The more they stay the same: Palestine
Our intrepid Gang of Seven tourists is now down in Bath, England. But I’m still catching up on our trip through the narrow byways of Scotland.
There, forbidding, windswept peaks rise out of gorse covered moors that plunge into a restless North Sea. On the Isle of Sky, more sheep than humans. And, of course, we sample the wares at the island’s only distillery, the Talisker.
Bonnie Prince Charlie versus the “Butcher” Cumberland
But if it’s Tuesday, this must be when we visited the site of the 1746 Battle of Culloden. Although not much to see now, this lonely Highlands plain is the site of a brutal battle that also marks the beginning of the nearly as ruthless suppression of Scottish national aspirations that followed.
Like most European conflicts of this era, it’s complicated and, in the end, is a squabble between the French and English monarchs. For our purposes however, it’s enough to know that Bonnie Prince Charles was a surrogate for the French crown. He managed to persuade some Scottish clan leaders to support his claim to the British throne. Naturally, the British king, George II, objected. And it was game on.
With his Scottish clansmen allies of 7,000, Prince Charles enjoyed some initial success, at one point even threatening London. But faced with unrest among his own troops, Charles retreated north toward the Scottish highlands. Pursued by English forces under the Duke of Cumberland, the opposing armies clashed at Culloden. The clansmens’ primitive ardor and arms proved no match for English discipline and superior weapons; in the space of an hour the Scots suffered a crushing and bloody defeat.
After the battle, Cumberland ordered that no quarter be given to survivors. The killing of wounded continued for two days after the battle, for which action Cumberland earned the sobriquet “The Butcher”.
But the war on Scot nationalism didn’t end there. Fearful that rebellion would again rear its head, the English initiated the policies of clearances and transportation to, as Scrooge notoriously put it, “decrease the surplus population.”
Clearances resulted in the eviction of many Highland farmer tenants to make way for landlords to more profitably graze sheep and cattle. While it’s true that the marginal soil and harsh climate of the Highlands made farming a chancy proposition, pushing people off the land caused widespread misery, famine, and the forced emigration of Highlanders over the entire globe.
Penal transportation to British colonies, such as Australia, was also widespread as a way of subduing the Scots. It was liberally used against any who had the remotest connection with “the ‘Forty Five,” as the rising of Prince Charles became known. While more humane than the former practice of capital punishment for even petty criminal offenses and unpaid debts, it nonetheless had the same net effect: breaking the Highlanders’ spirit.
Palestine: Repetition with variation
As I walked over the battlefield, it was difficult for me to figure out exactly what happened where in what is largely a featureless sea of thatch and gorse. And the recently constructed visitors center, with its “360-degree battle immersion theater” didn’t help much; true, there was plenty of sound and fury, but the flickering images signified little for me.
But taken together, the day reminded me that history, like art, often repeats itself-but with variation.
And so it was that I thought of Palestine on the field of Culloden. Again, it’s complicated. And the details remain controversial. But for our purposes, from 1947 to 1949 Palestinians and Jews fought a bloody war that led to the “clearance,” or, more conventionally, “The Exodus” of more than 700,000 Arabs from their towns and homes. Four hundred Arab towns and villages were “depopulated” and the homes of many displaced Arabs were taken by Jews. About 10,000 Jews also fled their homes as a result of the war.
While they agree on little else, historians on both sides reckon that more than 20,000 died, Arab and Jewish, military and civilian.
Known by Arabs as the “Cataclysm,” Jews refer to the conflict as the “War of Independence.”
As at Culloden, there were no shortage of atrocities in Palestine. Again, while the facts are disputed, the weight of historical evidence indicates that the majority of massacres were perpetuated by Jews. Arabs contend that the atrocities were part of a Jewish plan to force them to leave their homeland. The Israeli government, of course, denies this.
The victors write the history books
I don’t claim to be an expert. But here’s what I find persuasive. In the 1980’s both Israel and Great Britain (who had unsuccessfully tried to maintain peace in Palestine after WWII under a United Nations mandate), opened their archives to historians on the whole vexed topic. A group of Jewish researchers, who became know as the “New Historians“, examined these materials and then recast the traditional, heroic vision of Israel’s founding and the Palestinian Exodus in a light significantly less favorable to Israel.
Which, still, can be dismissed as a case of “he said, she said.”
But not this. While the New Historians were initially dismissed in Israel as cranks, their views were widely considered legitimate by the 1990’s. At which point the government reclassified as Top Secret” accounts of Israeli “expulsion[s] of Palestinians, massacres or rapes perpetrated by Israeli soldiers, along with other events considered embarrassing by the establishment.”
What could be more convincing proof of the truth of inconvenient facts if it isn’t putting them down the Orwellian Memory Hole? And then trying to keep them there.
The similarities only go so far
While I was on my Scotch odyssey, I re-read Arthur Herman’s informative history, How the Scots Invented Modern World. For a small, impoverished land, the Scots punched far above their weight intellectually and in trade. Their contributions in science, medicine and business began in the Scotch cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, but were rapidly spread world wide by the Scottish diaspora that grew out of the clearances and penal transportation.
Which raises the question: what have Palestinian Arabs done since the Cataclysm? Unfortunately, and in comparison with the Scots, not much.
Much of their energy has been devoted to largely futile efforts to undo the Cataclysm. Despite repeated wars with Israel and diplomatic initiatives in the United Nations and other forums, there are over 5 million registered Palestinian refugees in squalid Middle East camps. There, they ceaselessly lobby for the Right of Return to the homes and property that they lost in their various conflicts with Israel. While it’s true that Palestinians also have a significant world wide diaspora-and notable figures have emerged from it-one wonders what Palestinians could achieved had they been less focused on “what could have been.”
Is demography destiny?
By population and land mass, Israel is a tiny nation. Swimming in a vast ocean of Arab Muslims.
Of Israel’s 9 million inhabitants, about 75%, or 6.7 million, are Jews. Most of the rest are Arabs.
But that isn’t the real issue. The greater Arab world extends all the way across North Africa and through the Middle East. It has a combined population of over 422 million inhabitants.
It’s true that Muslim nations in the Middle East are notoriously fractious. Conflicts between them are rife.
But what are the odds that, eventually, they will effectively unite with their co-religionists and successfully take on Israel? Maybe not this year. Maybe not in the next ten years. But in the next 100 years? That’s a long time. And Israel has sewn the wind in the Arab world. How long can the whirlwind be delayed?
Maybe Israel is counting on it’s obedient lap dog, the United States, to continue to meddle in the Mideast and provide it with the latest and greatest weapon systems. And most of the money to buy them.
But how long is that going to continue? Judging by my admittedly unscientific polling, not forever. The great majority of Americans that I’ve talked to have had a bellyful-and more-of bloody, endless, costly and futile war in the Mideast.
And now our Washington war mongers are beating the drums for taking on Iran? In my humble opinion that’s the perfect illustration of insanity: doing the same thing over and over. And expecting a different result.
Do they really think that Americans are going to get on board for yet another Mideast war?
I’m betting no.