King's Evangelical Divinity School

16 May 2012

Israel: Colonial Project or Thoroughly Middle Eastern?

Yesterday the Arab world marked the Nakba ("catastrophe") commemorating the displacement of Palestinians following Israel's independence and the first Arab-Israeli war. Though the Palestinian refugee issue remains high profile (indeed a whole division of UN bureaucracy is given over to this single issue), the displacement of another Middle East (ME) people following Israeli independence is rarely discussed. I refer, of course, to nearly equal number of Jews forced to abandon their property and flee for their lives from Arab countries venting fury.

How the stories of both these tragic displacements are played out is very different. In one case, the vast majority of ME Jews fled to Israel, where they were welcomed, given a new life and opportunity, and today enjoy the full rights of citizenship and have contributed substantially to their country's economic success. In the other case, Palestinian refugees have, sadly, received no such welcome from the Arab world to which they fled, where the vast majority have few rights or citizenship.
I raise this issue to make another, often missed point concerning the displacement of ME Jews. An interesting article by Matti Friedman promoting his new book raises this issues of displacement in the ME. But his article (and presumably the book) goes on to make the point that because the vast majority of Jewish refugees fled to Israel, where they and their children had (and continue to have) an enormous social, political and economic impact upon that country, Israel is not, as many would claim, a wholly external transplant imposed upon the ME. Rather, a substantial part of its population originated in the ME, and Israel is not the wholly colonial project much of the Arab world claims. 

This makes complete sense. Anyone who visits and knows Israel recognises it is far from being completely Western. In fact, it is a thoroughly Middle Eastern country, whether evident through its food, language, culture, religion and attitudes (and, dare I say, its roads and driving!).

The Friedman's article is interesting and worth a read.


Anonymous said...

Hi Calvin,

I felt I had to reply to your post here I feel you are somewhat misrepresenting some facts and omitting some more details.

To quote: 'I refer, of course, to nearly equal number of Jews forced to abandon their property and flee for their lives from Arab countries venting fury.'

You suggest that Jews were forced to leave their home countries. Whilst in some cases, this is true, you omit the fact that this occurred over a 30 year period and due to many different incidents during that period. You also omit that there were also numerous 'pull factors' of economic migration, affiliation to Zionist ideology etc. Factor in a number of wars and the details do not in the slightest way match the events of 1947 and 1948, which was a swift and concise removal of the indigenous population to make way for Zionist expansion.

You also use the rather specious claim that the surrounding nations have rejected immigration by Palestinian refugees and Israel have very nobly accommodated Jewish immigration. This is quite a misrepresentation of reality.

Palestinians who were displaced in the events of 1947 and 1948 have a right of return enshrined in UN Resolution 194. Israel attempted to barter for acceptance of 100,000 refugees and for the balance to be absorbed into the surrounding nations. This was to protect the Jewish demographic.

The surrounding nations saw this as unjust and immoral and refused. Sadly, we have this awful situation continuing to this day and whilst the surrounding nations could have participated in alleviating the suffering caused by this ongoing displacement, Israel are solely responsible for the issue itself.

As far as Jewish immigration to Israel is concerned, this is not for any benevolent or charitable reason as is suggested. It is very simply to maintain the Jewish demographic. Israel opens it's borders to anyone who are of the Jewish faith or adopts the Jewish faith. Even with this 'open door' policy they have struggled to maintain even 50% majority over the territories they occupy.

For a couple of easily found sources on this, please see here:



Calvin L. Smith said...

Stephen, Israel's population doubled in four years and trebled in eight years following the 1948 war, the vast majority being Mizrachim fleeing Arab countries. For a discussion of this and related issues, some of which challenge several of your claims above, see Erez Tzfadia, "Geography and Demography: Spatial Transformations" in Israel Since 1980 (Cambridge University Press). Meanwhile, some of the new historians are now reassessing aspects their original work, which some of the above narrative is partially based upon.

I think your claim that Israel is wholly to blame for the displacement issue speaks volumes about your own bias. So you don't think the Arab rejection of the UN partition plan, or a declaration of war on Israel by various Arab nations immediately following Independence had anything to do with it, as in wars the world over? Isn't this one of those distasteful consequences of war? Your suggestion that in this case it doesn't apply, I suggest, takes blaming Israel for everything to a new level.

Besides, nothing you write in any way challenges the central point I made above: that much of Israel's population is thoroughly Middle Eastern. An inconvenient truth for those who seek to delegitimise the country by claiming it is a colonial transplant.

James said...

Are you Stephen Sizer?