when Jews defend ourselves
Numerous ridiculous and ahistorical claims are made on Twitter, and the tweet above is no exception. Never mind the fact that: (1) the story of Purim is, by all archeological and (secular) historical accounts, either a legend or an exaggeration (see my post THE HISTORICITY OF PURIM for more), and (2) this so-called “free reign to kill with impunity” was actually, according to the story of Purim, a legal right for Jews to engage in self-defense against those who sought to obliterate us. As has been the case for some 2500 years, every time Jews have defended ourselves, we are demonized and depicted as the aggressors. This is a phenomenon that long predates the establishment of the modern State of Israel, as I will outline in this post. Of course, as Jewish history is so extensive, it’s impossible to include every historical example of this.
Time and time again, we see that the Jewish world is deeply uncomfortable with Jews who defend themselves. After all, one of the most pervasive antisemitic stereotypes is the stereotype of the “weak,” “meek,” and “feeble” Jew. This also plays into stereotypes about Jews being “nerdy” and “unathletic.”
Supporting Jews only in our moments of perceived “weakness” — that is, when we are helpless victims; think of the non-Jewish world’s fascination with Anne Frank but ignorance on Jewish heroines such as Hannah Szenes — is not supporting Jews. After 2000+ years of relentless persecution, the very least you can do is either defend us or support us when we engage in self-defense. Otherwise, you are making your position clear: the only Jew you actually like is a defenseless, victimized Jew.
The depiction of Jews as “colonizers” in response to us defending ourselves from violence inflicted upon us dates all the way back to antiquity.
In the fifth century BCE, Egyptians revolted against Persian rule. The Jews of the city of Elephantine, who’d been well-integrated in Egyptian society for centuries, were attacked in pogroms (anti-Jewish massacres). Their places of worship were looted and destroyed, and Jewish women were arrested without cause or explanation. Most significantly, when Jews attempted to fight back, they were portrayed as colonists and “tools” of the Persian Empire.
The first officially recorded pogrom took place in Alexandria, Egypt, in 38 CE. To placate the Greek population in the city, the Roman emperor placed statues of the emperor in Jewish synagogues. When the Jews defended the synagogue, the emperor “issued a notice in which he called [Jews] all foreigners and aliens...allowing any one who was inclined to proceed to exterm!nate the Jews as prisoners of war."
In 132 CE, Jews in Judea (modern-day Israel-Palestine) revolted against the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire for the third time. In retaliation, the Romans slaughtered around a million Jews and changed the name of Judea to Syria-Palestina to sever Jewish ties and claim to the land.
This pattern continued throughout the course of history, the most obvious example being, of course, the distortion of the motives of the early political Zionist paramilitary organizations, which I will discuss in a later slide, as well as the distortion of the sequence of events in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.
SASSANIAN CONQUEST OF JERUSALEM
The Roman Empire — and later, the Byzantine Empire — fought periodic wars against the Persians from 53 BCE to 628 CE, right before the Muslim conquest of Persia. Jews have resided in Persia since the Babylonian Exile, when the Babylonians conquered the Kingdom of Judah in 587 BCE and exiled about 25 percent of Judeans [Jews] to the Babylonian Empire. Though there were periods of persecution, Jews lived in relative peace at this time and held a level of autonomy, with their own courts of law. On the other hand, the Jewish community in the Byzantine Empire — including Palestine — experienced severe persecution.
Between 602-628, war broke out once again between the Persians and Byzantines. As always, the Jewish community of Persia showed their loyalty to the Persian rulers. To reward the Jews for their loyalty, the Persians agreed to assign the conquest of Palestine to Jewish troops. The Jews in Palestine enthusiastically welcomed the Persian Jewish troops as liberators. In 614, following a short siege, Jerusalem fell into Persian hands. After the Persians conquered Jerusalem, as well as the rest of Palestine, they moved on to the rest of their conquests; only the Jews — Persian and local — remained, with Jerusalem now in their hands for the first time since the Bar Kokhba Revolt.
Immediately upon conquering Jerusalem, the Jews sought to reverse a number of oppressive Byzantine laws, beginning with the prohibition on building new synagogues. The Jews, who’d long been prevented from entering Jerusalem, also started moving back into the city. This prompted the Christians to rebel, so much so that additional Persian troops had to be called in to crush the rebellion. The Persians were brutal in their counter-revolt, slaughtering an unknown number of Christians.
Primary sources from the time period very clearly attest that it was the Persians that were responsible for the Christian massacres, not the Jews. However, much later, in the ninth century, sources start to blame Jews for the killings, which makes it very likely that the claim that the Jewish rulers slaughtered Christians is a blood libel. As always: history cast Jews as the oppressors for daring to defend ourselves from brutal colonial rule.
POGROMS IN EASTERN EUROPE
Various waves of horrific pogroms (anti-Jewish massacres) swept the Russian Empire beginning in 1821 in Odessa, Ukraine. After Alexander II was assassinated, the general populace scapegoated the Jewish People, and over 200 massacres ravaged the Jewish population, lasting over a period of several years.
Between 1903 and 1905, some 660 pogroms were recorded in Ukraine and Bessarabia and six in Belorussia, all carried out with the complicity and/or incitement of the Russian government. Between 1881 and 1920, 1326 pogroms took place in Ukraine alone. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were murdered, half a million were left unhoused, and 2.5 million Jews were prompted to emigrate out of Eastern Europe.
The Russian Civil War (1917-1923) was a multi-party civil war that broke out in the Russian Empire in the aftermath of the overthrow of the Russian monarchy. In total, it’s estimated that 7 million to 12 million people died in this war, many of them civilians. Most estimates calculate that up to 100,000 Jews were murdered in pogroms; the Soviet authorities themselves put the number at 200,000. In total, over 2000 pogroms took place. At least 60,000 Jewish refugees fled the region, and millions were internally displaced.
One of the main barriers in of organizing Jewish self-defense groups in pre-Holocaust Europe was that oftentimes Jews were afraid to fight back, lest they be accused of starting or prolonging the violence. Melekh Kaufman, a survivor and eyewitness to the 1903 Kishinev Pogrom, one of the most horrific pogroms in Jewish history, attested as such. After the pogroms, when some of the perpetrators were put on trial, many Jews who’d fought back with nothing but kitchen knives and clubs were charged with prolonging the violence.
Much as often happens today, Jews were depicted as the aggressors when they engaged in self-defense.
DURING THE HOLOCAUST
In the lead up to the Holocaust and the American involvement in World War II, American Jews lobbied relentlessly for the American government to intervene on behalf of their Jewish siblings in Europe. Unsurprisingly, virulent antisemites — and much of the American public — accused American Jews of being agitators for war.
One of the most notorious examples of this accusation is a virulently antisemitic speech delivered by Charles Lindbergh in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1941, when he accused Jews of trying to drag the United States into war: “The three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish, and the Roosevelt administration…Instead of agitating for war, the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it in every possible way for they will be among the first to feel its consequences.”
Even non-Jewish groups who resisted the N*zis showed disdain for Jews — including Jews who defended themselves. For example, the Armia Krajowa, also known as the Home Army, the main Polish resistance movement during World War II, sometimes engaged in antisemitism. While the Home Army sometimes collaborated with the Jewish partisans (an example being during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising), the attitude of the Home Army was that Jews were “not a part of our nation.” The Home Army was mostly preoccupied with seeking independence from German rule, not with the Holocaust or the plight of Jews.
In 1943, after the Germans captured the previous Home Army commander, the new commander, a sympathizer with the antisemitic rightwing National Party, ensured that the Home Army no longer provide aid or arms to Jews. With its new leadership, the Home Army became openly antisemitic, culminating in acts of mass murder. In July 1943, this same commander ordered that “Jewish communist bands” were “liquidated at once with total ruthlessness.” In December 1943, a Home Army report stated, “There is certain sympathy for the Jews. It is better, however, that they are no longer here and no one desires to see them return after the war.”
SELF-DEFENSE UNITS IN PALESTINE
One of the most frustrating things we see in Israel-Palestine discourse is the idea that Zionists arrived to Palestine inciting violence and mass displacement. This is simply patently untrue. Jewish immigrants and refugees did not arrive to Palestine with a rifle in hand. The Zionist militias — the left-wing Haganah, right-wing Irgun, and extremist/terrorist right-wing Lehi (also known as the Stern Gang) — formed in response to Palestinian Arab violence, kidnappings, and massacres of Jews. From day one, as agreed upon at the First Zionist Congress, the aim of modern political Zionism had been to “establish a home for the Jewish people in Eretz Israel [the Land of Israel] secured under public law.” In other words, the Zionists wanted to establish a home through legal means, not through violence.
After the 1920 and 1921 Arab riots, during which over 50 Jews were massacred, the Jews in Palestine realized that the British had no interest in protecting Jews from Arab violence. As such, the left-wing militia known as the Haganah formed. After the 1929 Arab pogroms (anti-Jewish massacres) — including the 1929 Hebron Massacre, when Palestine’s most ancient continuous Jewish community was decimated — the Haganah became much more structured and well-armed. In 1931, the right-wing Irgun split from the Haganah over the Haganah’s policy of “restraint,” as the Irgun believed the best defense was good offense.
In 1936, the Arab Higher Committee — the Palestinian Arab leadership during the period of the British Mandate — called for a general strike and a boycott of Jewish products. This quickly escalated into violence and terrorism, resulting in the murder of 415 Jews and hundreds of British. The British, in a desperate attempt to put an end to the riots, ended up murdering thousands of Arabs. Due to their colossal inadequacy in protecting Jewish civilians, the British reluctantly agreed to cooperate with the Haganah, though they stopped short of official recognition.
During World War II, the Irgun temporarily halted its operations against the British. In 1940, the Lehi broke off from the Irgun over this decision.
On November 29, the United Nations voted in favor of Resolution 181, which called to partition the British Mandate for Palestine into one Jewish and one Arab state. The Arab Higher Committee, the Palestinian Arab leadership at the time, threatened: “The Arabs have taken the [N*zi] Final Solution to the Jewish Problem.”
The very next day after the partition vote, Arab mobs in Palestine began attacking Jews near the Jaffa Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem, Arab gunmen ambushed two Jewish buses near Petah Tikva (killing 7), and Arab snipers shot at buses and pedestrians in Haifa, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv; as such, a civil war broke out. Two weeks into the war, Palestinians had murdered some 126 Jews. The first Jewish massacre of Palestinians did not take place until two and a half weeks into the war.
By all accounts, for the first four months of the war — a war that the Jews did not start — Zionist troops fought a purely defensive war. Not a single Palestinian was expelled during this period; the first 300,000 Palestinians to leave belonged to the upper class and simply had the means to leave the war-torn region. It was only after the Arabs, with the help of Palestinian civilians, held 100,000 Jews hostage in Jerusalem that the Zionist forces enacted Plan Dalet, which stated that, in case of resistance, the population of the conquered villages would be expelled to outside of the borders of the Jewish state. If no resistance was met, the population could stay under temporary military rule.
Yet to this day the world places the blame for what happened in 1948 squarely on the shoulders of Israel.
MEDIA COVERAGE OF THE ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN CONFLICT
Nothing in this slide is an absolution of any Israeli wrongdoing; Israel — and the Israeli military — have certainly been guilty of abuses over the past 75 years. Nor is anything in this slide a denial of Palestinian human rights or the Palestinian right to self-determination.
The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is the most disproportionately covered armed conflict in the world. However, the facts on the ground simply do not line up with this disproportionate amount of media attention. By the highest estimates) ~55,000 Palestinians (at the hands of Israel) and ~25,000 Israelis have died in the conflict over the past 75 years. For perspective, the US war on Afghanistan (2001-2021) claimed the lives of ~200,000 people, the Syrian Civil War (2011-present) has claimed the lives of ~600,000 people, and the Chinese occupation of Tibet (1951-present) has killed 1.2 million Tibetans.
Anyone familiar with Israel will be aware that the international media rarely reports on the near constant barrage of rockets aimed at Israeli civilians; it’s only when Israel retaliates that the coverage starts. Reporting on the blockade in Gaza rarely mentions the rocket fire prompted Israel and Egypt to enact the blockade in the first place. Similarly, reports on the so-called “apartheid wall” almost universally fail to mention that what prompted its construction was a 5-year-long su!cide bombing campaign that cost the lives of over 1000 Israelis, about 80 percent of them civilians.
Additionally those familiar with Israel-Palestine will know that violence usually peaks during Ramadan. This is because, in the weeks preceding Ramadan, Palestinian leadership encourages attacks to trigger an Israeli retaliation during the holiest Muslim holiday. For example, leading up to Ramadan in 2022, Ham@s, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine urged Palestinians to amp up their “resistance.” When Israel retaliates, usually after several weeks, this results in headlines such as “During Ramadan, Israel Seems to Relish Attacking Palestinians” (Jacobin Magazine) and “Israel Has Made a Habit Out of Bombing Gaza During Ramadan” (Inside Arabia).
Former Associated Press reporters have corroborated this account: “H@mas’s strategy is to provoke a response from Israel by attacking from behind the cover of Palestinian civilians, thus drawing Israeli strikes that kill those civilians, and then to have the casualties filmed by one of the world’s largest press contingents, with the understanding that the resulting outrage abroad will blunt Israel’s response.”
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