History as corrective

A compassionate person can certainly understand Fadi Ennab’s anger and frustration over the ongoing plight of innocent Palestinian civilians (“Israel: Beautiful country or apartheid colony,” Sept. 16) who are caught in a terribly inhumane situation. What we must remember however is that this situation was not created by Israel alone, but is the product of a very complex historical web, which includes many wars between Israel and the Arab world.

I cannot stress enough the importance of the historical record to our understanding of this conflict, which is chronically overheated by emotion and distorted by mythology. It is also important to remember that the Arab and Muslim worlds (including the Palestinians) have been active participants and aggressors in this history, not simply passive “victims of Israel.” The fact is that Israel did not consciously create “racially segregated Palestinian enclaves.” The UN Partition Plan of 1947 divided the land into territories for Jews and territories for Palestinian Arabs dependent upon the then current population density of these two groups. This plan was accepted by the Jewish leadership and rejected by the Palestinians and the Arab League. The invasion of five regular Arab armies on the night of May 14, 1948, the day Israel declared its independence as a sovereign state, began the war to “drive the Jews into the sea.” That, as we know, was not to be. The Palestinian Territories that people are familiar with today are the product of the 1967 war between Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. The Gaza Strip; Sinai Peninsula (Egypt); West Bank, including East Jerusalem (Jordan); and the Golan Heights (Syria) were captured by Israel in a war that lasted six days. This military success resulted in Israel having control over a Palestinian population of one million people.

The reality of this conflict is that it is an ongoing war between Palestinians, who are supported by a number of Muslim movements and political regimes (Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran), and Israelis, supported by some Western governments led by the United States. War is terrible; innocent people on both sides suffer; people learn to hate one another passionately; people are disenfranchised; propaganda and mythology often replace critical analysis; hatred and vengeance replace trust and goodwill; the enemy is demonized and dehumanized to the point that they have little right to exist; other countries are asked to join sides and those who do not give unqualified support are likewise demonized, and so on. Both Palestinians and Israelis are responsible for this war, for its unrelenting nature, and its terrible consequences. The last thing that will help end this conflict is further demonization of the Jews, in the contemporary form of the State of Israel.

Calling Israel “an existential colonial cancer” is offensive, inaccurate and completely unproductive. The conception that Jews are foreign Western colonists and Palestinians the indigenous inhabitants of the land shows, again, a lack of historical knowledge. The reason why this argument does not work with the Western public (although it has sold many academics) is that the West knows its Bible, which of course demonstrates very clearly that the Hebrews are one of the many indigenous groups of the region. Jewish history demonstrates very clearly that the Jewish people have been caught between a rock and a hard place, as it were, being identified as Oriental in Europe, and Western in the East. In Europe, Jews were told to “go home to Palestine” but in the Middle East they are told “go back to Europe,” which of course was impossible during and after the Holocaust. Thought to be agents of the Sultan in Europe, Jews were identified with European imperialism outside Europe. To be of any use intellectually, the traditional postcolonial reading of this conflict requires a proper grounding in the complex realities of Jewish history.

Another key historical reality at work in this discussion is anti-Semitism, which is a product of Western culture. The United Church of Canada did not reject the call to boycott Israeli institutions because of “Jewish influence,” itself an anti-Semitic canard. It rejected the boycott campaign because of the hateful anti-Semitic history of the Christian Church, and the new post-Holocaust reluctance of Christians to contribute in any way to anti-Jewish rhetoric or policy. This is a truly wonderful development in our history and the United Church should be commended for its decision.

Calls for the support of Winnipeggers, Canadians, or the Western world in any of its manifestations, to support boycotts against Israeli or Jewish organizations should make us uneasy given the nature of the Western historical relationship to the Jewish people. We must play a supportive and productive role in helping to produce a lasting solution to this problem that benefits both Palestinians and Israelis and that demonizes no one.

Dr. Catherine Chatterley
Department of History
University of Manitoba