Conflict centres on the myths of 1948

May 19, 2011
Sarah Benton
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Back to 1948

May 17 2011
Jeremiah Haber

Most Jews of my generation (and younger) were raised with certain myths about the founding of the State of Israel that we now know bear no resemblance to the historical events. Even reciting these myths are embarrassing for the moderately informed. And we now also know that, even granting counterfactually that some of the myths were true, it wouldn’t help the Israel apologist, since the conclusions drawn from the myths are patently invalid.
For example, no educated person seriously accepts the proposition today that the Palestinian refugee problem was created when Arab states declared war on the State of Israel in 1948. That is because it is common and uncontroversial knowledge that half of the Palestinians left in months before the war was declared, when both sides were engaged in riots and skirmishes against each other. No historian, not even Ephraim Karsh, to my knowledge, denies that. But still you will read folks like, say, the Prime Minister of Israel, or, Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, who repeat this narrishkeit about the Arab invasion of Israel being the cause of the refugee problem. I am not talking about who is responsible for the exodus. I am simply talking about the fact of the exodus.
Jeffrey Goldberg wrote today a particularly scurrilous piece in response to Acting President Mahmoud Abbas’s op-ed in the New York Times. Abbas had written
Sixty-three years ago, a 13-year-old Palestinian boy was forced to leave his home in the Galilean city of Safed and flee with his family to Syria.
Goldberg called that a “falsification” because one could understand Abbas to be claiming that he was forced to leave by Israeli soldiers pointing a gun at him, or that Israeli soldiers had it in for 13-year old Palestinian boys. But Mahmoud Abbas himself had said that his family left with many others because they feared reprisals from the Zionists. Goldberg calls this “self-exile”, rather than being forced to leave home. To drive the point home, his piece asks the question, “Was Mahmoud Abbas’ Family Expelled from Palestine?” (Since Abbas never claimed that it was, that is the quintessential straw man.)
So my question for Goldberg is simple: When Jews emigrated from Germany after Kristallnacht, was that “self-exile”? When Jews fled Poland during the Holocaust weeks in advance of the German arriving, was that “self-exile”? When Jews left Palestine in 1947 because they were afraid of Arab reprisals, was that “self-exile”? Or would he say they were forced to leave because of the circumstances.
What is a myth? A myth is a construction of beliefs that allows one to make sense of reality, even though those beliefs themselves are not true, or only part of the picture. For the uninformed Israel supporter, the myth of Israel’s founding is brief and simple. With the adoption of the UN’s Partition Proposal in 1947, the world recognized the historic rights of the Jews to a state in Palestine. The Zionists were willing to agree to a historic compromise that they would clearly honor; the Arabs were not. Instead, the Arabs initiated a war, called upon the Palestinian refugees to leave, so that the Jews could be thrown into the sea. They lost the war. So much the worse for them. Let’s move on.
Now, some of the above is arguably true; all of it is arguably false – but in any event, it is only a partial version of the events. It deliberately leaves out inconvenient truths, and fails to imply the conclusions that that apologists wish to draw from it.
The 1947 UN Partition Proposal did not recognize the historical rights of the Jews to a state; rather, it recognized the historical mess that Palestine had become, and so the UN called for its partition into two states, with an economic union of the two, and which excluded Jerusalem from either people’s sovereignty. The Zionists – to be precise, Ben-Gurion and Co. — accepted partition on paper, and either planned, or acquiesced to the partition of Palestine between Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, not the Palestinian Arabs. Even if the acceptance of partition was more than tactical, it was abandoned at the first possible moment by the Zionists, and not because of Arab resistance – but because the Zionists had the upper hand, and they believed (as many do now) that all of Eretz Yisrael belonged to them. In any event, as soon as Arab rioting broke out following the UN acceptance of partition – rioting that quieted down, and then flared up again, with both sides engaging in illegal terrorist activity against the other and against the British, — implementation of the partition plan was put on ice, and UN Trusteeship, and the deferral of the establishment of the states, was put on the table. The Arabs accepted trusteeship (for a limited time); the Zionists rejected it. (This is never mentioned by the mythologizers.)
During this period, the exodus of Palestinians (and Jews, for that matter, but there were fewer of them) continued apace. By the time Israel declared independence partition had become a dead letter, and both the Zionists and the Arab states were ready to continue the land grab. During the interim period between November 1947 and May 1948, Arab states made clear their intention to go to war to protect Palestine (some had their own territorial ambitions) should Israel declare independence. When they did, they were not singled-out and condemned for doing so. Each side blamed the other for the ensuing war; the world blamed both sides equally.
When Israel advocates say, “The Arabs wrongly initiated the war, and hence they should suffer the consequence of defeat,” they are arguably wrong on the premise, and demonstrably wrong on the conclusion. For the declaration of the State of Israel could itself be seen as the casus belli; the fact remains that no international organization or state blamed the Arab states for wrongly initiating the war. But even if we grant that this was an act of aggression, and even granting, against the Fourth Geneva Convention, that territory acquired in a defensive war need not be returned to the aggressor, that would be the case if the territory belonged to the aggressor. But the Arab residents of Palestine were viewed only by the Zionists as the aggressors. Only on the racist premise that all Arabs are responsible for the acts of some, will that work.
And reflect – even if the Arabs were considered the aggressors, like, say, the Japanese, and even if the Zionists were allowed to keep the territory acquired in war — would this justify the large-scale displacement of their non-combatants – or even combattants, after the hostilities cease? Would it have been justified for the US to seize Japan and not let Japanese refugees return? Under what international norm?
It is at this point in the argument that the educated, informed, liberal Zionist, turns and says, “Look. Let’s not go back to 1948. If we do that, we will never get anywhere. That’s old history.”
That move is fundamental to the identity of the liberal or progressive Zionist. They can’t and don’t want to go back to 1948. They want to change the subject. And why not? Because they are educated enough not to buy the lukshen of the hasbaritas, progressive enough not to seem themselves as immoral dispossessors, and Zionist enough not to want to open the can of worms of 1948.
Thanks to Ehud Barak, Bibi Netanyahu, and Avigdor Lieberman, we have now gone back to 1948.
And, you know what? That may very well be a good thing.

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