August 27, 2006

A Cause, Not a Mistake

(The following is a guest piece by a friend with a very impressive knowledge of foreign policy and the Middle East.)

In "Hunker Down with History" (The Washington Post, July 18), Richard Cohen wrote:

The greatest mistake Israel could make at the moment is to forget that Israel itself is a mistake. It is an honest mistake, a well-intentioned mistake, a mistake for which no one is culpable, but the idea of creating a nation of European Jews in an area of Arab Muslims (and some Christians) has produced a century of warfare and terrorism of the sort we are seeing now. Israel fights Hezbollah in the north and Hamas in the south, but its most formidable enemy is history itself.

Cohen goes on to argue that Israel's withdrawals from southern Lebanon in 2000 and Gaza in 2005 have emboldened its fanatical enemies, Hezbollah and Hamas. He reservedly claims that, despite this, the state of Israel has little choice but to withdraw to defensible borders and continue the seemingly interminable struggle of defending itself.

His point about Israel's struggle is hardly contestable. However, the notion that Israel's creation is a "mistake" represents a highly tendentious and skewed perspective on the Middle East's bloody half century. To debunk Cohen's claim, one could analyze Middle Eastern politics and personalities from 1948 (or earlier) and find anecdotes that make the case for Israel. Yet, a recounting of the region's tortured history is not necessary. One need merely think about another country on a different continent: Poland.

For centuries, the kingdom of Poland was very much a nation-state according to the common understanding of that term. In the late 18th century, the Russian, German (or Prussian, to be more specific), and Austrian empires carved up Polish territory and removed Poland from the map. After World War I, the Poles were first in line at the Paris peace conference to reclaim their independence. But in 1939 Poland was once again destroyed by Russia (in the guise of the USSR) and Germany (having absorbed Austria the previous year).

Regarding Polish independence, Hitler and the Nazis played a devious game. Among other things, Nazi ideology called for the unification of Germanic peoples in a single reich and for the destruction of Poland. Hitler signed a non-aggression pact with Poland in 1934 and repeatedly pledged that his aims were limited only to rectifying injustices with the Versailles treaty. Ultimately, Poland's mere existence was such an affront to Nazism that it became the first battleground when World War II began.

Now according to Cohen's logic, we must conclude that the creation of Poland was a mistake. It led to war, genocide, fascist occupation, and then forty more years of communist occupation. But anyone can see that this conclusion is simply absurd. Neither Poland's creation nor its existence was the problem after 1918. The problem lay in the hearts and minds of fanatics. Simply put, the problem was that the extremism of Nazi and Soviet thugs could not tolerate, let alone accommodate, the national aspirations of a neighboring group of people.

Fast forward to Israel's wars with its enemies (which Cohen aptly summarizes). Pan-Arabist and Islamist radicals have routinely called for the unification of Arabs and Muslims and the destruction of Israel. War, occupation, and terrorism have followed. Is Israel's creation really the issue? Or is it the inability of Middle Eastern fanatics to tolerate and accommodate the national aspirations of a neighboring people?* If we accept the notion of self-determination, given all its contradictions and implications, the experience of Poland reveals that Israel's creation cannot be considered a mistake. It merely has become a pretext for extremists to wage conflict, extend hegemony, and retain power. Accepting where history has brought all of us today, we can go even further and say that the creation of Israel is not a mistake, but a cause. In an abstract way, it has been fought on behalf of all those who have desired their own independence. Cohen seems not to understand this fundamental point.

*Some may argue that Jewish immigrants were not neighbors in the same sense as the Poles, because the Poles did not emigrate to present-day Poland. However, all modern states exist due to some kind of migration, colonization, or settlement. Israel is hardly exceptional in this case.

B.C. is a UC-Berkeley student and a concerned reader.