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The Nakba Obsession
The Palestinian national narrative is the biggest obstacle to peace in the Middle East.
A specter is haunting the prospective Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations—the specter of the Nakba. The literal meaning of the Arabic word is “disaster”; but in its current, expansive usage, it connotes a historical catastrophe inflicted on an innocent and blameless people (in this case, the Palestinians) by an overpowering outside force (international Zionism). The Nakba is the heart of the Palestinians’ backward-looking national narrative, which depicts the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 as the original sin that dispossessed the land’s native people. Every year, on the anniversary of Israel’s independence, more and more Palestinians (including Arab citizens of Israel) commemorate the Nakba with pageants that express longing for a lost paradise. Every year, the legend grows of the crimes committed against the Palestinians in 1948, crimes now routinely equated with the Holocaust. Echoing the Nakba narrative is an international coalition of leftists that celebrates the Palestinians as the quintessential Other, the last victims of Western racism and colonialism.
There is only one just compensation for the long history of suffering, say the Palestinians and their allies: turning the clock back to 1948. This would entail ending the “Zionist hegemony” and replacing it with a single, secular, democratic state shared by Arabs and Jews. All Palestinian refugees—not just those still alive of the hundreds of thousands who fled in 1948, but their millions of descendants as well—would be allowed to return to Jaffa, Haifa, the Galilee, and all the villages that Palestinian Arabs once occupied.
Such a step would mean suicide for Israel as a Jewish state, which is why Israel would never countenance it. At the very least, then, the Nakba narrative precludes Middle East peace. But it’s also, as it happens, a myth—a radical distortion of history.
If words have any meaning, it is certainly accurate to describe the outcome of the 1948 war as a catastrophe for the Palestinians. Between 600,000 and 700,000 men, women, and children—even more, depending on who is telling the story—left their homes. Palestinian civil society disintegrated. At the war’s end, the refugees dispersed to the Jordanian-occupied West Bank, the Egyptian-occupied Gaza Strip, and neighboring Arab countries. Many lived in tents, eking out a bare subsistence, and were then denied the right to return to their homes by the new State of Israel.
During the 1948 war and for many years afterward, the Western world—including the international Left—expressed hardly any moral outrage about the Palestinian refugees. This had nothing to do with Western racism or colonialism and much to do with recent history. The fighting in Palestine had broken out only two years after the end of the costliest military conflict ever, in which the victors exacted a terrible price on the losers. By that, I don’t mean the Nazi officials and their “willing executioners,” who received less punishment than they deserved, but the 11 million ethnic Germans living in Central and Eastern Europe—civilians all—who were expelled from their homes and force-marched to Germany by the Red Army, with help from the Czech and Polish governments and with the approval of Roosevelt and Churchill. Historians estimate that 2 million died on the way. Around the same time, the Indian subcontinent was divided into two new countries, India and Pakistan; millions of Hindus and Muslims moved from one to the other, and hundreds of thousands died in related violence. Against this background, the West was not likely to be troubled by the exodus of a little more than half a million Palestinians after a war launched by their own leaders.
In the 1940s, moreover, most of the international Left actually championed the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. It was widely noted that the new state would be led by self-proclaimed socialists. Statehood for the Jews was supported by the Soviet Union and by the Truman administration’s most progressive elements. The Palestinians were also compromised by the fact that their leader in 1948, Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, had been a Nazi collaborator during the war.
In fact, I. F. Stone, the most revered left-wing journalist of the day, was one of the most influential American advocates for the Zionist cause. I have in my possession a book by Stone called This Is Israel, distributed by Boni and Gaer, a major commercial publisher at the time. The book, based on Stone’s reporting during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, has become a collector’s item by virtue of the fact that Stone’s fans want to forget that it ever existed. Of the four adoring biographies of the great muckraker published in the last decade, only one even mentions that Stone wrote This Is Israel—and then shrugs off its significance in a few paragraphs.
It’s obvious why the book would be embarrassing to today’s leftist critics of Israel and Zionism. It opens with a foreword by Bartley Crum, the prominent American lawyer, businessman, and publisher of PM, the most widely read progressive newspaper of the 1940s. Crum evokes “the miracles [that the Israelis] have performed in peace and war. . . . They have built beautiful modern cities, such as Tel Aviv and Haifa on the edge of the wilderness. . . . They have set up a government which is a model of democracy.” His friend and star correspondent, Izzy Stone, has “set down what he knows and what he has seen, simply, truthfully and eloquently.” We Americans, Crum concludes, “can, through this book, warm ourselves in the glory of a free people who made a two thousand year dream come true in their own free land.”
Accompanied by famed war photographer Robert Capa’s iconic images of male and female Israeli soldiers, Stone’s text reads like a heroic epic. He writes of newborn Israel as a “tiny bridgehead” of 650,000 up against 30 million Arabs and 300 million Muslims and argues that Israel’s “precarious borders,” created by the United Nations’ November 1947 partition resolution, are almost indefensible. “Arab leaders made no secret of their intentions,” Stone writes, and then quotes the head of the Arab League, Abdul Rahman Azzam: “This war will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongol massacres and the Crusades.”
Palestinian leaders reminded Stone of the fascists he had fought with his pen since the Spanish Civil War. He ticks off the names of several Nazi collaborators prominent among the Arab military units that poured into Palestine after passage of the UN’s resolution. In addition to the grand mufti, they included the head of the Arab Liberation Army, Fawzi el-Kaukji, who took part in the fascist revolt against the British in Iraq in 1940 and then escaped to Berlin, where he recruited Balkan Muslims for the Wehrmacht. Another Palestinian military commander, Sheik Hassan Bey Salameh, was a “former staff officer under Rommel,” Stone writes. “Salameh had last appeared in Palestine in 1944 when he was dropped as a Reichswehr major for sabotage duties.” For good measure, Stone adds, “German Nazis, Polish reactionaries, Yugoslav Chetniks, and Bosnian Moslems flocked [into Palestine] for the war against the Jews.”
And how does Stone explain the war’s surprising outcome and the sudden exodus of the Palestinian Arabs? “Ill-armed, outnumbered, however desperate their circumstances, the Jews stood fast.” The Palestinians, by contrast, began to run away almost as soon as the fighting began. “First the wealthiest families went,” Stone recounts. “While the Arab guerrillas were moving in, the Arab civilian population was moving out.” Stone blames the grand mufti for giving explicit orders to the Palestinians to abandon Haifa, which had the largest Arab community of any city assigned to the Jewish state under the UN’s partition plan.
What is most revealing about the book is the issue that Stone does not write about: the fate of the refugees after their exodus. Stone undoubtedly shared the conventional wisdom at the time: that wars inevitably produced refugees and that the problem was best handled by resettlement in the countries to which those refugees moved. Stone surely expected that the Arab countries to which the Palestinian refugees had moved would eventually absorb them as full citizens. That outcome wouldn’t be perfect justice, but it would limit Palestinian suffering and open the doors to a reasonable and permanent settlement of the conflict. Stone also knew that Israel was in the process of absorbing an almost equal number of impoverished Jewish refugees from the Arab countries, most of whom had been forced out of their homes and lost all their property in places where they had lived for hundreds of years.
Stone could never have foreseen that for the next 62 years, the Palestinians would remain in those terrible refugee camps—not just in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip but in Lebanon, Syria, and present-day Jordan as well. Nor could Stone have imagined that not one Arab country would move to absorb the refugees and offer them citizenship, or that the Palestinians’ leaders would insist on keeping the refugees locked up in the camps for the purpose of dramatizing their Nakba narrative.
Stone’s reporting on the 1948 war has turned out to be a pretty decent “first rough draft of history,” to quote publisher Philip Graham’s definition of journalism. But that’s a judgment that Stone himself discarded, as the Left gradually abandoned Israel over the next 30 years and accepted the Palestinians’ portrayal of their nakba as the Nakba—a capitalized instance of world-historical evil.
In Stone’s later writing about the Arab-Israeli conflict, he was at pains to forget what he had said in This Is Israel. Moving in lockstep with the Left, he had turned into a scathing critic of Israel by 1967, castigating the Zionists for “moral myopia” and lack of compassion in The New York Review of Books. His turnabout was so complete that by 1979, the West’s foremost champion of the Palestinians, Edward Said, paid homage to Stone and to Noam Chomsky as two of the few Jewish intellectuals who had “tried to see what Zionism did to the Palestinians not just once in 1948, but over the years.” The Columbia University scholar obviously didn’t know about, or didn’t want to know about, This Is Israel.
Revisionist historiography also appeared to nullify Stone’s earlier journalism. Starting in the mid-1980s, a group of self-styled “new historians” in Israel began debunking (or to use their favorite term, “deconstructing”) the official “Zionist narrative” about the 1948 war and the foundation of the state. The most influential of the revisionist historians was Benny Morris, whose 1987 book The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem became an international sensation. Using a trove of documents in the Israeli state archives, Morris showed that not all the Palestinian refugees fled their homes in panic or were ordered out by their leaders. For example, during fierce battles between Israeli and Arab forces around the strategic towns of Lydda and Ramla, the Israelis expelled thousands of Arab residents and put them on the road to the West Bank. Morris also presented documented cases of atrocities by some Israeli soldiers and revealed that David Ben-Gurion and other Zionist leaders had discussed the feasibility of “transferring” Arabs out of the areas assigned to the Jewish state by the UN.
Yet unlike most of his left-wing revisionist colleagues, Morris asserted that the Palestinian calamity and the refugee problem were “born of war, not by design.” Morris was—and is—a committed Zionist of the Left. He believed that his work as a truth-telling historian might have a healing effect, encouraging Palestinian intellectuals to own up to their own side’s mistakes and crimes. The process might lead to some reconciliation, perhaps even to peace. But Morris was shocked when Palestinian leaders launched the second intifada, with its campaign of suicide bombings, just as President Clinton offered them a generous two-state solution at Camp David. Morris was also dismayed to discover that his scholarship on the 1948 war was being used by Palestinian activists and Western leftist academics to build up the Nakba myth. In a 2008 letter to the Irish Times, he wrote:
Israel-haters are fond of citing—and more often, mis-citing—my work in support of their arguments. Let me offer some corrections. . . . In defiance of the will of the international community, as embodied in the UN General Assembly Resolution of November 29th, 1947, [the Palestinians] launched hostilities against the Jewish community in Palestine in the hope of aborting the emergence of the Jewish state and perhaps destroying that community. But they lost; and one of the results was the displacement of 700,000 of them from their homes. . . . On the local level, in dozens of localities around Palestine, Arab leaders advised or ordered the evacuation of women and children or whole communities. . . .
Most of Palestine’s 700,000 “refugees” fled their homes because of the flail of war (and in the expectation that they would shortly return to their homes on the backs of victorious Arab invaders). But it is also true that there were several dozen sites, including Lydda and Ramla, from which Arab communities were expelled by Jewish troops.
The displacement of the 700,000 Arabs who became “refugees”—and I put the term in inverted commas, as two-thirds of them were displaced from one part of Palestine to another and not from their country (which is the usual definition of a refugee)—was not a “racist crime” . . . but the result of a national conflict and a war, with religious overtones, from the Muslim perspective, launched by the Arabs themselves.
Coming from the dean of Israeli revisionist historians, this was a significant rejection of the Nakba narrative and, incidentally, an endorsement of Stone’s forgotten book.
Earlier this year, another pathbreaking work of historical scholarship appeared that, if facts mattered at all in this debate, would put the final nail in the coffin of the Nakba myth. The book is Palestine Betrayed, by Efraim Karsh, head of the Middle East program at King’s College London. Karsh has delved deeper into the British and Israeli archives—and some Arab ones—than any previous historian of the period. He deftly uses this new material to seal the case that the Nakba was, to a large extent, brought on by the Palestinians’ own leaders.
For example, using detailed notes kept by key players in Haifa, Karsh provides a poignant description of an April 1948 meeting attended by Haifa’s Arab officials, officers of the nascent Israeli military, Mayor Shabtai Levy, and Major General Hugh Stockwell, the British military commander of Haifa. Levy, in tears, begged the Arab notables, some of whom were his personal friends, to tell their people to stay in their homes and promised that no harm would befall them. The Zionists desperately wanted the Arabs of Haifa to stay put in order to show that their new state would treat its minorities well. However, exactly as Stone reported in This Is Israel, the Arab leaders told Levy that they had been ordered out and even threatened by the Arab Higher Committee, chaired by the grand mufti from his exile in Cairo. Karsh quotes the hardly pro-Zionist Stockwell as telling the Arab leaders, “You have made a foolish decision.”
In describing the battle for Jaffa, the Arab city adjoining Tel Aviv, Karsh uses British military archives to show that the Israelis again promised the Arabs that they could stay if they laid down their arms. But the mufti’s orders again forbade it. In retrospect, it is clear that the mufti wanted the Arabs of Haifa and Jaffa to leave because he feared not that they would be in danger but that their remaining would provide greater legitimacy to the fledgling Jewish state.
Unfortunately, no amount of documentation and evidence about what really happened in 1948 will puncture the Nakba narrative. The tale of dispossession has been institutionalized now, an essential part of the Palestinians’ armament for what they see as the long struggle ahead. It has become the moral basis for their insistence on the refugees’ right to return to Israel, which in turn leads them to reject one reasonable two-state peace plan after another. In the meantime, the more radical Palestinians continue to insist that the only balm for the Nakba is the complete undoing of the historical crime of Zionism—either eliminating Israel or submerging it into a secular democratic state called Palestine. (The proposal is hard to take seriously from adherents of a religion and a culture that abjure secularism and allow little democracy.)
Nor will the facts about 1948 impress the European and American leftists who are part of the international Nakba coalition. The Nakba narrative of Zionism as a movement of white colonial oppressors victimizing innocent Palestinians is strengthened by radical modes of thought now dominant in the Western academy. Postmodernists and postcolonialists have adapted Henry Ford’s adage that “history is bunk” to their own political purposes. According to the radical professors, there is no factual or empirical history that we can trust—only competing “narratives.” For example, there is the dominant establishment narrative of American history, and then there is the counter-narrative, written by professors like the late Howard Zinn, which speaks for neglected and forgotten Americans. Just so, the Palestinian counter-narrative of the Nakba can now replace the old, discredited Zionist narrative, regardless of actual historical facts. And thanks to what the French writer Pascal Bruckner has called the Western intelligentsia’s new “tyranny of guilt”—a self-effacement that forbids critical inquiry into the historical narratives of those national movements granted the sanctified status of “oppressed”—the Nakba narrative cannot even be challenged.
This makes for a significant subculture in the West devoted to the delegitimization of Israel and the Zionist idea. To leftists, for whom Israel is now permanently on trial, Stone’s 1948 love song to Zionism has conveniently been disappeared, just as Trotsky was once disappeared by the Soviet Union and its Western supporters (of whom, let us not forget, Stone was one). Thus Tony Judt can write in The New York Review of Books—the same prestigious journal in which Stone began publishing his reconsiderations of Zionism—that Israel is, after all, just an “anachronism” and a historical blunder.
Several years ago, I briefly visited the largest refugee camp in the West Bank: Balata, inside the city of Nablus. Many of the camp’s approximately 20,000 residents are the children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren of the Arab citizens of Jaffa who fled their homes in early 1948.
For half a century, the United Nations has administered Balata as a quasi-apartheid welfare ghetto. The Palestinian Authority does not consider the residents of Balata citizens of Palestine; they do not vote on municipal issues, and they receive no PA funding for roads or sanitation. The refugee children—though after 60 years, calling young children “refugees” is absurd—go to separate schools run by UNRWA, the UN’s refugee-relief agency. The “refugees” are crammed into an area of approximately one square kilometer, and municipal officials prohibit them from building outside the camp’s official boundaries, making living conditions ever more cramped as the camp’s population grows. In a building called the Jaffa Cultural Center—financed by the UN, which means our tax dollars—Balata’s young people are undoubtedly nurtured on the myth that someday soon they will return in triumph to their ancestors’ homes by the Mediterranean Sea.
In Balata, history has come full circle. During the 1948 war, Palestinian leaders like Haj Amin al-Husseini insisted that the Arab citizens of Haifa and Jaffa had to leave, lest they help legitimize the Jewish state. Now, the descendants of those citizens are locked up in places like Balata and prohibited from resettling in the Palestinian-administered West Bank—again, lest they help legitimize the Jewish state, this time by removing the Palestinians’ chief complaint. Yet there is a certain perverse logic at work here. For if Israel and the Palestinians ever managed to hammer out the draft of a peace treaty, Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, would have to go to Balata and explain to its residents that their leaders have been lying to them for 60 years and that they are not going back to Jaffa. Which, to state the obvious again, is one of the main reasons that there has been no peace treaty.