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"...A Government In Tel Aviv..." What Nonsense! Alas, It's Also Rancid Bigotry And Deceit

The phrase, "a government in Tel Aviv," does not come from an article written in 1948 during which the provisional government of Israel had, in fact, headquartered itself in the city then only 40 years old. Not at all. The phrase is from a Financial Times editorial published in print on July 21, 2009. It has been rankling me ever since I read it on the airplane to South Africa. But it's not the sentence in which the phrase was enmeshed that rankles me: "There are signs the American Jewish community is increasingly exasperated with a government in Tel Aviv more disposed to brinkmanship than real negotiation." First of all, there are no such real signs at all. Maybe George Soros thinks that the "J-Street" fantasy is actually a budding mass movement. I doubt, however, whether even he or anyone else really believes this. Secondly, it is clear--and has been clear for years--that the FT despises Israel and that the paper takes the opportunity to revile the Jewish state in even its most pedestrian news reports. In a way, then, there is nothing new here. But this deliberately false and insulting nomenclature has a history and a context which I do want to explore. 

So let's begin with the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine, passed by the General Assembly on November 29, 1947. It approved the creation of "a Jewish state" in Palestine and "an Arab state" in Palestine, the whole of which had been governed by a British Mandate since the early twenties. (I note here and not for the first time that the second polity envisioned was not called "a Palestinian state" because very few people--even Arabs and especially Arabs in Palestine--thought there really existed a Palestinian nation. You already know my heresy: I believe that one of the fundamental impediments to peace is the failure of many Palestinians to believe in their own peoplehood.  Otherwise, they would have long ago accepted any one of several generous formulae to solve their "problem.")

The return to Zion--that is, the return to Jerusalem--was one of the cardinal tenets of Zionism, however much many of its leaders and followers distrusted the messianic idea that was submerged in the very idea of Jewish politics in Palestine. In any case, the Zionist movement as a whole insisted that parts of Jerusalem be apportioned to the yet-to-be-born state. Still, the big powers and the many Catholic countries of South America and Europe would not agree. Remember: the Vatican of Pius XII--no friend of Jews, he--was a real power in world politics in those days. As a result, the very idea of partition was intimately linked, even premised on the internationalization of Jerusalem, a corpus separatum, as the U.N. lawyers called it. The Jewish Agency for Palestine accepted it, as any sane political movement would have done. Sovereignty was more important than this piece of territory or that. Who knows how the nostrum of internationalization of Jerusalem would have worked in reality? But it never had a chance. The Arabs rejected it all and went to war. An armistice set the frontiers down the middle of Jerusalem as it did in the rest of Palestine.

But as long as battles raged in Jerusalem the provisional government remained in Tel Aviv. By late spring, however, the so-called Rhodes Agreements that had ended the fighting had been signed, leaving the parts of Palestine still in Arab hands under Jordanian control in the east (later annexed) and Gaza to the south with Egypt. Of course, East Jerusalem, never a formally defined sector, was ruled by the Arab Legion, as was the ancient Jewish Quarter of the Old City that had been completely trashed by this army whose commander was a Brit, one Brigadier General Sir John Glubb Pasha. (I was nine then and there were five British villains in my Zionist household: Ernest Bevin, the Labour foreign minister; John Bull; Colonel Blimp; Perfidious Albion; and the said Glubb Pasha. I imagined Glubb to be a tall and stately officer in His Majesty's army. I met him when he came to visit Harvard while I was a graduate student. He was short and fat, rather incoherent and almost without a chin, his having been blown apart in warfare, not in Palestine, as I recall.)

With Jerusalem no longer a battle zone, the Israeli government gradually transported itself to the city. Within a year, it was both in law and in fact the capital. That means that Jerusalem has been the seat of government now for exactly 60 years, time for the FT to catch up. There is where the government ministries have their offices, where the Knesset debates and legislates, where the Supreme Court sits and rules. The only ministry (and, at that, only parts of it) that is not in Jerusalem is the Ministry of Defense, an enclave in Tel Aviv to Israel's capital as the Pentagon in Arlington, Va. is to the District of Columbia.  

Do not think for a moment that the Israel bureau of the FT is anyplace else than in Jerusalem. That is where the political action is and where every foreign news keeps its correspondents and offices. When Tobias Buck writes his dispatches, which almost always have a venomous line or two in them, he writes from Jerusalem. Where else would he write from? Tel Aviv? Maybe if he were writing on Israeli business matters or the incandescent dance scene. The FT knows that Jerusalem is Israel's capital. But its instinct to denigrate Israel as the one country that should not be permitted to name its own headquarters, so to speak, overwhelms its journalistic scruples. It is true that the B.B.C. doesn't name Jerusalem as Israel's capital either, and it has apologized at least once for doing so. All of this is an index of the prejudices held by much of the British press against Israel.

But the FT takes this bias one step further by deciding itself where the capital of Israel is. Its choice is Tel Aviv. Do its readers believe this? What do they think of this ludicrous falsification? After all, the government of Israel does not sit or meet or legislate or rule or administer in or from Tel Aviv. It performs all of these chores in Jerusalem. Yes, believe it or not, Jerusalem. 

From where does this nutsy denial of elementary fact derive? I think there is a strain in Christendom (and more than a strain in Islam) that passionately rebels against the Jewish identification with the Holy Land although it was in the Holy Land where the Jews became a people. Many non-Jews find the survival of the Jewish nation somehow an offense to their own (what they think is) transcendent theology. Alas, there are now about 13,000 Christians of different strains in Jerusalem, amounting to roughly 2% of the whole and in inevitable further decline. Christianity arose in Jerusalem precisely because that is where the Jew Jesus worked and was crucified. His message transformed the whole world. But it did not transform the Jews who have re-established themselves in Zion and, let's face it, also define it. It's a small place. Still, it has resonance, great if not eternal resonance.

There is a similar but more ferocious dynamic among Muslims. They, too, came to the Holy Land because their pre-history was imagined to be among the Jews but, to be sure, also transcending them. In 1950, a great Hebrew poet, Natan Alterman, wrote a sardonic verse called "An Arab Land."

        Palestine is an Arab land. Strangers have no share in it.
                -a public broadsheet
        A clear night. Trees wave
        Their boughs in an airy whisper.
        From above, Arab night stars    
        Sparkle over an Arab land.

        The night-stars sparkle and blink       
        Sowing their trembling light
        Upon the quiet city, El Kuds,
        Where King Daoud dwells.

        From there, they gaze
        To the far-off city, El-Chalil,
        The city where Father Ibrahim is buried-
        Ibrahim who bore Ischak.

        From there, their sharp line of light
        Hastens to paint with radiance  
        The waters of the river, El-Urdun
        Which Yakub with his crook crossed over.

        A clear light. With an airy wink
        Night-stars sparkle as is their custom  
        Upon the Arab hills
        Which Musa saw from afar.

The pathos of this poem is also what makes it comedy. Alright, tragicomedy.