Not In My Name
Palestine: The Truth About 1948
This review of The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities (Simha Flapan; New York: Pantheon Books, 1987. 277 pp.) appeared in Againt the Current (#15; July/August 1988). It is re-posted here with permission of the publishers.
The views expressed in this essay do not necessarily reflect those of all the members of Not In My Name. We present it here as an important contribution to a collective process of our ongoing education and discussion. It is fair to say that, while some may find Professor Finkelstein's writings troubling, few consider his scholarship substandard. Almost none is distressed enough to label him an anti-Semite.
THE 1982 ISRAELI invasion of Lebanon prompted a spate of "revisionist" scholarship in both Israel and the United States purporting to radically question received truths about the Middle East conflict. In both cases, the findings were widely publicized and acclaimed in the media. But in spirit, methodology and consequences, they couldn't have been more different.
Israeli revisionism bears close comparison with that 1960s U.S. revisionist scholarship that, in the harsh light of U.S. aggression against Vietnam, questioned the mainstream consensus that the Soviet Union bore sole responsibility for the Cold War. In contrast, the closest analogue to the post-Lebanon U.S. scholarship on the Middle East is the German revisionism that aims to tidy up the national image and salve the national conscience, even to the point of alleging that the Nazi holocaust never happened.
The high (or low) point of U.S. revisionism was reached with the publication of Joan Peters' From Time Immemorial (New York, 1984). The ground was cleared for Peters' enterprise by such virtuoso performances as The New Republic editor-in-chief Martin Peretz's "eyewitness account" from the Lebanon battlefield, in which he reported: "Much of what you have read in the newspapers and news magazines about the war in Lebanon-and even more of what you have seen and heard on television-is simply not true" (Aug. 2, 982).
It is, after all, only a small step from claiming that what we had read, seen and heard about the devastation in Lebanon never happened to claiming that the Palestinian people never happened either. That, of course, was Peters' novel thesis, which catapulted her book into best-sellerdom and won her the unstinting praise of the entire spectrum of respectable opinion in the United States.
So felicitous was Peters' message that its authenticity was beside the point. For Peters had succeeded in exorcising the Palestine Question from the American Jewish conscience. If the Palestinian people were indeed a "fairy tale," as Peters enthusiast Barbara Tuchman opined in The New York Times, then not only the "history of the future" (Martin Peretz) but also our perception of the past and present would perforce drastically change.
If a Palestinian people does not and never did exist, then the casualties of the Lebanon War were wanton impostors, undeserving of human sympathy. (Indeed, to judge by Times Jerusalem correspondent Thomas Friedman, the non-Jewish souls that perished during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon do not even count as part of its "human cost.") [See note 1]
Further, if the Palestinian people are but a phantasm of the anti-Semitic imagination, then Israeli rejectionismthat is, its steadfast refusal to recognize the Palestinian right to self-determination, a right the Palestine Liberation Organization long ago conceded to Israel, is fully justified. Indeed, it ought to be encouraged.
Rejectionism and the Intellectuals
There is no irony in the American Jewish intelligentsia's enthusiastic embrace of Israeli rejectionism. So long as Israel refuses to negotiate a just peace with the Palestinians, it can only survive as a pariah state totally beholden to U.S. interests.
Translated into newspeak, this means that Israel's "special relationship" with the United States will endure. Elite Jewish intellectuals then need not worry themselves about the conflict of loyalties (real or imputed) that might ensue should there be a resolution of the Middle East conflict by which Israel assumes a less subservient posture, perhaps even favoring initiatives that support regional independence (a.k.a. "radical Arab nationalism").
It is precisely such an eventuality that fills much of the American Jewish intelligentsia with the fear of God. But there is even more at stake in Israeli intransigence. It is a fact now easily forgotten that, before the "Six-Day War" and the consolidation of the U.S.-Israeli alliance that attended it, the Jewish State occupied a much less central place in the consciousness of American Jewry.
Even less was Israel a preoccupation of Jewish intellectuals in the U.S. left. From the time of its first issue in 1954 until after the 1967 war, Dissent, for instance, devoted only two or three articles to the Middle East. In Alexander Bloom's richly detailed chronicle of the vicissitudes the (mostly Jewish) New York intellectuals, Prodigal Sons (New York, 1986), there is scarcely a mention of either Zionism or Israel, although his history does not leave off until roughly the late 1960s.
It was only after Israel had linked its fortunes unequivocally with the United States that the American Jewish intelligentsia, whether on the social-democratic left, in the U.S. political mainstream or even in the organized Jewish community, became fully comfortable with and passionately attached to Israel.
The reasons for this development are no doubt complex. Yet it was not least due to the fact that Israel was mow firmly in the U.S. orbit. Paradoxically, Zionism, which originated in the struggle against Jewish assimilationism, henceforth served the U.S. Jewish intelligentsia as the perfect vehicle for assimilation.
In effect, the "new" Israel emancipated these elite intellectuals from the "burdens" of being Jewish. "Jewishness" no longer connoted being alien to or subversive of Western culture. After 1967 Israel, and by implication Jewry, stood in the forefront of the struggle to defend the values "we all" held sacred. The Star of David against the blue and white backdrop symbolized not just Jewish martial prowess but Jewish martial prowess in the service of American civilization against the retrograde Arab hordes.
Israel, in its post-1967 incarnation, thus enabled elite American Jewish intellectuals to openly display, even flaunt, their ethnicity, without in the least compromising their "american"-ness. They could aspire to really "making it," yet without disowning their ethnic identity, an option which was as unappealing as it was imperfect.
Indeed, so long as Israel subserved U.S. interests, what could be more "American" than fervent identification as a Jew and, what supposedly followed therefrom, fervent "support" of Israelthat is, support of Israeli militarism? These Jewish-Americans could ride the Israeli warhorse to unhyphenated respectability, even into the inner sanctums of power, playing "power-broker" between the U.S. superpower (their "adopted" state) and the "strategic asset" in the Middle East (their "natural" state).
Those among them who, for whatever reasons, still preferred to be thought of as "left" could even revel in their roots and preserve their "radical" credentials by identifying with the Jewish State, yet without bearing stigma of being "anti-American" thus without bearing the stigma of being "extremist." Israel, after all, embodied "the democratic socialist hope of combining radical social change with political freedom" (Irving Howe).
Yet how could one support the "democratic socialist hope" that was Israel and not its preeminent benefactor? And, anyhow, the United States couldn't be all that reactionary if it supported "radical social change with political freedom abroad..." Theirs, then, was a "responsible" radicalism.
The Jewish intelligentsia in the United States has gotten so much mileage out of Israel's enthrallment to American strategic interests that the prospect, not at all chimeric, of a neutralist and relatively insignificant Jewish Statesay, a Middle East Luxembourgfills them at this point with almost as much dread as a Jewish state in collision with U.S. policy. For them, the best of all possible worlds is evidently one in which Israel stands fast in its rejectionism and peace is not at hand, for these are the sine qua nons of the "special relationship."
The above considerations would explain why Conor Cruise O'Brien's otherwise comical "saga of Israel and Zionism," The Siege (New York, 1986), was accorded such a rapturous reception in the United States. For here was a Gentile, no less, affirming in the wake of the Lebanon debacle not only that Israel was still without sin but, more especially, that there could never be peace in the Middle East, so deep-seated was the Gentile's hatred of the Jew.
In the face of this "apparently incurable disease," O'Brien suggests, Israel's only recourse was "vigilance" and "armed strength." As he succinctly concludes in the epilogue to his book, "What is not in sight is an end to the siege."
For elite Jewish intellectuals, this was cheerful news indeed: Israel as a Middle East Sparta and its concomitant, the "special relationship," with the United States, would survive all the gratuitous soul-searching and prattle about peace. Indeed, there could be no alternative.
New Israeli Voices
Noam Chomsky has written of the self-described "supporters of Israel" in the United States that they should more properly be called "supporters of the moral degeneration and ultimate destruction of Israel." For these mostly Jewish intellectuals, Israel's degeneration and eventual destruction is apparently a tolerable price to pay (assuming, of course, it doesn't culminate in a terminal nuclear war), given the interim rewards of power, prestige and privilege.
Not surprisingly, however, the priorities of many of Israel's intellectuals do not coincide with those of their counterparts in the United States. The moral degeneration and destruction of Israel are significant concerns. The invasion of Lebanon, revealing as it did just how far down that road the Jewish state had already traveled, thus elicited a rather different response from much of the Israeli intelligentsia.
There was a genuine longing for a way out of the present impasse andwhat naturally went hand in hand with thata searching reconsideration of Israel's past to uncover the historical roots of the impasse.
The result is a growing body of original and iconoclastic scholarship, of which Tom Segev's 1949The First Israelis (New York, 1986) and Dr. Benny Morris' research on the Palestinian exodus in 1948 (Middle Eastern Studies, January 1986, and Middle East Journal, Winter 1986) have probably been the high-water marks.
To this honorable list we must now add the late Simha Flapan's extraordinary study, The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities (New York, 1987). In some 250 densely argued pages, Flapan, former national secretary of Israel's Mapam party and the founder and former editor in chief of the Middle East monthly, New Outlook, demolishes the version of Israel's genesis enshrined in past scholarship and the popular media.
So well known is the conventional picture of Israel's birth that it scarcely warrants repeating:
Myths and Realities
It is Flapan's thesis that none of the above propositions can withstand serious historical scrutiny:
Such is the disconcertingindeed, startlingpicture Flapan reconstructs of Israel's birth. Given the voluminous Israeli archival sources he cites in defense of his interpretation of events, there is little reason to doubt its basic validity.
Still, it remains to account for the Zionist leadership's posture during those critical years. Before turning to that question, however, I should like to address briefly an even more basic one, namely, why is so little of this history known forty years after the fact?
To be sure, not everything Flapan writes comes as a revelation. Consider the Palestinian Arab exodus in 1948. Already in the early 1960s the basic outlines of the story had been convincingly pieced together by Erskine Childers and Walid Khalidi. That the official Israeli position was nonetheless still accepted as gospel until very recently testifies more to the political orientation of the Western information system and the racism of Western scholarship than to any inherent difficulty in discovering the truth. [See note 2]
Yet, Flapan's account of the Arabs' genuine willingness to compromise and of Israel's iron inflexibility does come as news. The reason why contains present day relevance.
Because the Arabs were unable to extract any meaningful concessions from the Zionist leadership, they were forced to publicly conceal their own openness to compromise. Otherwise, they would have stood accused to "betraying the Arab cause." Israel, in turn, exploited the Arabs' official posture to dissemble its own inflexibility and irredentism.
History is now repeating itself. The PLO leadership cannot openly and unequivocally avow its willingness to compromise unless it can extract some concessions from Israel. (That the PLO is willing to compromise is not in dispute among sane individuals.) Otherwise, it will leave itself open to the accusation of "national betrayal."
Israel, in turn, exploits the PLO's still equivocal (although less and less so) official posture, again to mask its own inflexibility and irredentism. Isn't this really the old Zionist strategy of "rely on the Mufti" in a new guise, namely: "Rely on the Palestinian National Covenant" and "Rely on the Rejectionist Front"?
Flapan provides some suggestive clues to account for the Zionist leadership's posture at Israel's birth. In the space that remains, I should like to develop these remarks.
Zionism and the Palestinians
Flapan observes that Ben-Gurion, and the Zionist leadership generally, favored a "demographically homogeneous" Jewish state. Indeed, the "vision of Zionismof the social, economic and cultural rebirth of the Jewish peopleheld little room for Arab aspirations."
Zionism originated in the post-French Revolutionary reaction against Enlightenment rationalism and liberalism. The touchstone of the French Revolutionary liberal idea was that a rational and just social order could and ought to be constructed on shared political-that is, democratic-values. Hence, the irreducible unit and building block of the ideal polity was the citoyen.
Zionism's point of departure was the presumed bankruptcy of liberalism. More profound bonds, which both "naturally" united certain individuals and "naturally" excluded others, were alleged to obtain. Each such organically related community, it was further argued, ought ideally to be endowed with an independent state.
Zionism sought to establish just such a state for the Jewish people. In a state, thus conceived, non-Jews, even if enjoying full rights of citizenship, could hope to figure, at best, as an excresence on the body politic; for the state belonged, not to its citizens (as in democratic theory), but to the Jewish people.
That non-Jews should elect to remain in a Jewish state was consequently, for Zionists, as absurd and incomprehensible an idea as Jews electing to remain in a non-Jewish state (what in the Zionist lexicon is called "Galut," that is, exile). Why would any sane person choose an alien(ated) state?
Hence, Ben-Gurion's admonition, cited by Flapan, that "the Arabs cannot accept the existence of Israel. Those who accept it are not normal. The best solution for the Arabs in Israel is to go and live in the Arab states." Hence also Ben-Gurion's conviction that a "population transfer" (which "had always appealed to Zionist thinkers") or, as in 1948, what amounted to expulsion, was "morally and ethically justified."
Flapan observes that the Zionists aspired to establish a state that was not only "demographically homogeneous" but also "geographically as extensive as possible."
Zionism and the "Land of Israel"
Just as the Zionist commitment to an exclusivist Jewish state originated in the reaction to the French Revolution's liberal rational ethic, so did the Zionist commitment to an expansive Jewish state.
For Zionism, the proper territorial boundaries of a state corresponded, not with the will expressed by the inhabitants of a region to associate with that state, but rather, to theoriginal borders of each organically related community. Between each such organic community and its ancestral homeland there was alleged to also obtain an organic connection.
Thus, as in the Zionist political discourse discussed above, so in the Zionist territorial discourse, both Jews residing outside the Jewish statehere considered, however, in its topographic aspect, that is, the Land of Israeland Arabs residing within it were held to be in an alien(ated) state.
For Ben-Gurion, the Jewish people's organic homeland incorporated "the whole of Palestine, including Transjordan [present-day Jordan], the Golan Heights, and southern Lebanon." (Flapan's study reveals just how ludicrous is the claim, often heard nowadays, that Ben-Gurion was an avatar of territorial compromise.) This irredentist vision, in turn, precluded any real modus vivendi with the Arabs.
Zionism and the Arab World
We have seen that, on the eve of Israel's birth, both the pro-British Hashemites and the anti-colonial regimes in the Arab world sought an alliance with the Zionists. Ben-Gurion elected to strike a deal with Jordan's pro-British Hashemite king, for, in Flapan's words, he "had always rejected the concept of an 'Arab-Zionist alliance' against the West."
The modern Zionist movement came of age in late nineteenth-century Europe. The historical context was not fortuitous. On the one hand, the Zionists could not hope to realize their final objective, namely, a Jewish state in Palestine without the support of (at least) one great power. Palestine, after all, was neither an "empty space" nor in an "out-of-the way" corner of Asia.
On the other hand, late nineteenth century Europe witnessed the emergence of the "new imperialism" and the "scramble" for overseas colonies. Palestine figures centrally in every great power's strategic thinking.
There thus existed the potential for a "marriage of convenience." The entire history of Zionist diplomacy is one of trying to turn that potential into a reality, sometimes without much success (Theodore Herzl's abortive diplomatic missions to the Czar and Kaiser), sometimes with considerable success (the Balfour Declaration).
The point is that, for the Zionist movement, the West was always the essential political referent. Reliance on the great powers was taken for granted; opposition to them (or, more exactly, to all of them) unthinkable.
This was especially so in 1948. The Zionists could not expect to fully realize their enterprise except with massive foreign subventions (capital transfers from abroad account for nearly the whole of Israel's investment these past forty years) and in protracted conflict with the Arabs.
The stakes in an "alliance" with the West were thus high indeed. Further, the unprecedented challenge posed to the Western powers by the anti-colonial movements that emerged in the wake of World War II meant that there now existed the potential, not merely for a "marriage of convenience," but for a full-fledged "strategic partnership."
Hence, Ben-Gurion's categorical rejection of an "Arab-Zionist alliance" against the West. Hence also his early alignment with the Western powers in the Cold War. The full potential of the "partnership," however, was not realized until 1967, when Israel strikingly revealed its capacity to keep the Arabs (and, as subsequent history has shown, not only the Arabs) in line.
The same perspectives that determined Israeli policy at its birth in 1948 determined Israeli policy during the terrible summer of 1982. In both the "War of Independence" and the Lebanon War, the Zionist leadership, operating within a pro-imperialist framework and ignoring the aspirations of the native Arab population, sought to extend to its "natural limits" the borders of an exclusivist Jewish state.
In Flapan's words, "The line from Ben-Gurion to Begin is direct." The roots of this continuity are evidently to be found, not in the Arabs' "apparently incurable" hatred of the Jews, but in Zionist theory and practice.
Norman Finkelstein received his doctorate from the Princeton University Politics Department for a thesis on the theory of Zionism. His latest book is The Holocaust Industry (Verso; 2000). His expose of the From Time Immemorial hoax appears in Blaming the Victim: Spurious Scholarship and the Palestinian Question (eds. Edward Said & Christopher Hitchens; Verso; 1988) and his own book, Image and Reality of the Israel-Paelstine Conflict (Verso, 1995; London and New York).
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