Professor Hillel Cohen antwortet auf das Meinungsstück "Wegbereiter des Judenhasses" von Thomas Thiel aus der FAZ vom 17.7.2019
The academic study of Jewish-Arab relations and the public discourse around Israeli-Palestinian relations are extremely volatile fields: any discussion immediately evokes powerful emotional responses from across the political spectrum, even from those not directly involved in this violent conflict. Because of this, it is often difficult to talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and there is a tendency to turn toward historically inaccurate arguments and hollow slogans. Thus, one of the first guidelines I use when engaging in a discussion on this topic – and I teach my students the same approach – is to begin with finding points of agreement. This improves the quality of the discourse, as we often discover that points of dispute are of a smaller scope and different content than we had imagined.
With this in mind, it is important to me to find points of agreement with Thomas Thiel’s op-ed “Wegbereiter des Judenhasses” from July 17th before raising more critical questions. As a historian, I’ll focus on the historical arguments and what we can agree upon and what is disputed.
One point Thiel and I agree on is the effect that pogroms had in strengthening the Zionist movement and how desperately Jews needed to emigrate to Palestine/the land of Israel due to European anti-Semitism. Indeed, the memory of anti-Semitism is crucial in understanding Zionist thinking. So where is our dispute? It lies in the question that Palestinians have asked from the onset of Zionism, which remains relevant: Why should we pay the price for European brutality? And further, to what extent should Jewish history in Europe determine the future reality of Jews and Arabs in the Middle East?
A second point of agreement regards the Jerusalem Mufti’s support for Nazi extermination of the Jews. That is a historical fact. The current political question – and this is a point of dispute – is the significance of this fact in the discussion on future political solutions. And further, why is the fact that thousands of Palestinian Arabs – a minority, but a significant one – participated in the war effort on the side of the Allies totally ignored? Ignoring this fact raises the question of whether this might be a deliberate historical bias, aimed at preventing genuine discussion of the issue.
A third point of agreement is the Arab leadership’s rejection of the UN Partition Plan in 1947. This too cannot be disputed, yet partial presentation of facts can lead to an erroneous understanding. It is important to ask relevant questions, such as: Why did the Arabs reject the UN plan? Was the UN even authorized to discuss partition of the land, and why did the UN refuse to refer this matter to the International Court in The Hague, thus insisting that the question of a Jewish state in Palestine should be decided in a political body which can be swayed by pressure in various directions rather than a court of law which aims for objectivity? In conclusion, it is clear that presenting only part of the story does not help in understanding our current reality. In choosing which facts to present, Thiel is choosing a side. This is legitimate, but it is not necessarily useful.
Although Thiel only partially presents the relevant facts in his op-ed, his piece is still helpful in identifying the dispute between the Zionist movement and the Palestinian national movement. The dispute is simple: Who is the aggressor, and who is the victim in the Zionist-Arab encounter?
The Zionist narrartive, which Thiel uncritically repeats in his presentation, is a movement forced to act (because of the pogroms), willing to compromise (as opposed to the Arabs), and with international recognition. Therefore, Thiel argues, aggression toward the Zionist movement was illegitimate even during the period of the British Mandate. Thiel goes so far as to argue that even non-violent opposition to the State of Israel – the fruit of Zionism – is illegitimate. Such an approach demonstrates ignorance of the Arab situation and the motives and aspirations of Palestinian Arabs.
In contrast to the Zionist narrative, the Palestinian understanding of history is as follows: the Arabs in Palestine lived on their own land, which they didn’t conquer from anyone. The pogroms in Europe pushed Jews, seeking refuge, to Palestine. These Jews didn’t want to found a state along with the Arab inhabitants of the land, but rather sought to establish a Jewish state. Europe supported the Jews’ wishes, not so much out of love for them, but rather in hopes of solving the Jewish problem in Europe. Those under attack, according to this understanding, were the Arabs of Palestine, whose land was granted to another nation by the international community – and thus their struggle against Zionism is in self-defense. At first, they tried to use diplomatic means, but when these failed – they took up arms.
It is interesting to note that, unlike today’s spokespeople for Zionism, the leader of the Jewish community in the land of Israel during the British Mandate period, and the first Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben Gurion, fully understood the veracity of the aforementioned Palestinian claims. In 1937, Ben Gurion told a closed meeting of the Zionist leadership: “We must face the truth. On the military front, we are attacked and are defending ourselves. But in the political arena, we are the aggressors, and the Arabs are protecting themselves.” Ben Gurion was well aware that the Zionist movement had launched an attack on Palestinian political existence. He called on the Zionist leadership to continue stressing Arab aggression (as Mr. Thiel does today) and to ignore the larger historical analysis. Interestingly, the early Zionist movement’s spokespeople were so successful that even those issues on which they knew the Palestinians were correct are still presented falsely and incompletely by Zionist supporters in Europe. In their defense, I prefer to assume that today’s spokespeople are writing from a place of ignorance rather than a desire to mislead their readers.
Professor Hillel Cohen is the Head of the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.