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Monday, November 30, 2009

Benny Morris on Avi Shlaim

Benny Morris' book reviews are always fascinating, and his review of British historian Avi Shlaim's latest book of essays is no exception.

And he is merciless:
According to Shlaim, quoting Segev, David Lloyd George, Britain’s prime minister in 1917, pushed the declaration out of “ignorance and prejudice.” Lloyd George “despised the Jews, but he also feared them,” believing in their world-embracing “power and influence.” The people who sired the document “believed the Jews controlled the world,” says Shlaim, quoting Segev. Which is to say, the Balfour Declaration was primarily a product of anti-Semitism. Historians love paradoxes, even fictitious ones.

Shlaim fails completely to mention the relevance of philo-Semitism and philo-Zionism as a decisive factor in the issuance of the declaration. Indeed, it was probably the single most potent factor in the support of the key Cabinet ministers: Lloyd George, Arthur James Balfour himself, Lord Milner, Robert Cecil, and Jan Smuts. Brought up on the Bible and on a belief in the Jews’ contribution to Judeo-Christian civilization, these potentates believed that Christendom owed the Jews a debt--and that it must atone for two thousand years of persecution by restoring them to their land. As Balfour told the House of Lords in 1922:

It is in order that we may send a message to every land where the Jewish race has been scattered, a message that will tell them that Christendom is not oblivious of their faith, is not unmindful of the service they have rendered to the great religions of the world, and most of all to the religion that the majority of Your Lordships’ house profess, and that we desire to the best of our ability to give them that opportunity of developing ... those great gifts which hitherto they have been compelled to bring to fruition in countries that know not their language and belong not to their race? This is the ideal which I desire to see accomplished, that is the aim that lay at the root of the policy I am trying to defend; and though it be defensible indeed on every ground [he means imperial interests, and so on], that is the ground which chiefly moves me.

Shlaim would have it that Balfour, George, Milner, Smuts, and Cecil were all liars or dissemblers. I prefer to believe them.


Palestinian political aspirations, then and now, were “just,” according to Shlaim. He never applies the word to Zionist aspirations, before 1948 or after. Was Israel’s establishment “just,” and is its continued existence “just,” in light of the monumental “injustice” that it caused the Palestinians? Should the Jews never have established their state in Palestine? Shlaim implicitly leaves on the table the standard Palestinian argument that the Palestinians have had to pay for an injustice committed against the Jews by others. Nowhere in this book does Shlaim say a word about the Jewish people’s three-thousand-year-old connection to the Land of Israel--that this land was the Jewish people’s cradle; that they subsequently ruled it, on and off, for over a thousand years; and that for the next two millennia, after going into exile, they aspired and longed for repatriation. Nor does he mention that the Arabs, who had no connection to Palestine, in the seventh century conquered the land “unjustly” from the Byzantine Empire and “illegally” settled in it, forcibly converting it into an “Arab” land. If conquest does not grant rightful claim, then surely this should be true universally?

Nowhere does Shlaim tell us of the persecution, oppression, and occasional mass murder of Jews by Muslim Arabs over the centuries, starting with Muhammad’s destruction of the Jewish communities in Hijaz and ending with the pogroms in Aden and Morocco in 1947–1948. And nowhere does Shlaim point out that the Palestinian Arabs had an indirect hand in causing the death of European Jewry during the Holocaust, by driving the British, through anti-British and anti-Zionist violence, to shut the gates of Palestine, which was the only possible safe haven, after the United States and the Anglo-Saxon world had shut their gates to escaping European Jews. And, more directly, Palestinian (and other Arab) leaders contributed to the Holocaust by politically supporting Hitler and, in the case of Haj Amin al Husseini, actually working in Berlin for the Third Reich, peddling Nazi propaganda to the Arab world and raising troops for the Wehrmacht.

About Israel’s restrictions on the flow of goods into the Gaza Strip since the Hamas takeover, Shlaim observes that “the aim was to starve the people of Gaza into submission” and resulted in “a humanitarian catastrophe.” This is simply wild. Darfur is a humanitarian catastrophe. Somalia at times has been a humanitarian catastrophe. But Gaza? As far as I know, no Gazan has died of thirst or starvation. There are no African-style bloated bellies there. It is true that Israel has barred the importation of iron and steel and other materials needed for reconstructing houses destroyed or damaged in the December 2008–January 2009 campaign (and, in my view mistakenly, also barred the entry into Gaza of various other goods). But Israel argues, with solid logic, that Hamas would immediately use these materials to rebuild bunkers, munitions storage facilities, trenchworks, and the other institutions and instruments of its aggression.

Read the whole thing.