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'His Majesty’s government views with favour a national home for the Jewish people'

Photo: Karl Nerenberg, rabble.ca

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Jerusalem’s Archeological Park occupies five acres that neighbour both the Wailing Wall and the Dome on the Rock.

In the Park’s small museum, there is a graphic display that tells part of the essential Israeli narrative. It is a timeline that relates the history of the Jewish people to the history of the city of Jerusalem, going back to King David’s conquest of that city.

The historic periods the timeline depicts include: the Canaanite, the Israelite, the Babylonian exile, the Persian, the Hellenistic, the Roman, the Byzantine, the Early Muslim and the Crusader.

And that only brings us up to the 13th century of the Common Era.

It is a lot of history, and one of its themes is that the Jews have a more than 2,000 year connection to Jerusalem.

Ironically, you can easily forget that historic fact wandering through the contemporary Old City of Jerusalem -- what with its bustling Armenian, Christian and Muslim Quarters, in addition to the Jewish Quarter.

Churches and mosques characterize today’s Old City, as much as do synagogues.

And the Old City’s commercial life is typical Arab souk, crowded with shops and stalls selling everything from finely wrought handicrafts to tourist knick-knacks to some of the finest honey, nut and filo dough pastry you will find anywhere.

And so if Israel makes a point of emphasizing the Jewish story in this city, it may be because that story is so intertwined with the stories of many other peoples.

Today, more than 700 years after the Crusader Era, the Jewish story is uncomfortably, but ineluctably, intertwined with the Palestinian story.

But the Jerusalem Archeological Park does not deal with disquieting present-day realities.

The beginnings of an Israeli army

Tel Aviv sits on the Mediterranean, and is not part of the ancient, biblical Jewish homeland.

There are historic rocks and bricks in Jerusalem that are literally thousands of years old.

In Tel Aviv the historic buildings are less than a century old.

Many of those buildings are, nonetheless, of significant interest, including, as they do, some fine examples of early 20th century Bauhaus architecture. And Tel Aviv has its part of the Israeli historic narrative, too.

At the Haganah Museum, for instance, housed in one of those fine Bauhaus buildings, on Tel Aviv’s chic Rothschild Street, you can learn about the origins of what would become the armed forces of Israel.

The story of the Haganah fighting force is one of grit, courage, resourcefulness and, when necessary, ruthlessness.

Part of that story deals with how the Zionist movement transformed Lord Balfour’s 1917 Declaration, which promised the Jews a homeland in what was then called "Palestine," from words to reality.

Balfour was British Prime Minister Lloyd George’s wartime Foreign Secretary. His oft-quoted Declaration -- "his Majesty’s government views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people" -- was as much a calculated act of Great Power realpolitik as high principle.

The "war to end all wars" was raging. The Middle East, then, as now, was a zone of intense Great Power competition: among the French, the Ottoman Turks, the British and the Russians. For Balfour’s British Empire there were all kinds of strategic considerations involved in the pledge to the Zionist movement, not the least of which was control of the Suez Canal.

When, in the years after the Great War, the British seemed to backslide on Lord Balfour’s promise, Zionists did not stand still.

They established farming settlements in Palestine and defended them militarily -- which is where the Haganah comes in. Its role was to defend what was to become the Jewish homeland.

Later, during the post WWII struggle for Israeli statehood, the Haganah (and to a much greater extent, the more radical Irgun) did not eschew tough and aggressive tactics, including sabotage, and even what might be called "terrorist" methods, such as blowing up rail lines.

What the Haganah Museum teaches is that the Jews could depend on nobody but themselves. When the chips were down, as they so often were, they had to take matters into their own hands and in tangible ways reaffirm the historic connection to the Holy Land.

A story of the Diaspora, too

Other museums and memorials in Israel reinforce this message.

The Diaspora Museum (Beit Hatfutstot) sits on the sunny suburban campus of Tel Aviv University. The bus ride there, from downtown Tel Aviv, takes you over the lazy Yarkon River and through pleasant, leafy residential neighbourhoods.

On the campus there is a striking sculpture garden, with an impressive collection of modern works. Among the pieces on permanent display are a looming steel ox and giant metal mesh 'necklace' woven around two palm trees.

The Museum’s permanent collection purports to take visitors on a "journey across eras and lands of Jewish life." But, inevitably, there are the repeated stories of persecution, expulsion, massacres, forced conversions, pogroms and, finally, the Holocaust.

This dark side of the Jewish story undergirds Israel’s raison d’être.

The nascent State of Israel needed determined settlers and fearless fighters to make real Lord Balfour’s too glib promise of 1917.

But the rationale for Israel’s very existence is not merely the nation state aspirations of some dewy-eyed and ardent Zionists.

Based on the evidence of the Diaspora Museum -- and the even grimmer evidence of the Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial -- that rationale is the need to assure the very survival of the Jews.

Not a single Arab mentioned among the collaborators

The Yad Vashem is in Jerusalem, but it is a long tramway or cab ride from Jerusalem’s Old City with its concentrated panoply of multiple cultures and religions.

Israel’s Holocaust Memorial is housed in a dramatic modern building, designed by Moshe Safdie, on large grounds, in new, suburban, homogeneous Jerusalem.

It has an extensive and comprehensive set of displays, whose common message is, at once, relentless, unflinching and impossible to deny.

To younger readers, it may come as a surprise to learn that the Holocaust was a virtually buried subject for the first three decades after WWII.

The defeat of Hitler in 1945 almost immediately ushered in a new war, the Cold War, with new battle lines and new alliances. When Germany went overnight from being the enemy to a trusted NATO ally, the West had every incentive to move on. Part of moving on meant allowing the horrors of the Nazi regime to fade quickly from collective memory.

In the early 1970s, a prominent Canadian Rabbi speaking to a group of graduate students felt the need to contextualize references to the Holocaust.

"For those of you who cannot remember that time and those events, just think of a more recent genocide, that of Biafra," the Rabbi said.

Today, many readers might have to look up Biafra on Wikipedia, but thanks to memorials such as the Yad Vashem -- as well as to a burgeoning field of scholarship and historiography and to Hollywood’s post-Cold War rediscovery of the crimes of the Nazis -- we’ve all heard about the Holocaust.

When you visit the Yad Vashem you might be struck by the lack of visible and apparent security.

These days it is routine to subject museum visitors almost everywhere to airport style security. This is especially so in Israel. But there is none of that at the Yad Vashem. Nor is there any ticket charge. Visiting this memorial is free.

The Yad Vashem’s exhibits are exhaustive, and include the often excruciating video testimony of witnesses and survivors. They tell over and over again, in many different words and languages, of the unimaginable pain, suffering and destruction wrought by the German Nazis' ideology of hate.

And the Yad Vashem does not spare those non-Germans who aided and abetted the Nazi project.

Poles, Ukrainians, Dutch, French, Slovaks, Lithuanians: the Yad Vashem makes note of them all, and often points out that these non-Germans did not merely hold the killers’ coats.

All too often, they pulled the triggers themselves.

But you cannot help but notice that there is one group entirely missing from the Yad Vashem’s rogues’ gallery of enthusiastic collaborators: the Arabs.

The only Arabs who merit mention in Israel’s Holocaust Memorial are a few of the righteous gentiles. Among those are the Tunisian Khaled Abdelwahab, who sheltered a Jewish family on his farm throughout the period of Nazi occupation.

The Roma have no nation state: A lesson for the Jews?

On the occasions when Prime Minister Harper’s government undertakes to formally remember the Holocaust it studiously ignores the Roma (or Gypsy) people, who, in large measure, shared the fate of the Jews.

The Yad Vashem makes no such omission. It respectfully notes the Nazis’ practice of targeting Gypsies with almost the same enthusiasm as they did Jews.

The Roma have no nation state of their own.

There has never been a Roma version of Zionism that sought to lay claim to some part of the historic Gypsy homeland in India.

Today, nearly seven decades after the end of the Holocaust, the Roma are still a despised minority in Europe. They have, at best, second-class citizen status in virtually every country from the Urals to the Atlantic.

Israel’s assertive and unapologetic military nationalism may not be to everybody’s taste; but in a world where might makes right, it does appear to give Israel, and the Jews, a kind of respect. And many Jews would reason that, on balance, they would rather be respected and feared, if sometimes also deeply resented, than patronized and pitied.

However, it is more than tragic that it should be the Palestinians who now pay the highest price for the historic persecution of the Jews.

Based on the narrative of Israel’s museums and memorials, the principal authors of Jewish persecution for the better part of two millennia were not Arab and not Muslim.

They were European and, at least nominally, Christian.

The idea of settling the Jews in the ancient Middle Eastern homeland was, on the one hand, a strange dream of idealistic 19th century Zionists, caught up in the prevalent nationalism of their time.

It was also the far less idealistic project of European colonialists, who, nearly a century ago, viewed the Arab occupants of Palestine as mere "natives." For the managers of empire, the Zionist project was at once a neat solution to the "Jewish problem" and smart, strategic geopolitics.

If the centuries of persecution, culminating in the Holocaust, constitute a convincing narrative in favour of a Jewish state, the Palestinians have a narrative of their own that is no less convincing.

Peace talks. . .?

The Canadian Prime Minister and a phalanx of cabinet ministers will soon be visiting Israel, cheering on Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

But that will be a side show.

More important are peace talks now taking place between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Sadly, the Israeli Prime Minister does not seem to take the talks very seriously. Even as his government meets face to face with the Palestinian leadership, Netanyahu continues to establish settlements in the very territory that is the subject of the talks.

It is, of course, asking way too much of the Israelis to expect them to look at their Palestinian neighbours and say to themselves: they only want for themselves that for which we fought for so long -- a place to call home.

Netanyahu and his colleagues do not likely see the Israeli and Palestinian stories in that way.

But could it be the true message of the narrative of itself that Israel tells so effectively and in so many different ways?

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