The perils of religious mysticism

Peter Berresford Ellis points to United Irish support for a Jewish state in Palestine and appeals for an end to Zionist racism, intolerance and land-grabbing

THE CREATION of Israel and Israel's attitude towards the Palestinians has been, and continues to be, a major cause of tension throughout the Middle East and beyond. The Irish and people of the Jewish faith have always tended to an empathy with one another, both being colonised, both suffering a diaspora of immense proportions, and both continually suffering racism.

Irish Jews supported their country of adoption in its war of independence. Men like Robert Briscoe (1894-1969) became Michael Collins' arms procurement officer in 1919, took the anti-treaty side in the civil war, became a TD and lord mayor of Dublin on two occasions. Briscoe was also a Zionist, like Belfast-born Chaim Herzog, whose father provided a safe house for republicans in Dublin.

Herzog, along with many Irish Jews, learned from the tactics of the IRA and fought in the Haganah against the English in Palestine. Herzog became president of Israel.

Irish Jews also fought in the Connolly column of the International Brigade. Many stayed in Ireland and contributed to building the emergent state -- men like Cork-born David Marcus, one of Ireland's most distinguished writers.

It was an Irish republican from Ballythomas, Co. Cork, who persuaded Napoleon Bonaparte to become the first European leader to support the idea of a Jewish state in Palestine. Thomas Corbet (1773-1804) was one of two brothers from Ballythomas, Co Cork. His younger brother William (1779-1842) became a general of the French army. Both went to Trinity College, Dublin, and both joined the United Irishmen and were promptly expelled.

They both fled to France and joined the Irish republican exiles there. In 1798, Thomas sailed with Wolfe Tone to Lough Swilly, while William sailed with Napper Tandy to Donegal. With the English victory and repression, Thomas escaped from Ireland and returned to France.

He was in Lorient when Napoleon was campaigning in Egypt. Thomas supported this campaign, which included an aim of venturing into the Syrian-held territory of Palestine. He wrote a letter to Paul Barras, one of the most powerful members of the French directory (government) and friend of Napoleon, dated 17 February 1799. He pointed out: "It cannot be a matter of doubt to anyone who reflects on the position of the Jews, scattered as they are over the different countries of the world, without enjoying in any of them the full rights of the state, still less those of citizens, that this proud and haughty people, thus degraded and persecuted, resents the debasement of their position. Their riches do not console them for their hardships. They await with impatience the epoch of their re-establishment as a nation."

Thomas Corbet recommended that Napoleon make it his purpose to establish a Jewish settlement, "to open the route to Palestine and re-establish the old Jewish state". He believed that the Jews would "organise themselves into societies similar to the United Irishmen with whose fight for freedom the Jews have sympathised".

It is acknowledged that Corbet's letter inspired Napoleon to issue his historical proclamation of 4 April 1799, calling on the Jews to range themselves under his banners and help re-establish Jerusalem as their capital.

Professor A S Yahuda luckily purchased Corbet's letter, written in French, at an auction of Napoleon's papers in London.

Corbet later joined Napoleon's Irish legion but was killed in a duel with a fellow Irish officer, Captain Sweeny in May, 1804. He was not the only United Irishman to support the idea of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

The father of Irish republicanism, Theobald Wolfe Tone (1763-1798) wrote of "the proposal to invite the Jews from all quarters of the world to return to their parent country and restore their ancient temple". He added that his fellow United Irishman, Dr Whitley Stokes (1763-1845), then a fellow student at Trinity College, Dublin had also been in favour of the idea.

Tone wrote: "I remember Whitley Stokes, more than once, mentioned to me an opinion of his, founded on an attentive study and meditation of the Old and New Testament, that he did not despair, even in his own lifetime and mine, of seeing this great event take place; and I remember I laughed at him heartily for his opinion, which, however, seems this day far less visionary than it was at that time in 1793. It is now not only possible but highly probable that the Jews may be once more collected and the temple restored."

Certainly, the radical communities in Ireland were the first to support the idea and public meetings, such those in February 1841, in Dublin and Carlow, were held in support of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The 2 March, 1841, petition of the residents of Carlow to Lord Palmerston urged the United Kingdom to advocate the idea.

However -- and there is always an 'however' in history -- Zionism, the movement for a Jewish state in Palestine, which resulted in the first World Zionist Congress in 1897, was, examined in logical humanitarian terms, a flawed concept.

Zionism is only valid as a mystic-religious concept. The idea of people from many countries of the world suddenly arriving in a territory already populated, displacing the indigenous population and taking over, is based on the belief that Yahweh, or God, ordained them to be his chosen people and gave that particular 'real estate' to them in perpetuity. That is not logical, it is mystical.

Some basic historical facts must be considered. The Hebrews are just one branch of the Semitic peoples (Hamito-Semitic in linguistic terms) which includes the Arabic and Amharic families. That family includes the Palestinians.

The Hebrews first invaded and conquered the land of Palestine in 1300 BC, finally subduing the original inhabitants during the time of King David around 1000 BC. The peoples of Palestine held to a common Semitic culture and religion. Palestinians, therefore, speak a closely-related Semitic language to Hebrew. Also, Judaism as a Semitic religion, gave birth to both Christianity and Islam.

The kingdoms that constituted ancient Israel were often conquered, culminating with the Roman Conquest of 70 AD, which gave the major impetus to the diaspora movement, gathering pace after the fall of the Roman empire.

Many of those remaining in Palestine accepted the new religion of Islam that had come into being in the early 7th Century AD.

The fact is that the Jews did not all leave Palestine. Neither was there some period when the Palestinians suddenly arrived in a depopulated area. The Palestinians have always been there, once holding a shared culture, a shared religion and speaking a related language to Hebrew.

This fact is not taken into account in the religious mysticism of Zionism. Judaism is a religion and not a race. The people that were encouraged by Zionism to go to Palestine were mostly Europeans who had simply inherited shared interpretations of an ancient Semitic religion.

Even Hebrew as a language and everyday culture had died out, except as a tool of the sacred texts. Only with the teachings of Elizer Ben Yahuda (1858-1922), a Lithuanian Jew, arguing that this dead language should be resurrected as a normal everyday language in any emergent state of Israel, was a successful language revival commenced -- and its success, by the way, ought to put the lauded aims of successive Irish governments from 1922 to shame. Let us look at this concept of Zionism as historical logic and without the guilt that hangs over most Europeans when daring to face its reality.

What other ethnic or religious group, coming forward with such a concept, would have been supported? The Celts were driven out of what is now England between the 5th and 10th Centuries AD. If the Welsh, Cornish or Bretons argued to be allowed to re-occupy the English territories, called Y Lloegyr, "the lost territories" by the Welsh, would we consider them serious?

If the English declared an intention to return to Schleswig-Holstein, the land from which they migrated 1,500 years ago, would the current inhabitants think they had a valid case? How many people would argue that the native American people -- who have a strong religious-mystic affiliation connection with the land -- should take over the lands from which they were driven in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries?

The Zionist movement, spurred by the Russian pogroms of the 1880s, began to encourage settlement in Palestine. Initially, the Palestinians welcomed the refugee families. In 1906 the first Hebrew school was founded. By 1916 there were 56,000 Jews in Palestine settling among a population of 689,272.

During the English administration from 1917, Jewish settlement increased rapidly. The 1931 Census showed 60 languages being spoken by these new colonists who, at that time, were still only 174,606 out of a Palestinian population of 1,033,314. But by now the Palestinians realised they had a problem on their hands.

With colonisation going on unchecked they realised they would soon be outnumbered. They began to protest. In the 1930s the English turned on the Palestinians and forbade them to own arms.

Zionists were becoming an overwhelming force. A Polish Jew, Ben Gurion, established a secret army called the Haganah to fight the English while Menachem Begin and his Irgun Tsva'i Leumi became a more extremist 'terrorist' group. It was Begin who bombed the St David's Hotel, resulting in 88 deaths.

Many of the Israeli leaders who, over the years, have denounced Palestinian 'terrorism', were themselves, by the same definition, 'terrorists'.

The result of a guerrilla war was that the UN voted to partition the country, despite Palestinian protests. The Palestinians were driven from their lands and hundreds of thousands became displaced in refugee camps.

In 1948 Menachen Begin led at attack on Palestinians at Deir Yassin resulting in the massacre of 250 Palestinians and the flight of 900,000 unarmed elderly men, women and children, to the surrounding Arab states -- seen by Zionists at the time as the 'solution' to their Palestinian problem. The state of Israel could now be established. There are frightening parallels to Ireland of the 1650s and Cromwell's ethnic cleansing.

Palestinians have fought back over the decades. But because of the support, the veritable blank cheque which the West has continued to give Zionism, mainly due to the guilt feelings of past misdeeds, the Palestinians have lost their their country, and even the little bit that was promised to them has continued to be claimed and destroyed.

I am probably repeating many historical philosophers before me when I remark that the one thing that I have learnt from history is that people never learn from history. Thus, to dare to amend Marx, it is not history that hangs like a nightmare over the minds of the living, but it is their lack of understanding of history that creates the nightmare.

It seems that across the world one finds peoples that have been persecuted who have not learnt from their histories but turn on their weaker neighbours and try to outdo the oppression that had previously inflicted on them.

Today, Israel is, of course, a fait accompli. Even the Palestinians have recognised that fact: the Palestine Liberation Organisatin said it recognised the fact back in 1974 and reaffirmed its recognition of Israel in 1988. So, surely, it is time for Zionist racism, intolerance, injustice and land-grabbing to be brought to a halt.

Neither should we allow Zionism to perpetuate the myth that criticism of Zionism is an attack on all those of the Jewish faith. Many Jews and Israelis have an equal repugnance of Zionism. And the Palestinians, being Semites, makes the claim that to demand justice for Palestinians is to be anti-Semitic, simply absurd.

Zionism is just another sad case of the appalling things humankind can do in the name of religious mysticism.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2002-12-29 16:47:41.
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Copyright © 2002 Peter Berresford Ellis