“No people anywhere in the world would accept being expelled en masse from their own country; how can anyone require the people of Palestine to accept a punishment which nobody else would tolerate?”
Just three days before his death, Bertrand Russell completed a statement on the Israel-Palestine conflict that was, presumably, to be read before the International Conference of Parliamentarians in Cairo.
On February 2, Russell died at the age of 97. On February 3, his statement, which contains many prescient and increasingly relevant insights, was read before the Conference and was later published in The New York Times.
Russell is widely known as an incredibly influential philosopher and mathematician, but his views on social issues, particularly war and nuclear proliferation, are given far less attention than they deserve.
Indeed, Ray Monk, Russell’s biographer, observes that in his late years Russell “became subordinated to the campaign to prevent mankind from destroying itself with nuclear weapons,” and that he came to judge the success or failure of his life by “just one criterion: had he done anything to make the threatened destruction of all mankind less likely?”
In Russell’s own words:
The time has come to review my life as a whole, and to ask whether it has served any useful purpose or has been wholly concerned in futility. Unfortunately, no answer is possible for anyone who does not know the future.
Modern weapons make it practically certain that the next serious war will exterminate the human race. This is admitted by all competent authorities, and I shall not waste time in proving it. Any man who cares what the future may have in store therefore has to choose between nothingness and conciliation, not once, but throughout future ages until the sun grows cold.
The “threatened destruction of all mankind” is surely a wide-ranging topic, but in the statement which was read to the Conference in Cairo, Egypt, Russell’s words cornered a conflict which rages on, as strong as ever, to this day.
Russell’s views on the Israel-Palestine conflict were not static; in fact, as Norman Finkelstein observes in his book Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict, Russell was an advocate of the 1944 British Labour Party Position that the “Arabs be encouraged to move out [of Palestine].”
He would later come to change his mind, however, an in Finkelstein’s words, “he particularly deplored the fate of the Palestinians.”
His concern for the fate of the Palestinians who were forcefully expelled from their homes manifested in his statement read in Cairo on February 3, 1970.
Russell begins by addressing the roots of the conflict:
The development of the crisis in the Middle East is both dangerous and instructive. For over 20 years Israel has expanded by force of arms. After every stage in this expansion Israel has appealed to ‘reason’ and has suggested ‘negotiations’.
This is the traditional role of the imperial power, because it wishes to consolidate with the least difficulty what it has already taken by violence.
Every new conquest becomes the new basis of the proposed negotiation from strength, which ignores the injustice of the previous aggression. The aggression committed by Israel must be condemned, not only because no state has the right to annexe foreign territory, but because every expansion is an experiment to discover how much more aggression the world will tolerate.
Russell continues by addressing what he called “the tragedy of the people of Palestine”:
The tragedy of the people of Palestine is that their country was “given” by a foreign Power to another people for the creation of a new State. The result was that many hundreds of thousands of innocent people were made permanently homeless. With every new conflict their number have increased.
How much longer is the world willing to endure this spectacle of wanton cruelty? It is abundantly clear that the refugees have every right to the homeland from which they were driven, and the denial of this right is at the heart of the continuing conflict.
No people anywhere in the world would accept being expelled en masse from their own country; how can anyone require the people of Palestine to accept a punishment which nobody else would tolerate? A permanent just settlement of the refugees in their homeland is an essential ingredient of any genuine settlement in the Middle East.
The statement ends with Russell condemning those who “invoke the horrors of the past to justify those of the present,” referring to the suffering of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis being used to justify actions carried out by Israel against the Palestinians.
We are frequently told that we must sympathize with Israel because of the suffering of the Jews in Europe at the hands of the Nazis. I see in this suggestion no reason to perpetuate any suffering. What Israel is doing today cannot be condoned, and to invoke the horrors of the past to justify those of the present is gross hypocrisy. Not only does Israel condemn a vast number of refugees to misery; not only are many Arabs under occupation condemned to military rule; but also Israel condemns the Arab nations only recently emerging from colonial status, to continued impoverishment as military demands take precedence over national development.
All who want to see an end to bloodshed in the Middle East must ensure that any settlement does not contain the seeds of future conflict.
Justice requires that the first step towards a settlement must be an Israeli withdrawal from all the territories occupied in June, 1967. A new world campaign is needed to help bring justice to the long-suffering people of the Middle East.