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January 27, 2010

Zionism: a book review

Reuel S. Amdur

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Zionism, Alan Hart, volumes I and II, Clarity Press, Atlanta, 2009.

These two volumes are a vital exposition of Zionist history and its interface with diplomacy and the Israel-Arab conflict, up until the assassination of President Kennedy.  Alan Hart promises another volume, perhaps two, and one looks forward to their publication.

These volumes are valuable for various reasons. 

There is the detailed analysis of archives, memoirs, diaries, and historical accounts and records.  Then there is the fact that Hart himself had close personal contact with some of the prime actors.

He went beyond being just a reporter.  Hart had the role of go-between in contacts between Yasser Aarafat and Moshe Sharett, on a mission of peace.  The mission ended in failure when Sharett failed to get the post of prime minister at the time.

It would be difficult to summarize such a wealth of material, but we shall note some of the interesting tit bits. 

For example, Vladimir Jabotinsky, founder of the right-wing Irgun, contacted both the Nazis and the Italian fascists to seek cooperation in their anti-Jewish policies, to get them to send Jews to Palestine as a way of ridding them of the Jews. 

He told them that he favored authoritarianism and that was a basis for cooperation.  In fact, during the war the Stern gang offshoot of Irgun proposed an alliance with Nazi Germany!  The Stern Gang split with Irgun because Irgun was not prepared to engage in anti-British undertakings during World War II, while Britain was still the mandatory power in Palestine.

Yitzhak Shamir was a key activist in the Stern Gang, responsible for the assassination of Count Folke Bernadotte, the UN mediator sent to attempt to work out a peaceful settlement of the fighting between Zionists and Arabs.  He later became one of Israel’s prime ministers.  Menachem Begin, another prime minister, was part of Irgun.

One of the Zionist fairy tales is that, at the founding of Israel, the Palestinians moved out to give the Arab armies a clear field in which to wipe out the Jews, after which they could return safely. 

Hart quotes Begin about the aftermath of the massacre at Deir Yassin, a slaughter of men, women, and children, carried out by a joint operation of the Stern Gang and Irgun: “Panic overwhelmed the Arabs of Eretz Israel. . . .Arabs began to flee in terror, even before they clashed with Jewish forces.”  Jewish forces made use of the atrocity in propaganda to encourage Arab flight.

Hart does not paint a very glowing picture of the Arab countries in their relationship to the 1948 war. 

They were not interested in promoting Palestine as such.  Jordan, for example, wanted to expand its territory.  Egyptian troops disarmed Yasser Arafat and his men in Gaza. 

Even after the war, Nasser opposed Palestinian nationalism because it clashed with his vision of pan-Arab nationalism.  The various Arab governments were unwilling to form a joint military operation during the war, each country operating on its own, with ineffectual coordination. 

Especially interesting is Hart’s detailed account of internal maneuverings inside the U.S. government.  Zionists used campaign contributions as a major lever for swaying U.S. government policy regarding the Middle East. 

There were Zionists in the White House who used various stratagems, especially focusing on the reliance on Jewish financial and electoral support.  They were even able to misrepresent U.S. government policy to twist enough arms in the UN General Assembly to get the necessary two-thirds majority to refer the resolution on partition of Palestine to the Security Council. 

Hart was personally close to Arafat, as well as to Golda Meir.  He was so close to her that when she was on her deathbed he flew from Britain to be there.  Directly after her death, her personal secretary asked to meet with him, and at that meeting she told him that Meir wanted him to know that she regretted having said so notoriously that there was no such thing as Palestinians.  His friendships with key actors extended well beyond Hart’s personal convictions.

There are few if any angels among the actors in this tapestry, either individuals or countries. 

However, he has positive things to say about Nasser, Levi Eshkol, Moshe Sharett, Eisenhower, General George Marshall, and James Forrestal, for example. 

He also heaps praise on Woodrow Wilson, ignoring the fact that Wilson was a racist who fired blacks from Washington and who found Slavic peoples to be undesirable.  A Vietnamese student in France wrote him asking about self-determination for his country, but Wilson did not answer his letter.  That student was Ho Chi Minh.

Hart relates the program of sabotage by Egyptian Jewish agents of Israel, who attacked Western nations’ facilities in order to bring hostility toward Egypt, but he fails to mention that these same agents attacked Egyptian Jews to encourage emigration to Israel.

While the story is bereft of angels, he makes a point of referring to France as a “whore”.  It is unclear why, and the epithet adds nothing to his narrative.  There are also some errors that pop up from time to time, suggesting inadequate fact-finding and editing.  Jordan River is not the longest river in the world, and the ancient Canaanites spoke the Semitic language Phoenician, not Arabic.

Hart devotes a full chapter to James Forrestal, Truman’s Secretary of Defence, a strong opponent of Zionist ambitions.  He eventually resigned and soon ended up in hospital with severe depression.  As Hart says, he “plunged to his death from the 16th floor of the Naval Hospital at Bethesda.”  Hart wonders if Forrestal really committed suicide or was murdered.  Forrestal was not in the first floor psychiatric ward because top politicians were trying to hide the fact of his serious mental illness. His condition was such an embarrassment to the government that any influence he had had was surely gone, leaving it as most unlikely that Zionists or any other potential opponents would go to the trouble of doing him in.

Finally, a word about who the Jews really are.  Hart argues that the Jews of Europe have no ancestry traceable back to Israel and Judea.  Instead, he argues, they are descended from the Tartar Khazars, who converted to Judaism.  While Jewish populations tend to be genetically distinct from their neighbors, they are genetically closer to them than to Jews in other regions.  The Khazar hypothesis does not explain that finding.

Secondly, we come to the mathematics of the thing. Each of us has two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, etc.  In junior high school, we were given an assignment of calculating the number of our direct ancestors back to the time of Columbus.  The answer was in the millions.  The relevance?  Yes, the Jews of Europe may have ancestors from the Holy Land.  So might Hart.  So might anyone reading this review.  In short, the claim of a relationship to forbears in ancient Palestine is simply unverifiable. 

Whatever shortcomings these two volumes may have, they provide an essential understanding of what happened in the struggle for Israel-Palestine and of the role of Zionism in this sad story.

Reuel S. Amdur is a freelance writer living near Ottawa.

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