Cowboys and Palestindians: what the Kaiser thought about Israel

The first time I went to Israel, in 1983, when everyone could still drive freely around the West Bank, I got into an argument with a distant cousin, a social worker. Like many Israelis (and many social workers) she is Leftish and secular and regrets that proportional representation gives such disproportionate influence to Israel’s religious and expansionist parties. She and her husband are peaceniks, demonstrated against Israel’s 1982 involvement in Lebanon, and want the settlers out of the West Bank.

Like many Israelis, she also lost family members to the Nazis and came as a teenager to Mandate Palestine. She isn’t the sort who won’t listen to Wagner or Richard Strauss, though she still doesn’t like visiting Germany. We were arguing about Israel’s ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians in 1947-8 and she handed me a book. ‘You English Jews are so detached. Read this. Then you might understand.’ The book was Rolf Hochhuth’s A German Love Story, published in 1964. Subtitled ‘a documentary novel’, it uses the story of an illicit liaison between a Polish prisoner-of-war and the wife of a German soldier away on the Eastern front to illustrate the nastiness of Hitler’s regime even to paid-up Aryan Germans. The ‘documentary’ bits include both German and Anglo-American wartime statements. At the end of the book, Hochhuth noted that some of the principal Nazi villains were still alive and prospering.

I was struck by one particular document. Early in 1939, The Times sent Churchill’s journalist son, Randolph[1] to interview the ageing Kaiser Wilhelm in Holland, where he had been exiled since 1918. ‘The old man was 80 by then,’ Churchill wrote. ‘He said he’d spent twenty years reading every history book he could lay hands on and there was only one eternal truth: anyone who steals land he wasn’t born on, is doomed.’ Wasn’t this, I suggested, the basic problem with Israel? My cousin brushed aside the Kaiser’s mature insight and maintained that the beastliness of the Nazis justified and will always justify the existence of Israel. Many people, including many non-Jews, evidently agree with her and even if they don’t, 60 years of UN membership (however questionably acquired in 1948) surely confer some pretty powerful squatters’ rights by now.

The Kaiser’s reading had apparently made him wiser and kindlier. He would presumably have regarded the creation of colonies and Bantustans in the Occupied Territories as particularly indefensible. Years of Arab refusal to recognize Israel and make peace, until rather late in the day, explain but only partly excuse the settlers, and both the Kaiser’s ghost and my cousin say they should go. But what about the larger issue, the original late-19th-century Zionist aspiration to establish a Jewish state in what was bound to be hostile territory? What irritates me about many of the Israelis I have met (and it must be infinitely more irritating to Arabs) is their reluctance to recognize that it is very reasonable for Arabs, especially those from old or new Palestine and including relatively secular ones, to have a lasting sense of grievance about Zionism’s takeover of their ancestral farms and villages, not to mention Islam’s second-holiest site, the Dome of the Rock, which the Israeli army’s chief rabbi, Shlomo Goren, wanted to dynamite after the taking of East Jerusalem in 1967. Perhaps not many Israelis still cling to the myth of ‘a land without people for a people without land’ but they still have their psychological defence mechanisms.

Too often, Israelis and their diaspora supporters imply that even if dispossession occurred, it was justified because the local inhabitants were a bunch of primitive nomads. Even today, Zionist apologists repeat the historically unsupported allegation (which my father clung to until his death) that Palestinian Arabs were not expelled from the nascent Jewish state but ‘encouraged’ or even ordered – in mysterious and never-documented Arabic radio broadcasts – to leave their homes, so that the invading Arab armies could have a free-fire zone to massacre the Jews. (The expulsions, it is clear, began well before Israel’s declaration of independence and the subsequent declaration of war by neighbouring Arab countries in May 1948.) The fact that among people not hostile to Jews (including many Jews) there was much reasoned opposition to Zionism is apparently forgotten. Where their recent history is concerned, Israelis, like many non-Israeli Jews, seem a nation in denial at least as much as many Germans used to be, until home-grown writers like Hochhuth confronted them with it. Indeed, the vicious attacks by Jews on distinguished Jewish historians like Ilan Pappe and Norman Finkelstein (the son of Holocaust survivors) for their detailed academic studies of Zionist plans for expansion and ethnic cleansing are often not very far removed from Holocaust Denial.

It is no coincidence that the country most supportive of Israel is the USA, itself a successful colonizing society that treated the Amerindians much as Zionist settlers treated the ‘Palestindians’. We see the same out-manoeuvring of the native inhabitants by more militarily, technically and judicially sophisticated colonists, the same insincere undertakings, the same feelings of cultural superiority and eventually the same claims of ‘manifest destiny’, a phrase which doesn’t sound very different from what the Nazis called lebensraum. Perhaps the main difference between the two colonisations (apart from Israel’s much shorter timescale) is that whereas the Amerindians had no written language, no educated middle class, no intelligentsia and thus no journalism as we know it, the Arabs of Palestine and the neighbouring lands had all four. Accordingly, we know that right from the start, many Palestinians knew what was happening, what was planned and what the future might hold for them. We also know that while many Jews in the 1930s and 40s migrated out of sheer desperation and would probably have willingly co-existed with Arabs in Palestine (or elsewhere had it been an option) as an alternative to the Nazis, the ambition of many in the Zionist leadership had always been partition and as much land and ethnic exclusivity as they could get. If Zionism had begun in the 1980s instead of the 1880s, it wouldn’t have stood a chance. Yet instead of feeling lucky to have pulled off the last successful bit of metastatic colonization before it became unacceptable, many Israelis behave as if the Arabs were to blame for disturbing the 19th century status quo.

As Carlo Strenger, an Israeli psychology professor, recently wrote in Ha’aretz (Israel’s Guardian): ‘Israeli public discourse and national consciousness have never come to terms with the idea, accepted by historians of all venues today, that Israel actively drove 750,000 Palestinians from their homes in 1947/8 and hence has at least partial responsibility for the Palestinian Nakba…In the best of all possible worlds,’ he concluded, ‘an Israeli statesman (a rare commodity in an age of mere politicians) would arise and tell the Palestinians: “Israel came into existence in tragic circumstances that inflicted great suffering and injustice on your people. We accept responsibility for our part in this tragedy, even though we cannot fully rectify it. Let us sit together and see how we can end the vicious cycle of violence and suffering and live side by side.” This is not likely to happen in the immediate future. A Jewish Israeli politician who would say such a thing would become unelectable…’ That gloomy prognosis is supported by an even more recent Ha’aretz article about studies showing that only half of Israelis believe that Jews and Arabs should have full equal rights, that more than half support encouraging Israeli Arabs to leave Israel, and that 74% of young Jewish Israelis think Arabs are ‘unclean.’

The Nazis certainly gave an enormous and perhaps irresistible push to the process of Zionist colonization, but it is surely very unfair that a largely Islamic Arab society was the victim. For well over a thousand years, Jews had coexisted fairly amicably in Arab countries as well as in Persia and the Ottoman empire – more amicably, perhaps, than Catholics in England during the couple of centuries after the first Elizabeth and certainly more amicably than in the England from which Jews were completely expelled for several centuries, long before the better-known Spanish expulsion of 1492. It is said that near the end of the British mandate, an American diplomat was trying to persuade King ibn Saud that Jews needed and deserved a country of their own because the Germans had been so beastly to them. ‘In that case’, the old man replied, ‘why don’t they take some land from the Germans?’

What a pity the Kaiser didn’t live for another seven years to comment on that interesting proposal for a fledgling state, which might not even have existed had his foreign policy not had such terrible consequences. After all, apart from being partly responsible for starting the Great War, he encouraged and facilitated Lenin’s return to Russia in 1917. In consequence, Russia did not just drop out of the war, as the Kaiser hoped, but changed from a moderately brutal though gradually reforming monarchy into an extremely brutal one-party state. Leninist Communism attracted many people at the time and destabilized parts of Europe almost as much as the war itself. As well as high unemployment and Versailles, the numerous attempted Communist revolutions of 1919-20 were also partly responsible for Hitler. If the Kaiser did indeed help make the difference between a Menshevik and a Bolshevik government in Russia, that was his biggest mistake. Seventy years later, Bolshevik Communism disappeared from Europe in not much more time than it took to say ‘false consciousness’ and not many people seem to regret it. Yet without the Nazis, it is surely probable – to put it very mildly – that far fewer European Jews would have emigrated to Palestine in the 1930s and 40s and that the country that emerged 60 years ago would have been a very different entity. It might not even have emerged at all, given that the original position of the UN in 1947 was that it had no power under its charter to ‘deprive the majority of the people of Palestine of their territory and transfer it to the exclusive use of a minority in their country’.

We certainly need the Kaiser’s belated wisdom now. When I last spoke to my cousin a few years ago, she despaired of the future but said she was just grateful for the protection against the Palestinians that Mr Sharon, the army and the wall-builders had started providing. She probably hasn’t read the perceptive opinion of one of the Kaiser’s contemporaries, Admiral Lord Fisher, the man who gave us Dreadnoughts. ‘The world’, he wrote during an earlier Middle East crisis, ‘has yet to learn what the Mohammedan can do if once the holy fervour seizes him’.


1) Totally irrelevant but totally priceless is Evelyn Waugh’s comment on hearing that the younger Churchill had recently had surgery for a benign tumour. ‘How typical of the medical profession to find the only bit of Randolph that wasn’t malignant and then remove it’.

2) Marder, A.J. (Ed) Fear God and Dread Nought: the letters of Lord Fisher of Kilverstone London 1956 p 389

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