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A Brief Modern History
The following two sections may not be of interest to all readers. You may wish to skip them and go straight to the photo gallery.
When I was a child Australian Newsreels I saw in Sydney before the days of Television, the Zionist Haganah in Palestine were depicted as anti-British terrorists, akin to the IRA. The bodies of hundreds of slaughtered Palestinian villagers scattering the streets, and the plight of the tens of thousands of Palestinians who fled a similar fate, are among the first terrible images I remember. Obviously not from 1948, when I was a too young, but from when they were rehashed at the time of the Suez Crisis in 1956 when the Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies attempted to mediate and I was taken to Newsreels cinemas by my parents and was beginning to take an interest.
These birth pains for the State of Israel and subsequent events have occupied the news media throughout my life. In due course I learnt of the Nazi Holocaust and soon discovered that the roots of both anti-Semitism and a longing to be 'Next year in Jerusalem' go back about seventeen hundred years.
Since Christianity split with Judaism in the first and second centuries of the common era (CE) Christians have had their differences with Jews. After Christianity gained its special status as the religion of the late Roman and Byzantine (Eastern Roman) empires in the third century hostility became persecution.
On-line you can have a look at the of Papal Bulls and Encyclicals that have either discriminated against Jews or occasionally attempted to reverse some glaring wrong that the Christian church had hitherto imposed on them. A quick count of historical Bulls since the time of the Crusades shows that 17 Popes have addressed relations with the Jews. Most of these imposed, or reimposed, sanctions on Jews, although a small number reversed or mitigated earlier sanctions. As recently as 1796, when white settlement in Australia was already established (my benchmark for modern history), Napoleon demolished the walls of the Roman Ghetto and when when the Roman Republic was formed in 1798 it annulled the requirement for all Jews to live in the ghetto. There was munch rejoicing and a Tree of Liberty was planted in Piazza delle Cinque Scole. But when the Papal States were restored in 1799 the Ghetto wall was reconstructed and all Jews who had left were compelled to return.
In scripture at school I was told that this was because of their alleged complicity in the death of Christ. This complicity was steadfastly maintained by the Catholic Church until October 28, 1965 during Vatican II, when I was already at University. It's maintained by some Protestants even to this day.
That always seemed nonsense to me as Jesus was himself a Jew. And if one follows the logic of the story, he was complicit in, and perhaps planned, his own death.
I learnt a lot of interesting things in scripture and it got quite exciting in High School when one teacher did not believe in Evolution. He was a big man and we called him 'the missing link'. But then we had an Anglican scholar, Cannon Hobart, who explained that faith was not dependent on facts. Religion was a struggle towards the Truth. Religious writings like the Bible and all the other trappings of religion were but man's feeble attempts to come to grips with the transcendent; to approach the unknowable. I didn't have to believe in virgin birth or miracles or in the power of prayer or life after death or even in the Trinity.
I was suddenly gripped with religious fervour. I became a mystic. I studied for my Confirmation and was received by the Anglican Bishop - as good as any I thought. But for me it was very short-lived. Despite me mentally assuring myself that this was all just metaphorical, a feeble attempt to put into words the un-sayable, in Church on Sunday they still recited nonsense as if it were believed literally. Reality prevailed. As puberty ended I awoke from my religious ecstasy, wondering what was the value of faith in unfounded beliefs; how faith informed the transcendent in any case; and how my transcendental rapture actually added anything to my life.
So when it came time for my own children to go to scripture classes, starting in Primary School, I didn't want to deny them the possibility of their own religious enchantment and I encouraged them to attend the lessons. This came to a sudden halt for Julia when she came home after scripture one afternoon and announced that she hated Catholics. I pointed out that a large number of our friends were at least nominally Catholic. Henceforth she went to the library for that period. But she had had one interesting lesson in scripture when one of the elderly religious instructors had a heart attack and died in front of the class. We got to talk about death. She had an early introduction.
Julia's was reminiscent of my brother's experience with Sunday school. Although we were Anglicans, my High Church mother had fallen out with the local Low Church minister and we (rather bizarrely) were sent to the Methodist Sunday School with the kids from next door. It gave our parents a welcome break to spend Sunday morning together. And we learnt some great songs about Christians marching to war and building on rock rather than sand. But that ended in a similar fashion when Peter (age 5 or 6?) was asked to sign The Pledge (against ever drinking alcohol). We never went there again.
I've always suspected the conflict with Jews was similar to the conflicts between Protestant, Roman and Orthodox Christians (or between Shi’ite and Sunni Islam). These have been much more bitter and bloody than differences with adherents to radically different religions like Hindus or Buddhists. It's actually the similarity in their beliefs that puts into stark contrast the differences and alleged heresies. For example Jews use the same Old Testament that includes the Torah, as clearly endorsed by Jesus, and they use the same Psalms in their worship of the same God. Yet their failure to accept Christ as their saviour; their dogged adherence to some Old Testament laws pertaining to food and personal practice; and their suspicious enthusiasm for scholarship and literacy, amounting to secret practices, was intolerable to some.
Perhaps it was their non-inclusiveness that caused the ill-will? When I was a young adult a friend was prevented by her family from marrying her long time partner because he was not Jewish. She ended up marrying a good Jewish boy who became my friend too but the marriage didn't work out. But then I remember Catholics and Protestants having the same problems with their families.
Looking at the list of Papal Bulls and pogroms in previous centuries it seems that historically a main cause of anti-Semitism was the Jewish preparedness to lend money at interest to Christians, also known as 'usury', and their consequent accumulation of wealth, when this practice (which today we call banking) was prohibited to Christians (as in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice).
With the Enlightenment and development of secularism (the separation of church and state) and modern banking in the eighteenth century such concerns seemed increasingly irrelevant and Jews became increasingly integrated into the political mainstream in Europe, the US and Australia. A number of political leaders, particularly in England, began to be sympathetic to establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine and the movement became known as Zionism. Others, including some prominent Jews, favoured ongoing social integration and bitterly opposed the Zionists.
In 1909 Zionists managed to establish a small settlement at Tel-Aviv, named after a book, 'The Old New Land - Tel-Aviv' by Theodor Herzl, who envisioned a Jewish state that combined modern Jewish culture with the best of the European heritage.
Altneuland (The Old New Land ) - Tel-Aviv
Herzl who was an atheist and friend of Karl Marx is considered to be the founder of modern political Zionism.
At that time Palestine was still part of the Muslim Ottoman Empire. But during the First World War (1914-18) the Ottoman Empire was effectively dismembered.
As a result of the Paris Peace Conference in 1920, that officially ended the First World War, The League of Nations was established. One of its jobs was to draw up 'Mandates' to be ruled by the British or the French over the previous Ottoman controlled territory, 'until such time as those lands are able to stand alone.' The British Empire already included Egypt and the Sudan and part of the Arabian peninsular and Britain now gained control of Palestine (modern Israel, the Palestinian territories and modern Jordan). Meanwhile the French gained the Mandate over Syria.
During the war the fledgling Zionist movement had forged an agreement (The Balfour Declaration) with the British to facilitate a Jewish homeland within Palestine. This was subsequently endorsed internationally by The League of Nations.
Now under the British Mandate, the new country of Palestine modernised and developed rapidly, partly as a result of the arrival of increasing numbers of European Jews.
Railways were built and factories established. Sealed roads joined growing towns and Modern cities, seaports and even airports were built. The Jordan River provided hydroelectricity and salt pans down river from the Dead Sea supplied chemicals. It began to resemble other parts of the Empire like India, Burma, Australia and Canada. Many fine buildings and other facilities from the period are still in use.
The existing semi-literate Arab population were deeply disturbed by growing social and financial inequality relative to a small but growing number of skilled migrants, particularly by land acquisition and the escalation in property prices. In 1936 the Arabs revolted against the foreigners, with the civil unrest lasting for the next three years.
The British forcibly put down the 'Arab Revolt' but in an attempt to make peace imposed immigration quotas on new Jewish arrivals. These turned out to be impossible to enforce, particularly after Hitler did a deal with the Zionists to 'transfer' 50,000 German Jews to Palestine. So by 1940, at the start of the Second World War, when the Muslim Arab population was around one million, the Jewish population had grown to 140,000.
During the war the Zionists raised brigades in support of the British, gaining military training, battle experience and a stockpile of weapons that they stored in secret caches around the country.
After the War the British and Russians went to extreme measures to stem the flood of Jewish refugees fleeing the aftermath of the Holocaust and the dreadful conditions in central Europe.
The British set up camps on Cyprus and the Russians blockaded ports then sank several ships packed with fleeing refugees.
The Zionist brigades then turned their wartime experience to a terror campaign against the the Arab population and the British, culminating in the bombing of the British military headquarters. At about the same time the sympathetic US administration applied financial pressure on almost bankrupt Britain to release 100,000 Jews who had been interned in refugee camps on Cyprus.
So in 1947 war-weary Britain 'threw in the towel' and announced its intention to withdraw from Palestine. On 29 November that year the United Nations General Assembly, with US prompting, rejected the concept of a single Palestinian state and voted instead to partition Palestine into an Arab state and a Jewish state, with Jerusalem becoming an international enclave.
Within days full scale civil war erupted. The Zionists were well prepared for this fight and gained the upper hand almost immediately.
On April 9, 1948 fighters from Zionist paramilitary groups massacred the population of Deir Yassin, a village of roughly 750 Muslim Arabs near Jerusalem. Over a hundred murdered bodies lying in the streets were filmed by western media and appeared in Newsreels and other media around the World. Panic gripped other Palestinian villages and hundreds of thousands of Muslim peasants fled their homes in terror ahead of the Zionist advance. There are plenty of still photos on the web if you want to look. And there is a website - Click Here sponsored by Righteous Jews that attempts to provide a balanced commentary.
These are similar to the images I remember as a young adult.
Then on 14 May 1948 the leaders of the Zionist movement in Palestine declared Israel a Jewish state in accordance with the UN resolution. The following day a combined Arab force from Egypt, Jordan and Syria, together with expeditionary forces from Iraq, entered Palestine in support of the Palestinian Arabs with the intention of immediately crushing the new State. But they were no match for the Israelis who had been resupplied with weapons and aircraft from Czechoslovakia. It was Arab League's first taste of things to come and became known as 'The Catastrophe'.
The State of Israel not only held the area that the UN General Assembly had recommended for a Jewish State but took a great deal of the area that had been allocated for the proposed Arab state, including part of the West Bank.
Transjordan (modern Jordan) took control of the remainder of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Egyptians took control of the Gaza Strip.
The proposed Arab state was suddenly a thing of dreams - if God wills - as they say.
Around 700,000 Palestinian Arabs fled or were expelled from the area that became Israel and became Palestinian refugees.
While Palestine was still a British territory many Jewish refugees had been prevented from migrating to Israel but after 1948 the gates were opened and 700,000 new Israelis flooded in to the new State.
From the mid 50's on, tensions between Israel and its neighbours featured heavily in the new medium of TV.
When I was at University in the early 60's my friend Max, who was of Jewish heritage and was sympathetic to the Zionists insisted we go and see a truly distressing documentary movie about the Holocaust with images from Auschwitz and other Nazi camps. We argued about how that atrocity could possibly justify the forging of a Jewish homeland in an Arab country when millions of Jews lived happily integrated lives, like Roman Catholics or Mormons, in secular countries where they were not rounded up into ghettos or sent off to their deaths.
Some Jews continue to blame the Holocaust on the Christians. Contrary to convenient amnesia, almost all Nazis were practicing Christians, either members of Hitler's boyhood Catholic Church or the protestant Deutsche Christen (German Christians). Whatever he came to believe, Hitler remained highly superstitious, denounced Germanic paganism in Mein Kampf and was at pains to stay on good terms with the Catholic Church.
Wendy and I have recently visited Auschwitz in Poland to be confronted by its horrors, in which over a million Jews were systematically put to death in what amounted to a factory, some having been experimented on first.
The plaque reads: Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to Humanity.
Where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women and children, mainly Jews
from various countries of Europe. Auschwitz-Birkenau 1940-1945
The Holocaust was an horrific criminal act on a scale that relied on the complicity of a large number of people and it's easy to understand why Christians today are as upset as any caring person, when confronted by what was done to the Jews.
Yet I still have difficulty making the connection between that horror and the need for an exclusively Jewish State. They seem to me to be entirely different things.
Along with those who came up with the, UN rejected, single state proposal, I naïvely hoped that the people of Palestine would learn to live together in one country in harmony, each agreeing to practice their own religion, or not, as suited each individual. Indeed, we saw hints that this was possible in Israel, in parts of Jerusalem and in Nazareth, but we also evidence of people deliberately sabotaging this possibility.
A decade after Israel came into being, on June 5 1967, while Max and I were still at University, the Six Day War began. It was said to be a pre-emptive attack to ward off an Arab/Egyptian attack on Israel's Nuclear weapons facilities.
The war was brilliantly planned and executed. Israel launched a surprise air attack on the Egyptian air force to gain air superiority, then used land attacks to take the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria and the West Bank from Jordan. As I have mentioned elsewhere Israel also took control of East Jerusalem, previously held under the UN mandate by Jordan.
I was impressed by the Israeli strategy and military success, Max was delighted. But it may not have been a good thing for the peace of the World.
The numbers of Palestinian refugees leaving Israeli held territory swelled and eventually 300,000 fled, mostly to Jordan. As a result of the war and the ongoing and unresolved tensions between Arabs and Jews many Jewish Arabs were then forced to leave Arab countries to escape persecution, further swelling Israel's Jewish population.
The attacked countries then maintained a state of war with Israel. Tensions continued to simmer until October 6 1973 when a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israeli positions in the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights.
The renewed conflict dragged on for 20 days and losses on both sides were significant. The USSR and USA became embroiled on opposing sides, and the possible use of nuclear weapons threatened a major World conflict. The Yom Kippur War, as it became known, was eventually resolved by the Camp David Accords with Jimmy Carter brokering peace between Israel and Egypt. Menachem Begin (Israel) and Anwar El Sadat (Egypt) subsequently shared the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize as a result.
But it was not an agreement everybody was happy about, particularly the 'Jewish Settlers' who had already begun to colonise the oil rich Sinai Peninsula after the Six Day War. On the other side, several resistance groups formed among Palestinian refugees. Prominent was the PLO, and subsequently Hamas and Hezbollah. These have launched numerous attacks against Israel, as has Israel against them, at one stage resulting in an Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
Most recently, from July 2014 until less than a month before our visit, Israel carried out a series of attacks on Hamas positions in the Gaza Strip to remove rockets and tunnels under their border defences, collaterally killing around 2,000 civilians and injuring and leaving homeless many tens of thousands. 17,200 Garzan homes were totally destroyed and three times that number were seriously damaged.
People we spoke to, particularly in Nazareth, described this as 'the recent war'. But the Government of Israel still describes it as nothing more than an operation in retaliation to Hamas rocket attacks. These rockets were in retaliation for mass arrests of Hamas leaders during which five Hamas defenders were killed. The arrests were said to be in response to the kidnapping and murder of three teenage hitchhikers. These turned out to have nothing to do with Hamas or its leadership.
469 Israeli soldiers lost their lives during the 'operation'. By comparison less than twice that number, 776 Israeli soldiers, lost their lives during the Six Days 'War'.