Wednesday, May 14, 2008


Illustration in a medieval French Bible: Crusaders slay three Jews - photo newworldencyclopediaJews have a 3,000 year history of being persecuted. This goes indeed back to Biblical times, when they were either enslaved by the Pharaohs, had their Kingdom of Israel (aka the Northern Kingdom) overrun by Assyria (720BC), or their Kingdom of Judah (the Southern Kingdom) destroyed by Babylonia (586BC). Roman times offered no respite. A revolt which started in 66 A.D. was utterly crushed by Titus Flavius, son of the emperor Vespasian, in 70 A.D. But it was the reaction of the Romans, under their Emperor Hadrian, to a second revolt led by a certain Simon Bar Kokhba, which started the Jewish diaspora in earnest around 135 A.D. Hadrian reportedly killed an estimated 500,000 Jews. It must be said that in this diaspora, at least during the early Middle Ages, Jews generally enjoyed a relatively good life in their newly established communities in the Middle East or Europe. Indeed, for awhile the roles were sometimes reversed, since Jews themselves persecuted the early Christians (one notorious, albeit isolated incident involved the murder in a fire pit of 20,000 Yemeni Christians by the Jew Dzu Nuwas in the sixth century). But around the time of the first crusades persecution began again in full force, and I am sorry to say that one of the key figures herein was the "Belgian" crusader, Godfrey of Bouillon, who vowed to either convert or kill all European Jews. Massacres soon followed, and the events in Germany (!) were notorious, with pogroms in Mainz, Trier, Worms, Xanten, Eller, Cologne and other places. And in 1099, Godfrey of Bouillon, neither content with killing Jews in Europe nor Muslims in the Holy Land, forced thousands of Jerusalem's Jews into the synagogue and set it on fire. Curiously, throughout the second half of the Middle Ages, Muslims showed some leniency towards the Jews, who were generally able to live free and prosper (and perform great feats in arts and sciences) in the Iberian peninsula and later, when the Reconquista forced them too out of Spain, in the Ottoman Empire. Europes remaining hard-pressed Jewish communities suffered again after the Plague in the fourteenth century, which was blamed on them, and in the Inquisition. For the powerful Catholic Church it was payback time for the early Jewish discrimination, and throughout most of Europe Jews were severely restricted in professions they could exercise or land they could possess. The origins of the famous affiliation of Jews with finances can be traced back to these times, since banking was one of the few sectors they were allowed to make a living in. The seventeenth century was a relatively benign period, but the eighteenth century saw again widespread organized hatred against Jews, from Algiers over Germany to Sweden and Russia.

Theodor Herzl - photo by israelvets.comThen, in 1860, Theodor Herzl was born in Budapest. This writer, journalist and playwright was to become the father of Zionism, the movement that aimed at bringing the Jews back to The Promised Land, their old homeground in what had by then become known as Palestine. Faced with a 3,000 year long history of slavery, persecution, massacres or discrimination at best, Herzl concluded that Anti-Semitism was a force in human nature to stay, and proposed that Jews would only be able to live free if they had their own country instead of being forced to survive in ghettos the world over. A prominent Zionist and businessman, David Wolffsohn, presented the flag for the movement as well as for the future country as early as 1891: it consited of a blue Star of David on a white field piped with blue stripes. Five years later, Herzl's book Der Judenstaat provided a scheme for the return of Jewry to, and subsequent formation of an own Jewish state, in "Eretz Israel" , the area in Biblical times known as the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah. As if to underscore Herzl's theories, widespread pogroms in Eastern Europe set in fact the first mass migrations (aliyah) towards the "old country" in motion. These early "waves" consisted mainly of orthodox jews, but already the second one contained a fair number of socialist pioneers who wanted to implement cooperative agricultural farming enterprises, to become known as kibbutzim. In those early days, idealistic fervor replaced the capitalist impulse, and the pioneering zealots literally brought whatever patch of land they acquired back to life. Indeed, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century most of Palestine was a barren, scorched place, the Arabs having been rather the fathers, and not the sons, of the desert.

From then on, developments followed quickly. In 1917 the Balfour Declaration, issued by then British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour, stated that the British government "viewed favourably" the creation in Palestine of "a national home for the Jewish people" on the condition that "nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine" or "the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country." A few years later, after the Allied victory, Great Britain fittingly assumed responsibility for Palestine (formerly part of the Ottoman Empire) with a mandate from the League of Nations, and the Jewish National Home for the first time became an ever more realistic concept. Needless to say, the return of many mostly European Jews to their ancient homeland was not welcomed by the Arab tribes who had lived all those times in the area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan river. The interbellum saw several massacres against the Jews, and not just the newcomers. Few of those who claim that the immigrants took the land of the Arabs (in fact they paid for it - and some of it was even conquered by the Jewish Legion which assisted the British in World War I), do not acknowledge, willingly or unwillingly, that the infamous Hebron Massacre of 1929, which claimed the lives of 67 Jews and saw such horrible atrocities as the beheading of babies or the castration of old rabbis, was aimed at an existing Jewish community which had been there since before the birth of Christ. Other massacres took place in Safed, Tel Aviv, Motza and Kfar Uriyah. More Jewish lives still would be claimed in the Arab Revolt of 1936-1939, which started in Jaffa and which would in fact boost the ranks of Jewish self-defense organizations such as the Haganah and Irgun. Still, ten years later, in 1948, Zionism would achieve its goal: the creation of an own Jewish State. As we all know however, the catalyst for this success was the most horrible atrocity inflicted upon a particular population group in all the history of mankind. It is best known as the Holocaust. The Jews themselves call it Shoah.

The industrial extermination of 6 million Jews was unprecedented and ignited in many survivors a feverish will to finally have an own state offering safety and prosperiy to all. A world deeply ashamed of the bestialities which were in fact the logical outcome of thousands of years of virulent Antisemitism was - generally - all too happy to assist, and on November 29, 1947 the young United Nations, the successor of the League of Nations, passed the famous Resolution 181, which provided in the partition of Palestine in a Jewish and an Arab part, with Jerusalem scheduled to become an international city (a corpus separatum, to be governed by the UN). Despite the original Jewish presence and the succession of immigration waves, the Arabs were still a majority in Palestine and the Partition Plan reflected this reality. The left side of the map to the right shows the areas allocated to the Jews in purple, and those of the Arabs in green. Notice that most of the Jewish part was the barren Negev desert, and that the parts reserved for the Arabs were far larger than today's equivalents the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. The 1947 "Gaza Strip" was thrice as large and L-shaped, and its counterpart the "West Bank" was twice as big as today. The key region for the Jews was a narrow slice of land, barely 15 kilometers wide and containing Tel Aviv and Haifa, along the Mediterranean.

The Jews accepted. The Arabs did not.

The scale of Arab hatred, colossal egoism, inhumanity and total lack of empathy vis-à-vis a population that had just gone through the most abominable tragedy that had ever visited humanity, becomes even more appalling upon learning that this was not even the first time Arabs rejected a plan - but then the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem had been an ally of Hitler. In his book "Six Days of War" (Oxford University Press, 2002), renowned author on Middle Eastern history Michael B. Oren writes:

The Zionists approved of the plan but the Arabs, having already rejected an earlier, more favorable (for them) partition offer from Britain, stood firm in their demand for sovereignty over Palestine in full.

Fed up with so much bad will, the State of Israel's first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, proclaimed Israeli Independence on May 14, 1948. That embryonal state, with a population of 650,000 on a parcel of land measuring perhaps 10,000 square kilometers, was attacked twelve hours later by the combined armies of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, and the 1948/1949 Arab-Israeli War was a fact.

In Cairo, Azzam Pasha, Secretary General of the Arab League (and great-uncle of a certain Ayman al-Zawahiri) boasted:

"This will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the Crusades."

One year later five oh so heroic Arab armies lay in ruins and a tiny Jewish force had not only secured its own UN-allocated area, but also taken hold of half the Arab area. Arabs call this al-naqba (the disaster), a term which these days seems to have gained a certain sympathy and credibility among those western academic and media folk which are curiously called "intelligentsia". A more appropriate denomination than al-naqba would however be, in proper Flemish:

"Hij die zijn gat verbrandt moet op de blaren zitten."

Which, translated in the King's English, sounds somewhat like:

"He who burns his butt must sit on the blisters."

(to be continued)