Sunday, December 17, 2023

A Darwinian Liberal Defense of Israel

                                     The History of the Israel-Palestine Conflict in 11 Minutes

The fighting between Hamas and Israel has renewed the endless debate over the Israel-Palestine conflict.  The argument on the Palestinian side of this debate is well stated by Rashid Khalidi in The Hundred Years' War on Palestine (2020).  On the side of Israel, the best book is Alan Dershowitz's The Case for Israel (2003).  One of the best histories of the Arab-Israeli conflict--using annotated maps--is Martin Gilbert's Routledge Atlas of the Arab-Israeli Conflict (10th edition, 2012).  Although it is generally historically accurate, Gilbert's book is slanted to the side of Israel.

The fundamental issue here is suggested by the subtitle of Khalidi's book: "A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917-2017."  Is it true that the Palestinians fighting against Israel have been resisting the settler colonialism of the Israeli Jews who have taken Palestinian land by violent conquest?  Or is it rather the case that the Israelis have been fighting in defense of Israel's right to exist against Arab terrorists who want to destroy Israel?

I will offer a Darwinian liberal argument for why Israel is indeed defending its natural and historic right to exist as a state against Arab terrorist attacks that have no moral justification.


This all began over a century ago, at the end of the 19th century, with the emergence of the Zionist movement, which sought to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine, where the ancient Jews had lived for long periods as an independent state before they were conquered by the Romans and then defeated in a revolt against Roman rule, 66-73 AD.  

During the six centuries after the Roman conquest, some Jews remained in Palestine.  In 637 AD, Jerusalem was conquered by the Muslim Arabs.  From 637 to 1099, the Arabs were generally tolerant towards their Jewish subjects, although the Jews were often mistreated.  From 1099 to 1291, the Christian Crusaders persecuted and killed the Palestinian Jews; and the Jews fought alongside the Arabs against the Crusaders.  In 1291, the Muslim Mamluks expelled the Crusaders and ruled until 1516.  During this time, many Jews came to Palestine to escape from persecution in Christian Europe.

After 1517, Palestine was under the colonial rule of the Ottoman Turks until they were defeated by the British in World War I.  Although the Jews were often mistreated by the Ottoman Muslims, the Jews of Europe continued to move to Palestine because the European Christians persecuted and expelled the Jews.  Between 1880 and 1914, over 60,000 Jews entered Palestine, mostly from Eastern Europe and Russia.  The Jews purchased their land, often wasteland, from European, Turkish, and Arab landlords.  In 1909, some Jews founded the first entirely Jewish town--Tel Aviv--on the sandhills north of Jaffa.

In 1896, Theodor Herzl's The Jewish State was published in Germany and Austria.  (Herzl coined the term "Jewish state.")  This became the manifesto of the Zionist movement with Herzl as its leader.  He convened the first international Zionist conference in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897.  David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, wrote a short biography of Herzl showing how the establishment of Israel as a state in 1948 was the fulfillment of Herzl's vision.

Herzl said that the Jews would want "sovereignty over a strip of territory" in Palestine, and "we should there form a portion of the rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism" (Herzl 2019, 11, 43).  This is the language of European colonization.  Remarkably, Herzl never mentions the Palestinian Arabs as possibly resisting Jewish "sovereignty" over their territory.  Actually, Herzl knew very little about Palestine.  His one and only visit to Palestine was in 1898, two years after the publication of his book.

Herzl was a secular Jew.  And he promised that the Jewish state in Palestine would not be a theocracy, because the Jewish priests would have no political power.  "Every man will be free and undisturbed in his faith or his disbelief as he is in his nationality.  And if it should occur that men of different creeds and different nationalities came to live amongst us, we should accord them honorable protection, and equality before the law.  We learned toleration in Europe" (61).  But notice his oddly hypothetical language--"if it should occur that men of different creeds and different nationalities came to live amongst us"--as if Palestine were not already populated by a Muslim majority.

As Khalidi indicates, Herzl's diary shows that he had actually begun to think about the need to move the native Arab Palestinians out of their land.   In 1895, he wrote:

"We must expropriate gently the private property on the estates assigned to us.  We shall try to spirit the penniless population across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries, while denying it employment in our country.  The property owners will come over to our side.  Both the process of expropriation and the removal of the poor must be carried out discreetly and circumspectly" (Khalidi, 4).

Khalidi has found an exchange of letters between Herzl and Khalidi's great uncle--Yusuf Diya al-Din Pasha al-Khalidi--that shows how Islamic leaders in Palestine feared an attempted Jewish conquest of their land.  Yusuf Diya had been an Ottoman government official in various positions--including mayor of Jerusalem.  On March 1, 1899, he sent a seven-page letter to the French chief rabbi, with the hope that it would be passed on to Herzl.  And, indeed, Herzl replied to him on March 19.

Yusuf Diya wrote about his admiration for Judaism and his recognition of the persecution suffered by the Jews in Europe.  He saw that Zionism was "natural, beautiful and just," and, "who could contest the rights of the Jews in Palestine?  My God, historically it is your country!"

But then he warned that trying to establish a sovereign Jewish state in Palestine would create conflict between Christians, Muslims, and Jews in Palestine.  Although it was right for the Zionists to find a homeland somewhere in the world, Palestine was not the place because "Palestine is an integral part of the Ottoman Empire, and more gravely, it is inhabited by others."  For that reason, it would be "pure folly" for Zionism to try to take over Palestine.  He concluded with a plea: "in the name of God, let Palestine be left alone" (Khalidi, 4-5).

In his reply, Herzl ignored this plea and the warning that the Arab Palestinians would resist being ruled in a Jewish state.  Herzl reassured Yusuf Diya that the native Palestinian Muslims would benefit from Jewish immigration: "It is their well-being, their individual wealth, which we will increase by bringing in our own. . . . In allowing immigration to a number of Jews bringing their intelligence, their financial acumen and their means of enterprise to the country, no one can doubt that the well-being of the entire country would be the happy result."

Here Khalidi sees the condescending arrogance of every colonial settler movement that will try to force an indigenous people to give up their homeland and be ruled by another superior people.


To defend Israel against the charge that Zionism aimed to establish a colonialist, imperialist Jewish state that would displace the Palestinians and colonize all of Palestine, one must reject two extremist positions.  Khalidi rightly rejects the extremist Zionist slogan that Palestine was "a land without a people for a people without a land," because this denies the fact that Palestinian Arabs were roughly 95 percent of the inhabitants of Palestine in 1914 (11).  But he should also reject the extremist Palestinian claim that in 1914, there were a Palestinian state and a Palestinian people that were displaced by a Jewish violent conquest that established the state of Israel, and therefore the state of Israel has no right to exist.

Between these two extremist positions, the reasonable and fair resolution of the Palestinian/Israel conflict would be dividing the land of Palestine into two states--one predominantly Arab and the other predominantly Jewish.  But while Jewish Israeli leaders have repeatedly agreed to this solution, Muslim Arabic leaders have repeatedly rejected it.

The Jews who immigrated to Palestine before World War I were not carving a Jewish homeland out of a pre-existing Palestinian state.  There had never been a Palestinian state in this area since the Jews had their state there before the Roman conquest.  The Palestinians were under the rule of the Ottoman Empire.  

By 1914, there were roughly 500,000 Arabs in Palestine, and roughly 90,000 Jews.  So, while the Arabs were the majority, the Jewish minority was sizable; and in some parts of Palestine, the Jews were the majority (Gilbert, 3).

Moreover, the Jews who settled in Palestine had not entered through force of arms.  They had purchased land from landlord owners.

Many Arabs responded to this with aggressive violence.  Between 1886 and 1914, Jewish settlements were repeatedly attacked by Arab bands (Gilbert, 4).

The British conquered Palestine in 1917-1918.  On November 2, 2017, Lord Arthur Balfour, foreign secretary in the Lloyd George ministry, issued the "Balfour Declaration":  "His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country" (Gilbert, 8).

To stop this "national home for the Jewish people" in Palestine, armed Arab bands attacked Jewish agricultural settlements in 1920-1921.  Arabs demanded that the British give them representative institutions so that the Arab majority could stop all Jewish immigration.  Although the British rejected this demand, they did try to reduce Jewish immigration, and Transjordan (now Jordan) was completely closed to Jewish settlement in 1921.

Jewish immigration to Palestine increased after Hitler came to power in 1933.  From 1933 to 1936, the Jewish population of Palestine increased from 230,000 to 400,000, which constituted one third of the Arab population.  In 1936, the Arabs launched massive attacks on the Palestinian Jews.

In 1936, the British Government appointed the Peel Commission to study the problems of Britain's Mandate over Palestine.  In 1937, the Commission recommended the partition of Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state, with a British controlled corridor from Jaffa to Jerusalem.

                                              The Peel Commission Partition Plan, 1937

After an intense debate, the Jewish leaders agreed to accept this plan for creating two separate states.  The Arab leaders rejected it.

This set the pattern that would be followed throughout the history of the Palestine-Israeli conflict.  Whenever a two-state solution was proposed, the Jewish leaders would accept it, and the Arab leaders would reject it.  In 1947, the United Nations proposed a partition of Palestine into two states.  The Jewish leaders accepted it and declared the independence of Israel in 1948.  The Arab leaders rejected the UN's partition plan and launched a massive war against Israel as soon as independence was declared.

Another chance for a two-state solution came with the Barak-Clinton peace proposals of 2000-2001.  Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was known as someone desperate to achieve peace between Palestinians and Israel.  In negotiations between Barak and PLO leader Yasser Arafat organized by President Bill Clinton, Barak agreed to give the Palestinians almost everything they had demanded--a Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem, control over the Temple Mount, 95 percent of the West Bank and all of the Gaza Strip returned to Palestinian rule, and $30 billion dollars to help the 1948 Palestinian refugees.  Amazingly, Arafat rejected the offer without even offering a counterproposal.  He just walked away.  Then he ordered terrorist attacks on innocent Israeli civilians.  This provoked an Israeli overreaction and the election of a hawkish general (Ariel Sharon) as prime minister, who promised a brutal response to terrorism (Dershowitz, 117-22).


Palestinian terrorist attacks are designed to provoke Israel into an overreaction that kills many innocent Palestinians, which arouses a world-wide condemnation of Israel for violating human rights.  That's what Hamas has done in the present conflict.  The attacks on Israel on October 7 were targeted at innocent civilians.  Israel has retaliated with attacks on Hamas, but since Hamas hides behind civilians, these attacks on Hamas inevitably kill many innocent people.

In accordance with international standards of just war, Islamic terrorism is unjust because it directly and intentionally targets civilians for attack, while Israel's defensive actions directly attacking military targets are just because civilian deaths are unintended side-effects of attacking combatants.  This distinction is clear in the different training for Islamic terrorists and for Israeli soldiers.   The terrorists are ordered to kill as many innocent civilians as possible.  The Israeli soldiers are ordered to risk their own lives to reduce the risks for the civilian population.  It can be argued, as Dershowitz does, that no country facing terrorist attacks has been more protective of innocent civilians than Israel (Dershowitz, 140-53).


Israel's right to exist and right to self-defense are examples of what Dershowitz has called "rights from wrongs."  From our historical experience with injustice, we learn to assert those rights necessary to avoid the wrongs of injustice.  So, from the experience of the unjust treatment of the Jews throughout their history, and particularly during the Holocaust, we have learned the need for the Jews to have the right to defend themselves and for a Jewish state to have the right to exist.

This thought is implicit in what John Locke says about how the law of nature arises in the state of nature, the experience of being the victims of aggressive violence taught human beings that they needed the right to defend their life, liberty, and property from attack, and thus the right to punish those who violate the law of nature.


Another piece of evidence for the Darwinian liberal defense of Israel is its ranking on the Human Freedom Index.  As I have indicated in previous posts, the Human Freedom Index includes many indices of both personal freedom and economic freedom that make it a good measurement of freedom as understood by classical liberalism.

Israel ranks at 62 out of 165 countries.  Although it's not close to the top, it's slightly above the average for the world, and it's well above the average for its region--the Middle East and North Africa.  For example, Jordan ranks at 108, Lebanon at 121, Turkey at 130, Saudi Arabia at 159, Egypt at 161, Iran at 162, Yemen at 164, and Syria at 165.  So, while some of these Islamic Arabic countries rank at the absolute bottom, Israel looks good as a unique land of freedom in that part of the world.

That Israeli devotion to freedom was manifested in its Declaration of Independence of 1948, which will be the subject for my next post.


Dershowitz, Alan. 2003. The Case for Israel. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Gilbert, Martin.  2012.  The Routledge Atlas of the Arab-Israeli Conflict. 10th edition. New York: Routledge.

Herzl, Theodor. 2019. The Jewish State.  New York: Skyhorse Publishing.

Khalidi, Rashid.  2020.  The Hundred Years' War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917-2017. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

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