The State of Israel: A Brief History of Jewish Roots in the Middle East and the Arab-Refugee Crisis

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the former president of Iran has claimed, “Israel has no roots there [Middle East] in history.” BBC News in their article, “Obstacles to Arab-Israeli peace: Palestinian refugees,” essentially casts blame on Israel for causing the Arab-refugee crisis. Gideon Levy, a columnist at Hareetz, in his article, “Ethnic Cleaning of Palestinians, Or, Democratic Israel at Work,” charges the State of Israel as being an ethnic cleanser because after her official establishment, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled from their homes and lands due to fear of the Israeli Defense Force and countless others were “expelled by force.”

Does the State of Israel have any historic roots in the Middle East? Did Israel cause the Arab-refugee crisis? Let’s briefly recount the history of Israel and see if these charges against Israel are warranted.

The late Barry Rubin, who served as director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, Israel wrote,

The existence of the modern state of Israel is the culmination of a long process going back almost 4,000 years to the formation of a distinct Jewish people. Jews established a kingdom east of the Mediterranean Sea about 3,000 years ago, regained independence after the Maccabean revolt against Greek-Syrian control 2,100 years ago, and survived the final destruction of ancient Israel’s autonomy by the Romans 1,900 years ago.

The State of Israel was established in May 14, 1948. This doesn’t mean that there were no Jews living in this land prior to her official establishment. Alan Dershowitz, Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law, Emeritus at Harvard Law School writes, “There has always been a Jewish presence in Israel, particularly in the holy cities of Jerusalem, Hebron, and Safad.” After the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple in 70 C.E by the Romans, Jews were forced into exile, “hundreds of thousands perished,” and many others were sold into slavery. Nevertheless, Jewish presence continued and persisted after the Roman conquest, culminating in the production of the Mishnah and the Jewish Talmud. Rubin says, “As late as 1100 [C.E.], fifty Jewish communities could be found in the Land of Israel, with an especially large one in Jerusalem.”

In the fourteenth century Jews were blamed for the Black Death in Europe, and as a result thousands of Jews were “butchered and burnt.” Countless of other Jews were subsequently expelled from their homes. Under Alexander III, Emperor of Russia, who assumed his position in May 14, 1881, the living conditions for Jewish people were terrible. Many harsh laws were imposed unto the Jewish people and many had their homes destroyed. As a result of Alexander III’s restrictions and policies, Jews abandoned Russia and went to the United States and Palestine. After World War I, by October 1918, Britain began occupying Palestine. Judea, which is now a land that is part of the West Bank, was “renamed Palaestina (in the Latin) by the Romans” in order to de-Judaize it, says Benny Morris, professor of history in the Middle East Studies Department of Ben-Gurion University. Historian Shlomo Ben-Ami writes in his book, “Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy,”

A clearly defined national consciousness did not exist among the Palestinian Arabs at the time of the arrival of the first Zionist settlers in Palestine. The local Arab population had of course an urban component, but it mostly consisted of fellahin, peasants who toiled on the land of absentee landlords. Tribal and local loyalties more than a defined national identity with a clear notion of its territorial horizons characterised the Palestinian population that the first Zionist pioneers encountered. Palestine was not even considered a distinct province of the Ottoman Empire. It was part of the provinces of Syria; and indeed the Palestinians regarded themselves as part of Southern Syria.

According to Dershowitz, Palestine was no “political entity in any meaningful sense.” Palestine was divided into many districts called sanjaks, and these districts were part of vilayets, or administrative units. In the area that became Israel in 1948 there had never been a Palestinian state nor was there a Palestinian language, much the less a Palestinian-identity. When Israel became an official state it didn’t become so out of a preexisting Palestinian state. Dershowitz says, “It is thus unclear what it would mean to say that the Palestinians were the people who originally populated the ‘nation’ of Palestine.”

The First Aliyah, or the first initial immigration of European Jewish refugees to Palestine occurred in 1882. Ben-Ami writes, “…rather than thinking of ways to dispossess by force the local population and exploit the new lands, they [Jews] brought in their own capital in order to buy and settle the land.” Dershowitz also writes, “The Jews of the first Ayilah did not displace local residents by conquest or fear as the Americans and Australians did. They lawfully and openly bought land…from absentee landlords.” John Quigley, President’s Club Professor Emeritus of Law at Ohio State University in his book, “The Case for Palestine: An International Law Perspective,” doesn’t dispute this truth. Quigley writes, “…Zionist immigrants set up agricultural settlements on purchased lands.” Anyone who claims that Jews unlawfully and inhumanely displaced the Arabs living in what became the State of Israel is making an unwarranted claim.

It is true that after the official establishment of the State of Israel there resulted the first Arab refugee crisis, but this isn’t because Israel intended this to happen, as many critics of Israel make it seem. After Britain’s failed attempts of figuring out a plausible solution that would bring harmony between the Arab and Jewish communities in Palestine, they asked the “United Nation secretary-general to convene a special session of the General Assembly,” says Morris. This special assembly then became known as the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, whose purpose was to provide a solution to the Palestine problem. A few months later, after having spent time in Arab and Jewish villages, and schools, on November 29th, 1947 the United Nations passed a resolution, which proposed the partition of Palestine into an Arab state and a Jewish state. This plan was accepted by Jews but rejected by every Arab state including Palestinians. Dershowitz writes, “As soon as Israel declared its independence, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon attacked it, with help from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Libya.” Arab armies intentionally targeted civilians even after many had “surrendered.” As the Arab armies attacked Israel with the intention of complete extermination, Israel allowed “Arab civilians to flee to Arab-controlled areas,” while Arabs “proceeded to mow down” surrendered Jews. Because Israel did not intentionally target civilians, whereas the Arab armies did, the “Arab-refugee problem” arose.

The allegation that Israel has no roots in the Middle East is groundless because for three millennia plus, there has always been a Jewish presence in what is now the State of Israel.

The allegation that Israel is an ethnic cleanser because she is responsible for creating the Arab-refugee crisis is also unwarranted and not grounded in history – it is not grounded in reality but is instead a fabrication. Israel allowed Arab civilians to flee as Arab states moved in to attack Israel right after declaring independence. Arabs themselves created the Arab-refugee problem and aren’t willing to admit it. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is complex therefore I challenge the critics of Israel to actually invest some time exploring this issue by reading the best academic sources.



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