When I write of history I do not mean events and happenings of a year ago, although it would be an improvement of public understanding if mainstream media could at least get this time frame right. The distortions, both because of ignorance and malice, of the history of Palestine and of the State of Israel are so grievous that one hardly knows where to begin.
But the most crucial moment is clear...and virtually unknown or deliberately forgotten by press professionals who have the esteem of the public.
First a bit of prelude. The conflict between the Jews and Arabs of Palestine goes back to the late nineteenth century, when pre-Zionists and Zionists began their return to, well, yes, Zion. Of course, there had been Jews in the Holy Land throughout the centuries of the dispersion, although they were not masses of Jews. Neither were there masses of Arabs in Palestine, although there were more than there were Jews. Jerusalem, on the other hand, had a majority of Jews since the first census in 1842. With the Jewish migration (which meant Jewish capital and enterprise) came also an inward Arab migration -- a tremendous inward migration -- from other parts of the Ottoman Middle East. After all, Syria and Lebanon and Jordan and Iraq did not then exist as countries. Moving from one of them to Palestine was like moving from Manhattan to Brooklyn, and nearly as short. No borders, no frontiers, no passports, no visas, no police. And when Zionists said that Palestine was a country "without a people" it meant just that: Palestine was populated by clans and tribes who had virtually no consciousness of nationhood or of peoplehood.
Then came the British who were committed on their own initiative and then by the League of Nations to a Jewish commonwealth in Palestine. The Brits were not consistent in meeting their solemn pledges. But such minimal Arab resistance to early mass Jewish arrival and to Jewish work as occurred was, on the one hand, vigilante terror and, on the other, explicit cooperation in the selling-off of land to the arrivals by both the local effendi and the local fellah. And then came mayhem. It was clear from the late twenties and early thirties on that the only resolution to the conflict was a partition of Palestine. On this almost no one would claim that history is other than black and white. The Arab leadership would not countenance territorial arrangements that would allow for a Jewish state. And nothing was done to have Palestine become an Arab state. The destiny of Palestine would be in the hands of Egypt and other entities formed out of the Turkish empire in the aftermath of its defeat in World War I.
Which brings us to the Partition Plan for Palestine approved by the United Nations on November 29, 1947, the crucial moment, the single most crucial moment is the hundred years of tears and blood. The local Arabs had contempt for this plan and the surrounding Arabs made war on this plan. The Jewish Agency for Palestine went ahead and declared the independence of Israel on May 14, 1948. Had the Palestinian Arabs accepted the proposal, they would now be celebrating the sixtieth year of their independence and sovereignty in territory far larger than the land assigned to the Jews. We know what happened then. I believe that the Palestinians -- they did capture the nomenclature if nothing else! -- are as far from independence as ever.
Much is being written these days about Israel's sixtieth birthday. Some potted history, some truly serious. Efraim Karsh, whom TNR subscribers have read often in our pages and on our web site, has done a clarifying, no, truly illuminating historical essay for Commentary on many of the grave matters on which I touched above. Make sure you read the footnotes for sometimes -- and this time certainly -- the footnotes are half of the story. This will be an essay that changes people's minds. Truth will be the beneficiary.
Another piece I recommend is in last month's Commentary. By the gifted young writer David Billet, it is a review of Bernard Avishai's The Hebrew Republic. (Avishai was once before reviewed in TNR, that time by the brilliant literary and political intellectual Marie Syrkin, alas, now dead. But she got his number.) his book, like Avishai's first, is a tale of his disenchantment. Poor preening boy. He needs to have the approval of Tony Judt and the rest who believe that justice is only done when the Jewish state is maximally endangered.