By Jeremiah Haber
Recently, Prof. Efraim Karsh gave a talk at my university, in which he claimed that contrary to received wisdom, the Arab-Israeli conflict was not inevitable, that the Palestinian Arab masses were willing to live in peace among the Zionists, that they were betrayed by their leadership, the Arab states and the British.
Part of what he said made sense, especially the betrayal business, since it is pretty close to what Rashid Khalidi says in the Iron Cage. But, of course, the Zionists indeed made the conflict inevitable when they came, as settlers, to a country and conspired with the mandate authorities to carve out a state for themselves. That many of the natives were fellahin who weren’t particularly nationalistic, or did not have a Palestinian national identity is irrelevant, just as it was irrelevant for the millions across Africa and the Middle East where colonial regions become states.
But the best refutation of Karsh (which he dismissed as “bullshit”) was provided by Hans Kohn in 1929, after the first Arab disturbances against the Jews. Kohn, a Zionist who had emigrated from Germany to Jerusalem, broke with Zionism after the riots. Here is some of what he wrote.
I cannot concur with [official Zionist policy] when the Arab national movement is being portrayed as the wanton agitation of a few big landowners. I know all too well that frequently the most reactionary imperialist press in England and France portrays the national movements in India, Egypt, and China in a similar fashion – in short, wherever the national movements of oppressed peoples threaten the interest of the colonial power. I know how false and hypocritical this portrayal is. We pretend to be innocent victims…
Of course the Arabs attacked us in August. Since they have no armies the could not obey the rules of war. They perpetrated all the barbaric acts that are characteristic of a colonial revolt. But we are obliged to look into the deeper cause of this revolt. We have been in Palestine for twelve years [since the British mandate] without having even once made a serious attempt at seeking through negotiations the consent of the indigenous people. We have been relying exclusively upon Great Britain’s military might. We have set ourselves goals which by their very nature had to lead to conflict with Arabs…We ought to have recognized that these goals would be the cause, the just cause, of a national uprising against us. ..Having come to this country [as immigrants], we were duty bound to come up with constitutional proposals which, without doing serious harm to Arabs right and liberty, would have also allowed for our free cultural and social development. But for twelve years we pretended that the Arabs did not exist and were glad when we were not reminded of their existence
-Hans Kohn, Letter to Dr. Feiwel, Jerusalem, 21 November 1929, cited in Paul Mendes-Flohr, ed. Martin Buber, A Land of Two Peoples.
So Karsh was refuted already in 1929 by a far-seeing Zionist. Needless to say, when I confronted him with the passage, he dismissed it as “bullshit”. The more things change….
Jeremiah (Jerry) Haber is the nom de plume of an Orthodox Jewish studies and philosophy professor, who divides his time between Israel and the United States. This post was originally published on his blog, The Magnes Zionist, on May 4, 2012.