Long road to peace

Political Zionism was initiated by Theodor Herzl in 1896, with the publication of his pamphlet, The Jewish State (Der Judenstaat). Inspired by the Dreyfus Affair in France a few years earlier, when Herzl was reporting on the case for a Viennese newspaper, this pamphlet argued that the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe necessitated the forming of a new state, to provide security for Jews in the diaspora.

The ideal location for this state was Palestine. ‘Palestine’, Herzl wrote, drawing on biblical sources for support, ‘is our ever memorable historic home’. He died eight years later. By 1917, supported by Britain in the Balfour Declaration, an ever-growing Jewish population had come to settle in Palestine. And then, in 1947—in the aftermath of the Holocaust, which went some way toward legitimising Herzl’s initial fears—the State of Israel was formally recognised by the newly created General Assembly of the United Nations.

The problem with all of this, of course, is that a large population of Arabs already lived in Palestine. In fact, shortly after the Balfour Declaration, a census accounted for 760,000 people in Palestine, of which only 97,000 were Jews. The rest were Muslims and Christians. These proportions changed dramatically, with Jews accounting for almost a third of the population by the time Britain withdrew from the area in the 1940s.

Relations between Jews, Muslims and Christians in the area were never amicable, and were becoming increasingly violent. Within one year of the UN’s 1947 resolution, the first official Arab–Israel war had already occurred. The violence has escalated ever since, reaching a dramatic peak during the 1967 Six Day War, which saw Israel treble the land under its control. This level of violence has persisted to the present day.
Peter Rodgers, former Australian Ambassador to Israel, examines this situation in his new book, Herzl’s nightmare: One land, two people. In a clear demonstration of La Rochefoucauld’s maxim ‘Disputes would not last long if only one of the parties were in error’, Rodgers writes:

‘The story of Palestine in the past century has its share of political and military and human triumphs. But too often the dominant, recurring themes are those of lies and hypocrisies, myth-making and mutual demonisation; of a determined, energetic refusal to contemplate what it must be to be the other.’

Rather than simply cataloguing the violence and bloodshed which has been the consequence of this refusal, Rodgers’ book attempts to clear away the semantic dust which often clouds the grim reality which has resulted. He does this in an effort to better understand the situation. ‘The violence of the other side’, he writes, ‘was “terrorism”; one’s own was legitimate “self-defence”: both positions often resting on a bedrock of hypocrisy.’ It is this mixture of the ‘growth of a semantic conflict as well as a physical one’ which is perhaps partly responsible for the continuation of the Palestinian–Israeli situation. It is certainly this hypocrisy which has negated any possible legitimacy that either side may have claimed at its origin.

In adopting this approach, Rodgers is clearly concerned with the present and the future. His overview of the past century or more is designed to re-insert the current situation into its historical context, not in order to take sides with one state over the other, but rather to show how both states share a common destiny.

The publication of Herzl’s nightmare: One land, two people at this point in time serves a dual purpose. The book serves its stated purpose, which is to provide a fresh analysis of the situation in Palestine and Israel. It also serves the purpose of demonstrating how we might analyse other conflicts facing us at present, both in Australia and abroad. Conflicts ranging from the ‘war on terror’ through to the faltering reconciliation process in Australia between its Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations.

On this last point, Rodgers himself specifically spells out the parallel. In discussing a ‘revisionist’ historian’s defence of Israel’s dispossession of the Palestinians, Rodgers states:

‘Palestinians, no doubt, will be relieved to know that the distress of being driven from their homes in 1948 was serving a noble cause. Those few American Indians whose ancestors escaped “annihilation” will be similarly reassured. As will the Aboriginal people of Australia and all Indigenous peoples who inconvenienced the settlement and civilising plans of those with a higher “moral” purpose. If this is an example of the “light unto the nations” at work, it will, for many, be much safer to stay in the dark.’

Fortunately, books like this by Peter Rodgers may go some way toward providing alternative sources of light.  

Herzl’s nightmare: One land, two people, Peter Rodgers. Scribe, 2004.
isbn 1 920 76931 5, rrp $22

Matthew Lamb will soon commence a PhD on the life and work of Albert Camus.



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