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Seeing the Israel / Palestine conflict through Jewish eyes

Summary

Delivered 26 November 2015. Posted 11 December 2015.

David Berkley QC is a Jewish barrister. I have presented with him on Muslim / Jewish dialogue issues on many occasions. When we were asked by a representative of the Liverpool Jewish community to present to them on a subject of our own choice, I proposed looking at the Jewish and Arab narratives about the Israel / Palestine conflict.

I feel strongly that on many issues around the world people take entrenched positions in support of one party to a dispute. They then proceed to fully absorb that party’s narrative of the conflict, shutting out all contradictory information. Most importantly, they pay no heed to the other party’s narrative.

To ensure that the Jewish and Arab narratives were better heard by the audience, I proposed that I present the Jewish narrative, and that David present the Arab narrative. We have previously taken a similar approach to presenting the Jewish and Muslim connections with Jerusalem, in a manner that was very well received, so he agreed to my proposal.

Publicity material circulated in advance

Title

Seeing the Israel / Palestine conflict through the other’s eyes

Event description

For many decades both before and after the establishment of the State of Israel there has been intermittent conflict between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs. 

Palestinians and Jews in the region, and their sympathisers in the UK, tend to offer radically different narratives about their association with the land and about the origins and history of conflict.

David Berkley and Mohammed Amin want to help the audience to understand those different narratives. In their presentations they will seek to explain the competing narratives not from the perspective of their own faith community but of the other’s constituency.

Speaker descriptions

Mohammed Amin is the Co-Chair of the Muslim Jewish Forum of Greater Manchester and Chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum which is part of the Conservative Party. He writes and speaks regularly on interfaith and community cohesion issues and politics. Much of his work can be found on his website www.mohammedamin.com. Before retirement he was a tax partner in PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP. He will be speaking in a purely personal capacity.

David Berkley QC is a founder member and Executive Council member of the Muslim Jewish Forum of Greater Manchester. A former President of the Zionist Central Council of Greater Manchester. Born in Haifa. Educated at Manchester Jewish Grammar School; Gateshead Yeshiva and Manchester University. Barrister specialising in commercial litigation. Appointed Queens Counsel in 1999 and a Civil Recorder in 2000. A former Chair of the Northern Circuit Commercial Bar Association.

My presentation

Since I starting to present “Thought for the week” on BBC Radio Manchester I have started writing out oral presentations in full when I am going to speak without slides, as in this case. It allows me to decide in advance exactly what I want to say, and also to estimate accurately how long the talk will take to deliver.

I have now converted the script for the Liverpool talk into this website page, after making a few necessary modifications for text intended to be read rather than heard live.

Introduction

I would like to start by asking how many people in the audience are not Jewish. The reason is that my talk is primarily written for your benefit. I want to help you to understand how Jewish Israelis see the conflict.

Ever since I visited Israel at the end of 2009 and beginning of 2010, I never forget that about 20% of Israelis are Arabs, most of them Muslims.

I don’t use the word Israelis without being clear which Israeli citizens I am talking about:

A reflection about myself

When I was thinking about this talk, I found myself thinking about myself when I was aged in single figures.

I grew up in Manchester with my parents but no other relatives since everyone was in Pakistan. My mother had been in India during partition in 1947 and with all of her family had to flee westwards into Pakistan. My father was in Manchester during partition but all of his brothers and sisters and wider family similarly had to flee from India into Pakistan as refugees.

My mother in particular was concerned that one day Pakistani immigrants might be expelled from the UK.

Even though I was growing up as part of a small minority, and had no memories of Pakistan, its very existence was a kind of comfort blanket. If everything went wrong for us in England, there was always Pakistan to go to.

The Jewish historical experience

Now I want you to think about being Jewish.

After the Romans re-conquered Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and brought the Jewish kingdom to an end, there was no country that was Jewish. Jewish people have lived in many parts of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa and elsewhere.

However, they were always living in somebody else’s country, on their sufferance.

In some places, most of the time, they were treated fairly and reasonably. However even then a change of ruler could change everything, for example in Spain when tolerant Muslim rulers were replaced by very intolerant ones. That is what made Maimonides a refugee.

In Europe Jews were normally penned in ghettos, often mistreated and regularly expelled. For example, England expelled its Jews in 1290 and they were not allowed to return until the time of Oliver Cromwell in 1657.

The late 19th century

Now I want to move forward to the late 19th century. The European Enlightenment had dramatically transformed the position of Jews by liberating them and giving them equality as human beings.

France led the way. However in 1894 the Dreyfus affair led to a massive outpouring of anti-Semitism in France showing how thin was the veneer of liberalisation.

Meanwhile in Russia from the 1880s massive pogroms killed tens of thousands of Jews and caused many more to leave as refugees to Western Europe and the United States.

Against this background, some Jews of whom the most famous is Theodor Herzl decided that if Europe hated Jews so much, maybe they should go and live elsewhere.

If you have not read it, I strongly recommend reading Herzl’s book “The Jewish State.” It is quite short and very easy to read. I also recommend reading his Zionist novel “Old New Land (Altneuland)”, for a wonderful vision of what might have been.

The pre-Balfour period

Even though the Romans had destroyed the Jewish kingdom, some Jews had continued to live in Palestine throughout. By the mid-19th-century, Jews were the largest single ethnic group in the city of Jerusalem although still a minority. At that time, Palestine was part of the Ottoman Turkish Empire.

Most of the land was owned by wealthy individuals, either living in Palestine itself or in nearby countries. Jews began immigrating to Palestine from Europe in small numbers, buying land from the absentee landlords so that they could become farmers. In 1909 they founded a small future city near Jaffa called Tel Aviv.

From time to time Jewish residents were attacked by Palestinian Arabs and needed to learn to defend themselves.

The mandate period

Ottoman Turkey picked the wrong side to join in World War I and Palestine was conquered by the British.

This led to the Balfour Declaration of 2 November 1917 in the form of a letter from the UK's Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to Baron Rothschild.

The key text is worth reading:

“His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

When the League of Nations was set up, it gave the United Kingdom a mandate over Palestine with the objective of continuing the process of setting up a Jewish national home.

The British oscillated over immigration levels to Palestine because of Arab hostility.

In 1929 there was a terrible outbreak of Arab violence with large numbers of Jews being killed, especially in Hebron and Jerusalem. From 1936 – 1939 there was a large-scale Arab armed uprising against the British which was eventually crushed by the British Army.

Meanwhile in Iraq the very large Jewish community which had lived there since Babylonian times suffered increased discrimination and attacks very similar to Nazi Germany in the run-up to World War 2.

If you are not familiar with the story, I want to remind you about the MS St. Louis. This ship left Hamburg on 13 May 1939 carrying 908 Jewish refugees. That is just a few months before Germany invaded Poland.

The ship went to Cuba but only 29 passengers were allowed to land. America and Canada refused to take any refugees. The ship returned to Antwerp and Britain agreed to take 288 passengers. Of those who remained, about one quarter died in the Holocaust.

That is why having a Jewish majority state of Israel matters so much to Jews. It is the one country that will always take you in.

I don’t want to say very much about the Holocaust. However just think about it and then think about the words “Never again.”

Never again will the survival of the Jewish people depend on others.

1948

Let me move on to the end of the British mandate.

The United Nations sent a fact-finding mission to Palestine to decide what should be done. The Jews of Palestine put forward their best arguments about how the country should be partitioned. The Arabs boycotted the UN fact-finding mission.

The United Nations drew up a partition plan. If you have not seen the map, I recommend studying it, both for the division of territory and for the special status of Jerusalem.

The United Nations voted for partition. The Jewish community of Palestine accepted the partition plan while the Arabs rejected it.

When the state of Israel declared its independence, it was attacked not just by the Palestinians themselves who were quite weak but by the armies of five Arab states: Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Jordan.

6,000 Jews died during the war, 1% of the entire Jewish population of Palestine.

About 700,000 Palestinians became refugees.  Some were expelled at gunpoint; others fled voluntarily.

1948 – 1967

After the creation of Israel, the Arab countries expelled their Jewish populations. About 700,000 came to Israel, doubling the Jewish population, and they were taken in as citizens.

Meanwhile the Arabs kept their Palestinian refugees in camps.

There was no desire by the Arab states to make peace or recognise Israel, and there were regular terrorist attacks.

In 1967 Egypt ordered the UN peacekeepers out of Sinai, and blockaded the Gulf of Aqaba and the Israeli port of Eilat. Everybody could see that war was coming.

The Israelis fired first and defeated Egypt and Syria. Jordan was asked to stay out of the conflict but attacked Israel anyway so Israel conquered the West Bank, including most importantly the city of Jerusalem.

1967 – Oslo peace accords

After losing the 1967 war, the Arab states continued to totally reject any possibility of peace with Israel.

The late 1980s saw the first Palestinian intifada or uprising.

Meanwhile secret negotiations led to the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians finally recognising the existence of the state of Israel.

However too many of the difficult issues were left to the future to negotiate.

From Oslo until now

There have been many problems since the Oslo Accords were signed.

The second intifada in the early 2000’s was much bloodier than the first. While the Arabs blamed this intifada on Israeli defence Minister Ariel Sharon forcing his way onto the Temple Mount on 28 September 2000, it seems clear that the intifada had already been planned and was just waiting for an excuse.

The other trend has been the rise of Hamas, the group which is religiously inspired and rejects the existence of any Israeli state on religious grounds. I recommend reading the Hamas charter for yourself.

It is clear that even if Israel reduced its borders to equal the city limits of Tel Aviv, Hamas would still have a religious problem with that.

There is a desperate need on all sides for peace but the Palestinian leadership under Mahmoud Abbas is simply too weak to take any of the difficult decisions required to achieve peace.

With that, I am going to stop.

In the Q&A we can discuss what an acceptable peace might look like from an Israeli Jewish perspective.

Concluding comments

The above comments are intentionally written entirely from the Jewish perspective. That is the nature of one party’s narrative. However there is nothing in the above text which I would regard as factually incorrect.

David Berkley presented the Arab narrative from his own bullet point notes, and I do not have a text of it to post. However there are many books and websites which explain the Palestinian view of the conflict.

I regularly come across British Muslims who have made up their minds that Israeli Jews are entirely in the wrong, and who refuse to accept that there is any reasonable Israeli case. They need to try to see the world through Jewish eyes.

Similarly ardent supporters of Israel need to understand the perspective of the Palestinians.

 

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