issue 199 - September 1989
Jewish Israelis and Palestinians
are locked in a struggle over land.
Sue Shaw explains why.
Bronia Goldstein did not want to be a Jew. She hated Jewish customs; 'Go to the synagogue on Shabat, keep milk and meat separate. Don't switch on a light during Sabbath ..' Do this, do that. Bronia was 26 years old and rebellious. She went sulkily to university to study dentistry, instead of her chosen arts and crafts.
But the bohemian atmosphere of Berlin fuelled her dissent. Why should Jews marry only Jews? Weren't Gentiles humans too? She did not want an arranged marriage. She had seen the suffering it caused her own mother: a cultured lady married to a man interested only in money. It was not going to be her fate. She moved in with Kurt Braun, a divorced Gentile and a socialist 20 years her senior. Her mother would not speak to her. It was 1928.
By 1933. Bronia Braun - as she had become - had a daughter called Hannah. She was on speaking terms with her mother. And Hitler was in power.
Things grew increasingly difficult. Hannah was thrown out of kindergarten for being Jewish. On kristallnacht - the night of broken glass, November 9, 1938 - all Jews in the neighborhood had their windows smashed. Someone scrawled Juden over the house and a soldier made Bronia scrub it off. Then a Jewish friend was taken to a concentration camp. Another went into hiding. Bronia was a Jew whether she liked it or not. Kurt was a socialist - and that cost him his job. The family made plans to escape.
Passports proved almost impossible to get. Bronia tried to get Hannah on a 'children's transport' to Britain. But the six-year-old refused to go. The family relented. If they were going to die, they decided, it was better to do it together.
Then a letter arrived from an English vicar who agreed to sponsor Bronia, Kurt and Hannah. Bronia's mother was not included. Kurt and Bronia promised to arrange her a passage from Britain, and one grey day in 1939 - with only the things they could carry and 15 shillings between them - my grandmother, grandfather and mother caught the boat to England. My great-grandmother went into hiding and was never heard of again.
As children we were encouraged never to tell anyone we were Jewish. 'You never know how social circumstances might change and if things get tough, you will be first to the wall.' This was what we understood. In the eyes of the world we were Jews. It was like being Black in a white racist society - only it didn't show.
Trapped by fear
Such fears are widespread among Jewish people. - 'Am I writing for Christian readers?' one Jewish contributor asked me nervously as we discussed a possible article for this issue. I appreciated his anxiety. The Christian West feels guilty about having permitted the Nazi genocide of Jews, and thus has a particular fascination with the conflict between Jews and Palestinians.
This is not just because many people are suffering. There has been relatively little media coverage of, for example, the thousands of Kurds killed by Iraqis. And yet the Palestine / Israel conflict is regularly in the news. The West is fascinated by the spectacle of Jews - the archetypal victims - beating and killing other people. As one Jewish journalist explained, 'Witnessing the oppressed become oppressor alleviates Western guilt'.
Jews outside Israel live in fear of anti-semitism. And Israel's appalling treatment of Palestinians is provoking yet more anti-Jewish feeling. 'The Jews should know better after what they've been through. They've got their own land, Israel, and look what they are doing in it,' I overheard a man say recently. It was useless pointing out that Britain and America both played crucial roles in generating and maintaining the conflict. Or that both nations have done terrible things too in their time. This man held all Jews responsible for Israel's behaviour.
Worth reading on ..
Palestine and Israel: The uprising and beyond. David McDowall. lB Tauris. London 1989. Invaluable. Brave and perceptive analysis of the conflict and its implications for the future. The Palestinians - MAG Report No 24. David McDowall, Minority Rights Group, 29 Craven Street, London WC2N 5NT. 1987. Excellent introduction to the Palestinian question, packed with facts, figures and a clear analysis. A History of the Jews Ancient and Modern. IIan Halevi, Zed Books, 1987. Colourful account of Jewish history from the fall of the Temple to the Zionist settlement of Palestine. The Gun and the Olive Branch, David Hiram, Futura Publications, 1977. A readable history of the conflict showing how Arab violence is a response to repeated aggression. The Middle East, Alain Gresh and Dominique Vidal, Lawrence and Wishart. 1988. Excellent political analysis of the conflict, combining clear explanations with a determination not to oversimplify. Middle East Report, May-June 1988. MERIP. P0 Box 43445. Washington DC 20010. USA. Excellent issue on all aspects of the intifada.
In fact many Jewish people actively oppose Israel's activities. To talk about 'all Jews', as if they were an homogenous group, is no less racist than to refer to 'all Blacks'. This kind of stereotyping does not help resolve the conflict. Responsibility must be placed firmly where it belongs - on the shoulders of Israel's leadership
For the last 40 years, accusations of anti-semitism have dogged those who dared protest against Israel's activities. The guilt that many people feel about the Nazi exterminations has been used by Zionism as a form of moral blackmail to silence criticism from Jews and Christians alike.
But today there is increasing urgency to resolve the conflict before future atrocities match those of the past. This is not an empty fear. Driving in the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip I heard shooting and saw Israeli soldiers hitting Palestinian youths. The Ali Arab Hospital in Gaza was packed with teenage boys who had been savagely beaten. An eight-year-old girl had a bullet in her stomach. A man had been thrown onto a fire by soldiers: his face was burnt off. Violence is normal in the occupied territories. And it is escalating.
The conflict was originally triggered in 1896 when Theodor Herzl, an Austrian journalist, suggested building a Jewish State to solve the problem of anti-semitism. This is the ideology we now call Zionism. Palestine was eventually chosen. Ever since the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, Jews had regarded the region as their homeland, if only in a spiritual way, and the idea of having a physical presence there seized their imaginations.
But there was a problem. Arabs had lived in Palestine for centuries. The Zionists were able to get some land by buying it from feudal (often absentee) landlords. The Arab inhabitants reacted by starting to assert their own national identity as Palestinians.
Then in 1933 Hitler came to power. Six million Jews were killed. After the war, European Jews poured into Israel and the pressure for land increased. Around 725,000 Palestinians were driven from or fled from their homes to surrounding countries like Lebanon. Forty wasted years in refugee camps fuelled their nationalism.
Things worsened in 1967 when Israel captured the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, bringing one-and-a-half million Palestinians under its jurisdiction. These people - including many refugees from the 1948 period - were subjected to the unjust laws and civil rights abuses which accompanied Israeli military rule.
'After 1967 the soldiers began stopping us and asking "Where have you been?" and "Where are you going?"', one elderly Palestinian recalls. 'They hit us and took us to prison for nothing. Once they told me to get out of my car and dance. They humiliated people in many ways.'
Palestinians flocked to join a nationalist organization called Fatah which was mounting pin-prick raids on Israel. Fatah grew stronger and in 1969 its leader, Yasser Arafat, became chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) which had been set up by some of the Arab states five years earlier and was composed of various political groups representing Palestinian people.
The PLO became renowned for terrorism. Its charter, formulated by the Palestine National Council (PNC), or Palestinian Parliament, supported armed struggle to liberate Palestine. Israel was targeted for destruction.
But within the PLO many opposed this strategy. Gradually the organization mellowed. First it expressed willingness to accept a Palestinian State in the occupied territories. Then it renounced terrorism. In 1988 the PNC voted overwhelmingly for an international peace conference based on a United Nations resolution calling for Israel's withdrawal from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. It was a breakthrough. The PLO had gained world respectability.
The new policies and changing fortunes of the PLO came about because of dramatic developments in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. By December 1987 Palestinians in the occupied territories had lost patience with the PLO. It had not solved their problems. Israel was making life unbearable. A popular uprising called the 'intifada' ('shaking off' in Arabic) began in Gaza putting pressure on the PLO to change its tack. For the past 19 months Palestinians living in the territories have thrown stones, boycotted Israeli goods and conducted regular strikes to break Israel's grip over their lives. They are demanding a Palestinian State.
Israel is using force to deal with the uprising. Hundreds of Palestinians have been killed. Around 49,000 have been detained without charge. Poverty and population pressure mean that, even if this rebellion ends, others are likely to follow. One refugee explains: 'There is no work and no future. We cannot accept anything less than self-determination'.
Palestinian people want Israel to negotiate with the PLO. But currently Israel's leaders refuse. Talks mean admitting publicly that there is such a thing as a Palestinian people. They also mean giving up land. Territorial concessions go against Israel's fortress mentality. And one-third of Israel's water comes from the West Bank. The occupied territories are also considered strategically unimportant for repulsing Arab attacks.
The Israeli electorate is polarized. At the last election, Likud and Labour - the two largest political parties in Israel's coalition Government - lost votes to extreme left- and right-wing parties. Some left-wing parties, marshalled by a growing peace movement, are urging Israel to talk to the PLO. But they are in a minority.
Fighting to stay
The majority of Israel's voters are right-wing. They oppose territorial concessions on the grounds that Eretz-Israel belongs to the Jews. The settlers who live in the territories are especially adamant. 'If Israel gives back the West Bank, they will have to drag us out because we will never leave voluntarily,' says one.
Some go further. 'Arabs should leave. They have 20 countries to choose from and we only have one.' This view reflects the growing Israeli minority who support transfer': the idea that Palestinians accept that Israel is a Jewish State or depart. A 1987 poll suggested that 42 per cent of the Jewish Israeli electorate thought it 'acceptable' to assimilate the territories into Israel and transfer the Palestinian population elsewhere in the Middle East.2
Among those supporting transfer are important Israeli figures like Defence Minister Rabin. Early in the uprising, when Palestinian Israelis demonstrated in support of those in the occupied territories, he warned them: 'You should remain as you have been until now, enjoying a calm life. In the distant past you have known tragedy, and it would be better for you not to return to tragedy.' His meaning was clear. The Minister himself helped expel over 50,000 Palestinian inhabitants in the summer of 1948.1
Israel's rickety coalition Government is also divided. Early this year, under pressure from the US to come up with a peace plan, Prime Minister Shamir proposed elections in the territories. The idea was that Palestinians would elect representatives to negotiate the final status of the territories with Israel. Shamir subsequently attached conditions to the elections. The Arab residents of East Jerusalem would be excluded from participating. And the Israeli army was to remain in the West Bank during the elections.
Meanwhile right-wing Likud members concerned that the plan might lead to an independent Palestinian State - pressured Shamir to qualify the proposal almost to extinction. New conditions were attached: the intifada was to end, there would be no negotiations with 'that terror organization the PLO and no Palestinian State. Labour's left protested. It threatened to end the coalition Government unless the conditions were removed. The Government is now backing Shamir's first proposal.
The PLO has greeted this plan with cautious optimism, providing the elections are effectively supervised, unencumbered by the military and part of an overall plan leading to self-determination. Elections are only an interim measure. But they do offer some possibility of dialogue at a time when it is desperately needed.
Each day brings reports of escalating violence. Recently a lone Palestinian seized the steering wheel of a Tel Aviv-Jerusalem bus, sending it careering off the road and killing 15 people. The mood in Israel swung further to the right. One in seven Jewish Israelis possesses firearms.4 If the conflict is not resolved soon, those who wish to expel Palestinians and who have guns - like settlers - may be tempted to implement this measure unilaterally. Should they do so, Israel could find itself at war with the Arab countries.
Israel cannot indefinitely control the intifada by violence. It is expensive economically and politically. And the longer it does so, the harder it will be to reach a solution through negotiation. It has to act fast.
An independent Palestinian State alongside the borders of Israel is the only answer. Israel's leaders have to negotiate with the PLO. Shamir's proposal of elections offers a face-saving way for the Government to do this which - if tailored to meet the PLO's conditions - could be made acceptable to Palestinians. Israel's leaders might then attend a peace conference with elected Palestinian representatives without appearing to have weakened.
Many Palestinians and Jewish Israelis have already experienced traumas of Biblical proportions. Now they must recognize that history has condemned them to live together. If these peoples are to have a future, they must accept their pasts and move beyond them. They have to meet face to face.
Ashkenazi Jew - Jew who originates from East, Central or Northern Europe.
Eretz-Israel - A Biblical term used by Jewish people to mean the land given to the Israelites by God.
Jew - Someone whose mother is Jewish or who has been converted to Judaism. Beyond this it is a source of contention. Originally it was both a religious and a tribal concept. But today many who are technically defined as Jews do not practise the Jewish religion.
Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) - Set up in 1964 when the first Palestinian National Council or Palestinian Parliament was convened. The PLO is led by Yasser Arafat and made up of the various political groups who represent the political parties of Palestinian people all over the world.
Palestinian - Palestinians are people whose families come from the piece of land they call Palestine. They have their own Arabic folklore and traditions. The majority are Moslems but some are also Christians. Palestinian national identity came into being in the nineteenth century, alongside Zionism and in parallel with other Arab countries adopting their own national identities. Today Palestinians are united by their common aspiration to have an independent State.
Settlers - Jewish Israelis who have been encouraged by their Government to start Jewish settlements in the occupied territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip - in defiance of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Sephardic Jew - loosely used to refer to a Jew who originates from Spain, the Balkans, the Middle East or North Africa.
Zionism - No longer easily definable. Originally it was a spiritual concept. Jews prayed to return to their spiritual homeland - Zion. In the 1890s it became primarily a political argument that Jews as a people had the right to Statehood. Today it implies that Jews have a right to the State of Israel.
Transfer - The call to move Palestinians, with or without their consent, from Israeli-ruled territories, to one of the Arab' countries. Some Israelis just call for the removal of West Bank or Gaza residents, while others also demand the transfer of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship.
For some people a Palestinian is Yasir Arafat,
When we tactfully offered Walid parcels of secondhand
Excerpt from In my shoes, by Hebrew poet Dan Amalgor.
This special report appeared in the suffering under david's star - the palestine/israel conflict issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.