Posted by: sean | May 5, 2008

Nakba denial

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.



  1. I don’t see the point in denying that the Nakba took place. As a Zionist Israeli I am well aware of the fact that the creation of Israel was a tragedy for the Palestinians.

    Still, there’s a difference between accepting the fact that there was a Nakba and accepting full and sole responsibility for it, or agreeing to the return of refugees (most of whom were born after 1948 and thus were never actually inside what is now Israel).

  2. Thanks for your comment, Emmanuel. Frankly, I understand the impulse to ignore the original sins of one’s nation, but I believe that it’s up to scholars to challenge foundational myths, particularly when those myths continue to have catastrophic consequences today.

    As for “full and sole” responsibility, I’m not sure who else might shoulder that responsibility or pay for it. Hannah Arendt once talked about the musical chairs game of shuffling refugees around to resolve one national question only to create a whole new set of refugees — robbing Peter to pay Paul, as it were.

    Many Palestinian refugees have managed to do well for themselves in the West or the Gulf or Jordan and only want recognition of what was done to them, which might come in the form of financial reparations or even in an official apology. Others continue to live in squalid camps, either in Palestine or in surrounding countries. For them, the right of return isn’t just rhetorical.

    They have very few rights and no nationality. The way they have been treated (particularly in Lebanon) is scandalous and shameful, but that doesn’t mean that the Arab states were in any way responsible for their expulsion from their lands in the first place.

    The fact that many Palestinian refugees were born after the Nakba is neither here nor there and doesn’t change their miserable situation one iota. A similar case can be found in the Tutsi refugees who fled Rwanda in 1959 after the “Hutu Revolution” that took place, overturning Tutsi privilege when the Belgians left the country. Many of the Rwandan diaspora that now rule the country either grew up in or were born in Uganda, where some of them actually attained positions of power in the government. But that didn’t mean that they were any less Rwandan or had any less of a right to return to their ancestral homes. What of Tibetans born in India, have they no right to return to Tibet? Or what about Jews? The last of the remnant are dying out, does that mean that their children, born in Israel, shouldn’t have the right to European citizenship, which entails the right to permanently resettle in Poland or Germany or now anywhere in the EU?

    For the record, I’m for enacting legislation that offers reparations to and allows for the right of return for all Jews who were forced from Arab lands between 1949-51.

  3. I somehow forgot to mention the most important point: Zionism, insofar as it aims at a Jewish “return” to Palestine, is completely delegitimatized by the idea that a refugee has to have been born in a place to return to it. If there is a statute of limitations on a diaspora’s return, then Zionism has no leg to stand on. Ben-Gurion (né Green), after all, was born in Poland not Palestine.

  4. Israel may be responsible for the creation of the refugee problem, but Arab countries are as responsible as Israel for continued refugee status. Refugees in Arab countries, or even in Gaza and the West Bank, have been discouraged (or rather prevented) from rebuilding their lives because of the dream of return.

    Palestinians born in Lebanon or Syria are still refugees because they are stateless. Palestinians born in places that have granted them citizenship, such as the United States or Canada, are not refugees.

    In a final settlement I think Israel should agree to pay reparations and/or to apologize. We can’t accept the right of return into Israel proper, only into the Palestinian state.

    I don’t see the right of return as a natural right for anyone. It is a right created by states as part of their immigration policy (even if they claim it isn’t immigration but a return to an ancestral homeland). The Jews don’t have any more of a natural right to come to Israel than Palestinians. The State of Israel, though, has every right to set its own immigration policy which grants this right to Jews and not to others. Same goes to all other countries.

    Palestinians have a right to want to return and a right to want to establish a state which would grant the actual right of return. Before 1948, Zionism was in the same situation. Palestinians don’t have any real chances of achieving their dreams of returning to all of pre-1948 Palestine, so unless they want the current situation to persist they have to accept that they can return only to the West Bank and Gaza, and see Israel proper only as tourists.

  5. Two things: First, I think it’s only a matter of time before Israel is no longer a Jewish state, whether this comes from repatriating refugees or the natural birthrate of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship is beside the point. The main question Israelis have to ask themselves is whether they’d rather look like South Africa or Zimbabwe afterwards. How Israeli Jews deal wit the inevitability of becoming a minority will decide that question. If Israelis and Palestinians establish a secular and democratic government that protects the rights of all religions and ethnicities, Israel/Palestine could take its place as the leader of the region, at peace with its neighbors as a cultural, religious and economic powerhouse. If Israelis continue to make Palestinians fight a long dirty war for their land and rights, relations between Arab and Jew are likely to be much less copacetic.

    Second: If you don’t believe in the right of return, then you don’t believe in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In this case, might makes rights, and military force is the main determinate of “rights,” which would actually be more accurately described as power than rights, since they are contingent on being backed up by force. If that is the case, and might truly makes right, then the Palestinian refugees should continue fighting until they can forcefully assert their ability to return to their ancestral villages, just as Zionists created “facts on the ground” in 1948 and 1967. And in doing so, they’d be justified in creating their own facts on the ground to ensure that they don’t lose Palestine a second time. Who, after all, would accept only being able to visit their home as a tourist?

    Personally, I find this state of affairs depressing and uncivilized, as believe that humanity’s future is in societies based on the rule of law in which certain rights are inalienable and individuals have recourse to the law to combat injustice instead of reverting to violence. Believing in the sort of Hobbesian universe you paint seems short-sighted as a Jewish Israeli, for time, numbers and demographics are not on your side, even if brute military force is for time being.

  6. According to recent demographic studies there is no reason to believe that Arabs will become a majority in the next few decades. Their percentage will rise only slightly. It would be illogical for Jewish Israelis to agree to become a minority now by agreeing to the right of return out of fear that one day in the distant future the Palestinians might become a majority naturally.

    I don’t see a one-state/right of return solution as peaceful at all. Two groups who are each other’s enemies and have hated each other for decades will suddenly live in peace and coexistence in one country? “Isratine” would erupt into civil war in no time.

    Israel within the 1948 borders should grant full equality to its Arab citizens, but all other Palestinians should live in the State of Palestine or elsewhere, not inside Israel. Only that would be a peaceful solution. This solution is a fair one. If Palestinians keep demanding and fighting for more – that isn’t Israel’s fault.

    The Universal Declaration of Human Rights doesn’t mention the right of return.

    I’m not talking about all rights, only this particular right. It is a right granted by political power. It’s no more a “might makes right” situation than the setting of any country’s immigration policy.

    The Palestinians need to decide what is more important – regaining control of all the country, even if it means decades more of suffering for themselves, or rebuilding their lives by accepting a two state solution.

    A vast majority of Palestinian villages and homes within Israel are long gone. The 60-year old keys many Palestinians still keep don’t fit into any existing keyholes. This isn’t the same place it was before the establishment of Israel. Prof. Sari Nusseibeh has said that Palestinians not only dream of geographical return, but also to go back to the pre-1948 situation, which is impossible.

    I don’t get what’s Hobbesian about my world view. I believe in peace and justice, but my solution is different than yours. Views like yours have the same effect on me as my views have on you. I find it depressing that the Arab world doesn’t seem to be willing to accept the two-state solution, which is the best solution for both sides.

  7. I’ll address your comment in more depth later today, but for now, here’s article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

    Article 13.

    (1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.

    (2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

  8. They’ll be granted a right to return to their country – the State of Palestine (Gaza and the West Bank). Israel isn’t their country anymore.

    The 20th century has seen many population exchanges: India and Pakistan, Greece and Turkey, Germans kicked out of Czechoslovakia, etc. According to your reasoning there is a right of return in each of these cases. But no Greek ever claims a right to return to what is now Turkey, or vice versa.

  9. Emmanuel,
    this is not just a population transfer this is a systematic ethnic cleansing coupled with an apartheid system where by the state of Israel controls 5 million or so palestinians depriving them of their basic human rights, right of movement and right to live. It’s still expanding on the expense of stolen land, house demolitions and illegal land seizure. When a half of a state’s population are not considered citizens you can start comparing it to south africa, or zimbabwe …
    as for the right of return. How is it conceivable that a Jew who never saw the land of Palestine in his life has the right of return while a palestinian who was kicked from his own home and land doesn’t!!? I don’t understand, please explain.
    What Israelis do not understand is that they cannot get peace through bullying their neighbours and threatening them to submission. Peace has to have a compromise and as Israel is drifting, it seems it’s going towards zembabwe bonne voyage!!

  10. niz: Most other population exchanges in the past involved some kind of ethnic cleansing as well.

    There’s no appartheid in Israel. Within Israel itself there is discrimination which should cease, but the problem in the West Bank is a military occupation. That too is wrong and should be brought to an end through a peace treaty and the creation of a state, but it is not apartheid.

    How is it conceivable that a Jew who never saw the land of Palestine in his life has the right of return while a palestinian who was kicked from his own home and land doesn’t!!? I don’t understand, please explain.

    Israel has a right to set its immigration policy. It is as simple as that. When the State of Palestine will be created in the West Bank and Gaza it will set its immigration policy on its own and accept Palestinian refugees if it wishes.

    Peace has to have a compromise

    I agree. The problem is that what you are suggesting is not a compromise. Agreeing to every single demand of the Palestinians is not a compromise. Israel and the Palestinians both want to have all of what is now Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, but neither side can have it all to himself. The compromise is the two-state solution, with possible reparations for refugees.

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