Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The never-ending debate

Letters to the editor about Israel have been polarized for 60 years

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As sure as the sun rises and sets every day, the start of another violent clash between Israelis and the Palestinians is certain to be followed immediately in the Free Press and other North American newspapers with letters to the editor offering condemnation and defence of each side.

The letters are frequently passionate, dogmatic and based on two diametrically opposed views of the history of the troubled Middle East region. I know firsthand about this: When I waded into this controversy in the summer of 2006 -- after Israel invaded southern Lebanon to confront Hezbollah -- with a column in the Free Press defending Israel's actions, one irate reader wrote to denounce my "demented and twisted logic."

At the risk of re-opening that can of worm, here is another perspective.

Israel unilaterally left the Gaza Strip in 2004. Two years later, Hamas took control of the area and, since then, has permitted its own supporters as well as the extremist members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad to fire an estimated 7,000 rockets into Israel. Hamas, whose 1988 charter calls for the destruction of Israel, claims that the rocket attacks are retaliation for Israel's tight blockade of the strip, and in general for the continued occupation and settlements built by Israel on Palestinian territory taken by Israel in the June 1967 Six-Day War.

The letters to the editor about the conflict in 2008, when Israel first invaded Gaza to stop the rocket attacks, and then during this latest exchange, divide along the following lines: Advocates for the Palestinians portray Gaza as the world's largest ghetto and its inhabitants of being deprived of food and security. They usually ignore the fact that Hamas refuses to acknowledge Israel's right to exist and refuses to stop the rocket attacks, as if going after the Jihadists was impossible. They rarely concede that Israel permits food and medical supplies to enter the area, provides medical care to Gaza residents in need of it, and permits electricity to be sold to Gaza. They do not accept that if Israel did not impose a blockade, many more rockets and missiles sent to Hamas by Iran would be smuggled in at an even greater rate and be used in the ongoing conflict. And, in general, these detractors of Israel question the legitimacy of the state and its history, thereby negating the reality that no country, whether a democracy or not, could tolerate its declared enemy firing rockets on its citizens on a weekly basis.

Meanwhile, the pro-Israel side, which includes a majority, though by no means all, of the North American Jewish community, dismiss much of the criticism as being hateful anti-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric. As George Jonas wrote a few weeks ago in his National Post column, "some critics of Israel are anti-Semites and some aren't, and no one can tell in advance which one is and which one isn't, although one can often make a shrewd guess." The champions of Israel also ignore, or at least downplay, that the continued expansion of Israeli settlements on land they captured and occupied in 1967, whether historically valid or not, makes the situation between the two sides far worse and a peace treaty more difficult to negotiate.

What is truly fascinating is that this heated back and forth debate has been going on in the Free Press and every other Canadian and American newspaper since the day Israel declared its independence in May 1948 and much of the Arab world rejected the United Nation partition of Palestine and the establishment of a Jewish state. The immediate attack on tiny Israel by a combined army at the beginning of the conflict about 20 times in size and the departure and expulsion of half-a million Palestinians from the area, as well as the departure and expulsion of 850,000 Jews from Arab lands, set pens to paper. The letter writing has never stopped.

The times were different, however. In the late forties, anti-Semitism in the form of job discrimination, property restriction and club memberships was an accepted aspect of life in Winnipeg. The city's Jews did celebrate Israeli independence with an enthusiastic rally at the Odeon move theatre. Still, many were more reticent about becoming embroiled in a public discussion about it, lest they be accused of not being patriotic Canadians.

One of the earliest letters in the Free Press on the subject was submitted by L. Rosenbaum on Oct. 16, 1948, offering some words of sympathy for the Palestinians caught in a war forced upon them by their leaders. But this correspondent also included an historical perspective that has been advanced ever since

"It is true that over 300,000 Arabs have fled the country since the British Army started its move to evacuate Palestine," Rosenbaum wrote, "and it is also clear that the flight of so great a number of Arabs has created a political and humanitarian problem of great dimensions. However the Provisional Government of Israel has neither organized nor encouraged that flight. The Arabs who chose to stay in the territory which is ruled by Israel are treated as equal and rightful citizens. The surrounding lands of Egypt, Iraq, Trans-Jordan, Lebanon and Syria... spread panic and terror among the Palestinian Arabs and encourage them to flee."

As the years went by and further conflicts broke out in the Middle East in 1956, 1967 and 1973, the discussion continued unabated. The letters, almost all from Jewish readers, focussed on Israel's desire for peace and the Arabs intention to destroy Israel. After Israel's victory in June 1967 and the expansion of its territory into the West Bank, Golan Heights and Sinai, the tenor of the discussion changed and moved further apart.

"Can one be committed to the survival of Israel and still concern himself with the abject plight of Palestinian refugees whose fortunes sank to new lows as Jewish nationalists drove them from their homes or at very least precipitated their exodus," asked reader Evin Elkin in a letter of March 8, 1969, a letter neither side appreciated then or now.

A year later, during a period in which the Palestine Liberation Organization had carried out several violent attacks on Israel, a more strident debate that could have been written last week erupted on the pages of the Free Press.

It began with a letter to the paper from Sami Faez Muhtadie, the president of the Manitoba Canadian Arab Federation, who responded to an opinion article about Israel. In his view, Israel was a state "created by force, continues to live by force, and will always try to expand by nothing but force." Predictably, this prompted replies from incensed Israeli supporters, one of whom accused Muhtadie of perpetuating "half-truths and falsehoods." This was followed by a rebuttal from Muthtadie's colleague, Khalid Qanah, the federation's secretary, in which he indicted "Zionists" for using "Nazi techniques of propaganda: The big lie and its continuous repetition." All of the letters related various versions of the history of the consequential events of 1948 according to the biased perspective of each writer.

The greater the violence, the more each side has dug in, unwilling to consider the position of the other. When the PLO and later Hamas resorted to suicide bombing against Israelis, their defenders did not always come out and say so, but the implication in their letters was that in this war of attrition any weapon, even murdering innocent civilians on buses or at pizza parlours, was acceptable. In turn, when Israel retaliated, its actions, which also has led to the deaths of civilians, was denounced as disproportional by the Palestinians and much of the western world. Its supporters argue that these tragedies are unfortunate casualties of war, yet justified in the face of an implacable enemy. Forty years later, there seemingly is no end to this debate or the violence in the region.

On June 17, 1967, a week after the Six-Day War ended, the Free Press published a perceptive letter from Joe Zuken, an outspoken city councillor and a communist. He offered these prudent words. "Peace will not prevail unless the just rights of the state of Israel and her Arab neighbours are safeguarded. Fundamental to the achievement of peace is the necessity of the Arab states to recognize for all time Israel's right to survive and to live free from continual threats of extermination... The UN must assist Israel and the Arab states to reach a constructive solution regarding the Arab refugees... Peace cannot long endure in a climate of conqueror and conquered. Israel has proved her military capability. She should now demonstrate with statesmanship... that her terms of settlement will not sow the seeds of a future war."

Given his politics, Zuken had many detractors throughout his long career, but his letter showed much wisdom that has yet to be embraced. And there's nothing demented or twisted about suggesting that.

Now &Then is a column in which historian Allan Levine puts the events of today in an historical context. His most recent book, King: William Lyon Mackenzie King: A Life Guide by the Hand of Destiny is now available in paperback.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 1, 2012 J11

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