in 1914 and had sought Arab support against the Ottoman Turks by signing the McMahon Agreement in November 1915, which guaranteed or at least supported Arab independence in the Arabian Peninsula, including Palestine.

Canto: Well this is controversial. Henry McMahon was the British High Commissioner in Egypt. His agreement was with Sharif Hussein of Arabia, and because it contradicted the later Balfour Declaration, there have been attempts to argue that it didn’t include Palestine, based on different translations. However, it’s generally agreed that these arguments are very strained. And these contradictory agreements with the Arabs and then the Jews weren’t the only headaches for the Brits. In between the McMahon Agreement with the Arabs in late 1915 and the Balfour Declaration for the Jews in 1917 was the notorious secret Sykes-Picot agreement involving Britain, France and, to a lesser degree, Russia. It was made public by the Russians after their October Revolution of 1917, much to Britain’s embarrassment. Basically this was an agreement to carve up the Levant region, southern Turkey and Mesopotamia between Britain and France – as protectorates, of course.

Jacinta: Yes it all sounds very high-handed, but to be fair, many of these negotiations, which went back to near the beginning of the war, did involve examining the situation on the ground, and the local sensitivities there. And there may have been a more or less benign paternalism at play – ‘we’ll take responsibility for this region until the locals grow up and become civilised like us’. Though it’s notable that all the squabbles were over the most productive and strategic regions. Most of the Arabian Peninsula was of no interest whatever to western powers before the discovery of oil there.

these Arabs are revolting (against the Ottoman Turks in 1916-18) in the Hejaz of western Arabia

Canto: So while the western powers were negotiating and wrangling over the projected spoils after the defeat of the Ottoman Turks, the Arab Revolt of 1916 broke out, initiated by Sharif Hussein and his sons. Its aim was to overthrow the Ottomans and to create a pan-Arabic state, and it represented and furthered a rise of Arab nationalism which had barely existed before. It was only partially successful, but in contributing to Arab identity it helped to provide a lens through which they would observe western interventions in what they considered to be Arab lands.

Jacinta: Yes, notably the Arabs refused to allow the Europeans to assist them in their revolt beyond material and logistic support – they rightly feared a European takeover. And Palestine certainly was a focus of global affairs, with zionists in the USA pushing for intervention in the war in exchange for backing the Brits in their promise for a Jewish settlement there.

Written by stewart henderson

January 28, 2019 at 1:24 pm

Palestine 2: more recent ancient history

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The Temple Mount, Jerusalem

Jacinta: So the so-called Kingdom of Judah, from archaeological evidence, was not a particularly developed region, from a modern perspective. Jerusalem, always regarded as its most significant city, and central to all Zionist aspirations, came into being as a small village between 5000 and 4500 years ago. From about 4000 years ago, it seems to have been a vassal state of the Egyptian empire, but there’s scant archaeological evidence from the period, though there was clearly an increase of building construction under Ramesses II a little over 3200 years ago. Some 2700 years ago, the region became a part of the Assyrian empire, and then the Babylonians conquered the region only a century or so after that, largely destroying Jerusalem.

Canto: Right, and the Babylonians brought about a diaspora of sorts, which was soon reversed when Cyrus the Great of Persia defeated the Babylonians and allowed the Jews to return and rebuild their temple. Now this temple was a symbol of Judaism, and its destruction by the Babylonians struck at the heart of their religion, suggesting that it was well established 2600 years ago…

Jacinta: Yes, we’ll get back to the actual population of the region and their religion shortly. Persia remained in control of Judea until the time of Alexander the Great 2350 years ago (we’re avoiding the BC/AD designations) and remained under the control of his Seleucid successors until a local revolt led by Judas Maccabeus gave it semi-independence for a time under the Hasmonean and Herodian dynasties. The Romans by this time were the great power, and Judea became a client state, but when the population rose in revolt 1950 years ago, Jerusalem was sacked, and, after another revolt 70 years later, the troublesome province became an increasing target of Roman authorities, leading to a major diaspora that wasn’t reversed until the 20th century.

Canto: And that’s when our story really hots up, but getting back to that temple – you know it was built on this supposedly triple-holy site called the Temple Mount, current home of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, both of which are very holy of holy to Islam. Of course it’s no accident that Moslems built this dome about 1320 years ago just where the second Jewish Temple had stood…

Jacinta: Which, by the way, is the very place where, so says fundamentalist Judaism, their god created Adam, haha.

Canto: Yes yes and where he created the World as well, for old Adam to stretch his legs in. I mean it’s typical for a new religion to set its base camp on the ruins of an older one – just as the Christians did at ‘pagan’ sites when the Roman Empire turned Christian. But let’s look briefly at the history of the temple itself, since its first construction might be said to mark the beginning of Judaism as an organised religion. It has been called Solomon’s Temple, and there’s much bullshit in the Old Testament about Solomon being the ruler of a mighty empire, but absolutely no evidence has been found of his existence outside of those texts. My uneducated guess was that he was a local chieftain grossly exaggerated in his power by Old Testament propaganda. He supposedly lived around 2900 years ago, so believers assume the temple was built around that time. It’s noteworthy that the Israelis haven’t allowed any archaeological research to be done at the site for decades. But let’s be generous and assume from their own stories that Judaism is about 3000 years old.

Jacinta: And it seems that one of the tenets of Zionism is return to an ancient homeland. But a homeland isn’t a nation, quite. Australia’s Aborigines have had a homeland here for up to 60,000 years, but they didn’t have a nation in the modern sense of a state with institutions of government etc. Some Zionists, especially the religious ones, would use their holy books to argue for having an ancient nation-state under David and Solomon etc but that doesn’t sort with any evidence. Other Zionists though would argue that the region was overwhelmingly Jewish before the diaspora caused by Roman repression. That would be the basis of their demand for the creation of Israel as a nation, right?

Canto: That and their claim to be a uniquely oppressed people in their adopted countries, which was made more cogent after the Holocaust. The problem of course is that the region, one of the oldest humanly inhabited regions in the world, has never been exclusively Jewish, or Israelite or whatever you want to call it. Was it overwhelmingly Jewish during early Roman times? Perhaps so – I’m certainly willing to concede that, but I’m not sure what that counts for. The British Isles 2000 years ago, when Romanisation began there, was predominantly made up of Celtic tribes, migrants from Europe. The USA at that time was settled by a number of highly developed regional cultures, that tend now to be grouped under the heading ‘native American culture’. The Celts don’t have a nation, nor do the native Americans, or the Kurds, the Catalans, the Rohingyas…

Jacinta: But some of them have put forward cogent arguments for their own nation-state.

Canto: Yes, but the Zionist movement and its arguments were different – not necessarily more cogent – for a number of reasons. Zionism had a more international feel, due to the diaspora. It was locally active and felt in many parts of the world, unlike say, the Catalan movement. Also, It was a call to ‘return’ of a profoundly oppressed people – and this was before the rise of Nazism, after which it was able to take advantage of western guilt big-time. And for the religious Jews there was the whole thing about Jerusalem and the temple…

Jacinta: Okay, so we’re going to switch to the modern situation, but before that let’s look to the distinction made between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jewishness. Ashkenazi Jews currently represent around three quarters of the Jewish population. The Sephardim are descended from those who settled in the Iberian Peninsula from the time of the diaspora – Roman times – but were then infamously expelled from the region under the Alhambra Decree of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492, and a similar decree by the Portuguese monarchy in 1496.

Canto: Not to mention the 1290 expulsion of the Jews from England under Eddie I. They all appeared to say ‘Go East, young Jew, or we’ll have your guts for garters’, or words to that effect.

beating up on Jews in 13th century England – the design on the central figures’ robes represent the twin tablets brought down by Moses – 5 commandments on each?

Jacinta: The Jews descended from those who remained in the Levant and the Middle East during the diaspora are called Mizrahi Jews. The Ashkenazim’s descent is complicated. Actually the whole story is really effing complicated. For example the Ashkenazim were also pushed eastward during the late Middle Ages due to persecution. By the early Middle Ages they had settled in Northern and Central Europe, for example in settlements along the Rhine, where they developed the Yiddish language, from German mixed with Aramaic, Hebrew and other Eastern elements.

Canto: Yes, and they were pushed eastward, but also pushed into being more integrated into local cultures. This led to a kind of modernising movement, a Jewish Enlightenment known as the Haskalah, which revived Hebrew as a literary language.

Jacinta: But the point is that the Ashkenazim were, according to some observers, at the greatest remove from the Jews of the old spiritual homeland, due to their European integration and their Enlightenment values. On the other hand, it was above all the Ashkenazim who suffered under the Holocaust. So there was this post-Holocaust tension in the west between relieving itself of its guilt by acceding to the, largely Ashkenazi, push for occupation of the Southern Levant, there to recreate the nation of Israel, and questioning the bona-fides of their claim to this land.

Canto: Yes, and as a sidebar to all that, Paul Heywood-Smith claims in The Case for Palestine that there’s ‘considerable evidence’ that the Ashkenazim are ‘substantially derived from the conversion of the Khazars to Judaism in or about 805 CE’. He goes on:

The Khazars were Turkish nomads who occupied that land between the Black and Caspian seas (called the Caucasus today), including parts of eastern Turkey, north-west Iran and Georgia. Khazaria seems the likely source of the Jewish influx into Russia, the Ukraine, Poland, and Eastern Europe – and from there, into Western Europe.

But the authors of the Wikipedia article ‘Khazar hypothesis of Ashkenazi ancestry’ claim there is ‘meagre evidence’ for the hypothesis. In any case, the controversy is an indication of how fraught the Zionist issue is. You could say the Jewish claim to the Palestinian lands is stronger than the British claim to Australia ever was, but then the eighteenth century was a lot more lawless about such things than the twentieth, and a lot more contemptuous of native claims to their own land, insofar as they ever even considered the matter. In today’s more human rights oriented world, the fact that there were non-Jewish Palestinian people living in Palestine for centuries before the Zionists started making their claims in the late nineteenth century makes what has happened in recent history to create and maintain the state of Israel a source of concern to many of us. After all, we could have been one of those Palestinian people.


Paul-Heywood-Smith, The Case for Palestine, 2014

Written by stewart henderson

January 21, 2019 at 3:06 pm