Rome and Jerusalem revisited

From the archive (legacy material)

Joseph Massad | Al-Ahram Weekly | 19-24 February 2004

A crucial goal of Zionism since its inception was to transform European (and later other) Jews into European Christians culturally, while continuing to call them Jews. Joseph Massad* steps into the Benny Morris debate
In his recent interview with the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz Benny Morris’s tone was full of exhilaration, the kind of exhilaration of someone who is finally liberated from societal constraints that forced him to be dishonest, or at least untrue to himself and his audience. In his interview, Morris defended on moral grounds the expulsion and massacres of Palestinians based on a racial and civilisational binary that divides the civilised from the barbarians. His statements shocked many. Yet the moral arithmetic he deployed was anything but new in Zionist ideology. What accounts then for Morris’s new statements and the shock with which they were received in the international community?
Benny Morris has always stood out among Israeli “revisionist” historians due to the subject that he researched, namely the expulsion of Palestinians by Israeli soldiers in 1948. Although his writings always showed a commitment to the Zionist project, Zionist ideologues accused him of providing ammunition to Palestinians in their struggle against the Jewish State. But Morris never veered from Zionist ideological orthodoxy; what he did was question its historiography.
It is in this context that the outrage expressed by many at his recent statements in Ha’aretz are surprising. Morris’s assertions that Palestinians, indeed Muslims, “are barbarians. The Arab world as it is today is barbarian,” are hardly new Zionist opinions, but rather a consistent ideological axiom carried from Herzl to Begin and Sharon (Begin’s infamous reference to Palestinians as “two- legged beasts” in the early 1980s stands as a prime example).
Nor is Morris’s call to expel Palestinians new or unorthodox in the history of Zionism. His regret that Ben Gurion did not expel all Palestinians is shared by many and is succinctly phrased by him: “If Ben-Gurion had carried out a large expulsion and cleansed the whole country — the whole Land of Israel, as far as the Jordan River … If he had carried out a full expulsion — rather than a partial one — he would have stabilised the State of Israel for generations … If the end of the story turns out to be a gloomy one for the Jews, it will be because Ben-Gurion did not complete the transfer in 1948. Because he left a large and volatile demographic reserve in the West Bank and Gaza and within Israel itself.”
Indeed Morris’s further call that in the context of civilisational war with the barbaric Arabs, which will unravel in the near future, “acts of expulsion [of Palestinians from the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel] will be entirely reasonable. They may even be essential,” is hardly a novelty in the context of the Zionist history of expulsion of Palestinians or in the context of current Israeli polls that reveal the majority of Israeli Jews sharing his opinion.
According to the Israeli Institute for Democracy, in its most recent report, “As of 2003, more than half (53 per cent) of the Jews in Israel state out loud that they are against full equality for the Arabs; 77 per cent say there should be a Jewish majority on crucial political decisions; less than a third (31 per cent) support having Arab political parties in the government; and the majority (57 per cent) think that the Arabs should be encouraged to emigrate.” These are not new findings, as similar polls have been taken over the course of the last decade which showed similar results, the only change is the increase in the percentage of people who hold these views openly.
Let us review the Zionist record: A crucial goal of Zionism since its inception was to transform European (and later other) Jews into European Christians culturally, while continuing to call them Jews. This is a question that most Jewish opponents of Zionism had pointed out all along, namely that Zionism was the “worst kind of assimilationism”. While Zionism opposed those assimilated Jews who insisted that they were German, English, American, or French, its opposition to them was not on the grounds that assimilation is bad in itself, but that anti-Semites would never allow European Jews, no matter how hard they tried, to be assimilated. But the Zionist model itself was assimilationist insofar as it insisted that Jews could become Europeans only in Asia, while in Europe, they would always remain Asiatics. It was this philosophy that made Israeli Jews see themselves as in the Middle East but not of it.
Zionism’s insistence that European Jewish colonial settlers in Palestine were White Europeans is as old as Zionism itself. In his magnum opus, Der JudenStaat (The State of the Jews) published in 1896, Herzl unabashedly identified the Zionist state to be “the portion of the rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilisation as opposed to barbarism”. When negotiating later with the Portuguese Ambassador Count Paraty to locate an African territory to be colonised by European Jews (most likely Mozambique), Herzl asked Paraty to inquire of the Portuguese government the following: “Is there a territory sufficiently habitable and cultivable by Europeans?”
In his novel Altneuland, Herzl identified Palestinians as “dirty brigands”, an important attribute that remains current and popular in contemporary Israel, where the erstwhile European anti-Semitic epithet of the “dirty Jew” has been transposed to “‘Aravim Milukhlakhim” or “dirty Arabs”.
Herzl was not alone in his understanding that European Jews were indeed Europeans embarking on a colonial venture. Zionist leader and later Israel’s first President Chaim Weizmann did not mince words when in 1930 he explained what Zionism sought: “[we] wish to spare the Arabs as much as we can of the sufferings which every backward race has gone through on the coming of another, more advanced nation.”
The Europeanness of the colonial settlers was so central to the Zionist project that it spanned the movement from left to right. Herzl’s insistence that the Jewish colonial settlers in Palestine should speak German not Hebrew was not followed by his successors, but this in no way lessened their claim to be European. Thus, Vladimir Jabotinsky, the founder of right-wing revisionist Zionism, in advising on how the revived Hebrew was to be pronounced, insisted that “There are experts who think that we ought to bring our accent closer to the Arabic accent. But this is a mistake. Although Hebrew and Arabic are Semitic languages, it does not mean that our Fathers spoke in [an] ‘Arabic accent’… We are European and our musical taste is European, the taste of Rubinstein, Mendelssohn, and Bizet.”
These commitments have been manifest in Israel since its creation. The positing of Israeli Jews as Europeans with world-class Western orchestras and musicians, scientists producing advanced technology, a social and political structure with a commitment to West European cultural and political principles and mores, including the central trait of being “peace-loving” and “democratic” was contrasted always with Palestinian war-like barbarians who lack culture or even a nationality. It is true that all along Zionism could not face the world with what it did and does to the Palestinians, as it understood that such an admission would lose it support, but, increasingly after 11 September, even that sense of shame disappeared.
When Golda Meir denied the existence of the Palestinians in 1969, her logic was that Israel and Zionism would certainly have been at fault had they “come” and found a Palestinian people in Palestine “and threw them out and took their country away from them”, as she put it. However, as they “did not exist”, there was nothing for which to fault Israel and Zionism. Meir’s statement echoed similar ideological formulations emanating intermittently from the Zionist movement since its inception. While Zionism at times acknowledged that it came to drive the Palestinians out (Herzl), to civilise them (Herzl and Weizmann), to take their lands and country away from them (Moshe Dayan), etc, it would mostly refrain from such public statements after the 1940s (Dayan is a notable exception in this regard). Indeed, whenever the Palestinians would reveal these ideological pronouncements and strategies, Zionist and Israeli propaganda would go into high gear insisting that such claims were the sheer fabrications of a distortive Palestinian propaganda.
Zionism began its project at the end of the 19th century, when Arabs and Muslims were considered barbarians by the West. By the 1940s, however, Western discourse had changed and accepted the humanity of the erstwhile barbarians, albeit not fully. As a result, Zionism could no longer share its evaluation of the Palestinian people, or of Arabs and Islam more generally. Since 11 September, the situation changed measurably. Arabs and Muslims as “barbarians” became the received wisdom in the United States and much of Europe (let us not forget Berlusconi’s racist pronouncements about Islam), making Zionists everywhere breathe a sigh of relief that finally everyone agrees with them that the people they have been fighting are indeed barbarians and not humans with rights to be protected.
Long before Morris’s recent interview with Ha’aretz and his “coming out” article in the London Guardian last year, I had debated with him for Oxford University’s History Workshop Journal, in which he expressed similar racist views of Islam and Arabs. After the debate was published, Zionists denounced me for my alleged “extremism” in not finding common ground with someone as “radical” and “anti-Zionist” as Morris.
Already in that debate, Morris had been clear that what was unjust was not the expulsion of the Palestinians, but the Palestinian rejection of Zionist colonialism in the guise of the UN Partition Plan. What was required of the Palestinians, as far as Morris was concerned in the debate, was to submit and resign themselves to Zionism. What seemed odd in the debate was that he was trying hard to depict Palestinians as another human group that clearly did not have the same rights as Jews, but who remained human. The problem with Palestinians, in Morris’s logic, was that they would not have rejected Zionism had they not belonged to the religion of Islam, which Morris tells us is “xenophobic”. Presumably if Palestinians were Christian or Hindu, they would have welcomed their Jewish conquerors with open arms.
In his more recent interview, we finally understand why, for Morris, Palestinians should not have equal rights with Jews, and why expelling them and killing them is not morally wrong, for they are “barbarians”. In my debate with him, which took place in July 2001, he still adhered to the line that Palestinians were human, albeit not quite as human as Jews, a concession that ended with his “barbarian” declaration in the post-11 September interview. What is really novel in that interview, however, is his open declaration that European Jews had always been European, not just today. “We are on the front line,” he asserted. “Exactly like the Crusaders, we are the vulnerable branch of Europe in this place.”
Morris’s narrative is, to say the least ironic, especially for a historian, in that it makes no mention of what Rome had done to the ancient Hebrews or what the Crusaders had done to Jews. For him, European Jews apparently belong not only to the new Rome (the West) but also to the Old Rome, and have nothing in common with ancient and medieval Jewry. European Jews seem to have nothing to do with the ancient Hebrews who were conquered and expelled by the Romans, for indeed contemporary Israeli Jews just like European Christians are the Romans: “The phenomenon of the mass Muslim penetration into the West and their settlement there is creating a dangerous internal threat. A similar process took place in Rome. They let the barbarians in and they toppled the empire from within.”
He sees Israel as part of “Rome” with the Palestinian barbarians in its midst. Morris’s post-11 September lack of sympathy for the ancient Hebrews seems to reflect an old dilemma for Zionism. It seems that Zionist thinkers have finally come full circle in reasserting clearly that European Jews are not only European today but have always been Europeans.
A further irony in Morris’s assertion is its support of the views of some Arab nationalists and Islamists who always viewed Zionism as another Crusade. Taking his statement to its logical conclusion, it would be the Palestinians who are the Hebrews/Jews defeated by Rome. Morris here appears to share an understanding with the young David Ben-Gurion who in 1918 wrote that the Palestinian peasants were the actual descendants of the ancient Hebrews whose traditions they had kept over the centuries and which manifested in the names of their villages.
Indeed, the ancestors of the Palestinian people, real or spiritual, are the Jews who were conquered by the Romans in the first century AD, the Arabs who were conquered by the Crusaders 10 centuries later and by the new Roman Zionists at the end of the 19th century. The latter are intent on making Palestine Palestinanser-rein. This, of course, is not Morris’s dream only, but a dream shared by a majority of Israeli Jews and their international supporters.
Benny Morris is not the only Jewish academic who has spoken openly about how Jews have become European Christians. Princeton University Orientalist Bernard Lewis, an English Jew and the guru of American neo-cons, has similar things to say.
According to the Wall Street Journal, “for 300 years, Mr Lewis says, Muslims have watched in horror and humiliation as the Christian civilizations of Europe and North America have overshadowed them militarily, economically and culturally.” Lewis had remarked without the slightest self-irony after 11 September that, “The question people are asking is why they hate us. That’s the wrong question … In a sense, they’ve been hating us for centuries, and it’s very natural that they should. You have this millennial rivalry between two world religions, and now, from their point of view, the wrong one seems to be winning … The question which we should be asking is why do they neither fear nor respect us?”
How Jews came to be included in this “we” and “us” of European Christian civilisation can only be answered by the history of Zionism itself. Luckily for Morris, however, he is in good company with Lewis, and many others, foremost among them is the late Rabbi Meir Kahane. Indeed, the tradition of Kahane continues uninterrupted. Kahane’s slogan was “I say what you think”; Morris in turn says what they think!
* The writer is assistant professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University in New York. He is author of Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan and Desiring Arabs. He is currently working on a new book entitled The Persistence of the Palestinian Question.