It’s always a bit strange around May. Along with the normal upsurge in sunshine (albeit not last year) and the excellent mayday, where you can take your pick between maypole kitsch and workers solidarity, comes Yom Ha”atzmaut, the anniversary of Israel’s independence. You don’t have to be much of a radical to find this discomforting – flag waving’s always a bit disturbing, even when accompanied by jaunts to Wembley courtesy of the Zionist Federation.
But this year it’s been a whole different ballgame for Israel has reached the pensionable age of 60. This is an excellent excuse for all the Jewish organisations to engage in an Israel gang-bang; to loudly and forcefully compete over who want to shag Israel the most. It’s been an opportunity for those who have previously been perceived as being rather Israel neutral (G-d forbid) to show just that they too are keen to suck Israel’s cock. So first off the mark was the JC with a glossy magazine supposedly covering all aspects of Israel’s history from 1948 to the present. There were some fig leafs of serious journalism-with contributions from Tom Segev and Uri Averny, but in general most of the content wouldn’t have been out of place in a Jewish Agency Channukah Annual circa 1953. This was a chance to relive the glory days once, again, with old chums like Golda M and Moshe D talking of making deserts bloom, singing round the campfire and dancing the hora. An opportunity to forget vast economic equality, new historians, social complexity and most of all Arabs.
Hot on their heels came the Jewish News with a 70 page bonanza of Israel-inspired masturbation. They took a sledgehammer approach, clearly designed to wear down the reader. Not convinced by pictures of soldiers standing by the Kotel? How about pictures of schoolchildren waving flags? How about a collection of British Jews showing just how important they were in the foundation of the state, or some anecdotes about how much more enjoyable Wembley United’s Tea Dance was in 1967? The feeling on reading through this is one of cumulative exhaustion, the non committed reader may feel the urge to surrender – “ok you were right the anti Zionists were wrong I saw Goody Proctor in the woods engaging in witchcraft”.
It was in this environment that I embarked on a strange quest to learn more about the events of 1948. Strange, because I, like, I suspect many British Jews, I was massively ignorant about this. Sure I had some vague memories of a Zionist narrative that I learnt at cheder which went something along the lines of partition – the arabs didn’t accept it, we did, loads of arab armies invaded, we won; it was great. In the intervening years I had learnt a lot more-about the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, about the corrupting effects of the occupation on Israel. I considered myself well informed. But somehow, the events of 1948, surrounding the creation of the state, and the war, slipped beneath my radar. Maybe this is just me; perhaps most British Jews are hugely well informed, and have carefully reviewed the scholarly literature on the subject. But somehow I doubt it. I think Anglo Jewry is largely unaware of this history, possibly due to accident, possibly willful ignorance. A reasonably thorough review of the academic material made it clear to me that root of the conflict lies not in 1967 but in 1948.
An entire society disappeared. This is an essential fact. 100s of villages and towns existed at the end of 1947 that had largely disappeared by the start of 1949. Around 750,000 indigenous people that had lived, farmed and worked on the land of Palestine, were, by the end of the war, exiled people in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. Within a few years after the war, most of the former villages and towns had been demolished by the new State of Israel, with a minority resettled by new Jewish immigrants. Palestinian Arabs no longer in their former places of residence lost all rights to their land and property in Israel’s Absentee Property Law of 1950. These lands became controlled by the state, or by state sponsored agencies like the JNF, whose mission was to settle these lands with Jews.
This much is consensual; no-one with respect for facts is disputing these basics. This much information should be enough to make someone question whether it is appropriate to commemorate 1948 purely as a ‘celebration’. Causes, meta-narratives, and blame however, are contested, and I am going to weigh in to one of the most hotly debated issues; the causes of the Palestinian exodus.
This issue is one over which much ink has spilt, and one that has been long surrounded by polemic and propaganda. However, we are now not too far from a scholarly consensus.
The classic narrative offered by the Israeli government was that Palestinian Arabs fled on the orders of Arab Governments, they expected to return victorious with the incoming Arab armies. This thesis was summed up in a report by Joseph Weitz, a JNF official: The migration of the Arabs of the Land of Israel was not caused by persecution, violence, expulsion.….”the flight was? deliberately organized by the Arab leaders in order to arouse Arab feelings of revenge, to artificially create an Arab refugee problem…and to prepare the ground for the invasion of Palestine by the Arab States who could then appear as saviours of their brother Arabs”.
This narrative has been entirely discredited, there were no such orders by Arab leaders. Palestinian Arab leaders (the few that there were) generally worked to stop the exodus, only occasionally encouraging the evacuation of women and children from certain areas.
Having rejected this notion, remaining explanations can be summarised in two paradigms – ‘war’ and ‘ethnic cleansing’. The paradigm of war is expressed in Benny Morris’ The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 written in 1989 (and its revised edition The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited in 2004). This is widely seen as the most detailed and comprehensive text on the subject. Morris aims to describe what happened in every area, town and village, and summarise the overall causes for the exodus, though in some cases they are blurred. Morris divides the exodus into 4 waves, though for our purposes it can simply be divided into 2 – Dec 1947-May 15 1948 and May 15 until the various armistice agreements in 1949. The broad picture he paints is that in the first half of the war, the ‘civil’ war between Jews and Arabs before the intervention of the Arab states, Arabs largely fled in fear of war, and particular towns and villages fled following attack by Jewish forces. Uri Averny, the veteran Israeli campaigner who fought in 1948 has described the process as follows:
In general, things happened this way: in the course of the fighting, an Arab village came under heavy fire. Its inhabitants – men, women and children – fled, of course, to the next village. Then we fired on the next village, and they fled to the next one, and so forth, until the armistice came into force and suddenly there was a border (the Green Line) between them and their homes. The Deir Yassin massacre gave another powerful push to the flight.
In the second half of the war, after May 15th this process continued, but with an added element of expulsion. Morris argues that plans to expel became solidified amongst Zionist leaders from April and from July there are many instances of transfer. The largest example was in the towns of Lydd and Ramle, when around 50,000 Arabs were directly expelled.
While carefully documenting the occurrences of expulsion, Morris argues that there was no systematic plan for transfer, rather that they happened in a largely unplanned fashion due to the needs and circumstances of the war.
Proponents of the paradigm of ‘ethnic cleansing’, however argue that ‘transfer’ was centrally planned, executed and in accordance with Zionist ideology. This is the position held by Palestinian historians such as Walid Khalidi and Nur Masalha, and has become more recently promoted by the Israeli historian IIan Pappe in The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, 2007. This approach argues that Plan Dalet, adopted by a small group of Zionist leaders called ‘The Consultancy’ was a blueprint for mass transfer, what would now be called ethnic cleansing. In general, plan Dalet (which is publicly available) seems like a military plan, not a blue print for transfer, but Pappe focuses on the section dealing with ‘hostile villages’ (and according to Morris most Arab villages would have been seen as hostile by the Haganah) which includes the following: In cases of resistance, the armed forces must be wiped out and the population expelled outside the borders of the state.
The other main overarching differences between Pappe and Morris is that while all the ‘New historians’ (an umbrella term for Israeli revisionists including Morris, Pappe, Simcha Flapan and Avi Shlaim) argue that Israel was far stronger than both the Palestinian fighters and the Arab armies, Pappe believes that the discrepancy was so great that the first half of the conflict (until the entry of the Arab states) should not really be considered a war. As a result, he describes the events of Dec 47 – May 48 not in terms of a circle of violence between Jews and Arabs, but as systematic Jewish attacks on Arabs with a few ineffective retaliations from the Arab side. Consequently, he sees effective expulsion, caused by military onslaught, as taking part in the first half of the war as well as the second. A final point is that both Khalidi and Pappe utilise testimony evidence of Palestinian refugees living today. There is a large body of such evidence. Morris claims to avoid oral testimony, claiming it is unreliable, but to entirely ignore such a vast body of memory seems perverse and, particularly from the perspective of Jewish experience, somewhat offensive.
Although much polemical ink has been spilled on both sides of this debate, the differences between them are not so great. If we ignore some of Pappe’s wilder assertions and pay more attentions to the details of Morris’ evidence rather his narrative account we have a large area of agreement. All (including Shlaim, Segev, etc.) seem to accept that
1) The notion of transfer, both voluntary and compulsory was deeply embedded in Zionist thinking, at least from the 1930s onwards, and possibly much earlier.
2) The Jewish armed forces and organisation were far superior to those of the Palestinian Arabs and those of the Arab states. Arab Palestine was largely a traditional, localised society, which stood no chance against the highly modern organisation of the Yishuv (Jewish society).
3) The one army that could have posed a serious threat to the Haganah was the Jordanian legion, but King Abdullah had a secret deal with the Zionist leadership, and as a result took over the West Bank largely unopposed. The deal however did not cover Jerusalem, and this was where the most serious fighting of 1948 took place.
4) A large number of Palestinian Arabs fled the war, as many refugees often flee wars, expecting to return at the end of the hostilities. A large number of Arabs were forcibly expelled by Israeli forces, in some cases with direct orders from the Zionist leadership.
5) In the latter stages of the war and in the early years of the state of Israel, the Zionist leadership consistently blocked all attempts by refugees to return to their homes, even blocking ‘internal refugees’ those who remained within the borders of the state of Israel. Empty villages were systematically destroyed, or resettled with Jewish immigrants.
Readers may dispute certain aspects of this narrative, despite the fact that there is a wide and growing consensus on this issue. Critiques need to happen on the basis of evidence and scholarship, not mythology, propaganda and hyperbole. I do not wish to draw conclusions from this evidence on the culpability of Zionism or over the Palestinian right of return. Rather I think Jews have to engage with these events, and with the Palestinian narrative. At present, given the evidence of the UK Jewish Press we are totally ignoring it, preferring to wallow in a sea of blinkered, retrograde nationalism. Not everything surrounding the birth of the State of Israel is clear. Some things remain to be established. But one thing is clear; its not like we learnt it in cheder.
Benny Morris The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited
Ilan Pappe The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine
Nur Masalha Expulsion of the Palestinians: The Concept of “Transfer” in Zionist Political Thought
Nur Masalha A Critique on Benny Morris in The Israel/Palestine Question ed. Pappe
Walid Khalidi All That Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948.