Walter Laqueur: Disraelia ... A Counterfactual History, 1848-2008

Roundup: Talking About History

[Walter Laqueur has written more than twenty books, translated into as many languages. He was a co-founder and editor of the Journal of Contemporary History in London and The Washington Quarterly. ]

HNN Editor: In this lengthy piece, excerpted here, Professor Laqueur wonders what might have happened if the Jews had established a homeland in Palestine in the mid-19th century, as some suggested should occur to solve "the Jewish question": What to do with Europe's Jewish population.

... Once the state had come into being, there would be an almost unlimited number of possibilities of how it would develop; we cannot possibly know whether the Second World War would have taken place and if so what role Disraelia would have played in it. It is quite likely that a Cold War would have occurred and that it would have ended as it did. There would have been crises, domestic and external, affecting the state as has been the case with regard to all nations all over the world. There would have been setbacks; not all dreams would have ripened.

But there is much reason to believe that this state, given a high birth rate, would have some sixty million inhabitants at the beginning of the 21st century. It would have advanced industries, leading the world in fields such as nuclear and computer technologies. It would be the fifth-largest oil producer in the world, economically reasonably healthy with a growth rate of 6-8 percent, competitive with Europe, America and even Asia. It would have powerful armed forces, living in peace with its neighbors, at least to the extent that peaceful relations could be expected in this unquiet part of the world. It would not be a model state, but by the standards of time and place, considered much better that average. No one would dare to question its right to exist, and those who did would not be taken seriously.

Could such a state have come into being? Perhaps—assuming that the great anti-Semitic wave would have occurred in Europe eighty years earlier than it did, provided the Ottoman empire would have disintegrated eighty years earlier, and provided that the Jews of Europe would have read the signs of the times correctly, and under wise leadership would have followed a policy leading them to peaceful solutions.

But Hitler appeared on the scene only in the next century, and the Ottoman empire survived another eight decades. The Jews did not emigrate when it might have been possible, because there seemed no cogent reason to do so at the time. There is a world of difference between 1848 and 1948; what was possible a century earlier was no longer possible a hundred years later. Jewish assimilation was much more advanced; Arab nationalism had awakened.

One century could have been the difference between a strong and rich state, universally respected, and a small and relatively weak country, isolated, without important natural resources. There is a vast difference between a state of six million inhabitants and one with sixty, fortified by considerable oil fields and reserves. In terms of Realpolitik as well as moral legitimacy, six million are bad, an invitation to all kind of calamities; sixty million are beyond good and evil, other categories apply. To quote Animal Farm, four legs good, two legs bad. Or as Marx would have put it in a letter to Moses Hess (who never finished studying his Hegel): quantity is becoming a new quality. What is considered normal behavior in the case of a state counting sixty million is a moral outrage when done by a small country. In the circumstances, a small state was bound to be considered an intruder and an enemy. A bigger and stronger state might have been accepted.

These basic insights of political science and moral philosophy have unfortunately not yet been fully digested by many in Israel and outside it.

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