21 January 2011
Most American Jews, according to polls, don’t like what is happening, but are seemingly helpless before the shrewd lobbying of long time pressure groups which have built up over decades a disproportionate influence on Congress. They make sure that the large US aid programme to Israel continues. In effect, it liberates funds for Israel to build roads and defences for the settlers pushing deep into Palestinian territory.
Yet even if the aid were withdrawn, even if the US stopped vetoing UN resolutions that criticise Israel, nothing is likely to change.
Israeli leaders know well that before long at present rates of population growth the number of Arabs in the area under Israeli control will outnumber the Jews. It will become an apartheid state as South Africa was, subject to the likelihood of ever increasing violence from within—to the point when Israel is pushed into retreat and some strong leader is elected who will have to give the Palestinians what they ask for.
Could all this have been avoided? There were alternative places for the Jews to create their own state—some in the British government and in the Jewish leadership in the early years of the last century thought Uganda and Argentina were possibilities. At that time, before polls admittedly, one could say that a majority of Jews would have preferred one of those, rather than displacing Arabs. Unlike the Zionists they were not beholden to the idea of “the land of milk and honey” being on Arab land. For generation upon generation the Jews in the Diaspora, whether they lived in Muslim or Christian lands, passed a peaceful life. From time to time there were pogroms in the Christian world, but not the Muslim, when local feelings got out of control. But by and large, over nearly two millennia, they were on a small scale. Jews were mostly content to live in the Diaspora. Only when Hitler arrived and the Holocaust began did a large number of European Jews yearn to go to Israel and join the few idealists who had settled before. Without that influx Israel would never have become the threat to the Palestinian Arabs that it is today.
By and large Jews didn’t believe it was their Biblical destiny to settle in Palestine and for the more thoughtful ones, who read the ancient texts with an open mind, the original push by Moses, leading the Jewish people out of bondage in Egypt, was not a history they felt obliged to repeat. After all Moses had made his way clear to “the promised land” by genocide.
The story about alternative settlement in Uganda and Argentina is well known. Less known is the creation by the Soviet Presidium in 1928 of a Jewish autonomous region in the Far East, Birobidzhan. Many Russian Jews moved to live there, although there was no compulsion to do so. Some settlers came from outside Russia.
In Stalin’s later years Jews were hounded, killed or sent to Siberia. At its height only 18,000 Jews lived in the autonomous region – 16 per cent of the population. By 2002 it was down to 2,300. Today, however, Jews are trickling back, a few hundred coming from Israel.
The capital has 14 public schools. They must teach Yiddish and Jewish tradition, as does the university. There are social groups for the elderly that teach Jewish rituals. There is a Yiddish radio station and theatre. In the central square there is a memorial to Sholom Aleichman whose stories of life in Russian villages in Birobidzhan formed the basis for the musical “Fiddler on the Roof”.
Were not under populated Birobidzhan, Uganda or Argentina better opportunities to build an Israel? With Uganda it would have meant taking over peasant land. With Argentina the Zionist leadership let the possibility pass. But the notion of an exclusive Israel dominating Palestine is becoming an impossibility, too. Who knows, as that reality sinks into Israel consciousness, Jews will look at Birobidzmhan with a fresh eye.
Jonathan Power is a veteran foreign affairs commentator based in London