When President Obama said in Buchenwald that the American G.I.s who liberated the concentration camp could not have known "how the nation of Israel would rise out of the destruction of the Holocaust and the strong, enduring bonds between that great nation and my own," he may have thought that he was making some Israeli and Jewish critics happy.
Instead, he riled up all the Zionists who cringe whenever they hear some sort of linkage between the Holocaust and Israel's founding, as if the Jewish people would have had no right to the state of Israel had the Holocaust not occurred. After all, didn't Zionism start way before the Holocaust in the nineteenth century, and some say as far back as Abraham? And weren't the Jews forcibly expelled from their land and never absorbed everywhere else? And don't they have the right, like any other people, to live in their historical land as a free people?
Maybe, yes. Maybe, no.
The uncomfortable truth for Zionists is that their historical-rights justification for a Jewish state in Palestine/the Land of Israel was never accepted by the countries of the world. Even the Balfour Declaration never spoke of a Jewish state but of a Jewish homeland in Palestine that would not adversely affect the rights of the natives (not a direct quote!), and we know how British governments subsequently interpreted that. As Chaim Gans wrote in Haaretz on Tuesday, even if the Jews had historical rights to the land of Israel, those rights would not override the rights of the native Arabs. According to Gans, the situation of the Palestinians in 1948 was like the situation of a person who is holding a medicine that somebody sick critically needs. The sick person's right to live takes precedence over the medicine holder's property rights, although the latter is not responsible for the former's illness. In fact, he is the accidental victim of that illness.
I don't buy Gans' argument because I think he accepts here a Zionist historical narrative. I don't think that a state in Palestine was the only option either for resettling Jews (many Jewish refugees ended up elsewhere; the Zionists pressured the world to allow refugees to go to Israel; many subsequently left, many stayed) or for saving Judaism. That is why I think the medicine analogy is inappropriate. I also think that this particular brand of medicine carried unfortunate side-effects.
But he is right that the Holocaust is behind a lot of people's thinking on why there should be a Jewish state.
The Jews were the direct victim of the Holocaust, but inasmuch as the Holocaust was the major impetus behind the recognition of the Jewish claim on Palestine, the Palestinians were also the indirect victims, just as they were the indirect victims of the expulsion of the Jews from Arab lands, and the direct victims of incompetent leaders.
Would there have been a Jewish state without the Nazi Holocaust? The Zionists always say, "Sure, we had the institutions; we had the resources; we had the smarts; we were ready, and we had the motivation. Maybe we got it earlier because of the Holocaust, but it would have come."
Not so fast. Today there are about as many Kurds in the Kurdistan Region as there are Jews in Israel. They have a flag, a parliament, and a foreign ministry. But they don't have a state, since they are part of the Federal Republic of Iraq. With or without the Holocaust there was no certainty that the Jews would ever have a state in Palestine. Yes, they were ready for a state, more or less. Yet given their political and cultural institutions, the Jewish people in Palestine could have been recognized as an ethnic minority, or as national part of a binational state, or part of a federal state.
Remember, nothing in history is inevitable.
And nothing has to remain the same.