Nov 21st 2009

The Palestinian Jews

by David Eichler

The author is a professor of physics at Ben Gurion University in Israel. He received his Ph.D. in 1976 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Further biographical information can be obtained at http://www.bgu.ac.il/~eichler/.

Evenhandedness in the Mideast? It sounds fair if it means equal rules for Arabs and Jews. For example, forbidding natural growth of Jewish settlements inside the West Bank and the Gaza strip, on the assumption that it is future sovereign Palestine, is fair if the same principle is applied to Arab settlement in Israel. The demand that Israel halt natural growth of settlements in what many consider rightfully Arab territory, without demanding the same of Arab settlements in Israel is…. sorry folks….racist, however inadvertent..

Arguably, any ethnic-specific law about where people can live is racist. Were Arabs in Israel forbidden to own land in Israel, it would be loudly protested as racism. They are, after all, Israeli citizens. Most of them had predecessors, recent and perhaps ancient, living on what is now Israel before 1948. And you know what? Jews living in a future Palestinian state would be of exactly the same status.

Wait, I hear you say, Jews living in a future Palestinian state would never consent to be loyal citizens of such a state. Why would they not be as loyal to such a state, if they dared remain there, as Israeli Arabs are to Israel? There is the slight complication, of course, that Jews in a predominantly Arab country would be in mortal danger if they remained - that is one of the true asymmetries in the Mideast - but who knows what they would decide if the Palestinian State granted them physical security and equal rights? (And I do mean granted, not merely promised.) If it granted its Jews the right to vote, as Arabs have in Israel, a Palestinian government that depended on fair election victories to stay in power might realize that it had every reason to protect its Jews, as smart Israeli politicians realize the importance of the Israeli Arab vote.

The world has been deprived of opportunities to find out whether Jews would live in a democratic Palestinian state. When the Sharon government cleansed the Gaza strip of Jews, it removed them by force, including those who wished to remain even without the protection of Israel's military, so the world was deprived of a test case. When Hamas assassinated its political rivals after taking power, we were deprived of another important test case: a Palestinian government relying on fair reelection.

Wait, I hear you say, the Jews living in occupied territories obtained their residence there through conquest, whereas Arabs living in Israel obtained their residence legitimately. Actually, the Arabs living in Israel acquired their residence and supremacy through conquest followed by racist laws. Throughout the Ottoman occupation of the Mideast, Arabs were allowed to settle in Palestine/Israel while Jews were not. In fact, anti-Jewish cleansing in the Mideast goes back millennia as both Christian and Moslem administrations placed severe restrictions (to say the least) on Jewish residence. It is no wonder that Arabs in Palestine/Israel outnumbered Jews in the early 20th century. It must have seemed very peculiar and threatening to many Arabs when the British briefly allowed both Jews and Arabs to settle in Israel/Palestine, and they soon got the British to put a stop to it. Now outraged that Jews are still allowed to settle in the West bank, from which Jews were evicted long ago and again in 1948, they are successfully pressuring Obama as they successfully pressured Great Britain. It's all very expected and ho-hum, as racism traditionally is until challenged.

Peace will come to the Mideast only when all Arabs with the power to make or break such peace recognize the right of Jews to live there. The violence and terror, which existed in even greater amounts before Israel was reestablished in 1948, are not fundamentally about border disputes, Israel's policies, or even Israel itself. The conflict is over real estate. Allowing Jews to buy land freely and live in peace, if it doesn't ruin the neighborhood, at least drives up the price. (Jewish neighborhoods in American cities during the 20th century were busted up by terror, much of it organized, for much the same reason.) David Ben Gurion's book "My Talks with Arab Leaders", to which the reader is referred, reveals the candid statements of those leaders about why they opposed Jewish immigration, even within an Arab dominated Palestine. He paraphrases Auni Abdul Hadi, a prominent Palestinian Arab, speaking in July 1934, shortly after Hitler took power in Germany: "Who can resist the insane prices (for land) paid by Jews?"

To this day, private land transactions between consenting parties count for little in the Mideastern political arena. Jews living on land in the Gaza strip privately purchased from consenting Arab owners were evicted from it by the Sharon government, while the world cheered, because they were Jews, and, on these grounds alone, apparently not permitted to exercise their legal ownership. Arabs protested the influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union during the 1990's for reasons that had nothing to do with Arab-Israeli borders, and everything to do with their being Jews and not Arabs.

This is not to deny the difficulties of poor tenants when real estate prices increase. This universal problem, however, is hardly grounds for abolishing the freedom of property owners to sell it for a good price. If an Arab wants to sell his home and/or plot of land for a million dollars (hundreds of times what the average Palestinian earns in a year) to a Jew who is willing to pay this much for it, what right does anyone have to prevent these individuals from making this transaction? Had the freedom of private transaction between consenting adults been respected - e.g. had Arabs, instead of murdering Jews, and denying them basic rights, demanded that the British administration or international community deal with displaced tenants - there would have been no war and no massive Palestinian refugee problem. The cost of buying brand new homes even for 10,000 displaced (by market forces) households per year (far less than the present rate of home foreclosures in the U.S.) would have been of order $1 billion or so per year (in 2009 dollars). This is ludicrously miniscule compared to the cost of arms, wars, and support of post-1948 refugees. Most importantly, the cost of new homes and land plots would have been small compared to the revenues that land sales to Jews in Hitler's shadow would have brought to the Palestinian Arabs.

Prime Minister Netanyahu's position that Jews everywhere are entitled to live like normal people is the one slim hope for peace in the Mideast, because it confronts the underlying obstacle to peace head on. It remains to be seen how he will stand up under American pressure, given the dismal performance of recent Israeli leaders and the ignorant policies of foreign meddlers. Incidentally, the last breakthrough for peace in the Mideast, Menahem Begin's agreement with Anwar Sadat (skyrocketing oil prices of the 1970's notwithstanding) followed Begin's innocent question to the world: Jews are allowed to live in London, New York, Los Angeles; why shouldn't they be allowed to live in the land of their forefathers? The world did not have a good answer.

Perhaps sensing in Begin a man of strength and principle, as per President Carter's description, Sadat dramatically announced within months that he was going to Jerusalem in search of peace. When he arrived in Jerusalem he said: "We used to reject you, true. We refused to meet you anywhere, true. We referred to you as the 'so-called Israel,' true. At international conferences our representatives refused to exchange greetings with you, true. At the 1973 Geneva Peace Conference our delegates did not exchange a single direct word with you, true. Yet today we agree to live with you in permanent peace and justice. Israel has become an accomplished fact recognized by the whole world and the superpowers. We welcome you to live among us in peace and security." All this was said before he received any concessions, because he recognized that universal matters of principle are not bargaining chips, even if the guarantees and details of their implementation are. In the tough negotiations that followed, he obtained every inch of Egyptian territory in return.

When Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran recognize, as a matter of principle, the basic Jewish rights to live, buy and sell land anywhere, why shouldn't there be peace? Politicians, arms manufacturers, and thugs benefit from war and fear, but most private individuals don't. When private individuals defend their rights to conduct private business, war-mongering elements are neutralized. As recently quoted in a New York Times article about the improvement of the Palestinian economy and security, Palestinian store owner Rashid al-Sakhel said "For the past eight years, a 10-year old boy could order a strike and we would all close. Now nobody can threaten us."

Arabs and Jews want the same things. They want to fall in love, raise families, earn money, buy homes, sell them for a profit and buy newer, better ones, worship in a manner of their choosing, and pursue happiness as individuals - anywhere. When and only when governments recognize these rights without regard to race, creed or color, peace becomes possible.

People also want physical security, and, in a region with a history of violence, mistrust, numerical asymmetry, and but a tenuous tradition of democracy, it will be hard to implement the ideals of unrestricted individual freedom overnight. But this is all the more reason to display respect to them as principles, while negotiations for assurances, guarantees, checks and balances etc. proceed. Otherwise, there is little to negotiate about.

Peace in the Mideast probably must accommodate Israeli Arabs into its equation. So must it, if only out of principle, accommodate Palestinian Jews.

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