Celebrate Israel Legitimacy Month

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 10-23-12

In our base ten culture, which gives mystical power to anniversary milestones ending in five or zero, this November—in addition to being Native American Heritage Month, National Homeless Youth Awareness Month, National Novel Writing Month, and Lung Cancer Awareness Month—should become “Israel Legitimacy Month,” using two anniversaries to celebrate the legitimacy of the Zionist project. November 2 will mark the 95th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, official British acknowledgement of the need for a Jewish homeland that culminated thirty years later—sixty-five years ago—on November 29, 1947, when the United Nations officially endorsed a Jewish state—and an Arab entity—in partitioning the land of Palestine.

Jubilant residents celebrate with what would become the Israeli flag after the United Nations decision to approve the partition of Palestine November 29, 1947 in Tel Aviv in the British Mandate for Palestine. (Hans Pins / GPO via Getty Images)
Jubilant residents celebrate with what would become the Israeli flag after the United Nations decision to approve the partition of Palestine November 29, 1947 in Tel Aviv in the British Mandate for Palestine. (Hans Pins / GPO via Getty Images)

In celebrating, it is important to note how unjust it is that we have to turn what should be simple celebrations into complex justifications. Israel should not have to defend its legitimacy. In a world wherein nationalism remains the central constitutive political force, most nations can enjoy the luxury of having their national rights respected, even taken for granted. But Israel and Zionism have been subjected to a systematic campaign of delegitimization targeting Jewish nationalism and Jews’ ties to their historic homeland, while questioning the validity and viability of Israel itself. We have to risk appearing defensive—even while acknowledging the disproportionate singling out—so as not to be unduly naïve, undereducated, and unprepared.

Moreover, in asserting Jewish national claims and Israel’s legitimacy we need not fall into the mutually exclusive trap and negate Palestinian claims. In a world that tends to give claims of national rights of self-determination the benefit of the doubt, both Jewish claims and Palestinian claims have their own legitimacy and historical pedigree.

The great significance of the Balfour Declaration, issued as a letter by the British Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur James Balfour on November 2, 1917, stems essentially from the power at the time of Great Britain in drawing most of the map of today’s Middle East.   When “His Majesty’s government,” in all its imperial grandeur, looked with favor on “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” the movement that Theodor Herzl had started twenty years earlier to articulate a nearly two-thousand-year-old dream of redemption received international legitimacy. When the British General Edmund Allenby captured Jerusalem five weeks later on December 9, 1917, military might reinforced the diplomatic vision. These moves led to the British mandate over Palestine, a period of stability, prosperity, and population growth for both the Jewish Palestinians and the Arab Palestinians, as they were called at the time. The fact that Jews from Europe and Arabs from the Middle East flowed into the newly flourishing Jerusalem and environs at the time should remind us that borders shifted and people moved—two essential historical insights that shape my openness to compromise on boundaries today.

Alas, during the British mandate, enmity between the two groups built up, along with the two populations and the infrastructure of a Jewish state. Nevertheless, as the historian Efraim Karsh shows in his important book “Palestine Betrayed,” there were also strong, healthy, grassroots relations among many Jews and Arabs.

Karsh’s title reflects his indictment of the Palestinian Arab leadership. The Hitlerite demagogue Haj Amin al-Husseini, and other extremist Arab leaders betrayed their people—and the vision of two peoples living side by side—by fomenting violence and, when offered a partition compromise by the United Nations in 1947, rejecting it outright and calling for Holy War instead.

Yes. I can respect Palestinian claims even while criticizing their leadership for rejecting that compromise—and others. And yes, we should return to the joy of November 29, 1947, when dancing broke out spontaneously throughout the Jewish world to celebrate the new world body’s validation of a Jewish state—even though Jews were also compromising, including accepting the internationalization of Jerusalem, their precious national capital.

Unfortunately, today, 95 years after the Balfour Declaration, and 65 years after the UN Partition plan, too many are ignorant of the history—and too many others purposely distort what happened. History should not offer handcuffs, shackling us to past realities that prevent compromise in the present. But history can teach us that, despite many attempts today to delegitimize Israel, Zionism, and the very notion of Jewish peoplehood, Jewish rights are historically valid, legally legitimate and cause for celebration.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Institute Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism,” will be published by Oxford University Press this fall.

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Jogging Memories of 1947 and 1967 on Jerusalem Day

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 5-31-11

I hate disappointing the worrywarts, but today, Jerusalem Day, 2011, 44-years after its reunification, Jerusalem is a remarkably functional city, a surprisingly peaceful city, a delightfully magical city. The city I experience daily is not the city described in the headlines. It does not feel like it is in eclipse, nor does it feel like a powder keg. I absorbed New York’s fear of crime in the 1970s, Boston’s racial tension in the 1980s, and Montreal’s linguistic complexity in the 1990s much more intensely. While jogging through the Old City daily, I feel lucky to live in such a livable city.

Jerusalem invites time-traveling in profound ways while doing mundane tasks. Every day, crossing the footbridge over the Cinemateque looking toward Mount Zion, I observe a panorama of peace reinforced by a symphony of silence, with the Tower of David crowned by its Israeli flag and Muslim crescent, church spires and minarets, the new city’s modern construction to my left and the older houses abutting the Old City to my right. The sweeping Old City walls dominate front and center.

These days, I confess, I think more about recent history than the walls’ ancient history, built by Suleiman the Magnificent 500 years ago but evoking Abraham binding Isaac, King David designating King Solomon, thousands of years earlier. Mahmoud Abbas’s rewriting of the history of 1947, which passed the New York Times’ editorial muster, Barack Obama’s obsession with the 1967 lines, have me wishing Jerusalem’s stones could talk, confirming what really happened when Zionists founded Israel in 1947-1948, when Israelis liberated Jerusalem in 1967, and during the difficult intervening years.

My daily plunge into this past begins with Jerusalem’s 19 years of rupture, as I traverse what was the barbed-wire-and-mine-strewn No-Man’s Land. To my right, the Cinemateque looms, a center of Israel’s edgy, often critical, vibrant democratic culture, contradicting false cries of McCarthyism. To my left, the red-roofed houses of Yemin Moshe unfold, beside Moses Montefiore’s 1857 windmill. I think about the poor people who lived in this, the first neighborhood outside Jerusalem’s walls, during the State’s first years. And I wince imagining their terror when, periodically, Jordanian snipers would shoot. The Jordanian army always reassured the UN that a soldier had gone crazy – again and again.

Scampering up Mount Zion, holy to us and our Christian brethren, I wonder what the fifty soldiers following Captain Eli Kedar thought while hustling along this alley on June 7, 1967. Did they remember the failure to free the besieged Jewish Quarter from this alley in 1948? Did they know the last Jew to leave the Jewish Quarter, headed to Jordanian prison for nine months, was a 15-year-old, Eli Kedar? Did they appreciate their commanders’ genius in mostly attacking from behind, via Lions Gate? Did they know Israel began the war two days earlier with only 71 troops in Jerusalem? Were they aware that, even while the Jordanians shelled Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minster Levi Eshkol offered peace to Jordan’s King Hussein, making the war one of self-defense and any resulting territorial gains not an illegal occupation? Did they sense they were about to correct the historic mistake of the city’s division, returning the Holy Temple’s remnants to Jewish sovereignty after 2000 years? Did they appreciate their army’s sensitivity in deploying archaeologists to try preserving holy sites? Probably, most simply thought about going home – which 759 Israelis after six days never did.

Entering the Jewish quarter I again ponder the nineteen years preceding the Six Day War when Israel – living under Barack Obama’s 1967 borders – were banned from the Old City, although the UN never validated Jordanian control. Those, ahem, illegal occupiers trashed Jerusalem’s synagogues. Contrast that bitter past to the redemptive sights and sounds of kids playing and praying, the burger bars adjoining archaeological museums, the glorious dome of the Hurva synagogue, which means ruins: bombarded by Jordan in 1948; rebuilt and rededicated last year.

Crossing the Jewish Quarter, then the Arab market, seamlessly, safely, I exit through Jaffa Gate. Sixty-four years ago, on December 2, 1947, just days after the UN proposed partitioning Palestine on November 29, Arabs shouting “Death to the Jews!” looted the Jewish commercial center across the way, at the entrance to today’s David Village. This was the Palestinian response to the compromise the Jews accepted. Mahmoud Abbas’s recent New York Times column lied, claiming the Zionists rejected compromise, then “expelled Palestinian Arabs to ensure a decisive Jewish majority in the future state,” when the Arab rejectionists chose violence – and continue to reject a Jewish state.
I also recall the first British census of Jerusalem in 1931, which noted population growth since 1922 by 20,107 Jews and 21,282 Arabs. If only both sides acknowledged that history flows, populations move, borders shift, we could compromise.

As I finish by sprinting along the newly-restored century-old train tracks, I toast the city’s dynamism. The 800,000 residents now include 268,000 Arabs. During these 44 years, as their population has grown by 200,000, many Arabs have appreciated Israeli rights and services. The number of Arab Jerusalemites granted Israeli citizenship quadrupled from 2006 to 2010.

In Six Days of War, Michael Oren quotes Arik Akhmon one of the first Israelis in 1967 to enter the Western Wall plaza, as bullets whizzed by. Although not religious, Akhmon recalled, “I don’t think there was a man who wasn’t overwhelmed with emotion. Something special had happened.”

Jerusalem is a real city which cannot “overwhelm” residents daily – life intrudes. But every day I note something “special” about the place, its history or mystery, its sights or smells, its old memories or new achievements. Today, Yom Yerushalayim, let’s honor its secret ingredient, the people it attracts, connected to Jerusalem’s lush past, enlivening the city during its complex yet compelling present, and shaping a safe, spiritually-rich, yet charmingly commonplace future keeping the city magical and livable.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his latest book is “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.” giltroy@gmail.com