The Nakba According to Haaretz

Reality is always complex, and we do need to teach it in Israel’s schools - but not the unilateral Palestinian narrative that was adopted in the Haaretz editorial from April 29.

Shlomo Avineri
Shlomo Avineri
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Nakba commemoration rally in Galilee. May 6, 2014.
Nakba commemoration rally in Galilee. May 6, 2014. Credit: Gil Eliyahu
Shlomo Avineri
Shlomo Avineri

It’s been a long time since I read an editorial as confused as that of Haaretz from April 29 (“Recognize the Nakba”), with its blend of correct and just assertions together with half-truths and its stunning disregard of quite a few fundamental and indisputable historical facts.

On the one hand, the editorial, which on the surface seems insightful and sensitive, states: “The dispute over the degree of Israel’s responsibility for the emigration, expulsion and displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians during the War of Independence is a matter for historians.” What could be more fair than that? But one need not be a historian to know that there will continue to be more than one school of thought on this dispute, and that proposing that it be left to historians is actually an evasion — a refusal to deal, here and now, with indisputable historical truths. Even the cautious (not to say euphemistic) language of this sentence, which speaks of “emigration, expulsion and displacement” and avoids using the word “flee,” which was certainly part of the complex reality of Israel’s War of Independence, already demonstrates that the editorial does not exactly leave the decision to historians.

Some facts of history really ought not to be left to historians. The attempt to ignore them is morally flawed — and morality is, rightfully, the driving spirit behind the editorial. It is a fact — one that should not be “a matter for historians” — that in September 1939, Germany invaded Poland and not the other way around. It is a fact that on December 7, 1941, Japan attacked the United States and not vice versa. It is also true that what is called the Nakba is the result of a political decision by the Palestinian leadership and the Arab states to reject the United Nations partition resolution, to try to prevent its implementation by force and to attack the Jewish community in the Land of Israel before and after the state’s establishment. Of this, the editorial says nothing.

Thus, the context of the founding of the State of Israel is presented in the editorial exactly as it is presented in Palestinian and Arab political discourse — with total disregard of the political and historical reality in 1947 and 1948. Usually, Arab discourse simply never mentions the partition resolution, just as it never mentions the violent opposition to its implementation. Such denial from the Arab side might be understandable — but in Haaretz? In case anyone forgot or does not know, I suggest going to the newspaper’s archives and reading the headlines from November 30, 1947 and the daily news from the subsequent months. They are full of reports of Arab violence and the beginnings of armed Arab resistance to the establishment of the State of Israel, first by the Arab militias (the “gangs”) inside the country and later via the coordinated invasion by Arab armies when the British Mandate ended on May 15, 1948. The editorial says not a word about that, just as Arab discourse prefers simply to wipe those historical facts from memory.

After leaving the question of Israel’s responsibility to historians, the editorial goes on to state that the dispute over this responsibility “does not negate the fact that a national and human disaster befell the Palestinians.” A disaster? Was the Nakba an earthquake? A tornado? A tsunami? It was the tragic result of an Arab political decision to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state in the portion of the Land of Israel that had been under the British Mandate, just as the expulsion of 12 million ethnic Germans from Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary after 1945 was the tragic result of German aggression in 1939 and later in 1941, when it invaded the Soviet Union. In both cases, masses of innocent civilians paid the price of their leaders’ aggression. But if anyone today tried to describe the expulsion of millions of Germans from Eastern Europe as a “disaster” that had nothing to do with the Third Reich’s aggression, he would rightly be called a neo-Nazi.

To the credit of the Palestinian community, it should be said that the membership of the Palestinian Communist Party, which at the time numbered a few hundred, accepted the partition plan and opposed Arab aggression, in compliance with the position of the Soviet Union in those days. A few later joined the Israeli Communist Party. The members of the communist parties in Egypt and Iraq, most of whom were jailed by their countries’ regimes, did the same. But together these added up to a mere handful.

Ironically, the Haaretz editorial adopts the victimization narrative that is often typical of political discourse in Israel. Some groups in Israel and abroad are only too happy to depict the Jews and Israel only as victims. It seems that the writers of the editorial never liberated themselves from this traditional Jewish perception — only they chose to describe the Palestinians, not the Jews, as victims who bore no responsibility for their actions or those of their leaders.

One can certainly understand, but not justify, the general Palestinian and Arab opposition to the Zionist enterprise. That is the nature of national conflicts, although this opposition had more aspects of murder and terrorism than other national movements did. Palestinian terrorism against Jewish civilians is not the result of the post-1967 years of occupation. It was part of the 1929 riots and the Arab uprising of 1936. It is true that on the one hand, we cannot conclude from the grand mufti’s presence in Berlin during World War II that Arab opposition to Zionism was identical to Nazism. But on the other hand, to ignore this fact and leave it to historians is a distortion of history. It is part of the concrete historical consciousness of both Jews and Arabs.

Just as intelligent discussion of the Arab-Israeli conflict must free itself from the sense of self-righteousness that accompanies some of Zionist ideology, it must also free itself from the sense of victimization and of absolute rightness that accompanies Palestinian nationalism. Decisions and policies that had terrible ramifications in 1948 should not be left to historians either. S. Yizhar brought them to Israeli historical awareness — and into the Israeli school system — in his novel “Khirbet Khizeh” as far back as the War of Independence. Reality is always complex, and we do need to teach it in Israel’s schools — but not the unilateral Palestinian narrative that has been adopted by the editorial board of Haaretz.

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