Israel’s Independence wasn’t a foregone conclusion in 1948. Embargoed by the US and Britain, Israel was able to buy arms from Czechoslovakia, both before and after the communist coup in February, until Soviet policy changed at the end of 1948. What if Stalin had shut off the spigot in February? Would the Jews have succeeded in repelling the Arab armies?
Let’s suppose they hadn’t. What would an alternative universe without Israel be like?
In the alternate universe, southern Palestine and much of the coast was captured by the Egyptian Army, which rolled northward almost unopposed after its conquest of Kibbutz Negba. The British-officered Arab Legion and Iraqi irregulars drove west from Jerusalem, cutting the country in two at Kfar Saba, and attacking Tel Aviv from the north as the Egyptians approached from the south. Syrian troops captured the Galilee and moved toward Haifa.
In order to prevent a certain bloodbath, Ben-Gurion appealed to the UN Security Council, which passed a resolution in emergency session ‘temporarily’ dividing the country into zones administered by Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Britain. Protected Jewish enclaves were established within the zones, but the IDF was forced to give up its arms and the Jewish communities were subject to the authority of the occupying powers.
Most Jews quickly fled to the British sector, since the Arab authorities didn’t try very hard to control the reprisals by local Arabs against the Jewish population. The general feeling was that the Jews had started the war and should suffer the consequences. Those that had foreign passports and could flee, did. The British, having learned from experience, treated the Jews in their zone with a very firm hand, so as not to allow any resistance to develop. Membership in ‘terrorist’ organizations – any Jewish nationalist group – was punishable by death. Jews were not allowed to have weapons of any kind, and any organization thought of as ‘nationalist’ was outlawed.
Ben-Gurion was exiled to the US, where he was given a teaching job and watched carefully by the FBI, who considered him a communist sympathizer. Menachem Begin was killed ‘accidentally’ when the British raided an illegal meeting of the banned Herut party in Tel Aviv.
Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of Jewish “displaced persons” remained in camps in Europe. The camps took thirty years to empty out, with only trickles of refugees being taken in by Western nations. Some went to the Soviet Union where they were mostly swallowed up by the gulag or murdered because of their dangerous Western experiences (Stalin treated his own returning POWs similarly). Others returned to their home towns in Eastern Europe, often to be met with pogroms when the people who had taken over their property preferred not to give it back.
Pogroms also flared in Arab countries, as Jewish communities were punished for their alleged support for the ‘rebels’ in Palestine. Many had their property confiscated, and some were expelled. But where could they go?
The world simply had an excess of Jews that nobody wanted. The British or the Arabs would not allow any to enter their parts of Palestine, of course, even if there had been work and food for them there. In the US, there were voices calling for the country to take some of the refugees, but there was great opposition as well. After all, the country had not wanted to accept those trying to escape from Hitler! Now that they were not in danger of being exterminated, there was even less interest.
In fact, there was a significant rise in anti-Jewish feeling in America. Nobody likes a victim, especially if they feel that perhaps they were partly responsible for his victimization. But maybe the Jews were responsible for their own plight? Why did the Germans go to such lengths to hurt them if they weren’t in some sense a problem? And now they were always whining and begging for help. We have enough Jews, people said. Who needs more?
After the war, there had been a trend to open up American society to minorities. Returning soldiers and sailors had fought for their country, and wouldn’t accept discrimination any more. Even attitudes toward African and Asian Americans were changing, although it would take much longer for them than for the Italians, Irish and Poles.
But Jews – that was something else. They were a beaten people, and many felt that they had it coming to them. Nobody wanted them living in their neighborhood or going to school with their children. The anti-Jewish attitudes impinged on all Jews, even ones whose families had been in America for several generations.
Psychologically, Jews were damaged. Many were ashamed of being Jewish and tried (or succeeded) to assimilate. Judaism was mostly a religion of old people. There were attempts to start Jewish youth organizations, but the kids didn’t see the point. It was just bad luck that they were Jewish. They were bored with the stories of Jewish greatness thousands of years ago; Jews had tried to come back to their homeland not so long ago, and nothing came of it but more hatred and slaughter. They saw on TV and in their own lives what being Jewish meant.
When black Americans finally were able to struggle for their civil rights in the alternate universe, they didn’t have Jewish support. The Jews had their own problems, and they didn’t have the self-confidence or self-respect to fight for the rights of others. Anyway, who would take advice on obtaining their rights from people who’d lost theirs?
Postwar Europe and Britain were suffering economically. There were shortages of everything – food, housing, fuel, you name it. There was no sympathy for Jews, foreigners who didn’t belong anywhere, who were scrambling around trying to take food out of the mouths of legitimate French or English people. Many felt that they were the cause of the war that had wrecked their lives. So naturally every so often there would be a riot and some Jews would be beaten up, robbed or worse.
There were several organizations devoted to helping Jewish refugees, but they disliked and distrusted each other. Wealthy Jews, although they didn’t admit it, often despised the poor ones that they blamed for antisemitism. There was no one who spoke for the Jews, and no one that Jews could look up to for guidance.
Middle Eastern countries lined themselves up with the East or West in the cold war. Minor wars were common, despite the fact that there was no Israeli-Palestinian conflict – there were no ‘Palestinians’, of course. Refugees were usually Jews, and whenever there was a conflict they got the worst of it. When there were upheavals in the Mideast or Africa, Jewish populations often found themselves on the wrong side, even becoming victims of genocide in places like Yemen and Ethiopia. But nobody in the West was interested in getting involved in yet another Jewish disaster. Pogroms were unexceptional almost everywhere Jews remained.
A large population of Jews had existed in the Soviet Union. The government policy of repression of Judaism was successful; there was no one to bring them books or ritual objects, few synagogues, and little by little, as the older generation died off, so did Judaism. What remained was that people with Jewish-sounding names were still called “zhid” and denied good jobs or places at good universities. When the Soviet Union collapsed and there was violence and disorder, the Jews were victimized by all sides.
By 1960, the British were finally gone for good from Palestine, having been replaced in their zone by an American-backed UN administration, and the Arab occupied areas were annexed by their rulers. There was little organized Jewish opposition, and the minority of Jews that were left in the UN zone had to be protected by the American draftees who were stationed there and who served as ‘advisers’ in the multiple wars of the Middle East. At almost any time, there were conflicts between Sunni and Shiite, or Christian and Muslim, as well as the blocs aligned with the US or the Soviets. There were literally tens of terrorist militias operating in the always violent and chaotic region.
By the beginning of the 21st century there were only about 3 million people in the world that called themselves Jews, and few synagogues or other Jewish institutions. The twin plagues of genocide and assimilation ensured that the Jewish people that survived two painful exiles from its homeland would not survive a third.
Of course, this is all a bad dream. In the real universe, Czechoslovakia sold us arms, and the outnumbered defenders of Kibbutz Negba stopped the Egyptian tanks cold. The DP camps were emptied. Mizrachi Jews found refuge. The Jews of Yemen and Ethiopia were rescued. Soviet Jews were able to emigrate. And antisemitism was almost just a memory. The state of Israel is thriving, and has given the world numerous advances in culture, medicine and science since 1948.
But something else is happening now. A coalition against the Jewish state, a true “Axis of Evil” is forming, starting in Iran, passing through Europe and reaching Washington. As the Jewish state is threatened, diaspora Jews are also feeling the cold wind of Jew-hatred, not dead but just in suspended animation for all these years. The way these phenomena feed each other is striking.
This isn’t just about the Jewish people. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls recently said that France wouldn’t be France without its Jews. Well, neither would America and, in fact, neither would Western civilization. The contributions of the Jewish people and their state go far beyond the scientific products of the Technion and the Weizmann Institute, and the countless high-tech startups. There is a spiritual and moral contribution that has been flowing since biblical times.
If the West loses Israel, it will lose a big part of its soul.
Vic, we miss you here in the Central Valley of California, but are glad you thrive & continue to write your always thoughtful essays. This is certainly one of your best. Thank you.