a trip back in time

"A nation is a group of people united by a mistaken view of their past and a hatred of their neighbors" -- Attributed to Karl Deutsch or Ernest Renan

I'm going to take a break from the trip events to go back to the 1930s-40s, years that were critical in the formation of the Israeli state, to discuss events and insights that were beyond the pale of my Birthright trip. At this point in time, it's impossible to get a complete picture of what happened in the events that Israelis call "The War of Independence" and Palestinians refer to as "The Disaster." Thus far historians have relied on documents declassified by the IDF and the Israeli government (which still contain redacted information). Many documents about the 1948 war in the archives of Arab nations have not been released to the public.

Why is it important to discuss founding events that occurred over 60 years ago? As "new historian" Avi Shlaim explains, "debate about the 1948 war cuts to the very core of Israel's image of itself." (Rogan, p.101) A state's founding story can serve as a legitimation and precedent for that state's future policies. Coming to grips with this history may also mean questioning the very idea of a Jewish birthright to the land of Israel, and the very premise of free Birthright trips to Jewish youth.

Israel has a traditional narrative which American Hebrew School students and Israeli students may find familiar. In this story, Israel fights bravely for its very existence against an aggressive and coordinated attack of Arab states. Shlaim summarizes it thus: "a simple bi-polar, no holds barred struggle between a monolithic and malevolent Arab adversary and a tiny peace loving Jewish community. The biblical image of David and Goliath is frequently evoked in this narrative." (p.79) This is the story I was taught in Hebrew School. It places responsibility for the war on the Arab nations and casts Israeli Jews in the role of victims. Required sites on Birthright trips such as Mount Herzl Cemetery tend to reinforce this narrative. Other required sites such as Masada, and the Bar Kochba caves reference the time when Jews were being oppressed by the Roman Empire and tried to defend their own freedom. The emotional force of these sites can make a participant think that the 1948 war was Masada: the sequel. But the situation in 1948 is not analogous. It had the added complexity of Jews building a nation-state. However, ego-boosting and Biblically epic it may be, the narrative above is not consistent with the historical record that has been uncovered. The Arab states were not solely to blame for the 1948 war.

The first Jewish emigrants arriving in Palestine had to deal with the problem of creating a Jewish state on land that was inhabited by a majority Arab population. The Jewish immigrants and those who encouraged them to move to Palestine deserve some blame for the later conflict (as well as Britain for making promises to both Jews and Arabs that were impossible to keep). David Ben-Gurion said, "politically we [Jewish immigrants] are the aggressors and they [the Palestinians] defend themselves...The country is theirs, because they inhabit it, whereas we want to come here and settle down, and in their view we want to take away from them their country." (Chomksy, p.91)

The First Aliyah in Palestine, donning keffiyehs

Some "supporters of Israel" recognize the ethical problem inherent in commandeering other people's land, and have tried to sidestep this issue altogether. In dubious books they claim that a large population of Arabs didn't exist before the first Jewish immigration. Some others allege that Palestinians didn't constitute a coherent or legitimate ethnic group or some other bullshit. Even if their theses were true, they would still be irrelevant. As Andy Dyer commented on the controversy surrounding Joan Peter's book From Time Immemorial: "But most striking is that she [Joan Peters] and the Zionists believe that robbing people because they've only been there 10 or 50 years is somehow alright. Claiming that it is only reminds most western people (few of whom live near where they were born) that it's not alright."

The"demographic problem" or "demographic threat" (still hotly debated in Israeli society) was taken up by the temporary government headed by David Ben-Gurion. Ben-Gurion and other officials grappled with the difficulty of founding a Jewish state on land that didn't contain a majority Jewish population. Transfer of the Arab population seemed the only practical course of action to create such a state.

While I don't take issue with Jewish people immigrating en masse to Palestine (though certainly I can understand why they didn't receive a warm welcome), I do criticize the ejection of non-Jewish inhabitants by force.

In his essay, "Revisiting the Palestinian Exodus of 1948" Benny Morris shows that thinking about transfer was prevalent in the Yishuv. In 1937 Ben-Gurion wrote in his journal, "With the evacuation of the Arab community from the valleys we achieve, for the first time in Jewish History, a real Jewish State." He further stated: "We must first cast off the weaknesses of thought and will and prejudice-- that [says that] transfer is impracticable." Ben-Gurion goes on to write that the Jewish leaders must understand that the world would not look favorably upon transplantation of the Arab population, however it would be crucial to "condition the leadership to transfer's implementation." (Rogan, p.43) Transfer would be beneficial and would not be challenged. If another power began Arab transfer out of Palestine, nothing would be done to prevent it (p.45 ). Ben-Gurion relayed his thoughts at the World Zionist Congress where he said, "You must remember that this method also contains an important and humane and Zionist idea: to transfer parts of a people [i.e., the Arabs] to their own country and to settle empty lands [i.e., Transjordan and Iraq]..." (p.43) These are patronizing words (i.e. that Jews know better than Arabs where Arabs belong and where they should live). This phrase was even deleted from Ben-Gurion's later transcript.(p.44)

The deletion demonstrates a consistent theme within Israeli mythology: a constant attempt to seem humane or moral while considering immoral policies and committing immoral acts. This isn't specific to Israel. In the U.S. we have similar mythologies that justify our history of immoral acts (such as manifest destiny or the argument that slaves were actually better off with their masters). It's also important to note that this debate among the Zionist leadership was going on in 1937; and although Hitler had come to power, this was pre-Kristalnacht and before death camps were constructed. As Morris writes, "Ben-Gurion was very careful in speech and writing not to leave too clear a spoor in his wake." ( p.49)

Nevertheless, careful management of rhetoric does not the change the actions of the Jewish forces in the 1948 war. "...the refugee problem was caused by attacks by Jewish forces on Arab villages and towns and by the inhabitants' fears of such attacks, compounded by expulsions, atrocities and rumor of atrocities - and by the crucial Cabinet decision in June 1948 to bar a refugee return" (p.38) "From April 1948 on, Palestinian Arabs were the target of a series of expulsions from individual villages, clusters of villages and towns" (p.49). There were documented military orders to do so:

"On the morning of 31 October, Carmel radioed all brigade and district commanders: 'Do all in your power to clear quickly and immediately all hostile elements in accordance with the orders issued. The inhabitants should be assisted to leave the conquered areas.' On 10 November, Carmel added the following somewhat 'softer' order: '(B) [The troops] should continue to assist the inhabitants wishing to leave the areas conquered by us. This is urgent and must be carried out swiftly. (C) A strip of five kilometers deep behind the border between us and Lebanon must be empty of [Arab] inhabitants.' There can be non doubt that, in the circumstances, the brigade and district OCs understood Carmel's first order of 31 October (and perhaps also his follow-up of 10 November) as a general directive to expel." (p.52)

I'll discuss the historical legacy and its effects in a later post.


Chomsky, Noam. Fateful Triangle. Cambridge: South End Press, 1999.
Rogan, Eugene L. and Avi Shlaim. Ed. The war for Palestine : rewriting the history of 1948. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

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