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Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French... What is going on in Palestine today cannot be justified by any moral code of conduct.


Mahatma Gandhi

Editorial, The Harijan, 26-11-1938

Understanding the Roots of the Israeli-Palestinian Dispute: The Ethnic Nationalist Vision of Zionism

Understanding the Roots of the Israeli-Palestinian Dispute: The Ethnic Nationalist Vision of Zionism

By Siddharth Shome

Posted on Nov 22, 2012

Link to original:

Many Jews see Zionist Israel as the glorious fulfillment of a long cherished Jewish dream, the culmination of a two thousand year long struggle against unrelenting anti-Semitism, and a bulwark against any future persecution of Jews.

Many Palestinians see Zionist Israel as not only harmful for their material well-being, having appropriated their land and its resources, but at a more fundamental level, as a deep wound on their civilization, and an affront to the honor and dignity of their fathers and forefathers.

This essay comes out of an attempt to understand some of the historical reasons why the Israeli and the Palestinian views are so far apart and so intensely antagonistic towards each other.

The Rise of Anti-Semitism

Israeli historian Benny Morris quotes a 19th century traveler passing through territory under Ottoman rule,
I have seen a little fellow of six years old, with a troop of fat toddlers of only three and four, teaching [them] to throw stones at a Jew, and one little urchin would, with the greatest coolness, waddle up to the man and literally spit upon his Jewish gabardine.1
Quotes such as these are often presented as evidence of widespread anti-Semitism prevailing in the Ottoman empire, part of the unrelenting anti-Semitism faced by Jews in the diaspora over their nearly two-thousand years of exile.

A deeper understanding of the context reveals a far more complex situation, however.

We learn, for example, that the Ottoman rulers gave Jews the right to pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. This right was affirmed and reaffirmed by firmans (decrees) issued by various Ottoman sultans. We also learn that while slavery was legal in the Ottoman Empire, Jews (as well as Muslims and Armenian Christians) were exempted from becoming slaves. We also find that many individual Jews were accepted by non-Jews in the Ottoman Empire as leaders and intellectuals, and at least two (Emmanuel Carasso and Moiz Cohen) of the dozen or so most prominent leaders of the Young Turks movement were Jewish.
Consider the expulsion of Jews from Spain during the Spanish Inquisition, a tragic event widely considered to have been driven by anti-Semitism. The Virtual Jewish Library has this to say,

Anti-Semitism in Spain peaked during the rule of Ferdinand and Isabella as they instituted the Spanish Inquisition... Ferdinand and Isabella issued the Alhambra Decree in 1492, which officially called for all Jews, regardless of age, to leave the kingdom.2

But Jews were not the only ones expelled from Spain during the inquisition. Prior to the Reconquista, Spain had been ruled by Arabic speaking Muslims. After the victory of the Christian armies, Muslims in Spain were forcibly converted to Christianity. Between 1609 and 1614, King Philip III expelled all Moriscos (Muslims forcibly converted to Christianity, and their descendants) from Spain. Thus, what at first glance appears to be pure-and-simple anti-Semitism turns out to be part of a phenomenon that targeted not just Jews but Muslims as well.

The broad picture that emerges from history is not a straightforward one of Jews in the diaspora facing systematic and unrelenting anti-Semitism throughout their two-thousand years of exile, but a far more complex one. Jews certainly faced varying degrees of discrimination, but in many cases, they also enjoyed certain privileges denied to some other communities and in some other cases, discrimination against Jews was part of a broader culture of discrimination that targeted Jews as well as non-Jews.

Max Dimont, author of Jews, God and History, refuses to characterize the discrimination faced by Jews in pre-industrial societies as anti-Semitism. According to him, Irrational race anti-Semitism … was unknown in the pagan, Grecian, Roman, Islamic and medieval cultures in which the Jews lived from 2000 B.C. to 1800 A.D. We have seen how during these 3,800 years Jews were slain, massacred, tortured, sold as slaves - but who was not treated much the same way in those days? Anti-Jewish violence differed in no way from the violence directed at other minority nations and groups.

Pre-industrial societies tended to be made up of largely self-governing communities that were defined primarily by tribe, religion or village. The lives of individuals were governed primarily by community institutions rather than by the state. Different communities and different classes of communities enjoyed different rights and faced different restrictions. The mosaic of communities that made up the social order in pre-industrial societies often represented peaceful and symbiotic relationships between various communities, but just as often witnessed contestation and strife. Jews were part of this mosaic of communities, and in the hierarchy of communities, Jews were never allowed to occupy the top rungs of kings and nobles. However neither were Jews relegated to the lowest rungs - the landless peasants, the serfs, the slaves and the pagans. Jews tended to be somewhere in the middle in the hierarchy of communities, and the average Jew was usually no worse off than the average member of pre-industrial society.

The social structure in Europe went through a fundamental change with the industrial revolution and the advent of the nation state. By the end of the 19th century European society had undergone a radical transformation from a medieval feudal framework to the framework of the nation state. Increasingly the lives of individuals came to be governed by a direct contract between the nation state and the individual, greatly reducing the role of churches, rabbis, tribal elders, and other traditional community leaders and institutions. Identity came to be defined primarily as membership of a nation rather than a kin group or religious community, and “national self-determination” – the idea that every nation must have its own sovereign territorial state – became important. Nations came to be marked out in terms of national languages, national territories, national values, national heroes, and particularly in Germany and some other countries in Europe, in terms of national racial or ethnic identities. These national identity markers were woven into highly romanticized nationalist narratives. The connection between a nation and its national “homeland” or “fatherland” came to assume particular significance. This connection went well beyond the traditional connection between a tribal group and its ancestral town or village, and came to imply a deep and enduring connection, a primordial and eternal bond, an almost filial relationship, between an entire racial or ethnic group and the land that it inhabited and cultivated. This connection was thought to be unique and exclusive to a particular nation and was imbued with a mystical quality perhaps best captured by the German phrase “blut-und-boden”, or “blood-and-soil”.

Paradoxically, nationalism in Europe was simultaneously inclusionary as well as exclusionary. The inclusionary character of nationalism was evident in the German unification and the Italian Risorgimento. However, European nationalism was fundamentally exclusionary when it came to the Jews, particularly in societies where racial or ethnic identity was thought to be the core of national identity. A Jew, it was thought, could never become an authentic German, or an authentic Frenchman, or an authentic Russian. It was not so much a case of Jews losing their authenticity, as much as new national ethnic identities emerging that excluded Jews. In the past there had never been an authentic Ottoman ethnic identity, for example, nor an authentic Austro-Hungarian one, and thus Jews and non-Jews alike never viewed themselves as authentically Austro-Hungarian or Ottoman in a racial or ethnic sense. In the era of ethnic nationalism, however, not being viewed as authentically German (or French, Russian, etc.) would have serious consequences for the Jews of Europe.

It was in this charged atmosphere of European ethnic nationalism that Jews were singled out and targeted for systematic vilification and persecution in a phenomenon accurately described as anti-Semitism. Though this anti-Semitism was technically not exactly racism (the Nazis treated light-skinned Jews no better than darker-skinned ones), it had characteristics that were very similar to the most extreme forms of racism. [...]

Read the rest on the author's blog here:

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