OpinionIsrael-Palestinian Conflict

A wise voice from history

Writer Christopher Sykes made several keen observations back in 1968 that remain just as relevant today.

Israeli troops roll into the city of Rafah in the southernmost part of the Gaza Strip during the Six-Day War, June 5, 1967. Photo by David Rubinger.
Israeli troops roll into the city of Rafah in the southernmost part of the Gaza Strip during the Six-Day War, June 5, 1967. Photo by David Rubinger.
Mitchell Bard
Mitchell Bard
Mitchell Bard is a foreign-policy analyst and an authority on U.S.-Israel relations who has written and edited 22 books, including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews and After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.

As I was researching the Six-Day War fought 55 years ago, I stumbled across an article written by Christopher Sykes, the son of Sir Mark Sykes, the British diplomat who negotiated the Sykes-Picot agreement with François Georges-Picot. Christopher was a diplomat, soldier and foreign correspondent who wrote about the war in the February 1968 issue of Encounter. He made several keen observations that are relevant today.

Sykes said that he had firm convictions about “the rights and wrongs of the opening of the June war; the need for a united Jerusalem; [and] the need for an Israel acknowledged and respected by the world at large, but especially by the world of Islam.” He believed the third point was most important “and the least likely to be realized, at least in the lifetime of anyone except a small child fated to be a nonagenarian.”

Sykes refers to what he said Dorothy Sayers called “The Voice of Enlightenment.” Today, we might call it “progressivism.” In the context of the 1967 War, Sykes noted that the opening of the war was “a clear case of naked aggression by the Arab powers led by Nasser.” After Israel’s victory, however, “the massing of Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian troops, the alliance of Nasser and King Hussein, the daily threats of extermination uttered against Israel and the Israelis, the blocking by military force of Israeli access to the Red Sea, the shooing-off of the U.N. peace-keeping force … counted for nothing, according to the voice of Enlightenment, compared to the awful fact that Israeli soldiers fired the first shots.”

Similarly, today’s “voices of Enlightenment” dismiss the genocidal actions of Israel’s enemies and reserve their animosity towards the impudent Jews who dare to defend themselves.

Most of the article relates to Jerusalem. While Palestinians assert their superior claim to Jerusalem and seek to attach their identity to the city, Sykes noted an “essential difference” between Jewish and Muslim attachment to Jerusalem. For Muslims, he said, “it is not Jerusalem but a certain site in Jerusalem which is venerated.” Mecca and Medina are “holy places containing holy sites,” he observed. “Apart from the hallowed rock, Jerusalem has no major Islamic significance.”

By contrast, “to a Jew Jerusalem is something very different, indeed unique. Not only is it a city founded by the Jews; it is at the center of Jewish being.”

Sykes recalled that the period under Jordanian rule from 1949 until Israel reunified the city during the war was “among the most repugnantly intolerant of all.” The Jordanians, he asserted, were “among the worst guardians of other peoples’ rights and shrines to have appeared in the whole troubled history of Jerusalem.”

Sykes said that people calling for Israel to withdraw from the Old City were “asking the Jews to acquiesce in the terrible deeds of the immediate past, in the wanton destruction of the ancient synagogues of Jerusalem, in the wilful [sic] desecration of every Jewish shrine in Jerusalem, even including the graves of Jews who were buried there in accordance with hallowed custom.”

“No matter what Foreign Ministers or American State Secretaries or the French President may say, the Jews will not move out of ancient Jerusalem.” Apparently, never having me a State Department Arabist, he added, “I cannot believe that anyone with any practical sense believes that they will.”

A sour note in Sykes’ analysis is his clear animus towards the Jewish underground that tormented the British government during the Mandate. He calls Deir Yassin “their lasting monument,” repeating the allegation, subsequently proven false, that 250 Arabs were massacred.

He was also horrified that the leader of Lehi, Avraham Stern, who the British killed, had a street named after him and that the Irgun’s leader, Menachem Begin, was a member of the government.

Despite seeming clearheaded about the reality of the situation, Sykes’ prescription for coexistence was having “faith in the healing effects of time aided by generous rule.” Otherwise, “Israel should live by the sword in perpetuity, till she perishes by the sword.”

One example of “generous rule” to appease the Arabs (he doesn’t refer to Palestinians) would be to assure them Israel has no interest in rebuilding the temple or destroying Muslim holy places. This is necessary, he believed, because what we now refer to as the “Al-Aqsa is in danger libel.” This is 1968, remember, and Sykes writes, “there can be no doubt that belief in an ultimate and secret Jewish aim to pull down the incomparably beautiful Mosque of Omar, to abolish the Moslem [it is considered politically correct to say Muslim] shrine and to erect anew a Temple in its traditional area, is widely accepted among Moslems, and has been enormously stimulated for years by propaganda.” He naively suggests a rabbinical pronouncement can solve this.

Echoing the views of Israelis today, Sykes quotes an Israeli friend who wrote to him that “the Israeli soldier (i.e., the people) does not want to fight any more wars, and he will not give up what he has won without gaining some semblance of security.”

So, what was to be done to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict?

Sykes asked a French diplomat whose answer should be drilled into the heads of those who ask the same question today:

Why nothing at all, of course. Here you have an insoluble problem. The first rule when dealing with such problems is not to try to solve them. You must put your trust in time, and your trust may be misplaced.

Mitchell Bard is a foreign-policy analyst and an authority on U.S.-Israel relations who has written and edited 22 books, including “The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews” and “After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.”

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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