Israel, starting from scratch

Today's question: Could Arabs and Israelis have done anything differently before 1948 that would have laid a better foundation for the Middle East? Later in the week, Pearl and Bisharat will discuss relations with Hamas, their personal connections to the Holy Land and more.

Point: Judea Pearl
Until fairly recently, I believed that the Zionist movement ignored signs of national awakening among Palestinians in the early 20th century. I believed that if only it had done more to acknowledge and accommodate that awakening, much of the animosity between the two peoples could have been avoided.

Yet a short journey through the worn and dusty pages on my history bookshelf unveiled a different story, evidently unavailable to English readers. Zionists were both aware and respectful of Palestinian aspirations and made persistent attempts to reach reciprocal recognition and accommodation.

For example, David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, wrote in the Yiddish newspaper Yiddishe Kemper in 1918: "The land of Israel is not an empty country. ... West of Jordan alone houses three-quarters of a million people. On no account must we injure the rights of the inhabitants." The next year, Chaim Weizmann wrote in Haaretz (Dec. 15, 1919): "If indeed there is among the Arabs a national movement, we must relate to it with the utmost seriousness."

Most revealing yet was a fiery speech given by Ben-Gurion in November 1930 in which he said: "We ought not to diminish the Arabs' freedom for self-determination for fear that it would present difficulties to our own mission. The entire moral core encapsulated in the Zionist idea is the notion that a nation -- every nation -- is its own purpose and not a tool for the purposes of other nations. And in the same way that we want the Jewish people to be master of its own affairs, capable of determining its historical destiny without dependence on the will -- even goodwill -- of other nations, so too we must seek for the Arabs."

The Middle East would look significantly different today had Arab leadership been able to reciprocate Ben-Gurion's offer with some recognition, however mild, of the Jewish right for self-determination. Unfortunately, the idea of Jews returning to rebuild their ancient homeland, a notion that inspired worldwide Zionists with infinite energies of sacrifice and creative development, was dismissed by the Arabs as a fabrication designed to serve European imperialism.

This clash of paradigms came to a juncture in July 1937, when the British Peel Commission recommended the partition of Palestine into two separate states, leaving Jews about 20% of the land. The Arabs flatly rejected the partition plan, arguing that they should not be turned into a minority in any part of Palestine, however slender the margin. Had this plan been accepted, much of European Jewry could have been saved, and Israel would have become a thriving Hong Kong-type enclave, home to 10 million Jews and neighbor to an equally thriving Palestinian state four times its size.

A second juncture presented itself in 1947, when the United Nations General Assembly voted 33 to 13 in favor of a partition plan that allotted 55% of the land for a Jewish state side by side with a Palestinian state twice the size of the present-day West Bank and Gaza Strip. Arab leaders rejected this plan as unfair, citing 1947 demographic figures that did not factor in the millions of Jews in Europe and Arab countries who were waiting to emigrate.

Had the partition plan been accepted, the humiliating defeat of the five Arab armies that attacked Israel in May 1948 would have been avoided, fears of Arabs' genocidal designs would not have settled into the Israeli mind-set, the Palestinian refugee problem would not have emerged and efforts toward reconciliation and collaboration would have moved the region to a new era of dignity and prosperity.

Sixty years later, the world, the region and two bleeding nations are still awaiting the first Arab leader, intellectual or spokesperson to publicly accept Jews as a nation, equally indigenous to the land and equally deserving a sovereign homeland.

Judea Pearl, a professor of computer science at UCLA, is a frequent commentator on the Arab-Israeli conflict. He is the president and co-founder of the Daniel Pearl Foundation -- named after his son -- a nonprofit organization dedicated to dialogue and cross-cultural understanding.

Counterpoint: George E. Bisharat

You imply that if Palestinians had packed up and abandoned their homes, fields and communities to make room for a Jewish state in Palestine, then conflict would have been avoided and much of European Jewry might have been saved. That is quite a moral responsibility to shift to Palestinians -- and it is unfair.

Imagine that a foreign government were granted authority over California against our expressed will. With its aid, a persecuted people from elsewhere immigrated here in great numbers. Imagine further that these immigrants aspired not to live among us as equals, but to displace us and establish a state to serve their interests but not ours. Finally, an international organization endorsed this plan. Wouldn't we respond with outrage? That is exactly how Palestinians responded. Their efforts to defend their independence have been sometimes valiant and sometimes crude. But they follow a tradition of struggles for freedom against foreign domination that we must respect.

No one has ever answered satisfactorily why Palestinians should have paid the moral debt that Christian Europe incurred for its centuries of persecution of Jews. In fact, no answer is possible. When the British, and later the United Nations, proposed awarding part of Palestine to Jews, they and other Western nations that dominated the organization at the time let themselves off cheaply. In the name of justice for Jews, a great injustice was perpetrated against the Palestinians.

Judea, you also overlook the expansionist ambitions of political Zionism (the movement to create a Jewish state in Palestine). Long ago, Zionists determined to take the entire country "goat by goat, dunum by dunum" (a dunum is the local measure of land). But Zionist -- and later Israeli -- leaders have been careful to admit only what political traffic would bear. They accepted partition of Palestine as a tactical advance, as it provided them previously lacking international legitimacy.

Ben-Gurion knew that force would be necessary to clear the land of Palestinians for Jewish settlement. He confided to his diary in 1937: "The compulsory transfer of the Arabs from the valleys of the proposed Jewish state could give us something which we never had ... a Galilee free from Arab population. ... We must uproot from our hearts the assumption that the thing is not possible. It can be done." Later, in July 1948, Ben-Gurion ordered the forcible expulsion of the Palestinian residents of Lydda and Ramla.

In short, conflict was inevitable once Zionists sought a Jewish state in a land with an Arab majority. Ethnic separatism cannot be imposed on a multicultural society except through violence. Palestinians were bound to oppose a movement that would either displace them or reduce them to a powerless minority where their ancestors had lived for centuries.

Had Jews come to live with Palestinian Arabs as equals, not usurpers, they might have been welcomed. Yet Zionism's terrible mistake can still be rectified by establishing equal rights for everyone in Israel and Palestine, regardless of religion or race.

George E. Bisharat is a professor of law at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, and writes frequently on law and politics in the Middle East.

Response from Judea Pearl
Dear George,

Before we go further into the discussion, I must correct a terrible misconception that seems to be the basis of your counterpoint. For the record, the two-state solution that was proposed to the Arabs in 1937 and 1947 did not imply, as you state, that Palestinians must "pack up, abandon their hones, fields and communities and make room for a Jewish state in Palestine."

It implied that Palestinians will continue to live in their villages but allow Jewish immigration to areas designated as a Jewish state (20% of the land in the 1937 proposal), where Palestinians will enjoy full rights similar to the rights that French nationals enjoy in Montreal. Conversely, indigenous Jews will become a minority with full rights in the areas designated as a Palestinian state.

Moving Palestinians from their land was rejected by every Zionist leader from 1918 until bloody hostilities broke out in 1936. Even then, with the exception of a few anecdotes, removing Palestinians was never policy. Ben-Gurion said in 1918, "Dispossessing the current inhabitants of the country is not the mission of Zionism. Had Zionism to aspire to inherit the place of these inhabitants -- it would be nothing but a dangerous utopia and an empty, damaging and reactionary dream."

Chaim Weizmann wrote in Haaretz in 1919:

    If indeed there is among the Arabs a national movement, we must relate to it with
    the utmost seriousness . . . The Arabs are concerned about two issues:

    1. The Jews will soon come in their millions and conquer the country and chase out
    the Arabs . . . Responsible Zionists never said and never wished such things.

    2. There is no place in Erets Israel for a large number of inhabitants. This is total
    ignorance. It is enough to notice what is happening now in Tunis, Tangier and
    California to realize that there is a vast space here for a great work of many Jews,
    without touching even one Arab.

Moreover, Palestinians knew perfectly well that Zionists had no such intentions whatsoever. The Arab newspaper "Carmel" wrote in an editorial in the 1920s:

    The Arabs never doubt that the potential absorption capacity of Erets Israel is
    enormous and, therefore, that it is possible to settle here enough Jews without
    dispossessing or constraining even a single Arab. It is obvious that "this is all" the
    Zionists want. But it is also obvious that this is precisely what the Arabs do not

The Arab concern was that -- as I stated in my point -- Arabs who remain in the Jewish state will turn into a minority.

This was indeed a price that some Arabs were asked to pay, and for three reasons: First, the Jews, though not (visibly) physically present in their historical homeland, are no less indigenous to that land, having maintained spiritual and historical ties to it since their 2nd century expulsion by the Roman Empire. Second, the idea that the homeless must forever remain homeless is morally unacceptable. Third, in 1930 the Jews were under obvious threat of physical annihilation in Europe.

Note that I placed the Holocaust as the third point. The important point is the first one. My grandfather, who came to Israel in 1924 to rebuild the ancient town of Bnai Braq, was no less indigenous to the land than the peasants in the neighboring village of Jamusin, who could not and wished not to cultivate the arid land that he bought from them in hard cash. He and his ancestors prayed three times a day, "And thou shall walk us in sovereignty back to our country".

The people of Jamusin, you must admit, though they were strongly attached to their village and land, never heard the word "sovereignty" in their lives. Thus, the 1920s saw a clash between two legitimate, yet deficient national movements: Zionism, deficient in physical presence, but strong in historical bonds; and Palestinian nationalism, weak in historical bond (e.g., no national holidays), and strong in physical presence.

It is time that we admit, recognize and forgive each other's weaknesses, and proclaim loud and clear: "Two states for two people, equally indigenous, and equally legitimate."

-- Judea Pearl

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