Roots of Discord

It is often said that the roots of the conflicts in the Middle East, which many U.S. diplomats seem to think can be handled with just one more full-court-press and a conference, – and we’re talking not just of disputes between Israelis and Palestinians but the larger regional hostilities – are centuries-old, even milliennia-old.

There is truth in this, especially insofar as political and ethnic leaders stir and exploit ancient memories and resentments. However, the present conflict featuring suicide/homicide bombers and reprisals with tanks and helicopters can be traced in more recent history. Understanding that history might not resolve the conflicts, but it might offer some insight for often-perplexed observers.

The most obvious starting point is the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. That event was influenced profoundly by the Nazi Holocaust of European Jews, but its founding also has roots that go back to the late 19th century and the social currents in Europe that led to the founding of the Zionist movement.

Israel is almost unique among modern nation-states not only in its Jewish religious/cultural character but in the fact that it was brought into being through a combination of United Nations action and British acquiescence. On May 14, 1948, the British Mandate in Palestine, under which the territory had been ruled since the end of World War I, came to an end. In accordance with a special report from the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, approved by the General Assembly Nov. 29, 1947, the area was partitioned into two states, one Jewish and the other Arab.

Eleven minutes after the British Mandate officially ended, President Truman announced that the United States recognized the new State of Israel. The Soviet Union quickly followed.

All the Arab states that were then U.N. members had voted against the resolution (along with Cuba, Greece, India and Pakistan). While Jews in Palestine had rejoiced when the U.N. resolution passed, Palestinian Arabs took up arms. The last six months of British rule were precarious and violent, marked by attacks and counter-attacks in which dozens of Jews and Arabs were killed. Jews were also attacked in other Muslim countries, notably in Aden, Tripolitania, Syria and Egypt, with the total death toll in the hundreds. On Dec. 30, 1947, Arabs attacked an oil refinery at Haifa, killing 41 Jewish workers.

The Arab states bordering on the new Jewish state attacked the newborn Israel immediately. Egyptian planes bombed Tel Aviv. The territory known as Transjordan (now Jordan) and Syria advanced in the area allocated to Israel by the United Nations, bombarding the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. Egyptian troops advanced to the southern outskirts of Jerusalem. Iraqi troops participated.

During the nine months of warfare that followed, Arab Legion troops occupied and deliberately demolished the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem. Israeli forces fought back fiercely. At the end of the war the cease-fire lines defined what would be the borders of Israel for 20 years, a territory somewhat larger than the U.N. had anticipated. Jordan occupied the West Bank of the Jordan River, whose residents were largely Palestinian Arabs, and eastern Jerusalem. Egypt occupied the Gaza Strip. Israel had firm control of most of the territory now recognized as modern Israel.

During what Israelis call the War of Independence some 6,000 Jews, about 1 percent of the Jewish population in Israel, were killed. In the years immediately following some 1 million Jews immigrated to the country, from Europe, North Africa and Muslim countries in the Middle East. During and immediately after the war, hundreds of thousands of Arabs fled the battlefield or were encouraged by Israel – sometimes forcibly and brutally – to leave their homes. Several thousand Arab homes in Jerusalem were taken over by Jews, some of whom had just fled Muslim lands.

About a half-million Arab refugees were placed in camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. These refugees, never fully assimilated into the Arab x countries surrounding Israel but kept in wretched refugee camps for years, became the foundation of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the later movement for a separate Palestinian state. Some 160,000 Arabs remained inside Israel or returned shortly after the war ended. They became Israeli citizens and multiplied; Arabs now constitute about 20 percent of the Israeli population.


But what led to the large-scale migration of Jews, mostly but not solely from Europe, that resulted in some 600,000 Jews living in what became Israel in 1948? Some fled from the Nazi Holocaust, but in fact during most of World War II the British prevented or severely limited Jewish migration to Palestine.

The migration question takes us back a few years.

Following the Jewish Diaspora when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 A.D. (or C.E.), Jews had traveled and settled in myriad places, usually but not always retaining their culture and separateness and often serving as scapegoats on whom the rulers of various countries blamed the problems that usually arose from their own misrule. The ancient land of Israel was sparsely populated, mostly by Arabs, until 1900 or so (although there had been a strong Jewish presence in Jerusalem for centuries).

One useful turning point in Jewish history is 1896, when the Austrian Jewish writer Theodore Herzl published "Der Judenstaat," or "The Jewish State." The 35-year-old Herzl, who had already achieved some prominence as a journalist, argued that the only real solution for Jews in Europe – who had been widely persecuted (though sometimes valued, e.g., as moneylenders when the church virtually outlawed interest) in the Middle Ages and were mostly but sometimes uneasily assimilating in the liberal bourgeois European states of the 19th century – was to have a state of their own. That way they could develop the political power to keep themselves safe and remove themselves from countries in which they were often a source of friction and where the lives of even the comfortably assimilated could be insecure or marked by obsequiousness.


Herzl convened what came to be called the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland in 1897, and the Zionist Organization thenceforth (after some discussion of whether Argentina would be a good candidate for the new Jewish homeland) embarked on a long campaign of encouraging Jews to migrate to Palestine.

Not all Jews were enthusiastic, by any means; Jews and historians are still arguing about the true character of the Zionist movement. Highly religious Jews tended to see it as a secular, political movement; many others believed the Messiah would lead the Jews back to the promised land in God’s good time, not man’s, and to pursue the goal through political and military means was impious. Many comfortable, assimilated Jews in Europe, who had spent years learning to fit in, had no desire to become pioneers in a harsh desert country. Some Jewish businessmen were put off by the air of earnest socialism and the whiff of utopianism that pervaded most Zionist gatherings.

But Herzl was not just a visionary but a practical organizer. Before he died in 1904 he had created a movement with solid institutions. By 1904 and 1905 significant numbers of Jews were moving to Palestine and buying land, often inspired by the idea of living in the ancient homeland and making it bloom, of the dignity and glory of physical labor in a communal setting, the kibbutz. In 1933 about half the Jewish population of 120,000 in Palestine lived in agricultural settlements.


The cause of a Jewish homeland took a significant psychological step forward during World War I. The area had been ruled for centuries by the Ottoman Turkish empire. In 1917 (in events dramatized and somewhat romanticized in the movie "Lawrence of Arabia") the British captured Jerusalem and precipitated the defeat of the Ottomans. After the formation of the League of Nations, the Europeans divided the Middle East into "Mandates" to be run by various European great powers. The British held Palestine, Transjordan and a piece of the Arabian peninsula and held sway in Egypt. The Suez Canal was the transportation lifeline to Britain’s most important colony, India, and the British wanted to control everything remotely close to it. Oil was not yet a major factor.

When the British in 1917 arrived in Palestine there were about 650,00 Arabs and some 56,000 Jews. On their arrival both Jews and Arabs hailed them as liberators, and they did establish mostly clean colonial governments and relatively independent courts. On their departure in 1948, both Jews and Arabs accused them of treachery and betrayal, and the British were more than happy to leave – especially since India had become independent, which made England-to-India transportation less important, so control of the Suez was no longer worth the headaches involved.


On Nov. 2, 1917, shortly after the conquest of Jerusalem, British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour sent a letter, approved by the Cabinet, to Lord Rothschild, stating that "His Majesty’s Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people."

Historians still don’t agree on the reasons the British approved the Balfour Declaration. One Israeli writer, Tom Segev, in the recent book, "One Palestine, Complete," argues that the decisive factor was that many Brits really believed the Jews controlled world finance and wanted to stay on their good side. Others cite a desire to get American Jews behind U.S. entry into the war, while others note a religiously based, philo-Semitic strain in British Christianity just then. The story that the declaration was a reward to Chaim Weizmann, a Zionist activist and scientist who developed synthetic acetone, which was important to the British war effort, is now considered apocryphal.

Whatever the reason, the declaration provided a political lever for Zionist activists from then on. Depending on which history you read, the government in London was generally pro-Zionist but British diplomats on the ground, whether enchanted by the exoticism or aware of the demographics – many Arabs, few Jews – became Arabist in sympathies. Certainly Arabs were more often welcomed into the high-society British salons in Jerusalem than Jews. The British, through control of immigration policies, tried to maintain a 40/60 Jew-to-Arab balance in Palestine and in 1939, as most close observers felt a new European war coming on (to be fair, the Holocaust hadn’t yet begun), closed Palestine to further Jewish immigration.

Although both Jewish and Arab independence movements, and Jewish-Arab mutual hostility, sometimes accompanied by violence, rose and ebbed during the time of the British Mandate, an important factor in the eventual establishment of a Jewish state in Israel was the Nazi slaughter of European Jews during World War II. After the war European and American diplomats, often prodded by Zionists, wondered how many Jews might have been saved if a homeland had been available. After the formation of the United Nations the idea of a Jewish homeland was high on the agenda.


Even as the Middle East was dominated by Europeans during the League of Nations Mandate period from about 1920 to 1950, the region was heavily influenced by the Cold War – as well as the rise of an Arab nationalist movement – from the 1950s through the 1980s. Generally speaking (with numerous complications) the Soviets sought to use radical Arab nationalism to further their aspirations and the West backed Israel. These global influences deepened Arab-Israeli hostilities. The fact that Palestinian refugees were kept in camps rather than being assimilated into Arab countries deepened the hostility most Palestinians felt toward Israel.

The Palestine Liberation Organization was formed in refugee camps in 1964, with the purpose of driving the Jews into the sea, or at least out of Israel. In 1967 the Arab countries started a war with Israel but were decisively defeated during the Six Day War. At that time the Israelis took – conquered? occupied? seized? – the rest of Jerusalem and the West Bank, now the center of so much agitation. The Arab countries tried again in 1973 and Israel again defeated them.


Despite – or because of? – feeling constantly beleaguered and assimilating numerous immigrants, Israel has built a remarkably modern society. An agrarian society has become a notable high-tech center and an identifiably Israeli culture in music, literature, theater and art has been built by migrants from around the world.

The demise of the Soviet Union brought a cessation of support for some Arab regimes and may have helped to bring on the Oslo peace process in 1993. Whether because it was pushed too hard by President Clinton seeking a legacy or it was never on solid ground, the hopes it engendered now seem a distant memory. The demise of communism also makes it possible to view the Israeli-Palestinian dispute as an essentially local ethnic conflict with only minor geopolitical implications. But old habits, alliances and sympathies die hard, and U.S. presidents still seem to believe they have an obligation to try to solve it.

Many Arabs still believe that the Middle East is essentially Arab country, that the Israelis are interlopers, colonizers, oppressors, the new Nazis. Particularly with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the threat it poses to established Arab regimes as well as to others, there’s a disturbing upsurge of sometimes quite vicious anti-Semitic (or anti-Jewish if you want to play that semantic game) material in the Arabic-language press in several countries.

Having become a secular state with religious underpinnings rather than a utopian ideal, Israel has certainly done brutal and perhaps indefensible acts in the ongoing conflict. Never politically unified, except in time of immediate crisis, Israel has seen the birth of a "post-Zionist" school among certain Israeli intellectuals, which tends to blame Israel or Zionism for most of the ills of the region.

I must skip over a good deal of recent history to get to the present day. Israel and the Palestinian Authority, led by Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat respectively – both longtime adversaries viewed as terrorists, war criminals or worse by many on the other side – are in an especially violent and confrontational mode just now.

Whether this will be a turning point or another episode in a long history of mutual hostility and occasional turns toward peace may become clear in the next few weeks and months. As I hope this briefly sketched history suggests, however, the dispute has deep roots and both sides have grievances, legitimate and manufactured, that they don’t yet seem inclined to set aside even momentarily, much less forget.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).