“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your kinsfolk. Love your neighbour as yourself” — Leviticus 19:18. “Do to others what you want them to do to you” — Matthew 7:12. “None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself” — Forty Hadith.
The Golden Rule is golden for a reason. It’s a principle not just expressed in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, as above, but across a wide variety of religions and spiritual practices. This, it seems, is what almost all of us are taught, but where is it in practice? Watching the surprise attacks of Hamas, followed immediately by Israeli counter-attacks, and hatred pouring out of media outlets and social media, I think it’s fair to say that this concept has been absent. But for me, it’s been absent for a long time.
Descended from numerous famous rabbis, including several of Britain’s earliest chief rabbis, I am not religious, but was raised amidst largely Zionist Jews in the UK and US. I believed that Israel had a right to protect its existence at any cost. Until I met a Palestinian. Through the casual dinner chat at his family’s table, I began to hear information that was different to what I’d heard from my family. So I began to investigate.
At no stage in its ancient life was all of today’s Israel a Jewish state
As a journalist and historical documentary maker I finally turned these investigations into my film The Tinderbox which came out in the UK last year. It tells the story of how, when and why today’s conflict began. And for me, it is imperative that we all understand the context before rushing to judgment on Israel/Palestine. Whither peace? Peace will occur when we address the root causes of this situation and not before.
First, the ancient. In the late 14th century BC, Canaan was an important centre with a nickname: the promised land. It was composed of various tribes. It’s important to understand that the Bible and the archaeological record tell different stories. For instance, Moses was purported to have lived around the 13th century BC, famously leading Israelites out of Egypt, receiving the Ten Commandments, etc. But archaeological evidence tells us that at this time, the land to which Moses headed was governed by Egypt. From Egypt to Egypt?
Archaeology and the Old Testament start to tally about 500 years later. The Stele of Mesha, 840 BC, tells of the king of Moab being chastised by the god Chemosh for allowing Moab to be subjugated by the kingdom of Israel. This is the earliest-known reference to the ancient Israelites. Their kingdom existed from around 900 BC until around 734 BC, alongside Philistine and Judah, within today’s Israeli borders. The Philistine city states, largely massed along today’s Gaza and its borders, were pagan, and archaeologists are split on whether the Israelites and the people of Judah were practicing Judaism, as evidence for this is scant.
Around 160 BC the Maccabees took control of Judea, forming an independent state until 37 BC. Throughout this period Canaan was also variously part of the Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Greek and latterly Roman empires (among others). All this is to say clearly that at no stage in its ancient life was all of today’s Israel a Jewish state. It has always been a melting pot. For me, this is critical information, because a purely Jewish state in Israel would go against thousands of years of history. Today, it is still shared, albeit precariously, with our kin from the other Abrahamic religions.
As Jews we were exiled several times, and between ancient times and the first aliyah (return) which started in 1881, there were often fewer than 100 Jews in Canaan, known as Palestine (first Palaestina Prima from as early as 450 BC). The aliyahs represent a concerted effort to bring Jews back to the Holy Land, and while I do not dispute our right to be there, I do strongly dispute our right to be the only ones there, for reasons described above and below.
The desire to return to the Holy Land is expressed throughout Jewish liturgy, but it was Christian evangelists around 1830 who first seriously suggested Jews should actually return. And by the late 1800s, this call had unified politically under Austro-Hungarian journalist Theodor Herzl who wrote that “only through gaining a Jewish State in their ancient homeland, could Jews escape rife anti-Semitism”.We were fleeing pogroms in places such as Russia and eastern Europe and craving safety, but according to the Ukrainian Zionist pioneer Ahad Ha’am, in his pamphlet Truth from Palestine (1891), the Jewish settlers “treat the Arabs with hostility and cruelty, trespass unjustly, beat them shamelessly for no sufficient reason…The Jews were slaves in the land of their Exile, and suddenly found themselves with unlimited freedom…This sudden change has produced in their hearts an inclination toward repressive tyranny.”
In the midst of World War I the Germans opened up a second front and the British needed reinforcements against the Ottomans. So TE Lawrence, or Lawrence of Arabia, and Sir Henry McMahon, British High Commissioner in Egypt, brokered a deal. In exchange for troops, Britain offered support for Pan-Arab Independence.
On behalf of the British Government, McMahon wrote: “Great Britain is prepared to recognise and support the independence of the Arabs in all regions within the limits demanded by the Sherif of Mecca.” Notably, Palestine was not excluded. Around ten years later McMahon was pressured into stating that he didn’t mean it, but this is a slippery slope for British diplomacy. The next step was even more slippery.
As Arab troops were aiding the march towards Jerusalem, Chaim Weizmann was working his way into Britain’s corridors of power by promising further help with the war effort. This resulted in the 1917 Balfour Declaration: “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people… it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.” This promise contradicted McMahon’s, but was also itself violated as its second and third clauses have not been adhered to.
In terms of the second clause, when General Allenby marched into Jerusalem in 1917, 90 per cent of the population in Palestine were Muslim or Christian and 10 per cent were Jewish. By the time Britain left in 1948, those figures were close to 50/50. By 1950 the demographic had flipped entirely to 90 per cent Jewish. What has to happen in a country to see such a seismic demographic shift in 33 years? In terms of the third clause, Jewish life in Arab countries, where they had lived for centuries, became untenable in the 1940s and 1950s as Zionism was becoming a reality.
Layer upon layer of racism went into what happened. There were pogroms against the Jews; there was the desultory treatment of Britain’s Arab allies; the busing in of Gulf Arabs to rule the Levant; a disturbing correspondence between President Wilson’s chief aide and Balfour suggested that both the US and UK would be quite happy to pack their Jews off to Palestine; there was the notion that European Jews would be more qualified to govern than Middle Eastern Jews; and while there were numerous inter-religious friendships, there were also instances of extreme racism by Jews against Muslims and Christians as described by Ahad Ha’am, or later by Herbert Samuel, Britain’s Jewish first High Commissioner of the Mandate of Palestine. He wrote that “nothing would be worse than if it were to appear that the one thing the Jewish people had learnt from the centuries of their own oppression was the way to oppress others”. Such racist layers still exist today.
In Britain, Zionism was generally unpopular because Jews had spent centuries integrating into British life. This was most vehemently expressed by Jewish minister Edwin Montagu to his Cabinet colleagues: “I assume that it means that Mahommedans [Muslims] and Christians are to make way for the Jews and that the Jews should be put in all positions of preference… just in the same way as Jews will hereafter be treated as foreigners in every country but Palestine.”
His words would prove prophetic, as would those of Sir Ronald Storrs who was military governor from December 1917. He wrote that the Balfour Declaration “took no account whatever of the actual inhabitants of Palestine”. The League of Nations’ granting of the Mandate of Palestine to Britain was seen as highly irregular, and many argue that the British administered it illegally, breaching a key precept: the sacred trust of civilisation stipulated the development of mandated territories for the benefit of its native people.
During the British Mandate, violence escalated from around 1920, the demography of the population shifted as described above, and eventually freedom fighters and terrorists made Britain’s continued governorship all but impossible. The King David Hotel bombing by Jewish terrorist group Irgun in 1946, which killed 91 people, was a final straw.
While I do not dispute our right to be there, I do strongly dispute our right to be the only ones there
Throughout this period, there were heated debates in the Holy Land and in Britain about the obvious democratic inversion taking place in Palestine. British policies that originally favoured Zionists became more even-handed, but the damage had been done. At the end of the day Britain failed in its mandatory obligation to build Palestine for Palestinians, despite the democratic need to do so. The horrifying loss of life during the Holocaust sealed the deal. Palestine would become a Jewish state. The fate of the Palestinians, who themselves have often been genetically proven to have Canaanite heritage, remained murky.
Following the Mandate, Israel was attacked by all its Arab neighbours. Israel won and between 1947 and 1950 most of the Palestinian population was displaced. Israeli governments then embarked on a series of peace missions, but these have been pale efforts at best. In its entire history as a country since 1948, it is arguable that only three of the many Israeli prime ministers have actually acted in good faith in wanting and pursuing peace: Moshe Sharett, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.
As to their ‘peace partners’, documentation shows good faith on the part of Jordan particularly and, in the early days, Syria, but these opportunities for peace have been squandered. In the end President Carter knocked heads together in the late 1970s, threatening to withhold funding from Israel if the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty was not signed. Along the way, prime ministers such as Levi Eshkol, who seized the Golan Heights during the 1967 war, have also expanded Israel’s territory against international law. The Palestinians themselves were not even considered as a necessary party to peace talks until the Madrid Conference of 1991 under George Bush Sr.
According to Israeli Human Rights group B’Tselem, more than 10,000 Palestinians, many of them civilians and children, were killed between 2000 and October 2023. This year alone, more than 250 had been killed in the West Bank, largely by Jewish settlers who have been shored up by the current right-wing Israeli government.
There has rightly been huge shock and outrage at the recent actions of Hamas, with the Israeli military reaction equally shocking. But none of this has happened in a vacuum.
On a logical level you cannot invert the demographics of a country and expect there to be no reprisals. On an emotional level, I call on everyone to remember our common humanity. And on a spiritual level I call for an adherence to the wisdom of the Golden Rule. That’s if we genuinely want to make peace.
Gillian Mosely is a BAFTA-award-winning Jewish filmmaker. “The Tinderbox” is her directorial debut