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Conflicting narratives converge on Israel anniversary

NewspaperThe 60th anniversary of Israel is an occasion for celebration by Jews throughout the world. The international community supported the establishment of Israel in 1948 as atonement for the horrendous persecution that Jews both East and West had experienced culminating in the Nazi Holocaust, and to provide an ongoing sanctuary for Jews fleeing anti-Semitism.

For Jews, the formation of Israel gave them a renewed sense of hope in what had appeared to be a brutally unjust world. Today most view identification with Israel as a central component of their Jewish life and identity, and feel an enormous sense of pride in the Jewish state's achievements.

But conversely we also need to recognise that most Palestinians see 1948 as a time of mourning due to their experience of the al-Nakba (the 'Catastrophe'). These conflicting narratives of hope versus suffering are also reflected within the Australian context.

In late March the Australian Parliament passed a motion celebrating and commending the achievements of the State of Israel over 60 years. The motion specifically noted the democratic tradition shared by Australia and Israel as reflected in a common commitment to civil and human rights and cultural diversity.

The motion was widely welcomed by Australia's Jewish community on two counts. First, Australian Jews view Australia's friendship with Israel as a barometer of Australia's traditionally tolerant and positive approach to its Jewish citizens. Second, most Australian Jews have close friendship and family ties with Israel. For example, my maternal grandfather was born in the ancient city of Safed early in the 20th century, and my aunt and uncle and their many children and grandchildren all live in Israel.

Australian Jews are proud of Israel's survival despite 60 years of ongoing political and military conflict with the Palestinians and much of the Arab world. They admire Israel's successful integration of Jews from all over the world ranging from Holocaust survivors to the mass of refugees from Arab countries in the 1950s to more recent arrivals from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union.

They appreciate Israel's ability to provide a decent home for all its citizens relatively free of the religious fundamentalism, political oppression, misogyny and everyday violence that afflicts much of the Middle East. And they laugh about the huge political, social and religious diversity of Israeli society including everything from ultra-orthodox 'black hats' to gay rights marchers.

In contrast, most Australian Palestinians continue to regret the establishment of Israel. In March, they placed a full-page advertisement in The Australian newspaper condemning the Australian Parliamentary motion, and describing Israel's existence as a 'triumph of racism and ethnic cleansing'. They argued that the 'Israeli people and its leaders' were responsible for the dispossession and ongoing suffering of the Palestinians.

As a left-wing Jew who has long advocated a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I can't help but empathise with the suffering of the 700,000 Palestinian refugees and their descendants. But I also believe the non-creation of Israel would have been a greater injustice for the Jews in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust, than the relative injustice the creation of Israel imposed upon the Palestinians.

It is also simplistic to blame the Israelis in isolation for the creation of the Palestinian refugee tragedy without reference to the broader political and military context.

As noted by the seminal Israeli historian Benny Morris, the exile of the Palestinians occurred during a brutal war in which the Palestinian leaders and the Arab states openly threatened to destroy the newly founded State of Israel and massacre its population. This was a zero-sum conflict which the Israelis won and the Palestinians lost. The 'notorious' Plan Dalet was not an Israeli master plan to expel the Arab population, but rather a series of military measures to defend the borders against invading Arab armies.

It is also easy to forget that this war took place only three years after the Holocaust, and almost 6000 Israelis — that is nearly one per cent of the entire Jewish population of Israel — died in the conflict.

I personally believe the Palestinians should be at least partially compensated for the events of 1948 by securing a state of their own alongside Israel in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But I would also prefer that local Palestinians mount their legitimate case for Palestinian dignity and independence without negating the rights and achievements of Israel.

I want to hear more about Palestine as a neighbour of Israel rather than Palestine instead of Israel. Hopefully in 10 years time we can celebrate not only Israel's 70th anniversary, but also the existence of an independent Palestinian State based on peace and reconciliation with Israel.

Prime Minister Rudd's Address to the House of Representatives (Israel Diplomatic Network)
60 years of Al-Nakba (Advocacy & Support Groups for Palestine in Australia)

Philip Mendes Dr Philip Mendes is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Social Work at Monash University, and the author or co-author of six books including Jews and Australian Politics, Sussex Academic Press, 2004.



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Existing comments

It seems to me that Palestinians are being punished for the barbarities of Western Europeans. Yes, there should be EQUAL Palestinian and Jewish states side-by-side; both peoples deserve to live without fear of each other. In the meantime, brutalising the Palestinians in their own land demeans both Israelis and Palestinians.

Patricia | 09 May 2008  

Patricia's point is fundamental. Why should the Palestinian people have been made to pay for the sins of another people on another continent? Maybe "Israel" should have been set up in Bavaria.

Another point - a two-state solution with Palestine based on the West Bank and the Gaza strip only would be unfair. What is needed is a revival of the UN scheme of 1947 which divided the territory of the Palestinian Mandate roughly in half. Why should the Palestinians accept only 20% of what used to be their land?

Sylvester | 09 May 2008  

I am uncertain about what being Jewish or a Jew really means so I always have a slight disquiet when a nation is defined as "Jewish". It is not as though Israel actually occupies the same territory as ancient Israel (as distinct from Judah).

If a a nation has a claim to territory after not existing for 2000 years how much greater claims should exist for indigenous people after only 200.

Richard Pickup | 09 May 2008  

What all three of these comments seem to have in common is a wish to turn back history. But we can't do this for Israel anymore than we can do this for Australia or America.

Israel is a thriving and dynamic country. It was established in the Middle East because Jews held strong emotional and religious ties with that land. It is also important to remember that nearly half the Jewish population of Israel are completely indigenous to the Middle East, having been ethnically cleansed from the Arab world in the 1950s.

I am always suspicious of the motivations of people who make judgments about the national identity of others - whether Israeli Jews, Palestinians or any other group. Surely it is up to national groups to determine their own identity and aspirations.

Philip Mendes | 09 May 2008  

If just one person can ever explain to me why the Palestinians had to be pushed off their land in the barbarous way described by Ilan Pappe, Norman Finkelstein and many, many others over many years now I would be grateful.

The Palestinians did not send jews to the gas chambers, they did not exterminate them in Palestine during the war, they were simply not responsible.

And how dare you make light of 1% of the Israeli settlers being killed while brushing aside over 50% of the Palestinians being forced off their land.

A new history from Shlomo Sand in Tel Aviv shows that the claim jews were in Israel 2,000 years ago and dispossesed by the romans is bollocks, they simply had no way of forcing them to leave.

I want just one Israel to explain why Palestine? Why did they suffer for our attitude?

Australia said in 1938 about the refugees "as we don't have a racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one".

The ethnic cleansing of Palestine was as monstrous as the behaviour of the nazis pre gas chambers and nothing can make that right.

Marilyn | 10 May 2008  

If Arabs sent Jews out of their lands in the 1950s don't you think it might have something to do with the massacre of Arabs by the Jews in the 1940s?

Why on earth people continue to blame the Arabs when it was the Germans who murdered 6 million people is beyond the comprehension of ordinary folk.

The terrorist gangs went to places like Iraq and bombed the Jews to force them to go to Israel because the Europeans didn't much like the place.

The Jews in Palestine were no more and no less than illegal immigrants who had no right nor basis in law to be in Palestine let alone to steal the land.

Try and tell anyone in Australia that Tibet should have half of Australia because the UN said so.

Marilyn | 10 May 2008  

Dr Philip Mendes is entitled to have his views. My concern is that by publishing his views, Eureka Street appears to endorse these one sided views, thus adding further pain to the Palestinians and all social justice minded people, whether Muslim or Christian or atheist.

By publishing and not challenging sentences such as "They appreciate Israel's ability to provide a decent home for all its citizens relatively free of the religious fundamentalism, political oppression, misogyny and everyday violence that afflicts much of the Middle East", Eureka Street appears to agree with them, or at least provide sustenance to Israel's policies.

What does Dr Mendes mean by 'misogyny' - the hatred of women by men? Do all Middle Eastern men really hate women? To make comments like these are inflammatory as well as plainly wrong.

Do Muslim (and the few remaining Christian) citizens of Israel have equal rights? No, they do not. I respect Dr Mendes as a university lecturer and writer, but I do not share his pro-Israeli views nor his generalisations.

For instance, 'everyday violence' is something the Israeli's engage in almost daily against oppressed, frustrated walled-in people whose daily social wellbeing as well as their future remains unclear after 60 years of deprivation, intimidation and harrassent.

Ben Leeman | 10 May 2008  

Ben Leeman and Marilyn Shepherd seem to want to construct the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a fairy tale or morality play in which one side is inherently good, and the other side is inherently evil.

The reality is far more complex. Both sides have legitimate claims to the same territory. There are legitimate criticisms to be made of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians on human rights and other moral and ethical grounds.

But equally the Palestinians are not solely defenceless and innocent victims. There are moderates and extremists on both sides of the conflict. Both have committed awful atrocities. For every Palestinian who remembers Deir Yassin in 1948 or Sabra and Shatila in 1982, there is an Israeli who recalls Hebron in 1929 or Munich in 1972.

Ben implies that social justice minded people have to support the Palestinians. Yet taking sides in a complex national conflict means taking a nationalist, rather than internationalist or Left position. I would expect any other progressive journal to give space to both sides of the conflict, and to come down ultimately in favour of a fair compromise based on two states for two peoples.

Marilyn seems determined to defend the ethnic cleansing of over half a million Jews from Arab lands in the early-mid 1950s. I suggest she reads the seminal work of Moshe Gat, The Jewish Exodus from Iraq, Frank Cass, London, 1997. This book will help her to separate fact from fiction.

The systematic oppression of women in much of the Arab world as reflected in honour killings and fundamental exclusion from education, employment etc. has been documented by numerous independent analysts. See recent reports by the UN Human Development Agency.

The right of Jews to immigrate to Palestine in the 1920s and '30s to establish a Jewish national home was enshrined in the formal League of Nations mandate. It amazes me that someone who is a vigorous advocate for the rights of current refugees and asylum seekers to enter Australia would argue that refugees from Nazism and other European fascist regimes should not have been given asylum, and instead should have been left as she calls them “illegal immigrants likely to cause a racial problem even in Australia” to their horrible fate.

Philip Mendes | 11 May 2008  

In 1917, 87% of the population of Bilad el-Sham ('Ottoman Palestine') was not Jewish. Balfour promised a home for Jews as long as it did not prejudice the non Jewish inhabitants. The League of Nations accepted this principle of a home. A home is different to a state. I can invite you into my house and can say feel at home. However, there is a problem if you then say shove off this is mine. Especially after just 30 years. It is unfair to expect the non-Jewish community of Ottoman or British-mandate Palestine to pay for the sins of European persecutions of Jews. Sir Isaac Isaacs said the same in the 1940s. Sadly he died and so did his beautiful call for self-determination for Palestinians.

Stewart Mills | 12 May 2008  

Stewart: we can both navel gaze about the rights and wrongs of the Balfour Declaration, but what is the point? The fact is that Israel was created in 1948, exists today, and will continue to exist as the thriving homeland of about half the world’s Jewish population. It is not perfect, and is no better or worse than any other nation state.

If you don’t think it should exist and should instead be obliterated, then have the political courage to say so. In the meantime, you might also want to explain when you and all your friends and family are leaving Australia so the Aborigines can regain their homeland.

As for Isaac Isaacs, he became a sadly marginalised figure within Australian Jewry because he completely ignored the oppression of his own people. He was more concerned in the preservation of the British Empire than the rights of Jewish victims of Nazism. Nevertheless, he died in February 1948, and it is highly debatable as to whether he would have maintained his hostility to Zionism following the creation of Israel in May 1948. Most of his prominent anti-Zionist colleagues such as Rabbi Jacob Danglow largely reversed their positions following the creation of Israel, and became active supporters of the Jewish state.

Philip Mendes | 12 May 2008  

The critics of Israel do not want to turn back history. We just want justice for the Palestinians. A new generation of revisionist young Israeli historians had brought to light the horrendous truth about the Zionist myth of how Israel was created in the late 1940s.

I was startled by the statement that a big majority of Israelis are secularists. What then of the Jewish claim that God gave Canaan to the Hebrews? If modern Israeli Jews do not really believe that then it is hard to see what other serious claim to the land there could possibly be. An emotional attachment is not enough to dislodge 1,500 years of Arab residence.

If there is ever to be peace in the Middle East there has to be a really big solution. Earlier I suggested the 1947 UN partition plan that allocated 50% of the Mandate territory to both sides. However, even this might not work as Palestinians will ask: Why should we accept 50% of what used to be ours? A better way forward is a return to the original Balfour Declaration of 1917 which envisaged not a Jewish state but a Jewish homeland living in harmony with Arab neighbours. As Stewart observed, Jews have the right to migrate to Palestine, especially as refugees from oppression, but not to take over. The sectarian, exclusionary state of Israel will probably have to be replaced by a non-sectarian entity shared by Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians. What to call it would be problematical. How about "Canaan"?

Sylvester | 12 May 2008  

Israel's 60th birthday may be an occasion for celebration for the world's Jews, but it is also an occasion for deep resentment directly for the Palestinians and indirectly for the rest of the Arab/Moslem world. For others, it is a matter of puzzlement, irritation and/or indifference.

This article is a worthy attempt to tackle the problem of taking sides in a black-and-white fashion. The us/them attitude, whoever holds it, can only postpone the day when all-round justice is achieved in the Middle East.

Want a simple (or even simplistic) slogan? TAKE SIDES WITH NEGOTIATION!

Steve Brook | 12 May 2008  

To understand the big picture it is sometimes fruitful to look at the small picture: in the 1948 conflict all the Jews of Hebron, generations of which had lived in the same houses for over a thousand years, were evicted or were killed by their Arab neighbours. In 1967, just 19 years later, they returned. They are labelled "settlers".

DannyKid | 12 May 2008  

The league of nations had no right to give half of Palestine to the few Jews who live there.

Why there was my question? It is in the middle of Arabia, it is not Europe as they now pretend it is and when I read books by actual Israeli's exposing the horrors of what the Zionist terrorist gangs did I have to wonder if the west have lost their marbles.

Imagine the so-called league of nations or UN today giving half of our land to Tibetans because China persecutes them.

It is not the Palestinians who are to blame and it never has been.

The west has to take responsibility for what we did to Jewish refugees, and we have to stop Israel murdering her neighbours.

Marilyn | 12 May 2008  

Israel is just one of several states created by the French and British from Ottoman land captured in WW1. Why are all the Arab states legitimate, but the one Jewish State is not?

It was Palestinian Arab leaders who stirred violent confrontation from the 1920s onward, and very much against the wishes of their own constituents, not the mythological "dispossession" of Arab residents.

Had these leaders, and their counterparts in the neighboring Arab states, accepted the UN partition resolution, there would have been no war and no dislocation in the first place.

The Zionist movement had always been amenable to the existence in the Jewish state of a substantial Arab minority that would participate on an equal footing.

As far as ethnic cleansing is concerned, it's the 22 Arab states surrounding Israel who have, since 1948, expelled their 900,000 Jewish residents, while Israel offers full equal rights to its 1.5 million Arabs citizens, including representation in Parliament and on the High Court.

Steve | 12 May 2008  

Sylvester: All your discussion talks about Israel as if it is a theoretical construct rather than a real state with seven million people. The issues around whether or not Jews should have migrated there really don’t matter anymore.

By the way, an affirmative action state established to provide a haven for refugees from racism cannot by its very nature be sectarian or exclusive. I guarantee that if the Palestinians establish a state in the West Bank and Gaza they will not allow Jews to settle there. And fair enough.

You talk about the Israeli revisionist historians as if they are some new discovery. I was reading Benny Morris back in 1987. His findings were interpreted by many including myself as justifying the right of the Palestinians to an independent state alongside Israel. Nothing more, nothing less.

You talk about justice for the Palestinians, but this cannot be achieved by a genocidal destruction of Israel. Justice and peace can only be achieved by two states for two peoples.

Philip Mendes | 12 May 2008  

Phillip: both you and I share a passion to see a day where Palestinian and Jewish people can live together in peace. To create such a future means coming to terms with a number of skeletons lurking in the closet. One of those skeletons Israel shares with Australia is the terra nullius one.

I remember a settler telling me there were 10,000 Arabs in ‘Israel’ in 1910. Another described how the Arabs only came after the Jews arrived. If either of these people checked their facts they would be surprised to find that 640,000 non-Jews and 60,000 Jews lived in the region in 1910. That means 91 percent of the population was not Jewish.

What did the early Jewish nationalist pioneers expect would happen to the non-Jews lived in the region – given Jews at that time were nearly outnumbered 10 to 1? How would those same non-Jewish people feel if they realised within a generation they were told this was not to be their land anymore.

A true test of a person is their honesty to admit mistakes. By answering some of these historical questions helps gain a perspective of how the other feels. Does this reflection on the past mean wipe the slate clean and start again? No. It does mean dislocating 5.4 million Israeli Jews from the region. Just as acknowledgment of past European sins to indigenous Australians does not mean dislocating Europeans from Asutralia. But it does require humility of those in power to seek forgiveness for past wrongs.

Stewart Mills | 13 May 2008  

Philip: I do not deny that Israel is now a real, actually existing state. That is obvious. But neither should you gloss over the equally real sufferings of the Palestinians, both in the past and now. You said that we cannot turn history back. True. But neither can we freeze history as it was in 1948 or 1967 or as it is now. History will always move forward. The bloodshed and the violence and the killing of innocents on both sides have gone on for far too long. Enough! The time has come to use our imaginations. My own thinking has undergone a profound evolution over the years. I remember as a very young man being a passionate advocate of Israel surrounded by its foes in 1967. Then at university I read about the history of Palestine and concluded that a two-state solution was the only way to sort out this mess. Now, I am not so sure. Increasingly, I am coming to the view that there should be a return to the foundational Balfour Declaration - a Jewish homeland, but not a Jewish-dominated political state.

Sylvester | 13 May 2008  

Both Stewart and Sylvester still miss the point. Any nation can acknowledge past mistakes. I think you would be surprised how many Israelis recognise the suffering that the Palestinians experienced in 1948. For example, Israel secondary school textbooks published in the the mid-late 1990s cited Benny Morris in acknowledging that many Palestinians were expelled from their homes. This explanation contrasted sharply with the insistence of earlier textbooks that Israeli bore no responsibility for the Palestinian exodus.

But this doesn't mean Israelis abandon their own narrative which is based on their belief that their actions in 1948 were fundamentally reasonable given the reality that the Palestinians and the Arab states tried to obliterate them. The Arab states have never acknowledged their responsibility for the outcomes of that war.

Nor does it mean that Israel should decide to self-implode today which is what you seem to be recommending.

I have long believed Israel should acknowledge its contribution to the Palestinian refugee tragedy, but this would only happen as part of a mutual reconciliation process in which the Palestinians demonstated that they were also willing to make compromises. Unfortunately, the lesson from the 2000-01 negotiations was that the Israelis were serious about two states, and the Palestinians were not ready.

Philip Mendes | 13 May 2008  

The only thing that Israelis are being asked to abandon is their hegemony over the territory of the former Palestine Mandate. Israel does not have to "implode" but the present political arrangements go way beyond what the Balfour Declaration and the League of Nations thought they were setting up. I personally think the Arabs made a huge mistake in rejecting the 1947 partition line but, as Philip points out, we cannot turn back history.

Israel as a people's narrative does not have to go but the domination of the land by one side does. What is needed is an equal partnership of communities living together in peace and harmony in the Holy Land. This can be achieved by a unitary Judaeo-Arab secular state whose constitution would be protected by international guarantees.

Added to this must be the right of return. As Dannykid observed, if Jewish settlers expelled from the West Bank in 1948 had the right to return in 1967 why do not the Arabs expelled from Palestine in 1948 have the right to return to their homes and villages now? The answer is that the Jews want to control everything but that is what has caused this agonised shambles in the first place.

An historical footnote: Ilan Pappe has shown how secret plans were laid for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine before the outbreak of war in 1948.

Sylvester | 13 May 2008  

Sylvester: I would have thought it was obvious from what has happened in the former Yugoslavia, the former united India, East Timor etc. that nations in conflict want to live separately rather than together. There will never be a united state between Israelis and Palestinians who hate each other. For anyone who doubts this, read my online article, One State, No Solution.

Philip Mendes | 13 May 2008  

Philip, if you are right about the unviability of a unitary state then the only way forward is something like the 50/50 1947 UN partition plan which can reflect the ethically equal claim on national, historical, religious, cultural and emotional grounds of Jews and Arabs to the land of Mandate Palestine. A "solution" which does not respect equity and justice will doom the region to endless misery and the continuing sacrifice of the innocent.

Sylvester | 14 May 2008  

Why don't the UN set up a Sabean Mandaean country in 56% of Peru because Iran is persecuting them? How about we let Tibet have 56% of Australia because China is persecuting them?

Sensible? About as sensible as letting Israel steal most of Palestine because Europeans murdered many of them.

Marilyn | 15 May 2008  

Philips Mendes article is full of distortions. The Ad in the Australian was by Anglo Saxon Australians, Asians and Palestinians. And the parliamentary motion was silent on the continued problems of colonisation of the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza, not to mention the ethnic cleansing of Palestine through massacres such as Deir Yesin, Lyddah and Tantura. Israel to this day does not officially acknowledge the expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland.

Israel continues to speak of the two-state solution while it expands settlements at the same time and build a barrier within the West Bank seizing more land through this as well as denying Palestininas access to their fields, schools and services.

Can Mendes show any indication by Israel to stop settlements, remove the nearly half million settlers many of whom attack and seek to drive out Palestinians from their farms and homes,and lift the netwrok of exclusive roads, check points and blocks that have reduced the West Bank into ever shrinking bantustans ?

There is little point in professing peace without addressing the process driving the conflict.

truth | 12 July 2008  

The Ad Mendes refers to was placed by a netwrok of Palestinian solidarity and community groups. The signatories included at least six persons of Jewish background.

Regarding Mende's claims about the war, the ethnic cleansing of Palestininas started before the war. The massacre at Deir YEsin was in April 1948. Uri Aveneri who fought in the war has written several times that there was never a fear of Israeli defeat. The Arab forces were not even under an united command and Abdullah of Jordan was secretly confabulating with Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan.

This article ignores the fact of continued settlement and excusive roads expansion in the West Bank that have made a two-state solution impossible.

Narendra Kommalapati | 12 July 2008  

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