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Geoffrey Wheatcroft
Excerpts from The Controversy of Zion
(Addison-Wesley, 1996)

From Chapter Thirteen

Victors, not victims

AS independence dawned, David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, echoed an old Zionist slogan: 'Like other nations, it is the right of the Jewish people to determine its history under its own sovereignty.' This seemed to be the central moral accomplishment, but the rhetoric obscured the reality. On the face of it the Jews had at last, for the first time in nearly two thousand years, taken their destiny in their own hands and were shaping their own history. The creation of Israel, with its subsequent history, was indeed a breath-taking achievement, a triumph of will and human spirit, won, as that one-time Zionist enthusiast Winston Churchill could have said, by blood, toil, tears, and sweat, by heroic battles against the odds.

But it was not that alone. Although the new Israeli people wanted to make their own story, it was in truth still to a large degree being made for them from outside. For all the heroism and sacrifice of the pioneers, for all Weizmann's long and patient diplomacy, for all the military discipline of the Haganah and for all the frank terror of the Sternists and Irgun, the new state would not have been born without factors which the Zionists did not control. One great war had led to the establishment of a Jewish homeland, another to a new conjunction in international affairs. Israel was born when the British were too worn out by war to continue their own imperial burden, when the American administration had decided to back the new state, despite many misgivings in the State Department and even in the White House, when Soviet Russia, for even more irrelevant and cynical reasons, decided that it too would act as a sponsor.

Above all, it was born after the greatest catastrophe in Jewish history. More than thirty years later, George Steiner wrote a strange fantasy, in which Hitler is found in Latin America where, not having died at all, he had fled like Eichmann. At one moment 'AH' muses about the fate of Germany and the Jews: 'And the Reich begat Israel.' To some Israelis this literary conceit seemed distasteful, and to some rigorous Zionists it was a point of principle that the Zionist vision was in no way affected or further justified by the fate of the European Jews. This flew in the face of common sense. Hitler was the most unsuccessful politician of all time, for all his vast and insane deeds: he left Germany divided for nearly half a century, left Europe as far west as the Elbe in the hands of his mortal enemies the Bolsheviks, and left his even more hated enemies, the Jews, with a voice in world affairs for the first time. But for him, Israel could not have been born when and as it was.

As for Ben-Gurion's other phrase, the old Zionist aspiration, that too was implausible. 'Like other nations' was quite obviously just what Israel was not. It was like no other country on earth, and in many ways did not pretend to be. This was no England or France, no United States or Soviet Russia, not even another Romania or Serbia, the pattern against which Tolstoy had warned the early Zionists. It was wholly original, an 'idea in history' made flesh. And, if its relationship with the outside world was different, its relationship with the Jewish Dispersion was also different from that of other new-born countries with their own Diasporas, a difference of kind rather than degree.

One uniquely distinctive feature which made the new state unlike other nations was its Magna Carta or Bill of Rights, the Law of Return which gave any Jew anywhere on earth (begging the question of who was a Jew) the right to settle in Israel. It was no abstract notion. In the first years from 1948 to 1951 there was a huge immigration, more than 650,000. They came as survivors from Europe, notably from Romania where a larger proportion of the Jewish population than in most east European countries had survived the Germans. They came in increasing numbers from the Arab countries, from Morocco far to the west of Israel from Irak to the east, from Yemen to the south. This was something few had foreseen, certainly not Hess and Herzl. The creation of the Jewish state sent convulsions through the Arab world. In 1949, Israel signed armistices with the neighbouring countries which still did not officially recognise her, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon. Humiliating defeat led in turn to a surge of populist nationalism in those countries, which threatened the old regime: the king of Jordan was assassinated in 1951, the stamp-collecting King Farouk of Egypt was deposed the next year. Under old or new leaders, these countries talked about crushing the Zionist interloper, but only talked. The fledgeling state profited from its neighbours: from their verbal violence, from their appearance of strength if only numerically, and from their actual military incompetence. It was not only that the Israelis could say, as the anti-imperialist (and antisemitic) Belloc had said, 'Whatever happens, we have got The Maxim gun and they have not.' Along with their great advantage in technology and weaponry, the Israelis had the crucial advantage of morale, of believing that they were fighting for something very precious, not to say for their very existence.

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    Copyright © 1996 by Geoffrey Wheatcroft. All rights reserved.