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Jewish World Review June 9, 2003 / 9 Sivan, 5763

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Lessons From History

Some analogies make for bad advice to peacemakers and historians | English scholar Thomas Henry Huxley wrote in 1877 that, "If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, where is the man who has so much as to be out of danger?"

No discipline seems to fit this admonition as well as the study of history. A smattering of knowledge of the past seems to be enough to send politicians and journalists off on tangled tangents that serve their purposes but usually mangle history. And, as is often the case, it is the Middle East that is more likely than any other topic to serve as the field for such misguided historical lectures.


Perhaps the most popular story circulating among the chattering classes as a historical lesson to be followed is that of Israel's Altalena incident, which was, to take but one recent example, the subject of a New York Times May 30 editorial by Ethan Bronner.

Titled "What Palestinians Can Learn From a Turning Point in Zionist History," the piece purported to show that the key for Middle East peace was the willingness of the new Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, to turn his guns on Hamas the way David Ben Gurion did on his own rivals in 1948.

The Altalena was a ship bearing arms and volunteers to fight in Israel's War of Independence that had been brought to the newly born State of Israel by the Irgun Zvai Leumi, the guerilla force led by Menachem Begin that had helped chase the British out of the country.

As Bronner tells it, Ben Gurion's decision to order the Haganah to fire on the ship and kill their fellow Jews solidified Israel's fledgling democracy. The Times wants Abbas to do the same thing with his rivals. That's an excellent suggestion but the analogy Bronner makes between the Irgun and Hamas is as wrongheaded as his acceptance of Ben Gurion's self-serving narrative of one of the most shocking and tragic incidents in modern Jewish history.

Contrary to the Times, the Irgun and the Lechi (known pejoratively in English-language histories as the Stern gang) attacked only military targets and have nothing in common with Palestinians who deliberately seek to kill civilians.

The Etzel's targets were military. A fact usually left out of thumbnail histories is that their famous bombing of the King David Hotel in 1947 was that the building they attacked was, at the time, actually the headquarters of the British occupation force not a tourist attraction.

Bronner also repeats the Arab propaganda story that the Irgun attack on the village of Deir Yassin near Jerusalem in April 1948 was simply a "massacre." Though civilians died there, the truth is, the incident was a battle in which the Irgunists (who were acting in cooperation with Haganah forces) took casualties while taking a strategic town that had been occupited by Iraqis seeking to besiege Jerusalem.

Moreover, had Bronner researched the issue further, he would have learned that, Ben Gurion's memoir to the contrary, the real story which is rather more complicated.

The only real difference between Ben Gurion and Begin at the time was that the latter was hoping to prod the prime minister to re-take the Old City of Jerusalem whose Jewish Quarter had just been sacked by Arab forces. The Irgun was still operating separately from the Haganah only in Jerusalem. And that was only because it was the Israeli government's decision at that time to maintain the fiction that it was not claiming Israel's capital which was supposed to be under international control under the United Nations partition plan.

Ben Gurion's motives for firing his "sacred canon" were complicated, but the notion put forward then and since that Begin was plotting his violent overthrow had more to do with the need of Israel's first prime minister to discredit a potential foe than anything else.

The true hero of the story was actually Begin who single-handedly averted a Jewish civil war by ordering Irgunists not to retaliate. He had done the same thing in 1944 when Ben Gurion had the Haganah turn Begin's men over to the British.

It would be a good thing if the Palestinian Authority actually decided to round up their terrorists. But the difference between 1948 and 2003 is that the Jews didn't need a civil war to achieve a democracy or to make peace with an Arab world that wanted only to kill them. The Palestinians do need to fight a war among themselves in order to have a government that will be democratic and to make peace with the Jewish state.

But then again, Bronner also ignored the fact that Abbas' supposed good intentions notwithstanding, it isn't clear that there actually is a pro-peace faction within the P.A. to fight such a war.


Another oddity of historical commentary these days comes from a place where you would least expect it: a great Jewish historian.

The writer in question is nothing less than a modern heroine of the Jewish people, as well as a distinguished scholar, Deborah E. Lipstadt, the director of Jewish studies at Emory University.

Lipstadt is a leading expert on the subject of Holocaust denial and has the scars to prove it. She earned her heroine status in 2000 when she successfully defended herself against a charge of libel in a lawsuit brought by English Holocaust denier David Irving. To her everlasting honor, she prevailed over Irving in an English court thoroughly discredited all such deniers.

So what's my problem with the gallant Ms. Lipstadt?

It's simple. Why is she silent about the widespread Holocaust denial and libel against the Jewish people currently being published in the Arab world? In a recent article on the topic of Shoah denial by Lipstadt syndicated by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, she never once mentioned the Arab world but instead concentrated on right-wing nuts like Irving and other marginal figures. As nasty as these guys are, they are no threat to the Jews or to the legacy of the Holocaust. But the enormous industry of denial growing within the Arab world is such a threat.

Leaving aside the fact that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has himself written a book of Shoah denial (though now he has allegedly backed away from it), we need Lipstadt and other historians of similar stature to take on this new more insidious threat. Silence in the face of this wave of denial is no more honorable than it would have been in the case of Irving. That's an historical lesson that even one of our finest scholars needs to learn.


Finally, we turn to the use of history by political figures. In the most recent instance, we had President George W. Bush making a pilgrimage to Auschwitz during his current trip to Europe and the Middle East.

Everything that Bush said and did there was appropriate. But I have some questions for the president:

Do you really understand that it was the inability of the Jews to defend themselves and the unwillingness of the non-Jewish world to stop their murder that made Auschwitz possible?

More to the point, will you conduct yourself so as to make a repetition of this mass slaughter of Jews impossible?

Ironically, the site of the G-8 European summit that Bush attended was Evian, France where 65 years ago the Western powers gathered to ponder what to do about the problem of Jewish refugees from Hitler? Their answer was nothing and this event helped set the stage for the loss of six million innocents.

Bush was, of course, on his way to Egypt and then Jordan where he hoped to implement his road map for Middle East peace. I was troubled by his published assertion that Israel's prime minister "owed" him concessions at the peace table.

Israel may choose to make concessions that it believes are in its interests. But if it must pay in Jewish blood for the political debts that Bush owes Britain or various Arab countries, then his trip to Auschwitz will turn out to have been mere tourism.

The president deserves the benefit of the doubt but if he is following in the footsteps of the last Evian conference then we don't need him to shed any tears at Auschwitz. In this case, as in some others, a little knowledge of history might be of no use at all.

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JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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