(Previously published in The Jerusalem Post.)
The founders of Israel were mostly secular and atheist, seeing themselves as a people, rather than a religion, returning to their homeland.
“The fact Obama linked the State of Israel’s legitimization to the Holocaust in that speech [Cairo 2009] was him adopting the Arab narrative: We’re here because of the Holocaust, not because of Jewish roots and 3,000 years of history.” – Former Israeli ambassador Michael Oren, June 27, 2015
Michael Oren’s new book, Ally, has generated lots of attention. The mild mannered historian turned diplomat turned politician is now in the cross-hairs of the Obama administration, his political rivals at home and progressive Jewish figures. What has drawn such animus to Oren from the administration are some unpleasant truths about the US-Israel relationship under President Barack Obama that he reveals. As Newsweek reported, “Oren blames President Barack Obama for the sorry state of US-Israel relations and most of what’s wrong in the Middle East.”
As I have said for several years, I believe the president thinks of Israel as more a strategic liability than a strategic asset, and that his goal since day one of his administration has been to change the relationship with Israel and turn toward the Muslim world, particularly favoring the fundamentalist regime controlling Iran. Or, as Oren put it, to create some daylight between the two long-time allies. The White House has indeed supported some important military aid to Israel during these years, but meanwhile has jeopardized Israel and America’s foreign policy interests in pursuit of a friendship with the reliably unreliable mullahs of Iran.
One revelation that is not entirely new but is essential to address if your vision is a two-state solution based on a respect for both parties’ narratives is Oren’s assertion that the president believes Israel’s raison d’etre is the Holocaust, with only incidental incorporation of other Jewish history. This is very important, because if it becomes part of the mainstream narrative regarding Israel’s founding, Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state can be challenged, making it the only state in the world required to kneel and beg for its right to exist.
The charge that Israel exists only as a consequence of the Shoah has created both a firestorm and confusion among both American Jewry and the wider Jewish Diaspora. This is particularly relevant as the Palestinian Authority is currently attempting to delegitimize Israel by going to the ICC (International Criminal Court) seeking support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement to question Israel’s right to exist. Therefore it is imperative to understand and educate America about what Zionism really is, and how the two most pivotal events of the 20th century affecting world Jewry relate to one another. In an era when much of the world, and many on American academic campuses, see Zionism as racism and colonialism it is incumbent upon pro-Israel supporters to communicate the truth clearly.
After President Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech in which he reached out to the Muslim world, his comparison of the plight of Palestinians to the survivors of the Shoah outraged many people.
Anne Bayefsky, who directs the Touro College Institute on Human Rights and the Holocaust, challenged the president’s assertion that, “The aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied,” for, she said, “around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries. A Jewish homeland in Israel is not rooted in tragedy or in centuries of persecution around the world. It is rooted in a wondrous, unbroken, and spiritual relationship to the land of Israel and to Jerusalem for thousands of years.”
Former ADL leader and Holocaust survivor Abe Foxman responded that the president was implicitly asserting that Israel’s legitimacy is based on the “suffering of the Jewish people’s “tragic history” and not on their historic ties to the Land of Israel. Obama’s choice of words and his decision to mention only the Holocaust as a reason for the creation of the State of Israel “gave fodder to the many in the Arab world who argue against the legitimacy of Israel.”
So if the Holocaust had not occurred, would there be an Israel? According to Tom Segev, a center-left historian and a reliable critic of Israel who has written extensively on the issue, “The State of Israel would have come to being even without the Holocaust. It was a result of 30 years of intensive work by the Zionist movement.”
But rooted in the Muslim world is the irrational contradiction of both denying the Holocaust while perpetuating the narrative that the Arabs were unfairly made to pay the price for the Holocaust in the creation of Israel, with the forced imposition of a non-indigenous Jewish people on the region.
SO DID nations of the UN vote in 1947 to create Israel only out of guilt at their complicity in the genocide of the Shoah? Is Zionism simply a reaction to the Shoah? If, as President Obama and others contend, the creation of Israel is solely due to the Holocaust, then the Palestinians have an argument. It then follows that Zionism is not a many-centuries’ yearning to return to ancient land, but was a simply spur-of-the moment land grab.
Modern Zionism is not a reaction to the Shoah. It began well before WWII and the Holocaust, only partially motivated by the anti-Semitism that preceded the Shoah; recall Herzl’s reactions to the Dreyfus Affair. On the one hand, Zionism is an affirmation of the Jewish people’s 2,000-year-long yearning to return to their ancestral homeland, manifested in the daily prayers of the Jewish people.
On the other hand, the founders of Israel were mostly secular and atheist, seeing themselves as a people, rather than a religion, returning to their homeland.
Jews learned that without a national homeland, nations and communities infected with anti-Semitism offered at best temporary shelter, all too often as tides shifted offering only humiliation, expropriation and expulsion. The horrors experienced over the centuries in the Diaspora, punctuated by pogroms, inquisitions, crusades and culminating in humanity’s descent to its lowest level in the Shoah, made the prayers and hopes for salvation and return to Zion more desperate and poignant, but the yearning to return, “next year in Jerusalem,” was always there, in good times and bad.
Zionism is a modern word to describe an ancient desire to return to the Land of Israel. Necessity and modernity played a part, but the desire for a Jewish homeland started in earnest in the 19th century, and culminated in the Balfour Declaration and the League of Nations Mandate for a Jewish national home in Palestine. The European and Russian anti-Semitism of the Kishinev pogroms, the Dreyfus Affair, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and WWI all occurred years before the Shoah.
As Israeli statesman, former defense minister and Haaretz columnist Moshe Arens said, “In the minds of some, the establishment of the State of Israel is linked to the Holocaust, or even seen as a direct result of the Holocaust.” Which is precisely why the writers of Israel’s declaration of Independence purposely omitted any reference to the Shoah.
International organizations and governments did write the international law to help create the modern state of Israel, but shrugged their shoulders when the state was immediately attacked at its birth by five Arab armies. As Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer said, “Israel didn’t come into being because of the Shoah, Israel exists in spite of it.”
It was Israelis who fought back and saved the country from extinction. It was a Jewish desire for millennia to return to the Jewish homeland that preserved the dream.
On the Jewish Agency for Israel’s website they ask the question: “Did the State of Israel come about because of the Holocaust? Imagine the Holocaust happening before a single kibbutz was built, before a flourishing Jewish culture had been reestablished in Israel, and without armed Jews fighting to defend themselves in the Land. Would any one have supported Jewish sovereignty in that situation? Surely not!” The Holocaust was a contributing factor to the timing and circumstances of the struggle for independence. It certainly affected the kind of Jewish state that was created, its population mix, its self-perception and its worldview. But the events that underpin its creation are located elsewhere.
The author is the director of MEPIN (Middle East Political and Information Network), a Middle East research analysis read by members of Congress, their foreign policy advisers, members of the Knesset, journalists and organizational leaders. He regularly briefs members of Congress on issues related to the Middle East.