Human Beings are not showing off their best abilities of late. They appear to have mostly failed when it comes to climate change. For instance, “By 2100, average temperatures in the U.S. are expected to increase by approximately 8°F or more (4.4°C)” if the current high rate of greenhouse gas emissions is maintained. If “immediate and rapid greenhouse gas reductions” are achieved we can keep the warming down to “approximately 2.5°F (1.4°C).” Given our lack of international institutions with the capability of enforcing agreements and treaties, which do you think is more likely?
Actually, we have been coming up short like this for a while. I am going to give you an example that almost no one recognizes. It constituted an opportunity, a window, to transform the planet’s state system and expand its legal code so as to assure relative peace and cooperation into the future. As we will see, nation states actually started down this civilizing road right after World War II. However, they failed to carry through and have landed back in the mire of barbarism and near continuous war. So much for love for our children and concern for their future.
Here is the story of this lost opportunity:
From 1914 till 1918, the Western “civilized” countries fought World War I. Besides the trench warfare, use of poison gas, and the introduction of such modern killing machines as tanks and machine guns (updated gatling guns), the war was fought as a consequence of alliance entanglements and to realize imperial and colonial ambitions.
As an example of the latter, take the 1917 promise given by the British government of a “national home” in Arab Palestine for Europe’s persecuted Jews. This is known as the Balfour Declaration and is a case of an ambitious Western imperial power (Great Britain) promising a European ethnic group land in the Middle East—land that, at the time, belonged to yet another empire, the Ottoman Empire. This was not as crazy as it seems:
(1) The British saw the Jews as potential wartime allies.
(2) The British were at war with the Ottomans, and planned on winning. (3) Victory would expand their empire so as to include Palestine.
(4) So why not start passing out somebody else’s imperial property which, one hoped, would soon be the spoils of your victory?
At the time, and indeed, throughout the following interwar period, very few in the West saw anything wrong with this imperial sleight of hand. The goal of expanding empire was supported by a centuries-old belief that national greatness was to be measured in terms of lands subjugated, ruled over, and in some cases, colonized. In the West, there was the added assumption that Western rule was beneficent, it spread civilization. Therefore, Western populations in general saw nothing ethically or morally wrong with this situation.
At the time, British leaders tried to explain this logic to the Arabs of Palestine. Winston Churchill, then the British Colonial Secretary, held a meeting with local Palestinian leaders in Jerusalem in April 1921. He told them that Zionism, the movement for a Jewish national home that involved the colonization of Palestine, “would enrich the country and they [the Arabs] shall share in the progress.”* We know now that this was not going to happen, but at the time Churchill probably believed what he said: a rising tide floats all boats.
It is important to note that at this time there were no international rules against imperialism or colonialism. Thus, a European power could proceed to control foreign lands, as Edward Said put it, in “flat disregard of both the presence and wishes of the native majority residents.” The assumption was that the natives just did not know what was good for them.
Europe’s Jews, though long the victims of “Christian civilization,” shared the Western sense of cultural superiority and, predictably, this attitude had consequences when Zionists came to Palestine. Indeed, the Palestinians were about to inherit the status of second-class human beings that Europe’s Jews were trying to throw off. Thus, it was with no ethical or moral qualms whatsoever that, in 1943, Chaim Weizmann, leader of the World Zionist Organization (and the same man to whom Balfour had promised a “national home” in Palestine), categorically told the personnel of the U.S. State Department’s Division of Near Eastern Affairs (NEA) that “Palestine could never be an Arab land again.”**
The NEA personnel thought this was hubris on Weizmann’s part. Alas, within five years, the fledgling Zionist lobby in the U.S. used its influence with President Harry Truman to have those State Department personnel who disliked Zionism transferred or forcibly retired.
Things Changed After World War II
Now let us step forward to review the status of world affairs from 1945-1950. We are a mere 28 years from 1917, yet now we find that things have radically changed. World War II had largely bankrupted even the winners, and the horrors of Nazi atrocities had seriously scared almost everyone.
As a consequence of near bankruptcy, imperialism and colonialism lost some of their luster. Impoverished by the war, Western populations were not willing to continue to pay exorbitant taxes to support their empires. This, in turn, led the West’s political leadership, some quicker than others and some only after bloody colonial wars, to start to move in the direction of decolonization. This was particularly true for Great Britain. The British Empire, upon which “the sun never set,” the largest of the Western colonial enterprises, transformed itself into a commonwealth. This act created many new independent states and allowed free movement of labor within the commonwealth. In an unprecedented fashion this transformed England into a multi-racial, multi-ethnic country.
Simultaneously, the horrors of World War II, ranging from the Holocaust to the use of nuclear weapons, encouraged an effort to put limits on the behavior of nation states. As a consequence, international law was rapidly expanded:
1. Treaties and “universal declarations” were drawn up, outlawing the behaviors of the Nazis. By treaty, genocide was outlawed and eventually made a crime against humanity.
2. The Fourth Geneva Convention was created to “deal with humanitarian protections for civilians in a war zone.”
3. An International Court of Justice at the Hague was established. Now complemented by the ICC.
4. Finally, there was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which, according to Eleanor Roosevelt, represented “a great event in the life of mankind.” It guaranteed, among other things, the right of every individual to “live their lives freely, equally and in dignity.”
In essence, Nazi crimes had so shook up the public and its leaders that the result was international laws and declarations that offered a guide to a better world—a set of new standards of civilized behavior. Unfortunately, hopes for enforcement through the new United Nations would prove a serious problem. The UN was hobbled by the Security Council veto of World War II’s victors and it lacked an independent source of income. At the time there was an innovative suggestion that sovereignty over the oceans and their resources be given to the UN, but this never came about. Instead, the UN had to rely on state membership dues.
The Unforeseen Contradiction
Almost immediately, this new world potential would be undermined by an inherent contradiction—the colonial ambitions of World War II’s principal victims. This takes us back to the Zionist movement and British promise of a national home. In 1948, the Zionists achieved their ends and declared the State of Israel. Unfortunately, the founding of a European settler state, and Israel’s subsequent behavior, contradicted the post-World War II spirit of decolonization, though few but the Arab states noticed. Eventually, the contradiction would prove fatal to the post-World War II reforms.
One can speculate that there existed a slim chance that Israel’s leaders would overcome the contradiction by following the path laid out by the new treaties and declarations. There were Jews known as “cultural Zionists” who wished to establish a religious and cultural center for Jews in Palestine while urging the founding of a democratic bi-national Jewish-Palestinian state.
As It turned out the Zionists who led Israel chose not to pursue this path. Why not? Their recent history made them ethnocentric to a fault—driven back upon themselves by horrible discrimination, reaching the point of genocide. Under these circumstances it made no difference that the Palestinians, and Arabs in general, had nothing to do with this near fatal period of European Jewish life. The “new Jewish personality” to be bred in Zionist Israel was to be aggressive and exclusionist. So, these incoming Europeans had (and still have) the goal of creating a state for their group alone.
This was the exact opposite path of the one represented by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Fourth Geneva Convention. Surrounded by an indigenous “other,” the only way you can achieve your exclusive state is through discriminatory practices and laws. Thus, Israel became a state that saw international law as a danger, something to be defied and overcome. More often than not, this effort was supported by Israel’s major ally, the United States—which had its own settler/colonial history.
Palestine and Our Future
In the post-1948 era, Palestinian resistance to Zionist colonialism became seen in the West as terrorism. And sometimes it was. But keep in mind, as a general principle, it is the tactics of the oppressor that creates the context for the tactics of the oppressed. The disproportionate acts of revenge carried out by Israel in response to early cross-border incursions of the Palestinians, together with Israel’s massive advantage in weaponry which made impossible a classic guerrilla war, led to the acts of terrorism used at certain periods of Palestinian resistance.
Nonetheless, what most Palestinians have always desired, besides a state of their own, is racial-ethnic equality, and religious freedom under the rule of law—The same things post World War II treaties and declarations stood for. Thus, symbolically at least, the Palestinian struggle stands for that better world that so many—including the Jews—said they wanted at the end of World War Two.
The Israelis, through their exclusion and persecution of the Palestinians, have taken a definitive stand against such a better future. Indeed, there is now an ongoing effort—an ongoing Zionist project, to move the world backward so that past colonist/racist practices are once more acceptable.
The unsettling truth is that in its effort to turn the clock back, Israel seems to be having its way. In the rest of the world, particularly the Western world, government and diplomatic bureaucracies are either silent about Israeli behavior or actively supporting it. Such positions erode international laws and conventions—exactly what the Zionist Israelis desire.
As the Israelis drag the world backward into a racist pre-progressive era, the U.S. follows and financially subsidizes the effort. American taxpayers are therefore helping to pay for a process of de-civilization.
Some readers might think this is hyperbole, but it is not. Israel’s present genocidal action in Gaza should clearly demonstrate just how low the Zionist state has fallen. Its behavior is so far beyond a reasonable reply to Hamas’s October 7 attack (which itself was an act of revenge for Israel’s impoverishment policies of Gaza) that it is simply self-imposed blindness to deny its criminal nature. Israel’s mass destruction in Gaza is one of the worst criminal acts committed by a state since World War II.
For those illogical enough to think it is anti-Semitic to point out such enormous Zionist sins, I would point to the growing number of Jews in the Diaspora who condemn Israel’s actions. I take my stand with them. Israel is not representative of all Jews. And Israel’s goals and leadership arguably represents a betrayal of the best of Jewish values. In this strange convoluted way, the real enemy of the Jews are the Zionists.
Let’s end by taking a quick look at a list of 74 countries adhering to the UN charter. This is the so-called Multilateralism index and it ranks how these countries adhere to the United Nations’ Charter and its goals. Guess who is at the very bottom? You got it, the United States of America. Guess who is second to last? Right again. It is Israel. Enough said.
* See Lawrence Davidson’s book, America’s Palestine (University Press of Florida, 2001), p. 43.
** Ibid., p.150.