Melanie McDonagh

Israel’s 70th anniversary celebrations ignore an inescapable fact

Israel's 70th anniversary celebrations ignore an inescapable fact
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Was it, do you reckon, a felicitous birthday present from the Eurovision judges for Israel, with Netta standing in, a bit incongruously, for a 70-year old state? If so, it’s a tribute to the way that a Middle Eastern country actually counts as European to at least the same extent as Turkey just across the Bosphorus – actually probably more so. Israel seems like an intelligible outpost of our kind of culture and values in what now is the Muslim world. If Netta is Israel, she’s a terrifically attractive embodiment of its most appealing aspect; way more than the country’s embarrassing president. She’s its avant garde side: an Orthodox Jew who raps in Hebrew, to huge acclaim at home. (Compare and contrast with the British entry…er, does anyone actually remember what that was? I only recall the Irish entry for its gay propagandistic aspect.)

There was her moving little speech 'Thank you! I love my country!' which was patriotic, not partisan. And then the 'next year in Jerusalem'; that referred to the Eurovision, for of course the contest has to happen next time in the winner’s home state, but for any Jew or any friend of Judaism, the associations of the phrase are inescapable.

Israel was then, last night, a perfectly congruous part of the European family (though if I’m to be honest, Daniel Barenboim does it for me, not rappers.) In fact the late Lord Weidenfeld used to talk enthusiastically about his own pet project, to get Israel admitted into the European Union, an idea which seems less inviting in the present circumstances but which was sufficiently plausible for him to get a hearing. His reasoning was that because Europeans practically set the place up, it was to all intents and purposes at home in the EU.

All of which is true, and all of which is precisely the problem when it comes to thinking about the anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel 70 years ago. For most of us what Israel represents, a safe haven for Jews, is a good thing. For myself, I count lots of my friends as Jewish and others, like my Cambridge director of studies, Zara Steiner, as deserving of my gratitude. By comparison I don’t know many Palestinians, though I thought highly of Naim Attallah the publisher; and some of those I do know are, like him, from that doubly beleaguered minority, Palestinian Christians. By comparison with the way I think of Israelis, and Jews here, as being kindred spirits, the kind of Palestinians who take part in the intifada seem – how shall I put it - less immediately sympathetic, less readily identifiable with.

And that, as I say, is the problem. Because when it comes to the founding of the state of Israel 70 years ago, the inescapable fact is that it was founded on the expulsion or displacement of over 700,000 people, Palestinians who had next to no involvement with the persecution of the Jews in the Holocaust which gave urgency to the question of a Jewish state. They did not intend to vacate their homes for the founders of the new state; they left terrified, but, by and large, fully intending to return. Three, four, generations on, they are still refugees, and the consequences for neighbouring states like Lebanon has been nothing short of catastrophic.

There is nothing of course new about this reflection. It is stark, staring obvious. The founding of Israel was the consequence of an historic injustice to the people already living there. But to say so has become not just an error of taste but risks putting yourself in very bad company, of anti-Semites and the kind of people who make up groups such as Momentum.

Most of the objections to the founding of the state of Israel were best expressed by Edwin Montagu, the Jewish colleague of Asquith, in his famous 1917 memorandum. But the fundamental objection to the event that is being celebrated tomorrow can be put even more briefly in the second part of the Balfour Declaration, dishonoured in the non-observance of both its aspects: 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.'

It was, of course, written before the Holocaust, but it still stands as a reproach now.