In a comprehensive interview with Haaretz, “History professor Yehuda Bauer: ‘Netanyahu doesn’t know history’,” Yehuda Bauer (a veteran Mapamnik who backs Meretz, its successor) shared his thoughts on Jewish history, Israel, and the need for a two-state solution. He will turn 87 in April, widowed in 2011 from his second wife, a relationship recounted in fascinating terms early in reporter Dalia Karpel’s piece. I include selections from her long article, with a few bracketed notes of my own:
Yehuda Bauer (photo by Yanai Yechiel in Haaretz)
[His new book is] “The Impossible People” ….
….Dalia Karpel: To take a sentence from your book: “Where do we stand today?”
“We live in a country that is divided into four states, all of them within the boundaries of the Land of Israel. In a small country that lies between the Jordan and the sea is a state called Israel. Next to it, in Gaza, is the State of Hamastan. In the West Bank there is the State of the Palestinian Authority, which is under Israeli occupation, and within all of these is the State of Judea of the settlers, on whose behavior Israel exercises a certain influence. …
DK: What do you suggest?
“A democratic state within the 1967 boundaries, with certain territorial exchanges, will be a Zionist Jewish state that is obliged not only to make peace with its Palestinian and Arab neighbors, but offers the possibility for national-cultural development and full equal rights to the Arab minority living in the State of Israel. The settlement policy is working against us and endangering us. We have to remove the majority of the settlers from the territories, which are actually areas of the State of Palestine. Weren’t a million people moved from Anatolia to Greece? [I disagree slightly, seeing the possibility of drawing boundaries between Israel and a Palestinian state that would allow a majority of settlers to live under Israeli sovereignty, with perhaps some remaining under Palestinian rule, and a minority returning to Israel proper, but I am inclined to agree on the need for outside pressure as he indicates below.– R.S.]
“The only way to remove the settlers − and I write about this in the book − is by means of pressure that will be exerted on Israel by the major powers which have no interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. An agreement between the United States and the European Union and Russia, with China’s involvement, could create a situation in which pressure will be applied to both sides in the conflict to engage in serious negotiations until white smoke emerges.
“Both sides are extremely susceptible to pressure. It would be enough if the EU were to discover that it has problems of financial liquidity and announce that it will have difficulty paying the salaries of the officials in the PA or in Gaza; or for the Pentagon to announce that it has a problem supplying spare parts to the Israel Air Force. If so, within eight months the Air Force’s planes and equipment turn into junk. It makes no difference whether there are 30 or 40 settler outposts at this moment. The instant it is decided to stop financing the settlements, that story will come to a swift end.”
DK: And if that doesn’t happen?
“There is a danger that the Masada story will be repeated. A situation in which Israel will be isolated in the face of the world is liable to stir an extreme nationalist reaction and a posture of ‘Let me die with the Philistines.’ Our situation today recalls what happened in the Roman period, in the military revolt and confrontation against the ‘United States’ of that period. So, maybe we are not talking about a possible military clash with America, but about total isolation, sanctions and starvation, which could lead to extreme reactions deriving from pessimism and despair.”
DK: Don’t you think the two-state solution is fading and a binational state is coming into being here?
“The dream of a binational state and a state of all its citizens has no chance. That dream would mean a permanent civil war and mutual killing. Those who want to foment potential genocide here can do so by advocating a binational state for all its citizens. That, of course, would mean the end of Zionism in the sense of a state possessing a solid Jewish majority in which an Arab minority possessing equal rights lives.
“The original Zionist dream was erased by the settlements and a right-wing policy which is leading to a binational state. The Arab minority in Israel is entitled to national-cultural autonomy. There is no reason that Arabs should be compelled to sing ‘With eyes looking toward Zion’ [in the national anthem] and hoist the blue-and-white flag. As far as I am concerned, there is no problem with a Palestinian flag flying alongside the Israeli flag in every Arab community and Arab school in the Galilee, Jaffa and Tel Aviv.
“I am in favor of having joint textbooks for all the pupils in the country and, in addition, for autonomous books to be written for every community. The Israeli Palestinians should learn about the Palestinian Nakba just as we learn about the War of Independence, which was a just war − one result of which was that a catastrophe befell the Palestinians. The civilian population usually flees during a war. That is natural and that was their catastrophe.”
At this point in the interview, I found myself arguing with Bauer about whether the Palestinian population fled or was expelled in the 1948 war. Bauer maintained that the civilians did not leave because of massacres or because of military actions to make them flee, and he insisted that there were no Israeli-initiated expulsions with the goal of perpetrating ethnic cleansing. Finally, he agreed that there was both one and the other. On the one hand, Zionism sought to be constructive, moral and conciliatory; whereas its other aspect was activist and destructive and represented an interest to “liberate” the country from its Arab residents. [I take this to mean that Bauer was easily persuaded that the exodus of Palestinian Arabs included both “voluntary”Arab decisions to flee a war zone and Israeli actions we’d now regard as “ethnic cleansing.”–R.S.]
DK: Historical research has condemned President Roosevelt for abandoning the Jews, and some also accused the leaders of American Jewry for being silent during the Holocaust. Why do you think that the conventional view − that the world was silent − is mistaken?
“I had also thought so [originally], but changed my mind. The intra-Jewish debate about why the Jews of Europe were not rescued is pointless. The Allies could not have rescued them even if they had wanted to, as I prove in the fierce argument which, to this day, I have with researchers such as Rafael Medoff, from the United States, and his mentor, David Wyman, who claim the opposite. There was no way to rescue the millions. No one knew that Europe would be the venue for the planned, industrial genocide of Jews. No one could have known that there would be a Holocaust, because nothing like it had ever occurred before in the world.
“The Western governments could not have foreseen the events to come, and from 1935 until 1939 − amid the world economic crisis, with millions out of work in the United States and Britain − it was impossible to move millions of Jewish refugees out of Europe. The extermination in the death camps began in December 1941 and intensified only in 1942. The confirmation of the reports about the annihilation of the Jews arrived in November-December 1942. Even if there had been a willingness to bomb the death camps at that stage, the Allies did not possess bombers capable of flying those distances.
“From the middle of June 1944, there was no doubt about what was going on in Auschwitz-Birkenau. The order to bomb the extermination facilities from the air was not given, because of the policy of not using military means to destroy civilian targets. In any event, it was impossible to hit the four extermination facilities without endangering the lives of many Jews.
“Bombing the rail lines that led to the camp was also ruled out, because the Germans would have rebuilt them. And even if this had been done, the murder would not have stopped. Some of the victims were murdered at killing pits and many died as a result of the brutal death marches. The war went on for more than half a year after the Auschwitz crematoria were shut down on October 30, 1944, and Jews were murdered without end. There might have been possibilities of rescuing a few thousand Jews, but it was impossible to stop the annihilation of the millions before Germany’s defeat in the war. …” [Personally, I sympathize with the Medoff-Wyman view that Bauer argues against, not in the belief that millions could have been saved (although one wonders), but in the knowledge that antisemitic elements in the State Department and elsewhere in the U.S. government created roadblocks, while others were insufficiently concerned to provide a variety of options for rescue and refuge to many people who could have been saved.–R.S.]
One chapter of the book is entitled “Back to the present: On Jewish identity, secularism, Zionism and a place in the world.” In it, Bauer addresses the question of whether it is more accurate to speak of a Jewish people or a Jewish nation; what Jewish identity consists of and whether there is a connection between Jewish identities and Zionism; and the nature of the connection between religion and state.
He takes issue with the historian Shlomo Sand (author of “The Invention of the Jewish People” and “The Invention of the Land of Israel”). But his greatest wrath is reserved for the rabbis of the extreme right, the cultivators of the messianic thrust that resurfaced in Israel after the Six-Day War in 1967.
DK: When MK Yair Lapid rules out joining forces with the “Zuabis” − referring to Arab MK Hanin Zuabi in the plural − to block the formation of a right-wing coalition, and when hardly any Zionist party sees the votes of the Arab citizens and their Knesset representatives as a possibility for cooperation, isn’t this another aspect of their total exclusion? And you argue that one of the prior signs of the eradication of a people is its exclusion.
“I don’t think it is right to say that no Zionist party treats the Palestinian population in Israel as equals. Meretz not only does this, it also has an Arab MK, as is proper for a fifth of Israel’s population. The Zionist left always advocated this. It’s true that Labor and its forerunner, Mapai, behaved differently, but, according to the testimony of the party’s current leader, it is not left wing. Well, in my ageing eyes, Zionism is not Zionism when it does not treat the non-Jewish minority equally. But I, after all, am a dinosaur, so the question becomes superfluous from this point of view.
“Total exclusion does not necessarily lead to genocide, and it is only one of the possible elements for an outbreak of genocide. For example, the Jews were excluded in Nazi Germany, but because there was no historical necessity for the eruption of the war and, in its wake, the Holocaust, an anti-Semitic regime that excluded Jews could have developed without the genocidal stage. The Nazis did not know they would murder the Jews and until 1939 none of them talked about it − in contrast, for example, to extreme Islam, which speaks explicitly and relentlessly about the need to annihilate all the Jews. By the way, there is no need to minimize the danger of anti-Semitism just because Netanyahu uses it demagogically. British left-wing anti-Semitism is a fact and goes far beyond criticism of Israeli government policy.”
DK: Why do you say in the book that one of the traits of “the left-liberal type of anti-Semitism” is the fact that its thinkers include quite a few Jews and Israelis “who offer an ultra-Orthodox-style kosher certificate for ancient hatred of Jews,” namely anti-Semitism?
“There is − and this is quite natural − a group which feels endangered, whether rightly so or not. There might be individuals − particularly intellectuals who want to be on the other side, and not with the endangered group − like the many examples of Jews who converted to Christianity and wanted to prove their new loyalty by means of anti-Jewish attacks. For example, Johannes Pfefferkorn, a Jew from Cologne, who during the period of the German Empire became a Dominican priest and authored thick volumes against the Jews.
“Today, anti-Semitism is spreading among people identified with the left, who are claiming that something innate in the Jews is contrary to human emotions. Those who attack Israel with flagrant hatred call for the annulment of the state’s existence; in other words, to dismantle Israel from its status as a Jewish state and to create a Palestinian entity from the sea to the river. This will incorporate Israel and the areas of the PA and Gaza, purportedly as a progressive basis for equality between the two peoples while ignoring the identity and the national impulses only of the Jewish side. They would attack and destroy the entity called the State of Israel. That entails killing as many Jews as possible. In a word: genocide.”
DK: The occupation policy justifies a radical critique. Don’t you think you are exaggerating about the plans for genocide against Israel?
“How can the Zionist entity be annulled without destruction? That is the implication of it. At the same time, I agree that the occupation policy in the territories of the PA is helping to bring about viewpoints of this kind. So are the actions of the hilltop youth and the fascist-religious-messianic settlers against their neighbors, while acts such as the burning of mosques, the cutting down of trees and attacks on Palestinians are not restrained by the government.”
DK: Does Israel have a chance for survival?
“The state has strong, good foundations which do not find sufficient concrete expression. When my grandson was about 16, he would disappear from the house for hours. Finally, his parents delicately asked where he was going. He told them that he and four friends from high school were collecting food and clothes for a Holocaust survivor living in wretched conditions, and that they helped her out a few times a week.
“I told you earlier that I am active on the subject of the Darfur refugees, and I am not the only one. There are good people here, who are sensitive to the suffering of others. So, on the one hand I say that Israel faces a great danger, but on the other there is a chance for a turnabout. Historians are fantastic at prophesying the past; they are totally lost when it comes to foreseeing what the future will bring. But the future is never lost….”