A Letter to Jon Voight about Gaza and the History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Editor’s Note: While there are elements of the argument presented below that differ from that presented in Embracing Israel/Palestine which you can order from www.tikkun.org/eip (e.g. my claim that it was illegitimate for Palestinians to resist immigration of Jews to Palestine, consistent with my view that no group should be excluded from being allowed to come to any country while other groups are being allowed to come—except on the basis of demonstrable lack of land or economic impossibility of that country absorbing the potential immigrants—and my claim that the Palestinians’ refusal to allow Jews living in displaced persons’ camps after the Holocaust generated fury at Palestinians that was not there among the Jewish yishuv/settlement in the years 1945-48 and led to some horrendous treatment of Palestinians thereafter), there is much that is important to absorb in the account presented by Tikkun Contributing editor Mark Levine and his colleague Gil Hochberg which, if really understood by Americans, Israelis, and Jews around the world, could open their hearts to a more generous and compassionate approach to the fate of the Palestinian people today, a compassion which needs to be accompanied by a great deal of compassion for the Jewish people and the traumas that we too carry in our unconscious and shapes how we understand the present realities in ways that keep us from being able to fully understand what needs to be done to make a lasting peace that would work for both sides of this struggle. So please read this note to Jon Voight.
–Rabbi Michael Lerner
Dear Jon Voight,
We write to you as admirers of your work for many years. We are also professors of modern Middle Eastern studies, specializing in the history and contemporary realities of Israel, Zionism and Palestine, and between the two of us have written and edited over half a dozen books on the country and the two peoples who are destined—or doomed, depending on your point of view—to share it.
We have read your open letter to Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, and other critics of the latest Israeli bombing and invasion of Gaza, in response to their own open letter condemning Israeli actions during the war. Your passion for defending Israel is clearly as great as your passion for acting. However, behind your passion is a view of Israel’s history and current actions that is utterly at odds with the actual history and present-day realities in the country. They are simply dead wrong, and your belief in them has led you to adopt views that will ultimately—and at this rate, sooner rather than later—doom, not defend Israel. Moreover, while you have laudably said that they or other actors should not face industry sanctions for standing up to Israel, we believe that intensity of your criticism, coupled with the inaccuracy the arguments, not only exacerbates the rewriting of the conflict’s history in the mainstream media; it in fact contributes both to a toxic atmosphere of hatred against Palestinians, and to a purported blacklist against them.
Let us begin with your opening argument:
“They are obviously ignorant of the whole story of Israel’s birth, when in 1948 the Jewish people were offered by the UN a portion of the land originally set aside for them in 1921, and the Arab Palestinians were offered the other half. The Arabs rejected the offer, and the Jews accepted, only to be attacked by five surrounding Arab countries committed to driving them into the sea. But the Israelis won. The Arabs tried it again in 1967, and again in 1973, launching a sneak attack on the holiest Jewish holiday. Each time the Jews prevailed but not without great loss of life. And when Israel was not fighting a major war, it was defending itself against terrorist campaigns.”
This is the traditional narrative of Israel’s birth, part of what Israeli historian Simha Flapan described as the “myths” surrounding Israel in his famous 1987 book The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities. However this is a distortion of the actual history. To begin with, when the British gained control over Palestine in the wake of World War I, they found a country in which the indigenous non-Jewish population outnumbered the still very small Zionist presence by a ratio of about 9 to 1. While the typical imagination of Palestine is as a backwards wasteland till Zionism and Jews “revived” it, it was not empty, nor was it a “land without a people for a people without a land.” Palestine’s economy was in the midst of a rapid period of development in the late nineteenth century, one that was acknowledged by Zionist leaders as a primary reason why they could hope to establish a foundation in the country.
Zionist immigrants tried desperately to penetrate the Palestinian Arab economy, but could not compete with the local population. Out of their desperation the concepts of the “conquest of labor” and then “conquest of land” developed, and by 1909, the year both Tel Aviv and the first kibbutz, Degania, were born, Zionism had become a “militant national movement” on the ground in Palestine (in the words of Israeli sociologist Gershon Shafir in his book Land, Labor and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict), one whose main strategy for achieving its goals was to acquire as much territory as possible in the country free of Palestinians so it could be settled by Jews without fear of competition.
It was at this point that the zero-sum conflict over territory between Jews and Palestinians was born. Palestinians, like every indigenous people, rejected the attempts to push them off their land—would you begrudge the Native Americans’ defense of their lands? Would you allow your land to be taken by foreigners? Would any reasonable person? In fact, the very negative treatment of the indigenous population by early Zionists was recorded by Ahad Haam, the father of cultural Zionism and modern Jewish letters, already back in 1891 in an article titled “the Truth from Palestine.” He warned then that if the new immigrants didn’t treat the local population better, they would be doomed to strife. Sadly, his warning has yet to be heeded. We suggest you and all Israel supporters read it and consider.
Nevertheless, once the British took over, with their explicit commitment to their colonial world view, the Zionist movement was given most every opportunity to develop during British rule, which lasted from 1917 through 1948. The British supported Zionist institutions, and because Jews brought in large sums of outside capital in a period when the British public had turned against large expenses to support the colonies, the British encouraged increasing Jewish immigration as a way to run Palestine without having to pay for it.
By the terms of the Balfour Agreement, Britain was committed to establishing a “Jewish National Home” in Palestine with complete disregard of the opposition of the mass of Palestinians and later, when the British stopped most Jewish land purchases during World War II to appease Arabs, the Zionist leadership managed to nevertheless gain even more land and consolidate its hold over much of the strategic locations throughout the country with the exception of what today is the West Bank.
When war finally came, while the Zionist leadership “accepted” the terms of the 1947 Partition Plan, they had little intention of actually fulfilling them. From the fall of 1947 already a civil war had begun in which leaders of the Zionist movement began clearing out as much of the territory it controlled as possible of Palestinian inhabitants. By May 15, 1948, the date of Israel’s official establishment, tens of thousands of Palestinians had already been forced from their homes, their villages destroyed. After independence, the pace of expulsions—an act that was and remains completely contrary to international law, then and now—increased, and ultimately led to the forced exile of over 750,000 Palestinians from their homes and the complete destruction of hundreds of villages. Even if one argues that Palestinians willingly left their homes during the conflict, under international law of the time and today they had an absolute right to return to their homes safely and securely once hostilities were at an end.
As for your claims that Israel was attacked by surrounding countries determined to throw it into the sea, this too is belied by the historical record. As Oxford University professors Avi Shlaim and Eugene Rogan demonstrated in their book The War for Palestine, Rewriting the History of 1948, none of the Arab belligerents had either the hope or desire to throw the Jews into the sea. They sent, for the most part, minimal forces that were badly armed and trained. Their main goals were to prevent themselves from looking like collaborators and their rival Mufti of Jerusalem from establishing a state and, where possible, to take whatever territory they could for themselves. Most important here, Jordan—the one neighbor with an effective, British run army—had reached a modus vivendi with the Zionist/Israeli leadership in which it would take over the West Bank and leave Israel the rest of the country. The only exception was Jerusalem, about which the two sides couldn’t agree and thus became the scene of the worst fighting of the war.
Palestinians were completely abandoned in this conflict, as they are today, not just by the west but by the Arab world as well. Their own leadership and national institutions, which had been prevented from developing by the British for thirty years, were unable to cope with the highly sophisticated, well-funded, and internationally supported Zionist and then Israeli leadership—one that, even as Zionist historians like Benny Morris admit, forced 80 percent of the population into permanent exile and destroyed most of what remained to prevent their return. Gaza today is the bitter fruit of this exercise of massive ethnic cleansing: a prison filled with generations of refugees whose internationally recognized right to return to their homes regardless of who controlled the territory is still dismissed by Israel, even as any Jew anywhere can immediately become a citizen in this country and move right into the recently expropriated Palestinian land in the West Bank.
This is the beginning of the conflict that still rages today. You can argue that the Zionist leadership had no choice, that to allow a large Palestinian population to remain in Israel would doom it to permanent war. That may be, but it doesn’t change the reality. The Zionist movement was not an innocent victim of Arab fanaticism and antipathy to Jews. It was an active participant and initiator of an intercommunal conflict which resulted in the expulsion of a million Palestinians in 1948 and then 1967, which has produced a brutal and illegal occupation that continues and even intensifies to this day. Do you think this is fair, Mr. Voight?
Let’s leave aside that you don’t mention the 1956 tripartite invasion by Israel, France, and the UK on Egypt, which not even Israelis argue was a defensive war. Similar to your description of 1948, your description of 1967 as the “Arab trying again” to destroy Israel is historically inaccurate. There was certainly many threats emanating from Arab capitals in the late spring of 1967, but ultimately it was Israel that clearly launched a “sneak attack,” not the Arab states. Not only that, while the traditional narrative which you no doubt believe holds that Israel risked annihilation in 1967 and therefore had no choice but to launch a preemptive attack, in reality Israeli leaders, and their American counterparts, knew full well that the balance of power was highly skewed towards Israel. The CIA even predicted that Israel could wipe out the combined forces of the surrounding states in roughly five days, exactly what happened.
While presented to the world as a war of survival, 1967 was in fact a war of conquest and expansion. How do we know this? Quite simply because that’s just what Israel did—it conquered and occupied the West Bank, Gaza, Sinai, and the Golan Heights and, against the stern advice of a then ailing David Ben Gurion, who advocated returning the territories as soon as possible, proceeded to settle them intensively, particularly in the Biblical heartland of the West Bank.
Here, Mr. Voight, it is absolutely crucial to understand that if Israel was afraid to turn over the West Bank to Palestinians for security reasons—that is, if the occupation were in fact about security—it could have maintained a military occupation to this day without violating international law. But instead it began a settlement enterprise that came to dominate Israeli political life, eventually placing well over half a million settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, in clear contravention of international law, which expressly forbids transferring civilians from one country into an occupied territory.
Indeed, Israel today could withdraw civilian settlers from the West Bank at any moment and bring itself into compliance with international law, while continuing to occupy the West Bank militarily indefinitely. But of course it will never do that. In fact, as Israeli scholars Meron Benvenisti already argued back in 1987 with his West Bank Data Base Project, when there were only about 60,000 settlers (one tenth of the present number), by this time the West Bank was already so integrated into Israel that it would never be possible to withdraw from it.
In other words, the peace process and the land-for-peace formula on which it was based, was already impossible to implement half a decade before it officially commenced. And since its commencement in 1993, the number of settlers has exploded and Israeli control over the territories entrenched even further. How can you square that with a country that wants to make peace with its neighbors?
Mr. Voight, have you ever visited the Palestinian West Bank or Gaza, or spoken with Palestinians who’ve suffered under decades of Israeli occupation? Had you been forced to suffer their fate, your anger would certainly be directed elsewhere. During the last five decades Palestinians have suffered continuous expropriation of their lands, collective punishment, destruction of their homes, seizures of their agricultural land and destruction of their trees and crops, extrajudicial executions, exile, kidnapping, torture, use of human shields, economic blockade and closure, constant invasions and bombing, denial of the right to education or development, massive exploitation and then closure. The list of violations of international law perpetrated by the Israeli government is pages long, and this doesn’t include Lebanon, which Israel illegally invaded in 1978 and then 1982, launching a nineteen-year occupation that resulted in similar levels of human rights violations.
This is not a political accusation, it is a statement of legal fact. Do you think Israel, which has received hundreds of billions of U.S. tax dollars, should be able to behave like this with impunity? Human Rights Watch has just released a report based on survivors’ testimonies demonstrating that Israel shot and bombed fleeing civilians during hostilities, in complete contravention of international law. This is not new, you should know. Israel engaged in similar attacks on fleeing civilians during the 2008-09 war with Gaza, and has in fact killed thousands of Palestinians in this manner. Where is the justice in that? How do such actions make Israel or America safer, more free or more secure?
Sadly, if you move away from the decades of Israeli propaganda to the actual history, it becomes impossible to argue, as you do in your letter that “Israel has always labored for a peaceful relation with its Arab neighbors.” It is true that Israel returned Sinai as part of a peace deal with Egypt. But what most people, including apparently you, don’t realize or remember is that the large majority of the Camp David Agreement was centered around Israeli commitments to enable “full autonomy to the inhabitants” as soon as possible, which required “the Israeli military government and its civilian administration [to] be withdrawn as soon as a self-governing authority has been established.” Israel broke this promise as soon as the agreement was signed. Instead of moving towards supporting full autonomy through local elections and a robust negotiating process with Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinians, the Israeli government went on a building spree that cemented its permanent control over the West Bank.
Similarly today, Israel did not “give the Palestinians all of Gaza as a peace gesture.” To begin with, Gaza was never a gift Israel could “give” to Palestinians. It was not only occupied under international law but legally inseparable from the West Bank. Israel could merely withdraw and then impose a blockade, while at the same time intensifying once again its settlements in and control over the West Bank. But that is precisely what then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon did—his goal, according to his then Bureau Chief Dov Weisglass, was specifically to place the peace process into “formaldehyde” and “freeze” it while Israel’s hold over the West Bank was made permanent, and there has been no major shift in Israeli policy since then. Mr. Voight, do these policies seem “peaceful” to you?
This is the context to understand why Palestinian elected Hamas in 2006. As even the arch-conservative New York Post admitted that Hamas was elected not because of its terrorism but out of complete disgust with the Palestinian Authority, controlled by Yasser Arafat’s Fatah party, which was utterly coopted by and dependent upon Israel and the U.S., had become hugely corrupt, and as brutal as Israel in its treatment of dissent. After a decade and a half of such governance, Hamas won by portraying itself as better able to resist ongoing Israeli settlement and government efficiently and without corruption. More to the point, Hamas did not begin firing missiles into Israel until after it attempted to remove the newly elected leadership by force in a U.S. and PA-supported coup. No significant rocket fire occurred until two years after Hamas was elected, during which time Israel continued its siege on Gaza and ever-tightening stranglehold on the West Bank.
To be sure, Hamas has failed on every possible measure of governance or ethical behavior, to the point where even Palestinians are calling for its removal from any level of power. Moreover, its indiscriminate attacks on civilians are unjustifiable war crimes, which deserve the condemnation of the world and prosecution and punishment (its treatment of Gazans who oppose it has been little better). But if Hamas deserves such treatment, what do Israel’s leaders, guilty of far greater crimes, deserve? If we were to hold Hamas and Israel to the same standards, what would you feel that Israeli leaders should receive for their treatment of Palestinians for half a century?
Again, your characterization of Israel as having been engaged in “years of trying to make peace” is simply and completely false. There has been no attempt by any Israeli government to make any peace to which any reasonable person could be expected to agree—that is, one that would enable the creation of a territorially and economically viable Palestinian state. Nor are Israelis still “attacked by their enemies.” Israel in fact is at peace with Egypt and Jordan, and has not been threatened by Syria or any other surrounding state for decades, and is fully capable of defending itself against any external aggression, including by Hezbollah. To talk about Israel as always the “retaliator” is equally false, its nearly two-decade long occupation of southern Lebanon the most obvious rebuttal to any such claim.
With respect to the present conflict, you are incorrect to say that Javier Bardem and other critics “have forgotten how this war started. Did Hamas not kidnap and kill three young teenagers for the sake of killing, and celebrated after the killing? What a travesty of justice.” Indeed, this is not what happened. Rather, as reported in great detail in the Israeli media itself, the Israeli government began a series of attacks on Hamas and other Palestinian activists, arresting, shooting, and even killing many in response to a unity deal struck between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority in preparation for resumed negotiations.
Your description of what Israelis have faced is, tragically, far more accurate about what Palestinians face daily for decades—indiscriminate and unlawful attacks by Israeli forces and routine violations of their most basic human rights and international law. Again, this is not a political accusation; it is a statement of legal fact, as a visit to the website of any Israeli or international human rights organizations, or even the State Department‘s own Human Rights reviews attest to in great detail. (We would suggest you visit the website of the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem, but it was repeatedly hacked since the beginning of the war on Gaza by right wing Israelis who oppose reporting of the truth from the Occupied Territories.)
Mr. Voight, there is no way to describe what Israel has done in Gaza other than as a massive crime against humanity. Is it genocide, as the letter Mr. Bardem and others signed alleges? Given the history of genocide against the Jews—the very term was invented to describe the Holocaust—it is tragic that such a characterization can even be considered. But in fact it must be faced, because Israel’s actions, which have long been characterized as “politicide” or “spaciocide” by Israeli and Palestinian scholars such as Baruch Kimmerling and Sari Hanafi, have become so intense that one can no longer take such an accusation off the table.
It is undeniable that Israelis have suffered in this present conflict and the past that led us here, but what is certain is that the suffering Israel has inflicted upon Palestinians is exponentially greater, and the responsibility for that suffering lies not just with Israel, but with the United States which has, in the words of Jon Stewart, acted as its “drug dealer” while pretending to be a caring friend. If you really care about Israel, you will take the time to understand the actual history and present realities, not myths that have no more accuracy than the wild-west fantasies that used to be taught to school children in the United States. Otherwise, all your passion and concern for Israel will only lead it closer to the very reckoning you are desperately trying to avoid.
Thank you for taking the time to read this letter. Please consider yourself to have an open invitation from the Levantine Center, the largest Middle Eastern cultural center on the West Coast located in Hollywood, to organize a public forum where these issues can be discussed in a full, thoughtful, and respectful manner.
Professor, Dept. of Comparative Literature, UCLA
Professor, Dept. of History, UC Irvine and Lund University, Center for Middle Eastern Studies
An earlier and much-abridged version of this letter appeared as a column on al-Jazeera English on August 13, 2014.