Editorial from Irish Political Review, February 2009

Conor Cruise O'Brien And Israel

Ireland's inheritance from Conor Cruise O'Brien is an egoistic brutality of sentiment. That is what his rejection of what he called Pearsean romantic nationalism amounts to. He did not reject nationalism. He knew that such a thing would be an empty gesture in the world of the late 20th century. What he did was try to teach the Irish what an Italian Prime Minister called "the sacred egoism of nations" in 1915, when he was launching an unprovoked war of aggression on the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Britain offered Italy a substantial addition to its territory, if it launched an irredentist war against Austria. The Italian Socialist Party and the Catholic Church were against this war for romantic reasons—reasons having to do with something other than power. But the Government, urged on by Mussolini, went to war and extended its State up to the Alps.

The sentiment of sympathy with the Palestinians under the Jewish cosh is romantic and deplorable because it engages with a lost cause. The duty of aligning one's sentiments with the reality of the power structure of the world leads one to sympathise with Israel over the difficulties it is experiencing in the completion of its conquest and colonisation of Palestine.

Some years ago President/General Sharon said he would hit the Palestinians until they begged for mercy. O'Brien did not live long enough to take pleasure in seeing them begging. He might have lived a lot longer and yet not had that pleasure.

Israeli Army Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan (a Minister in Sharon's Government in the 1990s) has said "When we have settled the land, all the Arabs will be able to do about it will be to scurry around like drugged cockroaches in a bottle" (14.4.1983). One of the things about cockroaches is that they don't know when they're beaten. They lack the moral sense that would lead them to submit to the conquering Power and make obeisance.

It was imprudent of a leader of the Jewish State to describe the Palestinians as cockroaches. But he only expressed what is a very widespread view within the Jewish democracy of Israel. (The Palestinians within what is now considered Israel proper are not part of the democracy of the Jewish State. Last year Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni spoke of expelling them if the 'two-state' solution ever materialises.)

Those views of the Palestinian natives, expressed by busy politicians of the Jewish nationalist conquest, are somehow less objectionable than the academically stylised and oblique expression of the same position, worked out by O'Brien amidst his idyllic surroundings on the head of Howth.

In 1974 he refused, as a Government Minister, to budge either on the Council of Ireland or Articles 2 & 3 and thus wrecked the Sunningdale power-sharing. For the next three years he was in transition, and was neither one thing nor the other. After he lost his Dail seat in 1977 he revalued all his values. He was appalled by the stubborn insurrection against misgovernment in the North, and he described it as "irredentist". But in May 1974 he defended his refusal to budge on the Council of Ireland by saying that the violence in the North was "endemic" (meaning that it was internally generated), and postponing the Council of Ireland between North and South would have had no influence on it.

An insurrection arising out of conditions in the North, not supported by Government in the Republic, is not irredentist. The Italian attack on Austria in 1914, which the Redmondites played some part in bringing about, was purely an irredentist invasion. (There was no insurrection by the Italians in the region claimed.) But O'Brien, despite the pretence of academic rigour, often played fast and loose with crucial facts—which is another inheritance of the present intelligentsia from him. He condemned the Northern insurrection as irredentist—and then immediately associated himself with the most extreme irredentism known to history: the Jewish national claim on Palestine after an absence of two thousand years.

The present predicament of Israel is the result of an incomplete Jewish conquest of Palestine. O'Brien gave the name of The Siege to his big book on that conquest. The factual grounds for this heavily biassed name is that the conquerors are surrounded by the people they are conquering until they manage to get rid of them.

The project of establishing a Jewish State was launched by more or less secularised Middle European Jews as a response to the rise of European nationalist movements in the late 19th century. The British ruling class, with roots in the Biblical fundamentalism of 'the English Revolution' of the 17th century, was attracted to the Zionist movement by sentiment, and also saw a use for it as a British colonial movement in places where Englishmen would not go in large numbers. It first proposed to set up the Jewish State in East Africa. O'Brien reprints the following account by the Zionist leader, Weiszmann, of his discussion with Balfour about it:

"I said, 'Mr. Balfour, if you were offered Paris instead of London would you take it?…' He looked surprised. He: 'But London is our own!' I said: 'Jerusalem was our own when London was a marsh'…" (Ch 1).

O'Brien comments: "Balfour was profoundly impressed. The seed of the Balfour Declaration had been sown. Balfour knew that Palestine was already inhabited". (As, of course, Weiszmann knew of the irrelevant detail that Paris was already inhabited.)

Britain gave Palestine to the Jews before it had got it. O'Brien describes the getting of it in Chapter 3, A Home Contested:

"On December 9, 1917, five weeks after the Balfour Declaration, British forces took Jerusalem from the Turks. General Allenby made his official entry into Jerusalem, through the Jaffa Gate, on foot. This was a snub to the Kaiser, who had entered the Holy City nineteen years before, mounted on a white horse, under a triumphal arch, practising

Such boastings as the Gentiles use
And lesser breeds without the law.

The original Muslim conqueror of Jerusalem, Caliph Omar, had adopted a median position, between the extremes of pride and humility, when he made his solemn entry into the city, 638 AD…

"Under British rule, the Muslim conquest was about to be undone…"

The Kaiser went to Jerusalem as part of a state visit to the Ottoman Empire. It was the opposite of a conquest. German policy was to help the Ottoman State consolidate itself as part of the order of the world. Islam, as one of the major cultures of the world, needed to be made part of the official order of the world in the form of a strong state. The Kaiser's visit therefore was accompanied by ceremonials marking an alliance.

The British entered as conquerors, but bearing the burden of the triple duplicity in which they had engaged in the course of the conquest: undertakings to the Arabs, contradicted to undertakings to the French, contradicted by undertakings to the Jews.

German policy was to give Islamic civilisation an orderly place in the world through the Islamic state. British policy (implemented in alliance with Russia) was to break up the Islamic state, erode Islam as a civilisation, and incorporate the region into the two Empires. But the Tsarist ally fell by the wayside in the course of the War.

A British anti-German hysteria was launched in England (and Ireland) immediately on the declaration of war in 1914. Germany was the democratic state in which the Jews were most at home—they were at home in a different way in a Polish/Ukrainian corner of the Tsarist Empire, though occasionally subject to pogrom—and the Jews were seen as a particularly insidious kind of Germans. When the German resistance to the British/French/Russian alliance proved to be very much stronger than expected, Britain adopted the bold measure of turning the Jews against Germany by offering Palestine to the Zionist movement.

Britain, as is well known, said it launched the World War in 1914 in order to make the world safe for democracy and establish the rights of nations to self-determination. When America entered the War in 1917, as Britain's ally against Germany (but not against Turkey), it formalised this aim in President Wilson's 14 Points.

There was a strong movement in England to give structural expression in the post-war settlement to this declared purpose of the War, and it was reinforced by American entry. A League of Nations was set up. Sir Maurice Hankey, Secretary of the Committee of Imperial Defence before the War (who had played a major part in the secret arrangements made with France in preparation for the War) and Secretary of the War Cabinet during the War, thought the Government was in earnest about the League and prepared to become its Secretary, but was told to remain in his Cabinet position. The practical meaning of this was that Britain would run the world by means of the Empire and would marginalise the League. The League was window dressing.

The Middle East had lived contentedly within the Turkish Empire. Its various peoples and religions went about their affairs harmoniously. The State imposed no irritating and contentious ideologies on them.

If Britain had achieved the easy conquest it expected when invading Basra in 1914, the Middle East would have been governed Imperially, as an extension of the Indian Empire. But the Turkish resistance proved to be as difficult to overcome as the German. Britain therefore worked up an Arab nationalist rebellion against the Turks, and secured the proclamation of Jihad against Turkey, promising to recognise an Arab State when victory was won. For that reason the replacing of the Turkish Imperial administration by the British had to be discontinued. But Britain had no intention of honouring its promise to recognise an Arab State. It went instead for Balkanised nationalisms. And 'Arab States' sounds very like 'an Arab State', though entirely different in reality.

Instead of an Arab State, there was Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. The French demanded a piece of the Middle East during the War and were given Syria. And when Arab independence was proclaimed in Damascus it was smashed down by the French Army. And disobedience in Iraq was broken by the British Army.

Britain and France gave themselves Mandates for these territories in the League of Nations. The idea of the Mandate was that the peoples of these territories were not yet ready to govern themselves as nation states and would be shown how to do it by their Mandatory Powers. There was a fair amount of humbug about it, but a condition was put on the Palestine Mandate that contradicted even the humbug. The other territories were governed by the Mandate authority with some gesture of preparing them for self-government by the inhabitants, but preparation for self-government by the inhabitants was prohibited by the Palestine Mandate. There had to be a change of people before self-government was broached. Arabs, whether Muslim, Christian, or whatever, were to be replaced by Jews.

A quarter of a century later Richard Crossman, the Left Socialist in the British Labour Party, who was active in the establishment of the Jewish State in the late 1940s, criticised the British Government of 1919-22 for the way it went about implementing the Balfour Declaration. It funnelled Jews into Palestine and left it to them to overcome the Arab inhabitants. He said the right thing would have been to present the Jews with an empty land by undertaking a great act of Imperial ethnic cleansing of its Arab inhabitants.

What would have been the right thing for the Arab inhabitants to do when they realised what was in store for them? The CC O'Brien Society, which has been so vociferous in support for the bombing of Gaza, do not seem to have given moral instruction on that point.

Anyway, there was some Arab rioting against Jews in 1920, and O'Brien quotes, from the Zionist Archives, the following exchange about it between Ronald Storrs, the British Governor of Jerusalem, and Menachem Ussishkin of the Zionist Commission:

"Col. Storrs: I have come to express my grief to Your Honour over the catastrophe which befell us…
Mr. Ussishkin: Is Your Honour referring to the pogrom?
Col. Storrs (Emotionally): It was not a pogrom! It is impossible to call these riots a pogrom!
Mr. Ussishkin: You, Colonel, are an expert in administrative matters and I am an expert in the laws of pogroms; I can promise you that there is no difference between the Jerusalem pogrom and the Kishinev pogrom"
(Ch 3, Sect V}.

O'Brien does not dissent from the view that an attack on the long-established Jewish minority in Russia (who seem to have been converts rather than immigrants?) by a mob urged on by the Tsarist State was of a kind with the mob response in Jerusalem to Jews as expropriators backed by the dominant military power in the world.

The scapegoating of the small Jewish minority in Germany by the Nazis in the 1930s, and the resistance of the Palestine Arabs to Jewish conquest and colonisation, have been lumped together in recent times as Anti-Semitism by committed ideologues like David Aaranovitch.

The Jewish State, we are often told, is surrounded by enemies. That was its choice. It chose to establish itself by conquest, colonisation and ethnic cleansing against the will of the inhabitants of Palestine and all the Governments in the region. After the League of Nations lapsed, and when the British Empire which was set the process in motion was being broken up, the UN General Assembly passed a motion giving more than half of Palestine to the Jews for a Jewish State, but did nothing to make the establishment of that State an orderly process. Greater Jerusalem was not awarded to the Jews, but was to remain under UN control. The motion was carried by Russia and its dependent states in Eastern Europe and the USA and its client states in South America. Every Middle East state voted against: Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, and Yemen. Also: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Greece, India, and Cuba.

Almost half the population in the area was awarded to the Jews was not Jewish. A Jewish state could not be established in a territory that was almost half Arab. A massive ethnic cleansing of Arabs from that territory was therefore undertaken immediately after the UN Resolution was passed late in 1947 and the British pull-out (in the face of Jewish terrorism) in May 1948. And things went on from there. Here are O'Brien's thoughts about it all:

"The Jews had recovered Jerusalem, after nearly two thousand years, through a train of efforts and events so strange and unprecedented as to appear to some almost miraculous and to others literally so. To expect the Jews, having thus again come into possession of Jerusalem, to hand over the Old City, with the Wall and the Temple, to an Arab Power, or to an international authority, is to expect what cannot be. To ask Israel to give up all or most of Judea and Samaria [i.e. the West Bank Occupied Territory] is to ask for the unlikely; to ask Israel to hand over the heart of Jerusalem is to ask for the impossible.

"So the felt needs of the Jewish State, and the animating concept of the Return, oppose what seem to be impenetrable barriers to the voluntary acceptance by Israel of the kind of settlement which international opinion, almost universally, calls for on the West Bank.

"That those things are so, as a matter of fact, would be hard to deny… But some, who accept that these things are so… still passionately urge that they ought not to be so. The Jewish State and the Return may dominate the situation… But they have no right (it is argued) to dominate it. Both are illegitimate concepts. The Jewish State is a racist concept. The Return is a mystical concept… These concepts, being illegitimate, have no right to prevail over a legitimate, rational and humane principle: that of the Consent of the Governed.

"I should like to take a brief look at that argument…

" 'The Jewish State is a racist concept'. Yes, in a way. It is racist to the extent that all nationalism is racist, and that is a large extent…

"The idea of the rights of the Jews to return to Palestine, as transcending the will of the majority of the settled population of the area, is certainly basically a religious one.

"Does the fact that the Right of Return is basically a religious idea make it ipso facto illegitimate?

"Probably only the tougher-minded within the secularist tradition would answer that question with an unhesitating “Yes”. But some kind of yes is implicit in the whole tradition of Western Europe and North America since the 18th-century Enlightenment… The question is, however, whether the dominant intellectual tradition in the West also applies in the Middle East.

"On the surface, it might seem to. The rhetoric of the Arab-Israeli debate has been almost entirely the rhetoric of the Western Enlightenment tradition. It is rhetoric which has extremely high international prestige—as rhetoric—largely due to the phenomenal success of the three great Western revolutions inspired by it—English, American and French—and through the mimicry of much of it by the Soviet Union… The United Nations Charter is full of Enlightenment language…

"The Arab case against Israel is most effectively expressed in terms of that tradition…

"But this is a domain where rhetoric and reality are far apart. Political practice based on Enlightenment values… only exceeds the boundaries of the West in a few exceptional cases, none of them in the Middle East…

"It is argued that conquest, as a claim to rule… is no longer acceptable since the Fourteen Points, the Atlantic Charter and the Charter of the United Nations. But both the Jewish and the Muslim claims to Jerusalem are exterior to those documents, by many centuries…

"The Right of Return is based on the Bible, and contested (by implication) by the Koran. But when the Koran is defeated… the appeal goes out to the post-Christian world, in terms of the post-Christian ideology of the Enlightenment, under the slogan of Consent of the Governed. But the realities pertaining to that slogan belong to the world appealed to, not the world which appeals…" (Epilogue, Section VII).

Biblical fundamentalism, mysticism, racism, irredentism, romantic nationalism are all OK in the context of Western (Enlightenment) foreign policy for the Middle East, although Pearsean ghosts are abominable in Ireland. And the CC O'Brien Society supporters of the pulverising of Gaza seem quite happy with the duplicity laid on for them by O'Brien, though they are coy about expressing it themselves.

O'Brien's reasoning would be to the point if the Middle East situation since 1914 had been determined by a conflict mobilised under the banner of the Book of Joshua and forces under the banner of the Koran. Then the Enlightened West might look on it as a matter involving the forces of civilisations for which it had no responsibility. But that is not the case.

The re-establishment of a Jewish State in Palestine a couple of thousand years after the first Jewish State had brought ruin on itself by its excesses was an act of British Imperial policy. It was as an instrument of of the Empire that the Jewish Agency was established in authority in Palestine. It was Britain that opened Palestine to Jewish immigration while restricting immigration to Britain itself. British Imperial power was applied in the work of destruction and construction in Palestine and elsewhere with the declared purpose of re-making the world in accordance with British values. And it was British power that held down the Arabs while the Jewish colony was being built up. The Zionist movement rebelled as the Empire decayed, and the Empire retreated in the face of Jewish terrorism, but it was the Empire that made it a force in the world. Israel then became a protege of the USA as it was taking over world hegemony from Britain. So 'Enlightenment' standards apply, OK?

Also it was not the forces of the Koran that took Jerusalem from the Jews. That was done centuries earlier by the Roman Empire.

O'Brien's comment that Zionism was racist "to the extent that all nationalism is racist" does not stand up to much scrutiny. There is a basic difference between the nationalism of the inhabitants of a territory asserting their right to govern that territory themselves and a nationalism which has the aim of conquering a territory that they do not inhabit, colonising it, and then governing it.

The following observation is relevant:

"In two important respects the Jewish race is decidedly unique, and such even to an extent bordering on the miraculous. The first is the maintenance of their racial identity for almost two thousand years in spite of their having no homeland and no other central uniting authority, and more especially in spite of their being in dispersion among practically all the other nations of the world… The second is the amazing adaptability of the Jewish race, which makes it possible for them to fit themselves into the national structure of the various countries in which they happen to live."

This statement of the racial integrity of the Jews, maintained amongst the nations, is authoritative. Its author, D.F. Malan, was of course an expert in racial matters. He was in sympathy with Nazi Germany and he was the architect of the Apartheid system in South Africa. But that is not the reason why the statement can be taken as authoritative. The reason is that it was written for a Foreword to The Birth Of A Community: A History Of Western Province Jewry by Israel Abrahams, Chief Rabbi of the United Council of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations in Cape Province, and Professor of Hebrew at the University of Cape Town. And the book was published by the Cape Town Hebrew Congregation in 1955, during the high tide of South African Apartheid.


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