Jews, Hostility toward Jews, and the Land of Israel: Past and Present

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On March 8, 2014, a panel at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York discussed the issue of Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel in response to an earlier panel held there in support of such a policy.  Below—with very minor revisions– is the text of the first presentation at that panel.  The entire proceedings can be viewed at   One of the boxes on the control panel enables you to cycle through main and presentation layouts so that the screen that obscures much of the panel in the initial layout can be diminished or removed.

Let me begin with a few words about the connection between Jews and the Land of Israel through the ages. This narrative requires the recounting of some elementary material known to virtually all of you, and I apologize for beginning with what should be a superfluous account.  However, even some of this basic information has been called into question by figures of considerable standing in the Palestinian leadership, and so I need to put it on the record.

Except for a tiny group of the most extreme so-called minimalists, all scholars recognize that there was an Israelite kingdom, whatever its size, at the beginning of the first millennium B.C.E.  that was then divided into a Kingdom of Israel and a Kingdom of Judah.  The former was destroyed by the Assyrians, and the remaining one was destroyed by the Babylonians along with its Temple in 586 BCE.  A half-century later, the Judean exiles were allowed to return by the victorious king of the Persian Empire, and a second Temple was built.  For more than a half-millennium, a Jewish polity flourished under Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman rule, and for close to a century of that period, it exercised full sovereignty.  In 70 C.E., the Romans destroyed the Temple in the wake of a revolt, but a significant Jewish presence remained for centuries with a governing structure recognized by the eventually Christianized Roman government.  In the 630’s, Arab armies conquered the Land, and Muslims remained in control—with a one-century hiatus in the wake of the first crusade—until the British conquest towards the end of World War I.

For most of the nearly two millennia since the destruction of the second Temple, the bulk of the Jewish people lived under Christian and Muslim rule in Europe, North Africa, and areas of the Middle East other than Israel.  However, a Jewish presence in the Land was always maintained, though the level of the population fluctuated significantly.

For pre-modern Christians, Jews lost the right to the Land because they had been replaced as the true Israel by the Church.  In theory, the physical land and even the physical Jerusalem were of marginal significance at best.  What mattered was the Heavenly Jerusalem, which would descend at the end of days, though without its now irrelevant Temple.  Despite this theology, the Holy Land and City retained an ineradicable attraction and became a focus of pilgrimage.  Nonetheless, the earthly Jerusalem never became an important city in a political sense for Christians despite today’s homogenizing rhetoric that speaks of a city that is holy to the three relevant faiths without any effort at differentiation.  A friend told me many years ago that he heard a televised discussion between the Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban and an American official old enough to remember World War I.  When the official asserted that while Jerusalem is holy to Jews, it enjoys a comparable status among Christians, Eban asked him, “Do you remember the day that General Allenby entered Jerusalem?”  Keep in mind that at that moment Jerusalem returned to Christian control after more than seven hundred years of uninterrupted Muslim rule.  As expected, the official said no.  Eban replied more or less as follows: “There is not a committed Jew who was of the age of awareness when the Israeli army entered the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967 who will ever forget that day.”

Except for the short period after the Muslim conquest in the late 630’s—and really not even then—Jerusalem was never turned into an important political center under Islam.  According to a famous tradition, Muhammad traveled miraculously from Mecca to Jerusalem and from there he ascended to heaven, leading one Israeli professor to quip that there were apparently no non-stop flights from Mecca to heaven.  As a result of this tradition and many other factors, Jerusalem did capture the imagination of some Muslims, and a genre of “Praises of Jerusalem” developed.  But all this is but a pale reflection of the centrality of the Land and the city for Jews throughout the period of their dispersion.

One can hardly open a page of the Jewish prayer book without encountering Jerusalem and the Land of Israel. Let me illustrate this point by picking an example almost at random.  When an observant Jew in tenth-century Baghdad or twelfth-century Paris or sixteenth-century Salonica or nineteenth-century New York ate a few cookies, this is what he or she said immediately afterwards:

Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, for the nourishment and the sustenance and for the produce of the field, for the desirable, good, and spacious land that you willingly gave as a heritage to our ancestors, that they might eat of its fruit and be satisfied with its goodness.  Have compassion, O Lord our God, on Israel your people, on Jerusalem your city, on Zion the home of your glory, on your altar and your Temple.  May you rebuild Jerusalem, the holy city, swiftly in our time, and may you bring us back there, rejoicing in its rebuilding, eating from its fruit, satisfied by its goodness, and blessing you for it in holiness and purity.

All for a few cookies.

These millennial longings at the emotional core of the Jewish psyche were translated into the idiom and substance of modern nationalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Push and pull are the classic categories of immigration studies, and nowhere are they more evident than in Jewish settlement of the Land of Israel.  We have already seen the intensity of the pull, and—tragically– it is hardly necessary to point out the force of the push.  That push, which merged with the pull, reached a climax in the aftermath of the Holocaust.  A year or two ago, I heard someone give a talk on the anniversary of his father’s death.  He noted with deep emotion that his father, who survived the horrors of the camps, told him that the one thing that enabled him to retain his faith in the face of those horrors was the awareness that what he saw as a providential process had been launched through which the Jewish people had the realistic potential to return to its land as a sovereign nation.

There were of course non-Jews living in that land, though it was quite sparsely populated at the beginning of the Zionist movement (about 600,000 in 1900).  The Jewish presence was a critical factor in sowing the seeds of a nascent Palestinian national identity, but it is of considerable importance to recognize that the substantial desire for a separate Palestinian state for a people that defined itself as Palestinian did not precede the establishment of the Jewish State in 1948 and did not even follow it closely.   In 1947, the United Nations proposed the establishment of two states, one Jewish and one Arab, with boundaries that assigned less territory to the Jewish State than it would eventually win.  The Jews accepted.  A loose coalition of Arab states reacted by launching an invasion to wipe out the infant State.  It is of no small interest that the territory controlled by Arabs after the war—which we now usually call the West Bank– was incorporated, legally or not, into Jordan, which, incidentally, did not allow Jews even to visit the Western Wall, destroyed or defaced the now empty synagogues, and used Jewish tombstones to build latrines.  No one seriously called for establishing a Palestinian state in that territory until Israel conquered it in a defensive war in 1967.  Palestinian nationalism was and is focused only on territory controlled by Israel.

I do not dispute for a moment that the war of 1948, which would not have happened at all had the Arabs accepted partition, caused tragedy for many Palestinian Arabs.  A small minority of the refugees created by that war were indeed expelled by Jews.  The vast majority of those who left fled, some out of concern that they would be massacred by the Jews or killed in the maelstrom of the conflict, and most expected to return after the imminent destruction of Israel.  The very large number of Arabs who remained were of course not massacred and eventually became citizens of a democratic, if Jewish, state.   The refugee status of the others has been artificially prolonged by the refusal of the Arab states to absorb them, and their descendants, uniquely among all comparable groups, continue to be classified as refugees. It is worth noting that at the same time, a similar number of Jews were forced to flee Arab countries.  Most of them came to Israel, where they are refugees no more.

After the Israeli conquest of the West Bank, or, alternatively, of Judaea and Samaria, some Jews established communities in what they rightly saw as the heart of their historic homeland.   Since the Arab  countries convened shortly after the war to declare that there would be “no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, [and] no negotiations with it,” it is difficult to condemn the settlers for taking steps that many now see as impediments to a peace agreement, certainly not with the vitriol that has become so common.  Moreover, rather than destroy or desecrate Muslim houses of worship and ban Muslims from the Temple Mount, Israel left effective control of the holiest site in Judaism to Muslim authorities to the point of turning a blind eye to the almost certain destruction of archaeological remnants of the Jewish presence there and—almost unbelievably–prohibiting Jews from praying, even through the silent moving of lips, anywhere on the mountain.

In the 1967 war, Israel had also captured Gaza and the Sinai peninsula from Egypt.  Several years after the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Anwar Sadat of Egypt proffered a sincere offer of peace to Israel, which proceeded to give back Sinai and dismantle a Jewish town that had been established in the north of the peninsula.  In 1993, secret talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization produced the Oslo accords, which enabled the PLO leadership to move from Tunis to the West Bank and establish the Palestinian Authority.  The next key moment came when President Clinton brought both parties together in an attempt to reach a final peace agreement.  Israel offered to turn over three-quarters of the West Bank immediately and approximately ninety percent over a transitional period, including parts of Jerusalem.  Yasser Arafat, to Clinton’s chagrin, said no, and a follow-up negotiation, which apparently made some progress, nonetheless ended in failure.  Arafat proceeded to preside over a terrorist uprising, complete with suicide bombing.  In the wake of sustained terror, Israel quelled the uprising by military force and built a barrier to prevent future attacks.

Later, it unilaterally withdrew from Gaza, taking the wrenching step of expelling all inhabitants of Jewish settlements.   When Israel dismantled synagogues in preparation for the disengagement, a colleague of mine at Brooklyn College asked why they could not have been left standing.  I replied, using uncharacteristic language, that her mistake was expecting reasonable behavior.  When mobs destroyed the sophisticated greenhouses that Israel had left standing in order to help the fledgling Gazan economy, she came to me with surprised disappointment to acknowledge that she had been mistaken.

An election in Gaza brought Hamas to power, complete with its genocidal covenant.   After years of missile strikes from Gaza against southern towns, Israel launched an attack and was rewarded, despite extraordinary efforts to avoid civilian casualties, with accusations that it deliberately set out to kill children.

There can be no question that Israeli checkpoints and other measures have a deleterious impact on everyday life for West Bank Palestinians, and it is inevitable that despite training that demands ethical behavior, there are instances in which Israeli soldiers behave improperly. But we need to ask ourselves what Israel can reasonably be expected to do and what it is that will satisfy advocates of boycott, divestment, and sanctions.

A large number of those advocates undoubtedly want the end of Israel as a Jewish state. I cannot tell people whose explicit objective is to bring about the suicide or destruction of a state that boycott is too strong a tactic.  I can only quarrel with the objective itself.  Other BDS supporters do not seek, at least overtly, the liquidation of Israel, but they require complete, unilateral withdrawal even without a peace agreement from every square inch of territory that was not under Israeli control before 1967, including the Western Wall, the pre-1948 Jewish Quarter of the old city, and large Jewish neighborhoods that are part of the warp and woof of Jerusalem.  Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza without an agreement and the interminable barrage of missiles that followed underscores the unreasonableness of such an expectation, let alone of the imposition of sanctions in order to realize it.  The major population centers of Israel as well as its airport would be in the direct line of fire even with a slightly less radical withdrawal.  Moreover, the envisioned Palestinian state is intended to be Judenrein—empty of Jews–and without a real peace any Jew who lived there would be dead within a week.  Even with a peace agreement that officially allowed Jews to remain, they would probably be dead within a month.

The most moderate advocates of BDS, who want to target only West Bank businesses and institutions, presumably intend to accomplish nothing more than exerting pressure on Israel to provide more generous peace proposals that they believe would produce an agreement.  In light of Palestinian rejection of forthcoming proposals in the relatively recent past, it is difficult indeed to justify the use of a radical, stigmatizing instrument in order to bring about relatively modest revisions in Israel’s negotiating position, and I may be wrong to think that there is a significant segment of this camp that does not seek anything more than that.

Here are two illustrations from the last two weeks that illuminate both the moral calculus and the dangers that Israel would face from a withdrawal without real peace.

  1. On April 30th, an official Palestinian Authority TV station commented on the funeral of a suicide murderer who detonated a bomb in 2002 at the Sbarro pizza shop in Jerusalem, killing fifteen people including seven children, and whose remains were just returned by Israel. The funeral, said the reporter or commentator, is a celebration of the martyr’s wedding with the virgins in paradise.  This is the Palestinian Authority, not Hamas.
  2. On May 2nd, a children’s program on Hamas TV entitled Tomorrow’s Pioneerspresented the following exchange:

Child host: “Why do you want to be a police officer? Like whom?”

Girl: “Like my uncle.” …

Child host: “OK, so what does a policeman do?”

An adult in a giant bee costume: “He catches thieves, and people who make trouble.”

Child host: “And shoots Jews. Right?”

Girl: “Yes.”

Child host: “You want to be like him?”

[Girl nods]

Child host: “God willing, when you grow up.”

Girl: “So that I can shoot Jews.”

[The bee claps his hands]

Child host: “All the Jews? All of them?”

Girl: “Yes.”

Child host: “Good.”

So we need to ask ourselves what accounts for advocacy of BDS by deeply ethical people who are driven in their own minds by genuinely ethical considerations.  How is it that they dismiss in this context concerns that are normally at the very core of their system of values? On the Israeli side of the ledger, I refer to protection of the fundamental rights of minorities, equality for women and gays, freedom of religion, a judicial system that enforces these rights, a political structure in which minorities, in this case Israeli Arabs, rise to very high positions in government and the courts, access to university education at every level, freedom of expression and of the press, and more.  On the other side of the ledger, I refer to shooting rockets at civilian towns, suppressing expression, subordinating wom)en, severely punishing homosexuality, tolerating honor killings, paying large stipends as a reward for the intentional killing of toddlers, asserting (as the Hamas covenant does) that Jews planned the Holocaust and should be killed by virtue of their very Jewishness, cultivating an intimate engagement with an Iranian government that speaks of wiping Israel off the map and seeks the means to do so, and more.

I do not dismiss the assertion that in the case of some advocates of BDS, anti-Semitism is at work.  Unabashed anti-Jewish slogans have been shouted in various venues by BDS supporters, who have in some instances engaged in outright thuggery.  The very singling out of Israel in a world replete with the worst miscreants raises dark suspicions. But I believe that most BDS advocates are motivated by an overarching ethical position so powerful that it sweeps away all other values.   That position is anti-colonialism (which in this instance dismisses the relevance of the historic Jewish connection to Israel}, concern for the national rights of the Palestinians, and sympathy for their condition.  In the case of some of the speakers at that BDS panel, one has to add anti-capitalism, Marxism, and opposition to both “neo-liberalism”and purported American imperialism.  Once these concerns are in place, even the worst horrors—including the potential for the death of a massive number of Israelis– fade into relative insignificance.  The analogy that comes to mind is the support of Communism even in its Stalinist manifestation by many Westerners driven by a vision of a perfected world.  In the pursuit of that essentially, even quintessentially, ethical objective, they persuaded themselves either that Stalin’s atrocities were not really happening or that they were a deeply unfortunate necessity to accomplish a greater good.

Note that I have alluded to the argument that there are worse countries than Israel only in passing.  There are, of course– far far worse—and it is often necessary to affirm this truism in the face of the alternate universe presented by advocates of BDS.  Resort to this argument, however, can be taken to imply that Israel really deserves BDS, but that priorities should be directed elsewhere.  This would evoke the story of a rabbi who rose to the challenge of delivering a eulogy at the funeral of a recently deceased congregant of despicable character.  “His brother,” declared the rabbi, “was worse.”  In our case, despite the suffering that results from the tragic situation that prevails, Israel—given the existential threats that it confronts—imposes moral constraints on its policies to a degree that borders on the remarkable. It can and should strive to do even better.  Nonetheless, what it deserves is not sanctions but admiration.

David Berger is the Ruth and I. Lewis Gordon Professor of Jewish History and Dean  Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies at  Yeshiva University


Jews, Hostility toward Jews, and the Land of Israel: Past and Present

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