“The truth is that the problem for Zionism was always how to keep Palestine without the Palestinians. And hence today’s Israeli anxieties…”
Israel’s deputy defense minister, Ze’ev Boim, recently wondered whether there was a genetic defect that made Arabs terrorists. “What is it with Islam in general and the Palestinians in particular?” he asked on Israel army radio. “Is it some sort of cultural deficiency? Is it a genetic defect?”
The dismay this arouses will be discounted by some of Israel’s friends simply as evidence of the extreme nature of its present government, with its barrier wall and its “transfer” enthusiasts. If only Sharon and his hardliners were replaced by moderates, they say, we could return to a halcyon pre-Likud past that promised peace and coexistence. But to believe this is to misunderstand the nature of Israel’s dominant ideology – of which Ariel Sharon and his minister are nothing more than devoted servants. It is not he that is the problem, but the Zionism he espouses.
For those who have forgotten or never understood what Zionism meant in practice, the Israeli historian, Benny Morris’s latest revelations and comments – published first in the Israeli daily Haaretz and then in the Guardian – make salutary reading. They have raised a storm of controversy that is still raging two months later, perhaps because they were too honest about an ideology that some would rather keep hidden. Morris, who first exposed the dark circumstances of Israel’s creation in his groundbreaking 1988 book on the birth of the Palestinian refugee problem, explains the Israeli project with a brutal candour few Zionists have been prepared to display.
Using Israeli state archives for his recently revised study, he reminds us that Israel was set up by expulsion, rape and massacre. The Jewish state could not have come into being without ethnic cleansing and, he asserts, more may be necessary in future to ensure its survival. This bald assertion should shock no one, for it is entirely consistent with the basic Zionist proposition of an ethnically pure state. Palestine’s indigenous population was a clear impediment to this aim; which is why the concept of transfer was so central to Zionist thinking long before 1948 – advocated by Zionism’s leaders and expressed through a series of specific expulsion plans from the mid-1930s onwards. These led inexorably to the 1948 Palestinian exodus and the refugee tragedy that persists today.
In an attempt to evade responsibility, Zionists have long tried to suggest that, but for the Arabs’ “unprovoked” attack on Israel in 1948, there would be no refugees. This idea is both pernicious and false. Between January and the end of May 1948, a mere two weeks into the war, a third of the Palestinian population (my own family included) had left, most of them expelled. The “war” itself was more of a civil conflict and could not alone have accounted for the mass exodus. The Arab armies were notoriously ill-equipped and poorly trained and no match for the superior Zionist forces. Though ultimately ineffective, they came to defend the hapless Palestinians and to prevent their territories from being totally overrun.
The truth is that the problem for Zionism was always how to keep Palestine without the Palestinians. And hence today’s Israeli anxieties about the so-called Palestinian “demographic threat”. As the intifada continues, despite draconian suppression, there is a near panic over a “demographic spillover” that might dilute Israel’s “Jewish character”. One recent opinion poll shows that 57% of Israelis support transferring the Arabs, and government ministers such as Avigdor Lieberman advocate this idea quite openly.
It is against this background that the monstrous barrier wall in the West Bank can be understood. “The Palestinians will always pose a threat and they must therefore be controlled and caged in,” Morris explains. Hence, also, Ariel Sharon’s offer last December of a “unilateral” withdrawal from 40% of the West Bank, and his hardline deputy Ehud Olmert’s support for partition “because of demography”. But the problem also exists inside Israel, whose Arab population is 20%, and growing. It is estimated that by 2010 there will be an Arab majority in the whole of Israel-Palestine. How will the Zionists stem the tide and keep the state Jewish?
If Zionism is to prevail, there are few choices. As Morris says, it can only be by superior force to overcome “the barbarians who want to take our lives”. The Arabs have “no moral inhibitions”, he claims, insisting that in Islam “human life doesn’t have the same value as it does in the west”. Is this observation much different from Boim’s Arab genetic defect? And can the rights of such inferior people equate to those of Jews? “The right of [Palestinian] refugees to return … seems natural and just,” Morris says. “But this ‘right of return’ needs to be weighed against the right to life and wellbeing of the 5 million Jews who currently live in Israel.” Apparently, Jewish self-determination is an imperative that supersedes the rights of the people at whose expense it was promulgated.
And in this he encapsulates the essence of Zionism. Though creating Israel entailed Palestinian suffering, Morris argues, it was for a noble aim. That is why Zionism is still a dangerous idea: at its root is a conviction of moral rightness that justifies almost any act deemed necessary to preserve the Jewish state. If that means massive military – including nuclear – force, unsavoury alliances, theft of others’ resources, aggression and occupation, the brutal crushing of all resistance – then so be it. No one should be under any illusion that Zionism is a spent force, regardless of current discourse about “post-Zionism”. That a benign Zionism, sympathetic to Palestinians, also exists means little while these basic tenets remain.
We must thank Morris for disabusing us of such notions. But a project that is morally one-sided and can only survive through force and xenophobia has no long-term future. As he himself says: “Destruction could be the end of this process.”
Ghada Karmi is research fellow at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter, and author of In Search of Fatima: a Palestinian story.