According to ABC News, a recent survey from Visit Sweden found that 50% of respondents in the United States couldn’t tell the difference between Sweden and Switzerland.
In my view, this somewhat jarring statistic offers some hope for those of us who are struggling to offer a positive view of Israel against a tsunami of negative views and plain antisemitism.
In business there is something called an elevator pitch. It’s a very simplified, condensed presentation that can distill and synthesize the essence of an issue in the time it takes an elevator to ascend a few floors.
The Palestinians offer a simple elevator pitch. Once there were Palestinians living in the land of Palestine, they say. Then the Jews came from Europe and took the Palestinians’ land. Israel has been colonizing Palestine ever since.
For people who have very little sense of the geography and history of the Middle East — maybe the people who cannot tell Sweden from Switzerland, but may be well intentioned, and oppose colonization — this may sound convincing.
I think we can offer an elevator counter-pitch that may lead those people who are willing to listen to explore the situation further and appreciate its many sides and complexities.
Jews believe that the Holy Land was given to us by God. This also is the belief of some Christians — especially evangelists. Jon Voight, Angelina Jolie’s father, criticized his daughter’s statements on Gaza and described the war as “Justice for God’s children of the Holy Land.”
The elevator pitch I propose, however, does not rely on people’s religious beliefs but on history, correctly presented.
So here it is.
There have always been Jews and non-Jews in the Holy Land (and therefore, by definition, the Jews cannot be colonizers).
In the 20th and 21st centuries, starting in the 1930s, several partition plans were put on the table. The Jews were willing to accept these plans. The Arab (and later Palestinian) leadership has always turned them down in favor of maximalist dreams.
I am not a historian, and describing the background for this pitch can take several books. However, let me go through some facts that many of us may not know. I should add that when I talk about these issues in some detail, I try to offer non-Jewish, non-Israeli sources to support the argument.
My favorite starting point is the Moabite stone in the Louvre Museum.
The Bible, in addition to its religious significance, is a valuable historical document that describes the history of the kingdoms of Judea and Israel in detail. Anyone who has ever visited Israel has seen the relevant archaeological sites with their own eyes. The Moabite stone describes the Moabite view of a battle between the kingdom of Moab and the king of Israel. It is believed to
correspond to an episode in the Book of Kings.
Thus, Jewish kingdoms in the Holy Land are a historical fact, confirmed not just by the Bible but by archaeological findings and non-Jewish sources. But the Jewish presence in the Holy Land did not cease when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE.
We can go through mountains of evidence from Jewish and non-Jewish sources that point to continued Jewish life in the Holy Land through the centuries. We all know that the Talmud was completed in Jerusalem in the fourth century. Some sources argue that when the Arabs first came to the land in the seventh and eighth centuries, it was majority Jewish. There were Jews in the Land of Israel during the crusades and later.
My family tradition holds that my ancestors came to the city of Safed sometime after Jews had been expelled from Spain. Indeed, the Jewish population in Safed grew from around 10,000 in 1555 to 30,000 at the end of the 16th century. By the end of the 19th century, Jerusalem had a Jewish majority, according to some sources, and Jews had large centers in the holy cities, including Hebron.
The point is that we have been there all along.
As we all know, the Zionist movement led to Jewish immigration starting in the late 19th century, during the final days of the Ottoman empire and continuing through the British Mandate after World War I. It is less well known that there was also Arab immigration through the porous borders between Mandatory Palestine and the newly minted neighboring Arab areas, also ruled by Britain and France. Encyclopedia Britannica says: “The Arab population of Palestine also grew rapidly, largely by natural increase, although some Arabs were attracted from outside the region by the capital infusion brought by middle-class Jewish immigrants and British public works.”
So in fact, some Palestinians have been there for far fewer generations than, for example, my mother’s family.
Now comes the second part of our elevator pitch. Partition plans.
With Jews and non-Jews in the land, and with the promise of a “Jewish home” that Arthur Balfour, then the U.K.’s foreign secretary, made in 1917 on behalf of the British Empire, the British authorities formed the Peel Commission, which came up with the first partition plan in 1937. According to that plan, the Jews were to receive only 20% of the area of Palestine. The rest was to be given to the Arab population. Yet Wikipedia writes: “The entire spectrum of Palestinian Arab society rejected the partition plan. On the Jewish side the two main Jewish leaders, Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion, had convinced the Zionist Congress to approve equivocally the Peel recommendations as a basis for more negotiation.”
The same pattern emerged in 1947, as a larger Jewish state was approved by a majority vote in the United Nations. The Jews rejoiced, but rather than accepting the plan, which gave the Arabs 42% of the land, five Arab armies attacked the nascent Jewish state.
Fast forward to the 21st century. A turbulent period followed the Six-Day War, and then came the Oslo Accords, which we all hoped would end the conflict.
They did not.
At Camp David in 2000, President Clinton tried again to implement a two-state solution. The U.S. State Department wrote: “Despite additional concessions by Barak [the Israeli PM], the Israelis and Palestinians remained strongly at odds over borders, Jerusalem, and whether Israel would recognize Palestinian refugees’ ‘right of return.’ The summit ended without a settlement; Clinton would blame [Palestinian Authority President Yasser] Arafat for its failure.”
In 2008, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians to finally reach a peaceful partition. “Olmert’s offer to [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas during their final encounter seems to have been the most far-reaching ever made by an Israeli prime minister to a Palestinian leader,” according to the Chatham House, a British think tank that appears to be unaffiliated with any side in the conflict. “It was not, however, good enough (or at least not clear enough), as far as Abbas was concerned. In an interview in November 2015, Abbas admitted that he had not accepted Olmert’s offer.”
The same unfortunate pattern remains, just with different leaders and different borders.
I am not writing this with great joy. We can and should offer our elevator pitch, but it does not solve the situation on the ground, either in Gaza or in other areas. Still, it may allow for a more informed discussion on college campuses and elsewhere.
And we should not lose hope, even in these dark days. First, because we do not have the luxury of losing hope. And second, because even in these trying times, there are signs that things can be different. In the 1960s, my mother was among the founders of a Jewish Arab cultural center, Beit Hagefen, in my hometown, Haifa. The center has continued to grow and thrive through decades of wars and bloodshed. Other grassroots initiatives also offer some hope.
As the poem says, it is always darkest before the dawn.
Dr. S. Abraham Ravid of Leonia is the Sy Syms Professor at the Sy Syms School of Business at Yeshiva University. Before receiving his Ph.D. at Cornell, Dr. Ravid worked as a radio journalist and served in the IDF, including during the Yom Kippur War.