Over the years, much has been written in the Bangor Daily News concerning the Gordian knot that is Israel’s role in the Middle East. In some quarters there is an unstated belief that this is Arab land and Jews simply do not belong there. Sometimes this is even stated, as in Helen Thomas’ outrageous recent statement that Israeli Jews should “go back where they belong.” But, the simple fact is that Israeli Jews are exactly where they belong. To see this, it is necessary to review some history.
The justification for Jews in Israel is often said to be rooted in the Holocaust, the destruction of European Jewry by other Europeans. For instance, this is the justification President Barack Obama gave in his Cairo speech. Arabs and Muslims might reasonably ask why, if Europeans destroyed their Jews, should Arabs provide land for the remnants?
This is a serious question and it deserves a serious answer. While the Holocaust does provide justification, and the Arabs certainly could have shown some compassion, it is hardly the whole story.
First of all, more Jews were expelled from Arab lands, where they had lived for millennia, to Israel than Arabs were expelled from Israel in the 1947-1950 time frame. Precise numbers are of course impossible to know, but many Internet sites estimate the numbers as about 500,000 Arab refugees from Israel, and 800,000 Jewish refugees from Arab countries, and these most certainly are not going back.
Almost overnight, Israel turned from a majority Ashkenazi to a majority Sephardic country. To read a first-person account of the expulsion of a many-thousand-year-old Jewish community in Egypt, see “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit” by Lucette Lagnado.
But actually the justification for Jewish settlement in Israel preceded the Holocaust by at least 75 years, and perhaps more accurately, by 3,000 years. It is at least this long that Jews have had an attachment to Jerusalem and Israel. After the final defeat of the crusaders by Saladin in about 1200, the land lay devastated and virtually unpopulated for 700 years.
Mark Twain described this in his travelogue “The Innocents Abroad,” published in 1869. He described the land as ruined as if in accord with a “biblical prophecy.” Comparing the land to biblical times, he wrote:
“There is not a solitary village in its whole extent, not for 30 miles in either direction. There are two or three small clusters of Bedouin tents, but not a single permanent habitation. One may ride ten miles, hereabouts, and not see ten human beings.”
For the Sea of Galilee:
“There was a time, when the savior taught here, that boats were plenty among fishermen of the coasts — but boats and fishermen are both gone now.”
Describing Jerusalem, which he pointed out had a population of only 14,000 at the time:
“Rags, wretchedness, poverty, and dirt, those signs and symbols that indicate the presence of Moslem rule more surely than the crescent flag itself, abound. Lepers, cripples, the blind, and the idiotic assail you on every hand, and they know but one word … bucksheesh. To see the numbers of maimed, malformed and diseased humanity that throng holy places and obstruct the gates, one might suppose the ancient days had come again. … Jerusalem is mournful, dreary and lifeless.”
James Mitchner, in his novel “The Source,” pointed out that in 1880, at the start of Jewish immigration, the population of Israel was about one-fifth of what it was in King David’s time, about 3,000 years ago, and one-twentieth of what it was in Byzantine times 1,700 years ago, 400 years before the first Arab appeared on the scene.
In 1880, there was no thriving Arab civilization in Israel, which the incoming Jews then expelled. The historic fact is that Arab immigration followed Jewish immigration. Yasser Arafat is a perfect example. He was born in 1929 in Cairo; his father was a spice merchant in Gaza, two cities the Jews never aspired to make a part of Israel.
When Theodore Herzl described Israel as a land without people, he was not very far off. Of course there were a few people there, just as there were a few million Native Americans in the United States before 300 million Europeans, Africans, Asians, Jews and Native Americans from other parts of the Americas moved in. In Israel, it was the Jews, with help from cooperative Arabs and many others, who turned the land from the wasteland of 1880 to the Garden of Eden it is today. The simple and undeniable historical fact is that Jews have much more of a right to Israel than anyone else.
Wallace Manheimer, a part-time resident of Camden, is a retired physicist from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.