How aboriginal rights shaped the 20th century

The Jewish Bible, Christian Gospels and Koran all testify to the connection between the Jews and Israel.

April 12, 2009 20:58
How aboriginal rights shaped the 20th century

Theodor Herzl great 88 248. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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For more than 60 years, there has been a bitter dispute over the unwillingness of most Muslims and Arabs to accept the legitimacy and permanence of Israel as an independent Jewish state in the Middle East. In this connection, Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have denied that the Jews are a people within the context of the modern political and legal doctrine of the self-determination of peoples. However, there is an enormous body of archeological and historical evidence demonstrating that the Jewish people - like the Greek people or the Han Chinese people - is among the oldest of the world's peoples. And, it is well known that the Jewish people has more than 3,500 years of continuous history, with a subjective-objective national identity that, in each century, has kept a link to the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. For example, the Jewish Bible, the Christian Gospels and the Koran all specifically testify to the connection between the Jewish people and its historic homeland. Like other peoples, the Jewish people has a right to self-determination. Though the self-determination of the Arab people is expressed via 21 Arab countries, Israel is the sole expression of the self-determination of the Jewish people, which of all extant peoples, has the strongest claim to be considered aboriginal to the territory west of the Jordan River. Thus, the Jewish people is aboriginal to Israel in the same way that, in Canada, certain First Nations are deemed aboriginal to their ancestral lands. And, it is noteworthy that the Supreme Court of Canada has decided that, where aboriginals maintain their historical connection with the land, aboriginal title can survive both sovereignty changes and influx of new populations resulting from foreign conquest. In this regard, it is essential to recognize that the Middle East has always had a significant Jewish population, including some Jews who, in each century, continued to live west of the Jordan River. Today, many of the sons and daughters of these Middle Eastern Jews are citizens of Israel, where they have been joined by Jews from many other countries. Though some Western thinkers are now uncomfortable with the idea of a nation-state as the homeland of a particular people, that is no reason to target Israel, because the overwhelming majority of modern states are the homeland of a particular people, e.g., Japan, Italy or the 21 countries of the Arab League. Israel and 30-odd other modern countries are all successor states of the Muslim Ottoman Empire, which for 400 years (1516-1920) was the principal power in the Near and Middle East. Apart from the ruling Turks, the Ottoman population was composed of several large ethnic groups, including Greeks, Armenians, Kurds, Arabs and Jews. For centuries, these Jews lived in large numbers in a variety of Ottoman venues - including Constantinople, Salonika, Damascus, Aleppo, Mosul, Baghdad, Basra, Tiberias, Hebron, Safed, Jaffa and Jerusalem. In late October 1914, the Ottoman Empire opted to enter World War I to fight against the United Kingdom and its allies. As the fortunes of war began to favor the British army, the United Kingdom addressed the question of what to do with the multinational Ottoman lands both in the light of current British interests and the 19th-century liberal doctrine of the self-determination of peoples. In this regard, the father of modern political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, in his 1896 manifesto The Jewish State, had already proclaimed that Jews, though living in many different places around the globe, constituted one people for the purpose of self-determination. IN October 1917, the British cabinet adopted, as a declared war aim, the creation of an entirely new country called Palestine to serve as "a national home for the Jewish people." This was done to help realize the Jewish people's self-determination on its ancestral lands; to shore up Jewish support for the Allied war effort in revolutionary Russia and the US; and to help the British better cover the eastern flank of the Suez Canal, which was then the crucial gateway to British India. The intention to create this Jewish national home in Palestine was announced to the world in the November 1917 Balfour Declaration. As Great Britain worked to defeat the Ottoman Turks, the world also began to learn about the national claims of the Arab people. Here, recall the wartime exploits of Lawrence of Arabia and the Hashemite Prince Feisal ibn Hussein, both of whom were present at the 1919-1920 Paris Peace Conference. There, a powerful international searchlight was trained on the self-determination of peoples, including the claims of the Arab people. However, no one there had ever heard anything about a distinct Palestinian Arab people. Had there then been such a distinct Palestinian Arab people, Prince Feisal, US president Woodrow Wilson, France's prime minister Georges Clemenceau, British prime minister David Lloyd George and others would have known about it. This assessment is confirmed by extensive local testimony and petitions collected in 1919 by the US King-Crane Commission, which told President Wilson that Arabs around the Jordan River specifically rejected any plan to create a new country called Palestine. To the contrary, local Arabs then enthusiastically sought creation of a new, unitary Arab state matching the then Ottoman province of Syria, which for centuries had included modern Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel. The 1919-1920 Paris Peace Conference was concerned with the task of accommodating the political interests of the victorious Allied and associated powers with the claims to self-determination of well-known peoples which had long histories of national self-affirmation and bitter suffering under foreign oppression. Thus, considered were difficult and entangled issues touching the self-determination of such famous peoples as the Chinese, the Poles, the Germans, the Finns, the Letts, the Latvians, the Estonians, the Czechs, the Slovaks, the Serbs, the Slovenes, the Croats, the Italians, the Hungarians, the Romanians, the Bulgarians, the Greeks, the Turks, the Kurds, the Armenians, the Arabs and the Jews. In this larger context, just one decision among many was creation of an entirely new country called "Palestine" as "a national home for the Jewish people." THE international decision to establish "a national home for the Jewish people" was the sole rationale for the 1922 creation of Jewish national home in Palestine which, under the aegis of the League of Nations, was administered by the British until May 1948, when Israel declared independence. Decision-makers at the 1919-1920 Paris Peace Conference knew that Palestine would initially lack a Jewish majority population. However, the international decision to create Palestine "as a national home for the Jewish people" was made not so much on the basis of local demographics, but in recognition of the Jewish people's aboriginal title and continuing links to the land around the Jordan River, as well as with regard to broader considerations of demography, history, politics and social justice that were both global and Middle Eastern. Thus, there was a conscious choice to refer - not just to the 85,000 Jews then living locally - but also to the past, present and future of 14 million Jews worldwide, including the 1 million Jews then living in the Near and Middle East. Failure to create a Jewish national home in Palestine would have meant denying the Jewish people a share in the partition of the multiethnic Ottoman Empire, where Jews had lived for centuries, including some west of the Jordan River. Failure to create a Jewish national home in Palestine would also have meant that the Arab people would have received almost the whole of the Ottoman inheritance. That result would have been unacceptable to David Lloyd George, Woodrow Wilson and their peers, because they clearly understood that the claim to self-determination of the Jewish people was no less compelling than that of the Arab people. The Paris decision-makers strongly believed that they had also done justice to the claims of the Arab people, whom they had freed from 400 years of Turkish rule and helped on the road to independence via the creation or recognition of several new Arab states on territory that had formerly been subject to the Ottoman sultan. Moreover, the decision to create Jewish national home in Palestine did not result in the displacement of any Arabs. To the contrary, from 1922 until 1948, the Arab population of Palestine almost tripled, while the Jewish population multiplied eight times. The later problem of Arab refugees (about 736,000) from Palestine and Jewish refugees (about 850,000) from Arab countries only emerged from May 1948, when local Arabs allied with several neighboring Arab states to launch a war to exterminate the Jews living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. LIKE the Greek people or the Han Chinese people, the Jewish people has kept the same name and subjective-objective national identity, in each and every century, since ancient times. By contrast, the first steps toward a distinct, subjective-objective Palestinian Arab identity were taken only after the international community had already created a new country called "Palestine" to serve as "a national home for the Jewish people." Thus, the continuing subjective-objective national identity of the Jewish people and the creation of Jewish national home in Palestine were both preconditions for the subsequent evolution of a distinct, subjective-objective Palestinian Arab identity. This logical sequence reminds us that the history of Palestine (1922-1948) and the factual existence of modern Israel are only explicable because the subjective-objective national identity of the Jewish people, and its continuous link to the lands west of the Jordan River, precede by around 3,500 years the formation of a distinct, subjective-objective Palestinian Arab identity and any articulated Palestinian Arab claim to a hypothetical Palestinian Arab state that has, in fact, never existed. Thus, deep into the 20th century, Arab leaders themselves failed to recognize the right to self-determination of a distinct Palestinian Arab people. For example, as principal Arab leader at the 1919-1920 Paris Peace Conference, Prince Feisal specifically accepted the plan to create Palestine as "a national home for the Jewish people" and his father, the Hashemite king of the Hejaz (later part of Saudi Arabia) was party to the 1920 Sevres Treaty that explicitly stipulated that the newly-created Palestine would be "a national home for the Jewish people." And, decades later, the governments of Jordan and Egypt showed how little regard they had for the self-determination of a distinct Palestinian Arab people; first, by rejecting the 1947 UN plan to partition Palestine into two new independent states, the one Jewish and the other Arab; and second, by themselves failing to create a new Palestinian Arab state, between 1949 and 1967, when Egypt held the Gaza Strip and Jordan administered east Jerusalem and the West Bank. Such analysis does not deny the current existence of a distinct Palestinian Arab people; nor does it claim that such a Palestinian Arab people is without rights. Rather, the conclusion is that there are rights on all sides, and that there should be a peaceful process that respectfully reconciles the rights of the Palestinian Arab people with the prior rights of the Jewish people. The writer, now living in Shenzhen, China, was formerly senior adviser in the Privy Council Office serving Canada's prime minister and the federal cabinet. Earlier, he taught history and law at universities in New York, Montreal, Toronto and Hong Kong.

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