The date was June 4, 2009. The place: Cairo, the venue for President Obama’s historic speech to the Muslim world.
In pushing for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the President gives equal weight to the national aspirations of both parties. Here’s how he defines Israel’s right to nationhood:
“The aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied. Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust.”
Obama couldn’t have been more wrong.
The roots of Jewish aspirations for a state — what we call Zionism — run much deeper in the cycle of history. The quest for Jewish statehood did not germinate in European persecution — not in the Holocaust, not in the Spanish Inquisition, not in the systematic slaughter of Jews during the Crusades.
To trace Zionist roots, one must rewind the historical tape to a non-European setting some 4,000 years ago. The genesis of Zionism starts with the Book of Genesis.
There, in Chapter 12, is the first flicker of Zionism:
“Now the Lord said unto Abram: ‘Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto the LAND that I will show thee. And I will make of thee a great NATION, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and BE THOU A BLESSING.
“And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all the substance they had gathered, and the souls they had gotten in Haran, and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan, and into the land of Canaan they came. And the Lord appeared unto Abram and said: ‘Unto thy seed will I give this land.”
These few words already encompass the three main ingredients of Zionism — the quest for a specific, well-identified piece of land, the quest for nationhood in that special land and the quest to create an exemplary society — “Be thou a blessing” in other words, “a light unto the nations.”
Abraham, the first Jew, was also the first Zionist.
There are two other points in this Biblical text worth noting.
Far from fleeing from persecution, Abraham does not depart on his journey to the Promised Land for his personal safety. He has no need for a refuge. Far from it, he appears to be an important, very affluent figure in Haran. He leaves with “all the substance” he has accumulated and with a very large retinue of servants.
The second noteworthy point is that the quest for Jewish nationhood will be confined to a relatively small piece of land — Canaan. There is nothing in Genesis or the rest of the Bible to suggest expansionary or imperialistic designs on the part of a Jewish state. If anything, the history of Zionism suggests the opposite — a willingness to narrow original borders, to settle for half a loaf or even a quarter of a loaf.
Notably, the biblical Covenant gets renewed with Abraham’s son, Isaac, and with Isaac’s son, Jacob. In fact, the entire Torah — the five Books of Moses — depict a steady journey — with keen attention to geographic details — toward the Promised Land.
If Zionism were to be turned into an opera, the Torah would be its grand overture. And the overture, in turn, would end with a rousing crescendo in Deuteronomy, Chapter 34:
“And Moses went up from the plains of Moab unto Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, that is over against Jericho. And the Lord showed him all the land, even Gilead as far as Dan; and all Naphtali, and the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, and all the land of Judah as far as the western sea; and the south and the Plain, even the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees, as far as Zoar.
“And the Lord said unto him: ‘This is the land which I swore unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, saying: I will give it unto thy seed; I have caused thee to see it with thine own eyes; but thou shalt not go over thither. So Moses died there, in the land of Moab.”
And there we have the most telling of several instances in the Jewish Bible that provides the geographic contours of the Promised Land. Moses’ observation point is Mount Nebo — not a mythical place. Mount Nebo is in western Jordan across the Jordan River from where it empties into the Dead Sea.
One month before President Obama’s trip to Cairo, Pope Benedict XVI began his Mideast tour with a pilgrimage to Mount Nebo where he proclaimed “the inseparable bond between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people” and his “profound appreciation of the unity of the two Testaments” — the Old and the New. The pope demonstrated a better grasp of history at Mount Nebo than President Obama in Cairo.
Whether in today’s secular world we take these biblical events at face value or not really doesn’t matter. They are deeply embedded in the DNA of the Jewish people — religiously, culturally, historically, politically.
And once the Israelites settle in the land and establish sovereign roots spanning a thousand years, biblical narratives are reinforced by archeological discoveries. A Jewish monarchy takes hold in the 12th Century BCE under King Saul. Who is succeeded by a less flawed and more dashing King David. After his anointment in Hebron, King David establishes Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish people. His son, King Solomon takes the throne in the latter part of the 11th Century BCE and 10 years later completes work on the First Temple atop what is now Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
This First Jewish Commonwealth, with Jerusalem as its capital, lasts for about half a millennium until the Babylonians conquer Judah and destroy the Temple in 586 BCE, driving its Jewish residents into exile in Babylon — a relatively brief interlude because about 50 years later, the Persians under King Cyrus defeat the Babylonians and Cyrus opens the way for a Jewish return to the land and to Jerusalem.
The Second Temple is completed in about 20 years in 516 BCE and the Second Jewish Commonwealth holds sway over the land for another 500 years or so.
It was during these 1,000 years of only briefly interrupted Jewish rule that some of the richest biblical texts emerged — Psalms that touch deep religious and nationalist chords, plus the ringing exhortations of Israel’s Prophets.
It’s in those days that Jerusalem becomes the heart and soul of the Jewish people. As we are reminded by Psalm 137 from the 6th Century BCE:
“If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither; let my tongue stick to my palate if I cease to think of you, if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour.”
And during that span of time, there were no fewer than 45 Jewish monarchs — more than the number of U.S. presidents to date.
Subsequently, even the Roman conquest failed to cut off Jews from the Promised Land. After the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem in the year 70 of the Common Era, Jews still stage several uprisings against the Roman conquerors. But even after the Roman succeed in putting down the final uprising — the Bar Kochba revolt — and kill and enslave hundreds of thousands of Jews, the Promised Land did not become Judenrein.
Yes, most remaining Jews were dispersed and exiled. But what is not widely known is the fact that there was a continuous Jewish presence in the Holy Land from Roman times to our time. By the thousands and sometimes by the tens of thousands, Jews clung to Eretz Yisrael from the 2nd to the 19th Centuries of the Common Era.
After the destruction of the Second Temple, many Jerusalem Jews simply moved to the Galilee. From the 2nd to the 5th Centuries, Jewish life continued there.
In the 6th Century, there were 43 Jewish communities scattered across the Promised Land — a dozen towns along the coast, in the Negev and even east of the Jordan, plus 31 villages in Galilee and the Jordan Valley.
The 7th Century ushered in 450 years of Muslim rule with varying degrees of tolerance and oppression. Muslim rulers never made Jerusalem their capital. Instead, they ruled from Damascus, Baghdad or Cairo. In the year 800, there were about 5,000 Jews in Palestine.
A couple of centuries later, Crusaders arrive and massacre Jewish residents. Yet, Jews also are among the most vigorous defenders of Jerusalem, and they hold out in Haifa for a month against a relentless Crusader siege of the city. It’s more than a bit ironic that Israel today is likened in the Muslim world with Christian crusaders, when in actuality, Jews fought alongside Muslims against the Crusaders in Palestine.
In the year 1070 — exactly 1,000 years after the Roman conquest of Jerusalem — Jewish communities thrive in Ramleh, Ashkelon, Ceasarea and Gaza. Jewish glassblowers ply their trade in Sidon and Jewish fabric dyers set up shop in Jerusalem. Hebrew scholarship flourishes in Tiberias.
Jews survive through subsequent Mamluk and Mongol invasions. In 1267, the noted Jewish scholar Nachmanides settles in Jerusalem and founds a synagogue. This marks the start of nearly 700 years of unbroken Jewish presence in the Old City of Jerusalem until 1949 when Jordan conquers it during Israel’s War of Independence and holds it for 19 years, driving out all the Jews.
With the start of Turkish Ottoman rule in the 16th Century, Safed, a hilltop town in northern Galilee, assumes pre-eminent spiritual leadership in the Jewish world. This is the time when Kabbalist rabbis left their mark on Jewish prayers to this very day, including the hymn of Lecho Dodi, which Jews sing to welcome the arrival of the Sabbat as a radiant bride. The first printing press in Palestine is started in Safed, which becomes a center for Jewish poets and writers.
By the end of the 16th Century, the Jewish population of Safed totals about 30,000.
Periods of oppression follow in the next two centuries, but Jewish communities continue to dot the landscape of the Holy Land — in Hebron, Jerualem, Gaza, Ramleh Shechem, Safed, Acre, Sidon, Tyre, Haifa, Caesarea and El Arish.
This is followed by a period of Jewish growth in the 19th Century as Jews move out of the Old City of Jerusalem and begin to develop what is now western Jerusalem. From the middle of the 19th Century until 1948, Jews comprise the preponderant population of Jerusalem.
With the advent of modern Zionism, the spotlight shifts to Europe where its founder, Theodore Herzl convenes the First Zionist Congress in Basle, Switzerland in 1897. Along with many other people who crave for self-determination and nationhood under the yoke of old, tottering empires, Jews now set their sights on reestablishing their own commonwealth in Palestine.
When murderous pogroms break out in Eastern Europe, Herzl flirts for a brief time with accepting a Jewish state as a refuge for persecuted Jews in Uganda. But the idea is quickly quashed – with Russian Zionists leading the opposition – because in their deepest hearts, Jewish leaders knew that Zionism could never become detached from the Promised Land.
Schemes like the Uganda plan were put completely to rest by the Balfour Declaration, the first legal and political validation of Jewish statehood in Palestine in modern history.
On November 2, 1917,the British foreign secretary, Arthur James Balfour, takes pen to paper and addresses a brief letter to Baron Lionel Walter Rothschild. This is the entire text:
“Dear Lord Rothschild:
“I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty’s Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which have been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet.
“His Majesty’s Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a NATIONAL home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.
“I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.
“Arthur James Balfour”
Many theories have been advanced of why Britain, the world’s greatest empire at the time, decided to further the Zionist cause.
The geopolitical rationale for Britain was that Russian Jews might encourage Russia to stay in the war on the allied side against Germany and that American Jews might get Washington to strengthen the recent U.S. entry into the war — at a time when American troops were not yet active on the battle field.
Another factor was a close friendship between Winston Churchill, an active supporter of the Balfour Declaration throughout his political career, and Britain’s leading Zionist, Chaim Weizmann, a chemist who developed a system for commercial production of acetone for badly needed supplies of explosives for the western front.
There also was British recognition of the valor of Jewish soldiers from Britain and other parts of the Empire — more than 2,300 of them gave their lives to the allied cause. Five won the Victoria Cross.
And finally, Balfour, Lloyd George and other top British leaders, because of their own religious backgrounds, were steeped in the Old Testament with its repeated references to a divine promise to establish a sovereign Jewish commonwealth in the Promised Land.
Churchill, who was not exactly a very religious figure, nevertheless was a keen student of history and a great admirer of Jewish contributions to human progress toward a more civilized world.
In any event, the Balfour Declaration was endorsed by the League of Nations after the war when it assigned Britain a temporary mandate to run Palestine. The U.S. Congress also weighed in with its full support.
In 1921, a pivotal year in Zionist history, Churchill becomes colonial secretary and plays a critical role in promoting and implementing the Balfour Declaration. During a lengthy tour of Palestine, he rebuffs demands by Arab leaders to repudiate the Balfour Declaration, telling them:
“Where else could a national home for Jews be established but in this land of Palestine, with which for more than 3,000 years they have been intimately and profoundly associated? We think it will be good for the world, good for the Jews and good for the British Empire. But we also think it will be good for the Arabs who dwell in Palestine.”
A year later, Churchill drafts his 1922 White Paper, which opened Palestine to 300,000 Jewish immigrants in the following 14 years. Despite Arab protests and political opposition at home, Churchill famously said at the time: “Jews are in Palestine — of right and not on sufferance.”
And with quite a different take than President Obama’s on the historic roots of Zionist claims, Churchill tells the House of Commons in January, 1949, when the Labor government still has not recognized the new state of Israel:
“The coming into being of a Jewish state in Palestine is an event in world history to be viewed in the perspective, not of a generation or a century, but in the perspective of a thousand, two thousand or even 3,000 years.”
Did Churchill fulfill all Zionist hopes? Not exactly. When he became colonial secretary, Churchill severed Trans-Jordan — now Jordan — from Palestine and handed it to the Hashaemite dynasty. Zionist leaders, having failed in their protests, accepted Churchill’s decision.
In Harry Truman’s time, Zionist leaders similarly accept a further shrinkage of Israel’s borders, settling for the 1947 U.N. partition plan to establish two states –one Jewish, one Arab — both west of the Jordan.
Even so, Truman had to overcome strong opposition from his own State Department to the partition plan before the U.S. casts its vote in favor. A year later, Truman also defied the State Department by recognizing Israel 10 minutes after David Ben-Gurion declares independence.
Like Churchill, Truman played a vital role in the establishment of the Jewish state, motivated in no small part by his own Christian fundamentalism.
To fully grasp what made Truman click, Clark Clifford, who was Truman’s White House counsel, later recalled that he and Truman often would peruse the Old Testament at Israel’s difficult birth. Truman especially was drawn to the end of Deuteronomy and, no great surprise, to the verse that starts: “Moses went up from the plains of Moab unto the Mount of Nebo….” Like Churchill, Truman had a keen understanding of Zionism’s roots.
And unlike Obama, Truman got it right in conjuring up the real roots and rightful claims of ancient and modern Zionism.
So why does President Obama’s misreading of Zionist history matter? Why should we care that he traced Zionist aspirations to the Holocaust?
Because it matters greatly in resolving the seemingly never-ending Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In his Cairo address, President Obama fell into what I call the “Ahmadinejad trap.” The Iranian President is well known for his Holocaust denial and easily refuted on that score. But Ahmadinejad has not one take, but two takes on the Holocaust.
While denying it on one hand, he acknowledges it on the other — sort of — to buttress his argument that, yes, there was plenty of Jewish persecution in Europe, but why should we Muslims in the Middle East have to pay the price for Europe’s bad conscience? Why does the Holocaust justify the arrival of latter-day colonialists who supplanted the indigenous population — the Palestinians.
Ahmadinejad is not the only leading figure on the world stage to propound this notion that Israelis are recent European interlopers in a land to which other people — Palestinians — have superior historical claims. Far from it.
You can hear this revisionist argument in Palestinian circles and throughout the Arab world — a total denial of the historical reality that Jews, in fact, are the most indigenous people in Palestine — by a margin of several millennia.