Ron David begins Arabs and Israel for Beginners by explaining that he wants to let the reader know ''where his book is heading. That way, if you consider it despicable, you can leave it in the bookstore." David's embattled position is understandable because his book challenges the popular, pro-Israeli version of the Israeli-Arab conflict. In his view, the Palestinian Arabs, who had populated Palestine for many generations before the Jewish settlers began to arrive by the tens of thousands in the late nineteenth century, were robbed of their country by the successful Zionist effort to create a Jewish state there. Ron David's book is an attempt to tell the "real" story of the struggle for Palestine stripped of Zionist mythology which misrepresents the essential elements of how the Palestinians lost their land.
In his review of the history of the Middle East, the author reminds us that the name "Israel" comes from Genesis in the Old Testament when Jacob changed his name to Israel after fighting with an angel and that from Jacob's twelve sons came the twelve tribes of Israel. He explains that the name Canaan, meaning "land of purple" came from the precious purple dyes that were traded in the Mediterranean coastal plain. The author suggests an explanation for the biblical story that the Jews spent 40 years in the desert after escaping from Egypt. When Moses sent spies out to the land of Canaan ''their report was discouraging: 'It's full of people.'" So the Jews waited in the desert until they were strong enough militarily to conquer the native inhabitants.
The author presents a useful "Summary of Jewish Countries in the Middle East" detailing the Jewish kingdoms from 1020 B.C. to 586 B.C. By 6 A.D., however, the author writes, the Romans made Judah a Roman province and although "there were a couple of last gasps of Jewish revolt-Masada and Bar Kokhba... the Jews and the ancient Middle East had had enough of each other."
Perhaps for reasons of space--or perhaps such a task is too complicated for the purposes of this book-Ron David decided not to provide a similar chart of Jewish habitation in the Middle East after the fall of the Jewish kingdoms and the fall of the second temple in 70 A.D. Such a chart might have been useful if only in order to give the reader a better idea of the strength of present Jewish claims to the area.
Ron David makes a point of covering Islam in some depth. The well-established Arab/Bedouin code of virtue, the muruwwah, is explained. We learn that Muhammad's inspiration came from his understanding that the wealthy and powerful merchant class were ignoring their duty to the poor, an essential tenet of the muruwwah. Perhaps because of Islam's dramatic appeal to the masses, barely a century after the death of Muhammad in 632, "Muslims controlled an empire that stretched from Spain to the borders of China and the Arabs were entering a Golden Age."
Some of the examples of the flowering of Arab civilization in literature, psychology, science, medicine and mathematics are detailed. It is also emphasized that Islam (which means surrender to God) nurtured and was nurtured by the cultures it embraced, especially Jewish culture. "Teaching the knowledge-hungry Muslims got the Jewish scholars' creative juices flowing. The result was a Jewish Golden Age, especially in Spain, where doctors, poets, and scholars combined secular and religious knowledge in a way that has never been achieved since."
As Ron David tells it, the Crusades (1096-1270) and then the Mongol invasions (1218-1258) brought an end to the zenith of Arab culture. After 200 years of fighting "in their own backyards, the Arabs were all used up." At the same time, the author emphasizes the irony that "the knowledge that [the Crusaders] got from the Arabs helped them break out of the brain-dead Middle Ages into the Renaissance.... "
A crucial section of the book is devoted to the events leading up to the emergence of the State of Israel in 1948. This momentous event, a huge victory for world Jewry, is at the same time for Palestinians, al-Nakbah, the catastrophe.
The new Ottoman land code of 1850 over time led to the removal of the Palestinian peasants from their land. Previously Palestinian peasants could live on and cultivate their land and pass it on to their heirs. The new land law changed that and as a result, through land purchases, often from absentee Arab landlords in Beirut, Jewish settlers began to move Palestinian peasants off the land that they had farmed for generations.
The expulsion of Palestinian farmers by the Jewish settlers frequently led to confrontations between the two sides as early as the last decade of the nineteenth century. The fierce rioting of 1929 in which there were hundreds of casualties on both sides resulted in a new British policy statement in late 1930 which was meant to restrict Jewish immigration and land purchases. If the new policy had held for the long term, the Palestinians might not have lost their country. However, in only a few months, the Zionists in England were powerful enough to cause the British prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, to rescind the new policy statement and revert back to the pro-Jewish policies of the Balfour Declaration (1917) which stated that the British government would "view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.... "
The advent of Hitler in 1933 and the pro-Jewish immigration policies of the British led to the Arab revolt of 1936-39. Afterwards, when the British tried to redress the balance in favor of the Arabs, it became the tum of the Jews to rebel and their successful terrorist actions played a key role in forcing the British to give up their mandate in Palestine in favor of the United Nations.
The U.N. partition resolution of November 29, 1947, recommended the division of Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state. While the Jews hailed it as a major breakthrough, the Arabs rejected it because it gave much of what was theirs to the Jews. The Jewish community in Palestine, which at that time made up about a third of the population and held less than 7 percent of the land, was "given" more than 50 percent of the area of Palestine, including prime Arab farmland in the Galilee and on the Mediterranean coast and elsewhere. Equally important, the U.N. scheme placed hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs in areas that were to be controlled by the Jews. This would mean that there would be about 500,000 Arabs in a state of about 650,000 Jews-a plan that both sides, in effect, rejected.
It is widely believed that the war between the Arabs and the Jews began with the Arab invasion on May 15, 1948, immediately after the Jews declared their state. In reality, the war actually began after the U.N. partition resolution, in December 1947. In this communal war, the much better organized and equipped Jews captured the areas that the British were evacuating. An Israeli historian Simha Flapan writes, so successful were the Jewish forces that by the beginning of May 1948, they held most of the territory that was designated for their state by the U.N. resolution.
The success of the Jewish campaign against the Palestinian forces may be gauged by the 300,000 Arab refugees who were forced to flee their homeland before the middle of May 1948. The situation was such an international scandal-comparable to the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia-that the United States and other countries actually entertained plans to substitute a trusteeship for Palestine rather than allow the U.N. partition resolution to stand. In the event, the Truman administration, with its eye on the Jewish lobby at home, withdrew its objections and was quick to recognize the new Jewish state.
When the Jewish leaders declared their new state on May 14, 1948, there were still about 400,000 Palestinians in areas that became Israel. Ben-Gurion's government decided to risk war because they wished to increase their territorial gains and to cleanse the area of more Palestinians. Viewed in the light of Jewish military victories, the Arab invasion of May 15, becomes not, as pictured by the Zionists, an attempt by implacable enemy forces to drive the Jews into the sea, but rather, in large part, a pan-Arab effort to stave off further Jewish gains in Palestine and to stem the flow of even more Palestinian refugees.
Moreover, in Zionist mythology, no credit is given to Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt for sheltering and sustaining the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees. Indeed, Zionists frequently say that the Arab countries created and maintained the Palestinian refugee problem as a way of scoring propaganda points against Israel. It turns out that the opposite is the case. In Michael Palumbo's The Palestinian Catastrophe: The 1948 Expulsion of a People from Their Homeland (1987), evidence is presented which indicates that Ben-Gurion flatly rejected proposals by the United States and Syria to permanently resettle hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees. Palumbo thinks that Ben-Gurion' s motivation was the idea that "as long as the refugee problem remained unsolved there would be tensions in the region which could eventually be used to ignite a new war of conquest."
Palumbo points to the territory that Israel conquered in 1967 in Palestine, Jordan and Syria as evidence of Israel's expansionist program. Ron David's section on Lebanon provides more support to Palumbo's thesis as well as adding perspective on Israel's control of its self-designated ''security zone'' in southern Lebanon which it has held illegally since 1982. Ron David cites evidence from the diaries of Moshe Sharett, Israel's second prime minister, that as early as the 1950s, Israel was planning to destabilize Lebanon by pitting the Muslim community against the Lebanese Christians. The idea was to create a puppet state there so that Israel could control the land and water resources in the south.
In view of Zionist responsibility for the carnage and instability in the Middle East for much of this century, it's understandable that Ron David should raise the question at the end of his book of the billions of dollars in aid that the United States gives Israel every year. The author quotes an article by Jeffrey Blankfort in Lies of Our Times, pointing out how secretive our own media is on the issue of U.S. aid to Israel. "February 1989," Blankfort writes, "was the last time The New York Times ran a story describing Congress' role in approving aid to Israel." In a wonderful quote, Ron David writes, "I would rather flush that money down the toilet than give it to Israel. . . . At least when you flush money down the toilet, it doesn't hurt anybody."
Arabs and Israel for Beginners, one of a series of "documentary comic books," with its format of illustration on every page, is easy to read and is highly recommended for those interested in a controversial and more objective point of view. Unfortunately, it is marred by a score or more of typos, frequent use of street language and some mistakes: the 35,000 Arabs that Ron David says were expelled in the '56 war is silently corrected two pages later to 3,000 to 5,000; and "Eretz Yisrael" means not only, as Ron David has it, the biblical land of Israel but also the modern state of Israel. However, these are a small price to pay for an extremely important book which challenges old assumptions on an issue that may be with us for generations despite the promise of the Oslo Accords.