Jewish History has no Place in Liberal Mideast Policy

By Matthew M. Hausman

Some prominent Jewish Democrats have finally spoken out against President Obama’s efforts to isolate Israel and destabilize her government. It started with Ed Koch, who lambasted Obama for creating the Ramat Shlomo crisis, for treating Israel’s Prime Minister contemptibly, and for blaming Israel for the failure of the peace process while ignoring Arab rejectionism. Mr. Koch called out his fellow Democrats, including Senator Charles Schumer, who was finally prodded into chastising Obama’s actions. Their recognition of Obama’s despicable treatment of Israel is laudable, although it doesn’t redress their willingness to be used as shills during the 2008 election to help him gloss over his disturbing personal relationships and political alliances with antisemites and Israel bashers.

But even in their belated recognition of the danger Obama poses for Israel, liberal Democrats are hampered by their blind allegiance to a partisan political agenda that often compromises their historical objectivity. Indeed, as most American Jews have become politically secularized they have become disconnected from their own history and cultural past. In public schools children learn about the New Deal and the Great Society as articles of secular faith, and in many Hebrew Schools they are taught that progressive politics are synonymous with Jewish morality. However, through it all they are taught little about traditional Jewish values and even less about some of the most pivotal epochs in Jewish history.

For many secular and liberal Jews, Mideast history begins in 1948 and is filtered through a political lens tainted by historical revisionism. Their knowledge is sketchy at best regarding the geography and ethnography of ancient Israel, and they have only a peripheral understanding of critical benchmarks in Jewish history. Essential subjects such as the Second Jewish Commonwealth, the Jewish-Roman Wars, and the Dispersion and subsequent diffusion throughout the Diaspora are often taught cursorily and, therefore, are poorly understood. However, knowledge of this history is crucial for understanding the justification for Israel’s reestablishment as a modern political state. Moreover, a deeper historical perspective is necessary for identifying and countering the revisionist propaganda that dominates discussion of the Mideast conflict and for understanding the deficiencies of the current peace process.
Political criticism of Israel is often characterized by a failure to acknowledge Jewish history in the Mideast and to consider the provenance of the lands comprising modern Jewish State and the so-called territories. Instead, most discourse focuses on the rights of the Palestinians, despite their lack of history in a country called “Palestine.” Peace efforts calling for a two-state solution in effect seek to restore to the Palestinians a country that never existed in a land in which they had never established cultural institutions or exercised political sovereignty.

The Jews on the other hand are an ancient people who originated in the Land of Israel and who possessed the only sovereign kingdoms or nations that ever existed there. Those who deprecate Jewish historical rights tend to treat the Jews as a religious group only in an attempt to denationalize their identity and thereby delegitimize their claims to the land. However, while Judaism is certainly the religion of the Jewish People, it is binding only on Jews because of a unique identity that incorporates elements of ethnicity and nationality as well as religious belief and obligation. Unlike Islam or Christianity, which are religions that historically have sought to spread their beliefs to different nations and peoples, Judaism has no such evangelical mission. The Jewish religion is particular to the Jews as a people precisely because of their shared heritage and common history. Jewish nationality crystallized in the pre-Babylonian Kingdoms of Israel and Judah, and was reinforced after the return from Babylon in the reconstituted Kingdom of Judah, later Judea or the Second Jewish Commonwealth, which continued well into the Roman period.

The borders of ancient Israel were not limited to the current frontiers of the modern state, but extended as well to Judea and Samaria, which were vital components of the Jewish nation. This geographical history is especially relevant today in light of President Obama’s obsession with identifying Judea and Samaria as Palestinian lands and branding the so-called settlements there as illegal. This attitude ignores the history of Jewish habitation in these areas for thousands of years, which habitation continued until the Jews were expelled by the Jordanians in 1948.

The argument that Israeli “settlements” in Judea and Samaria are conclusively illegal under international law is a political fiction. Before the Obama Administration’s adoption of the revisionist narrative, U.S. Mideast policy was not predicated on presuming the “settlements” to be illegal, but rather on making them subject to negotiations as part of an ultimate quid pro quo. From an American perspective, the final disposition of the territories was to be based more on political and logistical concerns than on historical imperative. The reason for this policy vision was the clearer understanding of prior administrations regarding the nature of Israel’s claims to the territories and the range of interpretations regarding their status under prevailing standards of international law.

In order to argue that Judea and Samaria constitute ancestral Palestinian lands and therefore that the settlements are conclusively illegal, one must ignore the provenance of the lands that came to be designated as the “West Bank.” These territories were unquestionably part of ancient Israel; they were never part of a sovereign nation called “Palestine.” Indeed, no such country ever existed. Rather, for some 600 years before the First World War these lands had constituted a province of the Ottoman Empire, prior to which they had been subsumed by successive empires and conquerors going back to the Roman conquest.

Inconsistent with any Arab claims, these territories – and indeed the area that would become the modern state of Israel – passed from the Kingdom of Judea to the Roman Empire upon the destruction of the Second Jewish Commonwealth in 70 C.E. After later quelling the Bar Kochba Rebellion in 135 C.E, the Emperor Hadrian attempted to break the Jews’ connection to their land by exiling much of the population, renaming the country Philistina after the ancient Philistines, and making it a backwater province of the empire. After the later disintegration of Rome, the land fell under the Byzantine influence of the eastern empire, followed by the Muslim conquests and then Ottoman control.

The name “Palestine” was not derived from an existing non-Jewish population, but rather from the name Philistina used by the Romans to identify the land with a people who no longer existed at the time of the Roman conquest. When the Ottomans were defeated in the First World War, their former provinces were divided into mandatory protectorates. The League of Nations designated Britain custodian of the “Palestine Mandate,” which was later divided into Israel and Transjordan.

The original “Mandate for Palestine” was unanimously approved by the League of Nations in 1922. The Mandate contemplated a sovereign Jewish state comprising the entire area west of the Jordan River with an Arab state to the west, but never envisaged the creation of a state called Palestine. The British used nearly 80% of the mandatory area to create the Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan in the 1920s. During the 1948 War, Transjordan (later Jordan) occupied the “West Bank” and East Jerusalem, despite having no lawful or authentic claim to them, and annexed them shortly after the ceasefire. Nineteen years later, Israel liberated Judea, Samaria and East Jerusalem during the Six-Day War, which had been precipitated by the aggression of Egypt, Jordan and Syria.

Israel can claim lawful possession of these lands because she was acting defensively in 1967, when she obtained them from an enemy nation which itself had acquired them by belligerent conquest. Although Israel’s detractors labeled her an occupier under the law of “Belligerent Occupation,” the Hague Regulations of 1907, and the Fourth Geneva Conventions, these standards arguably were inapplicable because Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem did not belong to another sovereign nation when Jordan occupied them in 1948. However, a chronological analysis shows a documented Jewish presence dating back to antiquity, whereas Jordan had no past connection to these lands. Indeed, Jordan itself was an artificial construct of the British, who conveyed the majority of the Mandate area to the Hashemite kings after their displacement from Arabia by the Saudis.

Accordingly, when Jordan transferred its right to make claims to these territories to the Palestinians at the beginning of the Oslo Process, it actually possessed no lawful title to convey.

Consequently, the Palestinian Authority cannot rely on the transfer of rights from Jordan to show that it has a title claim superior to that of Israel, or even a historically cognizable claim. Moreover, it cannot claim that Israel legitimized Palestinian claims by submitting to the humanitarian dictates of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Although Israel has applied these humanitarian standards to the Arab civilian population under her control, she only did so to the extent these standards conformed to traditional humanitarian norms. At no time did she acknowledge Palestinian political sovereignty through her humanitarian actions.

Prior to 1967 – indeed before the reestablishment of Israel in 1948 – the Jews’ connection to these lands had long been recognized, as was reflected in the “Mandate for Palestine.” In fact, though these lands had been conquered, re-conquered and divided by successive imperial and colonial powers since the defeat of the Judean Kingdom by the Romans, they were never reconstituted as an independent, sovereign entity at any time after the wars with Rome. Rather, these lands were always recognized as the Jewish homeland, and were always possessed of an indigenous Jewish population. Thus, there has been a continuous Jewish presence there for more than 3,000 years – long before the arrival of Roman, Arab or Ottoman interlopers.

In recognition of the Jews’ continuous historical connection to the land, Israel’s Provisional State Council in 1948 promulgated the “Area of Jurisdiction and Powers Ordinance.” David Ben Gurion used the Ordinance to facilitate the annexation of areas that lay beyond the 1947 Partition Plan frontiers but which had always been recognized as part of historic Israel and the Jewish national homeland. Commonly known as “Ben-Gurion’s Law,” the Ordinance was to be applied to lands that were liberated by the Israel Defense Force, and to that end was made retroactive to the date of Israel’s independence on May 15, 1948.

Jewish habitation of Judea and Samaria was a fact into modern times, until Jordan conquered the territory and expelled its Jewish inhabitants during Israel’s War of Independence. Towns such as Alon Shevrut, Kfar Etzion, Rosh Tsurim, Migdal Oz, Neve Daniel, and Bat Ayin were established on ancient Jewish lands that were lawfully acquired well before modern Israel’s independence. Accordingly, they were never considered to be settlements in any colonial sense. In 1948, Transjordan/Jordan conquered the land, expelled the Jews, renamed the greater area the “West Bank,” and annexed it in derogation of international law. Consequently, when Israel recaptured these territories in 1967, she in fact liberated them from foreign occupation. Thereafter, Israel permitted the repatriation of Israelis to areas from which Jews had been forcibly removed during Jordan’s illegal occupation.

Based on the Jews’ historical connection to Judea and Samaria, as well as the reacquisition of these lands during a war of aggression initiated by belligerent states, Israel could have justified annexing them in 1967 pursuant to Ben Gurion’s Law. Golda Meir’s decision not to do so (only Jerusalem was annexed at the time) was a political decision based on: (a) the naïve hope that the hostile Arab nations (i.e., Jordan, Egypt and Syria) would be willing to negotiate land for peace; and (b) the perceived threat of the Arab demographic “time-bomb.” There was no discussion regarding Palestinian nationhood at that time because no such country had ever existed and there was no Palestinian people clamoring for an independent state. The primary belligerents were Jordan, Egypt and Syria, and the issue of Arab (not Palestinian) refugees was seen as it had always been – as an issue to be negotiated with those nations and resolved in a manner mirroring Israel’s absorption of the nearly 800,000 Jews expelled from the Arab world in 1948.

Instead of negotiations, however, Israel’s diplomatic overtures were rebuffed with the famous promise of “no recognition, no negotiations and no peace.” Thereafter, the Palestinians were declared a people in order to create yet another tool with which to fight the existence of the Jewish State. As stated by Zahir Muhsein in his famous interview with the Dutch newspaper Trouw in 1977, “[t]he ‘Palestinian People’ does not exist. The creation of a Palestinian state is only a means for continuing our struggle against the State of Israel.”

Muhsein’s statement was not novel, and was entirely consistent with the assessment of Auni Bey Abdul-Hadi, who in 1937 had reportedly stated to the Peel Commission that: “There is no such country [as Palestine]. ‘Palestine’ is a term the Zionists invented. There is no Palestine in the Bible. Our country was for centuries part of Syria.” The subsequent declaration of Palestinian peoplehood indicated a clear recognition by the Arab leadership of the need to create a national myth, and a confidence that the world would accept and advance that myth at the expense of the Israel’s historical rights.

Partisan critics posing as impartial advocates warn Israel that she must cede territory regardless of Jewish history because of the so-called Arab demographic time-bomb in the territories. However, independent demographic research indicates that declining Arab population trends and increasing Jewish population growth have created a two-thirds Jewish majority when Israel and the territories are combined. The data further suggest that the Jewish majority will likely increase in the future. Moreover, as articulated by Caroline Glick and others, the demographic threat is based largely on doubtful census statistics that overstate the Palestinian population by as much as half and which don’t stand up to critical scrutiny.

Despite the ambiguity of Palestinian national claims and the demographic threat, the narrative incorporating these elements has been repeated so often and with such conviction that it is accepted as true by Jews who lack the knowledge or perspective to challenge it. The myth has become dogma on the political left and even in moderate liberal circles, where political correctness inhibits any challenge. Moreover, it has provided revisionist talking points for disingenuous organizations such as J Street, for whom radical agenda controls and objective Jewish history is irrelevant.

While Ed Koch’s recent public statements suggest that he has a grasp of Jewish history, he is the exception to the rule within the liberal political world. Most prominent Democrats, including Senator Schumer, continue to advocate a two-state solution that surreptitiously lends credence to the dubious revisionist tale. And despite his spirited defense of Israel’s historical rights and public rebuke of Obama, even Mr. Koch favors the establishment of a Palestinian state. However, it is not enough for liberal Democrats simply to repudiate Obama’s treatment of Israel. Rather, they must reinforce their criticism by asserting the authenticity of ancient Jewish claims while simultaneously challenging the modern revisionist narrative. If these politicos don’t feel secure enough to do this, their support for Israel will never be based on true conviction, only on ephemeral political whimsy.

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May 17, 2010 | 7 Comments »

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  1. Nakba: disloyalty and desecration

    This year, Israeli Arabs commemorated their ‘catastrophe’, a failure to drown all Jews in the sea in 1948, on Shabbat.

    Jews failed the Torah’s injunction to destroy enemy presence in the Promised Land, and the enemy mobs demonstrated against us on our holy day.

    What normal people subsidizes its enemies, as Israeli government does to the Arabs?

  2. Someone needs to throw this article in the face of the historical revisionist scumbag, juan cole:

    Thousands of Palestinians rallied in Gaza on Saturday to commemorate the Nakbah or national catastrophe of 1948, when European Jewish settlers brought into the Mandate of Palestine by imperial British policy expelled 700,000 Palestinians from what is now Israel and then sealed the border, confiscating all their property without compensation. These actions turned the bulk of the Palestinians into poverty-stricken camp dwellers and/or stateless persons living under the rule of others, and prevented the rise of an independent Palestinian state such as was envisaged by the League of Nations and the British government just a decade before.

  3. Liberals are hypersensitive to Islamic sensibilities.

    And Muslims regard Jews as being vermin.


    Vermin? I’ll settle for pigs and monkeys.

    With few exceptions, Too Few, in fact to matter much; the only good Muslims are…!!

    I have no qualms about adding my favorite good liberal Jews to the category of good Muslims.

    In my menu of righteous vindictiveness they are all in column A there is no column B

  4. History, like law and custom, are irrelevant when the goals of the Left are not supported by those studies and habits. Forget history, rewrite the law and keep custom quarantined and quaint. That is the world that awaits us all, Jew and non-Jew, in the same manner as a rapist awaits his victim.

  5. Liberals are hypersensitive to Islamic sensibilities.

    And Muslims regard Jews as being vermin.