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.