Of Ghettos and Holocausts

Author’s Note: This is my opinion as a humanist.

A new view has appeared on the horizon and it is called Peace. What is Israel to do? Even Ariel Sharon, the hardest of the far right Israeli war mongers saw the writing on the wall. His recent Freudian slip, so quickly denied, reveals the truth of the heart of the matter – the occupation cannot last forever. The pressure on Israel’s fragile, aide propped economy is unbearable. While everyone has been asking how Peace can be achieved and what price must be paid, one question is not being asked. How will Israel cope with Peace?

Israel’s struggle against the Arabs is more than a struggle over place. It is a struggle over identity. For, while it is true the people of Israel are linked by the bonds of religion, they are not one nation, but a plurality of nationalities. Jewish-ness is not an ethnicity. Anthropological studies have disproved the idea that the Jews are racial group. Instead it has been proven that Jewish populations largely conform to the characteristics of the larger national population of the country of their origin.

Medieval philosopher of history, Ibn Khaldun noted that ‘group feeling’ held society together, and there was no stronger group feeling than that of religion. This was well understood by the earliest Jewish communities and helped to forge the unique Jewish identity. Belief in their uniqueness and special character sustained the Jewish people through the millennia, in the face of tragedy and persecution. Through tradition and religion, the Jewish communities scattered across the Old World, sustained themselves as a separate and unique people.

While the Jews formed a distinct and identifiable community, they were not separate. Everywhere the Jews were active, and indeed in many places essential, members of the wider community. In this day and age where the lie of an eternal Jewish/Muslim conflict gets wide airplay, the contribution of Jewish philosophers to the development of Islam is rarely mentioned. Jews were intimately involved in the administration of the early Islamic empires; were critical to the cross cultural flowering that occurred in Muslim Spain and Christian Sicily, and even later in the Ottoman Empire. It was the Crusades, the Christian West’s first real attempt at colonialism and genocide, that poisoned relations between the religions. It is typical of Western conceit that this fact goes unrecognized.

The trauma of Crusades deeply affected both Muslim and Jew communities in Europe and the Middle East. For Jewish communities in Europe it marked the beginning of a long dark age or persecution. Jewish communities withdrew within themselves in the hope that the storm and hatred would pass. It didn’t, and it eventually ended in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and Belsen. For the Jews living in the Muslim world, things were not quite so bad. The Ottoman Empire opened its doors to the Sephardim expelled from Spain, where they joined others of Europe’s outcasts, such as the Huguenots who were expelled from France. But the relationship between the two religious communities was never the same. The shocked Muslim community was itself withdrawing upon itself, beginning the long, slow process of political and intellectual isolationism.

At the western extremity of Asia, around the shores of the Black Sea there was a tribe of nomadic Turkic barbarians called the Khazars. In the tenth century, shortly before the forces of Western Christendom started slaughtering Jews and Muslims in earnest, the Khazars converted to Judaism. Sandwiched between the Christian Byzantines to the West and the Islamic Caliphate to the south east, the decision to convert to Judaism was an astute political decision which elevated the Khazars’ status to that of other ‘civilized’ nations, without aligning themselves with either of their powerful neighbors.

For almost 300 years Khazaria existed as a Jewish homeland in what is now the Ukraine. The population was massive in comparison with the population of the Jewish Diaspora – some half a million people. [3] But for Jewish communities around the world, the Final Solution made real the most paranoid fantasies of the Zionists. Here was the evidence that the Jews needed their own state to ensure their security. That no state has ever been guaranteed security was irrelevant. It suited the agenda. The rest of the world, also reeling in shock and disgust, nodded its assent to the Zionist venture.

In the years after the Second World War, hundreds of thousands of refugees from Europe flooded into Palestine. Their enthusiasm for Israel helped to transform the country. The trials of the War of Independence in 1948 helped to forge the disparate communities of Jewish settlers into a nation. However, after all the blood – Jewish and Palestinian – that was spilt, the Zionist venture required one more sacrifice, perhaps the most terrible of all. For Israel to truly be the Jewish homeland, the Diaspora had to return.

Much has been written about the Jewish Exodus from the Arab countries. Depending on your viewpoint, it was the result of the age old Arab hatred of the Jews or it was a malicious Zionist plot to disguise Israel’s own ethnic cleansing. The truth lies in the middle ground. The Jewish communities in the neighboring Arab states largely felt themselves to be Arab and there was no communal rush to migrate to Israel. But Israel’s aggressive stance towards the Arab states, and her universalist claim to the loyalty of Jews everywhere could only raise suspicion that the Jews outside Israel represented a fifth column. It must be remembered that many of the Arab states were themselves newly independent and their ability to formulate clear foreign policy objectives were uncertain. Actions taken, for valid and logical reasons, were often misinterpreted. In Iraq, which had the oldest indigenous community of Jews in the world, outside Israel, the Iraqi government attempted to isolate it! s Jewish community from the Zionist ‘virus’ by banning all travel to and from Israel. In Israel, this was interpreted as oppression of the Jewish community’s natural right to return, and the anti-Arab rhetoric was ramped up. The Iraqi government reacted badly, arresting, imprisoning and even executing Zionist agitators. The combined effect of Zionist agitation and propaganda and clumsy government oppression was to eventually drive the Iraq Jews from their homeland of 2,500 years. [5] And so it came to pass….

Now as the tortuous talk of Peace continues, what do Israel’s leaders now propose in order to bring that long craved security? A wall. A wall to keep ‘them’ out and to keep ‘us’ in. We’ve seen this solution before and it is called a ghetto. Given the preponderance of eastern European Jews – Russian’s, Poles, Ukrainians, the Ashkenazim, the ancient Khazars – in Israel, the return to the ghetto is almost a cultural homecoming. But it is not a solution. The solution is Peace, and Peace requires communication; negotiation; interaction. A wall does not encourage communication, negotiation or interaction. It encourages isolation.

It’s a common refrain to talk of ‘preserving’ a culture. Indeed, to many people, culture is tied up in the traditions of the past. We often hear politicians and religious leaders speak of preserving or reinstating ‘traditional’ values. It is comforting to know that some part of our cultural identity is unchanging.

Except of course, that it isn’t. No society is static. Time moves ever forward, carrying society with it. For society to survive there must be interaction; there must be a constant exchange of ideas. A society that cuts itself off from its neighbors, that refuses to interact and attempts somehow to preserve its idea of traditional or unique culture like a museum exhibit, will petrify and die.

The current Israeli leadership and their zealot allies may feel safe behind the walls of their newly constructed ghetto, but will the society they aim to preserve eventually be found worth preserving? Will Israel become, as Asher Ginzberg predicted, a gasping shadow of its former glory? Its people, so long filled with fear and hatred for their real and imagined persecutors; where will they turn now to unleash their fears? Who will be the new Palestinian when the Palestinians are finally are gone?

Perhaps it best that Israel shuts itself off from the world for a while. Perhaps it is best that the current generation, damaged and embittered by so much tragedy and conflict, are permitted to die in peace within the walls of their self-constructed prison. Their children will undoubtedly travel beyond the walls and discover the mystery and wonders of the ‘outside’ and then, when they return home they will look at that wall and wonder why it was built in the first place.


[2]. Arthur Koestler. ibid, pg 133

[4]. Philip Mendes. The Forgotten Refugess: the causes of the post-1948 Jewish Exodus from Arab Countries. http://wwwadjs.org/mendes_refugees.htm

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