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.
Readers are encouraged to visit Professor Finkelstein's web site
[Joel Finkel, webmaster].
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.
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.
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:
It is Flapan's thesis that none of the above propositions can withstand serious historical scrutiny:
In fact, Israel never agreed to the division of "Eretz Israel" or to the founding of an independent Arab state in any part of it. In 1937, when partition was first officially raised (by the British), David Ben-Gurion stated flatly what it was only "the beginning of full redemption and the most powerful lever the gradual conquest of all Palestine."
The entire spectrum of Zionist opinion shared this view and still held fast to it a decade later. The Zionists' acceptance of the Partition Resolution wasin Flapan's wordsonly "tactical...a vital step in the right direction...a springboard for expansion when circumstances proved more judicious."
Ben-Gurion thus scrupulously avoided any mention of territorial borders in the Declaration of Independence and any negotiations with Palestinian Arabs committed to founding an independent state in the territory allotted them. In either case, the status quo, intolerable to Zionist opinion, would have been legitimized.
In fact, the Mufti did not enjoy much popular support and all his efforts to organize a popular resistance to the Partition Resolution proved unavailing. This is not to say that the Palestinian Arabs supported the division of their homeland, only that they were reconciled to its inevitability.
Ezra Danin, a Zionist Arab-affairs expert, observed in January 1948 that, "the majority of the Palestinian masses accept the partition as a fait accompli and do not believe it possible to overcome or reject it." Three months later, Ben-Gurion similarly reported that, "it is now clear, without the slightest doubt, that were we to face the Palestinians alone, everything would be all right. They, the decisive majority of them, do not want to fight us, and all of them together are unable to stand up to us... ."
Ben-Gurion rebuffed the various efforts of more pragmatic Palestinian Arabs to reach a modus vivendi since it was his "belief ... that Zionist expansionism would be better served by leaving the leadership of the Palestinians in the hands of the extremist Mufti than in the hands of a 'moderate' opposition. 'Rely on the Mufti' became his motto."
Blocked by Zionist policy from officially expressing their opposition to war, the Palestinian Arabs arranged "non-aggression" pacts with their Jewish neighbors. The relatively few who did take up arms did so primarily to defend themselves against feared attacks by the Jews.
In fact, the Arab states were anything but united, did not support the Mufti and had reconciled themselves (albeit with extreme reluctance) to the establishment of a Jewish State in Palestine.
The Arab states were divided between the pro-British Hashemites of Iraq and Transjordan and the anti-British regimes in Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia. Each side sought to enlist the Zionists' support, the Hashemites to abet their long-standing ambition of extending the Kingdom's borders, and anti-British regimes to further their independence struggle.
Ben-Gurion opted to cut a secret deal with Transjordan's King Abdallah, which in effect divided Palestine between them. (The agreement was never formalized, principally because Ben-Gurion intended to expand the Jewish State's borders beyond the Partition Resolution boundaries tacitly agreed on with Abdallah.)
The main obstacle to Abdallah's plans for annexing the territory allotted by the UN for a Palestinian state was, of course, the Mufti. Abdallah accordingly "regarded the Mufti, not the Jews, as his most dangerous enemy," even encouraging the Zionists to "deliver heavy blows" against him.
The Arab chiefs of staff only began coordinating plans for a military intervention two weeks before the end of the Mandate and harbored no illusions about their ability to prevail over the Zionists. Indeed, the Arab states "tried until the last moment to prevent the invasion."
However, "[o]nce Israel and Transjordan had decided to partition Palestine between themselves by force of arms, they refused to explore any interim solution that might have prevented ... total war." For Transjordan, the outbreak of hostilities would provide a convenient cover for annexation; for Israel, a "justification for the acquisition of additional territory."
When the Arab armies did finally attack, Abdallah "honored his commitment not to disturb the creation of the Jewish state or attack its forces," thus crucially contributing to the Israelis' eventual victory. The invading armies of the other Arab states sought, not to abort the creation of a Jewish state, but rather to check the grandiose territorial ambitions of Abdallah and his imperialist British mentors.
In fact, "there is no evidence" to support this claim. The statements "quoted" by Israeli and Zionist sources are "now seen to be largely fabricated." The actual documentary record rather testifies to the "considerable efforts" of the Palestinian Arab leadership and the Arab states "to constrain the flight."
Indeed, "from the point of view of military logistics," the conventional view "makes no sense at all. The Arab armies, coming long distances and operating in or from the Arab areas of Palestine, needed the help of the local population for food, fuel, water, transport, manpower, and information."
So, why did the Arab indigenes abandon Palestine? Primarily because of a calculated (if unofficial) Zionist effort "to reduce the number of Arabs in the Jewish state to a minimum, and to make use of most of their lands, property, and habitats to absorb the masses of Jewish immigrants."
No "direct orders" for expulsion were issued, but "the goal and spirit of real policy were understood and accepted by the army." Hence, Ben-Gurion's remark in May of 1948 that he was "not surprised" by the "flight of the Arabs." Latter in the same year, he stated flatly that, "I am for compulsory transfer, I don't see anything immoral in it."
In fact, "the superiority of the Jews over both the Palestinian Arabs and the invading Arab armies was never in dispute." The consensus in 1948 among both Jewish and Arab military experts as well as foreign observers was that the Zionists would certainly prevail in the event of war.
In the first place, the Israelis "were not outnumbered." Indeed within weeks of the outbreak of hostilities, they were able to field significantly more troops than the combined Arab armies.
Further, "The Arab states invaded Israel not as united armies determined to defeat a common enemy but as reluctant partners in an intrigue-ridden and un-coordinated coalition, whose members were motivated by mutual suspicion and mistrust." The Israelis were on the defensive only during the first month of the war. All told, they incurred most of their casualties not defending Jewish but attacking Arab settlements, not in areas within but in areas outside the UN-assigned borders.
In fact, by signing the protocols to the UN-sponsored peace negotiations in Lausanne, Switzerland, the Arabs had "accepted the legitimacy of the UN partition Resolution ..., abandon the idea of Palestine as a unitary Arab state, accepted the reality of Israel, and agreed to solve the dispute by political means."
The real obstacle to an Israeli-Arab peace accord was the Zionist leadership's adamant refusal, first, to accept token responsibility for the refugees' plight and, second, to return any of the conquered territories not included in the Partition Plan.
In any case, Ben-Gurion "was determined to impose armistice treaties by force of military might rather than agreement," so much so that he peremptorily dismissed the extraordinary offer by Syria to absorb and resettle 300,000 of the Palestinian Arab refugees.
Of the latter proposal, Flapan cites the following verdict of a fellow Israeli historian: "[Syria] gave Israel every opportunity to bury the hatchet and lay the foundations for peaceful coexistence in the long term. If [the] overtures were spurned, if [the] constructive proposals were frittered away. ..the fault must be sought not with [Syria] but on the Israeli side."
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.
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."
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.
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.
During the Lebanon War, Israeli doves roundly denounced the Begin government's practice of including only Israeli and Lebanese casualties and excluding Palestinians in the official daily "body count." Yet, so skewed to the right is the Zionist spectrum in the United States that Avishai, who uses these same "bookkeeping" techniques, is regarded, rightly, as on the extreme dovish end of it. Similarly, whereas Israeli doves ridicule professor Shlomo Avineri as the "Ariel Sharon of the academic world" (see Yossi Sarid, "O, brave new world," The Jerusalem Post, Mar. 26, 1987), in the United States he is received as a voice of moderation and left-wing Zionism. Indeed, wasn't it the liberal Jewish community in the United States that waxed so rhapsodic over the Peters enterprise when, in Israel, it "was almost universally dismissed as sheer rubbish except may be as a propaganda weapon" (Yehoshua Porath)?
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