Jewish histories seem to have a theme to them. I remember reading Solomon Grayzel’s History of the Jews and his beautiful introduction in which he states clearly his thesis, that whenever a door was closed on the Jews somewhere in the world, another was opened.
Abba Eban too has a theme in My People—that no matter where the Jewish people found themselves, no matter how well or how ill things were going for them, deep down their spiritual life was still rooted in Eretz Yisrael. This is not surprising given Eban’s contribution to the founding of the State of Israel and his service in many capacities, including as Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Ambassador to the US while simultaneously serving as a liaison officer to UNSCOP (United Nations Special Committee on Palestine). He was a master of the English language (and nine others besides), a fact which becomes clear in this fluid, incisively written history. It also accounts for the facts he chooses to include in his uncluttered, well-digested narrative. He stresses the dignity, ethical foundations, flexibility, work ethic, diplomatic skill, and worldwide network of fellow Hebrew-speakers that allowed Jews to move from place to place and re-establish themselves, create successful business ventures, and act as diplomatic and economic liaisons between countries and societies (e.g. European Christians and Arab Muslims). He also makes clear the Jewish claims to return to the land of Israel and the evolution of Arab attitudes toward this claim, from a willingness to compromise (Palestine only having been in Arab hands for 400 of the past 4000 years of historical record) to a rejection of their former support for a Jewish National Home and insistence on being awarded Palestine to compensate for the lands Britain and France refused to give them after World War I, and an attitude that persists to this day “that sovereignty belonged to Arabs wherever they were and to Jews nowhere at all.” He also spells out in detail the chipping away of Britain’s post-Balfour promises to the Jews, including “the exclusion of Transjordan from those provisions of the Mandate which referred to the establishment of the Jewish National Home,” the closing off of Palestine to Jewish immigration in the Jews’ greatest hour of need (the Shoah), and its refusal to protect the Jews during Arab riots and massacres, or even to let the Jews protect themselves.
Jewish histories are often hard to read because of the necessary exploration of the destruction of Jewish life in the Holy Land, the expulsions, the Inquisition, the Shoah, and the seeds of the current conflict over Israel’s existence. To live as a Jew in the 21st century is to study the alternately glorious and horrific past, and to hope tentatively for a glorious, more secure future. It’s to be told to quit whining over the Shoah, that it never happened, that it wasn’t as bad as it’s made out to be, or that an even bigger, better one is on the way, so get ready. Eban writes something about the Shoah that I think describes well how it fits into the modern Jewish psyche:
Jewish history and consciousness will be dominated for many generations by the traumatic memories of the Holocaust. No people in history has undergone an experience of such violence and depth. Israel’s obsession with physical security; the sharp Jewish reaction to movements of discrimination and prejudice; an intoxicated awareness of life, not as something to be taken for granted but as a treasure to be fostered and nourished with eager vitality, a residual distrust of what lies beyond the Jewish wall, a mystic belief in the undying forces of Jewish history, which ensure survival when all appears lost, all these together with the intimacy of more personal pains and agonies, are the legacy which the Holocaust transmits to the generation of Jews grown up under its shadow.
Much has been written about the possibility of creating a single state here, democratic, with Arabs and Jews participating fully in the political process. I think it is easy to imagine that from a distance. Doesn’t that happen, and with Christians and others besides, in the US? Isn’t that happening (albeit with some serious problems) in Europe as we speak? Why not in the Middle East? Eban writes of the Jewish and Arab nationalist movements following in the steps of the nationalist movements that created much of the European landscape in the 19th century, and as the Middle East was redrawn following World War I and the crumbling of the Ottoman Empire. Neither the Arabs nor the Jews envisioned the other as full participants in their own society: the Arabs because the Jews would once again be relegated to dhimmi status as infidels (if indeed they were allowed to remain, which is not part of the current Arab Palestinian dream), and the Jews because after living for nearly 2000 years as guests in other countries, being tolerated when they were needed and either expelled or killed when they were not, it was time to return Home, to have a small—but to them significant—piece of land on which to build a state where they were welcome, not tolerated; in which immigration quotas which had spelled the doom of millions in Europe were lifted forever; where they could build a society centered around their language, their religious roots, their history, their ethical values. Addressing the impression given by Arabs that this land is rightfully Arab, Eban writes, “[T]o be Middle Eastern does not involve being Arab or Moslem. It is not an offense against the Middle Eastern tradition for a non-Arab and non-Moslem sovereignty to live and flourish in the original home of Hebrew memory and thought. The question is not whether Israel will change its special nature, but whether the Arabs will come to terms with Israel as it is.”
It sometimes seems, especially from an Israeli vantage point, that the discourse on the Arab-Israeli conflict is really a way of voting, populating, or recognizing Israel out of existence. (All this because open war and terrorism have not succeeded in eradicating it.) And yet, UN Security Council Resolution 242, adopted unanimously on 22 November 1967, made clear that “[w]ithdrawal from occupied territories was made conditional on the establishment of peace, the total abolition of belligerency, and the establishment of secure and recognized boundaries.” Absenting the conditions laid down—i.e. establishment of peace, cessation of violence, and creation of secure borders—withdrawal is not an expectation. Nowadays, as then, Israel’s friends and not-so-friendly acquaintances have pushed it to take “risks” for peace (many of which Israel has taken, and gotten bloodshed instead of peace). Indeed, Eban’s following words could have been written as easily today as decades ago: “[A]dvice tendered to [Israel] from safe distances on how to be secure without resisting Arab assaults was received with robust skepticism. Popularity was important; but it was more important to be alive than to be popular. A weakened, vulnerable Israel attracted more affection than a strong and resistant Israel.”
Eban’s telling of the story of the Jews follows their fortunes as they were forged as a people, established themselves in their own land, dealt with the tensions of their location as powers rose up and jockeyed for position around them on all sides, the loss of their land, their sojourns in other countries among other peoples, and their eventual return to their homeland. Given what the Jewish people endured, achieved, and—uniquely among dispersed peoples—survived, their return to the Land of Israel is a great gift—a miracle, a mitzvah to perform, and a tremendous relief. Never again to have to depend on the whimsy of governments and hostile majorities, and to be reunited with the land of our birth, are not something the Jews should be expected to give up. Part way through the War of Independence in 1948, Eban writes, “While Arab armies invaded Palestine, the Security Council met to debate whether a breach of peace had taken place, as the Americans charged. The Americans demanded sanctions and a cease-fire; Britain opposed. Arab delegates promised peace only if Israel’s independence were rescinded. The Israeli answer was brief. ‘If the Arab states want peace they can have it. If they want war they can have that too. But whether they want peace or war, they can only have it with the State of Israel.’” Later, he states, “Israel would have preferred to flourish in peace with her neighbors. But she was also capable of flourishing without it. Behind the shield of strong military defenses, with an eye vigilantly fixed on hostile frontiers, Israel went on with its work.”
The saddest thing about reading history? One might just as well be reading a newspaper.