The original truck people

This post first appeared at the Commentary blog on August 31.

Austrian authorities on Thursday discovered an abandoned truck on a highway near the Hungarian border, packed with the decomposed bodies of 71 dead migrants, including four children. While migrants have perished at sea in the multitudes, this tragedy has put Europe on notice: The horrors from which the migrants flee, and that regularly play themselves out in the middle of the Mediterranean, will soon become commonplace in the heart of the continent unless something changes.

Now how addled and obsessed must one be, to use this event as a stick to beat Israel? About as addled and obsessed as Juan Cole, professor at the University of Michigan and popular blogger on the edge of the left. See as evidence this post: “Austrian Truck Tragedy echoes Palestinian Story, reminding us of 7 million still stateless [Palestinians].”

What is that Palestinian story? It is a 1962 novella by the Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani entitled Men in the Sun. The allegorical storyline is about three Palestinians who flee the misery of Lebanon’s refugee camps to Iraq, in the hope of reaching the Xanadu of Kuwait. They are smuggled across the desert from Basra in the empty barrel of a water tanker truck. But because of a delay at the Kuwaiti border, the three suffocate to death. (The novella was made into a film in 1972.)

I won’t make an issue of the “seven million still stateless” Palestinians. (The upper-end estimate is closer to five million.) And far be it from me to quibble with anyone’s free associations. But Cole tops off his with this statement, which purports to be historical: the Palestinians’ “home has been stolen from them by the Israelis and they were unceremoniously dumped on the neighbors or in the West Bank or in the Gaza Strip. They are stateless. They are the original truck people.” (My emphasis.)

This concluding dramatic flourish, identifying the Palestinians as “the original truck people,” jolted me. The first people made stateless, dispossessed, stripped of their humanity, and packed into sealed trucks where they died horribly, all in the very heart of Europe, were many thousands of Jewish victims of the Nazi extermination machine.

As anyone who has read even one history of the Holocaust knows, before there were gas chambers there were mobile gas vans. These were air-tight trucks which could be packed with as many as sixty persons, who would be killed by cycling the carbon monoxide exhaust back into the cargo area. Himmler ordered the invention of the method to spare the Germans in SS killing squads the damaging psychological effects of shooting thousands of victims, one at a time. The trucks were deployed primarily to kill Jews, who were loaded into them without separation by gender or age. I will spare readers the horrific testimonies of the operators of these trucks, and the documentary evidence of how technicians worked to perfect them. I’ll only quote this argument, made by a technician, for keeping the cargo area lit:

When the back door is closed and it gets dark inside, the load pushes hard against the door. The reason for this is that when it becomes dark inside the load rushes toward what little light is left. This hampers the locking of the door. It has also been noticed that the noise [i.e., screams] provoked by the locking of the door is linked to the fear aroused by the darkness. It is therefore expedient to keep the lights on before the operation and during the first few minutes of its duration. Lighting is often useful for night work and for the cleaning of the interior of the van.

Hundreds of thousands died in these trucks, at least 150,000 in Chelmno alone. According to that same technician, three vehicles succeeded in killing 97,000 persons in the six months prior to June 1942. However, it turned out that the mobile gas vans were subject to breakdown on the back roads where they operated away from sight, and even then they proved impossible to keep secret. (Passersby could hear the screams.) Gas chambers located in extermination camps finally replaced the vans.

Of course, one mustn’t confuse botched human trafficking with planned genocide. But part of what is so shocking about the Austrian truck tragedy is the earlier precedent of men, women, and children packed into trucks and asphyxiated to death in the heart of Europe. If the horror on the Austrian motorway should evoke anyone’s fate, it is that of six million exterminated Jews, not five million living Palestinians. To anyone who knows history, death trucks on European highways recall why the “original truck people,” the Jews, needed the refuge finally secured by the creation of Israel.

Deportation of Jews from Wloclawek, Poland to the Chelmno Death Camp, April 1942.
Deportation of Jews from Wloclawek, Poland to the Chelmno Death Camp, April 1942.

Geopolitics of the Jews

Over the winter, I gave a short address to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, at a meeting in Jerusalem. I took the assignment seriously, and offered these thoughts, more to highlight problems than offer solutions. In this week between Holocaust Memorial Day and Israel’s Independence Day, I share them for wider reflection.

The title of our panel is “Looking Back, Looking Ahead: The Geopolitical Situation of the Jewish People.” This is a moving target: the geopolitical situation of the Jews hasn’t ever been stable. As a people, our geopolitics are one part our preferences, and two parts historical forces. These forces never rest. Seventy years ago, the Jewish world was centered in Europe. Now we mostly just fly over it. The United States and Israel are today the poles of the Jewish world, because some Jews sensed tremors before the earthquake. When the earth opened up and Europe descended into the inferno, parts of the Jewish people already had a Plan B in place. We are living that Plan B.

Today the Jewish people is in an enviable geopolitical position. It has one foot planted in a Jewish sovereign state, and the other in the world’s most open and powerful society. One is tempted to say that never in their long history has the geopolitical situation of the Jews been better. Jews did have sovereignty before, in antiquity, but they did not have a strategic alliance with the greatest power on earth. And since it is difficult to imagine a better geopolitical position, the Jewish people has become a status quo people. Once we were revolutionaries; now we don’t need the world to change. Of course we would like an improvement in Israel’s standing with some of its neighbors—what dreamers call “peace.” But we are generally confident or complacent enough to prefer the status quo to the risks of changing it.

Yet as we all should know, history stops for no man, and for no people. I was trained as a historian, and while this gives me no powers of prophecy, I can assure you of one thing. What is, will not be. Balances of power will change. Identities will be recast. Eventually, too, the map of the Middle East will be redrawn.

When we worry, we tend to focus on apocalyptic scenarios. But I invite you to think for a moment about five long-term trends that could erode the status quo, but that fall short of a mushroom cloud. I will proceed from the far to the near, and I will focus on the Israeli side of the equation.

First, U.S. influence in the Middle East could wane. Perhaps you have read the article by Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, entitled “The New Middle East.” He wrote: “Less than twenty years after the end of the Cold War, the American era in the Middle East… has ended….  The second Iraq war… has precipitated its end.” I think this is premature—America’s era in the Middle East will end one day, but it hasn’t ended yet, and it will take more than Iraq to end it. But Haass’s statement is indicative of a spreading mood. Add this to technological change that could reduce American dependence on Middle Eastern oil, and it is possible that in twenty years’ time, America will be less interested and engaged in the Middle East. What is our Plan B then?

Second, Europe could be subtracted from the sum power of the West. The trends there, of low birth rates, Muslim immigration, multiculturalism—if they are not stopped or reversed, they could have the effect of de-Westernizing Europe. Europe, even without Jews, is part of a cultural and strategic continuum, linking Israel to America. Without that link, Israel would become still more encircled by Islam-inflected hostility. So what is our Plan B then?

Third, Iran could gain regional power status. In fact, the imperial ambition of Iran may be a long-term trend independent of the nature of its regime. Iran could become Israel’s regional rival, even if it postpones its nuclear plans and drops Ahmadinejad. Iran is already using every ounce of its leverage to establish its dominance in Iraq and its influence elsewhere in the Persian Gulf. If Iran emerges as a power on par with Israel—a power intent on drawing Israel into a long cold war of attrition—what is our Plan B?

Fourth, the Arab states around us could succumb to the same sort of disease that is causing Iraq to hemorrhage internally. That disease is the lack of legitimacy. When you look at a map of the Middle East, you are looking at a gerrymandered hodgepodge, drawn a century ago to serve the interests of the long-defunct empires of Britain and France. If Iraq breaks up—and I believe it will—other states could begin to crumble. In some places, it might be Shiites against Sunnis; elsewhere, Islamists against nationalists. This could engulf states on Israel’s borders, and Israel could find itself opposite not one Hezbollah but many. So what is our Plan B?

Fifth, and closest to home, there is the possibility that the two-state solution will become passé, because the Palestinians will fail as a nation. By failure I mean they will not have the cohesion necessary to translate their identity into nation-statehood. Many in Israel presently speak as if the creation of a Palestinian state is essential to Israel’s own legitimacy and even survival. But what if such a state proves to be impossible? A binational state, Israeli-Palestinian, is anathema, so what is our Plan B?

Now one would have to be a grim pessimist to believe that all five of these trends could merge into a perfect storm. But one would have to be an incurable optimist to believe that that we won’t be lashed by any of these storms. And what I am arguing is that we should anticipate conditions that will make storms more frequent than they have been in the last few decades.

We have had a remarkable run these last thirty years. Israel has flourished under the pax Americana. There has been no general Arab-Israeli war since 1973, and peace prevails on most of Israel’s borders. The country’s population has grown, foreign investment has poured in. Israel has expanding relations with the up-and-coming powers in the world. And American Jewry has gained stature and influence, in part by mediating for Israel. This has been a long and productive peace.

But when Herzl wrote The Jewish State, Europe was also thirty years into its long peace. He knew it would not last, that its foundations were weak. He planned accordingly. We should recognize that the status quo in the Middle East won’t last indefinitely, and we have to plan accordingly. I haven’t said what I think has to be done—what alliances to make, what targets to strike, what borders to redraw. But I do say that Israel will have to make alliances, strike targets, and redraw borders—and they won’t necessarily be the familiar ones.

This is going to create stress in the world, and even within the Jewish people. So your tasks will multiply, and they will become more urgent. If you got into this business ten years ago, thinking it would be all gala dinners on the way to a new Middle East, I apologize on behalf of history. The man was on the mark who said that the trouble with our times is that the future just isn’t what it used to be.

See the response of Saul Singer to this post.

Spanish translation here.