When we discuss the Holocaust and Hitler’s slaughter of six million European Jews, we often forget the fact that the Holocaust had other victims as well, namely the Palestinians, whose country was taken from them. They were innocent victims as the world sought to make a place for Jews who had been displaced by the Nazi tyranny, and wished to do so in a way that did not involve inviting Jewish refugees into their own countries.
Zionism was from the beginning a minority movement among Jews. It was created, notes Jeff Halper, in his important new book Decolonizing Israel, Liberating Palestine, by “…Jews with little knowledge of Palestine and its peoples, who launched a movement of Jewish return to its ancestral homeland…after a national absence of 2,000 years….In their eyes, the Arabs of Palestine were mere background.…Palestine was, as the famous Zionist phrase put it, ‘a land without a people.’ The European Zionists knew the land was peopled, of course, but to them the Arabs did not amount to ‘a people.’”
Halper, an anthropologist, is a Jewish American who emigrated to Israel and heads the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. From the very beginning, he points out, “Zionism…attracted but a tiny fraction of the world’s Jews in its formative years. Only 3 percent of the 2 million Jews who left Eastern Europe between 1882 and 1914 went to Palestine, and many of those subsequently emigrated to other countries.”
Ironically, the leading Jewish voices in the late 19th and early 20th century rejected Zionism, while it was embraced by anti-Semites as a way to remove unwanted Jews from their own countries. For Reform Jews, the idea of Zionism contradicted almost completely their belief in a universal, prophetic Judaism. The first Reform prayerbook eliminated references to Jews being in exile and to a Messiah who would miraculously restore Jews throughout the world to the historic land of Israel. The prayerbook eliminated all prayers for a return to Zion. The respected rabbi Abraham Geiger argued that Judaism developed through an evolutionary process, which began with God’s revelation to the Hebrew prophets. That revelation was progressive; new truth became available to every generation. The essence of Judaism was ethical monotheism.
In 1897, the Central Conference of American Rabbis adopted a resolution disapproving of any attempt to establish a Jewish state. The resolution declared, “Zion was a precious possession of the past…as such it is a holy memory, but it is not our hope of the future. America is our Zion.”
While most Jews opposed Zionism, many anti-Semites embraced it. Peter Beinart, an editor for Jewish Currents, writes in The Guardian: “Some of the world leaders who most ardently promoted Jewish statehood did so because they did not want Jews in their countries. Before declaring, as foreign secretary in 1917, that Britain ‘views with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,’ Arthur Balfour supported the 1905 Aliens Act, which restricted Jewish immigration to the United Kingdom…Two years after his famous declaration, Balfour said Zionism would mitigate the age-long miseries created for Western civilization by the presence in its midst of a Body (the Jews) which it too long regarded as alien and even hostile, but was equally unable to expel or absorb.”
In England, most Jewish leaders opposed the Balfour Declaration. A Jewish member of Lloyd George’s cabinet, Secretary of State for India Edwin Montagu, insisted that Jews be regarded as a religious community. He used the term “anti-Semitism” to characterize the sponsors of the Balfour Declaration. A document he issued on August 23, 1917 was titled, “The Anti-Semitism of the Present Government.”
From the very start of Jewish settlement in Palestine, Zionist leaders were quite open in making it clear that they wanted to remove the country’s indigenous population. As far back as 1914, Moshe Sharett, a future Israeli prime minister, declared, “We have forgotten that we have not come to an empty land to inherit it, but we have come to conquer a country from a people inhabiting it, that governs it by virtue of its language and savage culture…. If we seek to look upon our land, the Land of Israel, as ours alone and we allow a partner into our estate—all content and meaning will be lost to our enterprise.”
David Ben-Gurion advocated for “compulsory transfer” of Palestinians. In 1937, he established a Committee for Population Transfer within the Jewish Agency. “Transfer,” of course, is a euphemism for ethnic cleansing, and was carried out at a mass level in 1948 and again in 1967. One of its perpetrators, Yosef Weitz, director of the Jewish National Fund’s Land Settlement Department, wrote, “It must be clear that there is no room in the country for both peoples…The only solution is a Land of Israel without Arabs…There is no way but to transfer the Arabs from here….”
Israeli historian Tom Segev notes that, “Disappearing the Arabs lay at the heart of the Zionist dream, and was also a necessary condition of its realization…With few exceptions, none of the Zionists disputed the desirability of forced transfer—or its morality.”
Another Israeli historian, Ilan Pappé, writes: “By 1945, Zionism had attracted more than half a million settlers to a country whose population was almost two million… The local native population was not consulted…nor was its objection to the project of turning Palestine into a Jewish state taken into account…. As with all earlier settler colonial movements, the answer to these problems was the twin logic of annihilation and dehumanization. The settlers’ only way of expanding their hold on the land beyond the 7 percent, and ensuring an exclusive demographic majority, was to remove the natives from their homeland. Zionism is thus a settler colonial project and one that has not yet been completed…Israel is still colonizing…dispossessing Palestinians, and denying the rights of the natives to their homeland…the crime committed by the leadership of the Zionist movement, which became the government of Israel, was that of ethnic cleansing.”
The reason that the Palestinians may properly be seen as the final victims of the Holocaust is that growing anti-Semitism in Europe caused many Jews, who had previously opposed Zionism to begin to look positively upon the idea of creating a Jewish state in Palestine as a refuge for those being persecuted. Jewish organizations in the U.S. that had always opposed Zionism, slowly began to view it more favorably. Without Hitler, there would have been little support from Jews in the U.S. or Western Europe for the creation of a Jewish state. Without the Holocaust, the United Nations would have had little reason to establish the State of Israel.
Now, the victimization of the Palestinians is becoming more widely understood. Both the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch have characterized Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as “apartheid.”
The groundswell of international opposition to Israel’s occupation and mistreatment of Palestinians is being widely compared to the movement which grew in opposition to apartheid in South Africa. Jeff Halper points out that, “The Palestinian cause has attained a global prominence equal to that of the anti-apartheid movement. Palestinians have become emblematic of oppressed peoples everywhere. Israel is an established and strong settler state just as South Africa was, yet neither was able to defeat or marginalize an indigenous population with state-national aspirations.” Now, the Palestinian struggle has achieved the level of significance of the anti-apartheid struggle in the world.
More and more Israelis, concerned about their country’s treatment of Palestinians, lament its departure from Jewish values. Professor David Shulman of Hebrew University writes, “We are, so we claim, the children of the prophets. Once, they say, we were slaves in Egypt. We know all that can be known about slavery, suffering, prejudice, ghettos, hate, expulsion, exile. I find it astonishing that we of all peoples have reinvented apartheid in the West Bank.”
Making a direct connection between the Holocaust and the suffering of Palestinians, Jane Hirschmann, whose family fled Germany at the time of the Holocaust, writes the following in a June 14 post in Truthout: “I am a first generation American. My Jewish parents fled Germany as the horrors of the Holocaust were unfolding. They left behind family who perished in the camps…Once the war was over, Germany gave my father reparations for the loss of his business as well as for the crime of persecution. Both of my parents were welcomed back by the German government and told they could get their passports and citizenship returned…I wonder why the 750,000 Palestinians forced from their homes and land in 1948 when Israel was founded are not entitled to the same treatment my family received after World War II ended.”
Hirschmann concludes: “But the war against the Palestinians was never over. Instead, Israel continues to this day its policy of ethnic cleansing…I ask myself how is it possible that the victims of the Holocaust and their progeny can so brutally victimize another people on racial grounds? I ask myself why the Palestinians don’t have the same rights to reparations and return afforded to my family after Germany accepted responsibility for their crimes. Shouldn’t Palestinians be entitled to reparations and the right of return? Shouldn’t they have the same right to self-determination that Israel itself claims? I am deeply ashamed and angry that these acts are committed in the name of the Jewish people and that my government provides the money and arms to support these Israeli crimes.”
The Holocaust casts a long shadow. The declaration “Never Again” is one all of us should take to heart. But it should apply not only to the attacks on Jews but any religious, racial or ethnic group. Today, it is the Palestinians who are being threatened with continued ethnic cleansing, ironically, as a result of the Holocaust itself. They are, sadly, it’s last victims.
Allan C. Brownfeld is a syndicated columnist and associate editor of the Lincoln Review, a journal published by the Lincoln Institute for Research and Education, and editor of Issues, the quarterly journal of the American Council for Judaism.