Maxime Rodinson


On the General Nature
of the Conflict

(Part 1)


The aim of this book has been to give the reader a picture of the broad outlines of the Israeli-Arab conflict. The study has been historical in essence, with a few fundamental sociological observations included here and there. Some of the assertions made may appear astonishing, since they go against widely held opinions. Nonetheless they have in every case been scrupulously documented, and in other works which, unlike the present study, demand the deployment of an academic armoury I have quoted the arguments and references which support them. [1*] Of course this does not mean to say that the arguments which I have advanced are irrefutable. I am no more infallible than anyone else in the selection and evaluation of facts. I merely wish to point out to those disposed to contradict me that their criticisms will have to be more firmly based than on assertions which they believe to be undeniable simply because they are current in their milieu or country. They will likewise have to bring forward attested facts, supported by serious documentation.

The facts in themselves are of course numberless. Like every historian, I have had to be selective in recounting them. I have chosen those facts which seemed to me to illuminate aspects of the conflict which are fundamental. Here again it is possible that I have made mistakes. But those who would contradict me will have to show that the facts which they adduce – given that they are well-attested – will throw light on an aspect which I have overlooked and which refutes one of my conclusions.

Such observations may seem self-evident, and so they are. A historical or sociological analysis can usually dispense with them. But the problem with which this book deals has aroused an unusual flood of passion. Rarely has opinion been so one-sidedly informed; the information available to it further reinforced an already strong tendency to make judgements favouring one particular side of the question. It must be admitted moreover that these tendencies partially sprang from highly honourable, even praiseworthy motives. Unusual precautions have therefore been doubly necessary.

The facts which have so far been advanced, with the minimum of argumentation accompanying them or entailed by their selection, are intended to enable the reader to form a well-founded judgement of the nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The author begs leave to give his own opinion on this matter and on the future possibilities as he sees them. The reader may accept or reject them. At least he will know on what these conclusions are based.

The immediate causes of every event described in the pages of this book, especially the causes of the war of June 1967, could be discussed ad infinitum. The study made above, based on documentation available to the author, is of necessity provisional in character. Many facts are still unknown and will come to light only gradually, some no doubt only after a long period has elapsed. The details of crises of this sort, with their inextricable web of political, diplomatic and military manoeuvrings, is always very difficult to unravel. Who was it who initiated such and such a move? Why? What results did he expect to achieve? The disputes continue – for example, on the immediate causes of the war of 1914-18. The discussion of the origins of this conflict is likely to go on for as long and prove as complex. I readily accept that my opinion of the matter may need to be revised in the light of new evidence.

Let me say only this, that all new evidence produced since the first edition of this book – especially the statements of Israeli generals and statesmen – confirmed my views as against the views held at the time by most of the Western authors of books and papers. On the other hand it is comparatively easy to form a judgement as to the more fundamental causes of the conflict of which this war was only the most recent and the most spectacular manifestation. The pertinent facts are well known and abundantly documented. The origin of the conflict lies in the settlement of a new population on a territory already occupied by a people unwilling to accept that settlement. This is as undeniable as it is obvious. The settlement may be justified, in whole or in part; but it cannot be denied. Likewise the refusal of the indigenous population to accept it may be thought justifiable, or it may not.

It was indeed a new population, radically different from the indigenous one. It is true, as everyone knows, that the newcomers claimed that they had inhabited the territory of Palestine in ancient times and had formed a state there, and that they had merely been dispossessed and driven out by force. That is true: in the main at any rate. We may accept – though not without some reservations – that this was the same people, the former occupiers of this land. Indeed, it is generally agreed that a people continues to exist as a collectivity no matter what internal renewal takes place in its constituent elements, in the mass of individuals that constitute this people. In the case of the Jews this process of renewal has certainly gone very far since ancient times; but that is, consequently, not a pertinent factor. On the other hand, the Jewish people did see the states which they had built destroyed by force or constraint – the last of them, though, that of the Hasmoneans and those (vassals of Rome) ruled by the kings of Herod’s family, with the acquiescence of a large part of the population. The national revolts launched with a view to establishing an independent state were then crushed by the Romans. But, despite the legend, the Jewish population of Palestine was, in fact, reduced to minority status much less as a result of deportations, which were limited in scope, than through assimilation, conversion and emigration.

More important is the question of what sort of people the Jews became after the end of the epoch when most of them lived in Palestine. Everything depends on how one defines the terms “people” and “ethnic group”. As was said at the beginning of this book, since the time of the Emancipation, the Jews, in every case, though at different dates from one country to another, were no longer a coherent whole possessing some unity despite their extreme dispersion. They were persons who were identified by themselves and by others as having originated from the ancient people of Israel, even if this was only partly true. Many of them were still bound by loyalty to the old ethnic religion, or at least to some of its rites. In certain countries the Jewish groups possessed a common culture, but this was localized so that there were several distinct “Jewish peoples”.

In addition there were many individuals of the same origin who no longer regarded themselves as Jews in any sense at all, but whom others could identify as Jews. The feeling of solidarity and common identity, when this went beyond the sphere of religion, resulted above all from that attitude on the part of others.

To simplify the argument, however, we can accept that that section of the Jews who wished to form once more a Jewish people, a community of the national type, continued the entity that had been constituted by the Jewish religious communities of the Middle Ages (which possessed only a few ethnic features) and, beyond them, the Jewish people of Antiquity.

This in no way detracts from the heterogeneity of the Jews. The alleged ancestors of today’s Jews did indeed possess Palestine for centuries as their national territory – after, according to their own tradition, conquering it from another people, the Canaanites. They then formed the majority, though not the whole, of its population. After the passage of fifteen or twenty centuries, however, the population of Palestine was different, or at least had a different identification, a different culture, different religions, a different language. Nowhere have such remote descendants of former occupiers of a country been welcomed as native sons of the soil. Nowhere can people who have been attached to a land or a city for generations welcome as “brothers” immigrants coming from afar, speaking another language, possessing a different culture, aliens in every respect, on the basis merely of these immigrants’ claim that they are descendants of former inhabitants, whether this claim be true or false – something which, moreover, the “natives” have no means of checking.

This does not diminish the differences. Certainly the Zionist Jews who were “returning” to Palestine were in some measure related in any case, according to the criteria of physical anthropology, to the Palestinian Arabs. Despite innumerable mixtures of blood they must, in very different degrees, have included among their ancestors Jews from ancient Palestine, and have retained something of those ancestors in their genetic heritage. Moreover in spite of an equally large number of admixtures, the basis of the Palestinian Arab population, as explained earlier, must likewise have been descendants of these same Jews or Hebrews of Antiquity. But this implies no homogeneity between the two peoples in the sociological sense. What does count, if at all, in the conflicts and compacts between peoples is the identification as a people, or as an ethnic group. The English, the French, the Spaniards, the Germans also have a great number of ancestors in common and are the bearers, in different proportions, of the same genetic heritage. This fact has not in the very least prevented wars between them, nor the desperate assertion of independence of one from the other, nor a hatred which has often reached a pitch which it would be difficult to exceed.

The same is true of the linguistic relationship, often misleadingly defined by the assertion that both peoples are “Semites”. This means one thing only, that the Hebrew and Arabic languages are linguistically related, they derive from the same root tongue, they both belong to the linguistic group conventionally termed “Semitic”. The Hebrew language was the ancient tongue of the Jews, and had become a dead language some centuries before the Christian era. It had been preserved as an erudite, “holy” tongue, to some extent as a literary language among the Jewish communities, and was resuscitated in the twentieth century by Eliazar Ben Yehuda to serve as a living tongue, common to Jews of different origins called to colonize Palestine. It should be noted in passing that the great majority of Zionists did not know this Semitic tongue, neo-Hebrew, when they first set foot on Palestine soil, although they were shortly to learn it. However, none of this is of the slightest importance. Kinship between languages (often implying some anthropological kinship, in very different degrees, between some at least of those who speak those languages) has never prevented antagonism between peoples. The Spanish and the Portuguese have often been in violent opposition to one another, although Portuguese is only another Iberian dialect. The French of the “Langue d’oil” in the north conquered by force the France of the “Langue d’oc” in the south, despite the fact that the southern dialects are fairly closely related to those of the north. The Pakistanis and the Indians speak Indo-Aryan languages, sometimes the same ones. Is it necessary to recall the bloody struggles between the Greek city-states? To repeat: what counts is the identification as special social unit or as an ethnic group.

Palestine therefore was being populated anew. Not only did the newcomers have no community of identification, in the sociological sense, with the native inhabitants, their difference was also accentuated by a gross cultural disparity. The great majority of the first wave of immigrants spoke a different language from the local population in more senses than one: they had different values, different customs, different modes of behaviour, different attitudes to life. They were altogether of a different world – the European world. Not only were they foreigners, they were also Europeans, that is to say they came from that world which was everywhere known as the world of the colonizers, of peoples who dominated their neighbours by their technical and military power and by their wealth. That they may have been the poorest and most underprivileged of this other world mattered not – they were of it.

The only ones in whom the difference was not so marked were the Oriental or Orientalized Jews, such as already lived in Palestine. But the moving spirits of the Jewish colony and then of the state of Israel regarded them as backward elements, which somehow had to be assimilated. They had to be impregnated with the values of the Western Jews, their social customs and their attitudes would have to be made to conform. The numbers of these Oriental Jews became very great in the years which followed 1948, mainly through the emigration to Israel of Jews from the Arab countries. These were undoubtedly much closer to the Arab population of Palestine. Indeed many of them might, if the problem had followed a different line of development, have become or remained Jewish Arabs; they even spoke various dialects of the same language. However, they were sharply divided from the Muslim and Christian Arabs by communal hostility and a long-standing grudge; as well as this, the Western Jews conducted a vigorous campaign to assimilate them, fearing “levantinization” of the state more than anything else. Hence these Middle Eastern Jews tried to model themselves on their Western cousins, whose culture they envied. I should like to quote an example insignificant in itself, but symbolic of what was happening. The Yemeni Jews, who pronounced Hebrew with its ancient Semitic consonants, which appear in the written language and are preserved in their Arabic vernacular, are making strenuous efforts, in Israel, to lose these “bad habits”. They are learning to repronounce Hebrew in the manner of the European Jews, i.e. leaving out consonants which the latter have forgotten how to pronounce for twenty centuries, confusing others, etc. In other words, they are moving as far as possible away from the standard of the Hebrew once spoken in Palestine in ancient times, and away from the Semitic model which they had partially preserved.

A foreign people had come and imposed itself on a native population. The Arab population of Palestine were native in all the usual senses of that word. Ignorance, sometimes backed up by hypocritical propaganda, has spread a number of misconceptions on this subject, unfortunately very widely held. It has been said that since the Arabs took the country by military conquest in the seventh century, they are occupiers like any other, like the Romans, the Crusaders and the Turks. Why therefore should they be regarded as any more native than the others, and in particular than the Jews, who were native to that country in ancient times, or at least occupiers of longer standing? To the historian the answer is obvious. A small contingent of Arabs from Arabia did indeed conquer the country in the seventh century. But as a result of factors which were briefly outlined in the first chapter of this book, the Palestinian population soon became Arabized under Arab domination, just as earlier it had been Hebraicized, Aramaicized, to some degree even Hellenized. It became Arab in a way that it was never to become Latinized or Ottomanized. The invaded melted with the invaders. It is ridiculous to call the English of today invaders and occupiers, on the grounds that England was conquered from Celtic peoples by the Angles, Saxons and Jutes in the fifth and sixth centuries. The population was “Anglicized” and nobody suggests that the peoples which have more or less preserved the Celtic tongues – the Irish, the Welsh or the Bretons – should be regarded as the true natives of Kent or Suffolk, with greater titles to these territories than the English who live in those counties.

The native population did not accept the settlement of what must be regarded as foreigners, who, moreover, presented themselves as colonists, as is demonstrated by the titles which they gave to their own institutions. Again, the Arabs have been condemned for this. Without for the moment attempting to assign moral values to the various attitudes which might be taken, it must be made clear that their reaction was entirely understandable. It is certainly true that at other periods alien peoples have succeeded in imposing themselves on a given territory, and that sooner or later custom and law ratified the deed. Usually this was initially effected by force. The best example for present purposes is furnished by the Arabs themselves. The Arabs imposed themselves by force and the native population gave little resistance, then allowed itself to be assimilated by its conquerors. But this native population was already subject to foreign rule, and merely changed masters. Similarly, when Jewish colonization first started, the Palestinians were subjects of the Ottoman Empire, which was dominated by the Turks. Why not accept the new domination which might, as in earlier times, have been followed by assimilation?

This might indeed have happened were it to have taken place some centuries or even some decades earlier. But the Zionists were unlucky. The conscience of the world had developed, and no longer accepted right of conquest, or accepted it more reluctantly. Cultural assimilation between peoples is possible; but each people now tends to cling fiercely to its own identity. This is a fact that nobody can do anything about. Zionism began as a living force in the era of nationalism, of which it was itself a manifestation, and it pursued its career during the era of decolonization. Peoples are no longer willing to accept conquest and will fight to preserve their identity and to keep or win back their independence. Once delivered from Turkish tutelage, the Palestinian Arabs desired domination neither by the British nor by the Zionists. They wished to become neither Englishmen nor Israelis, although they accepted gratefully many elements of that European culture which both brought with them and which the Arabs had slowly been absorbing in small doses for a long time. They wanted to keep their Arab identity, and therefore they wanted to live under the rule of an Arab state. In view of the division of Arab south-west Asia in 1920, they tended to form a Palestinian national community within the framework of the various different Arab national communities, -which were pledged to some degree of unity in accordance with certain widely held conceptions. They consequently hoped to see an Arab state in Palestine. Moreover the conscience of the world now supports peoples fighting to defend their identity. It seemed to the Palestinians a flagrant injustice that an exception should be made of them on the sole grounds that the colonists were Jews. The whole world was proclaiming “Down with colonialism!” They had recently seen many Frenchmen renounce the proviso “– except for French colonialism” and many Englishmen their proviso “– except for British colonialism”. All they wanted was to do away with the reservation “– except for Jewish colonialism”.

The natives had not accepted the foreigners. One point remains to be clarified. The Arab world has frequently accepted foreign settlement on its territory – witness the example of the Armenians, fleeing from Turkish persecution in 1920, who came and settled in the Arab countries. Many had come even earlier than this. As a general rule, they had been accepted. Yet the majority of the refugees, especially those in the latest migration, wanted to preserve their identity as a people, their language, their culture, their own special traditions. It is possible that if this partial refusal to assimilate persists it will one day be the source of conflict. Nonetheless up to the present time, there has been no hostility towards them comparable with that felt towards Zionist immigration. To all appearances this is due to the fact that the Armenians had no intention of constructing an Armenian state in territory populated by Arabs. If they do still harbour any claims of the “Zionist” type, these relate to territory which is currently Turkish. Similarly no opposition to Jewish settlement existed until Jewish immigration took on its Zionist aspect. Arab opposition manifested itself the moment that the Zionist intention to establish a Jewish state by detaching Palestine territory from the Arab world became clear. This opposition mounted as the true nature of the Zionist project became obvious, and grew more irreconcilable as the Zionists came nearer to success. Therefore the Arabs were not rejecting the foreigners as such; they were rejecting foreign occupation of their territory – whether we choose to classify this phenomenon as colonialism or not.



The conflict therefore appears essentially as the struggle of an indigenous population against the occupation of part of its national territory by foreigners. Of course there are many other sides to the conflict which could be brought out. None of these, however, seems relevant to its basic definition.

It seems to me that what we have here is an objective conclusion, that is, one which ought to convince any person who is acquainted with the pertinent facts and who has decided to submit to the conditions of rational analysis, leaving aside prejudices and passions. Yet this conclusion is rejected by many, who prefer other explanations of the conflict. Some of these explanations relate to facts which, though real, are of secondary importance. Others are basically imaginary. Most are inspired, whether consciously or not, by some specific feeling, others by false notions of social and historical causality – especially those which conceive of earthly conflicts as merely pale incarnations of conflicts between metaphysical or mythical entities.

Generally speaking, the feeling that gives rise to these false explanations is a sympathy or an antipathy for a particular people or human group. In this case it is either the Arabs (with whom all Muslims are often identified) or the Zionists (with whom some are ready to identify all Jews). Thus, this type of explanation can be put into one of two categories: explanations derived from antipathy towards the Arabs and sympathy with the Jews, and explanations derived from hostility to the Jews, whether or not this be linked with some pro-Arab feeling.

In the first of these categories we have, first and foremost, the explanation of the conflict as being due to the alleged hatred felt by the Muslims (and by the Christian Arabs) for the Jews. This is said to be the primary phenomenon from which everything else follows. It is the thesis adopted, emotionally, by most Jews and by many non-Jews. Among the Jews of Europe, it is rooted in their tragic experience of modern anti-Semitism, which continues the Christian Judeophobia of earlier times. The Jews, a tiny minority, despised and restricted to contemptible occupations, were for centuries throughout the Christian world the object of a holy horror, a religious hatred, as the murderers of the Christ-God. When the effect of these denunciations weakened, with the withering-away of religious ideologies generally, this hatred was re-motivated by a pseudo-scientific racial theory which denounced the Jews as sub-men from the biological standpoint, maleficent creatures on the social plane, and aliens from the national angle. It is not surprising that the Jews in general came to see the whole world as leagued against them in universal hatred, whatever the concrete and theoretical pretexts of this hatred might be. Hostility to the Israeli settlement on Arab territory could not but appear to them as just a fresh manifestation of this general phenomenon. Rare are those who try to understand why others are hostile to them! The Jews were followed by the many non-Jews who had been conditioned by European history. Men and women of the Left had become accustomed to seeing in the Jews only victims of calumny, persecution and massacre. Profoundly ignorant of Near-Eastern conditions and of the history of the Zionist movement, of which they knew only the ideological Zionist version, they, too, were naturally inclined to see in hostility to Zionism only a fresh manifestation of anti-Semitic persecution. Oddly enough, a considerable section of the Right, formerly anti-Semitic, adopted the same thesis, now that the Jews were identified, essentially, with the Israelis, with whom they felt a sympathy the reasons for which have been analysed earlier.

The Jews of the Muslim world accepted this version more or less generally. That world had been governed for more than a thousand years by the regime of separate religious communities, each largely autonomous, dominated by a state which officially subscribed to Islam and accorded preponderance to the Muslim community over the rest. The Jews, a minority and subject community, had always been subordinated and often humiliated – differently from one country, epoch or situation to another. Familiar with the covert competition between these communities, in a setting that was usually one of tolerance but with flare-ups of violence from which they had suffered, and in certain regions deliberately humiliated, they were bound to see in the struggle going on in the Near East mainly a new phase in these relations of competition or conflict between communities.

This explanation of the Israeli-Arab conflict is nevertheless fundamentally false. Relations between communities in the Muslim world were indeed as has been described. They were not at all as idyllic as is alleged by Arab and Muslim apologetics, though neither were they marked by constant and brutal persecution of minorities, as Zionist apologetics claims. Just as in relations between nations, there was an infinitely varying mixture of hostility and peaceful coexistence.

The Muslim religious ideology is, of course, hostile to Judaism, but less so than Christianity. It allows to Judaism, as to Christianity, a certain share of essential validity, as being a monotheistic religion. In principle, it does not compel the adherents of these religions to convert to Islam and, in practice, it has tried to do this only very rarely. The Muslim conception of three legitimate faiths coexisting under Muslim domination and preponderance was much more favourable to the underdogs than was the Christian theory. This was usually true of Muslim practice as well, the best proof being the many occasions on which numbers of Jews persecuted in Christian states (as also Hungarian Protestants threatened by Catholic reaction) sought refuge in the Muslim world.

In any case, these features of the classical Muslim world were in process of changing in the course of the nineteenth century, especially in the region where Palestine is situated, the Arab Middle East. Evolution was proceeding in the direction of a secular society on the European pattern, starting with a tendency towards equality of status for the three communities. At the beginning of the twentieth century the Jews were, in these countries – let us be clear on the geographical point – in a peaceful, prosperous and often envied situation.

This evolution was partly checked, first by the reaction to the Zionist implantation in Palestine and then by the creation of the state of Israel. True, hostility to Zionism, like every similar movement, made use of every means available. It exploited what was left of the religious hostility to Judaism and the feelings of contempt towards the Jews which had been inherited from the medieval situation. It quoted those verses from the Koran which date from the period when the Prophet was combating the Jews of Medina. But there can be no doubt that the hostility felt towards any implanting of an alien state on Arab soil would have been the same whether those involved had been Chinese or Greeks, Christians or Buddhists. It would simply have found other texts, sacred or otherwise, to exploit.

Arab propaganda against Zionism also frequently utilizes arguments and images borrowed from European anti-Semitism. That is deeply disagreeable, but it does not justify one in identifying the two phenomena. European anti-Semitism, in the sense of hatred of the Jews in their very essence, considering them as possessed of a fundamentally maleficent nature, was not born of any actions or initiatives on the part of Jews. Whatever its real motives, the reproaches it levelled against the Jews were purely mythical or, if they referred to anything concrete, it was to phenomena and activities connected with the humiliating situation imposed on the Jews for more than a thousand years by European society. The prime responsibility lay with the latter. Arab anti-Zionism, on the contrary, even if it sometimes led to a comprehensive hatred of the Jews, originated in a concrete initiative taken by some Jews, to the detriment of the Arabs, namely, the plan to transform an Arab land into a Jewish state.

In the inevitable conflict that followed, between the Arabs and this Zionist enterprise, the Arabs had recourse to all the resources of the ideological war which normally accompanies every concrete conflict, and which inevitably piles argument upon argument without worrying about their value. In the past, likewise, every war throughout history, though perhaps fought for thoroughly insignificant reasons, has led to improper generalizations directed against the nature, the very essence, of the opponent. This is what I prefer to term “war racialism”. Plentiful examples can be found in the 1914-18 war, among others. Among the Allies, it was common to think of the Germans as an accursed race. It was dangerous to point out that certain pure-bred Germans had been moderately competent musicians, for instance, or that others had made some small contribution to Western philosophy. This is a deplorable phenomenon, but apparently inherent in the human species as we know it. Looking for arguments and images, the Arabs drew, inter alia, upon the plentiful material supplied by European anti-Semitism. This would tend to show, incidentally, that their own arsenal was pretty poor where that item was concerned.

To conclude on this point, everything seems to indicate that, in the absence of the Zionist scheme and its realization, relations between Muslims, Christians and Jews in the Arab world would have developed in the direction of a general abatement of old conflicts and an equalization of status. Even if the drive towards Muslim “integrism” which we observe at the present time had occurred anyway (and the Zionists’ “successes” are among the factors which have favoured it), with tendencies to lower the status of Jews and Christians in certain countries and during certain phases, it would not have resulted in so strong a hostility towards the Jews as has become apparent, here and there, since the establishment of the state of Israel.

In the same circles the conflict is often explained as being due to a vicious Arab expansionism, and we hear denunciations of Pan-Arabism, a tendency so named in order to call to mind phenomena from which Europe has suffered, such as Pan-Germanism and Pan-Slavism. However, without expressing any view as to the legitimacy or the realism of tendencies towards uniting all the Arab countries in a single state, these tendencies cannot (so far) be identified with a plan for expansion. The projects referred to have aimed at bringing together the Arab countries in the same way as the Italian nationalists strove to unite in one state all the regions where Italian was spoken. These projects were linked with an ideology which sometimes, in certain countries, aimed at denying the specific character of ethnic (but not religious) minorities and Arabizing them completely wherever they were Arabized only in part (the Berber speakers of the Maghreb), or else scarcely or not at all (the Blacks in the Sudan, the Kurds in Iraq). But these tendencies toward Arabization of minorities have been opposed within the Arab world itself, sometimes by great men of Arab nationalism like Nasser, and they have never met with such widespread approval as has opposition to the state of Israel. The reason for this is obvious. There was no ethnic minority of any significance in Palestine before the Zionist plan began to be realized. Palestine was Arab (with more than one religion) in the same sense that Venezia was Italian.

Among the fantastic explanations of the conflict which have been developed in the West in complete ignorance of Middle-Eastern conditions, one has often come upon the idea that hostility to Israel has resulted from a profound reaction to the progress which the Jewish settlement in Palestine is said to have brought with it. Some who think like this have in mind economic progress towards industrialization, others progress in democratic procedures, and yet others towards the abolition of classes, towards a socialist society. It is indubitable that Israel has brought to the Middle East the example of a more highly developed society, industrialized or on the way to becoming so, technically advanced, with a large and valuable technocracy. Her superiority in this respect over the surrounding countries is undeniable, and her victories are merely the manifestation of this fact on the military plane. But the case is exactly the same as that of the European colonies which did not eliminate the populations at whose expense they installed themselves. The technical lessons to be learned from the invader were in every case accepted, in principle at least. Nevertheless the local population revolted against the domination or annexation imposed from outside. The value of Israel’s example is diminished to the extent that the Arabs can take their lessons from many other sources, from Europe direct or from America, for instance. They do not need to pay for them by the cession of territory. Moreover the enemy may be admired, even imitated, as witness France’s attitude towards her conqueror Germany between 1871 and 1914. This in no way diminishes the hostility and desire for revenge which the conquered feel towards the victorious conqueror.

Again, the struggle is not a struggle for democracy. It is true enough that Israel has parliamentary institutions which may be regarded as models of their kind. This does not mean, any more than it does elsewhere, that the will of the majority of the population and its interests are bound to prevail over the wishes and interests of small but economically or politically powerful pressure-groups. In any case, Israel’s political institutions are intimately bound up with her high level of economic development. Once again, there are other examples which the Arabs could turn to, and the value which they might attach to such institutions in no way reduces their hostility. It should be added that given the social, economic and cultural conditions of the Arab nations, the most perfect parliamentary system would only ensure that the most reactionary social groups would be guaranteed power. Parliamentary institutions are not the panacea that the Americans take them to be. This is well illustrated by the case of Egypt between 1923 and 1952. The illiteracy of the masses and the great social power wielded by the large landed proprietors meant that universal suffrage merely underwrote the political power of the latter class. Moreover when the state has to make choices which entail drastic limitations on popular aspirations in order to make the investment necessary to development, it may be said that parliamentary institutions are the enemy of economic development.

Neither does the conflict reside in the struggle between Israeli socialism and the reactionary or Fascist Arab societies, as one version fairly widely accepted in some Left-wing circles would have it. The Zionists settled in Palestine as pioneers of a Jewish state, not as apostles of socialism. I have already given my opinion on the interpretation to be placed on the socialist ideological currents in Israel and on the socialist sector of the Israeli economy. At the very least, it may be said without reservation that Israeli society is not as a whole a socialist society, and that the state of Israel’s foreign policy is not directed towards the extension of the socialist system. The Arabs are opposing not the propagation of socialism, but an expansionist encroachment on their national territory. If the Arabs wanted a model, they could find it elsewhere; even if they were to imitate some of Israel’s achievements in some respects, this would not weaken their hostility.

Thus, the Arab reaction against Israel is not derived from hatred of industrial society, parliamentary democracy or socialism. It has involved states or political forces among the Arabs which were keen supporters of these three tendencies or structures. True, in recent years, it has become the fashion, in the Arab countries as elsewhere, to denounce them, at any rate in the form which they have assumed in the West and, consequently, in the West’s prolongation in Israel. Israel has come to represent one of the most highly developed crystallizations of the vices which are ascribed to the world of Europe and America. But the reaction against Israel began well before that way of thinking became predominant, and it continues to involve firm supporters of industrialization, parliamentarianism and socialism. Once again, the essential cause of hostility towards Israel lies elsewhere.

Finally, wide sections of Western opinion have tended, or still tend, to see the conflict as an effect of manipulations by international great powers, political or financial. Israelis, Palestinians and Arabs are seen as mere pawns, conscious or unconscious, in a game which is bigger than themselves. This interpretation enjoys the advantage of satisfying a deep-seated human taste for explaining things in terms of mysterious machinations. For the Left, besides, there was the temptation to rediscover here once more the usual mythology according to which all peoples are, by nature, guiltless of any warlike tendency, and are drawn into wars against their will, by the diabolical manoeuvres of profiteers. For a long time this was one of the ideological means whereby the Western Left avoided facing up to the idea, repugnant to the Left’s hasty manicheism, that Jews – victims by their very essence – might be engaged in an activity of the colonial type. There was therefore often talk on the Left about the perfidious intrigues of the British imperialists and, much more vaguely, without going into the details of the mechanism, about a struggle waged by the oil companies. At all events, it was believed, if the Jews and Arabs of Palestine had been left face to face without any outside interference, they would certainly have come to an agreement. This mythological picture drawn by the Left stood in contrast to no less fallacious pictures drawn by the Right. Clearly, it was easy to put the blame on Jewish finance. But not all on the Right remained faithful on all points to their basic anti-Semitism of pre-Second-World-War days. Many of them, as has been said, had become or remained Arab-haters first and foremost, while the Soviet Union was still their devilish enemy in perpetuity, engaged in inspiring the most diverse manoeuvres directed against the interests of the West. Everything, therefore, had to be explained by these manoeuvres.

There is no reason to doubt that in certain phases of the conflict, in one way or another, the great powers, especially Britain and the USSR, did not, to say the least, exercise an influence for peace. They may sometimes have thrown oil on the flames. This may have been true, too, on some occasions, of the policy followed by the big oil companies. At other moments, however, all these forces were, on the contrary, embarrassed by this incessant conflict, and took steps directed towards peacemaking. An attempt has been made earlier to show what their respective positions were, and what their influence was, at various times.

However, it is possible to manipulate over a long period only those who let themselves be manipulated. The hostility of the Palestine Arabs to the installation on their territory of a movement aiming at the creation of a Jewish state is a reaction which we have tried to show to be quite normal, in accordance with the criteria of normality in reactions between peoples at the end of the nineteenth century and in the twentieth. This reaction began under the Ottoman Empire. While it may have been encouraged or reinforced by this or that factor and by these or those agents, they did not create it.



1*. See particularly M. Rodinson, Israel, fait colonial?, Temps Modernes, no.253 bis, 1967, pp.17-88 (translated by D. Thorstad as Israel: A Colonial-Settler State?, New York, Monad Press, 1973).



Last updated on 4.8.2001