Conversations with an anti-Zionist Jew.
Early Zionist poster
At the 2001 Israeli election, I wrote an article explaining why I had, with some trepidation, voted for Ariel Sharon ("Did I Really Just Vote for Ariel Sharon
?"). In response, I got an e-mail from a dentist in the New York City suburbs who identified himself as an "unabashedly anti-Zionist Jew" and me as "stupid" for my vote.
Despite the insult, I was fascinated by the dentist's mindset. He asserted that Jews are not an ethnic, cultural or national group, and he believed that his obligations as a Jew required him to cooperate with enemies of the State of Israel in order to destroy it. I wrote back, hoping to understand how he had reached what was, to me, so twisted an ideological cul-de-sac.
In subsequent e-mails, he quoted some of his sources: Rabbis Elmer Berger and Alfred Lillienthal, holdovers from the Reform movement's anti-Zionist days, and extreme anti-Israel Prof. Norman Finkelstein. But, he added, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians could be distilled to a single declaration: "You stole their land! They want it back!"
This is a stirring cry, somewhat like "Take that, you bastard!" in a cheap novel. But of course, it is untrue, as I attempted to explain to him and likeminded others on his e-mail list. Before 1948, Jews had no sovereign power to "steal" anything. Land in Jewish hands had, by definition, been bought
under Turkish or British rule, much of it - including swampland and desert - at preposterously inflated prices that only Jews were willing to pay. (Purchased land included the original Gush Etzion settlements, south of Jerusalem, which were overrun and destroyed - you could say stolen - by Arabs in 1948 and rebuilt only after the Six-Day War.)
After 1948, the property of Arabs who had fled became Jewish property - that's war, and the Arabs brought it on themselves, I said, a sentiment with which the dentist disagreed. (He did not, however, seem disturbed that hundreds of thousands of Jews living peacefully
in Arab countries were forced by their governments to flee their homes without restitution for their property.)
In Israel, what had been state lands under British and Turkish rule, constituting 70 percent of Israel in 1948, became Israeli state land. If land was confiscated unjustly from Arabs in the Jewish state, that's an issue for Israeli Arabs to bring before Israeli courts and nothing to do with "Palestinians." Anyway, in the end the cry "You stole their land!" is not aimed at restituting legitimate landholders but at delegitimizing Israel and the Jewish national presence here.
The argument is wearisome, and I apologize for rehearsing it. In the end, facts matter less than faith, and faith less than actions, and Israel's legitimacy will never be found in Turkish land records.
The dentist demurred, of course. He (and others who seconded him) advocated Israel's destruction, certain that if only the Jews would surrender their claim to national identity, a just and peaceful democratic-secular state would arise in its place. Oddly, while condemning Israel as an oppressor, they used the rhetoric of human rights and democracy to support brutal dictatorships. I wondered in response why the Palestinians had created a corrupt despotism instead of establishing the secular-democratic utopia on their own and why my correspondents prattled about democracy while defending tyranny - well, you get the idea.
In the end, many months into Arafat's current war, the dentist got insulted by my suggestion that he work at activities that didn't harm other Jews, and I got fed up with the combination of ignorance, naivete and malice that characterized my communications from him and his comrades. Our correspondence lapsed.
By coincidence, though, about that time I had a brief exchange of letters with Prof. Jerome Segal of the University of Maryland, who founded the Jewish Peace Lobby in the late 1980s and has provided academic support for the kind of dangerous compromises by Israel that the Palestinians have meanwhile rejected as insufficient.
Prof. Segal wrote, among other things, "From the point of view that almost all Palestinians believe is just, Israel should not have come into being, the land, all of it, was theirs, and it would be desirable for all the Jews to just leave and return everything to the Palestinians, from whom it was all stolen. This is what almost all Palestinians believe."
I wrote back saying, among other things, that Palestine had never been Palestinian. Not only had there never been a sovereign "Palestinian" entity in the land, but evidence suggests that many, perhaps most, Palestinians are descended from Arabs who immigrated into
the Land of Israel, lured by the employment opportunities and quality of life that became available as Jewish settlement developed (see in particular the book From Time Immemorial
by non-Jewish scholar Joan Peters). I added that I didn't see why the delusions of the Palestinians gave the Jews any obligations.
I did not hear from Prof. Segal after that.