February 10, 2006 (Revised March 11, 2006)
Considerable anxiety erupted in the Western press during the summer of 2005 when Iran’s newly elected President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared his intent to "wipe Israel off the map" of the Middle East. Touching off terror and fright among Israeli citizens, the bald threat alarmed most people of good will thruout the Western world. Pope Benedict XVI immediately confirmed that Israel has a right to exist just like every other state, which most ordinary Arabs and Iranians do believe in principle. A nation is the expression of a people, bound together by common race, religion, culture, and traditions; it’s a sovereign political community of human beings forming a distinct segment of the broader human society. Since liberty is both an inalienable right and a necessity dictated by fallen human nature, no authority can legitimately challenge a nation’s (or people’s) right to existence. However, the occasional aggressor from Hannibal of Carthage to the Stalinist Soviet Union has emerged to launch a ruthless genocide, massive war or other form of imperialist domination against a state or populace. Such a belligerent must be repelled by force immediately to save the victims.
Thus Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s direct threat to "wipe Israel off the map" would seem to indicate he’s an aggressor out to destroy Israel, preparing to rain a storm of nuclear missiles on millions of Jewish civilians. Such fears are groundless. Due to a common misunderstanding outside the Arab world, this warlike phrase—and its companion, "drive the Jews into the sea"—are taken literally, without question. There’s much more to these statements than meets the Western ear, and a correct interpretation is direly needed. In their magnificent 1972 book, O Jerusalem, Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre explain the first Arab use of this language, prior to the 1948 war against Israel:
"Reasonable and moderate in private, particularly with foreigners, they [Arab leaders] reverted in public to the overwrought flights of rhetoric that were the coin of their political discourse. Always ready to stir public passions to their private ends, they were now trapped by the passions they had stirred. Leaders of a society in which the Word had an exalted role in every act of life from welcoming a stranger to pronouncing a funeral exhortation, they hurled off their verbal thunderbolts without measuring their impact on the emotional, underdeveloped masses they led. Nor did they measure their impact on their foes. None of the men in the Egyptian Foreign Ministry really meant to be taken literally in threatening to "drive the Jews into the sea." But they failed to remember that their foes had just seen six million of their kind driven into Hitler’s ovens. While their threats might not be taken at face value in the salons of Cairo, they were read with total seriousness on the sidewalks of Tel Aviv." –p. 293
This revealing paragraph demonstrates how the Arabs’ traditional vocabulary and the Jews’ history of persecution interact to shape the Arab-Israeli conflict. In fact, this decades-long dispute revolves around two simple issues: territory and population. According to the general theory of Zionism adopted in the early 1900s, for the ancient state of Israel to be revived, Jews must comprise the majority of the population of Palestine. By means of substantial Jewish illegal immigration, armed land robbery, feeble endeavors at Palestinian genocide, and the UN partition plan of 1947, the Zionists barely managed to attain a slim Jewish majority in half of Palestine.
Egypt promptly invaded the new state of Israel together with Transjordan (now Jordan), Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, to quell the lawless rampages of Zionist terrorists against innocent Palestinians. Moreover, these five Arab nations surrounding Israel declared their goal, back then in 1948, to "wipe the Zionist state off the map". But in addition to Zionist terrorism, what really galvanized the whole Arab world’s unalterable opposition to Israel was the forced displacement of one million Palestinian residents from their homes and the illegal seizure of their land before and during Israel’s aggressive, expansionist war of 1948-49. This crime against humanity pleased the radical Zionists, who were not content with getting a slight Jewish majority in Palestine—or watching the fast-growing native Palestinians quietly erase their dreams. Unfortunately, Israel expelled Palestinians from both the territory it forcibly acquired beyond its borders and from inside the legally defined state itself, resulting in a major refugee crisis.
Ever since that day, Israel has unjustly and inexcusably ignored the most basic right of the Palestinian refugees: to return to their homes. Why? Because if this right is granted, Israel would be swamped with Palestinians and would no longer contain a majority Jewish population. In the minds of all Zionists, this situation is unthinkable, as it would be tantamount to the destruction of their state.
This is exactly what Middle Eastern heads of state mean when they call for the destruction of Israel. In their minds, "the Zionist entity" signifies a tool of colonialist oppression keeping millions of their fellow Arabs dispossessed. So their ultimate goal, borne out by their various policies toward Israel, compulsory under United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194 since 1948, and steadfastly supported by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, is merely to return the Palestinian refugees to their original land. If Israel cannot exist without denying these refugees their inalienable right to return, if this permanent situation of injustice serves as the foundation stone of the Jewish state, then it cannot exist, period. This is the unassailable logic used by Arabs and Iranians who reject Israel’s right to existence.
Indeed, what’s really a plain and straightforward matter of Jewish statehood and Palestinian population is complicated by mutual distrust and misunderstanding of each side’s rhetoric. "Wiping Israel off the map" is code language for "the Palestinian refugees obtaining their right to return"; "the destruction of the Jewish state of Israel" is paranoia for the same topic. I can offer several cases to prove that "Wiping Israel off the map" is a figurative, not a literal, Arab-Iranian expression.
First, I remark on the generally noble conduct and restraint of the Arab forces battling Israel in the 1948 war. Even though guerilla terrorist attacks claimed several thousand innocent Jewish lives, the bulk of the Arab conventional armies were directed at Israeli soldiers and military targets. Most of the war was fought on territory allotted to the Palestinians by the 1947 UN Partition Plan; the Arabs were fighting just to hold Palestinian land, not to grab Israeli land. They besieged no more than ten Jewish "civilian" settlements (which were illegally owned, barbed-wire and watchtower guarded camps) in Palestine, murdered only 2400 Israeli civilians and killed 4000 soldiers during the entire two years of war, altogether just 1 percent of Israel’s Jewish population. Compare this to the Israeli army and terrorist gangs, which totally devastated four hundred towns and villages across Palestine (where half a million Palestinian refugees formerly lived) and inflicted some 8 to 10,000 Arab casualties. Most convincing of all is the fact that, while the determined Israeli army relied on its greater manpower, the Arab forces possessed overwhelming arms superiority, from guns to tanks to warplanes. They could easily have bombed Tel Aviv or Jerusalem and wiped out most of the Jewish population of Palestine if that was really their intention. Quoted earlier, Collins and Lapierre remark on this restraint, noting almost comically how Iraq was the most outspoken nation yet most absent from the battlefield.
Second, while preparing for the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan once again boldly proclaimed their threatening goal: to "wipe Israel off the map". But this time, Israel controlled a powerful, highly sophisticated military arsenal. Its warplanes made preemptive strikes on well-armed Egypt and Syria, determining the outcome of the war from the start and leaving the Arabs no possible chance to destroy Israel. Moreover, the Israeli forces drove 300,000 Arabs from 100 villages in Syria’s Golan Heights, Lebanon, the West Bank, and the Jerusalem vicinity, worsening the refugee problem. The few Arab successes of the war were achieved by Jordan, which fired some 20,000 rockets into the Old City of Jerusalem, killing only 600 civilians. That’s a remarkably low casualty rate for so many rockets, and for a state threatening to drive four million Jews into the sea. Even considering the relatively diminutive Jewish population of East Jerusalem at the time, Jordan could have used its weapons much more efficiently. There’s no question it possessed the capability to slaughter many thousands of innocent Israelis, yet it did not.
A third example of Arab goodwill toward the Jewish state is provided by the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Unlike in the 1967 war, this time the Arab states had the advantage of surprise over Israel. In twenty-four hours, Egypt liberated all of its Sinai territory, and Syria regained the Golan Heights. These mountains overlooked northern Israel, where thousands of Jewish farmers lived in kibbutzim spread across many miles. There the Syrian forces just stopped, perched on the Golan Heights. The Egyptian military also halted at Israel’s southern border. Since the Israeli Defense Force contingents did not arrive to confront them for another hour, why didn’t Egypt and Syria plunge ahead into Israel? Because they didn’t want to murder thousands of innocent civilians, which the Arab code of ethics forbids—and because they never intended to demolish the state of Israel in the first place. Neocons like Sean Hannity have chastised Arab leaders unsparingly for harboring an evil hatred of the "virtuous" nation of Israel; but a burning hatred does not restrain itself and lose every chance to obliterate its enemies like that. One searches history books in vain for the large-scale massacres that would have taken place if the Arabs were determined to literally destroy the Israeli state.
Even though a Jewish majority in Israel has been achieved and perpetuated by forcing Palestinians out, is there any reason why the state of Israel can’t exist together with the Palestinian refugees and descendants back on their land? It’s true that Israel doesn’t have room for five million refugees plus the five million Jews already there; the Palestinians have outgrown Palestine. But one million Jews, including 225,000 in Jerusalem, currently reside in illegal settlements on Palestinian land scattered thruout and beyond Israel’s legal borders. After they evacuate and move to legal Israeli territory or to America or anywhere else, there will be room for at least the 1.5 million Palestinians in the refugee camps to resettle in and around Israel. Though critics might protest that carrying out such population transfers would be nearly impossible, they should remember Israel has had no trouble bringing several million Jews into the country and relocating more than one million Palestinians out during the course of its history. To let the refugees back in would approximately shift those numbers in reverse. Far from knocking down the state of Israel, this requirement of justice will unavoidably produce a Jewish minority within Israel, transforming it into a democratic state. In fact, polls reveal that the young generation of Israeli Jews wants the Palestinian refugees to return and Israel to become a democracy where all citizens enjoy full religious, civil, and political liberty. Only then will the Arab-Israeli conflict begin to subside.
Complementing the practical concern of reconciling statehood and refugees is the far more absurd idea that permitting the Palestinian natives to return would "open the floodgates" to a horde of murderers who will proceed en masse to slaughter all the Jews of Palestine. This is a vicious myth totally bereft of supporting evidence, which is nevertheless generated by Israel for two reasons: to deflect attention from its obvious, sixty-year-long denial of refugee rights, and to justify shirking its moral and legal responsibility. Muslims and Jews coexisted peacefully in Palestine for centuries before the state of Israel came along. Any resentment Muslim Palestinians might feel toward Israel or Jews today is provoked by their Israeli-imposed status as refugees. Even though Zionist Jews have lived on stolen Arab property for several generations, they’re still morally and legally bound to relinquish it to its rightful owners. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have reiterated that without this arrangement, fulfilling the claims of both sides, no lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians will be possible. In other words, however appealing a concept it may be, the majority Jewish character of Israel must be terminated.
The Arab and Iranian leaders will continue to repeat their legendary, misleading slogan of "wiping Israel off the map" as long as the Palestinian refugees continue to dwell in poverty-stricken camps adjoining Israel, denied their inalienable right to return to their homeland. If the discriminatory Jewish state would permit the refugees their inalienable right to return home, just treatment and equal rights under the law, coupled with a halt to its unjust and dishonorable behavior in international relations, Arab-Iranian hostility would evaporate overnight—and the state of Israel would supposedly be dissolved, cry the Zionist propagandists. But simple justice demands it. The radical Zionists are on a collision course with reality. Israel is bound by the seventh commandment to return the land it has stolen, with the side effect being a Jewish minority in Palestine. That’s what it will be more than forty years from now anyway, because the Palestinian population living in Israel is growing rapidly and the refugee victims’ patience will not stretch many more decades. The Zionists might as well get the inevitable over with now. Justice will triumph in the end, one way or another, so the Zionists should join the side of justice. Until both Israeli and Palestinian rights are granted, "wiping Israel off the map" will remain the Arab-Iranian rhetoric of choice.