Gaza and Israel: Sorting It Out


By Jack Rothman

News of a ceasefire in the Gaza War is welcome, but the carnage it brought this summer may mark a turning point in the relationship of progressive Jews to Israel. The Netanyahu government and program do not represent me as a progressive, left-leaning Jew who has supported Israel strongly. These horrendous events are an affront to me, in the way they are to people around the globe, and I protested with LA Jews for Peace in front of the Israeli consulate on August 1st.

Still, for many, the bloodshed in Gaza throws the whole Zionist project into doubt. A friend emailed me the other day to say that he now questions whether "Israel has a moral right to exist." He says, "The land was confiscated, stolen, and finally occupied by Israel." These are piercing assertions that have forced me to dig deep about my own assumptions and to consider an historical perspective on the situation – a context that has been missing in most discussions. This is my response to my friend and to those who share a similar sentiment.

The assertion that Israel has no "moral claim" to exist as a state on the land where it is currently located is a wrong assessment both historically and geo-politically.

Palestine has long been the ancestral home of the Jewish people since pre- and post- biblical times. Even after their expulsion from the land in the year 70 AD by the Romans, the Jews continued their homeland claim battling for territorial integrity through the Maccabees, by building rabbinical study centers in Jerusalem and Safed after the Crusades, and through their long-standing religious and cultural expression of pointing all religious alters and Talmudic scrolls toward Jerusalem as they give daily prayers wherever they may be in exile. The prayer book at the annual Passover Seder intones, "Next year in Jerusalem" continuing this steadfast longing and sense of entitlement of the place from which they were driven.

But additionally, the Jewish claim to a homeland in Palestine has been officially recognized internationally. The League of Nations acknowledged the right of Jews to a homeland in Palestine when, after WWI, it gave a mandate to the British to oversee a portion of the former Ottoman Empire. This territory encompassed Palestine. The charge to Britain was to establish a homeland for the Jewish people in that geography. Britain was better at administering colonies than arranging the creation of independent states. They were unsuccessful with the mandate and withdrew from that responsibility. In 1947, the United Nations passed a resolution partitioning Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. That resolution stands as the guiding international perspective on Palestine, though not without tensions and disputes among the parties.

When Jews hear, "Israel has no right to exist," or "Drive them into the sea," it taps into an embattled, persecuted mentality that they, as a nation of generations of refugees who have come to react sharply to threats around them, feel is an existential life-threatening danger. Author Amos Oz has observed this condition noting that despite Israel’s military and economic means, there lies a profound sense of unease and paranoia stemming from the long history of Jews as victims.

The history of dispersed Jews without a homeland is a well-known story of horrendous and incessant dehumanization and oppression. The excruciating history of anti-Semitism globally is on the record, and can be found even in my own family history.

Our family resided in the Ukraine, where life for Jews was always precarious. The notorious Chmielnicki massacre starting in 1648 destroyed some 700 Jewish communities, with an estimated death toll of 100,000 or more. There were legal restrictions on where Jews could live, professions they could enter, schools they could attend, property they could own, and products they could sell, among many others. More directly, in about 1917 my father’s younger brother, Lable, was beheaded by Cossacks and his sister, Pearl, was raped–after throwing her two small children (my cousins Sally and Morris) over a fence so they wouldn’t be harmed. The family left hastily then on a harrowing voyage to America (without money, schooling, or the right language). The extended family that remained probably expired in the holocaust. In essence, it was the culminating blow of the holocaust, coupled with the organized Zionist movement (that began in the 1890s) that gave urgency and momentum to the drive for a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

It didn’t help that when Israel established its nationhood in 1948 under UN authority, eight Arab countries immediately began a three-front war to annihilate the fledgling state. There followed the Suez War of 1956, the Six-Day War of 1967, the Yom Kippur War of 1973, and other wars of varying origins and intentions up until now.

The Israeli condition is similar to when a veteran suffering from PTSD hears a loud blast in the vicinity. Even if he has a powerful weapon at easy reach, he’s going to flinch convulsively. It’s my belief that largely because of the continued threats on Israel, including recent memories of buses exploding and coffee houses blowing up, that Israel has become an armed-to-the-teeth nation where citizens increasingly elect right-wing pugnacious leaders who pledge to safeguard them. Let’s face it, Hamas is no less right-wing, zealous, fanatical, and militantly bloodletting than Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But his strong-arm policies make them seem virtuous to many concerned people. 

Currently, Netanyahu is the chief obstacle to peace–much more than Hamas–because he holds real power and Hamas’s actions are part of resistance to an inhumane occupation. Rabbi Henry Siegman, former head of the World Jewish Congress, states that Netanyahu’s true but surreptitious goal is for Israel to possess the entire Greater Palestine region. For Bibi, a two-state solution is a ploy and distraction–thus full speed ahead on settlements, apartheidization, and rejection of anyone as an acceptable "partner" for a peace agreement that establishes a viable Palestine. Noam Chomsky described the Gaza bombardment as "hideous," "vicious," "murderous," and "an atrocity." This is what Netanyahu is capable of–killing innocent women and children, on the one hand, and destroying the moral integrity and international support for Israel, on the other. He is a powerful recruiter of resistance fighters to the radical Islamist cause. I wait eagerly for the day when the middle and left in Israel join to dispatch and replace him. Meanwhile, the United States should pull back on its large financial aid package to Israel until Netanyahu negotiates genuinely with Palestine representatives (including Hamas) for a meaningful peace treaty.

Still, Hamas is not without fault. A menacing posture by Hamas exacerbates all of this and is among the main deterrents to a resolution of this excruciatingly complicated and agonizing conflict. Most members of the left in the United States and many others are unbalanced in their assessment of Hamas–glorifying its positive aspects and totally ignoring its ignominious ones. Hamas is part of the Islamic violent struggle for despotic domination in a new world order, with affinity to murderous extremist groups like Al Qaeda and Isis (which recently slaughtered Yazidis in Iraq), It has vehemently opposed a two-state solution, favoring an theocratic caliphate in what is now Palestine, as well as Israel. Clearly, Hamas has validation for its belligerent stance against a repressive Israel, but its incendiary, lethal rhetoric has weighty consequences that are part of the conundrum.

In closing, my intention hasn’t been to justify the awful Israeli actions in Gaza, but to put the conflict in broader context–which has gotten lost in the intense public discussion.  J Street has offered a useful perspective for moving forward, with Israel as the stronger power taking the lead. They state that, “political leadership at this challenging moment requires more than responding to rockets with force—it requires proposing viable political solutions that can be accepted by Palestinian moderates, neighboring countries and the international community.” These solutions include: establishing borders based on pre-1967 lines with swaps and East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital; recognizing the Palestinian authority as the legitimate government of all Palestinian territory; arranging for international oversight of security of the borders; and establishing an international fund for rehabilitating Gaza. These are not proposals that are hard to come by—but mobilizing the will to implement them will be the hard part. Perhaps there has been enough misery all around to make that possible. 

"JackRothmanAID.png" Jack Rothman is professor emeritus at the UCLA School of Public Affairs
and a member of Los Angeles DSA.

An earlier version of this post appeared on the Huffington Post.

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