Toward a More Balanced Analysis of Zionism

Steve Chase, in his Reflection "Recovering a Forgotten Zionist Vision for Peace?" in the April issue of Friends Journal, offers a flawed analysis of the history of Zionism. Chase inflates the importance of the so-called "Spiritual" group of Zionists. In addition, he consults only authors who are notoriously anti-Israeli, such as Noam Chomsky. (He should have consulted Walter Laqueur’s A History of Zionism, an evenhanded analysis accepted by most as the definitive history of this subject.)

The history of Zionism is far more complicated than Chase allows. The leading critics of Zionism were Jews. Broadly speaking, these critics were either Orthodox Jews who believed only the Messiah could restore the Temple and thus create a new Israel, or they were U.S. assimilationists who argued that Jews were enjoying something of a Golden Age in the United States and should prove their loyalty by showing they cared more for their country than for other Jews. Zionism began in 1897; it was not until the late 1930s that Zionists constituted a majority of American Jews.

From the beginning of Jewish settlement in Palestine, Arabs welcomed them with religiously inspired massacres, culminating in the slaughter of 133 Jews in Hebron in 1929. Although Jews reached out to their neighbors, Arabs were never willing to negotiate. They rejected the Peel Commission Report of 1937, which proposed a twostate solution giving the Jews far less land than they would eventually get. The Jews were willing to accept the report, as well as the United Nations Partition Plan of 1947, which also offered a relatively small amount of land. Neither plan considered a one-state solution, which neither side took seriously. When Israel declared its independence in 1948, the Arabs responded by attacking the new country. Had the Arabs been willing to compromise, they would have had their state beginning in 1948.

Chase attempts to make the case that a strong minority among Zionists argued for a one-state solution, referring to Martin Buber and Judah Magnes. Buber was a renowned philosopher, though his ideas were always more attractive to Christians than to Jews. But he ceased to play an active role in the Zionist movement in 1904. Magnes was indefatigable but naïve. Few Zionists, faced with Arab intransigence, paid much attention to him.

The rest of Chase’s argument is familiar to Quakers: that most of what has transpired between the Arabs and Israelis is the fault of Israel.

Chase refers to the "New Israeli Historians," seemingly unaware that these revisionist historians have themselves been revised. Whatever Noam Chomsky claims, there was no plan to remove Arabs from their land; most of the land Israelis occupied had been purchased from Arabs at fair prices. When the Arabs attacked Israel, the fledgling country had to defend itself. Arabs were urged by their leaders to leave their land so that their military could triumph. Many Arabs became refugees, a tragedy that often accompanies wars. But Jordan and Egypt refused to integrate them into their new lands, as they had already grabbed the West Bank and Gaza respectively. Arabs instead allowed them to fester in refugee camps so that the hapless inhabitants of these camps could serve as a propaganda ploy against Israel.

It needn’t have been that way. Tens of millions were stateless after World War II. But homes were soon found for most, except for the Jews, who lingered in refugee camps. Nobody wanted them, least of all the United States. One reason Israel was created was to find a home for the Jewish population and to ensure that Jews would have a place to go when the next attack on them occurred, as it surely would. Another was the guilty consciences of Europeans and people in the United States.

Most historians now agree that both sides share a responsibility for the creation of Jewish refugees. It must be recognized that refugees are a byproduct of war. To hold Israel but not any other country responsible for Arab refugees is to hold Israel to a higher level of morality than any other country and is, in my view, anti-Semitic. It is true that Israel refused to let the refugees back once the war ended, but what country ever has? Zionists are guilty only of behaving like other peoples. Even so, Arabs bear at least as much responsibility in this matter. Even Mahmoud Abbas, the prime minister of the Palestinian authority, has accused the Arabs of having abandoned the Palestinians after they "forced them to emigrate and to leave their homeland and threw them into prisons similar to the ghettos in which the Jews used to live" (Wall Street Journal, June 5, 2003). Incidentally, the total number of refugees was far closer to 500,000 than 1,000,000, the number Chase uses.

In 1967, the Arabs once again threatened Israel, hoping to wipe it from the face of the Earth. Israel was ready. After the war, Israel found itself in the possession of the Sinai, the West Bank, and Gaza. Soon a consensus developed in Israel to trade land for peace. But the Arabs once again refused to negotiate. It was then that the regrettable settlement program began, though Egypt, after attacking and almost destroying Israel in 1973, was willing to recognize Israel in 1978, and as a result got the Sinai back.

Since then the Palestinians have refused to negotiate seriously. In 2000, Israel offered the Palestinians an excellent proposal, giving them far more than they could get now, but Yassir Arafat refused, and Palestinians responded with a series of coordinated terrorist attacks. Later they refused another enticing offer from Ehud Olmert. Given the Palestinians’ historical unwillingness to negotiate seriously, it seems unlikely they would do so at this time. Perhaps we should urge them to do so instead of putting most of the pressure on Israel.

Chase closes his article with suggestions of what Quakers might do. Allow me to offer some of my own.

First, Quakers should come to terms with the Holocaust. The Holocaust and its aftermath, after all, permitted the creation of Israel. To the best of my knowledge, no yearly meeting has done so through a minute, and American Friends Service Committee only obliquely referred to in its three (!) books of anti-Israeli analysis: Search for Peace in the Middle East (1971), A Compassionate Peace (1989), and When the Rain Returns (2004, published by the International Quaker Working Party on Israel and Palestine, a group with close ties to AFSC). Quakers might begin with Yehuda Bauer’s books, A History of the Holocaust and Rethinking the Holocaust. Were Quakers to understand the Holocaust, they might be more able to understand why Israel was created.

Second, Quakers might reexamine their attitudes toward Jews. Quakers are good people, and for decades they have been reexamining their attitudes toward African Americans. Might it be possible, for example, that constant criticism of Israel is a way of expressing subconscious anti-Semitism, the latter of which is no longer permitted? Might this anti-Semitism be present in people who constantly blame Israel (the Jews) but never criticize Arabs or Palestinians? Might an understanding of the reasons for the Holocaust help Quakers to understand deep-rooted anti-Semitism? As Thomas Friedman of the New York Times has written, "Criticizing Israel is not anti-Semitic, and saying so is vile. But singling out Israel for opprobrium and international sanction—out of all proportion to any other party in the Middle East—is anti-Semitic, and not saying so is dishonest" (New York Times, October 16, 2002).

Third, Quakers ought to live out our testimonies. When we refer to Palestine, we violate our testimony of integrity. Palestine has not existed since 1948; to refer to Palestine as if it did exist is, to speak plainly, to tell an untruth. Quakers have seldom denounced Palestinian terrorism by name, even though we try to practice our testimony of nonviolence. We have turned a blind eye to Palestinian terrorism while becoming appalled when other nations commit terrorism. It is not enough to promote Palestinian nonviolence; Quakers must denounce Palestinian terrorism whenever it takes place. All most Quakers can manage is to criticize Israeli responses to terrorist attacks. Again, might this continual criticism of Israeli response without criticism of Palestinian terror be driven by latent dislike of Jews? Might we at least be more even-handed?

Fourth, Quakers ought to urge the Palestinians to tear down their refugee camps and absorb their inhabitants into their general population. Haven’t 63 years been enough? Quakers might offer to take the lead in such a resettlement.

Fifth, Quakers, who have become close to the Palestinians over the years, ought to urge the violent faction, now represented to an extent by Hamas, to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, renounce terrorism, and accept the Oslo Accords instead of trying to force Israel to negotiate. Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with a group that does not recognize its existence. In addition, we ought to urge the Palestinians to renounce the so-called right of return, which would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state; according to the Palestine Center for Public Opinion (July 12, 2010), 81.7 percent of Palestinians refuse to do so.

I have been urging these courses of action to Friends since the mid-1970s. I admit a sense of frustration and deep sadness that Friends have responded to my questions by continuing with the same tired anti-Israeli rhetoric. I am deeply devoted to the Religious Society of Friends and will continue to follow my leading, but I hope to see some positive response in my lifetime.

Allan Kohrman

Allan Kohrman, a retired professor of history and English, is a member of Wellesley (Mass.) Meeting. His pamphlet Quakers and Jews is available from QuakerBooks of FGC.