Friday, August 12, 2011
Israeli Intransigence Ignores History
By Jonathan Power
There are questions that even today the historians don’t seem moved to investigate. Two important ones come to mind: Why was it that Pharaonic Egypt never went to war for hundreds of years until Ramses II became pharaoh in 1303 AD? Isn’t it a fact that Jews in Europe were unmolested for most of the first millennium after the death of Jesus?
The Egyptian question is a bit of an idle curiosity since an answer probably won’t affect our behaviour today, although it should. Still, it is nice to know that we, human beings, aren’t constituted to make war and that we do not have to live like we did over hundreds of years in Europe - going to war at the drop of a hat and making the continent the most war-like place on earth.
To learn more about the persecution of the Jews is highly relevant to today’s Palestinian-Israeli struggle for the ancient land of Palestine. The siege mentality that modern Israel exhibits could do with being leavened with a bit of honest history. Jewish history over 2,000 years hasn’t always been pogroms.
For most of the time, over two millennia, the Jews in Europe got on with life and were not often persecuted. Indeed, in the first millennium, they seemed to have been barely noticed. They may have not been always liked, but they were accepted. Only in 19th century Russia were the pogroms killing thousands, rather than hundreds as before.
Even when, at the beginning of the second millennium, tolerance of the Jews did gradually give way to demonising them in some quarters, by and large Jews lived on good terms with their Christian neighbours. Then, as now, they were considered to be materially successful and culturally brilliant.
In the 1090s, the influential Christian scholar, St. Anselm, broke from St. Augustine’s long-held opinion that those who had crucified Christ had not known he was the son of God. Whether this had a profound influence on ordinary opinion can only be guessed, but we do know that in the late 11th and early 12th century, outrages were perpetuated against Jews, albeit infrequently.
During the preparations for the crusade of 1096, Jews were massacred in significant numbers. Yet, at the same time, there were strong countercurrents. Pope Alexander III, in the decrees of the Third Lateran Council in 1179 wrote that Jews were not to be deprived of land, money or goods, and their religious ceremonies should not be interrupted with sticks and stones.
Over the next 750 years, the Jews, for the most part, prospered. Occasionally there were mass killings. We should also recall what murderous centuries these were in Europe: wars between kings, dukedoms and knights’ fiefdoms, not to mention the almost continuous Protestant-Catholic wars. Compared to these, the anti-Jewish pogroms were relatively minor affairs.
In 1791, Catherine the Great of Russia created the Pale of Settlement, territory where permanent Jewish settlement was allowed. Its population was about five million, compromising around 40 per cent of the world’s Jewish population. However, Jews in the Pale - which covered about 20 per cent of Russia’s European territory - were still a minority, perhaps 14 per cent of the population. The host community resented this influx of Jews and there were many pogroms and anti-Jewish riots. In the big pogroms of 1891 and 1903, thousands were murdered.
Over two million fled, mainly to the US, but only rarely did they show themselves much interested in the Zionist cause. They were happy where they were, and found themselves side by side with other peoples who had also been badly persecuted in Europe. They discovered they weren’t the only ones and this helped give them a sense of perspective that lasted until the holocaust.
We should not be surprised, then, that although Zionism was a Western construct, its greatest appeal was to the remaining East European Jews. West European Jews had found a modus vivendi and their chief concern was not physical oppression. It was the loss of identity through assimilation. What the western Jews cared for was the spiritual redemption of their people. Hence, when Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, preached his cause at the end of the 20th century, he met with much opposition. However, by the later standards of Zionist leaders, Herzl was a moderate man. His urge for a Jewish state was a question of finding a suitable piece of land. It could be in Africa or South America. It did not have to be in Palestine.
Israelis today need to reflect on all this. Apart from Hitler’s holocaust - a one-off event - their forefathers were not singularly persecuted when compared to what else was going on at the time. And until the end of World War II, popular Jewish opinion, either inside or outside the Middle East, did not countenance a takeover of Palestine.
This commentary was published in The Jordan Times on 12/08/2011