Why the Jews? A brief explanation

Mike Berger responds to the comments on his piece on the Israel academic boycott movement

Dick-swinging, I learnt recently, is a term used for flamboyant displays of testosterone excess manifested, for example, by unnecessary aggro and conspicuous bigotry. I rarely get involved with these ritualistic displays because they devour time and go nowhere.

But, to make an exception to my normal practice, somewhere in another post by RW Johnson to my recollection, a frequent commenter on Politicsweb opined (I forget his exact words) "he is tired of the BS from Blacks and Jews". Since the article had nothing to do with Jews I remonstrated, quite mildly.

The message from that brief exchange and then from another comment in response to my last post regarding the UCT Boycott, was that Jews are, "exclusive, entitled, supremacist and, of course, hypocrites". Not surprisingly the Jewish theme was picked up by others on the thread though not, I hasten to add, with the same attitude.

The silver lining to all this is that it provides an opportunity to address some misconceptions and other details which were not touched on in my previous post.

The problem in talking about 'the Jews', as the readers of Politicsweb will appreciate, is that it falls into the fallacies of 'essentialising' and 'stereotyping'. Both are no-nos in any intelligent circles. The first takes you straight to Adolph H. who was forever talking about Jewish science and Jewish art and Jewish this and Jewish that. Well that kind of thinking brought Armageddon down on him and his people and, if we keep doing it ourselves, we'll bring Armageddon down on our world and there won't be a Marshall plan to put Humpty-Dumpty together again. Stereotyping is a variant of essentialising and is equally stupid and unproductive so let's leave it at that.

For a small people (14 milion worldwide)the Jews are remarkably heterogeneous, ethnically, phenotypically, religiously, ideologically, linguistically, temperamentally and in virtually every other which way. This is the result of being thinly dispersed across much of the Western and Eastern worlds which naturally promotes diversity. The outcome is that experience with one subset of Jews does not allow you to extrapolate across the spectrum.

A people is not defined by their genes alone. 'Racial purity' is meaningless in the face of evidence from a deluge of modern population genetics which shows the mix of genetic lineages that comprise modern nations and peoples. The white Afrikaners for instance contain Asian and Black African genes - as well as of course the mix of genes which go to make up various Northern European nations. The following quote captures an important reality "only a minority of the ancestry of the author and Afrikaners are ethnically Dutch. This is important, because it shows how culture can spread and overwhelm ancestry".

This is bad news for racial purists. That does not mean there are no genetic differences between groups of people or that these differences are irrelevant. But the science is complicated and we don't know enough to make sweeping statements. Culture and context are both immensely important so until we gain deeper insight it would be wise to tread softly amongst the minefields.

As far as Jewish genetics is concerned Ashkenazi men have both Northern European and Middle Eastern inheritance. Jewish women derive mainly from a small group of founder lineages centred around the Mediterranean containing a significant Middle Eastern component. Jewish gene profiles cluster near other Middle Eastern populations. As far as one can make out from an immensely complicated technical story, there may exist a unique genetic signature common to virtually all Ashkenazi (and Sephardic and Mizrahi) Jews but the rest of their gene pool reflects mainly Middle Eastern but also Northern European (especially Italian) contributions.

Jews picked up genes (as did other peoples) from the various populations they lived amongst. Consequently this was reflected in different physical (and maybe other?) characteristics amongst Jews living, post- dispersion, in different parts of the world. But even more importantly minority Jewish communities exchanged culture and language with host populations and this contributed to the considerable diversity in the Jews making up modern Israel.

Nevertheless, the essence of Jewish identity does not lie in shared genes or the shared culture even, but in a shared religion, history and of course sense of belonging and commitment. Despite the diversity referred to, the majority of Jews, whether currently religious or secular, share a common experience of marginalisation, dispossession, powerlessness, exclusion and persecution.

The centrality of the biblical-historical story of Jewish origins more than 3000 years ago in the land of Canaan: the enslavement and subsequent exodus from Egypt and the wandering in the Wilderness, the interludes of Jewish kingdoms in what is now called Israel (together with Judea and Samaria), the centrality of Jerusalem and the subsequent defeats and dispersals, are all elements which find deep resonance in Jews with very different ideological leanings and religious commitments.

Short of a shared territory over the last 2000 years, I cannot think of any group who can claim a greater sense of common identity. Modern Israel supplies the missing element of a common homeland and recapitulates the origins of the Jewish entry into world history. Afrikaners who claim a commonality with the Jews in their desire for a Volkstaat should bear in mind that Jewish identity goes back 3000+ years and that the settlement of Israel represents a return to an ancient homeland never fully abandoned, one which always loomed large in Jewish consciousness especially when under threat.

Jewish exclusivity? Well yes and no. An excluded, threatened population can only maintain cohesion through psychological 'laagerisation' so to speak. Prohibitions against out-marriage, onerous dietary and other religious observances served the purpose of maintaining Jewish identity against the batterings of fate. It also provided Jews with some protection against genocidal accusations of proselytising Christian and other communities.

But Pew polls a few years ago showed that 60% of Jews in the USA married outside their faith, and these figures continue to rise. The rates are significantly less in Britain at around a quarter of all Jewish marriages but assimilation in Europe is rampant. If the findings of the Rabbinical Centre of Europe are accurate "over 85% of European Jews assimilate and intermarry with non-Jews; 80% do not attend synagogues, even on the central holiday of Yom Kippur; over 75% of Jewish children in Europe do not receive a Jewish education, and over 90% of European Jewish students have no connections with the Jewish community."

South Africa probably falls closer to the English model. Also bearing in mind that out-marriages between Jews and non-Jews do not only include European partners but Asian and other ancestries in significant numbers, the idea of Jewish exclusivity (and Jewish genetics) is due for serious revision in the minds of some readers of Politicsweb.

I did not wish to address the competing claims of Jews and Palestinian Arabs in any depth for various reasons. For what it is worth, I have come to the conclusion that, taking everything into consideration, Jews do have a clear moral and legal claim to territory within the Levant. The area occupied by modern Israel seems to me to meet these requirements and to be suitably modest considering the enormous area and vast resources at the disposal of Arab-Muslim communities.

But once again there are some myths widely disseminated in the propaganda war being pursued by the Palestinians and their backers. These and other popular factual misconceptions need to be cleared up.

First in that list is the assertion that Jews have no prior history in the region and hence should be treated simply as colonial settlers. This is patently false on almost every count. Jews as a people in the sense universally understood by historians and sociologists, certainly have a history in 'Palestine' and did not arrive de novo with a view to self-enrichment. The Zionist pioneers came as part of a project of national reconstruction and psychological rehabilitation.

Amongst the early settlers, use of indigenous labour was deeply frowned upon since the emphasis was on reclaiming the land through personal blood, sweat and tears. Such idealism did not entirely survive the harsh realities of the region but the Kibbutz movement constantly reaffirmed the principle of personal and communal manual labour.

On the other hand, Palestinians as a self-conscious people did not exist prior to the mid-20th century. Faint stirrings amongst the intelligentsia does not constitute an identity. The entire region was part of the Ottoman Empire and was thus simply incorporated into the Ottoman administrative structures. They were united with the broader Arab-Muslim culture of the Middle East, by a common language (doubtless with local dialects), a common religion and a common social organisation and culture, a hybrid of feudalism and a clan-based, honour culture.

There were hopes within elements of the Zionist movement and far fewer groups within the surrounding Arab communities, that a mutually symbiotic relationship between Jew and Arab could be forged without bloodshed. This, however, never eventuated for reasons still highly contested and largely irrelevant. The British, caught in an untenable position and amidst escalating tensions, handed the matter over to the United Nations to sort out.

This they did on 29 November 1947 with the Partition Plan (Resolution 181(ii)) dividing what remained of the territory defined by the Balfour Declaration after 75% had been allocated to the creation of modern Jordan in the area east of the Jordan river. To cut a long story short the plan was a compromise (passed 33 to 13 with 10 abstentions) which satisfied no-one but, and fundamental to this issue, the Jews accepted the decision for pragmatic reasons and the Arabs totally rejected it. In the words of the Arab Higher Committee, "from a survey of Palestine history (that) Zionist claims to that country had no legal or moral basis".

The next day the Palestinian Arabs initiated hostilities. Quoting from Wikipedia, "The first casualties after the adoption of Resolution 181(II) by the General Assembly were passengers on a Jewish bus driving on the Coastal Plain near Kfar Sirkin on 30 November. An eight-man gang from Jaffa ambushed the bus killing five and wounding others. Half an hour later they ambushed a second bus, southbound from Hadera, killing two more. Arab snipers attacked Jewish buses in Jerusalem and Haifa...and so the 1947-8 civil war broke out".

It didn't end there. On the day of British withdrawal from Israel, 14 May 1948, the Jews of Israel declared Independence and the following day were invaded by the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and Syria. The Arab armies lost even though the Jordanian Arab Legion, under the leadership of a British officer, Pasha Gubb, captured Jerusalem and held it in contravention of the United Nations Partition Plan until liberated by Israeli forces in 1967. Egypt captured the Gaza Strip.

As the result of the war, Israel expanded its territories and made its borders more defensible, but Jerusalem and its holy Jewish sites was closed to Jews completely. The Palestinians lost their opportunity to have a state of their own thus setting the pattern for Palestinian rejectionism to this day. The Jordanians occupied what was left of the original territory assigned to Palestinian Arabs leaving them stranded.

There were other later opportunities for the Palestinians to regain at least some of what they lost in the 1948 war. Egypt, after its flirtation with pan-Arabism and its catastrophic defeat in the 1967 war which it had recklessly provoked, eventually signed a peace treaty with Israel which included the return of the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt, an area larger than Israel itself. Sadat who had negotiated this deal, which persists to this day, was murdered for his pains. The Israelis made peace with Jordan which also holds despite strains.

But Arab-Palestinian rejectionism remained alive and well as epitomised by the 3 'nos' of the Khartoum Resolution of 1 September 1967 in the wake of war: "no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it, and insistence on the rights of the Palestinian people in their own country".

Well the Egyptian and Jordanian peace treaties belie that stance to the benefit of all in that region but the Palestinians are another story. Mahmoud Abbas said in 2011 that the 1947 Arab rejection of United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine was a mistake he hoped to rectify. He didn't really mean it. To understand this requires a brief diversion to consider the West Bank and the settlements?

After the victory of 1967, there was considerable pressure both from within Israel itself and from international sources for Israel to return what remained of the original territory assigned to the Palestinian Arabs. Why hasn't it happened? The short answer follows:

While the biblical argument supporting Israel's right to Judea and Samaria is strong across much of the Israeli population it is not decisive. The fanatical religious community is troublesome but few and would be handled in the event of a viable Peace Treaty. Poll after poll over many decades have shown that the majority of Israeli would support a two-state deal under the following conditions:

(1) The deal is final and includes recognition of Israel as a Jewish State

(2) The right of return of Palestinian 'refugees' is limited to symbolic access while the vast bulk of 'refugees' would need to find a home in neighbouring Arab states or elsewhere

(3) Jerusalem would remain the Jewish capital and Israel would retain decisive control though it could also serve as a Palestinian capital with considerable autonomy

(4) Acceptable security arrangements would need to be agreed to. In the context of regional realities and the strategic geography of the region - look at a topographic map - security is undoubtedly a non-negotiable requirement. Israel will not commit national suicide to look good.

In essence none of these fundamental requirements have been endorsed (perhaps not even grasped) either by Palestinian leadership or the broader Palestinian street. Eban is reputed to have said that the "Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity". It was a clever remark but wrong.

The Palestinians are driven by a totalising narrative of injustice, victimhood, Jewish/Zionist malevolence and unrelenting 'resistance' culminating in total victory through which Palestine, which had never existed, will be restored from "the (Jordan) river to the sea (the Mediterranean)". To reiterate the point made in my previous post, this is the mythology repeated endlessly which drives a 1000-year Jihad, if required, for Palestinian redemption. It renders all talk of settlements and peace irrelevant.

It does not mean, as one reader put it, that Israel can claim to be a 'decent' state. While I'm not sure what precisely 'decent' means in this context few Jews would claim that Israel is perfect, or even smart at times. Nevertheless, it has managed to retain a functioning democracy, the rule of law, an open society and a general sense of decency under geopolitical conditions and systematic stigmatisation that no other nation has had to endure.

Realistically there is little possibility at this juncture of a workable two-state peace deal being achieved. There are those who see in a long-term, bottom-up, 'person to person' approach, combined with economic cooperation and upliftment, a means of creating new opportunities. Others propose 'victory' achieved at almost any human and diplomatic cost. Still others hope that regional developments open up the possibility of an Arab-sponsored peace initiative.

But, in the meantime, the stalemate and consequent political spill-over continues and Israel will need to continue managing an untenable situation through enormous self-discipline and creative pragmatism. Those who genuinely wish to advance peace would do best by persuading the Palestinians to relinquish the zero-sum narrative they have adopted in favour of Israeli-style realism and a future grounded in earthly achievements rather than in fantasies of vengeance and victory. The latter is the preferred option for the BDS warriors.

The great challenge posed by the world we have created is for humanity, without denying our dick swinging origins, to find a way of subordinating or even recruiting these basic evolutionary algorithms into an adaptive response to the mind numbing complexity and rate of change which threatens to overwhelm us. The Israel-Palestinian conflict is just one of such challenges.

PS. My attention has been drawn to 2 articles submitted in support of the UCT boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Calling on my all too recent exposure to the Buddhist way of 'enlightenment' I read both articles and I urge you to do the same since they are both on Politicsweb. I have no doubt that this will indeed elicit a response in local "the Zionist community' as claimed and I don't want to minimise its significance.

A global campaign of selective disinformation and stigmatisation carried out in the media, on the street, in academic institutions and through diplomatic channels and the UN is never a laughing matter, especially when fuelled by considerable sums of money. As pointed out in my original post it has caused harm to all the protagonists in the Middle East - in my view mainly to the Palestinians.

But whatever its window dressing of righteous outrage, it is at core, as pointed out in my previous post, a "political act" pure and simple. In support of that assertion here is a passage from one of the articles

"The prospect of the UCT academic boycott of Israel has sent the Zionist community into a frenzy, and rightly so. The UCT academic boycott would place Israeli universities, and the Israeli state, under immense pressure in the international arena, and may very well be a watershed moment in the resistance against Israeli oppression." (My emphasis)

The highlighted section above is nonsense of course (like most of the other assertions in the two articles) but, when considering this please also ask whether you have seen this kind of campus-based political activity directed at say - North Korea, Assad of Syria, Iran, Boko Haram, Saudi Arabia, China in Tibet - indeed any country other than Israel. And follow up with the obvious question why this is the case.

The answer to the second question is not only anti-Semitism, though it is undoubtedly a significant component as has been made clear in public statements. This kind of witch -hunt is regrettably common in Jewish history and it's for this reason above all others, that Jews support Israel. But the same phenomenon directed at outgroups in disfavour, occurs all over the world including South Africa.

It needs to be combated wherever it rears its primitive tribal and evil head.

Mike Berger