Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Gentile Project

OUR BUS TURNED LEFT PAST HAIFA’S headland. A ship steamed towards its harbour, its decks weighed down with containers. Decades ago they would have been crammed with immigrants in search of a promised land.

But now, as I saw modern condominiums lining the shore, I could have been anywhere in the world. How had it come to this? How had a community, scattered across the world in a Diaspora, been able to colonise and create Israel, a modern state named after the prophet Jacob?

I remembered a book, Islam and its Discontents, written by the Franco-Arab scholar, Professor Abdelwahab Meddeb. Modern Zionism initially had nothing to do with Judaism, he said. The first notions of a Jewish homeland had originated in Protestant circles.

I remembered too the writings in Bitter Harvest by the Christian Palestinian historian, Sami Hadawi. He had argued that a Christian fundamentalist misinterpretation of the Old Testament was the source. He had questioned the premise that Abraham had been bequeathed a homeland exclusive to the sons of Isaac.

Hadawi had pointed out what he felt were its contradictions. God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis could never have been made to Jews alone. Ishmael was also the seed of Abraham, and God’s undertaking had to apply as equally to Christians and Muslims, as it did to Jews.

Had not the Hebrew Revelation said in Genesis?

…and in thee (Abraham) shall all families of the earth be blessed.

He had also argued that Israelite tenure of the Holy Land had never been unconditional. The covenant between God and the Israelites had been strictly dependent upon their obedience. Had Moses not warned the Israelites that if they did not obey Divine Law, a Diaspora would befall them?

There were no mentions in scripture anywhere of a third Israelite return to Judea. There was no basis in Old Testament or New Testament sources to justify a modern, ethnic Jewish state in Palestine, Hadawi had argued.

He had also added that Israel itself was a metaphor; there was an Israel ‘of the spirit’ and there was an Israel ‘of the flesh’.

I could not help but note that this view corresponded to voices within Orthodox Judaism, such as the Neturei Karta, a grouping that has largely been marginalised by the sweep of contemporary political Zionism.

These anti-Zionist Jews believe that their Creator, and not man, has the final say in the status of Israel: in other words, the present Jewish state has not come into being by fulfilling any injunctions of the Holy Books.

Three Oaths

I was told that the Haredim, the biggest Orthodox group within Israel, had had to do some nifty egg-dancing between the contradictions of classical Judaism and political Zionism. And this was best illustrated, I soon discovered, through the Three Talmudic Oaths located in the Tractate Ketuvot.

Derived from the angst and melancholy of the Babylonian exile in 587 BCE, and a message sent by Jeremiah to the elders, the Three Oaths were said to be the result of three divine vows between Heaven and Earth, and between the Creator and the Jew.

The first was that Jews should not descend upon the Holy Land by force; the second was that they should not rebel against host governments; and the third was that they should not prolong the coming of the Messiah by their sins.

When I researched the Three Oaths, I walked ingenuously into a theological firestorm.

In one reading I was informed that the Crusades, the Inquisition and the Holocaust had fully abrogated the Three Oaths. The modern state of Israel, I was hotly told, had not come into being by a Jewish betrayal of the Oaths, but rather, by a non-Jewish complicity.

On the other hand, Neturei Karta had said that the Three Oaths, and the Diaspora, were obligations intended to expiate Jews from the sins that had caused the Creator to exile them in the first place. Only when the Shekhina, the Divine Presence, descended upon Zion would the Diaspora end.

This view, of course, clashed with another one I encountered in the halls of Judaism. The Messiah would only come once Jews had lifted their own hands in the creation of a Jewish state, and the reconstruction of the Third Temple.

I retreated to the calmer realms of Professor Abdelwahab Meddeb where, according to him, the contemporary Jewish Zionist thesis had only gained momentum at the beginning of the 19th century after it had circulated in Protestant circles.

Shalom Goldman, professor of Hebrew and Middle Eastern Studies at Emory University, is a Jew who agrees with Meddeb. Zionism, he writes, is the Jewish implementation of an idea that had been developing in Christian quarters for over 300 years.

The Egyptian scholar, Professor Adelwahab Elmessiri, corroborates Meddeb’s findings. He identifies Lord Shaftesbury and Laurence Oliphant, both early British Zionists, as being pioneers of the modern discourse.

Country without a nation

Shaftesbury was an Evangelist who had actively promoted the idea of an ethnic Jewish homeland. In July 1853 he had declared: “There is a country without a nation; and now God in his wisdom and mercy directs us to a nation without a country.”

Laurence Oliphant, who supported Shaftesbury’s views, authored The Land of Gilead in 1880. His book, which encourages Jewish settlement, often reads like a blueprint for the Nakba.

Other 19th century British personalities to support a Jewish homeland were Lord Lindsay, Sir George Gawlor, John Derby, Alexander Keith, Charles Henry Churchill and the author, George Eliot.

My own research led me to the 12th century and to the cell of the Calabrian mystic, Joachim of Fiore. His reading of the Book of Revelation had him claiming that the earth would experience three epochs, or dispensations. The return of the Jews to Zion would set the table for the coming of the final dispensation, and the rule of the Messiah.

This would see Jews being peacefully converted to Christianity instead of being damned. His motif of Jewish ‘salvation’ – one that would come to characterise modern Evangelism – contradicted the mainstream church’s view that Jews had been condemned to eternal exile.

I also arrived at the door of Martin Luther, the 16th century Protestant reformer. Salvation was by faith – his faith – and when Jews had politely declined to fall at his feet, a disillusioned Luther had condemned them to hellfire.

His strident views are the first mass stirrings of modern evangelism, and an ominous harbinger of the Nazi Holocaust.

The 17th and 18th centuries had their voices for a Jewish homeland too. Amongst them was the British MP, Sir Henry Finch, who spoke about ‘the world’s greatest restoration’. Napoleon Bonaparte was another who supported the idea.

But behind all the apocalyptic verbiage of those rooting for the creation of a Jewish homeland, there lurked a world view that implied Jews did not belong in Europe.

It was a jingoistic kind of Orientalism derived from the Middle Ages. It was the same outlook that had perceived the Saracen, or the Arab, as much of an unwelcome resident of the Holy Land as the Jew was of Europe.

I might be accused of cynicism. But it has to be noted that historians such as Robert the Monk, Guibert of Nogent and Baldrick of Bourgeuil – who recorded events of the First Crusade – felt that Arabs were a ‘vile and abominable race’ fit only for ‘extermination’.

This European anti-Semitism, extending to Jewish communities as well, had been preceded by a band of Crusaders massacring Jews living along the Rhine.


In the winter of 1097 famished Crusaders had roasted and eaten the flesh of the townsfolk of Mara’rat al-Numan on the Orontes River. They had reported that the children were particularly delicious. This group had believed that Arabs and Jews were the natural enemies of Jesus Christ.

Both Arabs and Jews were massacred in Jerusalem in 1099. Jerusalem was re-conquered by Saladin in 1187, and while Jews were sheltered by the Caliphs of the Ayyubid, Mamluk and Ottoman dynasties, Diasporic communities living outside the Islamic realm were often persecuted.

Yet in spite of this, the Rabbis clung to their traditional beliefs. The Diaspora was by Divine Decree. It took the Dreyfus affair in France to inspire a secularist Theodore Herzl to write Der Judenstat in 1896, and to found the World Zionist Congress in 1897.

The British Balfour Declaration of 1917, supporting the idea of Jewish state in Palestine, and colonial opportunities afforded by the collapse of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1923, were to open the political door further.

The Ottoman Empire, which was regarded as the ‘sick old man of Europe’ at the start of the 20th century, had caught the attention of Britain, France and the Russian Czar. Turkey was at the juncture of Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

At stake were new colonies, lucrative trade routes, oil deals and control of the Suez Canal. To keep her Russian and French rivals at bay, the British had supported Istanbul. However, after the Ottomans had sided with Germany in the 1914-18 war and the Armenian genocide had reared its ugly head, the British Foreign Office had been forced to change tack.

Max Dimont, author of Jews, God and History, writes that this brief Ottoman dalliance with Germany had nearly derailed the Zionists. The Turks had declared Zionism illegal, had hung ‘allied (war) sympathizers’ for treason, and had deported 12, 000 Jews from Palestine for not being Turkish citizens.

Ironically, the Arab world was destined to be an unwitting tool of Zionism’s survival. The pan-Arabist camp had long hankered to topple the Turkish Caliphate. In 1917 a young British army officer, T.E. Lawrence, was directed to co-ordinate the Arab Revolt.

For putting the Turks to flight in Syria, Jordan and Palestine, the sponsor of the uprising, the Meccan-based descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, Sharif Hussein ibn ‘Ali, was promised a pan-Arab Caliphate from Palestine to Yemen. This was done via the McMahon-Hussain correspondence.

Arab goodwill

But Arab goodwill towards Britain had already been betrayed by the Sykes-Picot Accord between France, Britain and Russia. This pact had divided Bilad al-Sham, the greater Middle East region, into chunks of post-Ottoman colonial real estate such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

For the Arab world previously unused to nation-state boundaries, and more accustomed to the loosely autonomous Turkish vilayets, or provincial sanjaqs, Sykes-Picot was to prove a shattering blow. When the Meccan Sharif claimed his pan-Arab throne, the British simply hurrumphed and looked the other way.

The weakening Turkish Caliphate was five years from its demise, and there was now a leadership vacuum in the Arab realm. Who were the independent Arab leaders?

The Wahhabi Ibn Sa’ud in the untamed Najd signed an agreement with the British, but did not take part in the 1917 uprising. Ibn Rashid of the Shammar region was pro-Turkish, as was Imam Yahya in semi-autonomous Yemen. Greater Syria and Iraq, though, were rudderless.

The Meccan Sharifs found themselves losing influence. Towards the end of 1918, Sharif Faizel Husseini (the second son of the Sharifian patriarch) met with T. E. Lawrence and entered into an agreement with Chaim Weizmann.

The Weizmann-Husseini agreement, as it was briefly known, stated that ‘all necessary measures’ should be taken to ‘stimulate the immigration of Jews’ to Palestine. Attached to the document was a curious Arabic codicil – almost an afterthought – written by Faizel in his own hand and signed by Weizmann:

Provide the Arabs obtain their independence as demanded…I shall concur in the above articles. But if the slightest modification or departure be made, I shall then not be bound by a single word of the present agreement…

Peter Mansfield in The Arabs claims that the Sharifs were prepared to give the Balfour Declaration a try to ‘help the progress of the Arabs’. Dr ‘Azzam Tamimi of the London-based Institute of Islamic Political Thought, accuses Sharif Faizel Husseini of self-interest.

The agreement – widely scorned in the Arab realm – was never tested, and was soon a worthless scrap of paper. After being granted the throne of Syria in 1920, Sharif Faizel was summarily unseated by the French. As a sop, he was sent to rule Iraq, it taking the deaths of 10, 000 restless Iraqis to get him into power.

Described by T. E. Lawrence as a ‘brave, weak, ignorant spirit’ trying to do the work for which only ‘a genius, a prophet or a great criminal was fitted’, Sharif Faizel died in 1933.

He was a Franco-British puppet that had been foisted upon a country of which he was not a native. It was an arrangement that could not last. In 1958 his son, Sharif Faizel II, was killed in a military coup. Army rule would in turn be toppled in 1963 by the Baathists, from whose ranks would emerge Iraqi strongmen such as Saddam Hussain.


With Arab territories west of the Jordan falling under European dominion, the Balfour Declaration of 1917 merely compounded the humiliation. The dream of Arabs enjoying hegemony over the lands of the Prophet in the 20th century became as remote as the prospect of an Eskimo caliphate in Hawaii.

The memoirs of British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George mention that the Balfour Declaration was a gesture to Chaim Weizmann for his work on developing acetone, a chemical essential for manufacturing cordite. Cordite, used in fuses, had previously been produced by Germany – now at war with England.

Robert Fisk observes that both the Balfour Declaration and the McMahon-Hussain correspondence were instruments of British ‘political expediency’. The one was the result of the British needing Arabs to fight the Turks, and the other was the result of Britain needing Jewish patronage.

The Washington Report offers another take on how the Balfour Declaration came into being. It refers to the Zimmerman Note, a secret contingency brief dispatched from the German war cabinet to its Mexican ambassador in 1917.

According to The Washington Report, Germany had to keep the United States neutral at all costs, but failing that, a call had to be made for the restoration of Mexican sovereignty over New Mexico, Arizona and Texas.

This encrypted note was intercepted and sent by German Zionists to the British, who allegedly used it to persuade President Woodrow Wilson to declare war against Germany in 1917, and to tip the scales in favour of the allies.

Another view is that Sir Mark Sykes, co-architect of the Sykes-Picot Accord, had pushed long and hard for the Balfour Declaration. In this version, Chaim Weizmann was waiting outside cabinet for a decision when Sykes came out to tell him: “Chaim, it’s a boy!”

Whatever the instrument of the Balfour Declaration, the outcome by 1918 was that Arab leadership had been duped. The McMahon-Hussain correspondence promising a pan-Arab Caliphate, and described by the Israeli historian Tom Segev as ‘evasive and amateurish’, conflicted not only with the Sykes-Picot Accord, but now also the Balfour Declaration.

Spectre of Zionism

So for its support of Britain in unseating the Turkish Ottomans, the Arab world would not only be visited by yet another colonialist, but also the spectre of Zionism.

As Karen Armstrong has said: ‘The dispossessed, uprooted and wandering Jew’ would soon be replaced by ‘the homeless, uprooted and dispossessed Palestinian’.

For those living west of the Jordan, this would mean displacement and disruption at the hands of the Zionists on a massive scale; first after 1948 and then 1967, when Jordanian-controlled East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and Syria’s Golan Heights and Egyptian-administered Gaza would be occupied by Israeli forces.

Today more than 5 million Palestinians are in what the late Professor Edward Said calls a ‘shattat’, or a scattering. More than half a million are exiled overseas in Europe and the United States; a million reside under sufferance in the 1948 territories, and about 3 million lives in Gaza and the West Bank.

Furthermore, over 50% of Jordanians (about 2 million) are of Palestinian descent. In Lebanon, half a million are still stateless refugees while the rest of the refugee population (another half million) is spread through Syria, Iraq and other Arab states.

We stopped at a traffic light. Everything seemed so reassuringly normal. Unlike in the old South Africa, I could see no signs of petty apartheid. ‘Jews only’ boards were not stenciled on to park benches. Our driver turned into a side road, and halted at the gates of a holiday resort. We were now at the site of Tantura village in the Haifa region, and as I was to discover, yet another hapless victim of the 1948Nakba.

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