The Challenges Of Ethnic
Cleansing In Israel

By Terrell E. Arnold

In a recent interview on Israeli public radio a prominent member of Ariel Sharon's Likud party said that the idea of ethnic cleansing to rid Israel of non-Jews had widespread support in Israel. This idea apparently has been put forward with little to no public discussion as a "final solution" to the growing demographic fact that Palestinians could well outnumber Jews in Israel in a fairly short time. In this climate of opinion, the idea of mass expulsions of Palestinians, pursued vigorously from the late 1940s onward, and extinctions, carried out under an ongoing policy of assassinations of militants, could easily morph into generalized ethnic cleansing to rid the areas west of the Jordan River of all non-Jews. Without going into the moral, legal, religious, or humanitarian failings of such a choice, it is worth examining the practical complications of deciding who is to be expelled or eliminated.
The first question is: Who is a Jew? The Biblical, that is Old Testament answer to this question is quite simple: Jews are the descendents of Shem who was Noah's eldest son. Shem's descendents became known as Shemites, a name that gradually evolved into the modern term, Semites, that applies about equally to all Palestinian people. That appears a simple enough point of departure, except that over a period of several millennia-we do not really know how many-the sons of Shem were both prolific and adventurous. They traveled widely and married or otherwise mated with females in every place they ventured. Moreover, Shem's sons had daughters who, with less fanfare, did much the same.
By the time Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt the bloodlines undoubtedly were quite complicated despite the best efforts to maintain purity. Moreover, on the basis of four to five generations per hundred years, any living Jew is at least two to three hundred generations from Shem, and a pure bloodline at this stage would be miraculous.
Therefore, perhaps the more operational question is: What is a Jew? Most of us who are non-Jews and hardly expert in ethnography or genetics are likely to say a Jew is someone who practices the Jewish religion or who identifies himself or herself as a Jew. People generally do not look behind these orders of preference and self-selection.
Just what do the would-be ethnic cleansers have to work with, here and now? The answer may seem crass, but they have only their preferences. Here is where an ethnic cleansing venture can go most egregiously awry.
The problems start with the simple fact that no one we know took a DNA sample from Shem. Moreover, a dozen or so tribes of the children of Israel were cast into the Diaspora, where a fairly strong Jewish tradition holds they still belong. Meanwhile, many of the sons of Shem, a large number of whom were not adherents of Judaism, remained to populate the eastern reaches of the Mediterranean with Christian and Muslim as well as Jewish communities, and they were there when the Zionists, who were Ashkenazi Jews appeared out of Central Europe to begin their creation of the state of Israel. A further complication was the dispersion of Sephardi Jews, many of whose ancestors were expelled in the late 15th century from Spain, all along the North African coast and around the Middle East. Even in the blackest periods of relations between Israel and Arab states of the region, such as the early 1960s, the Sephardis lived in Arab countries, still carrying the Spanish of Don Quixote as a spoken language in their households. Their ethnicity also was further diluted by centuries of living and of passage along the African coast. Additionally, in an effort to accelerate growth of the Jewish population Israeli leaders sought migrants from Jewish communities in Peru, Ethiopia and elsewhere and these communities are now slowly being added to the pool of Jewishness that is Israel. In Israel, the Ashkenazi number 4 million plus and the Sephardi about a million; together they are 80% of the population. Palestinians and others make up the remaining 20%.
This, then, is the gene pool that would-be ethnic cleansers must confront in Israel. Some of their likely preference is revealed in the elite and governing power of the country. The northern or Ashkenazi Jews are at the top, with Palestinian, Sephardi and other regional Jews at the bottom. This picture is further complicated by the probability that the Ashkenazi are not descendents of Shem, but from other, Central European stock whose ancestors were converts to Judaism.
It thus appears that an honestly pursued ethnic cleansing would have perverse effects on the Israeli power structure. However diluted the bloodline may be, the Palestinians, both Jews and non-Jews, appear most entitled to the distinction of being "people of the book", therefore, ethnic descendents of Shem as nearly as those can be identified. In that awkward way, ethnic cleansing could be a "final solution" in that, honestly pursued, it would give the land back to the Palestinians.
Of course, putting true ethnicity aside, ethnic cleansing could be pursued on behalf of the Ashkenazi majority, which appears to be what the Likud speaker cited above had in mind. That would codify elevation of the whiter, larger European Jews over the darker, smaller Mediterranean, African or Latino ones, which is already the defacto situation. This result could have an ironic twist in that it would assure the "people of the book" at best the minority status of second-class citizens.
The history of the Jewish people denies the Israelis the luxury of a "final solution" through ethnic cleansing. They thus have three basic choices: One is to continue on the presently decaying path of Israel as a hierarchical, Central European based oligarchy supported by second, third and fourth class citizens (Sephardis, Palestinian Jews, and Palestinians) who are increasingly dissatisfied with the arrangement, and surrounded by neighbors who harbor deep-seated grievances and fight back. The second is to achieve a compromise by recognizing that all the parties have equal rights and interests. The third is to recognize that the power of Judaism is always at its best when based on spirituality and the values that have sustained it and made major contributions to communities as enclaves and citizens everywhere for millennia.
Biblical Jewish efforts toward purity and exclusiveness were always frustrated, either by God or by the human condition. A vocal minority of Jews suggests it should stay that way. God keeps his own counsel. The human condition appears no better disposed than it was. Outsiders can hope that realists among the Israelis will accept ethnic diversity, already the dominant human condition virtually everywhere else.
The writer is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the U.S. Department of State. He welcomes your comments at




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