Israel, Anti-Semitism and the Palestinian Problem

By Slater, Jerome | Tikkun, May/June 2001 | Go to article overview

Israel, Anti-Semitism and the Palestinian Problem


Slater, Jerome, Tikkun


Israel, Anti-Semitism and the Palestinian Problem

Jerome Slater is a University Research Professor at SUNY Buffalo.

Almost all Jews of my generation, we who came of age in America in the 1930s and 1940s, personally experienced anti-Semitism, thought of ourselves as passionate Zionists, and rejoiced at the establishment of the State of Israel and its 1948 and 1967 victories over its Arab enemies. Indeed, following three years as an antisubmarine warfare destroyer officer in the U.S. Navy in the late 1950s, I volunteered my services to the Israeli Navy, should the need arise.

I say all this as a partial explanation for the depth of disillusion and despair that I and many Jews feel over what we regard as Israel's fall from the humanism and liberal values of the Jewish tradition, especially in its relationship with the Palestinians. Sadly, many other American Jews feel no such disillusion, partially because they remain ignorant--or rather, in many cases, they willfully choose to remain ignorant--of the real Israeli-Palestinian story, and partially because their focus on historical anti-Semitism and Jewish impotence is so deeply rooted that they are simply impervious to new realities.

Because of the historical vulnerability of the Jewish people to periodic outbreaks of murderous anti-Semitism, perhaps it is not surprising that even many liberal Jews are interpreting the current Palestinian uprising against Israel in that context. From this understandable but dangerously wrong misperception, the conclusion inevitably follows: Israel must make no further concessions to the Palestinians, for such concessions will be taken as a sign of weakness and will therefore be an invitation to disaster.

Those who interpret the present conflict in this manner are also likely to accept at face value the standard Israeli historical mythology, that Israel has always been willing to compromise with the Palestinians, but has had no "partners for peace," in the current cliche. And this is so, the myth holds, because of an irrational Palestinian hatred of the Israelis, driven by primitive anti-Semitism--that is, rather than by actual Israeli behavior.

The current Intifada is said to have reconfirmed these lessons of Jewish history, conclusively demonstrating--even, it is said, to the formerly naive Israeli and American Jewish Left--that nothing has changed, that the Palestinians seek to destroy Israel "in stages." One can be nearly certain that this assessment will be accompanied by a reworking of one of the oldest and most pernicious cliches about international conflict, announced as if it were a brilliant new insight: "The only thing the Palestinians understand is the language of power."

The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict, 1947-49

The demythologized history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict challenges the standard version in a number of ways. To be sure, it must be acknowledged that some classic Islamic texts contain anti-Semitic references--though it is also true there are anti-Muslim references in some of the most revered Jewish thinkers of the past 1300 years. More particularly, both because early Zionism became aligned with British colonialism in the Mideast and because some Jews who lived in Arab lands sought to ally themselves with European imperialism, Arab anticolonialism in the early twentieth century included an element of anti-Semitism.

Even so, in Palestine itself the Jewish and Arab communities lived in relatively peaceful coexistence until fears of a huge onslaught of European Jewish immigration led many Palestinians to believe that Western colonialism was going to solve Europe's "Jewish problem" at the expense of the Palestinians. It was this Palestinian fear of losing their political rights, land, and society to a European Jewish influx that led to the conflict between the Yishuv and the Arab peoples of Palestine.

These fears were justified, because Ben-Gurion and other leading Zionists had no real intention of compromising with the Palestinians. …

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