This morning I picked up a book from my philosophy student days, “Identity and Reality,” by Emile Meyerson. It’s a book about the metaphysical foundations of science, but the title inspired me.
Everyone has an identity in the sense of their answer to the question “what are you?” Almost everyone has a need to find, adopt, or construct an answer. Often it’s a list of things: a mother, a Jew, a football fan, a plumber, and so on. Recently “gender identity” has been added.
There is no national identity with a longer pedigree than that of the Jewish people. For millennia Jews have had a unique language and religion, and a tradition that connects them to the Land of Israel, which (according to that tradition) was given to them by Hashem. Religious Jews explicitly remind themselves of this three times a day.
This makes “Jewish” a very desirable identity. As Jimmy Durante said (about something else), “everybody wants to get into the act,” despite the anti-Jewish attitudes that Jews have to deal with. Jewish identity is so sought-after, that one of the popular themes of antisemites is to claim that they are the “real Jews” and we are Khazars or just fakers. If a Jew chooses to live in the Land of Israel, they have additional prejudices against them. Recently a European “anti-fascist” said that as an Israeli Jew, I was “stealing the very air I breathe.”
But still, the Jewish identity is attractive because – here is the connection to the book I picked up – it is solidly grounded in reality. Lots of people hate Jews and even want to kill them, but no identity is better documented. Indeed, one of the most important parts of the cognitive warfare that is being waged against the Jewish people by its enemies is the effort to break down that identity; in particular, to disconnect us from the Land of Israel. So, for example, Palestinian Arabs go out of their way to destroy archaeological evidence of ancient Jewish provenance in the land, as they have done at the Temple Mount and numerous other sites.
Mahmoud Abbas has always insisted that “Jewish” refers only to a religion, not to a people, because a people can have ties to a particular land, and if there were a Jewish people, this would be their land. This is why he objected so strongly to the condition that he recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people, although he claims to recognize Israel’s existence. This is why the PLO has never agreed to the formulation “two states for two peoples,” although it claims to support a “two state solution.”
Tribal identities are important to Arabs, but attempts to forge a pan-Arab identity among Arabic speakers haven’t been particularly successful, because, for example, North Africans, Egyptians, and Syrians have little in common. A great deal of energy is put into the attempt to establish that there is a historical “Palestinian” identity, but the people who identify as “Palestinians” today have diverse origins, with many of them relatively recent (after 1830) migrants to the area. There is very little that is specifically Palestinian in their culture (as opposed to tribal, Arab, or Muslim), other than elements that developed in opposition to Israel. They didn’t even self-identify as “Palestinian” until the 1960s. That is not to say that there cannot be a “Palestinian people” – give them another 3000 years, and if they still remember the Nakba, they may become as well-established as the Jewish people.
The Palestinian argument is that we, the Jews, appeared from Europe in the 20th century and “colonized” a long-established indigenous “Palestinian people,” ultimately taking their land by force, driving most of them out of their homes and not allowing them to return. The Jews, according to this story, are not even a people, just a bunch of Europeans whose made-up religious myth connects them to what is actually the Palestinians’ homeland (I am not sure how they account for the more than 50% of Israelis who previously lived in various Arab countries).
Like all “Europeans,” the story continues, the Jews are white racists who exploit black and brown indigenous peoples like the Palestinians. Justice therefore requires that the Jews should give up control of the land to its “rightful owners,” the millions of descendants of the Arab refugees of 1948.
The Palestinian story is wildly wrong on several points. First, there were several ancient Jewish commonwealths in the Land of Israel, and some Jews always were present during the millennia in which the land was under the control of various outside powers. Doubtless some of today’s Palestinians are also descended from ancient residents of the land, but the great bulk of Palestinian families arrived much later. So the claim that Arabs are “more indigenous” than Jews is false. Arab families with names like “al Musri” (Egyptian) or “al Haurani” (Syrian) and numerous others testify to their origins.
Second, when the Zionists arrived and began developing what would become the Jewish state, it was not in the possession of the Palestinian Arabs – there was never a sovereign Palestinian entity in the land – but was a colony of the Ottoman Empire. Most private land belonged to absentee owners. Shortly thereafter the British Mandate was established, and the Arabs, led by Amin al-Husseini, who later cast his lot with Hitler, violently tried to prevent the advent of Jewish sovereignty. When the British were forced out, the Jews defeated the Palestinian Arabs and the Arab nations that invaded (who were interested in grabbing territory and kicking the Jews out, not in setting up a Palestinian state). The Jews did not “colonize” Palestine – they decolonized it, by ejecting the British.
Third, by the time the British left and the Arab nations invaded, the Palestinian Arabs had been fighting with the Jews for several months (with the connivance of the British, who preferred that the land come under Arab control). Much of the Arab elite fled early in order to avoid the conflict (some went to summer homes in Lebanon). The poorer Arabs fled for various reasons, including fear induced by propaganda about Jewish atrocities – which was not difficult for them to believe, since their own leaders planned to do the same to the Jews if they got the upper hand. Some Arabs were expelled (Lod or Lydda) because their towns or villages fought on the side of the Arab armies. Some 500-700 thousand Arabs left for various reasons, but there was no overall plan to expel them. In some cases (Haifa) Jewish authorities asked non-belligerent Arabs to stay.
After the war, only a few were allowed to return. The new state simply could not take the risk of allowing hostile Arabs to return and reignite the war. This was a classic ethnic conflict over land, and the usual result of these is either that the weaker side becomes refugees, or the winner massacres the losers. The leaders of the Arab nations did not hide their intention to massacre the Jews if they won. The 800,000 Jews kicked out of Arab countries at about the same time suffered a similar fate to the Palestinian Arabs.
Fourth, and finally, the whole “racism” theme is nonsense. Only a minority of Israelis ever lived in Europe. They range in color from black Ethiopians to white Europeans with red hair and freckles. Most are various shades of brown, as are Palestinians, who also include the descendants of black slaves and – if you remember her – Ahed Tamimi, who earned the nickname “Shirley Temper” for kicking and hitting Israeli soldiers, with her pale skin and blonde hair. The conflict is best described as national and religious, not racial.
But unlike other similar conflicts, the losers managed to persuade the world of the justice of their cause, with the help of the Soviet KGB, the Arab oil weapon, the liberal application of terrorism, and the exploitation of the always-present antisemitism of the west. Which is why my European anti-fascist acquaintance thinks I’m an oxygen bandit.
Regarding the Jews who lived in Arab lands, I believe they were considered as Arabs of the Jewish faith, similar to the Arabs of the Christian faith who lived in those lands. This is of a piece with Abbas’s contention that Judaism is a religion but Jews are not a people.