Leslie Wagner on The Palestinian Right to Israel, by Alex Grobman

, November 6, 2010

Jewish Political Studies Review 22:3-4 (Fall 2010)

Alex Grobman has long experience of dealing with anti-Semitism and post-Holocaust issues, having served as director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles and been the founding editor in chief of the Simon Wiesenthal Annual. Here he has produced a short, well-written, spirited, scholarly argument supporting the Jewish claim to Israel. This is not reflected in the book’s title, an issue to which we will return. A better description of his intentions is given in the preface where he states that “the purpose of this work is to present a historical narrative of the Arab-Israeli conflict.”

Grobman’s focus is the last one hundred years of Jewish-Arab interaction in the Holy Land, although he begins with an opening chapter tracing the continued Jewish presence and yearning following the Roman exile in 70 CE. He recognizes the subsequent Muslim conquest, the building of the two mosques in Jerusalem, the subsequent holiness of the city in Islam, and the initial kindness to the Jews. This attitude eventually changed, and while Grobman lists some of the cruelties and indignities that Muslims inflicted on the Jewish population, he is more concerned with establishing the growing Jewish love and commitment, reflected in writing, visiting, and settling the land. Nevertheless he recognizes that in 1880, some eighteen centuries after the exile, the ratio of Arabs to Jews in Palestine was 40:1.

In his second chapter, covering the period before and after the Balfour Declaration, Grobman gets into his stride. He argues, with the use of a number of judicious quotes, that the Arabs never considered Palestine as a separate entity but as part of Southern Syria. The core of the chapter is an examination of the claim by the Arabs that they had received their own promise to match that of the Balfour Declaration through the McMahon-Hussein correspondence in 1916.

Sir Henry McMahon, British High Commissioner in Egypt, conducted correspondence in 1915 and 1916 with the Grand Sharif of Mecca, later to become King Hussein, about possible outcomes in the region if Britain defeated the Ottoman Empire in World War I. The Arabs later claimed that promises had been made about Arab control, which included the area of Palestine, and which had a similar status to the Balfour Declaration. Leaving aside McMahon’s lack of authority to make any promises, the British government, backed by a committee inquiry, subsequently interpreted the letters differently.

The third chapter takes the story from the aftermath of the Balfour Declaration until the outbreak of World War II, and focuses particularly on Arab resistance to the growing Jewish presence, the increasing violence, and especially the 1929 riots. However, Grobman fails to mention that the Jewish migration into Palestine and the economic prosperity that resulted, in turn stimulated an Arab influx into the area so that by the outbreak of World War II there was still a substantial Arab majority. The next two chapters deal with the 1939-1945 war and contrast the Arab support for and collaboration with the Nazis and the Axis powers, with the Jewish contribution to the Allied cause.

The final two chapters turn away from the historical narrative and address two fundamental issues, namely, Israel’s right to exist and the “eternal bond between Jews and the land of Israel.” Grobman makes clear his view that “the Arabs have never accepted the right of Jewish self-determination in the Middle East,” and he cites much evidence in support of this claim. He chronicles the continuing Arab attack on Jewish rights through the denial of Jewish history, the linking of Zionism to racism, and, in current times, the Hamas charter and the growing attempts at delegitimization. In recounting the various attempts at partition and the various peace processes, he contrasts Jewish attempts at compromise with Arab intransigence. His core view is summed up in his final chapter, namely, that “the Arab/Israel conflict is about Israel’s right to exist, not the size of the Jewish state.”

Alex Grobman argues his case skillfully and with the meticulous use of much evidence. Indeed hardly any statement is made without supporting notes, references, and citations, occasionally running beyond a page or more. Hence, a text of less than two hundred pages is supported by a further 124 pages of references. The bibliography alone cites over a thousand books and articles, which will prove invaluable to students and scholars.

This is essentially a book about the Jewish right to establish a Jewish state in the Land of Israel, and while Grobman offers mountains of evidence in support of his argument, his account still raises some questions. It is interesting, for example, that among all the arguments for Jewish rights and claims, nowhere does he invoke the theological right of divine promise. His story begins after the Roman exile and focuses on the period after the First Aliyah. Nor does he ever discuss what he means by “Israel,” presumably because of his view that the argument with the Palestinians is about Israel’s right to exist rather than its size. Nevertheless, it would have been interesting to discover to which of the various borders from biblical to pre-1967 times he believes Israel’s right to exist applies.

Most puzzling of all is the title of the book. It is difficult to understand why the book is called The Palestinian Right to Israel when Palestinian rights or claims are only explicitly addressed in the section on the McMahon-Hussein correspondence. Other Palestinian legal, demographic, historical, or political claims are rarely mentioned let alone addressed. Nowhere does Grobman explain why a book that is essentially about the Jewish right to Israel is given a title that focuses on Palestinian rights. The only explanation that suggests itself to this reviewer, other than a deep sense of irony on the part of the author, is that Grobman believes that the Jewish claim in terms of history, association with the land, return to the land, development of the land, support for the Allies in the war, and repeated attempts at compromise is so overwhelming that the Palestinian case does not merit serious examination.

Also implicit in this view is the assumption that the argument about rights to Israel is a zero-sum game. If one side has them, then the other side forfeits them. It is a philosophy increasingly heard on both sides of the divide. The notion that rights might be shared forms no part of Grobman’s philosophy, and it would have been good to have seen that issue discussed more.

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PROF. LESLIE WAGNER is vice-chairman of the JCPA’s Institute for Global Jewish Affairs.

Prof. Leslie Wagner

Prof. Leslie Wagner is a fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. Before making Aliyah in 2008, he was Chancellor of the University of Derby and Vice-Chancellor (President) of Leeds Metropolitan University in England. Within the Jewish community, the offices held by Professor Wagner included Vice President of the United Synagogue and trustee of the Office of the Chief Rabbi. He chaired the Commission on the Future of Jewish Schools for the Jewish Leadership Council. In 2000, Professor Wagner was honored by the Queen for his services to higher education and the Jewish community.