Opinion |

This Also Happened in 1948

We must strive to write a history of the Israeli War of Independence that does not seek to blame, to score points and to divide the world into the absolute victimizers and the absolute victims – then we may begin to move forward.

Alon Confino
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A caravan of trucks lining a street in Jaffa as Arab residents pile their household goods aboard during evacuation of the city on May 7, 1948.
A caravan of trucks lining a street in Jaffa as Arab residents pile their household goods aboard during evacuation of the city on May 7, 1948.Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS
Alon Confino

Uri Avnery has a lot to his credit, including two important books on the events of 1948. In his opinion piece “What really happened in 1948” (Haaretz, February 23), he presents his views on what has become known as Israel’s War of Independence. This is an important article not because it recounts what happened, but rather because it shows us how he and many Jews remember what happened – whether they actually experienced the war, or remember it as part of the Israeli-Jewish collective memory. Clearly, a Palestinian refugee remembers “what really happened” in the war completely differently.

We remember the past in order to build our identity in the present. We do not remember it in order to examine its nature. Instead, we distort it and understand what happened in accordance with how we want it to have happened. One of the tasks of a historian is to tell the complex and rich story about the past.

The Arabs did not agree to the UN Partition Plan for Palestine, because it gave them 45 percent of the land even though they were two-thirds of the population, and because they saw it as an injustice to give part of their land to European settlers who had only just arrived. They understood that no matter what political shape Zionism would take, its aims came at the expense of the natives of the land.

It is clear that the Jews agreed to the plan: it gave them more or less what they wanted. And it is clear that the Arabs rejected it. The Jews had a wonderful national narrative, supported by the Book of Books. But you can also understand the Palestinian perspective – no one likes having his land taken away from him.

The argument that all Arabs rejected the partition plan and all Zionists agreed to it is not accurate. Important elements in the Zionist movement opposed the plan for various reasons. These included the Revisionist Movement and Lehi (the pre-state underground militia, also known as the Stern Gang); and the socialist movements Ahdut Ha’avoda (a precursor of today’s Labor Party) and Hashomer Hatzair (the socialist-Zionist youth movement). Among the Palestinians, certain local leaders in the large cities were prepared to compromise on the plan.

The decisive moment came when the Zionist political leadership headed by David Ben-Gurion accepted the plan, whereas the Palestinian leadership under the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, rejected it.

The claim that it was the Arabs who started the war is also not accurate. No one “started” the war. The days and weeks after the passage of the partition plan by the UN General Assembly on November 29, 1947, were marked by tension, with violent incidents initiated by both sides. The Arabs did not start a war, but rather a general strike.

In December 1947, many Jews and Arabs did not think a war had started, but instead saw the incidents as a continuation of the riots in the Arab Revolt of 1936-1939. Ben-Gurion planned for a war and saw it as an opportunity to enlarge the territory of the Jewish state that had been given by the UN, and to decrease the number of Arabs in it.

Picture showing the destruction in the captured Manshiah quarter in Jaffa, Palestine, May 8, 1948.Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

The clashes in December 1947 turned into a war at the beginning of 1948, in which the Jews had a large advantage in their social, economic, ideological and military organization. The Zionist population was small, but it was made up of a select group with a clear ideology (the goal was clear – Jewish independence – even if there were arguments about the path), revolutionary fervor and European patterns of social and military organization. The pre-state militias of the Haganah and the Palmach, established in 1941, constituted a trained, disciplined military force with a unified command. The Palmach, especially, was an elite group, similar to a commando unit, under a central command free of regional affiliation.

The Palestinians did not have a social or military organization like this, or a central and effective political leadership. They did not have trained military units or a central command body. The main question was not who were the many and who were the few, but rather, who was prepared for a war and who was not.

Of course, the subjective feelings of both the Jews and Palestinians is important to the understanding of events. In his writings, Avnery vividly describes the atmosphere in the country before and during the war; the anxiety; the yoke of the Holocaust; and the yearning for Jewish independence. The Palestinians, as documents from the period show, felt anxiety in face of lack of preparation for war and fearfulness of the Jewish strength. The sense of dread over what was to come enveloped everyone living in the land.

As the war progressed, it became clear that one of its characteristics was to turn the Jewish state into a country with as few Arabs in it as possible, either by expelling the Palestinians, physical destruction of their villages, looting and expropriating their property, or preventing their return.

There was no master plan for expelling Arabs, or an order from above. On the contrary, what is fascinating is that Mapai – the dominant party at the time and the main precursor of today’s Labor Party – did not conduct any comprehensive discussion on “the Arab question” during the war, except for one discussion in July 1948. This silence raises questions, since the expulsion of Arabs from Tiberias, Haifa, Jaffa, Beit She’an and Safed had already occurred two months earlier, that May.

How did this happen? There was no need for an explicit order to expel because the prevalent culture in the Yishuv (the Zionist population) included the ability to imagine the Land of Israel with fewer Arabs. There was a tacit understanding, and often explicit talk, about it being preferable to have fewer Arabs in the Hebrew state. In the Jewish state within the partitioned borders, there were 500,000 Jews and 450,00 Palestinians. On the night of November 29, after the celebrations died down, how did the Jews imagine their country with such a sizeable Arab minority in a democracy with universal suffrage? Did they really intend for all those Arabs to stay?

The image of a Land of Israel without Arabs was in the air before the 1948 war (along with other images) not as something inevitable, but rather as a possibility. The expulsions came from below – by the soldiers – and from above, in localized military orders and with the knowledge of the Yishuv leadership.

The overriding sense among those doing the expelling was that expulsion was in the air; that it had the backing of the political and military leadership; and that no soldier would be put on trial for such deeds. The expulsion of Palestinians was carried out precisely because the Jewish fighters understood the spirit of battle – what was allowed and what was forbidden. In certain instances of looting and massacre, the leadership sent out a message by way of an attempt to enforce discipline, and sometimes took disciplinary action against the transgressors. But as far as I know, no Jewish soldier was punished for expelling Palestinians.

Thus, image and deed were interwoven with massacres and the bombing of villages – like at Nasir al-Din before the conquest of Tiberias in April 1948 – and led to the flight of Palestinians fearing for their lives. After the establishment of the state, the expulsion was already obvious to everyone, in Lod, Ramle and during Operation Hiram in the Galilee. Ben-Gurion summed this up on October 21, 1948, when he stated: “The Arabs of the Land of Israel have only one function left to them – to run away.” In this, he was taking a page from the book of the history of mass expulsions and violence to create homogeneous national states in the modern world.

The imagined Jewish state of Israel with fewer Arabs also found expression in the phenomenon of looting – another of the characteristics of the 1948 war. There was looting right from the start of the war, and this sent a message both to the Palestinians and Jews that the former were not going to be coming back. Everything was plundered: furniture, rugs, pianos, dwellings, bank accounts, land. The looting was done both by individuals and the state. Even if the State of Israel did not want the Palestinians to return to their homes, what justified stealing their property? After all, the Jews have been highly sensitive about receiving compensation for the theft of Jewish property in World War ll.

Of course, the Arabs also plundered Jewish property and expelled Jews from places they controlled. Avnery, if I understand him correctly, depicts a kind of symmetry between the Jewish and Arab ethnic cleansing. But there is no symmetry. The Jews who were expelled were few in number, and their expulsion did not affect their future society and the history of the Jews and their state.

The expulsion of the Palestinians, the Nakba, destroyed an indigenous society that had lived on its land for many years. Its repercussions affect nearly every Palestinian, and the weakness of the Palestinians as a collective today is connected to ripping up the very fabric of their life in 1948. The repercussions of the Nakba – the denial of the Palestinians’ national rights – continue in many ways to this day. There is no symmetry: There is only a people that established its homeland and caused another people to lose its homeland.

We must strive to write a history of 1948 that does not aim to blame, to score points and to divide the world into the absolute victimizers and the absolute victims. Instead, we must write a history that acknowledges the complexity of human affairs, and that victimizer and victim alike can exist in one and the same individual. Holocaust survivors became expellees of Arabs; Arabs who denied the humanity of Jews became displaced persons.

It befits us to disconnect the history of 1948 from the discourse about the legitimacy of the State of Israel. I live here and do not feel that I need to receive endless legitimizing. The repression of the history of 1948, of the Nakba, all the symbols of the nation and the flag, Zionism and Holocaust studies in the education system beginning in kindergarten – all these are products of profound insecurity. We are here, and we can start looking the past straight in the eye – without fear and without repression.

The War of Independence and the Nakba came into the world intertwined. The year 1948 was when the Jews established a state of their own, one with its own language, culture and vitality. And, of course, this is a good thing. And it was also the year of the Nakba. Just as the rich history of the United States should not be understood only through the prism of the dispossession of Native Americans, the rich history of the State of Israel should not be understood only through the disinheritance of the Palestinians.

Jewish people should acknowledge the role their fellow Jews played in the Nakba, and the reason for this is simple: the Nakba is part of their history – an important part. Acknowledging the history of 1948, and taking responsibility for it, would be enriching and powerful. Without it, there is no hope for national rights and human rights for every inhabitant of this land.

Prof. Alon Confino is a historian. A Hebrew translation of his book “A World Without Jews: The Nazi Imagination from Persecution to Genocide” (Yale University Press, 2014) is forthcoming. He is currently working on a book about the 1948 war.

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