I was born in January 1948. It was a remarkable year. Israel was born on May the 14th 1948 and as I grew in awareness it featured strongly in my mind. I could imagine many Jewish families sitting around the radio listening to the inauguration speech by David Ben-Gurion, leader of Mapai and head of the Jewish Agency. My family would still be in mourning, my grandfather, an engineer and inventor, served in the Middle East during the First World War and on his return he committed suicide. My grandmother never spoke of his experiences, but she spent her days grieving for him. My grandfather had been a proud and devout Jew serving his country. He might have died on the battlefield or in a camp, but he died by his own hand. Wars have terrible consequences.
Since its birth every Jew is beholden to support the State of Israel, a land mass that was previously known as Palestine. The area is a small region that has been significant in ancient and modern history because it sits at the crossroads between the Middle East, Africa and Asia. The name Palestine derives from the Greek word, Philistia, which dates back to Ancient Greece and it was used to describe the area by writers’ in the 12th century BCE.
Palestine typically refers to the geographic region located between the Mediterranean Sea and the River Jordan. Arab people who call this territory home have only been known as Palestinians since the early 20th century and much of the land is now considered to be the State of Israel.
How the Jews got to settle in Palestine.
The Hebrew Bible tells us that God commanded Moses to liberate the Jews from slavery in Egypt and they would receive a reward, the Promised Land. Thus, the area has always been considered by Jews as rightfully belonging to the Jews. That Jews originated in the Land of Israel is recorded in the Egyptian Merneptah Stele, circa 1200 BCE. , when most of the region had been conquered. During Biblical times, two kingdoms occupied the zone, the Kingdom of Israel (Samaria) in the north, and the Kingdom of Judah in the south. The Kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Neo-Assyrian Empire (circa 722 BCE), and the Kingdom of Judah by the Neo-Babylonian Empire (586 BCE). Jews were then exiled to Babylon. Upon the defeat of the Neo-Babylonian Empire by the Achaemenid Empire under Cyrus the Great (538 BCE), many of the Jewish elite returned to Jerusalem and they built the Second Temple.
In 332 BCE the kingdom of Macedonia under Alexander the Great conquered the Achaemenid Empire, which included Judea. This event started a long religious struggle that split the Jewish population into traditional factions and the Hellenic adherents.
In 165 BCE, after the religion-driven Maccabean Revolt, the independent Hasmonean Kingdom was established. In 64 BCE, the Roman Republic conquered Judea and made it a Roman province. Although coming under the influence of various conquerors the area of ancient Israel was predominantly Jewish until the Jewish–Roman wars of 66–136 CE. During the wars, the Roman Empire expelled most of the Jews from the area and formed the Roman province of Syria Palaestina. This was the beginning of the Jewish diaspora. The movement of Jews went in two directions north to Spain, Southern France and beyond and South West to Eastern Europe. By the time of the Muslim conquest of the Levant the Jewish population made up only 10 to 15% of Palestine’s total population.
Since the Diaspora the Jews have achieved their wish for a a return to the region and a modern Jewish State, but its acquisition and establishment a point of contention that causes pain and suffering for Jews and Arabs everywhere as well as contributing to global insecurity. How did this happen?
The story begins at the end of the Second World War. The Ottoman Empire had dominated the region for over 600 years. At its peak in the 1500s, the Ottoman Empire was one of the biggest and most powerful empires controlling an expanse that included, not just its base in Asia Minor, but also much of Southeastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. The Ottomans governed an area that stretched from the Danube to the Nile Rivers. It flourished because it had a strong army and a wide variety of solid and impressive economic interests, but it was not to last!
The Ottomans made a strategical error in siding with the Germans in World War I. After suffering defeat, the empire collapsed and it was dismantled by treaty in 1922, when the last Ottoman Sultan, Mehmed VI, was deposed and left the capital of Constantinople (now Istanbul). What remains of the Ottoman empire today is known as Turkey, a nation that still harks back to a proud history.
The battle against the Ottomans was fought largely by the British and French, who in turn recruited help from the Arabs by promising them a parcel of land if they helped to defeat the Ottomans. The Arabs agreed to the deal and in return they were offered the Arab peninsula. However, the British and French reneged on the deal. When the Lands were divided up the Arabs were left out of the bounty. Instead, the British took Palestine Jordan and Southern Iraq and the French got Northern Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
More than a year after agreement with Russia, the British and French representatives, Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges Picot, authored a secret agreement regarding the future spoils of the Great War. Picot and Sykes represented a small group determined to secure European control and avoid the spread of Arab nationalism and namely, Islam. Hitherto, the Arabs fell under European colonial rule.
While the British were occupying Palestine another movement was operating in the wings. The Zionists were focused on a return to Zion and they based their movement on Biblical teachings. The Torah describes the story of the plagues and the Exodus from Egypt, which is estimated at about 1400 BCE. This is the journey of the Jewish people toward the Promised Land, the Land of Israel. These events are celebrated annually during Passover. The Passover meal traditionally ends with the words “Next Year in Jerusalem.” Demands for the homeland had been growing rapidly prior to and during the war years, After the fighting the Zionists increased their campaign for a mass migration to Palestine.
Soon after, Britain declared its intention to establish a home for the Jewish people. The Balfour Declaration, which resulted in a significant upheaval in the lives of Palestinians, was issued on November 2, 1917. The pledge is generally viewed as one of the main catalysts of the Nakba – the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948 – and the conflict that followed with the establishment of the State of Israel.
The statement came in the form of a letter from Britain’s then-foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour and it was sent to a major figure in the Jewish community, Lionel Walter Rothschild. Between 1922 -1935 the Jewish population jumped from 10 percent to 27 percent. According to records 376,415 Jews arrived in Palestine between 1920 and 1946 giving rise to the British recommendation of a Partition. The British also advised the forced removal of the Arab population whereby thousands of Palestinians lost their lives in subsequent protests. By 1947 the region was in chaos and Britain handed the problem to the United Nations. The events caused 11.9 million Palestinians to be forced out of their homes, 530 villages and cities were destroyed and years of occupation in Palestine began. These details do not go uncontested.
Although the United States supported the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which favored the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had assured the Arabs in 1945 that the United States would not intervene without consulting both the Jews and the Arabs in that region. The British, who held a colonial mandate for Palestine until May 1948, are believed to have opposed both the creation of a Jewish State and an Arab State in Palestine as well as unlimited immigration of Jewish refugees to the region. The British were known to have turned back the ships of Holocaust survivors. Great Britain wanted to preserve good relations with the Arabs to protect its vital political and economic interests in Palestine.
According to US historical records, when President Truman took office, he appointed several experts to study the situation in Palestine. In 1946, Truman established a special cabinet committee whereby members entered into negotiations with a parallel British committee to discuss the future of Palestine. In May 1946, Truman announced his approval of a recommendation to admit 100,000 displaced persons into Palestine and in October publicly declared his support for the creation of a Jewish State. Throughout 1947, the United Nations Special Commission on Palestine examined the Palestinian question and recommended the partition of Palestine into a Jewish and Arab State. On November 29, 1947 the United Nations adopted Resolution 181 (also known as the Partition Resolution) that would divide Great Britain’s former Palestinian mandate into Jewish and Arab States in May 1948 when the British mandate was scheduled to end. Under the resolution, the area of religious significance surrounding Jerusalem would remain separated and held under international control administered by the United Nations.
The question of who was to blame for the partition of Palestine still rages today. In a meeting with Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann in 1922, Arthur Balfour and then-Prime Minister David Lloyd George reportedly said the Balfour Declaration “always meant an eventual Jewish State”. The Jewish State was destined to take the region in another direction that would serve western interests and curtail any further spread of Islam.
These events have been hotly debated. Some academics have argued that many in the British government at the time were Zionists themselves, others say the declaration was issued out of an Antisemitic reasoning, that giving Palestine to the Jews would be a solution to the “Jewish problem”. Nonetheless, control over Palestine was a strategic imperial tactic to keep Egypt and the Suez Canal within Britain’s sphere of domination and to enable free trade.
While Britain is generally held responsible for the Balfour Declaration, it is important to note that the statement would not have been made without prior approval from the other allied powers during World War I, in particular the United States of America, whose interests in the region should not go unnoticed. Israel was allowed to establish agencies with the aid of foreign assistance, most of which came from the US., while the Palestinians were forbidden to do so, which paved the way for extreme Arab hardships and deprivations as well as constant attempts at revolt.
The Threat of Islam.
The Ottoman Empire had been defeated, but the question remained, was Islam still a threat to western culture and economic imperatives? In his pronouncements, Osama bin Laden made frequent references to history. One of the most dramatic was his mention, in the October 7th videotape, of the “humiliation and disgrace” that Islam has suffered for “more than eighty years.” The Turks eventually succeeded in freeing their homeland without contest from the west because they did so, not in the name of Islam, but as a secular nationalist movement. In 1922 one of their first acts was to abolish the sultanate. During the Ottoman era the sovereign was not just a sultan, the ruler of a specific state; he was also widely recognized as the caliph, the head of all Sunni Islam, and the last in a line of such rulers that dated back to the death of the Prophet Muhammad, (PBUH) in 632 A.D. The demise of the sultan would have been a direct affront to many Islamic believers and a serious tampering with Muslim belief and identity. Like most others, the Muslim people are shaped by their history, but Muslims to do not see life in the same way as westerners, there is only religion, which has often been described by the west as medieval.
The Arabs have produced a vast canon of literature in relation to their struggles against Christianity from the first conflicts of the eighth century to the collapse of the Ottomans. The struggle was not just about religion it was about survival. The Arabs almost always referred to their western enemies as Infidels (kafir), but they never referred to their own sides by nation, but as Muslims, one people. Islam has a lot to teach the west about unity.
Europeans have been given a very misguided view of Islam. While Europe was still in the Dark Ages, it was Islam that was the advanced society. Each of the historical advances in scientific disciplines that Europe has lain claim to are detailed in the Qur’an. Islam does not advocate war, but it does reserve the right to defend itself. The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) fought these same battles, hence the inscriptions on the Dome of the Rock. built in Jerusalem between 691 and 692 A.D., they include a number of directly anti-Christian polemics: “Praise be to God, who begets no son, and has no partner,” and “He is God, one, eternal. He does not beget, nor is he begotten, and he has no peer.” the western interpretations of these commentaries have led to gross misunderstandings.
Historically, under Muslim rule, Jews and Christians were allowed to practice their religions and run their own affairs (with some limitations). Today, we would call such people second-class citizens, but second-class citizenship, was far better than the total lack of citizenship which has been the fate of many Palestinians.
Israel is designed to be the resting place of all the world’s Jews and it is a powerful regime to aspire to. All Jews are encouraged to make aliyah, this means they are encouraged to leave the country wherever they are living and return to the Promised Land. This, to most Orthodox Jews is the fulfillment of God’s Promise and a return to their perceived origins. The Law of Return is open to all Jews as long as they can prove they are of Jewish heritage. However, it was not until March 2021 that Reform Jews could be eligible for Israeli citizenship. The High Court of Justice ruled that people who convert to Judaism in Israel through the Reform and Conservative movements must be recognized as Jews for the purpose of the Law of Return, and are thus entitled to Israeli citizenship. The decision overturned the longstanding orthodox monopoly on conversions. This was not just a gesture of kindness, but one of strategic importance. Israel has a low birthrate and the number of migrants into Israel have reduced significantly over the past few years. The total number of immigrants into Israel in 2020 was 19,713 in the previous year it was 34,000, in 1995 it 76,361 and in 1993 it was 76,805. Clearly, immigration to Israel is not proving as attractive as it was and immigration is crucial to Israel’s future development.
The exodus of Soviet Jews to Israel in the 1990s bolstered the Israeli economy and it was a timely event. There was a wave of highly skilled labour and technological know-how. Migrants integrated well into the domestic labour market. This wave of immigration changed the economic landscape significantly raising productivity and underpinning the advance of the information age. Indeed, Israel’s robust assimilation of immigrants into the economic sphere and the electoral system transformed the political balance and created numerous social changes along with increased incomes.
Immigration has far-reaching economic and social effects. Migrants become part of the society and they contribute greatly to the developing cultures, often mixing their own cultures with the new. However, not all Jews are the same. Not all assimilate well. Further, the issue of migration raises an even more complex question, who is a Jew?
Definition of a Jew.
The common belief is that a Jew is defined by combining religion and ethnicity, whereby the individual or group see themselves as having a Jewish identity. In the most detailed sense, this pertains to genealogical dimensions. Orthodox Jews follow Jewish Law (Halakah), which regards the person as Jewish if the mother is Jewish, the grandmother or great grandmother is Jewish. The alternative is to undergo conversion. Reform Jews follow both the matriarchal and patriarchal lines. For most Jews their identity is formed around their heritage and the recent court decision has seen this heritage extended. It coincides with a lowering of migration into Israel and the high incidence of Israelis’ living abroad.
In a book titled The Invention of the Jewish People, the author Shlomo Sand examines the notion of Jewish nationalism and heritage He accuses Israelis’ of having a significant lapse in memory, when it comes to Jewish identity. He goes on to describe Israel’s nationalism and what he describes as the “Khazar past”. Sand tells his readers that there was immense anxiety about the legitimacy of Zionism due to an intense fear that it might become known that the mass of settlers into Israel where not direct descendants of the Children of Israel. He suggested, there would be tensions because such a challenge invokes the State of Israel’s right to exist.
In 1954 a comprehensive study of the Jewish Khazars was undertaken by the scholar Douglas Dunlop. He showed through their language that the Khazars were influenced by Islamic, Byzantine, Caucasian, Hebrew and Old Russian Sources and they were not uniquely guided by the Hebrews. Crucially, among the Khazars there was no imperative for racial purity. In other words, there was no authentic Jewish lineage. In 1976 Arthur Koestler published a book called the The Thirteenth Tribe, in which he advanced the thesis that Ashkenazim Jews are not descended from the historical Israelites of antiquity, but from the Khazars, a Turkic people. Koestler hypothesized that the Khazars (who may have converted to Judaism in the 8th century) migrated westwards into Eastern Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries when the Khazar Empire was collapsing. Koestler used the works by Douglas Morton Dunlop as his main sources. Koestler’s aim was to eradicate Antisemitism by disproving its racial basis.
It was never Koestler’s intention to deny the existence of Israel, rather to have it founded on a sounder basis of International Law. Koestler was a pioneer member of the Zionist Movement in his youth, but he grew disenchanted at the nationalist imperatives. He opposed all forms of racism and Antisemitism and fought against them in his literary canon. He wrote:
The large majority of surviving Jews is of Eastern European origin and perhaps mainly of Khazar -origin. If so, this would mean that their ancestors came not from Jordan, but from the Volga, not from Canaan, but from the Caucasus, once believed to be the cradle of the Aryan race; and that genetically they are more related to the Hun, Uigur and Magyar tribes than to the seed of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Should this turn out to be the case then the Anti-semitism would become void of meaning, based on misapprehensions shared by both the killers and their victims. The story of Khazar Empire, as it slowly emerges from the past, begins to look like a cruel hoax which history has ever perpetrated.
Whatever the origins of the Jewish population the State of Israel was founded on the basis of a genocide and by the 1970s Israel was caught up in the further expansion of its territories. The nation was thus, founded on Biblical literature and dismissing the Biblical past was perceived as harming Israel’s future.
It was not the first time the use of heritage was called into question, The German scholar Jacob Fullmerayer had suggested that the Greeks were not decedents of Ancient Hellenes. Many writers have since attempted to follow the lives of Jewish decedents from Eastern Europe, particularly of those who spoke the Yiddish language which was dominant among Easter European Jews.
A cursory reading of history sees Jews spread around vast areas of the world before the common era. This cross fertilization makes it almost impossible to tell who is an authentic Jew. DNA tests have been used in Israel to verify a person’s Jewishness, but this brings an even bigger controversy since it harks back to an era of eugenics and racial preferences. It raises many questions. What does it mean to be genetically Jewish? And, can you prove religious identity scientifically? The ambiguities are endless and often heartbreaking.
The Law of Return.
The Law of Return was passed in Israel on 5 July 1950, which gives Jews the right to move and to live in Israel as permanent residents or with citizenship. Section 1 of the Law of Return declares: “every Jew has the right to come to this country as an oleh [immigrant].” The law is not unique to Israel. The right of return is a principle in International Law which guarantees everyone’s right of voluntary return to, or re-entry to, their country of origin. The right of return is part of the broader human rights concept of freedom of movement and it is detailed in “The Human Rights Committee General Comment on Article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (November 1999)” which is overseen by Human Rights Watch. Included in these protocols is the right to abode. Importantly, these rights are not new, they were formulated in several modern treaties and conventions, most notably in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the 1948 Fourth Geneva Convention and are considered to be International Law. In essence, Palestinians should also have a right of return.
In the Law of Return, the State of Israel gave credence to the Zionist movement’s demands, which called for the establishment of Israel as a Jewish State. Clearly, this was a State to be based not just of religion or culture, but also on racial purity. Jews would argue that conversion makes for exceptions to the rule. However, the processes towards conversion is not easy, it probably takes a lifetime to learn how to become a good Jew.
In 1970, the right of entry into Judaism and settlement in Israel was extended to people with one Jewish grandparent and /or a person who is married to a Jew, whether or not he or she is considered Jewish. On the day of arrival in Israel or at a later date, a person who enters Israel under the Law of Return as an oleh would receive a certificate stating that s/he is indeed an oleh. The oleh has three months to decide whether s/he wishes to become a citizen and can renounce citizenship during this time. The right to an oleh certificate may be denied if the person is engaged in activity directed against the Jewish people, which can also be read as being against the government’s policies. It also means that the governing body will be wholly and solely made up of people with Jewish interests. There is no room for dissidents or anyone who does not represent the dominant group.
Arab Israeli Status.
How to refer to the Arab citizen of Israel is a highly politicized issue, and there are a number of self-identification labels used by members of government and the community. According to a United Nations 2009 report and the Human Rights Watch report Second class: Discrimination against Palestinian Arab children in Israel’s Schools. 2001. Human Rights Watch, supporters of Israel tend to use Israeli Arab or Arab Israeli to refer to this population without mentioning Palestine, while critics of Israel (or supporters of Palestinians) tend to use Palestinian or Palestinian Arab without referencing Israel.
According to The New York Times, 2012 most Arabs preferred to identify themselves as Palestinian citizens of Israel rather than as Israeli Arabs. The New York Times uses both ‘Palestinian Israelis’ and ‘Israeli Arabs’ to refer to the same population. Every Israeli resident has an identity card, which identifies Palestinians as Arab Israelis. This is the same system that was used in South Africa during apartheid, which saw citizens and others denoted by race and/or colour. The discrimination is blatant. Added to this, Arab Israelis rate among the poorest residents in Israel. According to the Jerusalem Post 2021, about 2 million people in Israel live below the poverty line. This is 23% of Israeli citizens and 31.7% of Israeli children. In the Arab sector, 702,832 are poor, with 346,397 of this population being children. In the Jewish population, the proportion of the poor is 17.7%. In the Arab population, 35.8% who live in poverty.
The report’s findings show that the standard of living of families in Israel, as measured by the median economic income, fell by a considerable 22.7% in 2020, with the main victims being of the middle class. In addition, there was a significant increase in poverty and inequality from 22.4% in 2019 to 23% in 2020. This clearly reflects the political turmoil in Israel, which manifests in the hesitancy of migrants to relocate to their homeland.
Israel is imploding from within. Four elections in two years is taking its toll. Israel’s society is hurting. The country is divided and Arab Israeli’s are finding their voice. This raises some significant issues in relation to change and the direction it might take.
I began this work with the memory of my grandfather who died before I was born. From what I remember of my childhood, Jews had no quarrel with Islam, Muslims and Jews were cousins; family. I am pretty sure my grandfather would have been impressed with Islam, for its morals, its discipline, its advocacy for peace and its ban on usury. Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world and perhaps the western ideologues feel threatened by it. At the same time western values have fallen into disarray. The western adage of “cause no harm” has become meaningless.
The development of western thought has conceived a dislike for all forms of religion and Islam has become significantly visible in recent years. This makes for obvious tensions. America like other European countries pour millions of dollars into war games, which adds to the insecurities and leads to real wars. Market forces have much to gain from the post war military economies. Justification is all too easy when people do not understand the details of what is happening. Islam is a religion of peace and should be defended.
Wikipedia. Ottoman Empire.
US Office of the Historian. Creation of Israel.
Jewish Virtual Library. Migration.
The Times of Israel.
Voxeu. Org. Migration.
Shlomo Sand. The Invention of the Jewish People.
Arthur Koestler. The Thirteenth Tribe.