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It was Hamas that Attacked

Israel Has the Right to Defend Herself

Islamic Jihad members firing rockets into Israel from the Gaza Strip. Photo: CC BY-SA Amir Farshad Ebrahimi, Flickr.

How can tension between different groups sharing the same territory be resolved?...

It is nothing new in modern history that different groups have found it difficult to live together, not least if one of them is put under the rule of the other one. Protestants in Northern Ireland, descendants of British immigrants arriving three hundred years ago, refuse to be ruled from Dublin. Another divided European island is Cyprus, after Turkey occupied a part of it in 1974, allegedly to protect the Turkish minority against the Greek majority. In extreme cases such disputes have been resolved by relocation: after her victory over Greece in 1923, Turkey drove out 1.2 million Greeks and received instead 400,000 Turkish Muslims from Greece. The largest deportation in history took place after the Second World War, in 1945, when ten million German-speaking people, mainly from Poland and Czechoslovakia, were expelled to Germany. After being defeated by the Soviet Union in 1944, Finland evacuated 400,000 people from the lost territories. In 1962, 800,000 of the one million inhabitants in Algeria of European or Jewish origin fled the country upon independence; most of those remaining have now left. In 1972, the notorious Ugandan dictator Idi Amin expelled people of Indian origin; they mostly moved to the United Kingdom. Likewise, Russian-speaking immigrants in Crimea do not want to be Ukrainian subjects, we are told, while the once-dominant Crimean Tatars have only sporadically returned after past deportations. In still more extreme cases, ethnic cleansing has not been by relocation but by extermination, such as the terrible Holocaust in 1941–1945 when the Nazis sought to kill all the Jews they could reach.

Why is This Still a Problem?

At present, the conflict between the two different groups, Jews and Arabs, who inhabit what was the British Mandate for Palestine between 1920 and 1948 and a part of the Ottoman Empire before then, is the most prominent example. What is peculiar about it is that it has still not been resolved, although the state of Israel was founded 73 years ago, with a joint attack by Arab states subsequently being repelled by Israeli forces, while 850,000 Jews fled from Arab countries to Israel and 700,000 Arabs fled from Israel to Arab countries. ‘The Jews are a peculiar people: things permitted to other nations are forbidden to the Jews,’ American philosopher Eric Hoffer once commented. ‘Other nations drive out thousands, even millions of people and there is no refugee problem. Russia did it, Poland and Czechoslovakia did it. Turkey drove out a million Greeks and Algeria a million Frenchman. Indonesia threw out heaven knows how many Chinese—and no one says a word about refugees. But in the case of Israel, the displaced Arabs have become eternal refugees. Everyone insists that Israel must take back every single Arab.’ Hoffer also observed: ‘Other nations when victorious on the battlefield dictate peace terms. But when Israel is victorious it must sue for peace. Everyone expects the Jews to be the only real Christians in this world.’

The reason why the wounds of 1948 have not been healed is that they have deliberately been kept fresh by Arab states. Many of them do not recognise Israel and refuse to integrate Palestinian refugees into their societies, keeping them for decades in refugee camps. Why did they not accept their fellow Arabs from Palestine in 1948, like the Greeks accepted their fellow Greeks from Turkey in 1923 or like the Germans accepted their fellow Germans (who had not lived in Germany for centuries) in 1945? Or like the French accepted their fellow French from Algeria in 1962?

It should be recalled that the Jews were no less homeless before 1948 than Palestinian refugees may have been after that. In late nineteenth and early twentieth century millions of European Jews wanted to leave their countries, for various reasons. Many of them made it to the United States. Although they initially suffered some discrimination and prejudice they eventually did quite well (the median income of American Jews is double the median income in the United States). Others tried to return to their ancestral home, Eretz Yisrael, or Palestine. Compare their reception in America to that in Palestine where they met outright hostility and sometimes violence. But did the immigration of Jews into Palestine before 1948 do any more harm to the Arabs already living there than their immigration to the United States from Europe before 1914 did to Americans already living there? They did not seize land from the Arabs (many of whom were nomads anyway): instead, they bought it for agriculture, or they brought under cultivation new land, or they settled down in towns and cities, producing goods and services. If the Arabs living in Palestine did not want to be citizens of a Jewish state, why did they not found their own state, mainly on the West Bank of Jordan where most of them lived? Why did the Arab states not allow them to do that? If the Irish had to accept the division of Ireland and the Cypriots the division of Cyprus, then the Palestinians should have been expected to accept the division of what was for them Palestine and for the Jews Eretz Yisrael.

Four Possible Resolutions

Peaceful resolutions of conflicts between different groups sharing the same territory are of course possible, and have indeed more often been implemented than many realise. One possibility is the Swiss solution which is to keep the territory united but to divide it into many self-governing political units and thus almost to eliminate the opportunity of one group to oppress another.

Another possibility is the Tyrol/Aland solution which is also to keep the territory united but firmly to guarantee the rights of a minority inhabiting a periphery. The Swedish-speaking inhabitants of the Aland Islands wanted for a while to join Sweden, but they are now happy about being a part of Finland, with special guarantees. The German-speaking inhabitants of Southern Tyrol felt oppressed by the Italians and wanted to join Austria, but they are now satisfied with being Italian citizens, with special guarantees and respect for their culture.

The third possibility is partition of the territory or realm into two sovereign states, as happened between Sweden and Norway in 1905, between Denmark and Iceland in 1918, in Yugoslavia after the collapse of communism, and between the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993.

The fourth possibility arises when there is not full agreement on borders. This is the Danish solution which is to move the borders by plebiscites: Southern Jutland, in the nineteenth century contested by Danes and Germans, was after 1918 divided into a few electoral districts which each voted on whether to join Denmark or Germany. Some voted for Denmark and others voted for Germany, and the borders were moved accordingly.

I think that all these possibilities might have been relevant in the conflict between Jews and Arabs in Palestine and Israel, although it seems that the two-state solution is the only one now being considered, especially after the Oslo Peace Accords in 1993 when Israel agreed to hand control of the West Bank and Gaza over to the Palestinians against the recognition of Israel by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and a pledge to renounce violence.

The Cultural Capital of the Jews

What complicates the issue is not only that various Arab factions have refused to accept Israel or to renounce violence, including Hamas which controls Gaza, but also the cultural differences between Jews and Arabs. The Jews are Western whereas the Arabs are Oriental. One example of the difference between Western and Oriental culture can be seen by comparing the treatment of Jewish immigrants in the United States in the late nineteenth century to their treatment in the Ottoman Empire at the same time. Another example can be seen by comparing on the one hand the acceptance (even if sometimes grudging) by Greece of the Greeks repatriated from Turkey in 1923, by Germany of the German-speaking minorities expelled from Central and Eastern Europe in 1945 and by France of the French-speaking refugees from Algiers in 1962 and on the other hand the refusal by Arab states to accept and integrate the Arab refugees from Palestine after 1948.

Israel is the only relatively well-functioning liberal democracy in the Middle East. It is a tolerant, diverse society. In Israel, one can live freely as a Jew, or Muslim, or Christian, or atheist, or gay. In almost all Arab countries one can only pursue one of these five alternative lifestyles (although I am certainly not saying that they are mutually exclusive). Recently we have not only seen persecution of Christians in some Muslim countries, but also the extraordinary rise, however temporary, of an extremist Islamic proto-state close to Israel, the Daesh, which beheaded people under the cold glare of television cameras.  

It is an extraordinary fact that of the more than 900 recipients of Nobel Prizes, at least 20 per cent were Jewish, whereas only eight Arabs have received such Prizes, six of them for peace efforts, not for excellence in the sciences or arts. This does not mean, of course, that Arabs are racially inferior to Jews: I am not sure that the concept of race is based on solid grounds. But it does suggest that Jews can draw on much more cultural capital, accumulated through millennia. They are brought up to practise virtues, manners and habits which lead to a productive economy, such as literacy, learning, clarity, thriftiness, and diligence combined with the audacity which is perhaps best captured in the somewhat ambivalent Yiddish expression ‘chutzpah’.

Again, when a more productive group shares a territory with a less productive group, it does not mean that one is superior and the other is inferior. But it may make more difficult the peaceful cohabitation of the two groups. In Israel, the Jews have almost turned stones into bread: they have certainly changed deserts into lush fields. They are also prominent in advanced technology. The great tragedy is that their neighbours, the Arabs, are not benefitting much (although some) from it, as they should be able to do according to Adam Smith’s theory about the mutual benefits of trade. There are enormous opportunities in the Middle East if Israelis and Arabs would stop fighting one another and instead do business with one another, especially after the Arab oil ceases to flow, or sell.

The Jews Needed a State

In the Holocaust, as the West stood idly by, the Jews learned the grim lesson that they cannot rely on anyone except themselves. They realised what the Zionists in their ranks had argued: That they needed a state, not only to defend themselves, but also to define themselves more comprehensively, to protect and develop their shared identity. A language is a dialect with an army and a navy, as the Yiddish scholar Max Weinreich bitterly remarked when the Jews in Israel decided to adopt their old language Hebrew instead of the widely spoken and culturally rich Yiddish. The Chinese in Singapore would have been much worse off as an embattled and resented minority in Malaysia than they are now with their own state.

Israel is by no means a perfect country, and many acts of violence, some of them unjustifiable, have been committed in her name. Perhaps the Israelis do not always treat their Palestinian neighbours with the respect to which every human being is entitled, under normal circumstances. But the present difficulties were started by Hamas in Gaza, a terrorist organisation which rejects the right of Israel to exist and which uses money given to it for vaccines to buy rockets, and then using them to attack civilians in Israel. Unlike the Israelis, Hamas does not give advance notice about their targets so that women, children and civilians could be evacuated. Israel has the right to defend herself, however unattractively her toughness may come across in the international media. As Golda Meir once said: ‘If we have to have a choice between being dead and pitied, and being alive with a bad image, we’d rather be alive and have the bad image.’