Supporters of Israel Should Study the Nakba; Arabs Should Study the Holocaust

Roger Cohen, NYT, “Israel’s Bloody Status Quo”: “Jews should study the Nakba. Arabs should study the Holocaust. That might be a first step toward two-state coexistence.”

Much has been made in the West about Arabs who deny the Holocaust, and the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day, on January 27, but I had never heard of Nakba Day (May 15) until I lived in the Middle East.

My American friend Bruce Johnson wrote what he learned at an early age about the formation of the state of Israel. “Nakba” is not a term commonly known in America: “If I understand it correctly, I see its premise as a falsification of history. The United Nations in 1948 proposed partition of the British Mandate with states of Israel and Palestine and an international status for Jerusalem. Under this plan no one would have been displaced. Israel accepted it. The Arabs did not. Immediately on the declaration of Israeli statehood the Arab Legion invaded and the poorly armed and vastly outnumbered nascent state had to fight for its survival. After Israel won the war those Arabs who chose to remain were offered citizenship and full civic rights including seats reserved for them in the Knesset.

“The borders the new state had after the 1948 ceasefire were virtually indefensible with a 12 – mile wide strip along the Mediterranean,  a real problem given Arab threats to fight again to destroy the state. Also the Old City of Jerusalem was completely in Arab hands and Israelis were not allowed in even as visitors to worship at their holy places. Meantime when the war was over King Abdullah of Transjordan took over the land that was meant to be a Palestinian state and instead incorporated it into the new Heshemite Kingdom of Jordan. In 1967 the Arabs again tried to destroy Israel. By winning the Six-Day War it finally secured defensible borders and access to the Western Wall of the Temple. Unlike their predecessors the Israelis permitted the other side continued access to their holy places.

“The displacement of Palestinians was not the result of the actions of Israel but of the unilateral rejection by the Arabs of the United Nations resolution which would have created a Palestinian state in 1948. The fascinating and even handed book O Jerusalem by two French reporters gives a very good account of the 1948 war and its background and aftermath.”

My response: O Jerusalem is a fine book, but it is a product of its time,  written in the late 1960s. The authors did not realize the full extent of the refugee problem, that at least 700,000 Palestinian refugees were created in 1947-48. Many were forced, often in terror or at gun point, to leave their homes and villages. Others fled voluntarily from war, with the belief that they would return when the conflict ended.

You can rightfully say that the Palestinian refugees were betrayed or victims of their own poor leadership, but at this point that is poor justification for continued “collective punishment” of what has become two million dispossessed, unrepresented people. You can also say that one great weakness of the Arabs as a people is that they have historically been greatly fragmented — by tribe (clan), tradition and geography.

Here are links (and some summaries) to 11 insightful articles on the Nakba:

1. For Israelis, an Anniversary. For Palestinians, a Nakba by Elias Khoury:

“These peasant farmers, who made up the majority of the Arab population of Palestine in 1948, did not discover that they had had a “nation” of their own until they lost it. They had been living in a historical continuity for hundreds of years, as a succession of invaders of different nationalities and ethnicities took control of their lands and communities. But they were astonished to discover that these new invaders did not wish to control the land in the manner of the former invaders; instead they wanted it emptied of its inhabitants….

“Were it not for the courageous voices of Israeli “new historians” like Ilan Pappé, the world would not have come to admit that a people had been expelled from their land in a comprehensive ethnic cleansing operation, given the name “Plan D” by Israelis…

“Israel’s continued occupation of the remaining portions of Palestine, in the West Bank and Gaza, has transformed the nakba from a historic incident to a daily reality, experienced by Palestinians through the invasive settlements, the wall of separation and the checkpoints that disconnect their lands and sever the links between them, making their lives a hell on earth.”

2. In a Huffington Post column titled “Independence and Nakba, Intertwined and Inseparable,” Avraham Burg, a leftist former Israeli lawmaker, offered as a parallel German acknowledgment of Holocaust horrors, citing an artist’s placement of “stumbling blocks” on sidewalks to “take note, at the entrances to houses, of those who left them never to return.”

3. Zochrot (Hebrew for remembering) is an Israeli organization that hopes to bring “awareness and recognition of the Nakba” to Jewish Israelis. It advocates the “right of return” for millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants. Many Palestinian documents were destroyed in 1947-48. In the last 30 years or so, a number of historians, journalists and volunteers have made conscientious attempts to collect oral histories and documents from Palestinians, Brits, Jordanians, Lebanonese, Syrians, and Israelis about the seminal period 1947-48.

Zochrot sponsored a trip in 2012 for 40 Israeli Jews and Arabs to the town of Lydda to examine the Nakba as it occurred there. Raja Shehadeh, a lawyer and writer living in Ramallah, published an account in the New York Times. He is the author of “Occupation Diaries,” “A Rift in Time: Travels with my Ottoman Uncle” and “Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape,” which won the Orwell Prize in 2008:

The Nakba, Then and Now, By . Many more Israeli veterans are now willing to speak about it. I wondered why. Maybe it’s because they’re aging and they want to unburden their consciences. Or maybe it’s because they think Israel is now so strong that they are in effect immune from prosecution for war crimes.

According to Pappe, some of these Israelis have come to feel betrayed: The country they fought to create is not the country they now live in.

If so, this is a disparity well worth examining. Understanding the gaps between past dreams and present realities would serve both Israelis and Palestinians well. Certainly, no common future can be built on a distortion of history.

4. Textbooks for Arab third graders in Israel now acknowledge the Nakba. The textbook states that “The Arabs call the war the Nakba, a war of catastrophe, loss and humiliation, and the Jews call it the Independence war.” It adds that, “some of the Palestinians fled and some were expelled following the War of Independence,” and that “many Arab-owned lands were confiscated.”

Author Rami G. Khouri opines: “Unfortunately, the official textbook for Jewish Israelis in the same grade does not offer this Arab view, but sticks to the Israeli version of 1948 history as a moment of Jewish valor and national rebirth. Yet the new Arabic text may be significant if it reflects an Israeli capacity to become more historically honest, and sensitive to the legitimate political rights of their Palestinian foes.”
“The facts of the Palestinian Nakba in 1948 are quite well documented now by Israeli, Arab and foreign historians. Something like 750,000 Palestinians (about half the population) was driven out of or fled their Palestinian homes and lands in 1948, for various reasons. Those refugees now number over 4.5 million.

“One of the biggest debates about 1948 is on motives, especially the Palestinian view that Zionist leaders and militias implemented a planned ethnic cleansing campaign to systematically drive out the Palestinians in order to make room for a Jewish state. Israelis argue that Arab leaders told the Palestinians to leave so that Arab armies could attack the Jewish forces, or that Jewish attacks on Arabs were only in self-defense.

“Much of this debate has been resolved by respected scholars. The most recent and complete treatment of this issue is a book by the Israeli historian and University of Haifa lecturer Ilan Pappe, entitled, appropriately, “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.”

“Using mostly Israeli official sources, he methodically recounts the entire process that started in the minds of pre-state Zionist leaders who knew they would have to forcibly expel the Palestinians to create a Jewish state in Palestine – given that well over 90 percent of the land was Palestinian in the early 20th Century, and by 1948, the Jewish minority in Palestine owned just 5.8 percent of the land. He describes in detail the planning before 1948 – including files on every Arab village and its inhabitants – which would allow the Jewish militias in 1947-48 to start attacking, terrorizing and driving out Palestinians as soon as the British mandate ended.

“Pappe goes through the details of Plan Dalet, “the blueprint for ethnic cleansing,” and shows how the Israeli forces worked systematically in every part of the land to attack, frighten and expel the Palestinians, in order to secure the land for Jewish colonies and settlers. The historical details he provides are chilling, and worthy of serious discussion to understand exactly what happened in 1947-48 (because the Jewish Zionist attacks against Arabs started well before the May 1948 end of the British mandate; the first Jewish militia attacks to terrorize the Palestinians into fleeing were in December 1947, against the Palestinian villages of Deir Ayyub and Beit Affa in the central plain).

“The main mission to drive out as many Palestinians as possible was formally approved by Jewish Zionist leaders on March 10, 1948. When it ended six months later, he says, some 800,000 Palestinians had been uprooted, 531 villages destroyed, and eleven urban neighborhoods in cities emptied of their inhabitants. Pappe concludes that the plan and its systematic implementation “was a clear-cut case of an ethnic cleansing operation, regarded under international law today as a crime against humanity.”

5. Benny Morris, the Israeli historian, in 2008 published  “1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War,” which documents how Israelis went on a campaign of ethnic cleansing to kill Palestinian refugees, whom they assumed were potential fighters against their War for Independence, then burned their homes. NYT review by David Margolick:

“The Palestinians had “watched in horror over the past 75 years as these aliens first trickled, then poured, into their homeland. Were he an Arab leader, David Ben-Gurion once confessed to the Zionist official Nahum Goldmann, he, too, would wage perpetual war with Israel. “Sure, God promised it to us, but what does that matter to them?” he asked. “There has been anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They only see one thing: We have come here and stolen their country….”

Matters took another turn in May 1948, when the British left, Israel declared statehood and the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq marched in. Again, for all their numerical superiority, the Arabs were ill-equipped, inexperienced, unprepared. Some Arab leaders knew they were in over their heads. But given the anger over the Jewish state on their streets and their own tenuous hold on power, not to invade was even more perilous.

“Within five and a half months, they were crushed, militarily and psychologically. But for international intervention, their defeat would have been still worse; the Egyptian army would have been annihilated. Only King Abdullah of Jordan, with the best (British-trained) army and limited objectives (not to destroy the Jewish state, but to annex the West Bank), got what he wanted. Meanwhile, Israel grew beyond the partition lines, gained more defensible borders and — by destroying Arab villages — further reduced the Palestinian population.

“The Israelis, Morris says, committed far more atrocities than the Arabs, but this was partly a function of success: they had far more opportunities.”

6. Jodi Rodoren of The New York Times in 2014 used a new iNakba app created by Zochrot to find scores of lost villages in Northern Israel and see how they look now compared to 1948.

7. In “The Iron Cage,” Palestinian author Rashid Khalidi in 2006 asked “why the Palestinians, unlike so many other peoples and tribes, have failed to achieve an independent state. ” To Mr. Khalidi’s credit, “the answers are not very comforting to Palestinians, whose leaders have often made the wrong choices and have not yet built the institutional structures for statehood,” according to Steven Erlinger in The New York Times.

“why Palestinian society crumbled so rapidly in 1948, why there was not more concerted resistance to the process of dispossession, and why 750,000 people fled their homes in a few months.”

Mr. Khalidi has his own set of external culprits: British colonial masters like Lord Balfour, who refused to recognize the national rights of non-Jews; lavish financial support for Jewish immigration; the romanticism and cynicism of Arab leaders, themselves newly hatched from the colonial incubator.

Like Britain before it, he argues, the United States “consistently privileged the interests of the country’s Jewish population over those of its Arab residents,” helping Israel to push “Palestinians into an impossible corner, into an iron cage” from which, he suggests, a viable Palestinian state may not, in the end, emerge.

But he has plenty of blame for the Palestinians, too — for the rivalries among rich Palestinian families who competed to serve their colonial masters, for leaders who failed to see the impact of Hitler on Jewish immigration to Mandate Palestine, for those who mismanaged the 1936-39 Palestinian revolt against the British and especially for Yasir Arafat, who, along with his colleagues in Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organization, has a special place in Mr. Khalidi’s pantheon of Palestinian failure…


in 1948 there were 600,000 Jews to 1.4 million Arabs in British Palestine, and Arabs owned nearly 90 percent of all private land…

a Jewish homeland in Palestine meant that many of the pre-existing Arab majority, who owned most of the private land, had to be removed or “transferred,” a dilemma much discussed among mainstream Zionist leaders.

After the fighting halted in 1949, Israel controlled 78 percent of mandatory Palestine, compared with the 55 percent allotted under the United Nations partition plan.

These uncomfortable facts, long before Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 war, help to explain the anger, bluster and shame that have fueled so much of Palestinian politics…

While he is quite critical of the long Israeli occupation, supported by successive American governments, that has stunted Palestinian choices, Mr. Khalidi respects what the Israelis have built on the ashes of the Holocaust. Though he doesn’t quite put it this way, he would like his own people to emulate a little more and complain a little less.

Bruce Johnson responds:
You present your viewpoint very articulately. I would respond only that complaints,  well-founded or not, that the State of Israel intentionally tried to run Arabs off their land during the 1948 war miss the point that this would have been impossible had there been no war, and there would have been no war had the Arabs like the Israelis accepted the decision by the United Nations to create two states, Israel and Palestine. It is a bit disingenuous of Arabs to complain that they dislike the outcome of a war which occurred only because they started it. Of course I agree with you that Palestinians should not be held hostage by history and the sooner they can live in peace alongside the Israelis the better and the juster it will be for everyone.
My reply:

you write:

That assumes a “consent of the governed” relationship between often illiterate and certainly poorly educated Palestinian farmers and Arab leaders, who came to power based on inheritance, tribal leadership, colonial appointment, etc. Have Palestine’s leaders well represented their people? Hell no. 
Should today’s Palestinians be collectively punished for the poor judgment of their great-grandfathers, and in some cases, great-great grandfathers?