I’ve been surprised in the last few weeks to see how much attention the Nakba is getting during the run up to the 60th anniversary of the catastrophe and the founding of the Jewish state. While interpretations differ, it has at least been getting mentions in publications like The New Yorker and the New York Times.
That said, I knew it was only a matter of time before something really reactionary and stupid came out in a magazine like Commentary. Well, Efraim Karsh offers up exactly what we needed in his “True Story” of what happened in 1948. Following his recent comments on the “Jordanian option,” I recently marveled how someone who is ostensibly a scholar of the region could be so out of touch with Arabs and the Arab political scene, but this latest piece takes the proverbial cake.
According to Karsh, before 1948, the Palestinians never had any problem with the idea of becoming a minority in their own land and otherwise would have been perfectly happy living as a second class majority in a Jewish state. In fact, Zionists wanted nothing more than all Arabs to stay in their homes and live happily ever after in a pastoral paradise. Unfortunately, the evil Jew-hating “Arab leaders” had to dash all these wonderful hopes and spur the Palestinians to war, despite the fact that they wanted nothing more than to live in a Jewish state. Why even Vladimir Jabotinsky wanted nothing more than peaceful Arab-Jewish coexistence: According to Karsh:
The simple fact is that the Zionist movement had always been amenable to the existence in the future Jewish state of a substantial Arab minority that would participate on an equal footing “throughout all sectors of the country’s public life.” The words are those of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founding father of the branch of Zionism that was the forebear of today’s Likud party. In a famous 1923 article, Jabotinsky voiced his readiness “to take an oath binding ourselves and our descendants that we shall never do anything contrary to the principle of equal rights, and that we shall never try to eject anyone.”
Eleven years later, Jabotinsky presided over the drafting of a constitution for Jewish Palestine. According to its provisions, Arabs and Jews were to share both the prerogatives and the duties of statehood, including most notably military and civil service. Hebrew and Arabic were to enjoy the same legal standing, and “in every cabinet where the prime minister is a Jew, the vice-premiership shall be offered to an Arab and vice-versa.”
It just so happens that this is the same Jabotinsky who thought that the Jewish state should encompass both sides of the Jordan and who in his famous essay, “The Iron Wall,” had this to say:
If [the reader] should attempt to seek but one instance of a country settled with the consent of those born there he will not succeed. The inhabitants (no matter whether they are civilized or savages) have always put up a stubborn fight.
…Any native people — its all the same whether they are civilized or savage — views their country as their national home, of which they will always be the complete masters. They will not voluntarily allow, not only a new master, but even a new partner. And so it is for the Arabs. Compromisers in our midst attempt to convince us that the Arabs are some kind of fools who can be tricked by a softened formulation of our goals, or a tribe of money grubbers who will abandon their birth right to Palestine for cultural and economic gains. I flatly reject this assessment of the Palestinian Arabs. Culturally they are 500 years behind us, spiritually they do not have our endurance or our strength of will, but this exhausts all of the internal differences. We can talk as much as we want about our good intentions; but they understand as well as we what is not good for them. They look upon Palestine with the same instinctive love and true fervor that any Aztec looked upon his Mexico or any Sioux looked upon his prairie. To think that the Arabs will voluntarily consent to the realization of Zionism in return for the cultural and economic benefits we can bestow on them is infantile. This childish fantasy of our “Arabo-philes” comes from some kind of contempt for the Arab people, of some kind of unfounded view of this race as a rabble ready to be bribed in order to sell out their homeland for a railroad network.
He goes on to say that no voluntary agreement with the Arabs is possible:
Thus we conclude that we cannot promise anything to the Arabs of the Land of Israel or the Arab countries. Their voluntary agreement is out of the question. Hence those who hold that an agreement with the natives is an essential condition for Zionism can now say “no” and depart from Zionism. Zionist colonization, even the most restricted, must either be terminated or carried out in defiance of the will of the native population. This colonization can, therefore, continue and develop only under the protection of a force independent of the local population — an iron wall which the native population cannot break through. This is, in toto, our policy towards the Arabs. To formulate it any other way would only be hypocrisy.
…All this does not mean that any kind of agreement is impossible, only a voluntary agreement is impossible. As long as there is a spark of hope that they can get rid of us, they will not sell these hopes, not for any kind of sweet words or tasty morsels, because they are not a rabble but a nation, perhaps somewhat tattered, but still living. A living people makes such enormous concessions on such fateful questions only when there is no hope left. Only when not a single breach is visible in the iron wall, only then do extreme groups lose their sway, and influence transfers to moderate groups. Only then would these moderate groups come to us with proposals for mutual concessions. And only then will moderates offer suggestions for compromise on practical questions like a guarantee against expulsion, or equality and national autonomy.
I am optimistic that they will indeed be granted satisfactory assurances and that both peoples, like good neighbors, can then live in peace. But the only path to such an agreement is the iron wall, that is to say the strengthening in Palestine of a government without any kind of Arab influence, that is to say one against which the Arabs will fight. In other words, for us the only path to an agreement in the future is an absolute refusal of any attempts at an agreement now.
This is what Jabotinsky thought of the Arabs, not just in Palestine but in Jordan as well. To the consternation of modern day Zionists, he saw the Zionist state in explicitly colonial terms, equating it with other European colonial endeavors.
Now I’ve got a certain respect for Zionists like Jabotinsky who call a spade a spade. What I don’t appreciate are scholars like Karsh who insist on whitewashing the creation of Israel to absolve the state of any wrong-doing. In his world, the Yishuv did nothing wrong; all blame for the problems of Arabs can be squarely placed at the feet of “Arab leaders.” He ignores the much more frank assertions of the Zionist leaders themselves, like Ben-Gurion who once asked:
Why should the Arabs make peace? If I was an Arab leader I would never make terms with Israel. That is natural: we have taken their country. Sure God promised it to us, but what does that matter to them? Our God is not theirs. We come from Israel, but two thousand years ago, and what is that to them? There has been antisemitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They only see one thing: we have come here and stolen their country.
In any case, Karsh disagrees with the scholarship done by Israeli “new historians” like Pappe, Morris and Shlaim, who all show that the old myths of Palestinians leaving their homes because of radio broadcasts sent out by their leaders are conveniently simplistic and just not true. While there is some disagreement as to whether the ethnic cleansing of Palestine was pre-planned and deliberate, ad-hoc and hasty or unintentional but finally welcome, the issue is ultimately beside the point when it comes to Palestinians’ right of return. Either you believe that one has the unalienable right to leave one’s country and return, or you don’t.