- In a recent interview on Israeli public radio a prominent
member of Ariel Sharon's Likud party said that the idea of ethnic cleansing
to rid Israel of non-Jews had widespread support in Israel. This idea apparently
has been put forward with little to no public discussion as a "final
solution" to the growing demographic fact that Palestinians could
well outnumber Jews in Israel in a fairly short time. In this climate
of opinion, the idea of mass expulsions of Palestinians, pursued vigorously
from the late 1940s onward, and extinctions, carried out under an ongoing
policy of assassinations of militants, could easily morph into generalized
ethnic cleansing to rid the areas west of the Jordan River of all non-Jews.
Without going into the moral, legal, religious, or humanitarian failings
of such a choice, it is worth examining the practical complications of
deciding who is to be expelled or eliminated.
- The first question is: Who is a Jew? The Biblical, that
is Old Testament answer to this question is quite simple: Jews are the
descendents of Shem who was Noah's eldest son. Shem's descendents became
known as Shemites, a name that gradually evolved into the modern term,
Semites, that applies about equally to all Palestinian people. That appears
a simple enough point of departure, except that over a period of several
millennia-we do not really know how many-the sons of Shem were both prolific
and adventurous. They traveled widely and married or otherwise mated with
females in every place they ventured. Moreover, Shem's sons had daughters
who, with less fanfare, did much the same.
- By the time Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt
the bloodlines undoubtedly were quite complicated despite the best efforts
to maintain purity. Moreover, on the basis of four to five generations
per hundred years, any living Jew is at least two to three hundred generations
from Shem, and a pure bloodline at this stage would be miraculous.
- Therefore, perhaps the more operational question is:
What is a Jew? Most of us who are non-Jews and hardly expert in ethnography
or genetics are likely to say a Jew is someone who practices the Jewish
religion or who identifies himself or herself as a Jew. People generally
do not look behind these orders of preference and self-selection.
- Just what do the would-be ethnic cleansers have to work
with, here and now? The answer may seem crass, but they have only their
preferences. Here is where an ethnic cleansing venture can go most egregiously
- The problems start with the simple fact that no one we
know took a DNA sample from Shem. Moreover, a dozen or so tribes of the
children of Israel were cast into the Diaspora, where a fairly strong Jewish
tradition holds they still belong. Meanwhile, many of the sons of Shem,
a large number of whom were not adherents of Judaism, remained to populate
the eastern reaches of the Mediterranean with Christian and Muslim as well
as Jewish communities, and they were there when the Zionists, who were
Ashkenazi Jews appeared out of Central Europe to begin their creation of
the state of Israel. A further complication was the dispersion of Sephardi
Jews, many of whose ancestors were expelled in the late 15th century from
Spain, all along the North African coast and around the Middle East. Even
in the blackest periods of relations between Israel and Arab states of
the region, such as the early 1960s, the Sephardis lived in Arab countries,
still carrying the Spanish of Don Quixote as a spoken language in their
households. Their ethnicity also was further diluted by centuries of living
and of passage along the African coast. Additionally, in an effort to accelerate
growth of the Jewish population Israeli leaders sought migrants from Jewish
communities in Peru, Ethiopia and elsewhere and these communities are now
slowly being added to the pool of Jewishness that is Israel. In Israel,
the Ashkenazi number 4 million plus and the Sephardi about a million; together
they are 80% of the population. Palestinians and others make up the remaining
- This, then, is the gene pool that would-be ethnic cleansers
must confront in Israel. Some of their likely preference is revealed in
the elite and governing power of the country. The northern or Ashkenazi
Jews are at the top, with Palestinian, Sephardi and other regional Jews
at the bottom. This picture is further complicated by the probability that
the Ashkenazi are not descendents of Shem, but from other, Central European
stock whose ancestors were converts to Judaism.
- It thus appears that an honestly pursued ethnic cleansing
would have perverse effects on the Israeli power structure. However diluted
the bloodline may be, the Palestinians, both Jews and non-Jews, appear
most entitled to the distinction of being "people of the book",
therefore, ethnic descendents of Shem as nearly as those can be identified.
In that awkward way, ethnic cleansing could be a "final solution"
in that, honestly pursued, it would give the land back to the Palestinians.
- Of course, putting true ethnicity aside, ethnic cleansing
could be pursued on behalf of the Ashkenazi majority, which appears to
be what the Likud speaker cited above had in mind. That would codify elevation
of the whiter, larger European Jews over the darker, smaller Mediterranean,
African or Latino ones, which is already the defacto situation. This result
could have an ironic twist in that it would assure the "people of
the book" at best the minority status of second-class citizens.
- The history of the Jewish people denies the Israelis
the luxury of a "final solution" through ethnic cleansing. They
thus have three basic choices: One is to continue on the presently decaying
path of Israel as a hierarchical, Central European based oligarchy supported
by second, third and fourth class citizens (Sephardis, Palestinian Jews,
and Palestinians) who are increasingly dissatisfied with the arrangement,
and surrounded by neighbors who harbor deep-seated grievances and fight
back. The second is to achieve a compromise by recognizing that all the
parties have equal rights and interests. The third is to recognize that
the power of Judaism is always at its best when based on spirituality and
the values that have sustained it and made major contributions to communities
as enclaves and citizens everywhere for millennia.
- Biblical Jewish efforts toward purity and exclusiveness
were always frustrated, either by God or by the human condition. A vocal
minority of Jews suggests it should stay that way. God keeps his own counsel.
The human condition appears no better disposed than it was. Outsiders
can hope that realists among the Israelis will accept ethnic diversity,
already the dominant human condition virtually everywhere else.
- The writer is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer
of the U.S. Department of State. He welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org