Thursday, October 29, 2009

Howard Sachar – Current Israeli Myths and Realities: the Way to Peace

I was privileged to attend the closing of the DCJCC's Jewish literary festival to hear Dr. Howard Sachar speak. Here are my notes of the event and my comments. As usual, all mistakes are mine.

Before I was a historian I was prevailed upon not to be an academician, but to go to law school like a good Jewish boy. This lasted for about six weeks. I took several exams, but ended up the subject of a parody by a professor as to how not to take an exam.
Real Zionism is not just about funding lectures but in a willingness to allow one's children to go live there. Part of the challenge of living in Israel is the willingness to accept is that it is not perfect. The Orthodox are a heavy millstone around the neck of Israel. That being said, it should be noted that the first people to return to Israel were not the Zionists but Ultra-Orthodox messianists. We have the example of the followers of Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Hasid. (It should be noted that he was a Sabbatian so not exactly what you or I would consider Orthodox. Far better examples would be that of the Hasidim and followers of the Vilna Gaon who traveled to Palestine in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.) They traveled by mules and wagons to a desert land. They were not productive. They suffered and lost hundreds of people every year to cholera. They were the "sleeping settlement." My grandmother was one of three out of eleven children in a family to grow up to adulthood. That was the culture in which she grew up in.
Haskalah, Jewish humanism, under the influence of European nationalism, would lead to further migration to Palestine, for better or for worse. These points were made at a center of a recent conference to argue for the legitimacy of Jews living in Palestine. This is not the whole truth. By World War I there were only 80,000 Jews in Palestine and over fifty thousand of them were these Orthodox messianists. As late as 1917, the majority of Jews in Russia were members of the Bund. Why did they not come to Palestine? Most Jews who left Russia went to America. More Jews went to racist South Africa than Palestine. What changed was something eccentric and tragic. The eccentric was the Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917, which proved to provide a compelling increase. This was brought about by British self interest. That year was the worst for the Allies. The French army mutinied. The Italians nearly collapsed. Russia was tottering. It was important that America be brought in. Lloyd George believed that Jewish opinion could be rallied in the United States and Russia. No need to go into the tragic part. The new countries, fashioned in the wake of World War I, saw their Jewish minority as a threat to their new found freedom. This prefigured the anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany. Those Jews who survived the Holocaust were left homeless. No western country wanted to take them in so an alternative had to be given. Russia and France wanted to expel Britain from the Middle East. Truman did not want too many Jews in New York. This took the Zionists by surprise. They were content asking for 100,000 DPs.
Israel once again has to face how it will protect itself. They are in the dilemma of being a small state. Seven years ago Colin Powel said it was no interested in forcing a peace. More recently Secretary Clinton said she wished to encourage both sides to reach an agreement. If this is the case than we are at an impasse. No small state has managed to negotiate boundaries by itself without the interference of a great power. This goes for the Treaty of Westphalia and the Treaty of Paris. Do great powers have the celestial right to enforce their vision on to others? At the Paris conference many of the new countries protested and the borders they were being given. Lloyd George commented that had it not been for the battlefield casualties suffered by the major allied powers this whole issue would be mute. He also noted that their hatred threatened to suck Europe into another war.
I have given testimony on the matter before the Senate and have seen Israel activists, many in black kippot, and I knew that they would not be happy with what I am saying. It was the victorious allies that set forth the Arab mandates and created the State of Israel. Each Arab Israeli war threatens to expand into a larger conflict. Now there is the threat of weapons of mass destruction. There is a need for great powers today to not just serve as mediators but to actively enforce a solution, one that is supported by the silent majority of both sides. This conclusion was reached by Sharon when he pulled out. Ben-Gurion also understood this. After the sixty-seven war he said celebrate, take a few things needed for security, but from everything else we must pull out. We cannot put ourselves as an occupation. He was not listened to and we have seen the results. Fortunately Israel has pushed through and survived even with their bloated defense and settlement budgets. What is now needed is for the great powers to tell the Israelis and the Palestinians what is going to be the final decision about boundaries. This would allow the leaders on both sides to stand up to their own fanatics. Everyone will see that their hands are tied and that the leaders have no choice but to give in.

Despite the Orthodox bashing, I actually liked the speech and think that Dr. Sachar made some valuable points. I found it interesting that Dr. Sachar did not go into detail as to how a "great power," assumingly the United States, would force through some sort of decision. During the question and answer section I asked him how he would avoid turning his own argument into an apology for imperialism and how he would put such a policy into action without putting soldiers on the ground. He proceeded to give the examples of Northern Ireland, how they needed the threat of Great Britain to make peace, and the Czech Republic, how they allowed Slovakia to secede. While both of these things strengthen his original argument, he still completely ignored my question. I am willing to accept his argument, but the obvious implications are unsettling even for someone like me. Do we have no choice but to throw ourselves into another, Iraq, Afghanistan or a Lebanon? I suspect that the implications may be so unsettling for people of a more liberal disposition that they would simply block out the whole issue.


Anonymous said...

Sachar is a fabulous historian, but his distaste for Orthodoxy is visceral and clouds his writings. He just seems unbalanced about the subject.

The Bray of Fundie said...

As usual, all mistakes are mine.

You can say that again! ;)

The Bray of Fundie said...

Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Hasid. (It should be noted that he was a Sabbatian
-Howard Sachar via Izgad

Rabbi Yehudah HaChasid was born in Speyer, Germany, 1150 and died in Regensburg, Germany, 1217

Whereas Sabbatai Zevi was born in Smyrna on (supposedly) 9th Av 1626 (a Sabbath), and died, according to some, on Yom Kippur, September 30, 1676.

So apparently Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Hasid was not only a great scholar and pietist but a bona-fide prophet as well as he became a follower of the false Messiah more than FOUR CENTURIES BEFORE THE LATTERS BIRTH!

Sachar is a fabulous historian,
-Anonymous 2 8:59 AM

My eye. With history like that he nust be a closet Kharedi.

Izgad said...


There are two famous Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Hasids in Jewish history. The first is Hasidai Ashkenaz who you just mentioned. We also have one in the seventeenth century, not as famous as the first, but who was "discovered" by Benzion Dinur and the the Zionist movement.

Sorry I was not more specific.

The Bray of Fundie said...

Other than being discovered by Dinur what is the second famous for? Did he compose any (in)famous seforim? Was he a major player among the Sabbateins? Was his zivug sheni sefer Yishaya on a q'laf?

The Bray of Fundie said...

BTW just curious...did you see my Tuseday post and had you ever known of that Abarvenel before?

Izgad said...

Zionist historiography, for obvious ideological reasons, needed to find as many Jews as it could interested in Palestine. Yehudah Ha-Hasid, leading a thousand Jews to Palestine, was someone who fit the bill so people like the late Professor Dinur felt the need to make a big deal out of him despite certain inconvenient facts like him being a Sabbatian, his movement being a failure and many of his followers converting to Christianity. Now the seventeenth century Yehudah Ha-Hasid is a well known figure within the small world of Jewish academia. (And yes people in this world do know about the other Yehudah Ha-Hasid.)

As to your Abarbanel. I saw your first version of it. I was not familiar with this particular Abarbanel. It is interesting because he actually has good things to say about Capitalism in other places. For example he argues the usury is actually a good thing. Abarbanel was a complicated figure. I suspect he was operating under a Rousseau model. In an ideal world civilization would be a bad corrupting thing, but now that we have fallen to this corruption of civilization we actually need even stronger doses of it.

The Bray of Fundie said...

No. I mean the Abarvanel about Providence and Lashon HaQodesh

The Bray of Fundie said...

why am I not shocked that a Sabbatean group would convert en masse, particularly to a religion that features another Jewsih false Messiah.

Garnel Ironheart said...

I have gone through one of Sachar's Israeli history books and I agree with anonymous - thorough, good writer, hates religious Jews.

Having said that, what Sachar didn't address are the essential differences between imposing a peace settlement now and after World War I.

In the aftermath of World War I, two types of countries had their borders redrawn without their consent. The first type were the losing countries - Germany, Austria and Hungary. Naturally the Allies had no interest in their feelings on the subject.

The second type were the new countries like Czechoslovakia and Poland. Allied generosity was considered reason enough not to care about what they thought.

The situation in Israel is completely different.

First of all, Israel is not, thank God, a defeated country but one fully capable of defending itself. Thus the so-called Great Powers cannot simply march in and announce their plans with impunity. Thus it is not like the first type.

Secondly, the so-called Palestinian authority is run by not one but two separate terrorist groups, each of which claims to be the legitimate leader of the people there. Thus even if the world wanted to unilaterally create a 23rd Arab state in Yehuda, Shomron and 'Aza, who would they put in charge?

And even if they do, do they not yet realize that the Arab side is not interested in the creation of that state but only in the destruction of Israel?

Finally, it is quite clear that the Great Powers in this case are compelled to find a solution not out of a desire to increase world peace but instead out of self-interest. Thus his analogies are erroneous.