'Sparks of Hope in the Past'

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John Rose, author of a new book on Israel, spoke to Simon Assaf about the roots of Zionism and the Palestinian struggle today.

Your book The Myths of Zionism charges that the ideology behind Israel is based on a whole series of myths, going all the way back to ancient Israel. Can you tell me what those myths are?

In the book each chapter heading is based on a myth. The first two myths are based on ancient Jewish history, the next two myths are based on medieval Jewish history, and the last six myths are based on the modern period starting roughly in the 19th century.

The first chapter challenges the outrageous claim that Zionist leader Ben Gurion made when he met the British in 1936: 'The Bible is our mandate.' The Zionist movement has always used the Bible to justify its land grab in Palestine. The most fascinating thing about this is the way this myth has been exposed almost by accident by Israeli archaeologists themselves. For over a century they have been looking for the remains of 'ancient Israel'. By the early 1990s the archaeologists in Israel began to panic. They began to realise that ancient Israel, the so-called ancient kingdom of David and Solomon, wasn't there. They had to come to grips with the fact that it wasn't there. There were ancient Israels but not this enormous kingdom which the Zionists laid claim to. A major debate has opened up, with enlightened archaeologists like professors Herzog and Finkelstein insisting on a completely new approach. They realise that the discoveries can have a shattering effect on Israeli identity, undermining mythical notions of Jewish identity based on misreadings of ancient Jewish history. But they insist that scientific findings must be respected.

On the other hand you write about the astonishing discovery of a mosaic on an ancient synagogue floor in Galilee dating from the 4th century CE (Common Era, or AD). The mosaic has an image of the sun god next to the religious Jewish symbol of the menorah (burning candlesticks). What is the significance of this?

This is tremendous. It is the front cover of my book and I'm really proud of it. It works as a celebration of the close relations between Jews and non-Jews in this part of the 'Holy Land' at this time - a time when, according to the second Zionist myth I try and expose, Jews were starting their long 'period of Exile'. Incidentally I also show that 2,000 years ago at the time of the so-called 'Exile' there were many centres of Jewish population, in contrast to the 'Exile' myth which claims that the Jewish diaspora 'dispersal' begins only then.

You also write a great deal about the Islamic-Judeo and Arab-Judeo traditions, which is something that you don't hear about any more.

This is also based on a fabulous discovery, the 'Geniza' papers in a medieval synagogue in Cairo. Even right wing Zionist academics like Bernard Lewis are very impressed with the strength of Islamic-Jewish relations at the time of the original Islamic expansion across the Middle East. This little understood period of history exposes the nonsense that Arabs and Jews cannot live together.

So Zionism undermined the potential for Arabs and Jews to live together in the modern period?

Yes. The Zionist settlers are European Jews, and they arrive as conquerors of Arab land. The complication here is that Zionism up to a limited point did provide a kind of safety valve for European Jews fleeing anti-Semitism. But what a price to pay - to be part of a thoroughly racist anti-Arab process, allied first to British then US imperialism.

What was the character of the anti-Semitism that created the Zionist movement?

You have to make a separation between the explicit Tsarist anti-Semitism of the crumbling Russian Empire at the end of the 19th century, which is very intense, focused and politicised, and the more general Christian anti-Semitism in Russia. The Tsars see that their best way of hanging on to power is to whip up anti-Semitism, to blame the very large Jewish population for the ills of the peasantry which the Tsars had created. Of course there was a degree of spontaneous anti-Semitism among the peasantry and the poor - though uneven and not necessarily organised - but the important thing to understand is the Tsars organised it for explicitly political and reactionary reasons, to hang on to power.

One of the biggest points the Zionists make is the Holocaust. The survivors had to go somewhere. Also, didn't it prove the Zionist case about European anti-Semitism?

The single most important factor in the creation of modern Israel is the Holocaust and its aftermath. The Israeli anti-Zionist historian Ilan Pappe uses the symbolic arrival in Palestine of the ship Exodus full of Holocaust survivors in 1948 to make a devastating point. Britain, which still controlled Palestine, turned the ship back to the survivor camps. Britain and the victorious allies in the war, especially the US, could easily have settled the survivors in Western Europe, North America and Australia. But they left them in limbo, handing a decisive propaganda victory to the Zionists even before the 1948 war began. What the world saw was the need for the settlement of survivors in Palestine, not the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people.

Before the Second World War the US president, Roosevelt, had organised an international conference at Evian explicitly to respond to the Jewish refugee crisis that the West knew Hitler would unleash. Many fine words were spoken but no real resettlement plans were put in place. The Palestinians paid the ultimate price for this moral failure of the West. It's absolutely outrageous that the victims of European anti-Semitism were dumped on the fields of the Palestinian peasantry.

The Zionists say the land was empty. You completely overturn that myth.

Yes, by plagiarising a wonderful book by the Palestinian historian Beshara Doumani. Using scrupulous research techniques based on Ottoman documents and Arab merchant family papers, Doumani succeeds in bringing back to life the really vibrant Palestinian peasant economy which the Zionists successfully buried in the last century. Now their grandchildren linger in the refugee camps. Again, Edward Said is quite rightly recognised as Palestine's greatest intellectual, but there are thousands of unknown Edward Saids, thousands of Palestinian professionals, doctors, teachers, lawyers, writers, journalists, scientists and artists dotted all over the world who trace their roots back to Palestine.

What were imperialism's interests in Palestine?

At the end of the First World War Britain saw the occupation of Palestine in several ways. First of all there was the trophy factor. Palestine historically was a trophy for the West. The Crusades were partly about that. As the Ottoman Empire starts to disintegrate Britain is extremely excited by the prospect of taking the Holy Land as a kind of important symbol of modern civilisation. Edward Said writes about this in great length in Orientalism. He talks about how Napoleon had the same kind of concept when he arrived in Egypt. Napoleon never arrived in Palestine because he was stopped by the great strength of the peasant militias. The strength of the militias began there, not with resistance to the Zionists.

The British ruling class's own conversion to Zionism also has a trophy element - helping the Zionists to create a new kind of Jew who can help run the British Empire. There is also open anti-Semitism. More Jews in Palestine meant fewer Jewish refugees coming to Britain. But in the end it was about economic and military factors - the creation of a colonial and military buffer in strategic proximity to the Suez Canal. Such considerations were made very clear by Churchill and the rest of the gang.

What about the US?

It is not the case that in 1948 the US ruling class said to itself, 'We must help Israel because we want to secure the oil supplies.' It was a much more slow moving process than that. It was really in the early 1950s when the role of Israel as a kind of policeman for US imperialism became explicit. An Israeli newspaper editor in 1951 coined the phrase that Israel should be the 'watchdog' for Western interests. Then the US began arming Israel. Israel always understood this was the precondition for its survival in the Middle East. It proved its point to the West in the 1967 war when it defeated Nasser, the most important and greatest Arab national leader in the last century.

Many people today see a significant change in US-Israeli relations in the links between the US neo-cons and the Israeli Likud Party. Why are you doubtful?

You have to strike a balance. There's no question that the US neo-cons are rooted in the Likud Party. And there's no question that the neo-cons have a big influence on the Bush administration. But when people say this means that Israel now controls the US, this is absurd. The difference between Bush and Likud and Clinton and the Israeli Labour Party is simply not so great. You just have to look at how the second intifada started because of Clinton's policy. You have to start with the peace swindle called Oslo. Within months of the Oslo peace accord being signed the Jewish settlements on the West Bank were expanding rapidly, and the US press was really humiliating Arafat for surrendering the Arab cause. The only difference between Clinton/Oslo on the one hand and Bush/neo-cons on the other is that Clinton/Oslo believed you'd get the Palestinians to police a repressed Palestinian mini-state on behalf of the US and Israel, and Bush/neo-cons learned that you can't push the Palestinians that far, so they just say, 'Screw them.'

Finally, the wall - how would you respond to those who argue that this is the ultimate proof that Arabs and Jews cannot live together?

The wall certainly has a grim significance in that it symbolises the politics of the neo-fascist Zionist leader from the 1920s, Jabotinsky. There is an excellent book that I recommend - The Iron Wall by the dissident Israeli academic Avi Shlaim. Shlaim shows how Jabotinsky's phrase 'iron wall' as metaphor for the military force needed to smash the Palestinians became the dominant creed in the history of Zionism. Now literally it has its iron wall!

But, despite everything, I think there is cause for hope. My last chapter calls for rekindling the 'spark of hope in the past' - an idea a progressive Jewish writer of Arab origin borrowed from the Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin. We have plenty of examples of Jewish-Arab cooperation in the early modern Arab nationalist movement before Zionism secured itself. Let's take the case of Iraq - the Jewish community in Iraq provided a lot of supporters for the Iraqi national movement against Britain, and was recognised as doing so. It wasn't only providing cadres for the Iraqi Communist Party. Even some of the quite virulent right wing pan-Arab nationalist organisations, which weren't particularly friendly to the Jews, nevertheless recognised that the Iraqi Jewish community had a legitimate role to play, and praised Iraqi Jewish fighters who fought for the national cause. So there is this tradition, which is certainly buried. But the thing with history is that you can pretend it didn't exist, but it always reasserts itself in one form or another. You cannot kill an idea.

I don't really want to speculate on how this is going to break. I just make two or three points about it. It is very difficult for the Palestinians by themselves to defeat Israel militarily - that's why they have suicide bombers. They don't have the military equipment to stand up to Israel. On the other hand a tremendously important defeat for Israel has already occurred - it is losing ideologically. For two decades Zionism held the moral high ground in the West. Now in western Europe Zionism no longer has this credibility - on the contrary, the Palestinians have got the credibility. That's a very important shift, and that will stay whatever the strengths or weaknesses of the military campaigns.

Secondly, it is quite clear with the US/British occupation of Iraq this is no longer a conflict between Israel and Palestine. This is about western domination of the region. I was talking to a Palestinian who was incredibly pessimistic. I said to him, 'What about if the Iraqis succeed in getting the US and Britain out of Iraq?' He said it will give the Palestinians great hope. So that's an additional factor.

Something else is occurring that I don't want to exaggerate at all. A tiny number of Zionists now understand that the game is up - that there is something called post-Zionism. A tiny number of intellectuals now know that the ideology stinks. One or two are former hardline Zionists, and what they write about is explosive. One of them in particular says, 'I now recognise the Arab case is far more accurate than the Jewish-Zionist case, and I for one am ready to be a Jewish minority in an Arab country.' So I believe that the wave of the future is already in the present, but it is very difficult to spell out the strategic direction in which this is going to take place. We are in a very new period now with the 'war on terror' and the crisis of globalisation. I don't think it is clear to anyone how these new movements are going to develop.