Maxime Rodinson


On the General Nature
of the Conflict

(Part 2)


To the series of explanations resulting from sympathy, whether interested or not, with the Jews, or from a readiness to take sides, directly or indirectly, against the Arabs, must be added another series inspired by the opposite sentiments and interests.

Naturally, the supporters of classical anti-Semitism were able to find in this conflict an illustration of their familiar thesis of an international Jewish plot to secure world domination. This thesis might have a religious basis (the Jews’ alleged hatred of everything Christian or Muslim) or it might be based on a secular argument. In this connection, that classic forgery, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, might be brought into play.

This thesis cannot stand up to rational examination of the most elementary sort, on this point any better than on others. For a long time the Zionist scheme had no opponents more resolute than those to be found in Jewish circles, whether they were clergy or were laymen determined on more or less thorough-going assimilation. Those Jewish communities that were relatively satisfied with their lot showed lukewarmness, at the very least, towards the Zionist organizations, which often deplored the lack of support they encountered in such quarters.

It is true that, after the creation of the state of Israel, and especially after the war of June 1967 and even more after the Palestinian threat had become more credible, Jewish solidarity with the Jewish state became widespread and immensely stronger. But this was a phenomenon which manifested itself on such a scale only after the process of conflict had already developed very far – a phenomenon, again, which was predictable and normal in the circumstances in question, given what we know the usual reactions of human communities to be, even if we deplore their blindness. It was not at all a matter of a plan concerted by some mysterious centre controlling the reactions, throughout the world, of all the Jews, whatever meaning we give to that term and whatever the relations of the individuals concerned with the Jewish religious community or the many organizations (as varied and contrasting as possible) which attempt to mobilize them.

Furthermore, in so far as a relative degree of solidarity was secured, this was directed not towards world domination but towards the Jewish political community which had been forged in Palestine. Although the majority of the Jews had been reticent towards the establishment of this community, the Zionist organizations gradually succeeded in convincing many of them that if it were to disappear, even without any accompanying human catastrophe, that would constitute a threat to their own security. The threats uttered, or the political formulations propounded, by the Arabs convinced the majority, moreover, that it was indeed a question of a human catastrophe of which the Jews of Palestine would be physically the victims. That could not fail to provoke general repulsion among persons whose near and dear ones, relatives and friends, had recently been victims of a massacre on a huge scale. There is nothing in all this development that presupposes anything but phenomena well known in other contexts, nothing that gives support to the idea that the conflict is to be explained by a special maleficence on the part of the Jews, mobilized in obedience to a concerted plan. It is enough to consider the very real Zionist plan, the sole aim of which was to establish a Jewish state in an Arab country.

An explanation which sometimes takes forms similar to the foregoing is very widespread at present in the ranks of the international Left. This is the explanation based on the “myth” of Imperialism. It is sometimes accepted in the West out of unconscious antipathy to the Jews, and often through instinctive sympathy with the Arabs. This is the favourite explanation among Arab and Muslim nationalists. Generally, though, what we have here is a consequence of support for a great cause which transcends by far those two groups, Arabs and Jews: an attractive and worthy cause which seems to me truly deserving of profound commitment. In the usual way, however, it has undergone an ideological shaping which, starting out from very real facts, ends in a veritable mythology. This mythology has been widely accepted by many enthusiasts without any critical spirit; it has been legitimized in learned economic works, many of which, though valid, contain extrapolations that are open to criticism; and it has been applied in a mechanical way to the elements of the problem which concerns us.

I am not saying that this is a myth in the colloquial sense of the word, that is, a mere fable. I am using the concept “myth” in Sorel’s sense, to mean a mobilizing ideological theme which may correspond to many real facts and may even inspire valid strategies. But the ideological shaping has entailed extrapolations and distortions, the mechanism of which I have just briefly indicated.

In its application to the conflict in the Middle East the myth in question presents the Jewish colony established in Palestine, and which has taken the form of the state of Israel, as a tentacle or bastion of “Imperialism”. This world force is supposed to have assigned to Israel the task of combating, in this particular spot, the liberation of the Arab peoples, Arab unity and Arab socialism. It is regarded as just one specific example of the constant struggle being waged by Imperialism against the efforts of the peoples of the Third World to emancipate themselves. In view of the tremendous vogue it enjoys, this thesis calls for fairly close rational analysis.

Imperialisms are very real tendencies on the part of certain powerful states, under certain conditions, to expand at the expense of other states and other peoples. In ancient times there were the imperialisms of Egypt, Assyria, Persia, Macedonia and Rome, among others. In the nineteenth century the European countries with a capitalist structure manifested this tendency, and they even legitimized it and furnished it with a theory. They annexed most of the countries of what is now called the Third World, turning them into colonies, and brought the rest into strict dependence. It seems probable that their capitalist structure gave rise to economic mechanisms which contributed to urging them in this direction.

In any case, before, during and after the period of direct colonization, it is certain that the crushing superiority acquired by the industrial capitalist states in the economic sphere enabled them, even without using military force, to dominate almost absolutely the world’s economic mechanisms. In this way they were able, at the very least, to exert very strong influence on the policies, political and other, of all other states. Marxist economists have tried to prove that this world economic “centre” has been able not merely to exercise dominating pressure on the underdeveloped “periphery” but also to “plunder” the latter, to exploit it in the Marxist sense of the word. This means that the centre lives on the fruits of the labour of the masses of the Third World, that it grows rich at their expense, that its own citizens profit from this process. Moreover, this mechanism is said to bring about a “development of underdevelopment”, preventing the underdeveloped countries from engaging in the process of economic development which has enriched the centre, keeping them in a dependent situation and increasing their misery to an ever greater extent.

This is what is supposed to make it possible to designate this world centre as Imperialism par excellence. This Marxist denunciation has had a huge and understandable success in the Third World, even among social groups having no sympathy with the revolutionary tendencies suggested by Marxist analysis on the internal plane. It is, indeed, the only explanation offered to them which does not bring into question factors such as the cultural distinctions to which they are attached, theses of a racialist sort, and so on. It offers them, too, an immense hope, since the overthrow of this Western supremacy is something which is conceivable, and which would open up possibilities for an evolution of these countries towards independence and increased wellbeing. It suggests and justifies a militant mobilization which provides a reason for living to many individuals in the Third World and on the Left. It offers to the ideological intellectuals the opportunity for almost infinite discourse, together with pride of place in this mobilization.

To the writer of these lines it seems that this analysis contains at least a good deal of truth, but those who have adopted it have drawn from it a picture of the facts which is to a large extent mythological. In conformity with the universal tendencies of ideological thought, this pressure from the industrial capitalist centre is depicted as possessing a unity of leadership and planning which is both improbable and contradicted by the facts. The imperialist and capitalist enemy of the peoples’ aspirations to liberty and equality is depicted as a sort of monster with one head and brain but equipped with numerous tentacles. The latter are said to obey without hesitation the orders that emanate from this brain (which is situated somewhere between the Pentagon and Wall Street), without any will-power of their own. Israel is supposed to be one of those tentacles, charged with special responsibility for putting down the anti-imperialist revolution in the Arab countries. This crude schema, mythological and pseudo-Marxist, is obviously false.

The industrial capitalist states are many and their interests diverge on numerous points, even if what they have in common often impels them to act in concerted fashion and, in some cases, to form political and military alliances among themselves. The economic mechanism of capitalist production can give rise to different political options. Tendencies to take advantage of a position of strength (economic, political or military) in order to dominate other peoples existed before and exist outside the capitalist system of production. The countries now called “socialist” clearly exhibit such tendencies. Their economic system may be called “state capitalism”, as is done by Left-wing economists who are not Communists, thus putting the blame on the capitalist system as a whole. But we know of no concretely realized economic system today apart from these two types and combinations thereof. One may, of course, imagine that another system, one “truly” socialist, is possible: for the future no possibility can be excluded. But no convincing argument has been put forward to show that a country living in accordance with such a system, if it possessed some superior power, would not be moved to operate mechanisms of domination externally. The experience of human history tends to persuade us to the contrary: of the universality of the tendency to yield to “selfish interest – attempts to saddle others”, as Lenin wrote in 1916, foreseeing the reality of this tendency in the case of the victorious proletariat in a socialist revolution. “Just because the proletariat has carried out a social revolution,” he said, “it will not become holy and immune from errors and weaknesses.” [2*] Denouncing “Imperialism” as such, leaving out such adjectives as “capitalist”, “American” and so on – in practice, most often referring to American actions, but also amalgamating with these, in a vague, woolly and incoherent way, actions taken by European capitalist states – means implying an automatism of the economic structure that animates all these actions, and seeing in them the result of an evil master-plan conceived heaven knows where or by whom. This is a set of irrational ideological discourses which, though certainly useful for mobilizing the masses, must, in this form, be rejected by the rational analyst. He can only try to sort out the valid elements in it and draw conclusions therefrom.

As regards the application of this schema to Israel, one must at least modify the analysis, without, as has been said, rejecting those valid elements which it includes, under the influence of a Western ideological conformism which is no less given to myth-making and to a mechanical and crude conception of Soviet imperialism, seen as the main enemy to be fought. The Zionist plan and the creation of the state of Israel are processes which cannot be understood except in the context of Western capitalist imperialism. I believe that I have proved this in another place. [3*] However, the Zionists had their own specific aim, the creation of a Jewish state. They conceived this plan as one to be realized in Palestine, and that choice of location possessed some realism only in the setting of European colonialist conceptions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The realization and consolidation of the plan could take place only if it was fitted into the imperialist activity of Britain’s rulers, and subsequently, by securing support from American forces moving in the same direction, along with transient backing from the USSR, which was also motivated by desire to extend its influence beyond its own borders. However, one must repeat, the Zionists’ objective was always the Jewish state, and nothing else. The Zionist and Israeli leaders made use of the imperialist forces, just as the latter made use of them, with each side endeavouring, in the course of ceaseless haggling, to avoid compromising its own aims by associating them with those of its allies.

This means, in particular, that Israel, even with all the hindrances resulting from its dependent situation, has its own will and its own aims. It does not automatically obey all orders received from the U.S.A., any more than from the monster called “Imperialism”. It is interested above all in its own survival. Its expansion does not result from any irresistible tendency, any essence or nature connected with its alleged imperialist character. It results from an inner aspiration to achieve maximum realization of the objectives set out from the start by the Zionist nationalist ideology. The decisions taken to expand, on each historical occasion, have had to overcome much resistance from relatively moderate Zionist leaders, and circumstances have favoured this expansion.

Israel has no interest in Arab liberation, Arab unity, or the revolutionary and socialist movements among the Arabs, except in so far as they affect its own survival and consolidation. It assumes the role of “gendarme of reaction” only in certain circumstances and when its own interest, direct or indirect, requires this.

All these explanatory theses are thus seen to be fallacious, whether their source lies in a false notion of historical and social causality in general; in preconceived general ideas applied mechanically to events in the Near East, without knowledge of their actual conditions; in sympathy or antipathy for one side or the other; or in several of these factors at once. It seems to me that they do not shake the fundamental explanation which I have put forward: the reaction of a people to the occupation of its territory by foreigners.



The parties to the conflict themselves often make use of some of these explanations, which are always touched with an apologetic colouring that favours one side or the other. The Arabs naturally support the explanation which I believe correct, while imagining that they strengthen it by also using more debatable arguments. The Israelis generally repudiate it, but many of them accept it with various modifications and some even accept it completely. They merely justify their occupation of Palestine with certain arguments of their own. In any case, both here and there, we find an efflorescence of apologetical themes developing around fundamental theses, as happens in every struggle. These borrow a great deal from the fallacious explanations set out above. Going beyond an estimation of the facts, they aim to endow the struggle with the character of a sacred duty which must entail a total mobilization. There is a move from the category of causal explanation, more or less correct or incorrect, to the category of morals, to which belong the concepts of right and duty. These apologetical arguments are often accepted by outsiders – especially, though not solely, by unconditional supporters of one or other of the two parties to the conflict.

On the Israeli and Zionist side, we therefore see a development of the theme of an eternal and unconditional right to Palestine on the part of the Jews. When this thesis is defended with the religious argument of a divine promise, as happens not only with religious Jews but also with Christians (especially Protestants) who ascribe a value of supernatural truth to the texts of the Old Testament, there is nothing to be. said in reply. One cannot argue about faith. Let us note, however, that there are still some religious Jews – all that are left of a majority of only a few decades ago – who interpret these texts as ruling out any anticipation, by human political initiatives, of the “return” to Palestine, prophesied for the end of time, through God’s direct action. Many Christians, when they show some interest in their religious texts, share this negative interpretation.

When the Jews’ right to Palestine is defended by secular arguments it is, on the contrary, easy to show the weakness of the thesis. It is difficult, moreover, to appeal to general rules of what is right where this matter is concerned. If we set aside a clear supernatural decree, no authority is left, in heaven or on earth, that can define what are the rights and duties of nations. International public law is a man-made affair, constantly being revised, and greatly influenced by concrete situations which it often legitimizes after the event. It includes matters still in dispute, with opposite standpoints taken up by jurists.

Never, in any case, has either theory or practice assumed the eternal right of a given people to a territory which it once occupied, even for a long period, after an interruption of two thousand years which have seen the prolonged existence of another people on this territory (using here the word “people” in the sense discussed above, in part 1). We do not find Arabs claiming sovereignty over Spain, which was, to a large extent at least, Arabized and the seat of Arab states during more than seven centuries. Celtic Ireland does not claim the whole of England, which was Celtic before the fifth and sixth centuries. Nobody denies the right of the Spaniards and the English – who are what they are by virtue of their cultural, linguistic and historical identification, regardless of the share in their genetic inheritance contributed by earlier genes, Hispanic, Gothic and Arab in Spain, Celtic, pre-Celtic or Anglo- Saxon in England – to preserve the whole of their territory, with their language and traditions. Nobody thinks of declaring it their duty to hand over a piece of Spanish or English territory so that an Arab or Celtic state can be established there. If international public law does not deal with this problem, it is because it assumes, as a postulate which it does not even expect to be questioned, that a people has an absolute right to the land on which it has been settled for many generations.

Let us note that, fortunately, Zionist activity is not in practice entirely faithful to its own theory. If the right to Palestine is based on the presence there of the Jewish people in ancient times, the territory claimed should also embrace the present Kingdom of Jordan, which was occupied for centuries by Jewish tribes and formed part of the Israelitish kingdoms. The Revisionist party of Jabotinsky (which is continued by Menachem Begin’s Heruth) was being logical, in the days of the British Mandate, when, together with the religious fundamentalists, it laid claim to both banks of the Jordan. The majority of the Jewish colony, however, followed those who confined their demands, between 1948 and 1967, to the territory which had by that time been acquired by military means, and then, after 1967, to the whole of the west bank of the Jordan. Very few, nowadays, speak of occupying King Hussein’s kingdom. This means that they implicitly accept that “historic rights” are not enough to provide a basis for a claim in the present.

Zionist and pro-Zionist apologetics embroider a great deal on the theme of the aspiration of the Jews for nearly two thousand years to return to the land of their ancestors, and on the presence of a small number of Jews in Palestine all through the ages since Antiquity. A strong faith is needed to see in this even the shadow of an argument. No juridical doctrine bases a right on a mere aspiration: no judge, anywhere, would assign the smallest bit of land to a family because they can prove that they had always wanted to occupy it. And although there have always been Italians in France, ever since the fall of the Roman Empire, no Italian political entity has ever used that fact as an argument for asserting rights over France!

The same type of apologetics lists a number of complaints against the Arabs, designed to show that they did not deserve to keep Palestine. Here a procedure is fallen into which cannot be described otherwise than as racist. The Arabs are said to have many faults: carelessness, laziness, fanaticism, aggressiveness, a propensity to quarrel, a tendency to favour out-of-date attitudes; and so on. Some concede that this is due not so much to their genetic inheritance as to the traditional structures of their society, or to the influence of Islam, seen as detrimental. In any case, the Arabs, it is said, allowed a Palestine that was rich and prosperous when inhabited by Jews to sink into decline. In their hands, it is said, Palestine became a desert. Quotations from disgusted travellers in the nineteenth century and at the beginning of the twentieth are adduced in support of this indictment.

All that is merely so much empty ideological discourse. No one has the power to sit in sovereign judgement on the qualities and faults of peoples, so as to reward or punish them, even if the validity of this ethnic characterization were better founded than, in fact, it is. What we have here is merely what is said by conquerors in order to legitimize their conquests – nothing more. During the Second World War the Germans propounded a similar judgement of the faults of the French, who, they said, had made very poor use of the possibilities of their territory, owing to their inadequate sense of organization and discipline. No one has been able seriously to uphold the notion of a tribunal empowered to deprive a people of its territory because of its moral defects.

The idea that the Jews alone are capable of bringing prosperity to the land of Palestine is obviously fantastic. The Jews’ own sacred books are there to disprove it. The ancient people of Israel wanted to conquer Canaan because the Canaanites had made of it, before they arrived, a land “flowing with milk and honey”. In the epoch of Christian, and later of Muslim, predominance in Palestine, many documents point to activity in agriculture and the crafts at a reasonable and sometimes a remarkable level. If this tendency was on the downgrade from the nineteenth century onwards, this was due to the Ottoman administration, which became extremely bad in that period. But Palestine was certainly not a desert when the Jewish colonization began, as Zionist propaganda alleges. It was, of course, an underdeveloped country, and from that standpoint could fill Europeans and Americans with disdain and disgust. But its production was not by any means negligible. Let us merely mention here that the German scholar Gustaf Dalman, who lived in Palestine from 1902 to 1914, was able to publish an unfinished eight-volume work of more than 3,000 pages (Arbeit und Sitte in Palästina, Gütersloh, 1928-42) on the farming and handicraft techniques practised in this so-called desert. Full details are given regarding agriculture, milling, wine-growing and olive-growing, the raising of chickens and pigeons, weaving and other manufacturing activities, and so on.

Zionist propaganda has succeeded so well in propagating throughout the world this picture of a desert Palestine transformed at last by Jewish hands into a rich and prosperous country, that it has become a cliché accepted as evidence without any need for proof. It would surprise many people, and evoke a sceptical response, if one were to tell them, for instance, that the famous Jaffa oranges are not the creation of Jewish technique. It is an indisputable fact of history, however, that the growing of these oranges was begun and long continued by Arabs. In i88o, when the orange groves were entirely in Arab hands, they included 765,000 trees, and thirty million oranges were harvested there and, in part, exported to Europe. [4*]

The argument derived from Jewish sufferings is based, alas, on less mythical foundations. The anti-Semitic persecutions of the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, and the great massacre of millions of Jews in the countries under Hitlerite domination, are sad and massive realities. It is indeed true that Judeophobic sentiments still exist in many countries, that they have been exploited quite recently, here and there, for political ends, and that we cannot rule out the possibility of renewed developments in the direction of Nazism. But one cannot jump quickly and rashly from recognizing such facts to legitimizing the construction of a Jewish state in general, and still less to the establishment of this Jewish state in Palestine.

In the nineteenth century the solution of the Jewish question seemed certainly to be, in Western Europe, the assimilation of the Jews into the societies in which they lived. This did not necessarily mean breaking with the faith and practices of the Jewish religion, or renouncing Jewish historical traditions and the forms of conduct these had shaped, even if many persons classified as Jews were able freely to break with some or all of these. This Western model seemed certain to spread gradually all over the world.

As we have said, however, evolution in this direction was checked. Perhaps it will one day be resumed. For a long time, though, we must expect that a Jewish identity will persist in many countries. Whether or not they adhere to religious Judaism, and whether or not they have retained, or even developed, cultural traces and forms of conduct inherited from their religious Jewish ancestors, many will continue to be seen as members of a specific Jewish community and, consequently, will see themselves as such. The ideology at present in vogue which accepts the right to difference, to the coexistence of many communities with more or less differing cultures, as in the USA (a model which is being widely imitated), may result in this situation not creating too many problems; but one cannot rule out the possibility of hostile reactions.

Can a Jewish state, though, offer a guarantee against this possibility? We may doubt it. Who can seriously suppose that Hitler would have shrunk from his massacre of the Jews because a Jewish state had already been formed in Palestine? It will be answered that this would at least have provided a place of refuge. In that way we should have been spared the painful and often atrocious scenes of Jewish refugees fleeing towards inaccessible places of safety during the last world war and the succeeding years, and being repulsed wherever they went.

It has to be said that the Zionist organizations bear a big share of responsibility for those tragedies. They urged the refugees to insist on Palestine as their only acceptable destination, and contributed to dissuading certain governments from offering other openings. Even, however, without discussing the Zionist theses on this point, it is not certain that a Jewish state, by itself, can constitute a permanently accessible place of refuge for Jews who are persecuted or dissatisfied with their lot in other countries. The existence of the Vietnamese, Cambodian and Chinese states has not saved millions of members of these ethnic groups either from fleeing from them in dramatic circumstances or from being subjected to persecution and massacre when outside, without being able to obtain protection. During the two thousand years when here was no Jewish state, – Jews persecuted in one country or expelled therefrom have always been able to find refuge in others.

An Arab-American ideologist once maintained that he would be opposed to a Jewish state even if it were situated on the moon, because he is against any state based on religion (Pakistan, too). One may disagree with this view, and accept that there is nothing scandalous about the existence of a Jewish state as such, even if, as a Jew aiming at assimilation, for example, one may be aware of the ill consequences for one’s own choice that result from this state’s existence. Any dissatisfied group of human beings who wish to acquire an independent political existence ought to be able to do this by leaving the political entity in which they live. But common ethics demands that they refrain from doing this at the expense of other peoples. States cannot be founded on the moon. The earth is completely divided up. Any new state can be founded only on a territory either conceded by its present possessor or else wrested from that possessor.

Well, the Zionists – despite Herzl himself and some others – insisted on having Palestine. Regardless of the many warnings voiced even in Jewish circles and among the trends of non-political Zionism, the fact that Palestine was occupied by another people was ignored, and the state was established in Palestine, thanks to outside powers which protected the formation in that country of a large-scale Jewish base.

The result is now clear, and could not have been other than it is. In 1926 the old theoretician of German Social Democracy, Karl Kautsky, wrote: “Jewish colonization in Palestine must collapse as soon as the Anglo-French hegemony over Asia Minor (including Egypt) [i.e. the Near East] collapses, and this is merely a question of time, perhaps of the very near future.” [5*] Whatever the future may hold, it is at least doubtful that the life of a Jew in Israel will be more secure or, in general, better than in a lot of other countries. Many Israelis have now replied to this question “with their feet”. Emigration to other countries by Israeli Jews has always been substantial. At the beginning of 1980 the immigration commission of the Knesset estimated it at a total of 400,000 since the creation of the state, or about 13 per cent of the country’s Jewish population. Because the situation in Israel is now better known in the USSR, the passionate idealization of the country that was current at first has given way to more reasonable views. Thus, during the first quarter of that same year, 70 per cent of the Jews who left the USSR headed for the U.S.A. In the last week of March an all-time record was achieved, when out of 102 Jewish emigrants who arrived at Vienna, only four chose to go on to Israel. A large group in the Israeli Parliament, together with various associations, indignantly urged the government of Israel to intervene to prevent philanthropic societies from helping these refugees, and to obtain the insertion of some restrictions in the new American law welcoming refugees, which facilitated this turning-away from Israel. [6*] Rarely has one seen a more literal application of the Gospel formula which in former times was applied in the repression of heretics: Compelle intrare! – “Compel them to come in!” What power can an ideal retain when it has to be imposed by coercion?

When one sets against the “right” of the Jewish people to their own state the right of the Palestinian Arabs to remain in their ancestral land, Zionist apologetics often replies by referring to the huge amount of space at the disposal of the Arab people and, nowadays, the wealth of this space in terms of oil resources. Could not the Arabs give up a little bit of this territory to unfortunate victims? This argument has slightly more validity than the others, and some Arab leaders are themselves sensible of that fact. It is indeed possible to dream of a world in which resources, including land, would be shared out more equitably. But what happens in practice is very different, and one cannot contemplate persuading a people to make such a sacrifice willingly if nobody sets it an example. This is particularly so when the people of whom such a sacrifice is required have not been consulted but have had it imposed upon them by force in the recent past; when, too, those who require a fresh sacrifice to be made by the same people present their demand in a most coercive way, allying themselves with that people’s enemies and trying to profit from the strength of the latter; and especially when those demanding the sacrifice seem to the people concerned to be enjoying, if not at the outset a state of their own, at least advantages (increased by propaganda and imagination) which appear enviable, namely, participation in the freedom and prosperity of the industrial capitalist world.

Golda Meir and many others used to claim, when one wished to speak more particularly of the rights of the Palestinian people to Palestine, that no such people existed. Nobody had spoken of them when, as a young Zionist militant, she landed in Palestine in 1921. To be sure, few spoke of the Palestinians in her circles. To be sure, Palestine was then only a small region of Arab Asia, a southern district of Syria. Other ways of dividing up that area which had been detached from the Ottoman Empire were possible at that time, but the fact is that the way it was divided up, thanks to the action of the European powers, was the way with which we are familiar. Frontiers were established which created, in the usual manner, networks of interests and aspirations. Within these frontiers each section of the Arab people in Asia has experienced its own destiny during the last sixty years. While Palestine always had certain specific features marking it off from the rest of Syria and the Fertile Crescent (the Jews are not well placed to deny that), the Arab people of this province experienced a reinforcement of that relative specificity. They had, in fact, to confront two major problems unknown to the other Arabs of Asia – the Syrians, Lebanese and Iraqis: namely, direct British administration and Zionist immigration.

There remains an argument of greater weight. This is the authority of the United Nations Organization, which created the state of Israel by its decision of 29 November 1947. International law must be respected: a recognized nation must not be attacked. We may pass over the fact that this legalistic argument is often put forward by revolutionaries who everywhere denounce the status quo, the solutions established and consecrated by law. We may accept the argument, even while smiling, for example, at the passionate expression, used by a Zionist philosopher of strongly revolutionary outlook, for whom violation of this legality by the Arabs would signify a return to the law of the jungle, to the so-called primitive epoch described by Hobbes, wherein man was a wolf to man. Philosophers are given to making such leaps out of the realm of reason. We may consider that the Arabs were wrong to challenge the decision of the United Nations. However, to excuse them, it ought to be noted all the same, that the UNO of 1947 was a machine dominated by the great powers, and the Third World of colonies and dependent countries was hardly represented in it, so that this decision was, in practice, a Diktat by the dominant members. It should be pointed out also that Israel has been no less contemptuous of the UNO’s recommendations. In 1948 it went beyond the limits laid down in the partition plan propounded by the international Areopagus, and in 1967, as we have seen, it went still further beyond them. It has treated with the greatest contempt the UNO’s decisions on Jerusalem, which, under that same plan, was to constitute a separate entity. Israel even displays great indignation because foreign countries are reluctant to establish their legations in Jerusalem rather than in Tel Aviv, so as not to seem to endorse this violation of UNO decisions. How dare these countries flout the will of the Israeli people on account of some miserable decisions taken by an assembly of foreigners? It must be admitted that such reactions can discourage some people from supporting Israel when it invokes international law, but, at bottom, this alters nothing. Either one accepts the validity of the decision of November 1947, and then Israel should withdraw to the lines laid down by that decision, when most states will support it in defending its existence within those new, reduced limits (perhaps subject to modification by mutual consent); or one does not accept that decision, in which case there is no rule to which reference can be made, and there is no reason to be excessively indignant about the Arabs’ reactions.



Confronting the Zionist-Israeli apologetics we have, of course, the Arab apologetics. The Arabs have less need than the Zionists to resort to secondary explanations, dubious rationalizations and apologetical developments. Generally recognized international morality accepts (on the plane of principle, at any rate) a people’s right to keep its territory and defend it against invaders. It should therefore be sufficient for the Arabs to bring forward precise historical facts in order to justify their attitudes, at least as regards principles, if not as regards all the initiatives, strategies, tactics and programmes that these attitudes have inspired. But every political movement always tends to develop an apologia for all its actions and all the ideas it has expressed. Its ideologists (who have an interest in the matter) also tend to add arguments one to another, beyond what is necessary, to extrapolate and to exaggerate their side’s merits and the misdeeds of the adversary, provoking a scepticism which may extend to the sound points in their arguments.

The Arabs have not proved an exception to these general laws of ideological struggle. Moreover, a starting point was ready to hand in the previous ideology of Arab nationalism. Like every other nationalism (and Jewish nationalism in particular), one of its favourite tendencies is to indulge in an “auto-apologia” of the people concerned, overflowing with narcissism. The Arabs of the past, the present and the future are decked out with all the virtues and all the qualities. They have never wanted to do anything but good, are disinterested, have produced the most admirable ideas, the finest culture, and so on. All their misfortunes and all their apparent defects result from external influences. On the, other hand, the enemy who attacks such a people cannot but be hateful in the extreme and characterized by the vilest faults. Its role in history can only be negative.

This manichean description of oneself and of one’s opponent is to be found among all peoples, especially in phases of nascent nationalism and fierce struggle. As regards the conflict with which we are concerned, it will be enough to mention that the Arabs often endow it, in their propaganda, with an almost cosmic dimension. The vestiges of old religious antagonisms can help them here, and likewise the new theories about imperialism. The Zionist scheme is no longer seen as something that can be criticized, a mistake, an unjustified act of aggression. It is an unimaginable monstrosity, an unprecedented atrocity, the suffering of the Palestinian people is without parallel in the world, and so forth. The details of military operations and Israeli actions are said to reveal unheard-of atrocities. All the faults, defects, inadequacies, contradictions and misfortunes of the Arab countries are often attributed to the Zionist encroachment, so that getting rid of that has become problem number one – which provides a facile and precious excuse. Extrapolations of this sort are, of course, exaggerated. There can be no doubt that, if Israel were to disappear, the tensions and contradictions between Arab countries, their internal social and political difficulties, and those concerned with relations with other countries would still remain. Every war and every occupation are, always and everywhere, accompanied by more or less atrocious acts. The Zionist scheme has as its principal fault that it has ignored the rights of the Arabs to Palestine. Ignoring or despising other people’s rights and exaggerating one’s own are, unfortunately, very frequent phenomena. The Arabs, too, have behaved in that way, and some of them can be reproached, even today, with actions of the same sort – towards the Kurds, for instance. No people is everywhere and always innocent. Having taken some trouble (and suffered many attacks in consequence) to express publicly the view that the Jews are not to be considered a sacred people, I find it all the easier to dissociate myself from equally excessive apologetics on behalf of the Arabs. They do not constitute, any more than the Jews, a quasi-divine group miraculously free from the vices, individual and collective, of our common humanity.

However, while all this Arab apologetics may arouse scepticism and annoyance, even irritation and disgust, especially when it emanates from ideologist intellectuals who expound it in order to derive personal profit and prestige therefrom, we must not forget that the initial reaction against the Zionist encroachment was due to perfectly legitimate motives, which it is for the most sober analysis to bring out.




2*. Lenin, The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up, Collected Works (4th ed.), vol.22, London, 1964, p.353.

3*. M. Rodinson, op. cit., pp.17-88.

4*. The orange groves of Jaffa go back to the beginning of the eighteenth century – see S. Tolkowsky, The Gateway of Palestine: A History of Jaffa, London, 1924, pp. 140ff., 178-81 and 184-5 – or perhaps even to the seventeenth century – see S. Tolkowsky, Hesperides: A History of the Culture and Use of Citrus Fruits, London, 1938, p.236 and Elisée Reclus, Nouvelle Géographie Universelle, vol.IX, L’Asie antérieure, Paris, 1884, p.817 (The Earth and Its Inhabitants: The Universal Geography, vol.IX, South-West Asia, London, n.d., p.425). There were no Jews in Jaffa – an ancient anathema kept them from there – before the 1830s, and a Jewish community did not develop there until the 1880s (see Tolkowsky, 1924, op. cit., 159ff., 163 and 174).

5*. Karl Kautsky, Are the Jews a Race?, London, 1926, p.211ff. This passage appears in the additions and changes made by Kautsky to his 1914 article, Rasse und Judentum, Ergänzungshefte zur Neuen Zeit, no.20, pp.1-94, one of the most remarkable restatements of this question.

6*. Le Monde, 4 April 1980, p.3.



Last updated on 4.8.2001