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Advocacy Corner: The Self-Inflicted Catastrophe Continues

May 15, 2008 By:
Asaf Romirowsky
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Marking Israel's 60th anniversary has engendered much debate within Palestinian society about the Nakba ("catastrophe") and its celebration on May 15. Truth be told, the real catastrophe did not occur in 1948; it happened much earlier and it continues today under the leadership of Hamas. That is, the inability of the Palestinian national movement to create the political and social institutional infrastructure necessary for the foundation of a nation-state.

And although, Palestinians like to see themselves as the victims of the Zionist movement's triumphant creation of a Jewish state, they should actually turn inward and look at the history of their own leaders who failed them.

This ongoing debate always raises the issue of the territorial bond between the land and the people and who rightfully owns the land.

For Israelis, though largely secular, their country remains a land deeply defined by religion, which also has political implications. The absence of a real separation of church and state in Israel is concomitant with the constant entanglement of religious and political issues rooted in the land itself. These roots fuel the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian violence over territorial ownership. For the "physical" territory is also the tie between religious identification in Judaism and the land itself.

And this tie to the land is unique to Judaism, as Adam Garfinkle explains:

"The religious identification of Jews in Israel is linked to the memory of the First and Second Commonwealths; it is history with a sacred dimension, and it is integral to the theological interpretation of Jewish history. As important, virtually all Jews know that Israel is the place that is most integral to Jews, and that Jerusalem is the place that is most integral to Israel. One can be a Jew anywhere, but there are some commandments that can be performed only in Israel. There is a sharp and indissoluble theological distinction between the land of Israel and everywhere else."

Furthermore, Hillel Cohen in his new important book titled, Army of Shadows: Palestinian Collaboration With Zionism, 1917-1948, studies the relationships and ties between the Zionists and the Arab community in the pre-state era.

The merit of Cohen's book lies in its thorough recounting of the history of Arab-Zionist cooperation and collaboration, period by period, region by region, family by family. One of the most important interactions Cohen highlights, which is key to the debate surrounding the ownership of the land, is the purchase of those lands from the Arabs, dating back to the 1880s. These legal acquisitions are important, as they dispel the ongoing myth used by Palestinians propagandists that the "Jews stole the land" from them.

Historically, by the end of 1947, the Zionist institutions and individual Jews had acquired close to 7 percent of Palestine's land, which at the time was approximately 10,000 square miles. The legality of these transactions was done specifically to ensure that they could not be accused of taking the land by force.

History does not offer any guarantees for success, and the story of the Jewish yishuv (community) could have gone in a different direction. Had the Zionists failed, they could have cited the British Mandate authorities, who betrayed their charge to help form a Jewish national home; the Arab opposition; and the trauma of the Holocaust as excuses for why the modern state of Israel could not be established under such arduous circumstances. But despite all these hardships, the Zionist movement managed to overcome and establish a national authority, as well as an organizational and institutional foundation that led to the creation of the state.

In contrast to the Zionist story, the Palestinian story prefers to blame everyone around them but themselves -- since it is easier to blame someone else than actually do the work that is desperately needed to move beyond a self-inflected catastrophe.

Asaf Romirowsky is manager of Israel & Middle East Affairs for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.

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