By Jonathan Tobin
Sixty-one years after the birth of the State of Israel, the Jewish state continues to be assailed by its enemies. From the halls of the United Nations to the classrooms of major universities and in the pressrooms of major newspapers and magazines, attacks on the legitimacy of every move by Israel — and even of the state’s existence itself — continue to be made.What lies behind the calumnies and canards that are constantly thrown at the one Jewish state on the planet? In the Arab and Islamic world, the notion that any portion of the Middle East could be placed under Jewish sovereignty is anathema. Elsewhere, some of the brickbats thrown Israel’s way stem from prejudice and hatred rooted in classic anti-Semitism.
But what about the American press, much of which is Jewish, and other American opinion-makers for whom the anti-Semitic tag doesn’t really apply? The reasons for much of the slanted commentaries about the Middle East and biased news coverage has less to do with the ancient hatreds based in Europe than it does with sheer ignorance.
For all too many members of the press (as well as other Americans who like to think of themselves as being informed about the great issues of the day), lack of knowledge about the underlying facts of the Middle East conflict is commonplace. Myths about the State of Israel, its origins and its actions have found their way into general discourse in the academy and the media. Those who seek to stand up for Israel need to recognize that many of the problems that Israel has in getting its case across stem from a failure to debunk these myths and to answer them with the truth.
So here is a list of the top ten myths about Israel and the Middle East conflict. This list is by no means comprehensive, but it is a good start to understanding the heart of the problem.
Myth #1: Jews have no historic connection to Israel/Palestine.
A key element of Arab and anti-Zionist attacks on Israel is the notion that the Jewish presence in the country is a remnant of 19th century imperialism in which Europeans colonized and exploited parts of the third world. But far from being outsiders there, the Jewish ties date back 4,000 years to the very beginning of Jewish history recounted in the Bible and verified by much of the evidence of archeology that has been discovered.
Though the Romans expelled most of the Jewish population from the country, Jewish settlement continued without interruption throughout the last 2,000 years. In all this time, the Land of Israel remained a constant in thoughts and the hearts of Jews throughout the world, as it was remembered in their daily prayers and in their dreams.
Myth #2: Jews have no unique claim to the ancient and holy city of Jerusalem.
Though both Christianity and Islam have holy sites in the city, the Jewish ties predate that of any other existing religion. King David made Jerusalem the capital of Israel 3,000 years ago — 1,700 years before Islam was even founded. Jerusalem never served as even a provincial capital during the centuries of Muslim rule. The entire city is sacred to Jews; only the Dome of the Rock has religious significance to Muslims. Moreover, in the modern era, Jews have been the majority of the population of the city since the 1840s.
As for freedom of worship, the only period during which all faiths have been free to worship in peace has been since 1967 when the city became unified under Israeli sovereignty.
Myth #3: The Zionist movement was never prepared to share the land.
From the very start of the Jewish return to their historic homeland in the late 19th century, it has never been the goal of the Zionist movement to uproot the Arab population or to create a state where only Jews could live. In 1922, the League of Nations’ Mandate for Palestine was partitioned by Britain, with the east bank of the Jordan River reserved for Arab rule (it eventually become the Kingdom of Jordan), and the area between the Mediterranean and the Jordan being designated as the Jewish National Home. Dating back to the 1930s, every subsequent peace plan that has been proposed involved some sort of partition of the Western portion of Palestine. Though all of these schemes involved painful concessions for the Jews, the leadership of the Zionist movement and subsequently the Jewish state always accepted this principle of sharing the country.
Myth #4: The lack of an independent Palestinian Arab state is the fault of the Zionists.
In 1947, the United Nations approved the partition of Palestine between a Jewish state and an Arab state. The response of the Palestinian Arabs, as well as the rest of the Arab and Muslim world, was a categorical rejection of any scheme that allowed a Jewish state on any part of the land, no matter what its borders might be. No effort was made to set up an independent Arab state in the part of Palestine allotted for that purpose. In the aftermath of Israel’s War of Independence, in which it repelled the invasion by five Arab armies, the West Bank, Gaza and half of Jerusalem, were left in Arab hands. But for the next 19 years when these territories remained under Arab control, there was never any consideration given to creating an Arab state there. On the contrary, the focus of the Arab world was on extinguishing the fledgling state of Israel that existed in the truncated borders left by the 1949 armistice lines.
In the years after the 1967 war, Israel has maintained a willingness to negotiate a peace deal based on the concept of “land for peace.” Indeed, at Camp David in July 2000 and the following January at Taba, Egypt, Israel offered the Palestinians a state in these lands as well as part of Jerusalem. The answer from Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was “no,” and he followed up that refusal by launching a terrorist war of attrition that resulted in over a thousand Jewish deaths and even more suffering on the part of his own people.
Myth #5: The plight of Palestinian refugees is a special case of dispossession that must be redressed by international action.
In the aftermath of World War II, millions of refugees were created by the partition of India, the re-drawing of the map of Europe, as well as by the war brought on by the Arab refusal to accept the UN’s partition of Palestine. Only in the case of Palestinians who fled their home during the course of Israel’s War of Independence, was there a failure to re-settle the refugees. The Palestinian refugees, whose exit from the country was caused more by a general fear of the war sweeping over the land than by any action on the part of the Israelis, were the only refugees who were kept in camps and not allowed to integrate into the populations of the Arab countries that received them. They were kept homeless as a means of maintaining the illusion that the creation of Israel could be undone. Subsequent generations of this population have been raised in these camps and inculcated in an irredentist ideology whose premise is the rejection of any Jewish state. They remain the wards of a UN agency (the United Nations Relief Works Agency) that is devoted to perpetuating their status as refugees at a cost of billions of dolllars on international aid.
On the other hand, several hundred thousand Jews living in Arab countries were evicted from their homes during this same era and forced to flee to safety in Israel or the West — where they were integrated into society.
Myth #6: The occupation of eastern Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights in 1967 was the result of an Israeli war of aggression.
In May 1967, Egypt launched a blockade of Israel’s southern port of Eilat. Egyptian and Syrian forces massed on Israel’s borders. Egypt demanded, and got, the UN peacekeeping force that separated their army from Israel in the Sinai, to withdraw. Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdul Nasser and other Arab leaders told their peoples that they would soon launch a battle of annihilation that would result in Israel’s destruction. When international diplomacy failed to get the Arabs to back down, Israel decided that it would not wait to be attacked and launched a defensive war to forestall the Arab assault.
After the war ended in a sweeping Israeli victory, Israel stated its willingness to make peace, but an Arab summit conference a month later answered with three no’s. No peace. No recognition. No negotiations.
Myth #7: Jewish settlements are the main, if not the sole, obstacle to peace in the Middle East.
Though many legal sources claim that Jewish settlements in the West Bank are illegal, the fact remains that the right of Jewish settlement in those lands was guaranteed by the Mandate for Palestine of the League of Nations. This territory was never part of any other sovereign state and its final legal status is subject to negotiations that must be concluded between the competing parties. Until such time as there is a peace accord which gives one side or the other sovereignty in this territory, it is inaccurate to refer to this land as belonging to one side or another.
Twice before, Israel has shown a willingness to uproot Jewish communities for the sake of peace: in the Sinai (given back to Egypt in the 1979 Peace Treaty) and in Gaza (from which Israel withdrew unilaterally in 2005). The existence of settlements in these areas is no bar to a peace deal under which they might be withdrawn.
Myth #8: The failure of the Oslo peace process was the result of actions by hard-line Israeli governments.
The Oslo process was embraced by Israel in the hope that an offer of land would be met with genuine peace. However, the result of years of negotiations and various Israeli withdrawals has not been peace. From the start of Palestinian Authority rule in the West Bank and Gaza in 1994, Palestinian leadership has encouraged terrorism against Israel and fomented hatred against the Jewish state — while “peace education” is promulgated in Israeli schools. Throughout the 1990s as Israel signed several agreements that gave the Palestinians more autonomy, the corrupt PA leadership continued to tolerate and even fund terror groups. In 2000, Yasser Arafat refused Israel’s offer of a Palestinian state in virtually all of the West Bank and Gaza as well as part of Jerusalem — and launched the terror offensive known as the Second Intifada.
Though all Israeli governments have, at times, been forced to reply with force to terrorist attacks from Gaza, Lebanon and the West Bank, all have stated a willingness to negotiate a peace. Today the Palestinians are split between the Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas which is too weak to make peace and Hamas, the rulers of Gaza, who reject it under any circumstances. Both factions reject the legitimacy of a Jewish state.
Myth #9: The Arab-Israeli conflict is the key to all of America’s political, diplomatic and military problems in the Middle East.
The battle over Israel/Palestine is but one of many disputes in the Middle East. The rivalry between the two great Muslim religious strains, Shia and Sunni, has been the source of more wars and more bloodshed than any battle between Arabs and Jews. Similarly, the tensions between Persians (modern day Iran with its Islamist rulers and nuclear ambitions) and Arabs is another perennial conflict that predates the renewal of Jewish sovereignty in the region.
Even more to the point, the conflict between radical Islamists who seek to impose their religious and political views on the rest of the Muslim world, and those who oppose them in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, has nothing to do with Israel or the Palestinians. It is this schism which is at the core of the rise of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. It is this battle for the soul of Islam that gave the impetus to the 9/11 attacks, not the dispute over the borders of the Jewish state.
Though Israel’s foes claim that resentment over its creation fuels Arab and Islamic resentment of the West, such sentiments long predate the rise of Zionism. The clash of civilizations between Islam and the West was the cause of wars between European nations and Muslim countries for centuries with no Jewish involvement. Linking world peace to a resolution of the Palestinian conflict is just another tactic of rejectionist groups bent on perpetuating the conflict and diverting attention from the real issues.
Myth #10: American support for Israel is the result of the manipulations of the U.S. government by Jews.
Support for the return of the Jews to their ancient homeland dates back to the very beginning of American history. Sympathy for the idea of a renewed Jewish state is rooted in the faith of most Americans, as well as in their belief that the persecuted Jewish people were entitled to find a new life in their old home. From the very beginnings of the Zionist movement, it found both a welcome and support from large numbers of Americans. In the aftermath of the Holocaust that support became even greater.
Today, the overwhelming majority of Americans of all faiths and both major political parties see Israel as a friend and an ally. They need no prodding from a Jewish lobby to understand that the alliance with the Jewish state is based on common values and a shared belief in democracy. While Israel’s supporters in Washington are vocal and proud of it, their financial clout is dwarfed by that of an oil industry and other factions with a vested interest in appeasing Arab dictators and monarchs. But the American people’s identification with Israel and their sense of solidarity with it have prevailed because these ideas are rooted deeply in American history and tradition.
Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of Commentary magazine where he contributes to its blog, Contentions, at www.commentarymagazine.com. He can be reached via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org.