Sharon’s Judenrein?

In an article posted on the History News Network website in early January, freelance writer Rachel Neuwirth asks, “Why is it that people are proposing a Middle East peace plan that will make Judea and Samaria Judenrein–the Nazi term for a place with no Jews?”

It’s a fair question to ask, not only of well-intentioned (or not so well-intentioned) outsiders but also of Ariel Sharon, who seems bent on separating Palestinians from Jews by constructing a barrier wall around Palestinian areas, dismantling some outposts and even more established settlements from parts of the West Bank, leaving Palestinians to fend for themselves.

And since it’s a question that goes to the heart of all the hopes and fears of both Israelis and Palestinians, it deserves a response.

Few would doubt the presence in the Fertile Crescent, including modern day Israel and the West Bank, of the tribes collectively called Hebrews. But they were not the only peoples there. Even the Torah (whose role as authoritative history is open to question for substantial numbers of people, as are many other books recounting the births of ancient nations) names many of these peoples in its accounts of the struggles of the Hebrews to establish themselves. Moreover, for all the descriptions of cities being conquered and inhabitants put to the sword, it seems unclear whether all these non-Hebrews were completely wiped out or completely driven out, anymore than all the Hebrews in ancient Palestine were hauled off into the Babylonian captivity. (That the conquered are no longer mentioned is not conclusive proof of their total demise, only that they are of no further interest to the writers.)

Modern U.S. presidents and other politicians seem to see the essential problem more in terms of how to get past this past, even the more recent past embodied in the Balfour Declaration and the Sykes-Picot Treaty. The post-World War I British Mandate (July 1922) established by the League of Nations tried to find a balance by recognizing the Balfour sentiment–the “Mandatory should be responsible for putting into effect the declaration originally made on November 2nd, 1917, by the Government of His Britannic Majesty, and adopted by the said Powers, in favor of the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”–but doing so in such a way that “it being clearly understood that nothing should be done which might prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country….” But this was, in reality, going to be an increasingly impossible task as the non-Hebrews living in the Mandate area (including the Trans-Jordan, which was separated from the rest of the Mandate area), awoke to the consequence that any aspirations for their own “national” identity would be moot in a unitary state. (Ironically, given current and projected demographics, it is now the Israeli side that most opposes a unitary state.)

What is left is the ideal vision that current U.S. leaders have of two states side by side, with Palestinians and Israelis (and others) living and working freely and equally in both, with easy cross-border passage, and ultimately closely coordinated economies. While U.S. politicians believe they “understand” war and the causes for war, what they (and most in the U.S. ) do not “understand” is the seizing and retention of land for the purpose of permanent occupation, settlement-building, and annexation. U.S. wars have to be cast in terms of ideals–most notably in the last decade as opposing “evil,” however that is defined by the sitting administration. Fighting for survival of the nation is, of course, an essential exception to this rule, but even this does not include permanent retention of territory that might be seized in battle.

Repeated war and reciprocal violence have killed the vision of two open states; what is left is the original concept is two closed states existing side by side. But this “solution” would require changes in communal distribution, particularly Jewish settlements, in order to allow for creation of a viable Palestinian state and to preclude large-scale bloodshed on both sides when Israeli troops withdraw from their positions around otherwise militarily indefensible settlements. Perhaps in the minds of great optimists is the idea that with each side in their own state, over time the violence would ebb, cooperation and trust would grow, and eventually some form of the “open two state” solution would be reached. And at that point, Israelis would no longer be excluded from any part of the land they have shared with others over the centuries.

It is a big “perhaps” for anyone. And given his stance to date, it may be an insurmountable “perhaps” for Sharon.

Dan Smith is a military affairs analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus (online at www.fpif.org), a retired U.S. army colonel and a senior fellow on Military Affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.