The idea of creating a Jewish homeland in Palestine would have made perfect sense in the nineteenth century. Nationalism was all the rage. Everyone wanted to be in a nation. The British and the French were there already. The Germans and Italians were working on it. Nationalism was opposed to hereditary monarchs and their empires and so was in a way a force for progress and revolution. Why shouldn’t the Jews get in on the act and seek to create their own homeland? Zionism was really just a logical extension of what was the general spirit of the age. As to the people who were already there in Palestine, well the rights of natives weren’t really on anyone’s mind at the time.
When the British foreign secretary in 1926 expressed his support for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine it wouldn’t have seemed that outlandish a notion.
Nationalism lost its lustre a bit in the twentieth century, but was still enough of a force to give the notion of a homeland for the Jews a sort of legitimacy. Their desire for a country to call their own still made sense and was understandable. Once it became not simply an abstract notion but an actual fact, things got a lot muddier. But there was the fact that the Jews had not had a great time in the Second World War. That made their cause a lot more sympathetic than it might otherwise have been.
Many of the early zionists who created the state of Israel were secularists whose motivation was definitely not religious. They were motivated a lot more by a romantic idea of Jewishness that owed a lot more to what was around in the Europe from which they had arrived than in the Old Testament. But no sooner had the state of Israel been declared than there was another influx of Jews expelled from the Arab countries. They brought a more orthodox strain of Judaism with them – and were also rather less idealistic than those who had chosen to settle there. In fact they were uprooted refugees with nowhere else to go – in some ways much like the Palestinians were about to become. These people were Jews firstly as a religious identity and were really only zionists by force of circumstance.
So when it was formed the state of Israel did have a logic and while it was very clearly unusual it wasn’t too hard to comprehend from the outside. And there was a lot about it that could be admired. It was democratic. It had a functioning judicial system. It is worth remembering what the rest of the world looked like during the early years of Israel’s existence. The Soviet Union still existed as a totalitarian state even if it had calmed down a bit from the days when Stalin ran it. China was still run by Chairman Mao whose eccentricities would be comical if they weren’t so deadly. Some European countries still had colonies, some had fascist governments. (Portugal had both.) Blacks had limited civil rights in the United States and none at all in South Africa. By comparison Israel was one of the good guys.
But the passage of time has changed things quite a lot. Many of the trouble spots around the world have now been resolved, and the trend has been in the direction of more democracy and more respect for human rights. At the same time Israel has been becoming more aggressive and shows less interest in reaching an agreement with the displaced Palestinians. It has become more and more anachronistic. The idea of a state founded on the basis of a religion or a race now seems a distinctly sinister notion. Attempts to run countries on a religious basis are still made, but only some muslims still think it might work. There is now only one model that most people in the world regard as legitimate and that is democracy. Along with that goes some pretty widespread ideas about tolerance and respect for diversity. Restricting people’s freedom on the basis of their religion or their ethnicity is not really on any more.
So it is perhaps not all that surprising that a recent poll showed that even in the US, the most reliably pro-Israel country – the majority of under thirties don’t support Israel’s policies. And it isn’t a small majority – it is 2 to 1 against Israel. This is probably a short term blip in some ways. Social media has ensured that everyone who is interested can see the effects of the Israelis using their high tech arsenal in a crowded area. It is not a pleasant sight.
But if I were in the Israeli government I would still be worried. No doubt in the short run they can rely on the US to continue supporting them. But for how long? Israel is beginning to look distinctly a country that is no longer in the mainstream. It is a short step from that to being regarded as racist, especially if they keep bombing Palestinians. It is hard to imagine that Israel could become an international pariah anytime soon, but opinions can change surprisingly quickly. I can remember a time when the apartheid regime in South Africa was still respectable enough that some people in pubs were prepared to defend it. And the South Africans had a pretty impressive military machine too.
The only good news from history is that several intractable problems – notably the USSR and Apartheid South Africa – managed to get solved without a bloodbath. Let’s hope for another similar surprise.