To the editors:

I am responding to the May 20, 1988 Reader book review by John Stevenson of the book Gone to Soldiers. I was surprised at the tirade against Israel with which John Stevenson concludes his review. I thought this was a book review, not an opportunity for him to vent his acrimonious opinions about Israel.

I want to address the myth of Israel as a “state for European settlers,” and the lack of awareness regarding Jews from Arab countries. The majority of the Jewish population of Israel are Sephardic Jews. These are Jews from North Africa and Middle Eastern countries that had lived under Arab/Moslem domination. When Israel became a state, these Jews were forced out of the countries they had lived in for centuries (Iraq, Libya, etc.) and sent fleeing to Israel. Other Jews from Arab countries fled to the new state of Israel to escape persecution and the tremendous intolerance they experienced as a religious minority. Jews in Yemen, for example, were not allowed to ride on camels because they could not be higher than the Arab Moslems.

I have lived in Israel. It was not uncommon for me to hear from Sephardic Jews the following; When we lived among the Arabs they hated us. When Israel became a state we were kicked out and told to go live in Israel. Israel was the way the Arabs could get rid of their Jews. And now that we are here, the Arabs say we must leave. And go where?

Thus, it was the Arabs themselves that gave Israel most of its Jewish population. And the “Arab Jews” do not want to see Israel destroyed. It is their country, and they have no desire to return to places like Syria, where the 5,000 remaining Jews live in a forced ghetto of poverty and persecution. Or Libya, or the other Arab countries where they were disenfranchised and persecuted.

The Sephardic Jews argument is as strong as that of the Palestinian refugees. In fact, their numbers were larger when they arrived to Israel as refugees (at least 800,000).

I think Israel is now faced with a terrible dilemma. If they give up the occupied territories, they lose a military buffer zone. Israel is very tiny, some parts are only 12 miles long. When Israel did not control the territories, they were used as staging grounds for violent attacks against the civilian population and artillery attacks. When Israel did not control the territories, the aim of the PLO was not the creation of a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but in Israel itself. The PLO was formed in 1964, not in 1967 after Israel obtained the territories in the six day war between Israel and its Arab neighbors. However, if Israel keeps the occupied territories, it means controlling a large, hostile population. Leaving the territories can be very risky for Israel, as many Arab countries and Palestinian Arabs are still committed to the annihilation of the state of Israel. I personally would like to see Israel leave the territories, but then, I live here and not there.

Many Jews from Arab countries are reluctant to make concessions to Arabs. They experienced too much oppression and persecution from Arabs because they are Jews, and now too much animosity from Arabs because they are Israeli.

There are no easy answers. But any settlement that takes into account the rights and grievances of Palestinian Arabs needs also to address the legitimate rights and grievances of the Israeli Jews from Arab countries, which means the majority of Israel’s Jewish population.

Steve Lapin


John Stevenson replies:

It’s funny. Proponents of Israel used to promote it as an island of Western democracy in a sea of Arab barbarism. After more than six months of the courageous intefadeh or uprising in the West Bank and Gaza, it is hard indeed to maintain either side of the equation–either Israeli democracy or Palestinian barbarism. Now, if we can judge by Mr. Lapin’s letter, Israel is defended by its supporters as itself an Arab state, rather than an outpost of the West.

Actually, Steve Lapin would seem to have missed the chance to make a much stronger point. Why mention only Sephardic or Arab Jews? Why not include the two million Palestinians who live within the effective borders of Israel? This really brings us to the heart of the matter, which is the existence of Israel as a “Jewish state”–that is, one in which full citizenship is open only to those who pass certain criteria of birth and origin. As I said in my review, if the determining factor were a white skin, no one would hesitate to call such a state racist; it’s hard to see how the criterion of Jewishness changes the principle.

Why shouldn’t those of us who condemn white racism in South Africa and support a democratic state there, also condemn Zionism (the doctrine of an exclusively Jewish state) and support a democratic secular state in what is presently Israel, one open to all the people who live there?