In much discourse about the Middle East, there is a widespread myth that Jews are interlopers from Europe and the US – white westerners who came to ‘colonise’ and ’steal land’ from the ‘native’ Palestinian people to whom it rightfully belongs. This myth, drawing on Marxist terminology, gained increasing legitimacy after 1967 when Israel annexed East Jerusalem and ‘conquered’ the West Bank. The notion of ‘occupation’ and the use of the word ‘settlers’ reinforce the concept of Israeli ‘colonisation’ of ‘Arab’ land.
Aside from assuming that the Palestinians must be the true natives because they look authentically ‘brown’, the colonialism myth supports another myth: Jews are not a people, deserving of the right to self-determination, but a religion. Thus anti-Zionists habitually talk about of US citizens of the Jewish faith, Germans of the Jewish faith and even Arabs of the Jewish faith. At the time of the French Revolution, Clermont-Tonnerre said of the emancipation of Jews: “We must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation and accord everything to Jews as individuals.” The Jewish community would somehow disappear, leaving only French citizens of Jewish religion or ancestry.
Lately, the notion that Jews are not one people but a motley collection of converts has been given a boost by Tel Aviv Professor Shlomo Sand, whose bestselling book, The Invention of the Jewish People, is now out in English. Sand’s theories build on the work of Arthur Koestler, who popularised the idea that Ashkenazi Jews are descended from the Turkic tribe, the Khazars. Both men undermine the legitimacy of Israel by inferring that Jews have no link to Palestine. Genetic studies, however, discredit Koestler’s theory: they find that Jews from East and West have more in common with each other, and are genetically closer to non-Jews of Middle eastern origin – the Kurds in particular – than they are to the non-Jewish populations they lived amongst.
Last June President Obama articulated another myth: Israel was created as a penance for the Holocaust in Europe. This myth obscures the truth that every Arab state is equally a creation of western colonialism. It also ignores the fact that the institutions of a Jewish state-in-waiting were established decades before Ben Gurion read out Israel’s declaration of independence.
We often hear or read about Israel being populated by pork-munching non-Jewish Russians and settlers from Brooklyn. But these groups are marginal. We almost never hear that 40 percent of Israel’s Jews trace their ancestry from Muslim and Arab lands. The vast majority of these Jews merely moved from one corner of the ‘Arab’ world to that Middle Eastern coastal sliver known as Israel.
Until their expulsion 50 years ago, Jews had been settled in Iraq, for example, since the Babylonians exiled Jews from Jerusalem almost 3,000 years ago. In the early 20th century, Baghdad was the most Jewish city in the world, after Salonica and Jerusalem. The Jews can be said to have as legitimate a claim on Baghdad as Palestinians on Jerusalem.
The Arabs are relative newcomers to the region; the ‘Arab’ world is a misnomer. By the time the Arabs had conquered land largely inhabited by Jews and Christians in the 7th century, the Jews had been settled there for 1,000 years. People in the West tend to apply a common misconception to all Jews, borrowing the Christian notion that Jews have been punished to wander from land to land with no country to call their own. But not only have Jews always lived in Palestine, there was continuity of Jewish settlement in the Middle East and North Africa for 2,000 years. If only native inhabitants are titled to political rights, the Jews are as indigenous as any people living in the Middle East can be.
That Jewish presence came to an end in the last 50 years. The Arab League determined to wreak revenge on defenceless Jewish citizens in Arab lands if the partition of Palestine went ahead. On the day when five Arab armies invaded the new Jewish state, the Arab League secretary, Azzam Pasha announced :”This will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the Crusades”.
The Arab governments actually declared two wars in 1948. The military war against the fledgling Jewish state of Israel they lost, but they declared a second war, against a million Jewish citizens. This war they won easily, through a policy of intimidation, repression, persecution and sporadic outbreaks of violence. The result is that only 4,500 Jews are left in Arab countries.
Jews ‘stealing Arab land’ is an offensive inversion of reality. Jews in 10 Arab countries were stripped of their rights and in most cases dispossessed of their property. The World Organisation of Jews from Arab Countries estimates that Jews in Arab countries lost many more billions of assets than the Palestinians, and four times as much land as the size of Israel itself.
Seen in these terms, Arab antisemitism created Israel no less than the Holocaust. The Arabs owe the Jews big-time. It’s time the world stopped viewing the conflict through a distorted, Eurocentric lens.