By Rabbi Yeshaia Charles Familant

Max Fisher wrote in Vox news more than three years ago (April, 2015), a piece entitled Israel’s Dark Future. His article has taken on even more relevance today. The embassy move is the latest phase in Israel’s steady encroachment upon Palestinian land.

A review of the conditions of Jews in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in tsarist Russia might help us to understand the reasons for the waves of Jewish immigration to Palestine leading to the establishment of the modern Jewish State of Israel.

With the annexation of the province of Belarus from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1772, a large landmass – twice the size of contemporary France – emerged in tsarist Russia. This area was called “Pale of Settlement” or, simply, “The Pale.” Jews could live within the pale, but, for the most part, were not permitted to live “beyond the Pale” to live and work in the interior of imperial Russia because of resistance from non-Jewish business interests. The size of the Pale, the limited economic opportunities within its borders and the demographic explosion of the Jewish population exacerbated an already severe social and economic crisis.

As southern Ukraine opened up to Jews. Odessa became one of the world’s major Jewish centers. It was home to many of Jewry’s most prominent nationalist writers and intellectuals, as well as one of the centers of the grain trade, along with other burgeoning industries.

Population increase and growing economic competition and latent anti-semitism, give birth to one of earliest pogroms in the years 1881–1882 in the Ukrainian province of Kherson, which spawned a spate of copycat violence in the region. A severe three-day pogrom occurred in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, and spread to surrounding villages and provinces. After a brief hiatus, pogroms returned to Ukraine in the spring of 1882, the most serious of which was in Podolia province in 1882.

Attacks against Jews in some 200 localities in the southern provinces of the Pale of Settlement continued, sporadically, for over three decades. The pogroms of 1903 and 1905 led to the murder of 300 Jews in Odessa, including more than 50 members of Jewish self-defense groups. Tens of thousands of Jews were left homeless. Jewish emigration increased, particularly to western democracies, and some to Palestine.

On 6–7 April 1903 and 19–20 October 1905, two major pogroms occurred in Kishinev, the provincial capital of Bessarabia. The first was preceded by a series of anti-semitic articles in the local newspaper, in which Jews were accused of a variety of crimes. The editor was later active in spreading the fabricated Protocols of the Elders of Zion, first published in Russia in 1903. This libelous document described “a Jewish plan for global domination.”  It was subsequently translated into multiple languages, and disseminated worldwide in the early part of the 20th century, including in Nazi Germany.

Before Passover 1903, the newspaper accused the Jewish community of perpetrating the murder of a gentile Ukrainian boy whose body was found in a town 25 miles north of Kishinev. It claimed the child’s blood was used in preparation of matzah for Passover –  a resurrection of the medieval blood libel. Though it was proved that the child had not been killed by Jews, a violent mob attacked the Jews in Kishinev, killing 49 people, commiting unbridled rape of women and young girls, crippling 586 of all ages, and destroying 1,350 Jewish houses and 588 shops. This tragedy broadcast to the world for the first time the meaning of “pogrom.”

A second pogrom took place on October 19–20, 1905. This time the riots began as political protests against the tsar, but turned into an attack on Jews wherever they could be found. By the time the riots were over, 19 Jews had been killed and 56 were injured. These pogroms were part of an epidemic of 600 pogroms that swept through the Russian Empire.

In Kiev from 1911 to 1913 there occurred the most infamous of the blood-libel cases. A Kievan Jew, Mendel Beilis, was accused of slaughtering a young Christian child for draining its blood in preparation of the baking of matzah for Passover. He was arrested for the murder in July 1911 and spent more than two years in prison. This led to a trial that was covered by the world press, and although the Russian government steadfastly campaigned for a conviction of Beilis, he was ultimately acquitted by a jury of non-Jews.

Following on the heels of  incitement leading to pogroms, a series of laws compounded the problem for Jews in imperial Russia. The May Laws were enacted for Jews residing within the Pale of Settlement. Although meant to be temporary, they persisted in some locales for more than thirty years:

1) Jews were forbidden to settle in villages, except for existing Jewish agricultural colonies; 2) they were to be denied owning mortgages or be lessees of real property outside of certain towns or to have power of attorney to manage or dispose of such property; 3) they were prohibited from transacting business on Sundays or other Christian holy days; 4) There were others related to quotas in certain professions, admission to high schools and universities, prohibition to vote or run for office in local elections  etc.

A further factor contributing to the increasing intolerable living conditions in tsarist Russia was the enactment of compulsory conscription. After the death of Nicholas I (1855), all recruits, including Jews, had to serve 25 years in the army, and, if they married, their offspring, as children of Russian soldiers, became the patrimony of the military and were destined to attend schools for soldiers’ children. Jews, in particular, were required to provide conscripts between the ages of 12 and 25. Jewish communal elders throughout the Pale of Settlement realized that young Jewish conscripts would be “encouraged” to convert to Christianity, thereby estranging them from their Jewish roots and families.

To sum up, heavy restrictions against Jewish migrations into the interior of tsarist Russia, enactment of the May Laws, compulsory 25-year military conscription and the wide sweep of pogroms, all contributed to the massive emigration of Jews, many of whom arrived in Palestine.

Not surprisingly the first stirrings of modern Jewish nationalism, appearing first in the late 1860s and the 1870s, a number of Russian Jewish intellectuals applied the principles of modern European nationalism to Jews. Eliezer Perlmann, later known as Eliezer Ben Yehuda – who fathered the transformation of ancient Hebrew into modern Hebrew – argued by the late 1870s that Jewish nationalism could only be based in the Land of Israel, in a Hebrew-speaking Jewish commonwealth. Jewish national consciousness gained many adherents in the aftermath of the pogroms of 1881–1882, and further spread to Eastern Europe and to the founding of agricultural colonies (kibbutzim) in Palestine. Various groups emerged that attempted to forge a synthesis between Zionism and socialism. Some viewed their Jewishness as superseded by their commitment to socialism.

Early Jewish immigrants ended up in the southwestern area of Syria, then a province of the Ottoman Empire. Successive waves of immigrants, influenced by their socialist ideals, established kibbutzim (agricultural collectives) to work the land and become self-sustaining. Jewish organizations in the diaspora contributed to the Jewish National Fund (קרן קיימת לישראל‎), founded in 1901, to buy and fund the development of land formerly possessed by mostly absentee Arab landowners in Ottoman Palestine and, later, during the British Mandate period when that territory was bequeathed to British control as part of the break-up of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I.

A Jewish culture gradually developed in their new home: Hebrew, the ancient national language, was revived as a spoken language; newspapers and literature written in Hebrew were published; political parties and workers organizations were established.

The British occupation of Palestine and the establishment of the British Mandate created the conditions for the implementation of the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which supported the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine.

Between 1924 and 1929, 82,000 Jews arrived, many as a result of increasing anti-semitism in Poland and throughout Europe. Growing anti-semitism in the United States, too, limited the quotas of Jewish immigrants. (My forthcoming memoir will tell of my own experiences of anti-semitism in Philadelphia during the 1930s and 40s.) Between 1929 and 1939, with the rise of Nazism, a new wave of 250,000 immigrants arrived, mostly from Poland, Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. Many were professionals, doctors, lawyers, professors, architects and musicians.

Meanwhile, because of these successive waves of Jewish immigration, tensions between Arabs and Jews led to a series of riots that left many dead, and resulted in the depopulation of the Jewish community in Hebron. In response to the ever-increasing tension between the Arab and Jewish communities, the British, during the Mandate Period, issued the White Paper of 1939, which restricted Jewish immigration to 75,000 over a five year period.

In Nazi occupied Europe, the Holocaust brought about the transport of Jews to work camps, a source of slave labor, and concentration camps whose sole purpose was the efficient extermination of Jewish lives. To save as many Jews as possible, and in defiance of the British restrictions, illegal immigration to Palestine, mostly by sea, was organized by the Mossad and the Irgun – Jewish paramilitary organizations.

In April, 1947 the British government informed the United Nations, successor to the League of Nations, that it would leave Palestine in May, 1948. It would be left to the U.N. to decide the further fate of the mandated territory. On November 29, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly voted to partition western Palestine into two states — one for the Jews, which would consist of the Negev Desert, the coastal plain between Tel Aviv and Haifa, and parts of the northern Galilee; and the other for the Palestinian Arabs, which would consist primarily of the West Bank to the Jordan, the Gaza District, Jaffa, and the Arab sectors of the Galilee. Jerusalem, cherished by both Muslims and Jews as a holy city, was to become an international enclave under U.N. Trusteeship.

The Jewish leadership, then led by David Ben-Gurion, accepted this partition plan. They set up a state which they called Israel. The Council of the Arab League announced that it would use force to prevent the proposed partition of Palestine. They felt that Palestine was their land; that the Jews were a foreign implant foisted upon them. Furthermore, they were convinced they had the strength to drive the Jews out. The Palestinians, aided by the armies of Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq, launched a war to prevent Jewish independence and to secure control of all of western Palestine. The Arab-Israeli war of 1948 was the first of several wars (1958, 1963, 1967, 1973, 1982). The most devastating to the Palestinians was that of June 1967 with Israeli capture and occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem.

Max Fisher in his Vox piece begins with this war:

“Israel won a stunning military victory against its neighbors, elating Israelis and the global Jewish community with a sense that the grand experiment of a Jewish state might really work. Three weeks later, amid Israel’s national euphoria, the country’s founding prime minister emerged from retirement to warn Israelis that they had sown the seeds of national self-destruction. David Ben-Gurion, 81 years old, insisted that Israel, which had conquered the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank in the war, must immediately give them up. If they did not, he said, this act of forcible occupation would corrupt the Jewish state and possibly destroy it outright. (italics, mine) His speech was barely covered in the Israeli press. The Palestinians have lived under Israeli occupation now for 48 [51] years.”

Theodor Herzl, an Austro-Hungarian Jewish journalist and political activist in the latter part of the nineteenth century, and known as the father of modern political Zionism, promoted Jewish immigration to Palestine in an effort to form a Jewish state.

Fisher reminds us of the caveat declared by Herzl:

“[Herzl] once told a gathering of Zionist leaders that ‘those of us who are today prepared to hazard our lives for the cause [establishment of a Jewish State] would regret having raised a finger if we were able to organize only a new social system, and not a more righteous one.’ As the American Zionist leader Louis Lipsky wrote in the 1946 forward to Herzl’s 1896 treatise ‘The Jewish State, Zionism, had to become a movement of democracy.’”

It cannot be denied that the early Zionists were idealists believing that the modern State of Israel must manifest the highest ethical standards and the purest form of democracy.

Fisher: “For the first decades after its founding, it was those promises of physical security that seemed hardest to keep, as Israel and the Jews who lived there faced threats from hostile neighbors. But now Israel faces a very different sort of threat: a threat that it will abandon the democratic principles that have been part of its foundation since the earliest days of Zionism.

“Quietly, gradually, an internal crisis has grown so great that it threatens the survival of Israel as we know it today: Jewish, democratic, and an accepted member of the community of nations. If something does not change, then that Israel cannot survive. An Israel that is undemocratic, that is isolated in the world, and that exists counter to the ideals of its founders will take its place. It will retain the Israeli flag and national anthem, it will stamp “Israel” on its passports, but it will not be Israel as Zionists like Herzl and Lipsky — and millions of Jews who believed and still believe in their vision — hoped and intended.”

About the Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition, Fisher says:

“Netanyahu’s reelection (2015) merely reflected trends that have been building in Israel for years: a growing and increasingly extreme political right, a resistance or outright hostility toward peace, a willingness to forgo international acceptance, and even a certain hesitation toward the more difficult aspects of democracy. ‘Israel is galloping toward an anti-democratic, bi-national future saturated with hatred and racism,’ the Israeli columnist Ravit Hecht wrote in Ha’aretz in March (2015).”

The warnings concerning the dangerous and imminent irreversible direction in which Israel is heading do not come from leftists only, but also from many on the right. Fisher includes these words of Yuval Diskin, the former head of Israel’s internal security service, Shin Bet. who warned in 2013 that unless Israel could find peace with the Palestinians, and soon

“We will certainly cross the point of no return, after which we will be left with one state from the [Jordan] river to the [Mediterranean] sea for two peoples. The consequences of such a state for our national identity, our security, our ability to maintain a worthy, democratic state, our moral fiber as a society, and our place in the family of nations would be far-reaching.”

Specifically referencing the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Fisher states with startling candor:

  1. Bit by bit, Israel will continue to trade away its democratic values and its international support to maintain its occupation and settlement of the West Bank and its blockade of Gaza, the Palestinian territories it has dominated since 1967.

  2. Eventually that occupation will lead to the utter collapse of Palestinian self-rule in the occupied West Bank. Israel, having committed to the occupation, will more forcefully assert its rule there in the style of an overt colonial power, alienating a Western world that has forsworn colonialism.

  3. Finally, the Jewish democracy Israelis fought to create and preserve will become a state in which Palestinians lack fundamental rights. Perhaps this culminates with the realization of the Israeli far right’s dream of annexing the West Bank, thus declaring Israel an apartheid state, or perhaps Israel never takes this formality. In either case, the result is an undemocratic Israel and a pariah state.

Speaking of the Gaza Strip, it comprises a land mass the size of the city in which I was born and raised, Philadelphia. Palestinians in the Gaza strip have faced a blockade by the Israeli government for at least a decade: obstruction of the exporting of goods manufactured by Gazans; prevention of their fishermen from catching sardines and other fish outside the line arbitrarily drawn in the Mediterranean, beyond which Israelis sink their fishing boats; with Egyptian collusion, blocking of the importation of goods such as food and life-saving medicines; with only a few hours of electricity each day for essential services such as for water-treatment and desalination plants, hospitals have resorted to generators to power equipment for sustaining life; power outages and crumbling infrastructure, have contributed to an unemployment rate of 40 percent and ongoing food uncertainty; currently, some 80 percent of the population relies on humanitarian aid to survive. If these dire conditions persist, according to the United Nations, by 2020 Gaza will be uninhabitable. Where, then, would the Palestinians in Gaza go?

Is there any wonder that Gazans can be easily incited to protests? They don’t require Hamas to use them as “human shields” as Israel claims. They voluntarily risk their lives out of sheer desperation. Throwing rocks, molotov cocktails, burning rubber tires are the Palestinian weapons. The launching of rockets into Israel territory by Hamas and other jihadist groups poses little threat to Israel because of The Iron Dome missile defense system, which intercepts most of the highly inaccurate missiles. What are they in comparison with the only country in the Middle East with nuclear weapons and an arsenal of 400 warheads, though, of course, the Israeli government has never admitted to it. No need to describe Israel’s extensive and formidable air force, whose ultra-modern aircraft are obtained from the US arms manufacturers.

Architects of the blockade of Gaza claim that they want to pressure Hamas into submission. The blockade is premised on the notion that the collective punishment of two million Palestinians is justifiable to reach that goal. Yet, It would be naive to believe that Israel’s repressive measures against Gazans will not have an enduring negative effect for generations. Hatred of the oppressor does not pass swiftly.

In the West Bank, the advancing encroachment on Palestinian land by the growing number of Israeli settlements will effectively ‘balkanize’ the territory into separate and non-contiguous enclaves. This eventuality would preclude not only the possibility of a two-state solution, which may already be a foregone conclusion, but make inevitable a single State – Jewish and undemocratic or democratic and not Jewish.

And what of the U.S.? Is it so obliging solely because of the influential pro-Israel lobby in our country? Or is it the greed of the arms industry? In effect, Israel functions as the de facto armed outpost in the the Middle East to advance the strategic interests of the United States. Clearly, despite the growing disfavor by other nations, the U.S. continues to stand by Israel as it has in previous administrations. The present administration’s stance (I hesitate to credit it as policy) is more extreme only because of the questionable psychological make-up of this president.

We must not forget the reason for the creation of the Jewish State – avoiding persecution and massive murder of Jews in other countries – not just in the previous two centuries, but for two millennia! The creation of Israel was to provide a safe haven for all Jews and a thorough-going democracy.

The lessons learned from their own painful past should have been: to treat others as they would have wanted to be treated; not to treat others as they were treated.