Geoffrey Wheatcroft vs. Carol Gould: Was Israel Born of Terrorism?

Roundup: Talking About History

Editor: This week Geoffrey Wheatcroft penned an essay in the Guardian which claimed that Israel embraced from its origins the kind of terrorist tactics it now condemns. His article was subsequently answered in by Carol Gould. Excerpts from both articles follow.

[Geoffrey Wheatcroft is the author of The Controversy of Zion.]

... There have indeed been outrageous and indefensible killings of Israeli civilians, but even that raises more questions than it answers. It is a platitude to say that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. Palestinians will point out that Israeli state violence has always more than matched that of its opponents - notably in the numbers of civilians killed - and they could point out also that this dates from before the creation of the state of Israel.

An anniversary in July was a reminder of that, though it passed unnoticed here. And it has also been barely remarked that Israel has today the purest Revisionist government in its history. Ehud Olmert, the prime minister, has been described as "one of Likud's princes from a prominent Revisionist family", which makes Tzipi Livni, his photogenic foreign minister, a princess.

In an interview with the Spiegel, the German magazine, she said that as a girl "All I ever heard about was that we Jews have the right to a state on both sides of the Jordan". Her father's grave bears the old map of that Greater Israel of Revisionist dreams, and she is one of the few prominent Israelis who can still quote the works of Vladimir Jabotinsky, the brilliant and charismatic man who founded the political tradition from which the groups called Betar, Irgun Zvei Leumi, Herut, Likud and now Kadima descend: a tradition to which she and Olmert belong by birth.

After the 1917 Balfour declaration had promised a Jewish homeland ("it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine"), the British became rulers of Palestine under the somewhat dubious guise of a League of Nations mandate, and violence between Jews and Arabs erupted at once.

In the 1920s Jabotinsky created the Revisionist Zionist movement, defiantly nationalistic and militaristic, with an aim of admirable clarity: "The revival of the Jewish state with a Jewish majority on both sides of the Jordan." For Jabotinsky, Zionism was a psychological as well as political project. In an essay entitled Against Excessive Apology, he told the Jews to stop cringing and tell the goyim "to go to hell", which Olmert may be said to have taken to heart.

Instead of pretending that Palestine was "a land without people for a people without land", or that the existing inhabitants would welcome the Zionists, Jabotinsky insisted that they would not: "The native population, civilised or uncivilised, have always stubbornly resisted the colonists." It was thus "utterly impossible to obtain the voluntary consent of the Palestine Arabs", and the Zionists must be ready to use force by building an "Iron Wall". His famous phrase has now been interpreted literally by the Israeli government.

Only elements on the far left and some radical Islamists today care to call the Israeli government fascist. And yet, just as the strongest opponents of Zionism a hundred years ago were not antisemites (some of whom rather liked the idea of shipping the Jews off to the east) but other Jews, so in the early years of Revisionism its harshest critics were not gentiles (few of whom knew much about these intestine scissions), but other Zionists. In the 30s, David Ben Gurion, the Labour leader who became Israel's first prime minister, called his antagonist "Vladimir Hitler", and the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann told the New York lawyer Morris Rothenberg that the Jewish extremists evinced "Hitlerism in its worst possible form". That was, of course, before anyone knew what horrors Hitler would inflict on the Jewish people, but the phrase was startling even then.

By the late 1930s some Revisionists had formed the Irgun, an armed militia committed to driving out the British and dealing with the Palestinian Arabs - by whatever means seemed necessary. "In blood and fire did Judea fall, In blood and fire will Judea rise again," ran one Revisionist song, and the Irgun were as good as those words.

On July 22 1946 they blew up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, which housed the British headquarters of the military command, killing 91 people, among whom 28 were British, 41 Arab and 17 Jewish. In a ceremony this July, old Irgun hands unveiled a plaque to mark the 60th anniversary. The following year, in reprisal for the execution of Zionists, the Irgun hanged two captured British sergeants, and they habitually attacked Arab civilians, culminating in the bloodshed that accompanied the birth of the state.

We are now meant to be waging a "war on terror", and "terrorist" is a curse supposed to end all argument. But those who once supported the Irgun didn't shirk that word. The playwright and Hollywood screenwriter Ben Hecht, famous in his day as the co-author of the classic newspaper black comedy The Front Page, was also an ardent Revisionist and adherent of the Irgun.

In May 1947 he published an advertisement in New York newspapers saluting the bombers of the King David: "The Jews of America are for you. You are their champions." Every time they "let go with your guns and bombs at British betrayers and invaders of your homeland, the Jews of America make a little holiday in their hearts". Still more striking was Hecht's admiring and intransigent headline above his ad: "Letter to the Terrorists of Palestine"....



[Carol Gould is a Drama and documentary producer based in London, and the author of Spitfire Girls.]

... In Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s editorial of 14 September 2006, he paints a picture of an Israel born in violence and brutality engineered by an army of ruthless killer Jews. He even brings in the Broadway playwright Ben Hecht, author of ‘The Front Page’ and uses a plea at the time of the establishment of the Jewish State to prove his point that Jews were rampant terrorists bent on overrunning the Middle East.

Well, Mr Wheatcroft: just imagine what it was like to be a Jew in 1948. When in the history of mankind had one whole civilisation nearly been obliterated by your fellow Christians? When had the surviving Jews – including Ben Hecht – been in such a collective state of shock? Do you have any idea how utterly stunned and vulnerable world Jewry felt when the news of the death camps emerged from ravaged Europe? What were you doing? My mother told me that her father, the grandfather I never met, read a letter posted to him in Philadelphia from a relative in Poland in 1936. The news of the beginnings of deportations of Jews and anti-Jew laws in Germany, and of his kin’s desperate fears was so shocking to Grandpa that he lay down and died.

That, Geoffrey Wheatcroft, is how deeply Jews felt about their destiny in those terrible, dark years. In Woody Allen’s ‘Radio Days’ the lead character is seen holding up a Blue Box to raise pennies for a Jewish national homeland in Palestine. How many Jewish children, shocked from their earliest years of comprehension of thought, held these little tin boxes with the hope of a homeland being established? Why is it that this cherished hope is such anathema to the non-Jewish British media? Yes, Israel has fought bloody wars and is no more an angel than any other nation, but what is it about Jewish aspirations that so angers British writers when there are other, infinitely more bellicose and massively larger countries in the world requiring media attention?

In the Wheatcroft article he says, ‘Israeli state violence has always more than matched that of its opponents’ and he adds that this dates from before the creation of the State of Israel. With a tiny handful of Jews in Palestine at that time, how could this be true? Yes, Israeli might and military genius have quelled the endless decades of hatred and violence from her uncharitable neighbours. Imagine if Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s Britain had not been an island and had been surrounded by violent countries perpetually bent on Britain’s destruction? How would Britain have reacted had we been attacked on Good Friday or Christmas, as Israel was on Yom Kippur in 1973?

How generous of Wheatcroft to acknowledge that Jabotinsky was 'brilliant and charismatic.' He explains the background of the Irgun, Stern, Herut, Likud and now Kadima to which Olmert and Livni attach themselves. In this context the concept of an 'iron wall' envisaged by Jabotinsky is brought into the present day. The British media are fixated on the separation or 'apartheid' wall. In the violence of rampantly anti-Semitic turn-of-the-century Europe Jews dreamed of a place where they could go out for a loaf of bread without being beaten to death. In pre-World War II Europe Jews could go nowhere and ended up in concentration camps. In the context of those times the likes of Jabotinsky and Begin had a right to imagine a world where Jews might just live in dignity and peace for a day or so. Since the wall was built the plague of suicide bombings has dropped. That, of course, has not stopped thousands of rockets from being launched into civilian Israel.

The Jews who had lived in Palestine for centuries and those who arrived from Europe to set up communal farms – some based on Soviet models – were non-violent intellectuals, artists, scientists and agricultural experts who wanted to reach out to their Arab neighbours. They were met only with hostility and violence. Imagine the awesome Greater Middle East had the Arab countries reached out with generosity and magnanimity to the European Semitic arrivals!

Wheatcroft describes with barely concealed horror a comment made by Israeli Cabinet Minister Tzipi Livni to Germany’s Der Spiegel. She says that as a youngster all she ever heard was that the Jewish people had a right to a state spanning both sides of the Jordan, and that her father’s grave bore a map of Greater Israel. He then goes on to make a snide aside about her being a ‘princess.’ We hear a lot about virulent critics of Jewish nationhood not being anti-Semites. I have great difficulty reading Wheatcroft’s article without feeling he has a deep and abiding hatred of anything Jews want to do other than bow and scrape and say ‘Yes, I’ll go to that detention camp, sir, just as you wish.’

Americans in the United Kingdom are fair game because of a widespread and often visceral anger in Britain that successive administrations have supported the Jewish State. So, whenever I have found myself at the receiving end of a shouting, red-faced attack in thirty years as an adult in Britain, I am always told about 1) the British soldiers lynched by Jewish terrorists; 2) the blowing up of the King David Hotel and 3) the Jews habitually attacking Arab civilians. Despite the founders’ fervent dream of a peaceful new life in a shared land, the birth of Israel was a bloody and tragic episode engendered by her furious Arab neighbours. The right of Jews to a small homeland in the sun was small cheese considering what Europe had done to this previously large, civilised and productive people.

What is so pernicious about Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s article is that he cherry-picks Jewish history. He finds a bizarre quote from the oft-explosive ben Gurion, who in a fit of pique referred to the Zionist Jabotinsky as ‘Vladimir Hitler.’ This Wheatcroft uses in his perverse prose as yet another example of the true vileness of the Zionist movement. He goes on to quote Chaim Weizmann, who expressed concern about the tiny band of Jewish extremists who evinced ‘Hitlerism.’

This, dear reader, is code for ‘Israel is like the Nazis.’ It implies that even Weizmann foresaw Hitlerite behaviour in Jews. This is a reprehensible twisting of a comment taken out of the context of the sweep of history.

Wheatcroft ends his piece by taking out of context the vow of ‘blood and fire’ that post- Holocaust Jews nurtured in their souls by making the unbelievable statement about the right-wing legacy of Tzipi Livni and Ehud Olmert, ‘Mightn’t that possibly give them some insight into the other ‘terrorists of Palestine’ who have been tempted by ‘blood and fire’ and who also believe they have the right to a state?’

The Guardian article is a dangerous polemic because it gives the impression that Jews were a violent, spiteful and ruthless band of terrorists who sought to wreak havoc on the otherwise peaceful Levant. There had been Arab violence for decades against the British presence. Jews trying to live in harmony – with their eminently worthy Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, Hadassah Hospital and other virtuous enterprises – were under constant attack. Wheatcroft describes a world Jewish community demanding violence to achieve its goals. Describing the uprooting of Palestinians, he makes this look lie a mass pogrom.

It needs reiterating here again that after the Holocaust many Jewish families across the globe shared a dream of a small place in the sun where they could farm, do business and raise families in harmony with their neighbours. The demonic picture of the early Zionist movement has now permeated British social discourse to such an extent that if one asks for a bottle of Kiddush wine in a shop in Maida Vale one gets a tirade from a young cashier about ‘Zionist apartheid and genocide.’ Aside from the fact that in South Africa the major warriors against apartheid were all Jews, the idea that Israel is perpetrating genocide is a vile slander.

The rewriting of Jewish history in the British media is frightening. This is a fact: no Jew would ever have had to take up arms had the surrounding communities not been hell-bent on the destruction of any remote idea of a Jewish settlement. Jews wanted to wield scythes, not swords, when they ventured away from anti-Semitic Europe to the Holy Land. Jews have lived as very possibly the most non-violent peoples of the world for two-thousand years and it is not in their nature to convene massacres and expulsions. Israel has had to be in a state of war for fifty-eight years, but this was not the aspiration of the original Zionists. This is a fact that is never told when the British media are fulminating about the Jewish State and ‘Bush’s Zionist Lobby.’

Only when I came to Britain as a very young woman did I ever hear anyone refer to Israel as a terrorist state. It is unacceptable that British people continue to use the incidents of the lynching of their two soldiers and the bombing of the King David Hotel to totally repudiate the miracle of the Jewish State. It diminishes one’s opinion of Britons that they can obsess about a tiny minority of Israeli Jews in the Stern Gang and Irgun, who were a small part of the birth of the great nation of Israel.

Had the Palestinians had larger-than-life leaders like Theodor Herzl. Chaim Weizmann, David ben-Gurion, Golda Meir or Yitzhak Rabin – or for that matter Menachim Begin who went from right-winger to peacemaker embracing the President of Egypt – they might have had a state as awesome as Israel.

It is time for Great Britain and its many media pundits to understand what Israel means to every Jew born after the Holocaust, to every Jew still alive with a Nazi tattoo on their withered arms, to every Jew across the globe who keeps in the back of their minds that another Shoah could unfold and that the Jewish State would be the only haven in the world for the remainder of world Jewry.

When commentators in Britain, including art historians and novelists, demand the ‘dismantling of Israel,’ one is bound to ask if they are not really asking for the Final Solution to be completed. When in January 2001 Faisal Bodi’s headline in the Guardian was, ‘Israel Simply Has no Right to Exist,’ was this not a distinguished British newspaper saying that six million Jews have no right to exist? If this is not anti-Semitism, what is? If a newspaper had said one of the scores of Muslim nations had no right to exist, would this not have been a blatant case of Islamophobia by a respected publication?

It is time for those who have never grown up Jewish or been repeatedly beaten up, as was the gentle young Stephen Spielberg, to stop writing and ranting on television about the dangerous ’Zionist Lobby.’

It is time for non-Jews who have never experienced the endless stories of unspeakable sadism committed against Jewish brethren that Jews listen to at family gatherings every day since 1945, to stop demonising a sovereign nation that has a right as does any other nation to defend itself against eternal attack and terror.
It is time for those who have never experienced since childhood being abused and ridiculed for adhering to one of the oldest and most civilised faiths humankind has ever generated to stop writing hurtful diatribes about ‘Jewish terrorism’ and instead pay heed to the grave dangers the world faces from the medieval, violent and turbulent regimes that degrade women, that cut off tongues and hands for minor misdemeanours and that threaten the demise of all of us.

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Jeffery Ewener - 9/29/2006

Ms. Gould's "retort" is well-described. Instead of rebutting Mr. Wheatcroft's arguments, she has resorted to a series of empty denunciations, accusations and ad hominems.

The closest she comes to constructing a real argument is her assertion that the Jews of Europe were subject to widespread, long-term and horrifying antisemitism -- which no one can deny or, as far as I know, tries to -- and that they therefore "felt deeply" about establishing a Jewish state in Palestine. It's a strange argument because it seems to be a justification for exactly the Jewish terrorism Wheatcroft describes.

It's also an argument with at least two glaring weaknesses. In the first place, it has not been Europeans, who treated the Jews so badly, who have been the objects of this justified Zionist rage. This has for the most part been reserved for the Palestinians who, despite Ms. Gould's unhistorical assertion to the contrary, in the early days of Zionist immigration, generally welcomed the new arrivals with indifference or traditional Arab hospitality -- until the newcomers started buying up properties from absentee landlords in Istanbul, and throwing tenants off the land their families had worked for generations. Muslims, Jews and, under Islamic rule, even Christians got along peacefully in the Holy Land for many centuries, until the mass immigration of the 20th century began, and the demographic battle was joined.

The second weakness of this argument is by analogy. Just because unjustified violence was done to you in the past is no excuse for committing your own unjustified violence today, especially against someone who wasn't even involved in the first round. This is the position society takes with respect to child molesters, the great majority of whom were themselves molested as children. Their tragic personal history can make us sympathize with them, but it never allows them to escape responsibility for their own actions. It is not clear why such a strong ethical position, which we naturally take in relation to, should be reversed when applied to nations and states.

Finally, the argument that the Zionist movement contained many people who were opposed to and even sickened by the terrorism of people like Begin and Shamir is a fair one, though it's not clear that Mr. Wheatcroft overlooks it.

What is certainly clear is that Israeli apologists of today do overlook this argument, when discussing the Palestinians. There the deep and sometimes even violent disagreements within the Palestinian liberation movement over the value of terrorism and the need for negotiation is ignored, as is the distinction between peaceful civil disobedience and deadly force. Hamas is labelled a "terrorist organization", therefore everyone who supports it is a terrorist. This is about as accurate as the British describing the Hagannah as a terrorist organization. The reality -- in both cases -- is much more nuanced and far less clear-cut.

What is most distressing about Ms. Gould's assault is not so much its lack of logic as its shrill, almost hysterical tone, employing terms like "dangerous polemic", :frightening", "code for 'Israel is like the Nazis'". Anyone who follows this debate must be aware that this is a tone frequently encountered among Israel's defenders in recent years. Its object seems to be not to address criticism of Israel but, as in the present case, to denounce the critics personally, to poison the debate and, if possible, to stifle it altogether.

This is a disturbing trend, if it reflects a deepening intransigence on the part of Israel's supporters, a refusal to hear the slightest or best-intentioned criticism of their position, and a willingness to countenance the most egregious violence, as in Lebanon, in its defense.

On the other hand, if it reflects a growing realization among Israel's supporters that Israeli political maximalism and militarised foreign policy is fast becoming logically insupportable and politically untenable, it may be a hopeful sign -- the true birth pangs of a new Middle East, in the words of the Secretary of State. It may indicate a coming paradigm shift in Zionism, to a more self-critical attitude, a greater willingness to reach a negotiated compromise, and a desire to finally live like a normal country, rather than an armed camp.

This is definitely not a time for those who support Israel to allow their reservations and criticisms of Israeli policy to be silenced.