Friday, January 04, 2008

Israel and the Holocaust

On New Year's Eve I spent some time chatting with a Cambridge Don and his schoolteacher wife. Very nice people. The man was from San Francisco originally and made a joke about how that means he was necessarily a Liberal, in the American sense. Indeed he was, though we found we had a lot of common ground. One thing that struck me forcefully, though, was his view that the State of Israel was founded as a consequence of the Holocaust. I'm not entirely sure why, but the fact that he is Jewish made this even more surprising to me.

Because while the Holocaust might have provided the impetus for the final push for independence from the British Mandate, it was most certainly not the reason, nor was it the justification, for the foundation of Israel. This matters a great deal. The concerted attempt to present this false account of history, promoted by an unholy collection of people from the extreme "left" through the President of Iran and various assorted fascist nutters like David Duke, and shamefully reinforced by sloppy, incomplete and inaccurate reporting by the BBC and other parts of the "Liberal" media, has a very specific purpose. This is to frame the past as an Imperialist imposition of a European population on the innocent and suffering Palestinians as a response to a problem that was itself entirely European - the Holocaust.

This false version of history provides the following useful tools for the anti-semitic Axis:

1. Israel can be depicted as an imperialist, European Crusader State of no legitimacy and with the likely longevity of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem.

2. If the scope, scale or even the reality of the Holocaust can be challenged, then even the alleged justification for the establishment of Israel can be shown to be a fig leaf covering simple naked imperialism.

3. It can be argued that since this is just a European problem, a Jewish homeland should be created in Europe or even somewhere like Alaska, as Ahmadinejad has suggested:

"They have invented a myth that Jews were massacred and place this above God, religions and the prophets," Ahmadinejad said in a speech to thousands of people in the Iranian city of Zahedan, according to a report on Wednesday from Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting.

"The West has given more significance to the myth of the genocide of the Jews, even more significant than God, religion, and the prophets," he said. "(It) deals very severely with those who deny this myth but does not do anything to those who deny God, religion, and the prophet."

"If you have burned the Jews, why don't you give a piece of Europe, the United States, Canada or Alaska to Israel," Ahmadinejad said.

"Our question is, if you have committed this huge crime, why should the innocent nation of Palestine pay for this crime?"
The reality is this: the State of Israel has at least the same legitimacy, for exactly the same reasons, as do the States of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and all the other Gulf states. I italicised the words "at least" because one of the points of legitimacy for some, but not all, of these states is a historical antecedent: there was in the past something resembling a country with some correspondence to modern territorial boundaries. Israel has this, but Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states (with the possible, tentative exception of Yemen) do not. Arguably, Lebanon does not either.

I am not suggesting this de-legitimises these states. Such an argument would in turn legitimise a claim for independence by, say, Wessex. But few countries face allegations of illegitimacy. Perhaps there is another, besides Israel, but I can't bring it to mind at the moment. And there is a reason for this, a reason that is a very deep and ancient evil. Today, it carries the slightly inaccurate label "anti-Semitism".

All of these countries were formed in the aftermath of the First World War. For a couple of millennia previously, they had been ruled by a variety of empires: Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Sassanian, Mamluk, Mongol... the list becomes exhausting. For about four hundred years, the main occupier had been the Ottomans, who can be associated with modern day Turkey. The Ottomans sided with Germany during WWI and shared in the defeat. Allied powers found themselves faced with a region in which there were in some cases what could be described as national traditions and in other cases not; in some cases there were active nationalist or dynastic fights for independence and in other cases not.

Far from engaging in an "imperialist" project, Britain and France, having been granted Mandates by the League of Nations, set about acting as midwives to new and newly independent autonomous countries, beginning with recognition of those dynastic movements, like that of the Saudis, that had been allies during the War. This was in 1920. In 1922 the League of Nations specifically ratified the establishment of a state of Israel, with far larger territory than presently occupied. In 1926 Saudi Arabia (or rather its immediate predecessor the Kingdom of Nejd and Hejaz) was recognised by Britain.

In other words, every country in the region was formed in the aftermath of the First World War, under the auspices of the League of Nations. Every single one, including Israel. Aftermaths can be protracted.

The reason why the foundation of the State of Israel was so delayed is simple: Arab opposition. This grew during the 1930s and Britain, quite simply, got cold feet. As European anti-Semitism grew during the same decade, Britain even banned Jews from travelling to Israel to save their lives. This was one of the most shameful acts by this country in the whole of the twentieth century.

But travel there they did, continuing a slow return that began shortly after their expulsion in the third century AD, speeding up in the eleventh century, again in the eighteen, then the nineteenth, then the twentieth centuries. And if you are, as a people, moving to an area from which you originate and from which you were expelled by an imperial invader then it is a return. No other word is appropriate.

The growth of Arab opposition to Israel coincided with the growth of a way of thinking we now call Islamist, and with the alliance of some of these early Islamists with Nazi Germany. It was fuelled by the entirely imperialist notion that if an area had been conquered once by Muslims then it must remain always Islamic. The same reasoning lay behind the growth at the same time of the view that southern Spain should be reconquered for Islam. Other newly formed states in the region either were Islamic or had large Muslim populations (Lebanon). Only Israel would have an entirely non-Islamic identity.

So here is what I might mildly call an irony. In their acquiescence to this myth, that Israel was formed because of the Holocaust, European Liberals are allying themselves with an insupportable and imperialist project. So it is that they have consequently found themselves marching with people like David Irving fan Lady Michelle Renouf and David Duke, the founder of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and under banners of organisations like Hezbollah, whose leaders make no secret of their wish to kill all Jews everywhere.

Of course there are extreme Zionists who are the mirror image of the Islamists, but they are a tiny minority, if a vocal one. Israel, uniquely, went on to become a prosperous, democratic state, and the most secular state in the region. It is the only state in which it is genuinely safe not to be in the majority religion.

It is, in short, a state that deserves our support. But even for those who find it hard to give this, or who have overwhelming reservations about some aspects of Israeli policy, it is entitled to an accurate account of its history.


Anonymous said...

"Britain even banned Jews from travelling to Israel to save their lives. This was one of the most shameful acts by this country in the whole of the twentieth century." Cobblers, old boy. Britain put a quota on Jewish immigration to Palestine, out of worry that excessive immigration would lead to violence from the Arabs. But the quota was so large that it was never filled. (Bang goes your argument!) The reason is that German Jews overwhelmingly were uninterested in living in Palestine - no wonder, they considered themselves to be Germans. Even those who left Germany in 1933 went mainly just over the border - to France or the Netherlands or Czechoslovakia. Then, in 1934 many of them returned to Germany. In 1938, there was another big emigration and again it was mainly to neighbouring countries. Poor sods. In that sense, the Holocaust was the making of Israel - it was what led many Continental Jews to want to leave the Continent on a scale far greater than pre-war.

Moreover, after WWI, Britain itself admitted v few refugees of any sort EXCEPT German Jews: up to 80k. She issued another 50k visas that refugees did not fully take up. Another 40k or so were taken in by the Dominions, in spite of anti-semitism from the Boers and Quebecois. All-in-all, the facts are essentially the opposite of the common account. I wonder whether that common account essentially originated from Americans keen to disguise their country's poorer - but far from disgraceful - record. Or perhaps it comes from Communists and fellow travellers, though that too is only a guess.

Peter Risdon said...

Well, there's a certain amount of dissent from this version. If you accept Wikipedia as a source, then:

"By the autumn of 1943, it was discovered that only 44,000 of these [75,000 permitted under the 1939 white paper] certificates had been issued, and the British authorities ruled that the remaining 31,000 passes could be used immediately. By the end of the following year, the whole quota had been exhausted."

Certainly after the war prison camps were set up on Cyprus to stop hold Jews who had been trying to get to Israel. In the 1930s Jewish leaders managed to reach a compromise with the Nazi authorities to ease restrictions on the movement of money that had been designed to, and were succeeding in, preventing Jews from leaving for Israel. British attempts to prevent Jewish migration led to a number of tragedies, such as the sinking of ships with large scale loss of life.

This single line was entirely peripheral to my main argument, but it has some grounds. It also accorded with the sentiment at the time that caused Churchill to vote against his party, LLoyd George to call the quotas 'an act of perfidy', the Manchester Guardian to write that it was 'a death sentence on tens of thousands of Central European Jews' and Ben Gurion to say: 'We will fight the White Paper as if there is no war, and fight the war as if there is no White Paper.'

Peter Risdon said...

Oh, I meant to add that I do accept my language was sloppy. I had the word "banned" in my mind because after the quotas were exhausted, of course others, as well as anyone refused a certificate, had in effect been banned.

Anonymous said...

My source is William D Rubinstein "The Myth of Rescue", Routledge, 1997, especially pp 23-33. It's only a guess, but I really would be surprised if the field isn't polluted with Soviet disinformation. Why would this field be an exception?

Peter Risdon said...

I'm a bit wary of him, I'm afraid. There's no absolute reason why Rubinstein isn't right about this, but he is an 'interesting' character:

"Professor Rubinstein has recently written three articles in History Today on subjects debated by "amateur historians" but ignored by academics, on the assassination of President Kennedy, the identity of 'Jack the Ripper' and the Shakespeare authorship question."

And is capable of writing things like this:

"Evolution appears to be plainly impossible. Animals cannot "evolve" into new and different species. If one breeds cats for a thousand generations, they will still be cats, won't they? They simply will not "evolve" into cats which look like kangaroos and are genetically different from felis domesticus. It simply won't happen.
New organs in living bodies must appear fully-formed at once or they can serve no biological purpose and confer no advantage upon that creature. On the other hand, the complexity of most organs would seem to make this impossible. Charles Darwin himself was well-aware of this, and apparently regarded it as the most important criticism of his theory. The example which is always given is the eye: the retina cannot simply appear at one time, the lens a million years later, and the optic nerve a million years thereafter. The entire eye, including it neural connections with the brain and, through it, with an animal's locomotive system, must all have appeared at precisely the same time. The odds against this happening by sheer random chance are incalculably vast, and yet many creatures on different branches of the animal kingdom have "evolved" eyes which function in similar ways - squids, spiders, and humans, for example."

That's the ravings of a crank.

Anonymous said...

"By the autumn of 1943, it was discovered that only 44,000 of these [75,000 permitted under the 1939 white paper] certificates had been issued, and the British authorities ruled that the remaining 31,000 passes could be used immediately." But from 1940 onwards all the German (and French and Dutch....) Jews were not potential refugees - they were prisoners of a murderous regime. It didn't matter for them what Britain or the US did. They were doomed.
Who these potential refugees were in 1943 and 1944, I don't know - more reading required. But they certainly weren't the Jews of Germany, Austria, Poland..... They were, I repeat, prisoners (or already murdered).
"British attempts to prevent Jewish migration led to a number of tragedies, such as the sinking of ships with large scale loss of life." This, I presume, is principally a reference to a post-war event when the Russians torpedoed a Jewish refugee ship in the Black Sea. (That's one reason why I suspect Soviet propaganda living on here.)

"[it]caused Churchill to vote against his party": Churchill was a stout pro-semite, but if the quota wasn't filled, it remains true that it didn't matter.
"LLoyd George to call the quotas 'an act of perfidy'": Lloyd George was the sort of lying shitbag whose statements need not be taken seriously.
"the Manchester Guardian to write that it was 'a death sentence on tens of thousands of Central European Jews'": the quota being unfilled, then its prediction proved wrong.
"and Ben Gurion to say: 'We will fight the White Paper as if there is no war, and fight the war as if there is no White Paper.'" Again, if the quota was unfilled, it didn't matter.
Those four quotations were from people predicting future problems that, it turned out, did not arise. The German Jews plainly, and understandably, did not want to give up urban life in their homeland for rural life in the boondocks, surrounded by people some of whom already fancied cutting their throats. The poor sods clearly didn't yet understand just what Hitler was going to do to them.
Part of the problem with most of the writing on this whole topic is, it seems to me, (1) almost everyone writes with hindsight, failing to understand that the Holocaust was a surprise (2) and they talk again and again of Jewish refugees when the poor sods were prisoners, not refugees. (The US even had a refugee board for the non-existent refugees.)

Anonymous said...

Your warning about Rubenstein becoming (being?) a crank is accepted with thanks: but the Myth book is very well argued. Do try it. (There's one mysterious howler though: how can any serious historian believe that the US declared war on Germany when it happened the other way round? Still, most Americans seem to believe that too.))

Peter Risdon said...

I will, I'll order it tomorrow. It's always more educative to read a history you feel compelled to check.

Mark Wadsworth said...

Good post, it is indisputably the case that the most Middle-Eastern countries (in the sense of lines on a map) go back to the end of the Great War and no further than that. Including Israel.

Anonymous said...

On declaring war: I've just glanced at the "Intro to the Paperback Edition" - he gets it right there. But he's wrong in the body of the text. Perhaps he or the publisher decided on no editing, but just a new intro for the paperback edition.

Peter Risdon said...

Dearieme, just for clarification, there was no side on my comment that "It's always more educative to read a history you feel compelled to check." It is, and of course in context I'll want to check what I read.

Anonymous said...

No worries. I must say I was surprised when I read The Myth. But then Rubenstein confesses that he was surprised when he found what he did.

Trooper Thompson said...

This should be an open matter for debate, and of all historical controversies, this one is so mired in propaganda and myth, I think people should back off taking strident views if they aren't Palestinian or Israeli themselves.

I find the idea that Britain and France were not playing the imperialist in the aftermath of WWI to be naive to say the least.

Also, rather than the British 'getting cold feet' about supporting Israel, you will find that the creation of a state was never mentioned in that strange document 'the Balfour Declaration'. In any case the British made promises to a number of parties, which were contradictory.

Zionism grew up in Europe in the 19th century as did a number of nationalist movements. Dearieme is quite correct to point out that the vast majority of Jews did not want to abandon their homes and set off for Palestine. If you want to flag up connections between the Nazis and muslims (such as the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem), fair enough, but there were also connections between the Zionists and the Nazis - because they shared something significant - they both wanted the Jews out of Europe.

The histories of all countries are tainted with blood, treachery and events that it is more comfortable - or politically expedient - to draw a veil over. Israel is no different in this respect, and it must be remembered how long it takes for such things to be openly discussed. In Spain, for instance, the Civil War still inflames passions and old hurts.

Peter Risdon said...

Morning, TT. While everything without exception should be an open matter for debate, the idea that only the closest participants are entitled to engage in that debate is bizarre.

Unsupported accusations of political naivety generally accompany unsupportable opinions. If you think two countries that took control of the lands of a defeated empire and facilitated (with the exception of Israel though the same mandate existed for it) the creation of independent nation states were being imperialist, something that at first sight is just a through-the-looking-glass idea, you'll have to back your idea up with argument. I haven't said Britain and France were not self-serving, because of course they were. But they can't be described as 'imperialist'.

I didn't refer at all to the Balfour Declaration. Britain was in no position to unilaterally determine where borders fell in the middle east. I have referred entirely to the League of Nations mandates.

Your last two paragraphs are unrelated to my post, and so I will refrain from comment.

Peter Risdon said...

Incidentally, Britain did unilaterally adjust the borders of Israel. Under the League of Nations mandate of the early 1920s, Israel was to include Gaza, the West Bank and a big chunk of what is now Jordan.

Trooper Thompson said...


I didn't mean that people should refrain from discussing such issues, far from it, just that with Israel/Palestine people seem to get very partisan for one side or the other and end up laying aside the objective truth and fighting a propaganda battle. Even the mildest criticism of Israel can get you called a Jew hater, I've found. I wasn't aiming the point at anyone in particular.

My own views on the thorny issue have changed over time, one way and back the other, and in my experience the more you read, the murkier it gets.

In terms of imperialism, I would mention the French invasion of Syria in 1920, which ended the brief rule of Faisal I, and also the interference in the region from the British that continues to this day, including such highlights as the Suez invasion, the overthrow of Mossadeq etc. The division of the Middle East seems a lot like the division of Africa a few decades before, with lines being drawn on a map with no regard for the people living there. I don't think Britain can claim 'nothing to do with me, guv' in that particular matter.

Peter Risdon said...

I don't recognise any of the examples of overseas interference you give as 'imperialism'. The word has been used so reflexively and frequently for so long now it has drifted away from its meaning and just become a term of abuse directed at certain countries but not others who engage in identical actions.

The concept of 'France outre mere' is indeed imperialist. The concept of a Caliphate is imperialist. Syria's interference in Lebanon is imperialist, as is that of Iran in Iraq. But not every overseas action is.

Anonymous said...

Rather late in the day, chaps, but I've just come across this. Oh dear.

Unknown said...

Whilst agreeing with the essentials of the point you are making Peter, I do have one correction to make. Not all European Jews "returning" to Israel are from people who were expelled from there in the first place.

Judaism also had an expansionary phase, and Ashkenazi (as opposed to Sepphardic) Jews are the result of an ancient East European State sandwiched between Christians to the North and West and Moslems to the South and East. They adopted Judaism as a middle way that was less offensive to their neighbours.

Sadly, East-European Ashkenazi Jews (descended from people from this pre-millenial country) were the biggest victims of the Holocaust.