A Jewish American’s Evolving View of Israel
Steven R. Feldman
In an argument about the origins of the Israel-Palestine conflict with a Jewish friend, I mentioned “Plan D, the secret plans of the Jewish army to expel Palestinians.” My friend thought I was a raving lunatic, spouting a conspiracy theory promoted by anti-Semites.
I didn’t used to sound that way. Growing up in Washington, D.C., I attended the Hebrew Academy, a school that my grandfather helped to found and that my father had helped lead. Like other people who attend religious schools, we were taught that we had a special relationship with God and that our group had a higher moral character. As Jews, we learned how we had been an oppressed people. As American Jews, we believed in American and Jewish values of honesty, justice, truth and peace. We took pride in Israel, a democratic country that shared our values and that represented an end to our oppression.
Our role in reclaiming Israel was very special. We Jews had come to an unredeemed holy land of deserts and swamps, and we made that land bloom. I was proud to be a part of it. Like my classmates, I collected nickels and dimes, saving to plant trees in Israel. Being a Jew made me part owner of the country.
The Story We Were Taught
We Jews had returned to Israel to live in peace with the small local population already there. We bought land from them. And when the evil Arab states — jealous of our accomplishments — declared war on Israel, we begged the local Arabs to stay. We were moral people. But the local Arabs, in an attempt to help Arab armies kill off the Jews, fled. At least that was the story we were taught.
We defeated the Arab armies against all odds. It was a miracle. Yet Israel remained under constant threat from Muslims who wanted to slaughter Jews. Arabs started wars to annihilate Israel in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973. The evil Arabs would terrorize or kill innocents, something Jews never did. We were proud of our commitment to every Jewish life, in contrast to the Arab’s disregard for life. This was evident as we would kill 20 Arabs for every one of us that was killed and we would trade 100 Arab prisoners to recover just one of ours — even a dead one. Our morality was never in doubt. Having American and Jewish values, we were always empathetic to the suffering of the Palestinian refugees. If Muslims had been as caring as we were, Arab countries would have taken the
Palestinian refugees in.
My understanding of that story evolved. As a way to expand my horizons, I took an audio course on world religions. The course described Islam as a religion of peace, similar to the Judaism I grew up with. That was very different than what I was taught of Islam — which admittedly was very, very little — in an American Hebrew School. Could this peaceful vision of Islam be reconciled with the violence we Jews saw? On a visit to Israel, I wondered if the Arabs might have a different perspective of the conflict than the one I was taught. Perhaps they saw Israel and the West’s support of Israel as a continuation of the Crusades, an attempt by the West to wrest control of holy land from Muslims.
I had always felt weak in my understanding of how Israel was created in 1948. The details we were taught were rather sketchy. I found United Nations data that said about 700,000 Palestinians became refugees in the fighting of 1948. That seemed odd. If Jews had come to a land of empty swamps and deserts as I had been taught, how did so many Palestinian men, women and children become refugees? The part of the story that said Jews had come to an empty land seemed like it couldn’t be true.
I began to question other things I had learned when I read that the 1956 war was actually started by Israel, in conjunction with Britain and France, in an effort to help Britain retake the Suez Canal from Egypt. The idea that “the Arabs started all the wars” certainly seemed questionable. Our special morality came into doubt when I read more about the heroic groups — the Irgun and the Stern Gang — that had fought for the protection of the Jews in Palestine. The tales told to us as children didn’t make clear that these groups were terrorist organizations. Israeli historian Benny Morris describes how members of Jewish terror organizations threw grenades into Arab homes and were the first to plant bombs in buses and crowded civilian markets. There were justifications for these actions, of course. One was that they were a response to violence committed by Arabs. Another justification was that they were the unacceptable actions of criminal splinter groups that were punished (though I’m not sure what “punished” meant, as I later learned that Menachem Begin and Yitchak Shamir, former Prime Ministers of Israel, had been leaders of the worst of these Jewish terrorist organizations in the 1940s).
Then there was the story of the Arab town Deir Yassin. The story of Deir Yassin was not taught to us at the Hebrew Academy. It was a singular and very atypical event in the history of the founding of Israel, representing the one and only time Palestinians were mistreated by Jews. While the facts about what was done in Deir Yassin are disputed, many Arab people of this town were killed. How bad the atrocities were isn’t entirely clear, but no one seems proud of how the Arab people of this town were treated.
More Than Deir Yassin
Though Deir Yassin was a tragedy, it certainly wasn’t representative of Jewish action. Our actions were entirely moral. But the recent work of Israeli historians began to document more than just Deir Yassin. Morris describes how in 1948 the Jews in Palestine — before any of the Arab countries declared war — used force and intimidation to drive Palestinian Arabs from many towns and villages. Plan D of the Haganah, the “secret plan” that made my friend and colleague think I was off my rocker, was found by Morris in previously sealed Israeli Defense Forces archives. The plan called for, “Destruction of villages (setting fire to, blowing up, and planting mines in the debris), especially those population centers which are difficult to control continuously. .., the population must be expelled outside the borders of the state.” While Plan D was touted as a defense plan, historians say that it contributed to a mass exodus of Palestinians from their homes and villages. Having seen this documentation, the idea that Jews of higher morality had begged the local Arabs to stay put (an idea that had been promoted in Leon Uris’ novel The Haj) now seemed more like a fairy tale.
It’s hard to know what was in the minds of people in 1948, but perhaps they felt it was necessary for the safety of Jews and for the creation of a Jewish state to “cleanse” the area of Arabs. This was surely a different kind of cleansing than the Nazi Germans intended when they intended to clear the world of Jews. The Holocaust involved gas chambers and the killing of millions of Jews (and others), including members of my family. What the Jews did to Palestinians was not like what the Nazi Germans (and other Europeans) did to the Jews. What the Nazis did to us contributed to the strength of my American Jewish stand against discrimination. That ideal was inconsistent with the expulsion of Palestinian families from their homes. Morris describes it in detail in a two-part interview published in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinian men, women and children were violently forced from their homes and villages. The Arab villages were destroyed to keep the Palestinians from returning to their homes. In the Ha’aretz article, Morris says, “...there were far more Israeli acts of massacre than I had previously thought. To my surprise, there were also many cases of rape. In the months of April-May 1948, units of the Haganah [the pre-state defense force that was the precursor of the IDF] were given operational orders that stated explicitly that they were to uproot the villagers, expel them and destroy the villages themselves.”
A Different View of the Conflict
The facts of the Israeli-Palestine conflict looked differently with a perspective enlightened by knowing that the Palestinians had been forced out. Jews did buy some land, but it was only a few percent of what they took. The 10 (or 100) to 1 ratio in killing Arabs to Jews didn’t look so civilized anymore. I no longer take any pride when seeing the massive destruction Israel inflicts on Palestinians or neighboring countries. One might still wonder if the Jews had resorted to these actions only in response to Arab attacks, but as early as 1919, before Arab riots in Palestine, Ben Gurion made clear that European Jews emigrating to Palestine intended to displace the Palestinians. Morris quotes Ben Gurion as saying, “There is a gulf, and nothing can bridge it ... I do not know what Arab will agree that Palestine should belong to the Jews. ... We, as a nation, want this country to be ours ...”
European Jews brought high ideals of an egalitarian, socialist society with them to Palestine, but apparently it was a socialism intended only for Jews. The Jews created unions in the workplace but they were unions for Jews, excluding Arabs in a way that seemed very reminiscent of South African Apartheid and of American discrimination of an earlier, less tolerant and less enlightened, era.
I had been taught that Jews had lived in Palestine for centuries and that this continuous tie gave us Jews a right to “redeem” our homeland. Now, the presence of those Jews — surrounded for centuries by tens and hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs (mostly Muslim, but some Christian) — made me realize that Arabs never intended to slaughter Jews or throw them into the sea. If the Quran taught hatred of Jews, Muslims could have cleansed Palestine of Jews long ago. Instead, Muslims, Christians and Jews had lived peacefully together, documented by Morris who found that in the 27 years ending in 1908 only 13 Jews had been killed by Arabs and of those all but 4 were killed in the course of robberies or other crimes. Only after the European Jews began coming to Palestine with the intent to displace the local population did the violence take off.
Gandhi Chastises Zionists
Some think the conflict between Jews and Arabs didn’t start until the war of 1948, but already in the 1930s Gandhi chastised the Zionist effort to displace Palestinians through violent means. “My sympathies are all with the Jews,” Gandhi said. “They have been the untouchables of Christianity. The parallel between their treatment by Christians and the treatment of untouchables by Hindus is very close.” Yet Gandhi went on to say, “I have no doubt that they [the Jews] are going about it the wrong way. The Palestine of the Biblical conception is not a geographical tract. It is in their hearts. But if they must look to the Palestine of geography as their national home, it is wrong to enter it under the shadow of the British gun. A religious act cannot be performed with the aid of the bayonet or the bomb.”
If it was wrong for the Jews to have displaced hundreds of thousands of Muslim (and Christian) Arabs from their homes, villages and lives in 1948, the rest of the history of the conflict looks very different. We used to blame Arab countries for the refugee problem; to do so seems the height of chutzpah knowing that the Haganah created the refugee problem by expelling entire villages of Palestinians. America has continuously supported Israel, providing the planes and bombs that kill Palestinian children. If we thought Iran was evil for giving Hamas rockets that scared people but killed few, then it must look quite horrible to Muslims that we Americans have been giving Israel the material and diplomatic support to kill a hundred fold more people, people who had been violently expelled from their homes and left blockaded in refugee camps. All Jews felt the pain and horror of just one of our soldiers being killed or taken hostage; knowing our own pain should have told us the pain the Muslims felt when thousands of Arab people were taken prisoner or killed.
Violence Engenders Violence
Though we are good in our hearts, acting to achieve peace, our violent acts engender more violence and hatred. If we could kill so many people and still be good, surely the “terrorists” who kill far fewer people aren’t necessarily evil either. One of my Israeli colleagues told me he had Arab friends who had radical ideas, like “we don’t hate the Jews or want to kill them. We just want our land back.” That didn’t sound so radical in light of how the Jews had made Palestinians refugees. I asked Palestinians, other Arabs and other Muslims wherever I went what they thought of Jews and the conflict. It was clear these Muslims were peaceful people, just like us. The Muslims never built gas chambers to kill Jews like the Christians of Europe had. Jews had lived alongside Muslims in relative peace for centuries, being treated far better than the U.S. treated African Americans in the same era. Even today, many thousands of Jews live in Iran, and there are no gas chambers there. Iranians I have spoken to speak with pride of their relationship with Iranian Jews.
On my last visit to Israel, less than a year ago, I visited an old family friend who had come to Israel from Germany in the 1930s. She lived in Jerusalem and her son grew up there. She was cultured — as I imagine was typical of German Jews. Her home was a veritable library. She had served as a secretary, helping catalog the letters of Chaim Weizmann, a founder of the Israeli state. As we sat in her living room, surrounded by her books, she showed my wife and me a picture of her son as a young boy, sitting on the burro of an older boy. The other boy was Arab, son of a local Arab leader. She told me the two boys were the best of friends. She described a time before 1948 when the vast majority of Jews and Arabs lived together largely peacefully. She seemed sad that there was so much hatred and animosity, that the Jewish state didn’t live up to its foundation of universal equality, justice and peace.
Diverse People Living Together
We’ve come a long way from the prejudices of our past. We Americans have elected Barack Obama.
It is time for the vestiges of the discrimination and horror of the 1940s to end. It is time for Palestinian refugee families to be allowed and encouraged to return and rebuild their homes and lives. This will give the Jews the peace they have always wanted, a peace they could never achieve through expulsions and killings that left Jewish philosopher Martin Buber feeling as though the Jews had learned how to behave from Nazis. It’s time for Americans to give up the notion of supporting a state built for people of one religion at the expense of people of another and to support the American ideal of diverse people living together in equality with justice and peace. This is the Zionism of Martin Buber, a spiritual Zionism of Jews, Christians and Muslims living together in peace. While I am happy and proud of the idea of a Jewish state, the idea of a Jewish state created at the expense of the homes and lives of 700,000 Palestinian men, women and children is inconsistent with my Jewish American values.
Some may think these words give ammunition to anti-Semites. On the contrary, the violations of our Jewish principles — the displacement of Palestinians, the killing Israel commits, our support of that killing, and our failure to speak out against it — is what gives real ammunition to hatred of Jews. At the 1951 dedication of the Hebrew Academy, my grandfather summed up the sentiment of the day, saying “The principles of democracy to which we, together with all true Americans, are devoted, can best be preserved and strengthened by our unflagging devotion to the moral and ethical teachings of our own faith.” We have the opportunity to be a beacon to the world for our Judeo-Christian principles, democracy, freedom and justice. But to do that, we have to look past our old prejudices and invite our Palestinian brothers and sisters to return home and rebuild together.
Dr. Steven R. Feldman is Professor of Dermatology, Pathology and Public Health at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine where he also directs the Center for Dermatology Research. He is a graduate of the University of Chicago and received his M.D. and Ph.D. degrees from Duke University in 1985. Dr. Feldman has been recognized by the American Academy of Dermatology with their 2005 Presidential Citation, 2006 Clarence S. Livingood Lectureship, and 2008 Astellas Award. Dr. Feldman is the founder of www.DrScore.com, a website designed to help patients give doctors feedback so that doctors can enhance the quality of care they offer. He is the author of over 400 articles and the 2008 book Compartments: How the Brightest, Best Trained, and Most Caring People Can Make Judgments That are Completely and Utterly Wrong, available from Xlibris.com and other bookstores. Dr. Feldman can be contacted at email@example.com or through the American Council for Judaism at ACJSLN@aol.com.