Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Reflections on the Six Day War 

As a young university student 50 years ago I had developed an interest in politics and global affairs. I was already opposed to the Vietnam War and the black sheep in my family on that score, although I still had two years deferment from the draft remaining. When the Six Day War began, l followed the news every evening to learn the latest developments and consider every perspective and nuance. 

I recall leaning solidly in favor of Israel. I can't say whether my leanings had been conditioned by the media or whether I may have been in awe, as were most, of Israel's astonishing military success. But I was clearly pro Israel during the initial days. Then one evening I happened to follow a BBC documentary on the history of the conflict. I was shocked to learn for the first time of the staggering migration of Jews from Europe after WWII. Yet despite those hundreds of thousands of Jewish migrants, the Jews remained a minority in Palestine. The Jewish community had lobbied for statehood and had begun guerrilla action against the British, who then occupied Palestine. When the UN General Assembly approved a partition plan hostilities broke out. What followed was a rapid expansion of the new state of Israel to encompass more then twice the land demarcated in the UN partition plan. Then hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled into Lebanon and Jordan as refugees.

This history is rarely shown any longer on the 'news.' Bits and pieces are occasionally referred to together with qualifying arguments and explanations that play down the facts. For me, however, from that day forward I realized that the history of modern Palestine was far less favorable to Israel than most people appreciate. The simple facts were that the recent Jewish immigrants to Palestine had seized far more land than they had ever been 'promised' and thousands of Palestinians had become refugees. I could no longer admire the Israelis, nor could I support the extension of that history resulting from the Six Day War. 

Perhaps most people reading this opinion article will already have branded me anti-Semitic. While I am not, I won't waste time trying to prove I am not an elephant. In fact this accusation has always confused me. Hebrew is a Semitic language, but then so is Arabic. Others may use a different racial slur and call me an Arab lover. Neither does that hold; I am an atheist with no preference between religious myths. All I wish to do is to examine the recent history of Israel / Palestine in order to make a reasoned judgment on events, the status quo and future directions.

Presently, 50 years following the Six Day War, Israel continues to occupy much of the land that it captured then. Israel also continues to build new settlements within the occupied territory on the West Bank in breach of international law and UN decisions. Of course Israel has its defenders and apologists, but how can one defend the fact of a 50 year occupation. I find myself humming Dylan's lyrics "How many years can some people exist / before they're allowed to be free."

Let's consider the arguments in defense of Israel. (1) The Jews were persecuted in Europe and fled to safety and to a dream of returning to the promised land. This is of course true, although the promised land is partly mythology (as of course most ethnic tales are) and partly ancient history. (2) Israel's statehood was approved by the international community. Since then the Jewish state has simply responded to Arab aggression in defense of their state. In fact this line of argument is deeply biased and not historically objective. But, even if one were to accept such arguments, how can one accept the facts on the ground?

The Palestinian people were denied the right of self determination exactly at the time that The Jewish minority unilaterally declared the formation of their state. The Palestinians have existed in the occupied territories for 50 years now with no political rights and with severe constraints on their movement. How is this different from the South African Apartheid State? Why was the international community united against South Africa, but is not against Israel's policy? The apologists usually reply with two justifications. First, the Palestinians have engaged in terrorism and Israel has a right to protect itself. Yet, the imposition of apartheid policies amounts to collective punishment of innocent civilians, once again an illegal practice. Second, the Palestinians must accept Israel's right to exist before meaningful negotiations can proceed. Yet, in fact the Palestinian Authority has accepted and still negotiations are stalled and Israel continues building new settlements.

Yes, the Jewish people suffered the holocaust. And they were themselves oppressed for centuries within Europe and lived in ghettos and denied freedom and full political rights. That fact however does not confer upon them the right to occupy another population and to inflict on others those same injustices.