Of Ghettos and Holocausts

Author’s Note: This is my opinion as a humanist.

A new view has appeared on the horizon and it is called Peace. What is Israel to do? Even Ariel Sharon, the hardest of the far right Israeli war mongers saw the writing on the wall. His recent Freudian slip, so quickly denied, reveals the truth of the heart of the matter – the occupation cannot last forever. The pressure on Israel’s fragile, aide propped economy is unbearable. While everyone has been asking how Peace can be achieved and what price must be paid, one question is not being asked. How will Israel cope with Peace?

Israel’s struggle against the Arabs is more than a struggle over place. It is a struggle over identity. For, while it is true the people of Israel are linked by the bonds of religion, they are not one nation, but a plurality of nationalities. Jewish-ness is not an ethnicity. Anthropological studies have disproved the idea that the Jews are racial group. Instead it has been proven that Jewish populations largely conform to the characteristics of the larger national population of the country of their origin.[1] A Yemeni Jew is a Yemeni. A Russian Jew is a Russian. A Palestinian Jew is a Palestinian. Ethnicity is a myth.

Medieval philosopher of history, Ibn Khaldun noted that ‘group feeling’ held society together, and there was no stronger group feeling than that of religion. This was well understood by the earliest Jewish communities and helped to forge the unique Jewish identity. Belief in their uniqueness and special character sustained the Jewish people through the millennia, in the face of tragedy and persecution. Through tradition and religion, the Jewish communities scattered across the Old World, sustained themselves as a separate and unique people.

While the Jews formed a distinct and identifiable community, they were not separate. Everywhere the Jews were active, and indeed in many places essential, members of the wider community. In this day and age where the lie of an eternal Jewish/Muslim conflict gets wide airplay, the contribution of Jewish philosophers to the development of Islam is rarely mentioned. Jews were intimately involved in the administration of the early Islamic empires; were critical to the cross cultural flowering that occurred in Muslim Spain and Christian Sicily, and even later in the Ottoman Empire. It was the Crusades, the Christian West’s first real attempt at colonialism and genocide, that poisoned relations between the religions. It is typical of Western conceit that this fact goes unrecognized.

The trauma of Crusades deeply affected both Muslim and Jew communities in Europe and the Middle East. For Jewish communities in Europe it marked the beginning of a long dark age or persecution. Jewish communities withdrew within themselves in the hope that the storm and hatred would pass. It didn’t, and it eventually ended in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and Belsen. For the Jews living in the Muslim world, things were not quite so bad. The Ottoman Empire opened its doors to the Sephardim expelled from Spain, where they joined others of Europe’s outcasts, such as the Huguenots who were expelled from France. But the relationship between the two religious communities was never the same. The shocked Muslim community was itself withdrawing upon itself, beginning the long, slow process of political and intellectual isolationism.

At the western extremity of Asia, around the shores of the Black Sea there was a tribe of nomadic Turkic barbarians called the Khazars. In the tenth century, shortly before the forces of Western Christendom started slaughtering Jews and Muslims in earnest, the Khazars converted to Judaism. Sandwiched between the Christian Byzantines to the West and the Islamic Caliphate to the south east, the decision to convert to Judaism was an astute political decision which elevated the Khazars’ status to that of other ‘civilized’ nations, without aligning themselves with either of their powerful neighbors.

For almost 300 years Khazaria existed as a Jewish homeland in what is now the Ukraine. The population was massive in comparison with the population of the Jewish Diaspora – some half a million people. [2] The Khazars came under increasing pressure from first the pagan, and then the Christian Rus, but in the end it was the Mongols in the thirteenth century that smashed Khazaria into oblivion. Many hundreds of thousands of Khazar refugees fled westward into Poland, Bulgaria and Hungary. The refugees largely settled in rural communities away from the Christian majority towns. Where they did settle in the cities, the Khazars lived packed together in Jewish ghettos. Isolation in the shtetls and ghettos helped the Khazars preserve their traditional cultural heritage and protect the community from the antipathy of their Christian neighbours, but it also produced a psychology of cultural isolationism.

Europe in the last decade of the eighteenth century was convulsed by monumental social and political change. The Ancien regimes fell and European nationalism was born. Europe’s Jewish communities eschewed isolationism and embraced this wave of cosmopolitan rationalism. They became culturally assimilated and largely bourgeoisie. Jewish thinkers, writers, philosophers made significant contributions to all fields of nineteenth century thought.

Zionism was a product of the nineteenth century. It combined European colonialism, classical nostalgia, radical nationalism and no small element of paranoia. The leading Zionists were predominantly westernized intellectuals, secular, and predominantly of east European origin. Their fathers and grandfathers had known persecution and, although they themselves had little to fear in that respect, they remained obsessed with security. The Zionist’s constantly asked themselves, why, considering the Jew’s significant contribution to human history, were they a scattered people? In the age of nation states it was clear that a sovereign people required a state if they were to truly fulfill their potential.

Theodore Herzl felt no special attachment towards Palestine, then little more than an impoverished backwater province of the Ottoman Empire. He happily considered east Africa and Madagascar as alternatives, but clearly for most Jews, Palestine had an emotional attraction. The problem of Palestine’s current inhabitants was little more than an abstraction. This was after all the age of European colonialism. The opinions of the natives were not sought, let alone considered and Herzl seems genuinely surprised when the Palestinian’s expressed objections to the foundation of a Jewish state. And so began the inevitable conflict between the dispossessor’s and the soon to be dispossessed..

It was nationalism that blinded the Zionists to the crime they were about to commit. For nationalism – the love of one’s own – separates ‘us’ from ‘them.’ It requires barriers to be erected between communities. If ‘we’ are special, then ‘they’ are not. If ‘we’ belong, then ‘they’ do not. If ‘we’ have been wronged, then ‘they’ are responsible. The most hateful crimes have been committed in the name of nationalism.

It was perfectly natural for the Palestinians to object to their dispossession. Their sovereignty had been judged less worthy and their nation had been taken from them and given to strangers. That the Palestinians would feel wronged by this, the Zionists simply could not comprehend. Religion had nothing to do with the matter.

There was, of course, another way, but because the Zionist movement was a European movement, constrained by European philosophies and prejudices, it was deemed inconceivable: the peaceful co-existence of communities. Jews continued to make up sizable minorities throughout the Middle East, where they remained an active and integral part of the community. The Jews of Iraq for example represented a continuous Jewish presence in that country since the Exile to Babylon two and a half millennia ago. But for the Zionists, the culture of the Oriental Jews was as alien and backward as the culture of the Arabs. It was simply unthinkable for the communities to co-exist as equals.

The State of Israel was born out of the unspeakable horror of the Nazi extermination camps. At the beginning of the Twentieth Century, Zionism was the political ideology of a tiny handful of Jews, even amongst those Jews living Palestine. [3] But for Jewish communities around the world, the Final Solution made real the most paranoid fantasies of the Zionists. Here was the evidence that the Jews needed their own state to ensure their security. That no state has ever been guaranteed security was irrelevant. It suited the agenda. The rest of the world, also reeling in shock and disgust, nodded its assent to the Zionist venture.

In the years after the Second World War, hundreds of thousands of refugees from Europe flooded into Palestine. Their enthusiasm for Israel helped to transform the country. The trials of the War of Independence in 1948 helped to forge the disparate communities of Jewish settlers into a nation. However, after all the blood – Jewish and Palestinian – that was spilt, the Zionist venture required one more sacrifice, perhaps the most terrible of all. For Israel to truly be the Jewish homeland, the Diaspora had to return.

Much has been written about the Jewish Exodus from the Arab countries. Depending on your viewpoint, it was the result of the age old Arab hatred of the Jews or it was a malicious Zionist plot to disguise Israel’s own ethnic cleansing. The truth lies in the middle ground. The Jewish communities in the neighboring Arab states largely felt themselves to be Arab and there was no communal rush to migrate to Israel. But Israel’s aggressive stance towards the Arab states, and her universalist claim to the loyalty of Jews everywhere could only raise suspicion that the Jews outside Israel represented a fifth column. It must be remembered that many of the Arab states were themselves newly independent and their ability to formulate clear foreign policy objectives were uncertain. Actions taken, for valid and logical reasons, were often misinterpreted. In Iraq, which had the oldest indigenous community of Jews in the world, outside Israel, the Iraqi government attempted to isolate it! s Jewish community from the Zionist ‘virus’ by banning all travel to and from Israel. In Israel, this was interpreted as oppression of the Jewish community’s natural right to return, and the anti-Arab rhetoric was ramped up. The Iraqi government reacted badly, arresting, imprisoning and even executing Zionist agitators. The combined effect of Zionist agitation and propaganda and clumsy government oppression was to eventually drive the Iraq Jews from their homeland of 2,500 years. [4]

Half a century has now passed and statehood has not brought the people of Israel peace or security. Despite its massive army and sophisticated weaponry, Israel is a terrified nation of foreigners, held together – not by their common religious heritage or culture, but by fear. Its people are beleaguered, embittered and besieged, and more than ever afraid. In 1891, Jewish Thinker, Asher Ginzburg recognized the extraordinary threat Zionism posed to Jewish culture. He wrote, “Such a state of the Jews will be mortal poison to our people and will grind its spirit in the dust… This small state… will survive only by diplomatic intrigues and by constant servility to the powers that happen to be dominant… This it will really be, much more than now, “a small, miserable, people”, a spiritual slave to whomever happens to be dominant … Isn’t it preferable for ‘an ancient people, which has been a light unto nations’, to disappear from history rather than reach such a goal?” [5] And so it came to pass….

Now as the tortuous talk of Peace continues, what do Israel’s leaders now propose in order to bring that long craved security? A wall. A wall to keep ‘them’ out and to keep ‘us’ in. We’ve seen this solution before and it is called a ghetto. Given the preponderance of eastern European Jews – Russian’s, Poles, Ukrainians, the Ashkenazim, the ancient Khazars – in Israel, the return to the ghetto is almost a cultural homecoming. But it is not a solution. The solution is Peace, and Peace requires communication; negotiation; interaction. A wall does not encourage communication, negotiation or interaction. It encourages isolation.

It’s a common refrain to talk of ‘preserving’ a culture. Indeed, to many people, culture is tied up in the traditions of the past. We often hear politicians and religious leaders speak of preserving or reinstating ‘traditional’ values. It is comforting to know that some part of our cultural identity is unchanging.

Except of course, that it isn’t. No society is static. Time moves ever forward, carrying society with it. For society to survive there must be interaction; there must be a constant exchange of ideas. A society that cuts itself off from its neighbors, that refuses to interact and attempts somehow to preserve its idea of traditional or unique culture like a museum exhibit, will petrify and die.

The current Israeli leadership and their zealot allies may feel safe behind the walls of their newly constructed ghetto, but will the society they aim to preserve eventually be found worth preserving? Will Israel become, as Asher Ginzberg predicted, a gasping shadow of its former glory? Its people, so long filled with fear and hatred for their real and imagined persecutors; where will they turn now to unleash their fears? Who will be the new Palestinian when the Palestinians are finally are gone?

Perhaps it best that Israel shuts itself off from the world for a while. Perhaps it is best that the current generation, damaged and embittered by so much tragedy and conflict, are permitted to die in peace within the walls of their self-constructed prison. Their children will undoubtedly travel beyond the walls and discover the mystery and wonders of the ‘outside’ and then, when they return home they will look at that wall and wonder why it was built in the first place.


[1]. Arthur Koestler. The Thirteen Tribe. 1976. Picador, London. pg 160-176

[2]. Arthur Koestler. ibid, pg 133

[3]. David Fromkin. A Peace to End All Peace. The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East. 1989. Henry Holt & Co, New York. pg 210

[4]. Philip Mendes. The Forgotten Refugess: the causes of the post-1948 Jewish Exodus from Arab Countries. http://wwwadjs.org/mendes_refugees.htm

[5]. Tariq Ali. The Clash of Fundamentalisms. Crusades, Jihads and Modernity. 2002. Verso Books, London.

Paul Markham is a project manager for a bank and a student of Middle East history and international politics. He contributed above article to Media Monitors Network (MMN) from Australia.