Simon Schama’s new TV series and book The Story of the Jews is particularly timely, although he’s covering well-ploughed ground. Schama shows, in fine detail, the ways the Jews tried, in any way they knew how and inventing new ones, to become accepted by societies in which they found themselves over the 1900 years that passed since they were exiled after the destruction of the first state of Israel. They tried to “assimilate” by praying on Sunday instead of on the Sabbath, by using the local language instead of Hebrew, by playing an organ instead of the shofar—and so on. They zealously served the rulers of their host countries and contributed richly to their cultures and commerce. However, as Schama shows, again and again and one more time Jews were (a) never fully accepted and (b) sooner or later kicked out in the most violent ways. They found new host countries, only to have their bitter fate repeated.
After one of these rounds, when a young reporter witnessed the degradation of a Jewish French officer, Alfred Dreyfus, the reporter wrote a book that argued that the Jews had no choice but form their own homeland if they ever wanted to be safe. And Zion was the place to go. His name was Theodor Herzl—the father of Zionism.
Critics of Zionism do not necessarily agree with this narrative. They tend to hold—as does Ari Shavit’s recent popular book My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel —that Zionism made a critical mistake when it chose Palestine as the place to erect this Jewish homeland. The reason, as has been observed scores of times to the point it has become a cliché, is that Zionists thought that the Jews were a people without a land, and that Palestine was a land without people, and hence it was a match made in heaven. “They did not see the Arabs”, as Shavit puts it. This argument makes it sound that if the Zionist Jews knew that there were Arabs in Palestine, they would have looked for another parking place, one not taken. After all, if what they were mainly after was to find an empty land, they could have pitched their tents, say, somewhere between Kenya and Uganda, or in Argentina, as some suggested. (Never mind that none of these places were empty either.) The main Zionist thesis, though—the one its critics are seeking to ignore or debunk—was and is that Palestine was the place for the Jewish homeland, because this is where Jewish identity had been developed, because it is the place an Israeli state had existed before it was destroyed, because Jews yearned to return to it through their history. From their viewpoint, Palestine was a place they never really left. (Critics argue that much of this national narrative is constructed; but so is the Palestinian one. Until at least 1918 they all were merely Arabs, citizens of the Ottoman Empire.)
Moreover, as I recently pointed out in the Jerusalem Post , critics of Zionism make it sound like Palestine was a small home that was taken. Hence the way to build the state of Israel entailed driving out the Arabs. True, some Arabs were driven out—just as a similar number of Jews were driven out of Arab lands. And too many died at each other’s hands. However, data show, beyond doubt, that there was enough room for both people. At the end of 1946, just before the United Nations declaration that led to foundation of Israel, there were 1,267,037 Arabs and 543,000 Jews in Palestine. By the end of 2012 there were 1,647,200 Arabs in Israel (and nearly six million Jews). That is, since 1946 many more Jews and Arabs have found a home in this blessed land.
Both people have many grievances, which one day ought to be adjudicated by some truth commission. However for now, as Shibley Telhami and I suggested in a joint editorial, they would be both better off if they focused more on the promising future than the tragic past. A good place to start is to recognize that there is still plenty of room at the inn.
Amitai Etzioni served in the Pal Mach from 1946 to 1948 and in the IDF from 1948 to 1950.