By Jonathan S. Tobin
What scholars like to call counterfactual history is science fiction for those who prefer to ponder the implications of things turning out differently in the past rather than speculating on the future. Such “what if” scenarios are behind television shows like “The Man in the High Castle,” which imagined life after the Germans and Japanese won the Second World War, or “The Plot Against America” — the dramatization of the Phillip Roth novel that imagined isolationists led by Charles Lindbergh keeping America out of the war and then instituting state-sponsored anti-Semitism in the United States.
But as Israel celebrates its 72nd birthday this week, it’s relevant to point out that a lot of people have spent the entire period of its history wishing that the outcome of the 1948-49 War of Independence had turned out differently. At the heart of the nakba or “disaster” narrative and core principle of Palestinian nationalism is a belief that the creation of Israel was a crime that should have been stopped and without which the world would have been much better off. The debate about the future of the West Bank often causes observers to lose sight of the fact that the basic demand of Israel-haters is not a Palestinian state alongside a smaller Israel, but no Israel at all.
What would a world without Israel look like?
One suggestion came from novelist Michael Chabon in his 2007 novel, “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.” It imagined a world in which the United States had opened the gates to Europe’s Jews and allowed them to create a Yiddish-speaking homeland in part of Alaska. In Chabon’s alternative history, the State of Israel was also defeated only three months after its creation in May 1948. The plot of the book revolves around a murder linked to messianic extremists looking to blow up the Temple Mount and create another Jewish state.
Given his hostility to the real Israel — something made clear in his 2018 commencement address at a Reform rabbinical seminary — it’s not hard to understand his interest in a world where it didn’t exist. But we don’t need a novelist of Chabon’s caliber or the fevered imaginings of the anti-Zionist propagandists of Gaza, Ramallah or Tehran to know what the world would be like had Israel lost the War of Independence.
Had the Zionist effort failed, there would not be an independent Arab state on the territory of what had been the British Mandate for Palestine. The Arabs there opposed a U.N. vote to partition the territory between Jewish and Arab states. And if newborn Israel had been defeated, it would have been due to the efforts of foreign invaders: the British-led Arab Legion of what was then called Transjordan, as well as forces of Egypt and Syria. The former Mandate would have been divided up between them.
Palestinian Arabs may delude themselves into thinking that a world without Israel would have been Eden rediscovered, but its creation has, if anything, served as a check on the barbarism of the neighboring dictators and monarchs. Israel’s Arab citizens have democratic rights not enjoyed by their neighbors. And neither Europe nor the United States would have found it easier to make friends in the region if Israel hadn’t been around to complicate matters.
Nor do we need much imagination to understand what such a defeat would have meant for the 600,000 Jews who lived in the country. In every instance where Arabs succeeded in defeating Jewish defenders during the fighting, the outcome was always the same. At best, Jews were merely thrown out of their homes. At worst, they were massacred, as was the case at Kfar Etzion, the Judean settlement overrun by the Arab Legion and local Arab fighters.
In the real war, hundreds of thousands of Arabs fled their homes — most under the mistaken impression that the Jews would do to them what they wanted to do to the Jews.
Had the outcome been different, what would have followed would have meant another Holocaust with any remaining Jews in the country being treated as dhimmi, second-class citizens without equal rights, and with their holy places desecrated or denied to them.
But the impact on Jewish life would have been far greater than that.
Israel’s creation changed the life of every Jew throughout the world, whether they were Zionists or religious. It made everyone stand up taller and feel safer. And its continued survival led to a movement among the millions of Jews in the former Soviet Union to demand their rights after half a century of oppression.
While we worry about a revival of anti-Semitism in our own day in which Israel is the stand-in for traditional anti-Jewish stereotypes and scapegoats, without it, the fate of contemporary Jewry would be immeasurably worse. Those who grew up in the post-1948 world simply have no idea how much it changed the way Jews are thought of and treated.
Israel was not merely the place of refuge for Holocaust survivors and nearly a million Jews from the Arab and Muslim world all seeking freedom; the creation of a home for the Jewish people also made it easier for Jews to live as equals even if they chose to remain in the Diaspora.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.