How Did the Modern State of Israel Come to Be?
The briefest possible history of Zionism, below:
During the 1800s, the Jewish population of Palestine was about 25,000. The Zionist movement arose toward the end of the 19th century, partly as more secular Jews adopted the values of the Enlightenment, including nationalism, and, more urgently, as a response to European anti-Semitism and the horrific pogroms of the Tsarist Empire. Large numbers of Jews fleeing westward were initially welcomed in the United States and the United Kingdom, while smaller numbers emigrated to Palestine, in the form of agricultural colonies financed by wealthy families like the Rothschilds.
Meanwhile Britain was having trouble finding Europeans willing to “develop”—that is, exploit—its East African colony. In 1902, the British colonial secretary proposed that displaced Jews be settled there, on land that was part of Kenya and Uganda. The native African people who had lived there for millennia were, of course, not consulted. Some Zionists were willing to accept this plan, but only as a stepping stone to eventual relocation to the land they dreamed of, Israel.
Then, in 1905, Britain passed an Aliens Act restricting immigration. (In 1921, the United States enacted a similar law.)
In 1917, Zionists persuaded the British government to issue the Balfour Declaration, committing Britain to help establish a “Jewish homeland” in Palestine.
In 1920, Stalin offered Russian Jews an “autonomous region” in far eastern Siberia, on the Chinese border—a harsh land, with the average daily high in winter below 17°F. Some Jews actually moved there. Later, however, during the Holocaust, Stalin refused to take in refugees from the Nazis, and during some of his paranoid purges both before and after World War II, he executed many of the autonomous region’s Jewish officials.
Neither the Kenya/Uganda plan nor the Siberian one ever gained much traction.
Even prior to World War II, however, Arab nationalists had opposed the immigration of Jews and land purchases by Zionists. The Britannica article on Palestine recounts the struggles that took place in the ensuing decades, many of which involved significant bloodshed on both sides.
According to the Britannica, in 1914 the population of Palestine was about 690,000 (535,000 Muslims; 70,000 Christians, most of whom were Arabs; and 85,000 Jews). During the 1930s and 1940s, Jews desperate to escape the Nazi regime and anti-Semitism in Central and Eastern Europe made their way to Palestine. By 1936 the Jewish population of the land had reached almost 400,000, or one-third of the total. By the end of WWII, it had risen to 647,000. (The Jewish Virtual Library puts it at 543,000 in 1946, still one-third of the population.
In 1947 the UN passed a resolution calling for the establishment of a State of Israel, and in 1948 David Ben-Gurion issued a declaration to that effect.
According to the UN, around 700,000 Palestinian Arabs fled or were driven out of what had been their homes, to make room for the influx of Jews.
The Arab world was not pleased. An anti-Semitic backlash resulted in the flight or expulsion of some 900,000 Jews from the Arab nations and Iran. Businesses were destroyed, property confiscated. Around 600,000 went to Israel, the rest to the United States and Europe.
* * *
Some Zionists of my acquaintance have said that a Palestinian people never existed before the founding of the Jewish state, insisting that this national identity was created solely to oppose Israel. Those early Arab nationalists who opposed Jewish immigration would disagree. In any case, the locals might not have had much choice. The area had been part of the Ottoman Empire since 1516. After World War I it became a “mandate” of the British Empire.
Other Zionists I know rarely if ever use the word “Palestinian” as a noun—just as an adjective attached to the noun “terrorist.”
Anti-Zionists call Israel an “apartheid state.” I believe there is considerable truth to that in how the Palestinians are treated. They are subjected to lengthy periods of imprisonment without trial, as well as collective punishment (such as destroying the family home when a single member of the family has committed a crime). More recently, a “security wall” now separates Israel from the occupied territories. Most significantly, the Jewish settlements continue to expand. But there is one important difference. The original creators of apartheid, the Boers and the English, went to South Africa to make a fortune. Most of the Jews who went to Israel had no other place to go.
And yet—of a world population of 12.7 million Palestinians, 5 million—those driven out of Israel and their descendants—remain stateless. Many still live in refugee camps, and have no other place else to go.
My most ardent Zionist cousin believes that the Arab countries keep the Palestinians in camps, weaponizing their suffering as a way to make Israel look bad. She said they should just absorb those refugees—as though all Arabic-speaking people are indistinguishable one from another, as though a Palestinian is the same as a Moroccan is the same as an Iraqi is the same as a Saudi is the same as a Yemeni. (Tell that to the Yemenis these days, while the Saudis conduct a genocidal war against their country!)
I haven’t asked my cousin, nor do I have a satisfactory answer to the following question: why is it that I, whose ancestors haven’t lived in Israel for 2,000 years, have a claim to citizenship there, while Palestinians who driven out a mere 75 years ago have no “right of return?”
To be continued…