Jews have always been part of the landscape

Rev James Parkes died in 1981

Zionists are their worst propagandists, for they have failed to make the case for the justice of the Jewish claim in Palestine, writes the late, philosemitic James Parkes, a British theologian, in this irresistibly thought-provoking essay he published in 1969, Arabs and Jews in the Middle East: A Tragedy of Errors. If only there had been more of them – their presence was eroded by local lawlessness and misrule – Jews would have been viewed as naturally a part of the landscape as the Maronites in Lebanon. (I would add that the millenarian presence of Jews elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa serves to bolster their claims in the region as a whole.)

“Because this is written in 1967 and not in 1917 or 1947, it is useful to begin with the reminder that, through Arab action, the Jewish population of Israel is now more than half composed of middle-eastern Jews of whom the majority have never, in their three thousand years of recorded history,had any contact with Europe. They are, in fact, with the possible exception of the Copts, by far the oldest identifiable people of the whole Middle East. The Old Testament records their presence in Syria and the Lebanon; their exiles were carried away to what is now Iraq; they were founder members of the population of Alexandria; their traditions in the Yemen go back to the time of Solomon.

“They were little moved by the emergence of Zionism; for if the Arab population stagnated under Turkish misrule, it is not surprising that the Jewish and Christian minorities lived a still more stagnant life. But the anger aroused by the establishment of Israel, and the defeat of the Arab attempts to drive the Jews into the sea, made their positions in various ways impossible. To some extent they were penalised officially; certainly they were exposed to mob violence; their basic lack of rights and equality under Islam made their only recourse flight; and they came, many of them regretfully, to Israel. But they are there now, and are a political factor of
importance in the present situation. Moreover the Six Days’ war has added a possible hundred thousand other Jews from North Africa, Egypt and other Arab countries to the total number of middle-eastern refugees.

“Nobody would be more surprised at this twist in the development of Israel than the original propounders of Zionism; for Arabs are quite right in saying that it was primarily European considerations which formed the impulse for Zionist propaganda and settlement in the years between 1917 and 1947.

“It was European Christian antisemitism which convinced Herzl that the Jewish people needed a home of their own. It was the antisemitism of Russia, Poland and then Nazi Germany, which sent tens of thousands of European Jews to Palestine in order to rebuild there a national home which they could enter, in the words of Churchill ‘of right and not on sufferance’. And it is equally true that they thought of themselves as bringing the higher European civilisation to the backward areas of the Middle East. Alternatively they thought of themselves as the generation which was ‘returning’ to the Land of Israel after nearly two thousand years of exile, a thought which could not fail to be completely unconvincing to any but themselves. However romantic it may be, one cannot expect the world to accept such methods of bridging a gap of two thousand years, and ignoring what had happened in the meantime.

“But a real tragedy is that the Zionists were their own worst propagandists. They ignored not merely their strongest argument, but their real case. They were NOT bridging a gap of two thousand years. They were augmenting a Jewish population which had never ceased to exist in the country, and which survived largely because every successive Muslim ruler recognised that it had a right to be there. The Zionists ignored this vital relationship, probably because they were in opposition to the religious conservatism of eastern European Judaism, and simply saw the existing Jews of Palestine as exponents of the religious fanaticism they disliked. But,from the point of view of the Arab reaction, the real justification for the Zionist presence is that the Jewish population of Palestine has always been as large as could find the humblest means of existence in the Land of Israel.

“That the Jews were finally reduced to a ghetto existence in the four cities of Jerusalem, Tiberias, Safed and Hebron,was due entirely to local lawlessness and misrule. It had been for centuries unsafe for a Jew to live in a village, or even to travel freely about the country. This had nothing whatever to do with the treatment of Jews in Europe, of which in fact the local population was naturally ignorant.

“It is thus no fault of the Jews that their presence in Palestine has not been as visible as the Christian presence in the Lebanon. If it had been, then the Balfour Declaration might have aroused Arab argument and opposition, but it would never have aroused such anger and such an intolerable feeling of injustice.

“The real Jewish title deeds are the endurance of a continuous community in the country, which had a significance for the whole Jewish people such as has never been possessed by any other Jewish community, however rich and numerous.

“When Jewish autonomy was destroyed by the Romans in 70 and 135 A.D. the richest and most numerous Jewish community was in Alexandria. But it was not the Alexandrian Jews, but the little community of rabbis and their disciples in Jabne, south east of Jaffa, who evolved a Judaism which was independent of Temple and geographical unity, and which enabled Jews and Judaism to survive its long dispersion.

“When successive waves of Turkish and Mongol nomads invaded Mesopotamia, and destroyed the prosperity of the populous Jewish centres which descended from the Babylonian exiles, and which had produced the Talmud and its commentaries, it was in Galilee that a remnant of Jewish scholars performed the essential work of revising and standardising the text of the Bible itself, giving both the Jewish and Christian worlds a text which is that which we use today, and which provided the basis for much of the scholarship alike of Jews in the Muslim world and in Christian Europe.

“In 1492 and 1496 the richest medieval Jewish community,that of Spain and Portugal, was expelled under the influence of the Inquisition. Many of the fugitives took refuge in the Turkish empire, for Turkey was then at the height of her power and culture. But for the constant raids of the bedouin,Tiberias and all the area around it would have been settled by these refugees, for the Sultan had given Tiberias with a wide area and a generous autonomy to a Jewish favourite for just this purpose.

“As it was, the little town of Safed in the mountains of Galilee provided a safer Jewish refuge, and there not only was rabbinic Judaism given a new standardisation by Joseph Caro, but a new Jewish mysticism was evolved by Isaac Luria and his disciples which provided comfort and warmth to the Jewries of Russia and Poland during the succeeding centuries of persecution and oppression.

“Unlike the Jewish communities in other middle-eastern countries, this community in Palestine was constantly recruited by immigration from all parts of the Jewish world, eastern and western, for its permanent core was a community of students and old men concentrating on the study of sacred books, and with little opportunity for bringing up families and finding normal openings for earning a living.

“For many centuries it survived only because it enjoyed charitable contributions from all over the Jewish world. But it did survive, and, whenever opportunity offered, it is fascinating to see that automatically Jews in Palestine took advantage of it to dig their roots a little deeper. Safed was the home of scholars and mystics, but it found a solid economic basis for its life in the development of the weaving of woollen cloth for the markets of Palestine and Damascus. It was Jerusalem Jews who first took advantage of the improved security in the latter half of the nineteeth century to try and establish a basis for Jewish life in agriculture.

“Finally, in spite of all its difficulties and hindrances, and its unresolved conflict with the Arabs, it was the Jewry of the Mandate which was able to do most to rescue, and to re-create spiritually, the victims of Hitlerism and the second world war. Infinitely more numerous and powerful, the Jewry of America could do no more than provide the funds.

“It is in this chronicle of endurance that the justice of the Jewish claim is to be found, and, even if the Zionists foolishly ignored this aspect of Jewish history in their propaganda, it was this sense of a continuous Jewish relationship with the land of their origin as a people which moved the British to the issue of the Balfour Declaration.

“Moreover it is this continuous history which makes it legitimate to regard the present conflict not as something natural and inevitable, but as a temporary and unhappy interlude in a long story of co-operation which could be as profitable to both peoples and to the world in general in the future as it was before the stagnation of centuries of misrule destroyed it in the past.”

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