Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Is Israel an Apartheid State?

I originally posted this article two months ago but something funny has started happening to some of my links, whereby they seem to show up for about a second and then go blank when you click on them. So I'm reposting it here.
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These days you read about things happening in Israel that would have been unthinkable in the idealistic days of the first few decades of the beleaguered state. Even then, with its back to the sea and deadly enemies surrounding it on all sides, Israel was widely vilified as a second South Africa; even more outrageously, it was often compared to the Nazis. Sadly, with the passage of time, some of the old slanders have begun to take on elements of truth as the rights of Arabs under Israeli rule have come under increasing attack. Not that Arab life is Israel is remotely comparable to the worst excesses of South African apartheid, let alone the grotesque comparisons with Nazi persecution. Ironically, however, the critics and defenders of Israel alike have missed the most obvious and glaring comparison : there is an excellent case to be made for equating Arab life under Jewish rule with Jewish life in Imperial Russia!

We Jews are supposed to place great importance in knowing our history, but our collective memories of life in Russia are oddly skewed. I happen to have some expertise in these things because I am one of the few people in my generation who is able to read the literature of our people in its original language, and I have done so extensively. So I know something about Jewish life in Russia. I also know that if you ask modern Jews to give a single word that most succintly expresses the nature of that life, they will almost unanimously say "pogroms".

Unfortunately, it seems we Jews, like all other peoples, remember only what it suits us to remember. We choose to remember life in Russia as an unmitigated series of horrors not least because it helps to justify our Zionist mythology. (By the way, because I call it a "mythology" does not mean I don't personally buy into it. I am a proud Zionist, but I am not proud of everything Israel does!) In fact the pogroms were a horrible episode in our history, but they were far from a dominant feature of Jewish life in old Russia. The actual picture is much more rich and nuanced. It is true that there were many episodes of persecution and injustice, but it these were interspersed with periods of great freedom and opportunity. And as we review the history it is surprising how many parallels we will find with lot of the Arabs in Israel.

We can begin with how the Jews came to be Russian subjects. Medieval Poland was a place of refuge for Jews fleeing the persecution of the Crusaders, and once established we fluorished there. Poland was in those days a huge kingdom covering much of present-day Eastern Europe; over the centuries, it was gradually picked apart by the surrounding powers of Austria, Germany, and Russia, until with the final Partition of Poland in 1793 the Russian Tsar awoke one day to find himself the proud ruler of close to a million Jews. Thus the Jews became unwanted subjects of Russia much the same way as the Palestinians became unwanted subjects of the Jews: through military conquest.

These Jews were not the educated intellectuals of North America who typify the modern Jewish stereotype: they were mostly primitive, black-frocked and bearded religious fanatics. The Tsars mistrusted the Jews for their alien beliefs and their close ties to their co-religionists living in hostile states across the border. Sound familiar? Keep reading. Over the course of the nineteenth century the pendulum swung from one extreme to another, the government sometimes trying to integrate the Jews into the modern economy as productive citizens, and sometimes trying to contain them by harsh discrimination. A great concern was the Jewish birthrate, with early marriages and up to a dozen children being the norm.

There is much nonsense written about the actual facts of daily life. People say that Jews weren't allowed to own land. They certainly were: however, there were restrictions on where they were allowed to buy land. Sound familiar? And there were certainly cases where the Jews were cheated out of their lawful property rights by the government. But at the same time we were entitled to go to court and contest such expropriations, and occasionaly we would win these cases. Mendel Bailiss was famously acquitted by a Russian judge and jury in the infamous blood-libel trial of 1912. But on the whole there is little doubt the courts were stacked against us. Sound familiar?

One of our greatest grievances against the Tsar was the "Pale of Settlement". Jews were forbidden to take up residence outside the areas which basically constituted the original Polish kingdom: in other words, they weren't allowed to leave the Occupied Territories to live inside the Green Line where there were greater economic opportunities. Oops, it wasn't called the Green Line...that's what we have in Israel.

Now let's remember a thing or two about the pogroms themselves. There were three significant waves of pogroms. The first was in the 1880's in the aftermath of the assasination of Tsar Alexander. Although the news of these outrages terrified the Jewish community throughout Russia, the total number of fatalities in this period was in fact less less than one hundred. A more serious outbreak began with the Kishinev pogrom in 1903, and over the next few years perhaps a thousand Jews died in the unrest.

There is a lot of nonsense about Cossacks and Russian police officers leading these outrages. In fact, while high officials in the Government undoubtedly knew and approved of what was going on, the fact remains that Russia was a country of law and justice and it was unthinkable for the police to allow these things to go on with their knowledge, let alone to participate in them.

The catch was: if they didn't know, they couldn't very well do anything about it! It's called plausible deniabilty and it's the oldest trick in the book. As long as they could pretend they didn't know, they would let it go on; but after a day or two they would invariably show up and restore order. A few ringleaders might be slapped on the wrist, but that would be the extent of it.

How similar is this to the pogrom which we allowed the Christian Phalangists to carry out under our noses in the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps in 1982? It is true that Ariel Sharon was eventually found accountable and demoted from his cabinet post, but that didn't stop him from later becoming Prime Minister. How do you think our Arab citizens should have felt about that?

There were some fifty deaths in the Kishinev pogrom, and the world was shocked. It was a time when people believed that freedom and human dignity were marching forward, and the backwardness of Russia was a huge embarrassment both inside and outside the Empire. The plight of the Jews attracted worldwide attention, and an upsurge in the Zionist movement was one of the immediate consequences.

This is not quite the end of the story. In 1914 war broke out and within four years the old order of kings and emperors simply ceased to exist. It was replaced by a new harsh world of nationalisms and ideologies. Civil war raged in Russia and in the Ukraine, a nationalist government took over that virtually declared war on the Jews. A hundred thousand died in the pogroms of 1919-20, and the world scarcely took the time to yawn. Even the Jews hardly remember these martyrs, as their suffering was eclipsed by the much greater disaster of the Holocaust twenty years later. But we ought to at the very least not blame those pogroms on the Tsar, who had already been killed by his Bolshevik captors.

History is a funny thing. We choose to remember whatever suits our purpose, and it suits our purpose to demonize the Tsar and everything he stood for. Yet when the Palestinians do the same to us (and they do), we feel aggrieved. "Why don't they appreciate that living under the Jews, they are far better off than their bretheren living under brutal dictatorships elsewhere in the Middle East?" We ought to remember that their attitude toward us is simply human nature, and it is not so different from our attitude towards the Russian Empire. Perhaps we have more in common than we like to admit.

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