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By Gary B. Ostrower

If there is one thing that saddens historians, it’s that most of us learn little from history. What we call Zionism today is nothing more than Jewish nationalism, not very different from nationalism elsewhere. It began when European countries became increasingly anti-Semitic around 1900. Massacres of Jewish communities in Russia and then a trumped-up charge against a French army captain named Dreyfus made anti-Semitism fashionable. By the 1940s, we witnessed the Holocaust.

And so, many Jews came to believe that they would not be safe except in a homeland of their own.

And so Israel was born in 1948, largely out of a Jewish sense of self-preservation and, by others, a sense of guilt and responsibility for what happened during the Hitler years.

Those Zionists remember something else: when Israel came into existence, it was attacked by five neighboring Arab states that refused to accept its existence. Some Arabs, including the Palestinian mufti of Jerusalem, had even allied with Hitler during the war.

If you ask most Americans today about the existence of Arab hostility toward Israel, they will say, “Because Israel occupies Palestinian land in the West Bank and, until recently, Gaza.”

That gets it backward. In 1964, three years before the Six-Day War when the Israelis occupied the West Bank and Gaza, the Palestine Liberation Organization declared that Israel must be obliterated. Except for the Egyptians and the Jordanians after 1967, no Arab country has ever accepted Israel’s right to exist.

Nor has the situation changed fundamentally in the intervening 50 years. The Hamas Charter states in its preamble: “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam eliminates it.”

It’s easy for Americans and Europeans, dependent on Arab oil and secure in their homes, to damn the Israelis for using disproportionate force. But the Israelis don’t have the luxury of playing loose with their own security. The Israelis are not suicidal, and they, unlike the rest of us, do indeed remember the history of Arab hostility that imperils their own existence.

Gary B. Ostrower, a historian, teaches a course at Alfred University called “Arabs, Israelis, and American Foreign Policy.”