How Much Land is Enough?

Before you begin reading this, please have before you on screen, paper, or wall, a reliable full-scale map of the Middle East, one stretching from Morocco to Afghanistan, from the Caspian Sea to the Gulf of Aden. You will note that the territory covering 5.25 million miles belongs to states of the Arab League—18 independent Arab states and three part-Arab Muslim states, Mauritania, Somalia, and Djibouti. There is one holdout in that hegemony: Along the Mediterranean, south of Lebanon, east of Egypt, and west of Jordan, is the 8,000 square mile Jewish state of Israel—the only Jewish homeland that ever was and ever will be. The population of Israel, 7 million, is 20 percent Arab. The ratio of Arab to Jewish land is 640:1.

If I were an Arab Muslim in, say, Saudi Arabia (830,000 square miles, population 23 million) with its wealth of oil fields along the Persian Gulf, I might wonder why Jews, who blend ethnicity and religion just as Arab Muslims do, should claim so little land when we cover so much. Why does my country house two holy cities—Mecca and Medina—whereas Jews claim but one—Jerusalem, site of the Temple of Solomon and Herod? What accounts for the astonishing disparity between how much land the Arabs got in history and how little was left to Jews?

Were I a Palestinian Arab citizen of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan (34, 495 square miles, population 5.8 million), with its magnificent city of Petra, I would wonder why we didn’t federate with the Palestinian Arabs of the West Bank when that territory was in our possession until 1967? Why didn’t we settle our refugees as the Jews did theirs in a territory one quarter the size of ours? Since the number of Arab refugees from Israel equaled the number of refugee Jews fleeing Arab lands, why didn’t we accept this population exchange? Why did we join the Arab wars on Israel with the aim of driving the Jews into the sea?

As an Arab in Egypt (386,874 square miles, population 74 million), I’d be troubled by the Arab movies I saw on television, one charging the Jews with world conspiracy, the other showing a cabal of Orthodox Jews slitting the throat of an Arab boy, pouring his blood into a basin, and making Passover matzah that they boast tastes much better than the ordinary kind. Why does our media repeat and recreate these anti-Semitic images, even as we object to anything that touches Muslim honor? Why are we fed this scummy hatred of Jews instead of being encouraged to visit Israel and to study Hebrew?

And then there’s Iran, not Arab but Muslim, hence not included in the above statistic (613,660 square miles, population over 65 million). Why does our leader rant at the Jews—“There was no Holocaust!” “There will be no Israel!” —when no Jew ever raised a hand against him? What purpose is served by this posturing against a country and a people so much smaller than ours? And why can’t we Muslims can’t solve our own rivalries instead of ganging up on a country that functions fairly well?

Not being an Arab or a Muslim, I can only wonder why students raised in those societies do not ask these questions, encouraging their governments to change their policies. More than that, I marvel at the fact that some of my colleagues apparently share the assumption that Arab and Muslim leaders are entitled to over one-tenth of the world’s land surface, while questioning the right of Jews to land about one-ninth the size of Syria. Do they really believe that Arabs and Muslims are innately so much worthier than Jews?

Much has changed in the Middle East during the past six decades, but one political feature remains disturbingly constant. The Arab League formed in 1945 to prevent the emergence of Israel, launching the most lop-sided war in human history, a war that continues hot and cold to the present day, pitting multiple non- and anti-democratic regimes against the Jewish State.

Scapegoating Israel and the Jews became a means of deflecting attention from the mounting failings and weaknesses of those regimes, very much the way that scapegoating the Jews served some Christian and anti-Semitic rulers in their time. Arab leaders who sought peace with Israel, such as King Abdullah I of Jordan and Anwar Sadat of Egypt, were assassinated by rivals. Religious and secular factions competed with one another over whose aggression against Israel was bloodier and more intimidating.

Moreover, the war against Israel required the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs to permanent refugee status, lest their productive redeployment mean (as Cairo radio put it in 1957) “the final disposal of a moral asset.” The Arab world fueled its war against Israel with the permanent misery of Palestinian Arabs—and ascribed that misery to the “oppressor Jews” in a more perfect moral inversion than any literary Satan ever proposed. Postmodernism adores moral inversions, which may be why some Harvard professors have so eagerly joined the “devil’s party.”

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves: Look again at the full-scale map. Keep it always within reach and often within sight. Don’t let any course or discussion of the Middle East proceed except in its presence. And if the need arises, ask why Arabs and Muslims think they deserve odds greater than 640:1.

Ruth R. Wisse is Peretz Professor Yiddish Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature.