• Email
  • Print

Israel and the Arabs

In response to:

Holy War from the August 3, 1967 issue

To the Editors:

None of your readers could have looked forward with more eagerness than I to Mr. I. F. Stone’s essay on Israeli-Arab relations, for I knew the author to have impeccable qualifications: continuing concern regarding the problem, distinguished publication on it, and repeated trips to Israel, starting in 1945 and embracing the entire period of statehood.

Furthermore, on many important aspects of Israel I knew that Mr. Stone and I agreed. For example, I was if anything more opposed than he to the theocracy which held Israel in its grip, for I had witnessed the agony an American Jew encounters when he tries to get married in Israel; I understood why so many young Israelis were atheists. I also supported the supreme court judge who charged that Israel’s laws concerning the parentage of Jews were similar to the Nuremburg laws of Hitler; in the press the judge was abused and in the Knesset threatened with impeachment.

I also joined Mr. Stone in regretting the fact that Israel chose as her spokesman following the war General Moshe Dayan; it was bad enough to have a military man posturing before the world as the philosophical leader of Judaism, but it grew worse when he spoke vengefully and as an uncomplicated nationalist. I sent more than fifty letters to my acquaintances in Israel protesting this error, which has done the state much harm in world opinion.

The most important area in which I agreed with Mr. Stone was my belief that Israel had to take steps to solve the refugee problem and then to achieve regardless of cost a rapprochement with the surrounding Arab countries. In past years I have spoken continuously to this point and have met many Jews who agreed and some Arabs.

Philosophically, therefore, I was prepared to learn from what Mr. Stone had to say, but before I got to his article several premonitory things happened. Three of my Christian friends told me. “Since you’re so pro-Israel, you ought to read Stone’s exposé.” And two of my Jewish friends, who had always been cool to the idea of a Jewish state, said, in effect, “You’ve got to read this. He explains why I’ve been so hesitant about Israel.”

When I finished reading the article I found myself with several conclusions. (1) Practically every fact Mr. Stone cited was accurate. (2) His reasoning was marked with that majestic sense of fair play which one associates with him. (3) His conclusions were temperate and uttered sub specie aeternitatis, whereas others writing on the subject had become charred by the heat of the moment. (4) Yet the end result of his essay was palpably anti-Zionist, probably anti-Israel, and potentially anti-Jewish. When I put the article down I had the feeling that Miss Hannah Arendt had written it but that Mr. I. F. Stone had signed it.

How did this colossal miscarriage of an idea come about? How could Mr. Stone, who certainly did not intend such a result, get tricked into producing it?

The trouble stemmed, I suppose, from his choice of a book on which to hang his observations. Jean-Paul Sartre’s symposium Le conflit israélo-arabe is a work in which the Jewish half of the contributors wrote within the tradition of Western polemic, defending their side with vigor but at the same time acknowledging error; whereas the Arab half of the authorship followed the principles of Eastern polemic, which required them to present only the refined attar of their argument, and that in hyperbole. From the Jewish contributors one can lift substantial passages with which to condemn them, but in the Arab essays one finds no shred of self-condemnation, no hint of gracious concession to the opponent. The debate is therefore uneven, and for Mr. Stone to base his condemnation of Zionism on the revelations of introspective Jews while failing to dwell on Arab excess because his Arab writers provided him with no text is unfair and misleading.

One cannot, however, accuse Mr. Stone of either duplicity or naïveté. He warns us that the Arab writers consulted with their governments in order to promulgate a cohesive, official line, whereas the Jews wrote as free individuals representing many varied points of view. He also explains that the Arabs threatened to withdraw from the project en masse if the Algerian moderate A. Razak Abdel-Kader were allowed to present his views and that Sartre’s committee acceded to this moral blackmail and thus censored the truth; at the same time, however, they published a statement from the most notorious anti-Zionist and pro-Arab Jew, Uri Avnery.

Mr. Stone did not mask the ugly imbalance of his basic material but he did proceed to argue from the anti-Zionist data thus provided without ever referring to the anti-Arab data which were not provided. No matter how hard I tried to keep before me the various caveats that Mr. Stone supplied, I could not erase the harsh conclusions he produced.

Two quotations will illustrate what I mean. “No voice on the Arab side (in Sartre’s symposium) preaches a Holy War in which all Israel would be massacred, while no voice on the Israeli side expresses the cheerfully cynical view one may hear in private that Israel has no realistic alternatives but to hand the Arabs a bloody nose every five or ten years until they accept the loss of Palestine as irreversible.” These two omissions are not comparable. On the one hand Arabs have been threatening for the past nineteen years to annihilate Israel and all Jews living therein. In my extended discussions with Arabs in various lands the following words have been thrown at me by even moderate men: “Assassination, the night of the long knives, complete annihilation, throwing the state and its people into the Mediterranean, crushing, killing, murdering, wiping out” and a score of other threats less final in meaning but equally destructive in result. This is the constant threnody of the Arab, public as well as secret, official as well as private, and for it to be edited out of the symposium is either cynical or criminal.

On the other hand, during my extensive stays in Israel when eight and ten hours a day were spent in debate, argument and probing I never once heard any Israeli, from taxi driver to prime minister, make a physical threat against the Arabs who occupied the surrounding countries. Murder was not once spoken of, nor massacre, nor annihilation, nor even injustice. I stress this fact because it pinpoints the moral difference existing between the two contenders. I did hear, at most infrequent intervals, what Mr. Stone alludes to in the second half of his sentence, a resigned willingness to go back to war if the Arabs insisted upon it, but never did I hear this obligation exulted upon.

It seems to me there is a moral difference between the president of an Arab state’s publicly proclaiming that he is shortly going to launch a massacre of all Jews in the area and a private confession by an unwilling Jew that if such massacre is attempted, he will have to resist. Awareness of this moral difference is not found in Mr. Stone’s essay.

My second quotation comes from his discussion of the refugee problem, in which he riddles and ridicules the Jewish position. “The effort to equate the expulsion of the Arabs from Palestine with the new Jewish immigration out of the Arab countries is not so simple nor so equitable as it is made to appear in Zionist propaganda…. In a sanely conceived settlement, some allowance should equitably be made for Jewish properties left behind in Arab countries. What is objectionable in the simplified version of this question is the idea that Palestinian Arabs whom Israel didn’t want should have no objection to being “exchanged” for Arabic Jews it did want.”

The difficulty here is with that last sentence. In mid-flight Mr. Stone changes his base of judgment. In the first half, the Jewish expulsion of Arabs is wrong because the Jews had no practical use for the Arabs; whereas in the second, Arab expulsion of Jews was right, because the expelled Jews could be utilized in the new Israel. Even in fact this reasoning is specious. The surrounding Arab nations could have, had they wanted to, utilized their Arab refugees just as creatively as the Jews used theirs but refused to do so for the most corrupt political purposes; and whereas the Arab refugees left Israel in the heat of war, the Jewish refugees from Arab lands were thrown out callously in cold blood in times of peace. Finally, what Arabs did elect to stay behind in Israel were reasonably well treated and have prospered, whereas Jews thrown out of Arab lands were not given the choice of remaining behind to become loyal citizens within a Jewish minority.

Mr. Stone is on even more curious ground when he implies that Israel should not have been established as a nation but that Jews should have been content to live in the Diaspora as moral witnesses among the nations; “Here lie the roots of a growing divergence between Jew and Israeli: the former with a sense of mission as a Witness in the human wilderness, the latter concerned only with his own tribe’s welfare.” Everyone concedes it would be better if Jews had been free to do what Mr. Stone advocates; they tried it in Germany and Poland and Russia and a score of other countries and were denied the opportunity. The establishment of Israel became the only practical solution, forced on the Jews by the very nations to which they wished to bear witness.

In several glowing passages Mr. Stone advocates what might be termed an international citizenship for the Jew in the contemporary world, and I applaud his reasoning: the Jew should be welcomed into all societies because of the moral testimony he brings and the cultural contribution he makes. (One would hate to imagine the cultural life of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles if no Jews participated in running the museums, financing the orchestras, and underwriting the operas, let alone writing the plays and the novels.) But my experience leads me to believe that at repeated intervals through the remainder of this century Jews may run into very difficult times in nations like South Africa and Argentina and in regions like Eastern Canada and the free Negro States of Harlem and Mississippi, if they materialize. Instead of there being today a lesser reason for the existence of Israel, there is a greater.

On this subject my opinions are much colored by publication of the once-secret reports of Admiral William Leahy to President Roosevelt during the heat of World War II when Jews were being slaughtered in Germany and the countries she occupied; a deal was proposed whereby several hundred thousand doomed Jews would be released on a barter deal, to be settled in North Africa, but Admiral Leahy prudently pointed out that it would probably be better to allow events to take their natural course, because to move Jews into the regions proposed might make it more difficult for the American military to conduct their war.

Mr. Stone says, “Zionism grows on Jewish catastrophe. Even now it casts longing eyes on Russian Jewry. But would it not be better, more humanizing, and more just, were the Soviet Union to wipe out anti-Semitism and to accord its Jews the same rights of cultural autonomy and expression it gives its other nationalities?” Of course it would be better, infinitely better, if the Soviet Union were suddenly to do this, but does Mr. Stone even remotely believe it is going to do so? In the early 1930s the Soviets decided to do exactly what Mr. Stone suggests and established the semi-autonomous state of Birobidzhan in eastern Siberia. When Jews did not flock there as separatists, preferring to remain within the body-general as Mr. Stone would prefer them to remain, the Soviets grew disgusted with the Russian Jew and the persecutions began and have not halted. I was in Russia not long ago, searching out synagogues and Jewish groups, and if what they are experiencing is the alternative to Israel, then Israel has a moral justification far exceeding any so far put forth.

In trying to reach some moral conclusion regarding the recent Israeli-Arab war there is one overriding fact which has not been ventilated at the United Nations, nor discussed in M. Sartre’s volume, nor analyzed in Mr. Stone’s essay, nor faced up to by many American intellectuals. Bluntly, if Arab armies had won the war as completely as Jewish armies did, there would have been in all probability (and here I am extrapolating from the published statements of Arab leaders) a massacre of some three or four hundred thousand Jews. If Arab air forces had dominated the skies the way Israeli planes did, Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Eilat would have been indiscriminately strafed (the Arab leaders promised this) with the loss of another fifty to a hundred thousand lives. A sovereign state would have been annihilated, a civilization crushed, and two million surviving Jews tossed upon the world emigration market.

The impact of such a holocaust on American Jews would have been incalculable, I suppose that five decades of rationalization would not suffice to eradicate the trauma. Right now the United States Senate would be arguing whether it would be feasible to admit a token immigration of, let’s say twenty thousand, of the best educated and most presentable refugees. The United Nations would be torn apart, and powerless. Egyptians and Syrians would be squabbling over the spoils and Jordan would have vanished. A horrible vision of the future would rise before all of us, and the world would have taken a giant step backward toward an abyss it had been unwilling to contemplate.

These are the evils which were evaded because Israel was able to defend herself against Arab threats. If the presence of Israel in the Middle East must be construed as an ipso facto act of aggression, so be it; but it is folly to blind one’s eyes to the fact that the proximate aggression in April and May of this year was an Arab aggression expressly set on foot to annihilate a people. This simple moral truth appears nowhere in Mr. Stone’s analysis yet it is the one which the world at large and American Jewish intellectuals in particular must take into account when drawing up any balance sheet of “le conflit israélo-arabe.”

The same people who abused the Jews for not having resisted Hitler now abuse them for having resisted Nasser too much. Apparently these critics want the Jew to carry with him a moral micrometer to measure how far he is allowed to go in resisting extinction: enough to preserve his reputation among warlike nations but not so far as to save his life or make anyone angry.

Mr. Stone’s final paragraphs on the obligation to achieve some kind of peace in the area before either the Arabs or the Jews produce nuclear bombs should be approved by all men. I wish that Mr. Stone had written his essay de novo, as it were, and without the incubus of the Sartre symposium; the latter was so unbalanced and so unfair that Mr. Stone was tricked into using its prejudicial data as his own. The truth requires a body of evidence somewhat more broad.

James A. Michener

Pipersville, Pa.

  • Email
  • Print