In 1996, the PBS Frontline program aired a four-hour special on the Gulf War between the US and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The program revealed how Hussein’s atrocities against Kuwaiti civilians were integral to building public support for the war.
“This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait,” George H.W. Bush said in August 1990. In subsequent speeches, Bush compared Saddam’s regime with that of Hitler and his aggression against Kuwait with the 1939 invasion of Poland.
Saddam’s atrocities against Kuwait were far milder than his genocidal campaign against Kurds in the 1980s. In 1988, Iraqi forces struck Halabja with poison gas, killing thousands of Kurdish civilians. So why did the world, including 30 countries that joined the US in going to war, ignore Halabja but care so greatly for Kuwait? Why was Saddam called “Hitler” for what he did in 1990 but not 1988?
The essence of the difference is independence. Kuwait and Poland were independent. The Jews in Nazi Germany and Kurds in Iraq were not independent. Our world order has determined that genocide and human rights violations are basically acceptable so long as they are committed against non-independent peoples and places.
When Israelis consider the privilege of independence, they should compare themselves to other groups. The list of groups that sought freedom but did not receive it is long – including Tibet in 1951, Biafra in 1967, Chechnya and Somaliland. In some cases, groups that sought independence have thrown in the towel, as happened with the ETA in Basque country last month when the group disarmed. Some territories, such as Scotland and Quebec, have voted on independence peacefully, and their people have narrowly chosen “No.”
Israel’s declaration of independence was timed to coincide with the end of the British Mandate. It was heroically pragmatic. The country had already been fighting a brutal civil conflict with Arab residents of British Palestine for six months since the November UN partition vote. But Israel’s early leaders understood early on that the border the international community had granted the Jewish State were insufficient. The international community created a state that looked more like a salad than a functioning entity. That was convenient for the British imperialists who ruled over the country. They did the same with Pakistan, creating a ridiculous two-headed country that consisted of two pieces strung out across India. It is no surprise that Bangladesh fought a war of independence from Pakistan in 1971.
The British planners also thought partition in Israel could logically leave pieces of Palestine in Gaza, the Galilee and Jaffa, the latter an island within the Jewish state. The British and UN also decided to make Jerusalem and areas around it, including Ein Kerem and Bethlehem, an “international” city. European colonial powers like such geographic utopian monstrosities when they apply to countries in the global south, less so in Europe. No one proposes to make Rome “international” or perhaps other disputed areas. Russia and Ukraine both desire Crimea, perhaps it should be “international”?
The problem Israel has faced in its struggle for independence is that it still lives in the shadow of the international community and the colonial legacy. This is not an issue unique to Israel. The concept of the need for independence is deeply tied to colonialism. France, Spain, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, have no independence days. The concept of independence is entirely foreign to people who come from countries that never had to fight for independence.
We take for granted the strange concept of independence and the way in which Western powers ascribe to themselves the right to define and determine who is independent and who is not. It is because the international community decided it had a right to partition Palestine and determine the borders of a Jewish and Arab state that the same international community today feels it has such a vested interest in “solving” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is because of 1947 that most countries refuse to keep their embassies in Jerusalem.
In this sense, Israel never achieved independence. A country whose capital city is unrecognized by most of the world is not fully independent. Most countries say that Jerusalem can only be the capital of Israel after a peace agreement. But before 1967 and before the issue of a peace agreement was ever on the agenda with the Palestinians, these same countries refused to have their embassies in Jerusalem. That is solely because of the 1947 Partition Plan of the United Nations, when mostly Western countries determined Jerusalem should be an international city.
Today Israel lives under the shadow of the colonial borders of 1947 and the arbitrary decisions by European mapmakers to draw the borders of Jerusalem and Israel. There is no global reason that Ein Kerem, a small village in the suburbs of Jerusalem where John the Baptist was reputedly born, is not within the borders of Israel. Arbitrary borders led to the uncertainty that underpinned the 1967 war.
This year marks 50 years since that war. For some that is 50 years of occupation of Palestinian areas in the West Bank. For some it is 50 years of liberation of Jerusalem and Jewish return to the biblical sites of Judea and Samaria. But a more interesting way to look at 1967 and the 50 long years since then is to ask where the world was in 1917, 50 years before the momentous war. Fifty years before 1967 was the Balfour Declaration. Israel came very far from the imagination of 1917 to the height of its conquests in 1967.
THE DECISION by Israel’s founding generation to declare independence in 1947 and the slow but steady recognition for most aspects of that independence by the international community is momentous. At the center of the choice to be independent is the choice to take responsibility for one’s future. The privilege of independence comes with this burden. This is one of the major schisms between Israel and critical voices in the Diaspora community.
Jews who live outside Israel have not sought independence, but abjured their security to the states they live in. This choice sometimes colors how they judge Israel. Some do not believe Israel has a right to exist; they believe the role of the Jewish people is never to have power, but solely to live as a minority “light unto the nations” which does tikkun olam or “healing the world.” Being a persecuted and also privileged minority fills them with pride, whereas Israel fills them with shame.
This is the shame and anger that empowers those who say “not in my name” about Israel’s actions. Israel stains their reputation, because of its independent action. Lack of independence allows them to have no responsibility. Mass killing by Saddam Hussein or in the Congo? Not my problem, because it wasn’t done in my name. The hatred of Israel abroad among some Jewish activists is primarily tied to a fear of responsibility for one’s own actions.
Others object to Israel’s actions not because they oppose independence, but because they demand an Israel whose independence embodies their values. For these voices in Israel and outside, Israel must be as pure and perfect as possible. Denying the rights and demands of millions of Palestinians does not embody this perfection. In fact, the very nature of a “Jewish and democratic” state often does not embody this perfection because it privileges Jewish national rights. The Star of David on the flag and the lyrics of “Hatikva” offend the sensibilities of those who would prefer a secular American-style state and not a muscular nation-state. As historian Tony Judt said, Israel is an “anachronism” rooted in another time and place.
The problem Israel suffers from today as it explores independence is not the inability to meet the demands of those who either deny its right to exist or want it to be an impossible utopia. The central problem of the pro-independence voices is that they still cannot grapple with the responsibilities of independence. Because Israel was created from a Zionist movement that often sought ad-hoc solutions to immediate problems, long-term decisions were often put off.
Only 20 years were spent within the 1948 cease-fire lines, but it is those lines that haunt the country when people speak of a need to “return” to the 1967 “borders,” including much of Jerusalem. But because Israel’s government refuses to take responsibility for 5,000 sq. km. of the West Bank, for almost 25 years an ad-hoc situation of partial rule over a Palestinian mini-state has existed.
Despite the unwillingness to take full responsibility for the lands that Israel controls, the reality of independence is a blessing. It is one that many peoples in the world have lacked. I’ve witnessed that firsthand in the Kurdish region of Iraq, where a nascent state-building project has brought the trappings of independence, such as the control of borders, airports, a flag and army, but the people lack the final stages: the declaration and international recognition.
If this were the pre-colonial world, just a few hundred years ago, Kurdistan would be independent, but the burden of colonial borders weighs heavy on us. It weighs heavily on Israel, just as the colonial decisions are root causes of the conflicts we see in Libya, Syria and other states that were created by the West in the 20th century.
Israel is buffeted by those conflicts. Not long ago voices still called for returning the Golan Heights to Syria. Today that is unthinkable. Of course, international law in its current form will never recognize the Golan as part of Israel, not even in 100 years. It was only part of Syria for a few decades, but in the minds of many, it will always be “part” of Syria.
SO WHAT is the final meaning of independence? On one level, it is a begging from the international community and former colonial powers for recognition of borders that they drew arbitrarily. Because the British administrator of Sinai, W. Jennings Bramley, pushed for a boundary with Ottoman Turkey in 1902 in Aqaba, Israel today has access to Eilat. Is that independence, or is it simply a thank-you from the colonial administrators? And less of a thank-you for not including the Golan.
But the meaning of independence is more than that. It is the ability to determine one’s fate. Israel has been privileged to have received independence when it did with visionary founders who provided it the basis for that independence. They did not accept the decisions of the international community entirely, and left the country continually struggling to define its borders. In some ways that worked in Israel’s favor, in some ways it also continues to undermine Israel’s rights to Jerusalem.
Over the years, Israel’s independent standing has improved. The struggle – 100 years from Balfour, 70 from the partition, 50 from the Six Day War, 30 since the first intifada – continues. Israel must take responsibility for deciding its fate over the coming decades and determining whether the full form of independence (recognition of borders) is worth the unknown quantity of withdrawal from lands and the creation of a Palestinian State.