Does Israel have a right to exist? Does the U.S.

Michael Medved

7/26/2006 12:00:00 AM - Michael Medved

It should come as no surprise that some of the same angry leftists who stridently deny Israel’s “right to exist” similarly challenge the claims to nationhood of the United States of America.

After all, the two allied and embattled democracies achieved independence in the same way – the patient settlement of largely desolate and under-populated land, the building of a new civilization virtually from scratch, and a long, bloody fight against determined, sometimes implacable opposition.

In fact, Israel boasts a far stronger “right to exist” than does its American counterpart (or many other nations) because of its ancient claim to the disputed land, and long-standing endorsement by international organizations.

In order to place these realities in proper perspective, it’s first necessary to reject some thirty years of wildly irresponsible anti-Israel propaganda. First of all, it’s not true in any sense that the modern Jewish State ever supplanted or destroyed an existing nation of “Palestine.” From the time of definitive destruction of the ancient Jewish commonwealth in 70 A.D., the land that comprises the current State of Israel never enjoyed independent existence but, rather, passed back and forth among competing world empires—Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Crusader, Mamaluke, Ottoman and British. Over the course of more than 1,800 years, no nation with the name “Palestine” appeared on any maps, anywhere. The distinguished Arab-American historian Philip Hitti, professor at Princeton University, testified to the Anglo American Committee in 1946: ‘There is no such thing as ‘Palestine’ in history, absolutely not.”

Mark Twain visited the Holy Land in 1867, shortly before the commencement of modern Jewish resettlement, and described it as “a desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds—a silent, mournful expanse… A desolation is here that not even imagination can grace with the pomp of life and action.” According to the careful population figures of the Ottoman Empire, in 1882 (at the very beginning of the modern, organized Jewish immigration back to the ancestral home), the total population of land between the Jordan and the Sea was less than 250,000 – in an area that today supports ten million people, Israelis and Palestinians.

The resettlement of the sparsely populated Holy Land by the descendants of its ancient inhabitants, however, did not take place solely in the modern era. Throughout Jewish history, waves of returnees came back to the sacred soil of their ancestors. In the 8th and 9th centuries, A.D., Jewish immigrants re-established major communities in Jerusalem and Tiberias; by the 11th Century, they had built new communities in Jaffa, Ashkelon, Caesarea and Rafah. In the 16th Century, more Jewish immigrants developed the famous center of mysticism in Safed and beginning in the 1700’s religious scholars and pilgrims intensely repopulated Jerusalem.

The Jewish connection to Israel, in other words, remained impassioned and unbroken for some three thousand years, while the British connection with North American began only in 1607 (with Jamestown) and 1620 (with the Pilgrims at Plymouth). No European settlers to the New World claimed an ancient connection to the land they discovered, developed, and gradually populated. Moreover, the Native Americans who preceded them came to the Western Hemisphere across the land bridge from Asia at the very latest some 13,000 years before the White Men arrived, while the Arabs appeared in Israel for the first time in the 7th Century.

If opponents of the modern Jewish State argue that Israelis have no meaningful claim on the land they occupy then on what basis do today’s Americans have a stake in the vast continent once inhabited by millions of members of hundreds of Indian tribes?

Moreover, the Jewish title to the land of Israel received long-standing recognition from international organizations that didn’t even exist at the time of American independence. On July 24, 1922, the 52 governments of the League of Nations formally recognized and endorsed the British Balfour Declaration calling for “reconstituting….a national home for the Jewish people” in the land with which that people enjoyed “historical connections.” Twenty-five years later, the United Nations (successor body to the League of Nations) validated this title with the partition plan, dividing the British Mandate in the area into two states—one Jewish, one Arab. The Arab leadership violently rejected that solution, but after Israel’s bloody war for Independence the UN recognized Israel as a full member state in 1949.

Unlike Israel, the United States won no international recognition prior to the commencement of our own war for Independence; we only won that acknowledgment after the courage and sacrifice of the patriots who waged our Revolutionary struggle. In the end, an estimated 25,000 Americans died in the war—nearly 1% of the Colonial population at the time. In a haunting similarity, Israel lost 6,373 fighters in its War of Independence—nearly 1% of the Jewish population of nation at the time. In the case of the American struggle, final victory only became possible through the direct intervention of France, and the participation (at the climactic battle of Yorktown) of a French fleet and army of some 20,000. In the case of Israel, foreign assistance remained strictly limited (the US imposed an arms embargo on Israel and the rest of the Middle East in 1947) and no foreign armies of any kind ever fought alongside the beleaguered Israelis.

In other words, the founders of the modern Jewish State built their nation on the same basis as the founders of the United States—with generations of building, toil, business development, land reclamation, settlement, and sacrifice in battle. Tel Aviv – by far the largest city in today’s Israel, and the nation’s financial center– was founded in 1909 and built from nothing, mostly on reclaimed sand dunes. In Jerusalem, Israel’s capital and second largest city, some two-thirds of the population lives in new neighborhoods built on empty land after Jewish immigrants began moving outside the Old City walls in the nineteenth century. Apparently, those who make the idiotic (but occasionally well-meaning) suggestion that the Jews of Israel should save the world some trouble and relocate in Florida, or Australia, or the moon, remain unaware of this history. The idea that literally millions of people would uproot their homes -- along with their businesses, parks, universities, museums, freeways and so forth – makes no more sense than expecting residents of New York or Los Angeles to dismantle and abandon the cities that they (and their ancestors) built.

Of course, those who suggest that Israelis should simply move their country somewhere else don’t always mean well—as evidenced by Iran’s demented president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. His mad obsession with transplanting all Jews from the Middle East to Europe (he recently wrote a public letter to the Chancellor of Germany with that plan in mind) reflects one of the most pernicious big lies of Islamist propaganda: the contention that Israel was an alien intrusion “imposed” on the Palestinian people to compensate Jews for the Holocaust (which may never have happened anyway). Of course, this argument ignores the fact that the League of Nations endorsed the idea of a Jewish State in 1922—11 years before Hitler even came to power! It also provides no explanation for the fact that the British Empire, which supposedly sponsored Israel as a refuge for allegedly persecuted Jews, actually blocked and outlawed settlement in the Middle East of all Jewish refugees from Nazi persecution both during the Holocaust years, and in the period immediately following the war. Most important of all, more than 700,000 Jews arrived in Israel as refugees from Islamic countries of North Africa and the Middle East and outnumbered all immigrants fleeing Hitlerism by a ratio of more than two to one. Ironically, one of these “Oriental Jews” who fled to the Jewish State from the Near East is the current President of Israel, Moshe Katzav—who was born in Ahmadinejad’s Iran, not Germany or Poland. Just as the population of the United States is made up of people whose forebears came from every corner of the globe—from Africa and Asia and Latin America as well as Europe—so too Israel has been populated by immigrants of all imaginable shades of skin color, from more than 80 nations (including a major recent influx from Ethiopia) on six continents. In neither case does the slogan “Go Back to Europe Where You Came From” make even the most superficial sort of sense.

For those who instinctively resist any comparison of Israel’s “right to exist” with that of the United States, the crucial difference must be one of longevity: America has now enjoyed 230 years of prosperous independence, while Israel has yet to reach its sixtieth birthday. Yet other nations (Slovakia? Turkmenistan? Namibia?) have come into being far more recently than Israel, without endless public challenges to their legitimacy. Montenegro, for instance, just joined the family of nations a few months ago—despite the fact that more that 45% of the citizens of the new country voted against its independence.

So if the long-standing, successful functioning of the American Republic provides the main basis for greater acceptance of our national existence, it might be more useful to analogize Israel today and the United States some 60 years after our own beginnings –say, in the year 1836, at the height of the Jacksonian Era, when the admiring French visitor Alexis de Tocqueville toured the young Republic in eloquent amazement. Had America earned a “right to exist” by 1836? Countless Indian wars to secure the lands of the Great Plains and the West still lay in our nation’s future, as did a spectacularly successful war against Mexico which brought about a vast expansion of American territory (into Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California and more)--- sort of the U.S. equivalent of Israel’s Six Day War of 1967.

Except for the fact that Israel has already given back most of the land it gained in that conflict – returning all of Sinai and Gaza to Arab adversaries, with the current Israeli government committed to still further (and very significant) concessions in the West Bank. These compromises (and potential compromises) reflect a fact that nearly all Jews understand, but that most Americans want to deny: that history is frequently, even generally, unfair. Whatever Israel’s claims to legitimacy – no matter how ancient the connection with the land, or how definitive the recognition by international law and putative world governments – the nation exists only because of the ability and willingness of its people (past, present and future) to defend it against ruthless enemies. By the same token, it might be pleasant to assume that America remains secure and safe because a grateful world appreciates what our nation has done to introduce the concept of liberty to peoples around the world, or to save humanity from Hitlerism, Stalinism and now, Islamo-Nazism. But with unreasoning, fanatical anti-Americanism on the rise nearly everywhere, more citizens have come to realize that we survive on the same basis Israel survives: through determination, through strength of character and (not least) through military power.

Like Israel, the United States isn’t a nation that grew up organically in one small corner of the earth, combining people who already spoke the same language and looked the same and shared common cultures. Both nations drew a dazzling array of dreamers and visionaries and crazies from around the world who made the choice to embrace the values and plans of the pioneers (“Halutzim,” in Hebrew). Of course, these national origins (involving acts of will, rather than accidents of birth) mean that Israel and America can’t ever be as perfect, and blameless, and pure in our turbulent histories as, say, our old world counterparts like France, say, or Spain, or Belgium. But as long as people in Tulsa and Tel Aviv, Jefferson City and Jerusalem, remain ready to sacrifice and even die for the still stirring visions of the founders, the two dynamic Republics will continue to exist – regardless of the world’s acceptance of their “right” to do so.