The false promise

Issue: 105
Posted: 9 January 05

Sabby Sagall

A review of John Rose, The Myths of Zionism (Pluto, 2004), £14.99

There was a time when the state of Israel received majority support from the world?s radically minded. It successfully projected itself as a progressive, even socialist, society that had spawned the kibbutz experiment of collective living. Israel was a small ?victim state? that wanted nothing more than to live in peace with its much larger neighbours but was prevented from doing so by ruthless Arab leaders bent on its destruction as a diversion from the misery and oppression of their masses. It was a heroic society, perceived as a moral symbol of survival and rebirth, the living proof that the Holocaust had not wiped out the Jewish people. The Palestinian exodus of 1948 was explained as the result of a call made by Arab leaders to the Palestinians to leave their country so as to allow the Arab armies to invade and drive the Jews into the Mediterranean. That image began to wear thin at the time of Israel?s brutal invasion of Lebanon in 1982 but 20 years later it is in tatters.

Considerable credit must go to the so called ?revisionist? school of Israeli historiography who, since 1987, have begun to develop an alternative approach to the history of their country. A new breed of historians stripped away the sanitised version of Zionist history and for the first time told the truth about what really happened in 1948, or in the Six-Day War of 1967. They also unmasked the sinister machinations at the heart of the Oslo ?peace process?. Books such as Simha Flapan?s The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities (Pantheon), Benny Morris?s The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 (Cambridge), both published in 1987, Ilan Pappe?s The Making of the Arab-Israeli Conflict 1947-51 (I B Taurus, first published 1992), and more recently Avi Shlaim?s The Iron Wall (Penguin, 2000), made it clear that in 1948 the Palestinians did not leave voluntarily, hoping to return in the wake of victorious Arab armies, but were themselves driven out either by direct military pressure, or in cases where they did leave of their own accord, it was as a result of Zionist terrorism, expressed through events such as the Deir Yassin massacre in April 1948. Their account lends credence instead to the Palestinian version summed up in the term Naqba (Arabic word meaning ?catastrophe?). Moreover, Avi Shlaim challenges the official version of the 1967 war, which blames Egypt?s President Nasser, by laying responsibility for it firmly at Israel?s door.

John?s book is original insofar as it takes the argument a stage further. Looking beneath the historical narrative, he forensically dissects the key set of myths that have underpinned the Zionist project since its inception. He provides us with a powerful, systematic and highly readable debunking of that mythology, exposing the lies, misinterpretations and distortions of history perpetrated by successive generations of Zionist leaders and intellectuals. So, at a time when the brutality of the occupation has caused Israel to forfeit increasing public support to the Palestinians?as revealed by more than one public opinion survey? John?s is the right book at the right time.

The myths that John has assembled fall broadly into two historical categories, the first dealing with the Jews in the ancient and medieval worlds, the second with Jews in the modern world. Arguably, the most potent of all Zionist myths is the one that asserts that the history of the Jews is one of unmitigated persecution?what the historian Salo Baron called ?the lachrymose view of Jewish history??basically, that the world is, and always has been, divided into Jews and anti-Semites.

Chapter 1 takes the bull by the horns, challenging the preposterous claim made by Israel?s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, that ?the Bible is our mandate?, that the justification for the establishment of a modern state of Israel is that there existed an ancient one. John describes the highly embarrassing findings of modern Israeli archaeologists that cast doubt on the very existence of an ancient state of Israel, or at least of its representative?the United Monarchy of David and Solomon (1000-922BCE).

The following two chapters tackle head-on the claim of ?eternal suffering?, arguing that under the ancient Greek and Roman empires and in early medieval Europe Jews enjoyed considerable freedom and prosperity. John puts forward a strong case that even before the fall of the ancient Jewish temple in 70CE, the majority of Jews had migrated out of Judaea and Samaria (?ancient Israel?) and were dispersed across various parts of the Roman Empire?Rome itself, Greece or Egypt?and in Babylon. Moreover, John argues that the Jewish revolt against the Roman occupation (66 to 70CE), seen by Zionists as a heroic Jewish nationalist struggle, the precursor of modern Zionism, was in fact as much a peasant revolt against the Jewish ruling class as against the Romans.

As for Europe, John argues that there were great opportunities for the expansion of commerce within the pores of early feudal society (roughly 9th to the 12th century). Jews grew prosperous as trading intermediaries between sources of production in far off lands and the kings and nobility. Through their monopoly of trade, especially in luxury goods, the Jews made themselves indispensable to the Christian privileged classes and were themselves granted privileges and a considerable degree of autonomy. By the year 1000 the Jewish peasantry had virtually disappeared, the Jews becoming an exclusively urban class that had created an international trade network servicing the upper classes of the great medieval empires.

However, the 14th and 15th centuries witnessed the emergence of rival Christian mercantile classes in Spain, France or England, and they sought the elimination of Jews from trade and indeed their expulsion from the country, such as in Spain in 1492. These merchants proceeded to create the economic basis for the great European empires and eventually industrial capitalism. The majority of Jews were forced to migrate from western to eastern Europe, where the level of economic development was as backward as western Europe?s had been and where the Jews could once again carve out important roles for themselves as merchants (and at later stages usurers and tax gatherers). In Poland or Lithuania the kings and nobility granted the Jews autonomy and other privileges, rendering their communities almost mirror images of the earlier ones in Spain. An interesting discussion, for which there is space neither here nor in John?s book, is about the scientific status of the evidence regarding the position of Jews in the ancient and medieval worlds.

John moves on to the vexed question of Jewish-Arab relations. In two highly effective and illuminating chapters, he refutes the hoary old Zionist claim that Jews and Arabs are incapable of living together. He provides an absorbing account of Jewish-Arab relations during the height of the great Islamic empire, between the 10th and the 13th centuries. ?Jewish communities in this period were an integral part of an Islamic culture in an empire which achieved extraordinary prosperity and influence? (p65). One piece of evidence for this is provided by the ?Geniza?, a room in an 11th century Cairo synagogue in which numerous documents written by Jewish merchants, craftsmen and scholars were discovered in the late 19th century? hastily written notes, accounts or letters. They provide rich and ample testimony to the extent to which the Jewish and Arab communities were intertwined, their members living and working side by side in relative harmony for centuries.

John also gives short shrift to perhaps the most brazen Zionist myth, that the earliest colonisers found an empty land, apart from a few Bedouin nomads, and that Palestine therefore represented, in the most famous of all Zionist slogans, ?a land without people for a people without land?. John brings to life ?the thriving Arab peasant farming communities…of Palestine before the Zionists arrived in the 19th century?(p4).

During the 1967 Six-Day War, many supporters of Israel fell for the notion that Israel was a small nation surrounded by powerful hostile neighbours determined to destroy the fledgling Jewish state, a sentiment summed up in the phrase ?plucky little Israel?. John makes the admittedly familiar point that the Zionist movement and the state of Israel always sought to ally themselves with whichever imperialist power happened to be in control of the Middle East. In this way it presented itself, in Chomsky?s words, as a ?strategic asset?, in particular to the US, which since the late 1950s has perceived Israel as an invaluable watchdog guarding its economic and military interests, a buffer against radical Arab nationalism. Israel receives more US military and civilian aid than any other country in the world.

In the final chapter John deals with the Zionist fallback argument that, even if the Palestinians were expelled in 1948, that is balanced by the expulsion of the Jews from Arab countries in the subsequent years, in other words that there is some kind of historical and moral symmetry between the two exoduses. He makes it clear that any appearance of symmetry is a sham, that it was Zionist colonisation that destroyed the centuries-old relative harmony between Jews and Arabs in the Muslim world. It wasn?t pressure on 800,000 Jews to leave their homes in the Arab countries after 1948 that impelled them to adopt Zionism, but on the contrary Zionism, with its expulsion and dispossession of the Palestinians, that created that pressure. John also points up the role of western imperialism in favouring Jews in certain Arab countries, thus creating division and resentment and helping to create a political climate that facilitated the expulsion of the Jews following the expulsion of the Palestinians.

John draws the unassailable conclusion that since Jews and Arabs lived side by side in the Muslim world for 1,500 years it was Zionist colonisation that drove them apart, pitting them against each other in a conflict that can only end with the dismantling of the state of Israel.

John?s book is a compelling and lucid analysis of the key ideological props of Zionism, essential reading for all who seek to promote solidarity with the Palestinian people, for all who look forward to the creation of a single, democratic, socialist Palestine (probably binational initially), in which Jews and Arabs can once again live peacefully side by side.