Millions of people in this country have been following the dramatic events in Israel and Palestine over the past week. Since we don’t live in that part of the world, and only a few of us have ever traveled there or have friends or relatives who live there, we are forced to rely on mass media and the internet to try to develop an understanding of what is happening and why.
Our mass media are good at presenting vivid images, but not very good at providing an accurate historical context. And without that context, you cannot understand HOW and WHY these things happen. You can’t understand their development over time in other words. The impression may be left that this is just bad human nature, that people in the Middle East are just fanatical, bigoted, violent or even crazy. Not normal and reasonable like us, in other words.
So an understanding of how things got this way in what is now Israel and Palestine is essential for the formation of mature understanding of the issues in contention. And one cannot understand how to respond politically unless one has that understanding. Marxism works to analyze the development of historical phenomena—that is why it is called “historical materialism”.
Many entire books have been written about the developments that led to the current bloody impasse in the region, and I can’t even begin to summarize the whole history here. But I would like at least to draw your attention to the role of imperialism, British and French at first, at the root of the thing, beginning in the 19th Century.
In the 19th century Zionism, the idea of creating a political entity or state for Jewish people in the lands that are now Israel and Palestine, was a small scale thing but had the support of some powerful “Christian Zionists” such as the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley-Cooper.
This came out of earlier tendencies in British Protestant Christianity which promoted the idea that the “End Times”—the time when the world was going to end and Christ would return to “judge the quick and the dead”, would include the return of the Jews to the Holy Land. But by Shaftsbury’s time, the theology had become intermingled with British commercial and imperial interests. The idea of creating a British allied Jewish entity in Palestine appealed to many influential people in Britain, including the arch imperialist foreign minister and later prime minister, Lord Palmerston, who was related to Shaftesbury by marriage. Thus began a strong trend of newer “Christian Zionism” in British ruling class and political circles.
At that time, the Zionist idea of creating a new Jewish homeland in Palestine was not a demand associated with more than a small minority of European and American Jews. Of much greater concern was the struggle for justice within the countries where Jews had settled over the centuries. As the 19th Century wore on, there was a new rise of anti-Semitism, no longer so much theological as pseudo-scientific, in countries such as France, Russia and Austria: In France with the “Dreyfus affair”, in Russia with the “pogroms” carried out by right wing obscurantist mobs, and in Austria by demagogic politicians such as Vienna Mayor Karl Lueger, who stoked anti-Semitic feelings for their own political and career purposes.
The Jews of Europe were defended strongly by the left, including the left wing social democratic tendencies that later gave rise to the communist parties. Many left-socialists of Jewish descent played a major role in the labor and socialist movements of the beginning of the 20th century, promoting programs that included the suppression of anti-Semitism and equality for the Jews.
When the First World War began, Tsarist Russian troops were initially able to march into the eastern part of Kaiser Wilhelm’s German Empire. They engaged in antisemitic rampages against the Jews in the villages and towns they occupied, and their officers did nothing to stop the looting, rapes and murders. Yet British and French imperialism was complicit in this: The Tsar and his gangsters were, after all, partners in the Triple Entente (later Joined by the United States). The left wing of the international socialist movement, led by people like Lenin in Russia and Rosa Luxemburg in Germany, had insisted that war be averted at the outset by united, militant action of the working class in all the countries involved, but they did not prevail. The fact that the Tsarist regime was reactionary, cruel and deeply anti-Semitic did not prevent “democratic” French and later British imperialist politicians from making a devil’s bargain with the Tsar and his ministers and generals.
The Ottoman Empire entered the war on the German-Austrian side after Britain seized two modern battleships that were being built in British shipyards for the Sultan’s navy, and Germany quickly stepped in to give the Turks two warships from its own navy. Britain was already very involved in Middle Eastern affairs and maintained Egypt as a puppet state at the time. The initial British interest was based on a desire to preserve the sea routes to their richest colony, India, but at the same time discoveries of oil in the region gave the British an additional, very strong, reason to move to replace Ottoman power in Arabia. But in typical bumbling British Imperial fashion, they botched the job.
On the one hand, in an exchange of letters in 1915 and 1916, a British colonial diplomat in Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, began a clandestine correspondence with the King of Mecca, the elderly Sharif Hussein bin Ali, in which the latter was urged to organize an Arab military revolt against Ottoman rule. The British offered Hussein, who ruled under Ottoman suzerainty, money, military aid, the promise of a national Arab state (borders to be clarified later), and perhaps even the chance to replace the Ottoman Sultan in the position of Caliph of Islam. As a “Sharif”, Hussein was direct descendent of the Prophet of Islam, so the British thought this might counter Central Powers’ efforts to stir up a jihad against the British in India and elsewhere. To accede to McMahon’s request was physically risky for Hussein, because the people in power in Istanbul were perfectly capable of having him killed as a traitor should the information have leaked out. But eventually an agreement was reached, and the Arab revolt began.
But at about the same time (also in 1915 and 1916), a relatively Junior British government representative, Sir Mark Sykes, was negotiating a different deal on the eventual fate of the Arab areas of the Ottoman Empire with a French official, Francois Georges-Picot. Once finalized and approved by the British and French governments, the “Sykes-Picot agreement” directly contradicted the commitments made to Sharif Hussein, in that it divvied up much of the Arabian part of the Ottoman Empire between the British and French, rather than allowing their incorporation in a greater Arab state.
As if that were not enough, in November 1917 British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour issued the famous “Balfour Declaration”, in which he promised British support for the establishment of a “national home” for the Jewish people in Palestine. The thought behind this declaration was to encourage worldwide Jewish support for the Entente powers against the Central Powers. This greatly encouraged the Zionist movement everywhere.
So British imperialism had made contradictory promises all over the place, setting the stage for immense future conflict and grief. But that wasn’t the end of it.
At the end of the war, when the Austro-Hungarian, Russian and German empires had collapsed, there were militant left wing “Bolshevik” movements not only in Russia but also in Hungary, in the former kingdom of Bavaria and other places. In each case, the left wing forced called for equality for the Jews and the suppression of antisemitism. In each case also, right wing reaction targeted the Jews and the Bolsheviks as one and the same entity, and launched bloody white terror against both. In Russia, the White Guards in the Civil War were ruthless in robbing and murdering the Jews who fell into their hands. In Hungary, the right wing clique which met in Szeged in the South of the country developed similar ideas and approaches; their chosen military leader, Admiral Miklos Horthy, also unleashed bloody anti Jewish campaigns in which many were murdered. Similar things happened in Ukraine, Poland and elsewhere. In fact, the role of the Russian White Guard movement and the Hungarian “Szeged Idea” are seen by many historians as part of the root of 20th century antisemitism that eventually led to the Holocaust.
And what did the supposedly “philo –semitic” leaders of the “Western democracies” do? They, including leading “Christian Zionists” like Winston Churchill, gave fulsome verbal and material support to the proto-fascist anti-Semites because after all, they were fighting against what Churchill called “the foul baboonery of Bolshevism”. This strengthened the march toward fascism in Europe, and set the stage for more violent persecutions of the Jews.
There followed the European Holocaust with the slaughter of six million Jewish men, women and children by Hitler and his allies. This led in turn to more massive Jewish emigration to Palestine, the declaration of the state of Israel in 1948, and all that has followed therefrom.
This account barely scratches the surface of the story of imperialism’s contribution to the present crisis between the Palestinian people and the right wing Zionist leaders of Israel. Much more needs to be looked at, including the U.S. role, e.g. in blocking Jewish refugees from Nazism and fascism from finding refuge in the United States after Hitler rose to power. But my purpose in covering this earlier history has been to point out to the reader the necessity of understanding the earlier history of these crisis to get a full comprehension of their causes.
And do the corporate controlled media give you this historical depth?