Yesterday’s New York Times column by liberal Zionist Roger Cohen (4/20/18 – “The Insanity at the Gaza Fence”) put me in mind of the piece by Ian Lustick we recently read for a discussion held by our Jewish Voice for Peace Western Massachusetts chapter, entitled “Making Sense of the Nakba: Ari Shavit, Baruch Marzel, and Zionist Claims to Territory”. Lustick is a political scientist at Penn who wrote, among other major works, Arabs in the Jewish State: Israel’s Control of a National Minority, one of the best books I’ve read on the condition of Palestinian citizens of Israel. In the piece we read, Lustick discusses the dilemma faced by liberal Zionists who argue that the Occupation of the post-1967 territories is wrong, and that the settlement project on the West Bank constitutes ethnic cleansing and land theft. The problem, reflected in the challenge from right-wing settler advocate Baruch Marzel described in the article, is that the very same activities today carried out to promote settlement in the West Bank were carried out to a much higher degree in order to secure the Israeli state back in the so-called War of Independence (or the Nakba, as it is known by Palestinians and their supporters).
In yesterday’s column, Cohen rightly condemns Israel’s actions along the Gaza border in response to the Great March of Return, calling it “insanity.” He quotes Avi Shlaim’s quip that Israel’s motto seems to be “an eye for an eyelash”. But then he beautifully displays the liberal Zionist dilemma Lustick was speaking of when he discusses one of the two principal political demands of the Gaza marchers: the Right of Return. (The other is the end of the siege of Gaza, which Cohen seems to support.) You see the vast majority of Gazans are refugees or their descendants. Here is what he has to say:
Increasingly, you may hear “occupation” used as a term to describe Israel’s very existence, rather than the West Bank and Gaza, both occupied during the 1967 Six-Day War…
The suggestion here is clear, that this use of “occupation” is unwarranted and dangerous, giving comfort to what he called earlier “Israel haters and Jew haters”.
He goes on:
The Friday Gaza marches are protests against the 11-year-old blockade of Gaza but also focused on reigniting international interest in Palestinian claims of a right of return to homes they were driven from in 1948. There’s no point mincing words: the right of return is flimsy code for the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state. It’s consistent with the absolutist use of “occupation” as defining Israel itself and with the view that the sea is a pretty good place for Jews to end up.
It’s stomach turning.
Palestinians lost their homes after Arab armies declared war in 1948 on Israel, which had accepted United Nations Resolution 181 of 1947 calling for the establishment of two states of roughly equal size — one Jewish, one Arab — in British Mandate Palestine. The resolution was a compromise in which I still believe, not because it was pretty, but because it was and remains better than other options.
This passage is filled with misleading historical claims, and a big non-sequitur – both trademarks of liberal Zionism. First the misleading claims. If Cohen had not just quoted Avi Shlaim’s quip but also read his important work Collusion Across the Jordan: King Abdullah, the Zionist Movement, and the Partition of Palestine, or any of a dozen other books written about 1948, he’d know the following:
–To say “Palestinians lost their homes after Arab armies declared war in 1948 on Israel” is to lose half the story, because from a third to a half of the 750,000 Palestinians driven from their homes in the 1948 war were expelled prior to the declaration of statehood on May 14 and the subsequent Arab army incursion. Only Arab irregulars had been fighting with the JDF (Jewish Defense Forces, precursor to the IDF, Israel Defense Forces) up to that point.
–Yes, the two proposed states were roughly equal in size – 55% to the Jewish state, and 45% to the Palestinian state – but the population at the time was 67% Palestinian and only 33% Jewish, so the division did not reflect the demographic reality. Also, Jews only owned about 7% of the land at that point. More important, the Jewish state, if Palestinians had not been expelled, would have contained a Palestinian minority of about 45% of the population, while the Palestinian state would have contained a very small percentage of Jews. So these several hundred thousand Palestinians, who had lived on this land for generations upon generations, were suddenly being told they had to give up their sovereignty to, essentially, European colonialists. Any wonder they rejected it?
–In fact, the strongest and most effective Arab army, the Arab Legion of Transjordan, never attacked Israel within the lines set out for the Jewish state by the UN Partition Resolution of 1947. All of the fighting between Israel and Transjordan took place in Jerusalem – supposedly made an international city by the Partition Resolution – and the areas that became the West Bank, areas that were allocated to the Palestinian state. In that area it was Israel that was the invader and Transjordan was trying to protect it (though not for the Palestinian state, alas, but for its own control – hence the “collusion” in the title of Shlaim’s book).
–Finally, what about this line that “the right of return is flimsy code for the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state”? This is just plain scare tactics. The scare tactics are reflected in the use of the term “destruction” for the dismantling of the Zionist institutions that make Israel a Jewish state, along with the claim that extending the notion of occupation to the Israel of 1948/9 goes along “with the view that the sea is a pretty good place for Jews to end up.” And then there is the expression of disgust at Palestinian claims to return, when he says “It’s stomach turning”. Notice, however, that when apartheid South Africa was told by the world that it could no longer maintain its white supremacy regime, no one ever talked about this as the “destruction” of South Africa.
While it’s true that if one state were established that encompassed all Jews and Palestinians between the river and the sea, along with those refugees and descendants who chose to return, Jews would no longer be the majority and it’s hard to see how the Zionist institutions could be maintained along with democratic institutions. But here is the non-sequitur. I say, so what? Even if one believes Jews, as a group, have a compelling need for a state of their own – a view I do not share – that still can’t justify forcibly taking over another people’s land and kicking most of them out, while oppressing those that remain. The problem with Cohen, and all liberal Zionists, is that they never ask that question that immediately arises when you argue that Jews need a state of their own. So what? What is supposed to follow from that?
In a recent piece Jonathan Ofir addressed what he called the “Zionist myth” of the Jewish people constituting a nation. I pretty much agree with everything he had to say. But again, I want to add one more point. So what if we were a nation? Nations, in this ethnic sense, do not have rights to sovereignty, not if you hold basic liberal democratic values. All the people residing in a given area should constitute the citizenry of the state that governs them, and have full rights of participation in the governing institutions, a point Ofir makes at the end. It’s time to stop the scare tactics, stop using loaded language about “destruction” and “throwing into the sea” and face the consequences: either defend liberal democracy consistently or admit that one is willing to sacrifice it for ethnic nationalism. And then, why not occupy the West Bank and Gaza? As Marzel argues, what’s the difference?