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The Unwomanly Face of War

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Sarajevo 1914 / Gaza 2014: The Short Twentieth Century Lingers On

Posted on Aug 3, 2014

By Lawrence Weschler

(Page 2)

Herzl, who died in 1904, never lived to see the sequence of events that were to play out across the two world wars that dominated the first half of the ensuing Short Century, and that would in turn bring about the realization of his dream. For starters, it’s worth remembering that the Zionist cause received one of its most significant pushes forward as the First World War was nearing its climax with the Balfour Declaration of November 1917, wherein the British foreign secretary affirmed that “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object.” At the time, according to historian James Gelvin, the British foreign office was motivated to issue the Declaration (notwithstanding contravening pledges the Brits appear to have been making at the same time to their Arab allies in the war against the Germans’ Ottoman confederates) in the hopes that supporting Zionist aspirations might in turn shore up support among some of their own other and more significant allies.

The British did not know quite what to make of President Woodrow Wilson and his conviction (before America’s entrance into the war) that the way to end hostilities was for both sides to accept “peace without victory.” Two of Wilson’s closest advisers, Louis Brandeis and Felix Frankfurter, were avid Zionists. How better to shore up an uncertain ally than by endorsing Zionist aims? The British adopted similar thinking when it came to the Russians, who were in the midst of their revolution. Several of the most prominent revolutionaries, including Leon Trotsky, were of Jewish descent. Why not see if they could be persuaded to keep Russia in the war by appealing to their latent Jewishness and giving them another reason to continue the fight?

In the event, of course, the Declaration had little immediate effect, either on the Bolsheviks, who left the war effort nonetheless, or on Wilson, who declined to include a Jewish state as part of the postwar Versailles settlement that enshrined so many other national aspirations, while at the same time shredding the losing German side’s prospects so savagely that many even at the time argued that a second war would now likely prove just about inevitable.

Few even then though could have predicted just how unprecedentedly horrendous the resultant Nazi German regime would prove, or how calamitous for Europe’s Jews. And there is little doubt that following the Second World War (braid into braid, strand upon strand), the case had become well nigh irrefutable that the surviving Jewish remnant indeed finally did deserve a state of its own. But—and here is the crux of the matter, at least in terms of how history thereafter would play out—why not the state of Bavaria, for example, or the Ruhr Valley, or Vienna and its surrounds? All sorts of massive movements and relocations of population were taking place in the years immediately after the war. Wouldn’t a more just settlement of Jewish claims have taken territory from those who had inflicted the most horrific suffering and violence upon them, and who would as a result have had the least justifiable cause for complaint?


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The fact of the matter is that Europe—all of Europe—had no appetite for such an outcome. Even after the Holocaust, anti-Semitism was still rampant in the higher counsels of governance across the continent (as it had been, for that matter, throughout the war in the relevant reaches of FDR’s State Department). Far easier to foist the problem onto the Arabs of Palestine. This despite the fact that Palestine had been only one of many possible sites for such a homeland in the early days of Zionism (for many years Uganda, for example, had been given almost equal consideration, and secular Zionism hardly based its claims on any biblical standing), and likewise despite the fact that, all that “People without a Land for a Land without a People” rhetoric notwithstanding, Palestine was already full up with people who had been residing there quite peaceably for centuries (even the Balfour Declaration had acknowledged, in a proviso that has tended to fall out of people’s memories, how it should be “clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”).

The point I am trying to make here is that the settlement forced upon the local Arabs of Palestine in the years following the end of the Second World War was in many ways every bit as blatantly unjust and corrosive as that forced upon the Germans at the end of the First World War. (When Palestinians decry it as the last great colonialist land grab, undertaken at a time when colonialism was in fast retreat everywhere else, they have a point—a point albeit aimed at Europe generally even more than at the Jews, though Jews supplanting indigenous olive groves with Northern European pine forests so as to cover up evidence of their own depredations hardly get off scot-free.) And, more to the point, every bit as fraught with ongoing consequence.


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